From the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade of the West to the far northeastern corner of Maine, ski resort employees by the thousands are deserting their jobs and their rented houses, rooms, cubicles as their winter jobs at ski resorts melt in the warm spring sun.
It’s often called mud season, and my wife hates this time of year, as all the dogs deposits that have been covered by new snow falls, are coming up as the snow melts.
Couples who become GU (geographically undesirable) outside of winter ski season begin to break up their winter romances and tearfully depart in opposite directions for their home towns. There, some will have jobs waiting for them in a family business and a former bedroom in their parents’ home. Some will spend the summer trying to justify their winter jobs to their friends and that the winter at Paradise Mountain was worth the four or five months they spent there to just learn how to ski better while escaping time from college.
I joined the mountain deserters the first three or four Aprils after World War II and spent the summers at Malibu and San Onofre riding my 100-pound, 11-foot-long redwood surfboard.
When Bob Simmons invented the lightweight surfboard at Malibu in 1949, skiers no longer had to master the heavy surfboards and quickly learned to turn their skiing skills into surfing skills.
Today, many stop by their parents’ house long enough to stash their ski stuff, pick up their surf stuff and continue to drive southwest to Baja or Costa Rica to surf for the summer. Surfboard wax is cheap, and lightweight surfboards are easy to ride. If you watch it carefully, you can live on those tips you earned as a waiter at the Agony Acres dining room while you skied every day last winter. Be careful in the romance department when you arrive on the beach at Baja because your Paradise Mountain girlfriend might already be there with the surfing equivalent of Steve Stunning at the ski resort you both worked at last winter.
(About 20 years ago, my wife named two new little kittens “Grace Goodenough” and “Steve Stunning” after the names I always used in the films describing the perfect couples in their perfect clothes in the perfect ski area — much different than the way Ward Baker and I lived in a trailer in the parking lot.)
Not very many winter workers take advantage of co-renting a mini storage warehouse in the nearby town. If they leave their stuff there, it means they will be coming back to the same place next November instead of moving on to a bigger resort and maybe a better job.
Winter employees, just like regular guests, at a ski resort develop a comfort zone, and it is easier to return to work for the same ski resort because you know what you can get away with and how to play the ski lift ticket system. After all, your goal for a winter job at a ski resort is to see how many days of skiing you can finesse regardless of your job, preferably free.
Over the years I have met a lot of winter employees who have grown in their jobs and by the third year they have worked their way up into a full-time career and ski only a day or two a week, plus powder days. Oddly, in some cases a few people have given up skiing altogether.
Sometimes, I will be just sitting and thinking while my tea cools off enough to drink and wonder about what drove me to put skiing above all else for so many years, since 1947. I have just finished my 65th winter of being in the snow from fall until spring. In all of those years, I was either at a ski resort or traveling between them and enjoying almost every minute of my endless ski trip.
In the early days, we lived in the back of our cars on weekends during the summer and did nothing but ride our surfboards. We had a Coleman stove, a mattress and sleeping bag, a cold box and enough money to eat on, but not much for anything else. No rent required.
Today, when you see the suburbans leaving the resort parking lot in the spring, headed for somewhere else, they have a couple of mountain bikes on a rack, a surfboard and a windsurfer on the roof and a couple in the front bucket seats of the four-wheel drive. They could be spousal equivalents but so far no further commitments. Chances are a suburban with that kind of gear on board will head for mountain bike riding in Moab, Utah, for a couple of weeks of thawing out from their winter of loading chair lifts at Mad Mountain.
Once the deserters get warmed up and saddle sore from riding their mountain bikes all day every day, they will buy some gas and go to the Gorge at Hood River to go windsurfing on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon to camp out and windsurf or kite board for a month or so. The wind whistles up through the Gorge as the desert on the eastern side of the Cascades heats up and sucks the cooler air east from the ocean, sometimes at about 40 miles an hour.
And then some the deserters will head south for a long hot summer of surfing the west coast as far south as their money lasts.
Before any of the deserters knows it, the summer will be gone and they will head for a ski resort in October. That’s when the smart deserter, or any person looking for good ski resort employment, will get there. That is when the few good rental places are leased and the many winter-only jobs are also taken by the first people in line. They get the best jobs that offer the most ski time and the biggest tips.
A reasonable number of men who desert in the spring only get as far as the construction companies that will be building the condominiums and houses during the summer. Don’t forget that by the middle of November, many of the people who deserted in the spring are now again becoming the migrants and heading back to the mountains.
When I was teaching skiing in Sun Valley and Squaw Valley, I knew that I would pick up my framing hammer, tighten up my nail belt and start making a lot of money during the summer in construction in Southern California. This gave me Saturday and Sunday to surf. I would run into the occasional skier I had taught the winter before. Usually, they would have been a guest, not an employee, and had yet to make a commitment to a wife, a house (mortgage) in the suburbs and a life-long job on the seventh floor of a downtown bank building.
I always encourage people to desert the resort in the spring to come back in the fall. Do it while you still can. Just tell all of your new best friends that you will be back. Tell me what is wrong with a couple of desertions and migrations on your resume?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.