From Local to Tourist

A Former Local Visits Vail as a Tourist, and Discovers a Magical New World

Most people visit Vail as a tourist then move here; I did things the other way around. It’s April 2022, and my boyfriend and I are walking through Vail Village while fat, fluffy flakes drift down around us. Still recovering from lockdown and a lackluster snow season, town feels deserted, and we seem to be the only ones heading up despite five inches of overnight snow.

The gondola whisks us through low clouds and out the other side where the Gore Range suddenly bursts into view, resplendent in the morning sunlight. For two days, it’s been obscured from view by the storm, and this is our first glimpse.

I squeal and Jim’s jaw drops in amazement. It’s his first time in Colorado, so it’s natural for him to be impressed, but why am I acting like I’ve never seen it before? I did, after all, call this place home for over a decade.

Because, after years of being a local, I’m finally experiencing the place as a tourist, and it’s a whole new adventure. As a “local,” I lived where most locals do — in that far flung outpost on the distant edge of civilization known as Edwards. Skiing Vail on a powder day meant a white-knuckle encounter with I-70, endlessly circling the chaotic parking structure, battling my way past throngs of tourists and getting clocked in the head by someone’s skis on the way to the gondola. I’d squeeze as many laps in as I could in two hours before the costly parking shutter slammed down.

author skiing in vail

Photo courtesy of Julia Clarke.

For me, the Village was a place to avoid if possible, brace against when work required it and extricate myself from quickly. Today, it’s a wonderland of fun and adventure, and I covet the short, dreamy stroll from our temporary home, the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer.

Then there’s the skiing; I’ll be honest, though I lived here until 2020, I haven’t held a ski pass for years. Long ago, I traded the crowds and expense of resort skiing for skinning, powering myself uphill in exchange for a single, quiet run down. I loved the peace of backcountry skiing, but somewhere along the way, I formed the impression that resort skiing really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Now, I’m seriously starting to wonder if those chemtrails I always heard about in Vail were real and if they were dusting us with some kind of delusion drug. From the top of Avanti, we start cruising along Eagle’s Nest Ridge, a little rusty from two years of lockdown. It’s just a catwalk, but with wide open Rocky Mountain vistas and sweeping runs in all directions, it’s crystal clear to me why people drop a small mortgage to come here. After a few runs to get our legs back, we start exploring the back bowls, and without any sense of urgency, it’s utterly magical.

vail mountain

Photos courtesy of Vail Mountain.

After a full day of skiing — another thing I haven’t entertained in years — we shuffle back to the hotel, grinning widely. Shopkeepers call out as we pass, wanting to know how our day was, and the hotel concierge insists on lighting the fire for us. We’re easily the
poorest tourists ever to have come to Vail, but we feel like royalty.

A ski holiday in Vail isn’t something I ever thought I’d do, and even on a tight budget, it’s seriously stretching us, but by the end of the week, we’re excitedly planning our next visit, talking about bringing the kids and indulging in fantasies about coming out for a season.

Fortunately, for the kids and our wallets, there are enough ludicrous elements to keep us tethered to reality, the existence of fur coats for starters. The ungodly price of a meal means our evenings consist of sharing a sandwich from Joe’s Deli and walking around town playing a game we call “Spot the Most Absurdly-Priced Menu Item” (the Red Lion wins, with $12 chips and salsa — bold).

Then, there’s the mystery of finding any fresh fruit anywhere, even at breakfast. One rogue staff member does smuggle some orange slices from the bar on our first morning, but the following day he’s disappeared from service, and we’re informed this loophole was an unfortunate oversight and has now been secured. Nearing the end of the week, as the scurvy is setting in, we discover bananas in a café. Snatching up four, I hand over nearly $15. I’m pretty sure that included two hot chocolates, but to this day, Jim still tells people that bananas cost $3 each in Vail, Colorado. The place will never live it down.

As the days wear on, it’s difficult to ignore another inescapable truth: most of the guests aren’t having much fun. At breakfast, a young couple sits solemnly across from each other with their earbuds firmly embedded, resisting all eye contact, while a nearby family spends the entire meal bickering. We quietly balk at a grown woman throwing a world-class tantrum on Lower Lion’s Way over her husband skiing black diamonds while her bemused toddler looks on quizzically.

The truth, it seems, is that no vacation can hold up to the staggering weight of expectation that a Vail vacation costs. At these prices, the food should make you immortal, the lift ticket should give you wings, the airport shuttle should take seconds.


Us though? We suspend disbelief and have the time of our lives. Vail might not exactly be like no place on earth — when you’re jet lagged, it’s confusingly like a lot of alpine ski resorts — but the skiing is sublime, the Village positively enchanting in the alpenglow and the (mostly) friendly local workers make us feel like we belong.

One day, too tired to ski anymore, we visit the Colorado Snowsports Museum, something I’ve embarrassingly managed to overlook until now. Discovering the 10th Mountain Division and the brilliant masterminds behind the resort is fascinating, so much so that we stay and watch the film a second time, marinating in their enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the resort, much reviled for its “corporate greed mentality,” is happy to refund our tickets for the day.

I moved here from New York in 2009, seeking the mountains and their reputed good tidings. I thought I was doing it right living like a local, but instead, by the time I left, I was so burned out I could barely see what makes the place special. Seeing it through new eyes, I finally get it.

Growing up, my family and I would vacation in a seaside resort in Spain. Every summer, a group of school kids were brought down from Madrid as part of a government initiative to see the sea for the first time. It occurs to me now that Vail might want to try something similar but for locals. Ferry us in from our distant outposts in Avon, Edwards and Eagle to spend a night or two in the Village. We could tax tourists to pay for the program, and locals could finally see what it’s really like to sleep at the base of the gondola,
saunter over to the chair and ski as long as you want.

I know it’s a pipe dream, but I bet it would make for an even happier valley.