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Top 10 towns lists should be taken with a grain of salt

M. John Fayhee
A lot of people moved to places like Frisco, Carbondale, Gunnison and Salida without any help from a magazine, and with the idea that one of the main attractions of such towns is that they are not well known.
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There is likely no greater disconnect between Mountain Country business owners and residents than inclusion in one of the Top-10 lists that almost every outdoor-oriented national magazine runs every year. Ever since what we now consider outdoor-lifestyle magazines started hitting the mainstream in the mid-1970s, destination stories have been as much a part of the editorial package as ink. Destination stories, of course, are articles that point readers to a specific place to go hiking, cross-country skiing, paddling, climbing, whatever.When Backpacker and Outside, the two most venerable outdoor magazines, launched more than 30 years ago, hardly anyone reacted negatively to the notion of a national magazine running a story about, as but two random examples, Conundrum Hot Springs or the Eagles Nest Wilderness. After all, relatively few people were inclined in those days to shoulder a pack and follow the instructions given in those destination stories. Most people, then as now, just found their own destinations. This is not to say that, even three-plus decades ago, when what we now know as the outdoor recreation industry was still in its infancy, those destination stories did not result in serious increased visitation at sites throughout the West. Its just that, compared to today, that visitation was still relatively small. As well, destination stories back in those days were short and appeared toward the back of magazines like Outside and Backpacker, almost like filler.By the 1990s, the entire outdoor-lifestyle magazine industry exploded. In addition to the established niche publications, like Climbing, Rock & Ice, Skiing, Ski, Bike, Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Paddler, and Canoe & Kayak, we started seeing new niche-niche magazines dealing with every imaginable variation on the outdoor recreation theme. We suddenly had trail-running magazines, and magazines for snowboarders and backcountry skiers. Then we had the new mega-general interest magazines, like Mens Journal and National Geographic Adventure, bringing serious quantities of big bucks onto the genre scene. Combine all that with the continued strong existence of Backpacker and Outside, and then add to the mix the reality that outdoors journalism was now finding a strong and regular home in newspapers large and small, and you can see where a hyper-competitive environment had emerged. That competition, of course, centered on advertising dollars and reader loyalty.But it also centered on available editorial content itself. The two easiest and most accessible kinds of stories that have come to dominate outdoor recreation literature during the last 20 years are gear profiles one of the most blatant forms of advertiser brown-nosing ever conceived and destination stories. Even the most entry-level writer who is willing to sell a small part of his or her soul for a few dollars can test drive the latest sleeping bag back in some little-known wilderness area and voila! theres a byline and a budding career as an outdoor writer! (In case you are wondering why I am so familiar with all this well, youre talking to a man who is guilty as charged).Anyhow, the next step in this literary devolution was the magazine cover adorned with 60-point teases like 29 secret wilderness areas revealed! Thing is, there were only so many backcountry areas that could be sacrificed in the name of filthy lucre before you have to start all over again (such was the case recently with a certain set of hot springs, which a certain magazine just profiled for the third time in 10 years). So, magazine editors either had to come up with something more original, creative and expansive than 29 secret wilderness areas revealed, or they had to find a new variation on what had become an old destination story theme. Well, they did just that. About 10 years ago, we started seeing Top-10 town lists appearing. I have tried to hunt the origin down, and, to the best of my knowledge, the first such list appeared in Outside. (The various skiing magazines have been doing top resort lists, based primarily on reader surveys, for a long time).The beauty of these kinds of top-10 town lists is that they give writers, editors, and magazines the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Not only can they sell a town down the river, but, at the same time, they can intertwine all manner of skinny about the wilderness that surrounds that town into the story as well. The disconnect associated with these top-10 town lists which now cover the gamut to include ski towns, ski-bum towns, climbing towns, retirement towns, mountain biking towns, paddling towns, etc. is that local business communities generally flat-out love them (free advertising!), even if many residents maybe scratch their noggins at being outed by the national media.And therein lies the rub. A whole lot of people who moved to places like Frisco, Carbondale, Gunnison and Salida did so, first, without any help from a magazine based in some faraway city, and, second, with the idea that one of the main attractions of such towns is that they are not well known. At least they didnt used to be before Outside and National Geographic Adventure came to town.And, suddenly, BAM, out of the blue, some young writer blasts into town with a notebook in hand and, all of a sudden, youve got 500,000 people pulling out their road atlases trying to find a place called Paonia.A couple years ago, I wrote a cover story for the High Country News, in which I tried to answer the question: What is the tipping point that determines whether a town becomes discovered. After traveling more than 4,000 miles, visiting several dozen towns and interviewing everyone I could think of, from bartenders to academics, the answer became glaringly obvious: The tipping point is media coverage. These destination/wilderness/top-10 town stories have a dramatic effect on both short- and long-term visitation to a town. If you own a T-shirt shop or a real estate office, I guess thats great. If you moved to your town to get away from the kinds of people who would actually make a lifestyle decision based upon things like magazine stories, then maybe thats not so great.M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, A Colorado Mountain Companion, will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at mjfayhee@yahoo.com.


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