The Vail lifestyle: Some things never change
Special to the Weekly
Vail has been my home for 24 years. But as a 24-year-old living in Vail, I’ve found it a difficult place to live, particularly in comparison to those that raised me here — my parents, Bill and Beth O’Neill.
The O’Neills came to Vail when they were around my age, when the town was much younger. I grew up hearing the stories that made this town seem like a Neverland — a place where young people moved for a happy-go-lucky, easy-living and relaxed small-town lifestyle spiced up by great skiing.
I found myself frustrated by my parents’ descriptions of early Vail, because to me, town as it was then seems lost today. Young people file their complaints daily over social media about low wages, scarce jobs, overpriced housing — never mind living in Vail — living anywhere in the valley this winter is hard on many people.
However, as my father pointed out, the story of Vail and its young people then and now is a story about a town that never really changed.
The original 20-something-year-old characters who made Vail what it was during the storied 1970s and 1980s arrived here on notions of arriving at a skiing heaven.
“I moved here in December of ’77,” said Gary Gilman. “I was in college at (University of Colorado) Boulder at the time. I moved up here with the intention of taking a year off school for in-state tuition.”
The mountains beckoned him to stay.
“In 1977 we hit an El Nino year,” Gilman said. “We had 500 inches of snow. I was able to ski powder every single day. I decided skiing was too much fun. I decided to stick around.”
Gilman did not return to CU. He took a job at the then Centerport Restaurant in the Marriott as a busboy for a short time before launching his startup — SteamMaster Restoration and Cleaning, which he still runs today.
Elizabeth Holland arrived in Vail to ski in 1973 for the first time. Coming from Boston, she typically took her vacations to ski in Vermont. However, Vail’s reputation was growing at the time and her usual ski group decided to try Colorado.
“I drove across the country with a friend and her boyfriend in this old, old car. I didn’t even know the guy’s name. We just got in the car and drove to Colorado,” Holland said. “I got my ski pass in March, and it was number 974. It was as late as March and they had only sold 974 ski passes that year.”
She went back to the East Coast to finish her degree, and then moved out to Vail permanently in 1975.
On A Typical Day
In the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t many if any buildings over four stories in Vail. The streets weren’t cobbled or heated; they were paved and plowed. Those who moved here took whatever jobs they could find that afforded them the ability to ski.
One employer was the Gondola Ski Shop, where many longtime locals landed their first local jobs. Names such as Bill O’Neill, Tim Kern, Jerry Walom, Fred Mickey, Mitch Whiteford, Jeanne Read White, Brian Pack and Mary Parker were among them.
Others found work in restaurants or cleaning condos. The jobs industry was largely service-based. Like Gilman, though, others shared the entrepreneurial spirit. Jim Pavelich, for instance, was working in a restaurant while starting the Vail Daily in 1981. George Shaeffer, who also took shifts at the Gondola Ski Shop, began George Shaeffer Construction Company in 1979.
“On a typical day, we would get up and ski whatever snow fell overnight until your work shift started,” Gilman said. “Back then, everyone would work either afternoon shifts or split shifts. Everybody arranged their schedule so they could ski.”
As much as the community evolved around their work and skiing, so too did the fun.
“There was Donovan’s Copper Bar where everyone went after skiing. That is sort of where the ski patrol would hang out,” said Bill O’Neill, who moved to town in 1975 from New York. “There was Garton’s Bridge Street Saloon, The Red Lion, Nu G Nu, and Cyranos.”
There were basketball games held at the Minturn Middle School gym between the Gondola Ski Shop that had two locations in Vail and Lionshead. The winner would be deemed the better of the two for the year.
There was the hard-to-define “Great Race” that shut down Lionshead and featured teams of people dressing up in costumes, skiing, riding tricycles in ski boots and pushing someone in a homemade cart.
Every St. Patrick’s Day belonged to the Ravinos, a rowdy bunch that turned skiing into crowd-pleasing performances by flipping off cliffs. When their antics outgrew the liability comforts of Vail Mountain, they brought their show and their following up to Shrine Pass. There was fun away from skiing, too.
“We saw Huey Lewis in the basement of the Evergreen Lodge in 1981 on folding chairs,” said Beth O’Neill, who moved to town from Denver in 1980. “Jimmy Buffet played at The Red Lion when it was still underground.”
While the times of the 1970s and 1980s were simpler, young people who moved here at that time will tell you that it wasn’t that much easier than it is for young people trying to call Vail their home today.
Sophie Wagner, 25, moved to Vail in 2012 after graduating from Colorado State University. She works part time in the emergency room at the Vail Valley Medical Center and part time with the Vail Ski and Ride school as an instructor.
“It is so hard to find housing,” Wagner said. “I think that is the difference between now versus then. Everything is way out of price range. Good jobs with benefits that are year-round are really hard to find. I think then it was different.”
Those that moved here in the 1970s and 1980s might disagree.
“It was very, very difficult to find a place to live,” Gilman said of his experience moving to town in 1977. “I had a roommate situation when I moved here. I was living at 3118 Bellflower at the far west end of Intermountain. We were paying $575 a month for a 1,200 square foot duplex unit with a living room, kitchen, one bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. Back then, that was a lot of money.”
Gilman shared that duplex with Debbie Marquez, the founder of Fiesta’s restaurant in Edwards, and Rick Turner.
“I was fortunate. I remember years that the best way to find housing was a bulletin board at the grocery store,” Gilman said. “When something got posted there it was taken immediately.”
Others remember finding their housing in the Vail Trail newspaper, which was published from 1965 to 2008. The paper would come out once a week, and a small group would gather on the steps of the Vail Trail office waiting to see what rooms were becoming available in the classifieds.
Elizabeth Holland agrees that it was difficult to get started. But she says it was a simple problem because it was the same problem everyone had.
“No one ever seemed to have any money,” Holland said. “You’d work a job. Maybe get two jobs. Pick up a pass when you could afford it and make extra money when you could.”
As They See It
For the long-time locals, the evolution of the Vail Valley has allowed for more opportunities, especially for younger people in town.
“The valley is a much bigger place now. I was a much younger kid then,” Gilman said. “Vail has been very good to me over the years. The growth in the area has allowed me great opportunities to enjoy living here without having to be hand-to-mouth all the time, like we once were.”
Holland also sees contrast in the time that she was a 20-something, and what the same ages are experiencing today.
“The biggest difference to me is that when I first came here, it didn’t matter how much money you had in your pocket, or where you came from,” Holland said. “We were all one. We all went skiing. That was your love. That was why you were here. That was what brought us all together.”
Though spectacles like the Great Race have been replaced with more formal events and people now hold careers over jobs, the town maintains those undertones of a great life for young people. Wagner, for instance, is still able to ski most days, as her shifts at the ER don’t begin until 11 a.m. The ski patrol still has its spot — now it is Vendetta’s, not the long-closed Donovan’s Copper Bar. Even the adrenaline-pumping and revived Ravinos can still be seen around.
Even the core sense of togetherness still seems to be abound.
“We went to a fundraiser for a long-time local who was dealing with an illness,” Beth O’Neill said. “I saw so many locals in one spot. It gives me that warm feeling that our community is still here, and we can still come out in such a huge way to help an old friend.”
Maybe some things never change.