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The Ski Bum as Zen Master

This is the interactive part of the magazine, so you’ll need two common items easily found in the typical American home: a pair of scissors and your wallet.

Got ’em? OK, now I want you to take all the credit cards out of your wallet and cut them into tiny pieces. Don’t balk now, this is important.

Now I want you to call your boss and tell him you quit. Then call your landlord and give 30 days notice, or put your condo up for sale. Finally, trade in that nice new Saab for a beat-up 4WD pickup.

Things are starting to sound a little grim, huh? But what if giving up all this stuff meant you got to live in Jackson Hole? What if, instead of heading off to the office tomorrow, you put on a pair of ski boots and climbed into the Jackson tram—and did that for the next 150 days in a row?

Would it be worth it? Most people say no, and that’s why IBM and Merrill Lynch are still in business. But there are a few who by their actions say yes, living in the mountains is worth giving up the comforts of a traditional career, and these people—the ski bums—are the true heroes of skiing.

Waaait just a minute, you might say. What about Scot Schmidt and Jean-Marc Boivin?

OK, I’ll admit Schmidt’s a ski hero. So’s Boivin—and the Mahres, too, and Plake and maybe even Bill Johnson. But the difference between those guys and your average ski bum is that they made skiing a profession, whereas a ski bum has probably abandoned a profession—or at the very least avoided one. In the ’90s, that’s nothing to smirk at.

Leaving the “real world” to be a ski bum is no simple task. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, it was much easier. Ralph Lauren was too busy selling neckties in Manhattan to think about buying ranches and boosting housing costs in Telluride. Resort cafeterias still gave away saltines. The world was much less manacled by the obsession for riches and “success”. But complaining about it is simply whining. The world just isn’t as romantic as it used to be, and you either learn to deal with it or you put on your beads and follow Jerry Garcia around for the rest of your life. Ski bums, as I see it, keep that romance alive in a sport (and country) that’s become horribly homogenized. It’s a monumental task—giving up the traditional paths to success and living in an expensive mountain town during the harshest, coldest months of the year without a “real” job.

I guess I see ski bums as nobler or more pure than the rest of us for their “sacrifice”—a funny thought since half my ski bum friends are dirtbags who are just as likely to be surf bums or climbing bums. This idea of purity through sacrifice springs from the timeless concept of pilgrimagem where you shed your material possessions and make a journey in hopes of attaining enlightenment. Enlightenment through ski bumming? Yeah, I know it’s corny—but what better way to justify eating Ramen noodles for dinner, having eight roommates in a two-bedroom apartment and busing tables for $2.50 an hour?

Even with a job that’s as fun as mine, the temptation to leave and spend a winter doing nothing but skiing is strong. I can spend hours thinking about joining my friends in Chamonix, Jackson, or Snowbird. Making first tracks all winter long…discovering for myself the secret hidden pleasures of the mountain…coming in tune with the subtle undercurrents of a season in the snow—someday these may be enough to pull me away. For now, though, I really like the traditional path…but that won’t stop me from sharpening my scissors one more time.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 19.2, October 1990. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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