Best of the Bullwheel: An elegy for the ski bum

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By Jay Wisniewski

I used to be a ski bum.

For a time, I worked to live, earning just enough to cover the essentials: food, shelter and occasionally new boards.

I lived in single-minded pursuit of my passion, without any thought of “monetizing” it, without any chance of competitive success or recognition. There’s a purity in such a life. Those days are long gone now. Not just for me but, I fear, for others. I mourn the loss. Some dismiss the lives of ski bums as selfish and frivolous. They say such lives are of no benefit to society. But most paintings will only be seen by their painters. Who are the real artists, the painters who do so to fulfill commissions and grants or those for whom pay and recognition are irrelevant — they paint because they must. Because they love it.

A true ski bum is an artist. The medium, snow, is temporary, as fleeting as live music. No one questions whether a musician is an artist.

All this is temporary — our lives, everything we see. It’s only a question of to what degree.

The life of a ski bum is selfish? Then what of bankers? The ski bums I knew desired little — a shack not too far from the ski hill, enough food to eat. The average ski bum sacrifices a great deal in pursuit of passion. They often leave behind family, career, stability, any chance of real material gain. … We would be better off if more people were selfish like ski bums and there were fewer rapacious bankers, politicians and tech moguls living like feudal lords on the labor of peasants.

We lie to ourselves. The acquisitive class still commands a certain respect, although it shouldn’t. I’d have more respect for Mark Zuckerberg if he’d dropped out of Harvard and moved to Jackson Hole and become a ski patroller. Instead he oversees an app that whistleblowers tell us drives teenage girls to eating disorders and suicide. And society showers him with wealth and power.

Ski bums leave a small footprint. Most that I’ve met care about the environment and do little harm.

True artists live and work without much chance of success, without grant money, sponsorships, health insurance or the safety net of a comfortable teaching position. Ski bums can relate. True artists are rare these days. Their names are never known, or soon forgotten. Often their lives are the works of art: reckless and dazzling for as long as they last. Death doesn’t always claim the lives of artists. The end can come in the form of a hospital bill, a bad marriage or the simple necessity of a soul-crushing job to afford to live.

We are on a treadmill now and its name is inflation, rising housing prices and the exorbitant cost of health insurance. Step off or slow down at your peril. We’ve created a society that punishes deviation from the norm and passion. Crush the dreamers and the wayfarers, force them to comply like everyone else.

Soon children will begin filling out their LinkedIn profiles in elementary school, adding certificates and scholastic awards. Junior-high students are probably already attending leadership conferences and choosing extracurriculars based not on love but on what will look the best on a college application. They can’t afford to fall behind.

What is a life without detours? We’re made for more than work. Ski bums used to remind office dwellers of that.

Somewhere, a former artist is sitting in an office as his heart unwinds, beat by beat, second by second. A rare sight outside his window: A hawk glides on a current of air in the distance. Would the office dweller be happier if the hawk were in a cage?

A society needs heroes, exemplars and vagabonds. Ski bums. They challenge our reality.

Comment and Share your thoughts on the Bullwheel, TownLift’s new community forum: https://bullwheel.townlift.com/c/opinion/an-elegy-for-the-ski-bum

Jay Wisniewski is an editor and columnist for the Aspen Daily News. He has lived in Utah, Idaho, Montana and Colorado. He can be found at jaywisniewski.com

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