To be a ski bum requires the ability to not take oneself seriously, which, even if it's not your equilibrium, is a good state of mind to understand. A surprising number of 22-year-olds take themselves quite seriously. I know this because I've hired a few of them, and because I suffered from this foible myself.
But I got lucky. I had to swallow that ill-placed sense of accomplishment, that sense of importance. A ski bum can't exist any other way. Having a false sense of importance isn't compatible, not for long, with ski bum living.
This isn't something I knew back then, at 22. I just wanted powder. I spent a good portion of my senior year in college thinking about it. Even though at that point in my life I had skied powder just twice, both times in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and both times without the kind of skill required to make skiing powder actually fun.
I wasn't one to be discouraged by these technicalities. I was graduating in December, and by the time I came back to campus for that one last triumphant semester at the University of Illinois, I had whiled away a summer internship in San Francisco asking all of these West Coasters where I should ski when I was done with school. The answers were similar to those I would get in Chicago or New York: variations of Vail, Aspen or, West Coast-bias rolling strong, Lake Tahoe. Luckily for myself, I spent plenty of time on the Web that summer, as interns are wont to do. The chat boards and general din had me thinking Utah, because that was the place, according to Web wisdom and resort-published snowfall numbers, where it always snowed.
Driving back to school at the end of the summer, I even took a stop-off in Utah to check out some resorts, but I was so sleep-deprived and groggy that all I remember is brushing my teeth in the bathroom of a Sinclair gas station and eating a chicken sandwich at McDonald's.
That wholesome experience was enough to convince me to rent an apartment in Park City in December of 1999. I found the place in an ad in the Park Record—this was before Craigslist had become popular outside of the Bay Area. I had no pictures of the apartment and only a general idea of its location. But I convinced two of my best friends, also graduating engineers, to go with me. My friends reasonably waited until after Christmas to make the drive from the Midwest. I, on the other hand, left four days before the holiday to spend Christmas, for the first and only time of my life, without family. All because I had to get powder.
It was a strange Christmas. There was no powder. I skied by myself at what was then The Canyons. On the lifts that day, I met an old guy who skied telemarks, Willis, who would be a friend for the next several years of my life in Park City. I also met a guy named Chuck who helped get me a job at a Park City engineering firm at the end of the winter. Through that job, I eventually met my wife, who was living in Los Angeles.
I worked as a liftie the whole winter, logging 100 days on the mountain and improving as a skier to the point of not looking like a fool while descending the hill. But it wasn't a transformative experience. I didn't find myself. At the end of the winter, I was still a cocky kid who didn't know how to work hard, didn't know what I would eventually find rewarding in life. The immediate takeaways from the winter for me—I didn't meet my wife for years—were improved skiing skills and an understanding of who and what makes a big resort go: the lifites, the servers, the groomer operators, the lift maintenance guys. I was still a dope at the end of the winter, just a dope who skied better.
I had other friends who thought about coming along that winter, but the perceived cost of screwing around for several months and getting seemingly nothing accomplished was too high for them. And the two friends who did accompany me caught some flack from their families about taking their newly minted engineering degrees, in the middle of the tech boom, out West to earn $8 an hour.
What I've realized 15 years later is that the opportunity cost to blow off a winter, to push off a career for a nominal amount of time, is zero. It's absolutely zero. People shouldn't ski bum because it's some kind of epic journey of understanding or because it leads to a life-changing appreciation of the mountains. It's not and it doesn't, not always.
Most ski bum days quickly become mundane and unremarkable. It's hard work. Sitting at a keyboard all day is easier and often preferable for most of us than waking up at 4 a.m., coaxing an old truck to start, and skiing icy runs in the dark while carrying garbage cans and cordless drills. But there's a handful of days in that ski bum winter that you'll recall with clarity for decades, probably until you die. The day in April when an innocuous storm system dumped 14 inches and no tourists or townies showed up; the day everybody got free beer for digging out the bottom of a snowed-in lift line; the day, while on break, you pulled some poor upside-down New Jersey man out of a tree well; the day patrol triggered a big in-bounds avalanche right next to your lift shack.
That ski bum period, even just four months, will mushroom into a much larger memory in your head, while many of life's other four-month snippets seem to quickly fade in relevance and in their ability to be remembered at all. We can't expect to live a life that's all one big indelible memory. But we still need to seek out those exclamations when we can.
That's why you ski bum, because it's all upside with no cost. You might win big, you might not, but you won't lose. You ski bum because nobody should take themselves seriously for a lifetime. And the powder. As wrong as I was about so many things at 22, I was right about that.
Christopher Steiner is the founder of ZRankings and a New York Times Bestselling author of two books. Find him on Twitter here.