The collective gray hair of the colorful central cast in Jeremy Evans’ ‘In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum’ might as well be Exhibit A in Evans’ well-researched and wide-ranging look at the cultural change occurring in ski towns across the American West.
This aging cadre of die-hard skiers came to mountain towns during a golden heyday of ski bumming — a time when drunken miners mingled with powder hounds in high-altitude streets where real estate was cheap and ski areas (not ‘resorts’) were owned by families who actually lived in town. In those days you could ski all day, party all night, and eke out enough of a living to feed the ski habit and continue to live in Crested Butte, Park City, or Truckee. What’s more, you could survive long enough in town to become a part of the cultural fabric of a ski community.
While arguing that those days are largely gone, Evans does not necessarily declare dead the ski bum lifestyle, but instead explores in great detail the way that deep changes in the ski industry have altered the cultural composition of ski towns. Today there are new ski bums, but many are transient, migratory — think of the seasonal influx of international workers each November — or super-charged athletes seeking sponsorships.
The generation of the original ski bums and their enduring love of the mountains, pure passion for snow, and rejection of mainstream society is dwindling. And what is replacing them is a strange brew of Wall Street–traded ski conglomerates, empty second homes, sponsor-fueled extreme athletes, and a commuter workforce.
‘In some ways it was a painful book to write,’ said Evans, a former Tahoe Daily Tribune sports reporter who has been published in Powder and Skiing. ‘These towns have changed. There is no denying that.’
Although the book mostly skips over North Tahoe in favor of examples from South Lake Tahoe to Crested Butte and Jackson Hole, Truckee and the surrounding area is, by default, a central character in ‘In Search of Powder.’
The common struggles shared by all ski towns relate specifically to the local area. Truckee, just like the former mining towns turned ski towns profiled in Evans’ book, underwent its own transition from a natural resource extraction-based economy (exemplified by the Truckee lumber mill) into a ski-fueled tourist town. It grew through its own golden age as skiing boomed, ski bums flocked to town, and communities retained their hard-scrabble, ragged edges. And now Truckee is wrestling with the common problems of the modern ski-dependent economy — problems that Evans says are slowly killing off the dream of the ski bum.
Local figures make prominent appearances in ‘In Search of Powder.’ Recently deceased Squaw Valley skier CR Johnson talks frankly about ski sponsorship in a section that details how sponsors abandoned him even as he lay in a coma in a Utah hospital after a debilitating ski accident. Shane McConkey’s extreme exploits and untimely death are mentioned. And an entire chapter is named after filmmakers and former Truckee/Tahoe locals Hunter Sykes and Darren Campbell’s 2006 documentary ‘Resorting to Madness: Taking Back Our Mountain Communities,’ which explores many of the ski industry changes detailed in Hal Clifford’s illuminating 2003 exposé, ‘Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment.’
While Evans’ book will appeal most to those interested in the changes in the ski industry and the evolution of ski town culture, quite a bit of ski history is packed into the book’s 225 pages as well. The origins of the ski film pioneer Teton Gravity Research, a detailed retelling of the formation of the Jackson Hole Air Force, and a lot of early ski town history provide the backbone narrative of much of the book.
Evans said he knows that the book may ruffle a few feathers in the ski industry, but he hopes that the stories and information in the book get people thinking. To people who have asked him why they should care that the number of guys living in a rented garage, living off peanut butter and PBR, and skiing all day, every day are slowly disappearing, he has a simple answer.
‘The reason I care is because who wants to see a vanilla culture?’ asked Evans. ‘You lose the ski bum, and you lose a little piece of Americana.’
After reading ‘In Search of Powder,’ you can’t help but agree that ski bums are metaphorical canaries in a coal mine. Their rugged, passionate lifestyles are barometers of sorts for the authenticity of the culture of a ski town.
And whether people agree with him or not, that’s what Evans hopes people talk about. ‘If nothing else, if [the book] sparks debate, then I think I’ve done my job,’ he said.