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"In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum" is an elegy to a dying alternative lifestyle. Evans has compiled a diorama of the economic and cultural dynamics of the decades that transformed insulated, funky ski towns into glitzy, accessible destinations. He reminds us of what we already know: The ski bum’s habitat is shrinking and, ironically, the ski bum’s iconic mythology contributes to the degradation. As a recreational pastime became an option for post-Vietnam escape, the very mystique of the free-spirited, ruggedly individualistic, dropout skier fueled the extractive growth of ski areas. Pitiably depressed mining towns became publicly traded entertainment resorts. In those exploited places, Evans observes, the ski bum became an endangered, if not terminal, species. Evan’s sketches and interviews of former ski bums turned legit (or not) include representative stories from personalities in Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Telluride, Park City and Jackson Hole. Some characters you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. Some grew up on time and quickly abandoned “the concept of knowing what makes one happy and being undeterred in actualizing it” to cash in.

New Book Asks: Where Have All the Ski Bums Gone?

In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum
by Jeremy Evans
225 pages, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 2010

In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum” is an elegy to a dying alternative lifestyle. Evans has compiled a diorama of the economic and cultural dynamics of the decades that transformed insulated, funky ski towns into glitzy, accessible destinations. He reminds us of what we already know: The ski bum’s habitat is shrinking and, ironically, the ski bum’s iconic mythology contributes to the degradation.

As a recreational pastime became an option for post-Vietnam escape, the very mystique of the free-spirited, ruggedly individualistic, dropout skier fueled the extractive growth of ski areas. Pitiably depressed mining towns became publicly traded entertainment resorts. In those exploited places, Evans observes, the ski bum became an endangered, if not terminal, species.

Evan’s sketches and interviews of former ski bums turned legit (or not) include representative stories from personalities in Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Telluride, Park City and Jackson Hole. Some characters you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. Some grew up on time and quickly abandoned “the concept of knowing what makes one happy and being undeterred in actualizing it” to cash in.

Some—the boomers—just got old and gave up, realizing that skiing takes muscles and it’s hard. A flock of current whippersnappers—kids who would have been ski bums back in the day—have tapped into the very system ski bums purported to reject and (horrors!) the little entrepreneurs have gone pro—perhaps the deepest cut to the repopulation of the purist ski bum.

In a chilly summation that fits these realities, one ski bum morphed into a ski area executive admitted to Evans, if you aren’t willing to make the sacrifices it takes or if you just can’t afford the Mega-resorts, “..tough shit…. Go find some place that’s not famous and make something out of it. We worked hard to make this place nice. Don’t come crying to me now because you can’t afford to live here.” Then he frets, “On the other hand, if we don’t have any new people coming in, we’re dying.”

Fret not. Though the dropout mentality has all but vanished from the American psyche and college grads deep in debt go straight to the real world, Evans reports those dead-end jobs that ski bums once pounced on are now filled by immigrants. Still drunk with that idea of unfettered freedom and self-actualized happiness, they are the new bums on the block.

Where have all the ski bums gone? Maybe they’re already gone—to those innumerable places that aren’t famous yet. Maybe they’re grinning at the ironies Evans describes. And maybe they’ll do it right this time, use “In Search of Powder” as a primer, and think twice before they decide to make a place nice and famous—and in the process destroy their own habitat.

Wayne K. Sheldrake is the author of “Instant Karma: the Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum.”

About Wayne Sheldrake

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7 comments

  1. Nah, it was pure economics.
    At one time, it was in fact possible for skiers to work a schedule of summer suffering and winter half-suffering in order to have the cash to ski…really ski. And actually eat, and not pay too atrocious a rent, or even buy a house.
    Call me part of the last wave of non-immigrant, non-guest-workers.
    There’s only a few places left on the planet where being a real skier for the long haul is still possible, and the possibility hinges on whether there is an economy “other than skiing” available.

  2. Alisabeth Thurston-Hicks

    Hi, Wayne… your brother made me the best cycling shoes I’ve ever owned.

    I can’t claim to have been a ski bum, but I knew one, and my brothers came close to qualifying, briefly. They both took up respectable professions that allowed them to keep skiing while making a living. I still experience more than a bit of disgust and resentment when I go to a resort ski area. Maybe it’s envy in disguise. But it just seems like the emphasis on money, pampering, and comfort misses something. For me, it’s that something that caught my soul on fire as young teen when my gross motor coordination finally came online and skiing became freedom, escape, adventure, and risk taking all rolled into one, and acceptance of a certain amount of suffering made it possible.

  3. I know and see plenty of “ski bums” The life and lifestyle is still prevelant if you know where to look.

    At age 53 and a Mid level manager at a ski area I can also feel the excitement as a season draws near, opens, progress’s and ends. Cycles are a part of life as I have known it for 26+ years. To declare this life extinct only means you have passed on.

    Winter weather advisory for tomorrow. Possibly heavy snow in the forecast. Bring it!

  4. The definition of a “ski bum” as some kind of mythological, youthful, hippie drop out purist without visible means of support is way too narrow. If you widen the definition to include people who work or are retired and also ski a lot, ski bums aren’t disappearing. In the early pre-dawn morning there are plenty of old geezer fossils outfitted in the latest gear, drooling and stumbling on their way to be the first up the mountain.

  5. Some of my favorite stories still come from Warren Miller. The days when he and his buddy Ward would eat tomato soup made from ketchup, hot water and oyster crackers. If they found roadkill frozen on the side of the road, it was time for a feast. Looking back, I was a high class, working ski bum back in the early 1970s. I was teaching skiing and managed the pro ski patrol at a small resort in southern California. And, at $25 a day, I was the highest paid ski patrolman they had ever had. Somehow, I managed to be able to rent a really nice place two blocks from the ski area, could always buy the latest in equipment and even take a road trip once a year. I’m still trying to figure out how to do the same thing now…

  6. As a jackson hole ski bum, i can attest to the changes that have occurred over the last 14 years of ski bumming, fancier hotels and eateries, services to make the affluent comfortable, destruction of iconic places, and of course many new faces…..BUT, lo and behold, there is a rich population of ski bums still intact, all working on the barter system, treating each as a part of their own private community, with just a glance of the eyes, you know each other, and feel each others soul. The connection is strong, the sense of family that is your own, created thru the passion for skiing….where else would you end up skiing with some of the people you do if you actually knew them from a different arena, say, a cubicle? The shared passion diminishes boundaries of who, what, where, and how we got to our “happy place”. People still do take care of one another, even with challenging economic times, as we all know what leaving this place in all its glory would feel like, our spirits would be dull! Live the Dream, it is possible, with an open heart, willingness to do your part, and of course, SOUL!

  7. This so-called lifestyle only came into being with the skiing boom and the growth of the American Ski Resort industry which started just after WWII, and it happened only because of the simultaneous occurrence of a generation of American youth who had enough leisurely time to partake and indulge, namely, the Baby Boomers. Well kids, the gravy train’s over. The ski resorts of today are over-crowded, and the young people of today have financial concerns that the previous generations didn’t. Ski bums are still out there, but fewer and farther between.