Making ends meet at 8,000 feet
When Larry, Christine and six-year-old Cody Gardner recently loaded up a yellow Ryder moving van outside their Eagle-Vail condominium, they were leaving behind a 10-year history in Eagle County that included good friends, a business and a handful of years struggling to make ends meet. It was time to say goodbye to mountain life.Since Vail’s birth in 1962, families have had to sacrifice one way or another to fulfill the dream of making a life in the mountains, or they moved on. It takes a lot of hard work to live in a resort community, and while Vail and the upper Eagle River Valley have changed a great deal over the past 40 years, families are still sacrificing larger houses, yards, leisure time and longer vacations to live in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, at the foot some of world’s most acclaimed ski resorts.The Gardners weren’t much different from many of the families living in the Vail-to-Edwards Interstate 70 corridor. They worked hard, enjoyed the mountains and understood the sacrifices necessary to live in an alpine “paradise.” Except that after 10 years those sacrifices had taken their toll and warranted a move back to their family and home on Long Island, N.Y.”The short version of our story is we got tired of climbing up the hill,” Larry Gardner says from his home in Long Island.The uphill climb Gardner refers to is a trek many families in Eagle County make in their bids to live the apparently good, wholesome life available in the Rocky Mountains. It’s a relatively safe life with lots of outdoor amenities to enjoy, if you have the time.Gardner is a massage therapist, and together with his wife they owned and operated Total Body Care in Vail and Beaver Creek. They had employees, health insurance, owned a two-bedroom condominium and took vacations. But as the economy began to ebb and flow with a little more emphasis on the ebb making ends meet became too large a task to justify another decade of scrapping in the Vail Valley.”We got tired of depending on tourism and the weather,” Gardner says. “Two really uncontrollable situations.”The Gardners worked long hours to make ends meet in a place where the cost of everything from gas to housing is a elevated as the surrounding peaks, all the while trying to fit in a mountain lifestyle. Time spent taking their son skiing, sledding or to karate classes had to be budgeted wisely, or else the family’s schedule might have come unglued. The rest of their time was spent squeezing in a needed social life.Basic needsThose accustomed to life in the mountains know that making a go of it in the high country requires more income than the average family in, say, Denver. Eagle County’s director of health and human resources, Kathleen Forinash, cites a basic needs assessment study produced by the Colorado Legislative Council that says a family of four requires an annual income of more than $54,000 to meet basic needs like housing, transportation, utilities, food, healthcare and more. Forinash says that currently more than 30 percent of Eagle County families are making less than the minimum requirement outlined in the assessment.”What does that really mean?” Forinash says. “To me it’s surprising you can say nearly a third of the families in Eagle County do not have sufficient income to own a home and care for the basics.”And over the past two years, Forinash says Eagle County has seen a rise in the number of families seeking assistance for some basics like healthcare.That’s just county and state assistance. For families living in Eagle County under $54,000, federal assistance is out of reach because the federal poverty level requires that the same family of four’s income top out at little more than $17,000 annually. There is no mechanism in place to adjust the federal poverty level for anomalous regions like Eagle County, where the high cost of living is reflective of an ultra-swank resort region.So if a family doesn’t leave Eagle County for more economically hospitable climates like the Gardners did, there’s a great deal of work to be done in order to live in the mountains. But then, it’s always been a struggle to make ends meet in the high country, according to some old-timers.Same as it ever wasWhen Vail’s early families arrived between 1962 and 1970 to establish what would become this sprawling and opulent resort valley, life in the nuclear family was not suburban, nor was it a laid-back, small-town existence. If you wanted to live in a fledgling resort community, you worked and worked and worked – a mantra familiar to today’s families.”I wanted a community. I wanted a village. And really, that’s what I found,” recalls Marie-Claire Moritz who, along with her husband Walter, emigrated to Vail in 1964 to live and raise three boys. “Vail had a diverse group of people and it made this small community very interesting. We didn’t have big money when we came. We came with our talent, more than our money.”And with that talent, Vail’s first families made a life. They made a life two and three jobs at a time. Like Vail today, the bartender was also your ski instructor and the restaurant owner might have been a carpenter during the day, while his wife waited tables at night.Of course, things have changed between 1962 and 2003. In Vail’s early days, daycare took on the form of moms at home with their children and sometimes other people’s children. And all the village adults knew all the village children, affording parents multiple sets of eyes to monitor youthful activities and behavior.”Everybody understood that you had to work hard,” says Moritz.To some degree, those days haven’t entirely disappeared. It’s still a relatively small community and families survive by forming what Forinash says are informal social networks like neighborhoods, churches or sports leagues. But these days, when both parents find themselves working, sometimes with opposing schedules, and kids are in daycare all day, and it’s still difficult to make ends meet, the stress adds up.It’s the lifestyle, stupidSuzanne Berg and Lynn Gottlieb are family therapists. Berg has a private practice and has lived in Eagle County for 30 years. Gottlieb works for Colorado West Mental Health in Vail and has lived in the county for 20 years. Both women raised their children in Vail and both see families struggling to make life work amidst ski runs and hectic schedules. But both give life in the valley high marks.”It’s tough here,” Berg says. “When my kids were growing up, it was tough. It’s still the same. People are choosing to live here because of the lifestyle, not economics.”Gottlieb says no matter where families locate, for whatever reasons, they are given “a certain set of choices.””I think in general families like the lifestyle because it feels a little safer,” says Gottlieb. “It used to feel a lot safer, but in general, compared to other areas, I think people feel safer.”Both therapists say familial stresses are apparent in the valley; sometimes it’s economic, sometimes marital, sometimes both. But those stresses seem to be balanced by the mountain lifestyle. And that sort of balance is seen throughout the county’s statistical analysis.”We see the kind of stress that families have as a result of long hours,” says Forinash. “But Eagle County’s rate of reported child abuse and neglect is one of the lowest in the state. Despite the stresses, what we see is people are caring for one another and their children.”Jeff and Becky Highter moved to the mountains to ski, hike and camp. But their reason for living in the high country was overwhelmed when their business, the former Cougar Ridge Caf in Minturn, became a divisive factor in their lives. With employees becoming scarce for the eatery, Jeff and Becky were working opposing schedules to keep the caf open and still care for their four-year-old son Ethan alternately. They had little time together as a couple and a family.”We weren’t willing to do (the caf) anymore,” says Becky Highter. “It’s not why we live here, and if we were not going to enjoy the benefits of the mountains, why be here?”Important to the Highter’s lifestyle is keeping Ethan home, not in daycare.Daycare is a reality most families in Eagle County face, but one the Highters prefer to avoid. So, after closing the restaurant, Jeff Highter took a job with a catering outfit and Becky runs the new Cougar Active Center in Minturn. It’s a business decision that fits with their lifestyle.They live simply, but comfortably.Suburbia relocatesWhile families, like the Highters, who seek a simple, outdoor life, will always flock to high country hamlets such as Minturn, the addition of amenities both practical and cultural big box retail chains and entertainment options are attracting a breed of high country resident more common in suburbia the professional. Characterized by one or both parents working in higher paying, corporate-oriented careers, the professional family has found a home in the mountains thanks to a number of factors, not the least of which is the corporatization and consolidation of the ski industry and all its resulting development.Arch and Leslie Wright are a high country professional couple with two children. Arch is a mortgage broker and Leslie is an international meat broker thanks to high-speed Internet access. They both come from corporate careers in the Midwest, and they both have a tremendous love for the mountains and outdoor activities.”I tell people I wanted to work hard in my career, but when the weekend rolled around, I’d rather be in the mountains than the city,” Wright says.So the Wrights, like many young professional families, can have their cake and eat it too. They have well-paying professional careers, children, own a home and live in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”We at times think, wouldn’t it be nice with our income to have a 35-acre parcel with horses,” Wright says. “And that’s probably out of our reach here. But we look at what we have and we’re grateful to have a world-class ski resort.”Access to the ski resort and all its amenities are what high country families seem to be willing to work for when faced with a higher cost of living and the reality that more than one job is needed to survive. And professional families like the Wrights are growing in number thanks to technology and the desire to live in a more natural environment, creating a diversity that might have only existed on the weekends when those families just skied Vail.As for families who are not taking the professional path and want the bare bones mountain experience, dedication to a mountain lifestyle is required.They have to be willing to pay the price.”Generally speaking, you’ve got to have a measure of self confidence and determination and health to make it here,” Forinash says.And that’s not to say families like the Gardners didn’t have the stuff it takes to live in the mountains. They just shifted their priorities, and in some ways their sacrifices.”I actually had the opportunity to see what (life in the mountains) was like if I was never willing to see my family. If I was willing to work 90 hours a week,” Gardner says. “But it didn’t make sense to me.”So now their son Cody has a yard, kids next door and grandparents around the corner. Many kids in Eagle County, while they may live in a condominium with little in the way of a yard, and their grandparents are 1,000 miles east of the Rockies, have mountains and valleys to play in. These families don’t seem to mind the sacrifices when they step into their skis for a Saturday on the slopes with the kids. Because, at the end of the day, that seems to be what the sacrifices were all about in the first place.
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