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Mountain Life

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The crawl space was the best. Not from an amenities standpoint, but from price alone. I paid $130 a month for it. It was my second year of ski bumming in Vail, and I had scored. I could spend my money in the bar, not on rent. Of course, as the snow fell and the years passed, the motley accommodations that comprised my early years in town were gradually traded for increasingly upscale digs.

It’s impossible to say exactly how much I’ve spent on rent over the 10 years I’ve lived in Vail-the closet was followed by a VW van-but I can tell you how much I’ve spent the past two years: $800 per month for a garden-level apartment in the last house in East Vail. That totals a whopping $19,200, easily a down payment for my own place and enough to make me think twice about forking over another month’s rent.

My house search started in a blizzard-not the epic powder day that had seduced me to the mountains in the first place, but an ugly late-season storm. It began with pouring rain outside of Montezuma, Colo., turned into slush a couple of miles up Loveland Pass and, just before A-Basin, was a full-fledged “can’t see the road, hope I don’t plunge to death” maelstrom of winter’s last dying gasp. I had been visiting sometime professional skier Rex Wehrman at his recently purchased home in Montezuma. Wehrman had scored. It took several years of living in a van in the A-Basin parking lot (Last Run, March/April 2000) and some long summers working as a surveyor, but he had managed to break out of the vicious rent cycle. His three-story place, located a mere nine miles from Keystone, cost $203,000. Rex was an inspiration. After all, I wasn’t trying to be a pro athlete. As a ski journalist, I kinda work for a living, pulling down $35,000, sometimes more in a good year. As it turned out, the storm would be prophetic of the house search to come.

Living in the mountains is becoming increasingly difficult. The problem is elementary: The ultra wealthy have forced the price of property through the roof. Even if you’re making twice your age, it’s nearly impossible to get out of the rent rut that marks places like Aspen or Vail (and for that matter, it’s also difficult for a city dweller to buy a modest vacation condo for weekend and holiday use). In fact, a report just issued by the Rural Resort Region shows that an employee in Aspen would have to work 17.5 jobs at $15 an hour to afford an average-priced single-family home, which is hovering at around $2 million.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You’ve just got to want it. And want it bad.

I embarked on the search with two strategies. The first borrowed a page from Rex’s book: Find a funky town near skiing, but not close enough to the lifts to have seen the insane price inflation of the past 10 years. These are places like Red Cliff, Colo., 30 minutes off I-70 outside of Vail, or Empire, Colo., 15 minutes from both Loveland Ski Area and Berthoud Pass, and 35 from Winter Park. My other strategy was to suck it up and find a condo in Vail.

The grim reality, though, was that after 10 years in Vail, I had become a ski snob. I could face living in a cool, funky mining town. But what I really wanted was a place just down the street from where I lived in East Vail. Besides, some of the best backcountry skiing in the state funnels down into East Vail and I really, really wanted to keep the skiing close.

The Condo
One of the first properties I looked at was a three-bedroom unit, decorated in classic Seventies style-burnt orange shag carpet and all. At just more than $200,000, it was pricier than some units and less than others. East Vail has condos aplenty. And, if you aren’t too particular, you can find what could be considered “affordable” housing in most ski towns. A one-bedroom at the Vail Racquet Club, for example, will set you back approximately $150,000, maybe less. Condos are great if you’re planning to vacation in a ski town, but after filling up on tourists and loud neighhbors for the past decade I quickly soured on the concept. The reality was I wanted my own house.

Red Men Hall
Red Men Hall was built in the late 1800s. It sits on the main street of Empire, population 431, and is listed for just under $200,000. It was first used as a miner’s meeting hall and has since housed a library, a sheriff’s sub-station and a museum. It is reported to also have been the home of Empire’s only newspaper, an enterprise that folded in the late 19th century after producing just a dozen issues. One local told me Red Man Hall is haunted.

A huge, monstrous building, it has all the funky charm that a ski bum could want. Better yet, Berthoud Pass, with more than 400 inches of powder snow a year, is only a few minutes away. But any building with this kind of history has got to have some surprises. A friend who specializes in restorations brought up the wiring, then started talking about wood foundations and insulation. By the time he was done, so was Red Men Hall.

The Land
There comes a time in every search when you realize you’ve “found it.” When I stumbled across an $89,000 two-acre lot, on a steep hillside in Vail, I had this experience. A visit to the town planning commission proved the impossible: The lot was zoned for a duplex. With visions of building my own place, selling off half of it, and making some money to boot, I went to the realtor, earnest money in hand, ready to close. As with all things that are too good to be true, so was the lot. Someone else had beat me to the punch; the lot was already under contract. I didn’t sleep well for a week.

The Moral
The search continues. I’m still looking at condos, and I’ve seen an ad for a place in Red Cliff, an old Victorian for $200,000. Rumor has it that one day, Minturn will provide a link between Vail and Beaver Creek. If that ever happens, Red Cliff will be 15 minutes from the lifts-and red hot. Meanwhile, East Vail still tantalizes me with dreams of skiing home, and Empire also could be nice.

Then there are other ski towns, places like Breckenridge, Colo., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Ketchum, Idaho. The search seems like it will never end. The motivation that keeps me going continues every month, when I flush another 800 bucks down my rented drain, paying someone else’s mortgage and leaving me a bit poorer. By the end of the first year of the new millennium I vow I’ll have a place of my own, even if it’s just moving back into that old VW van.