Just what does it take to become a true local?
August 30, 2006
I’m still what people call a newcomer, but it seems to me that most people who live in the mountains fall into one of three categories: Second-home owner, transplant from somewhere else – usually a city, like me – or native, though I meet very few natives who are older than 10.I’ve lived along a Colorado stretch of the Continental Divide for two years now, so I’m ready to share all kinds of observations, some of them familiar if you’re a Westerner with several years under your belt. Many of my tips involve ways to deal with crowds during high summer and winter tourist seasons, such as: Stay away from the grocery store around 4 p.m. and the coffee shop around 8 a.m. And if it’s tourist-free peace and quiet you want, pick a small town that lacks amenities like a ski resort or golf course.Mountain weather affects everything. In winter, icy roads or a sudden snowstorm can kill you. But then there are the mundane realizations, such as the fact that it’s nearly impossible to grow mold – something that greatly extends the life of shower curtains. Birthday cakes are best left to the high-altitude baking experts. Liquids in sealed containers can be unpredictable and potentially messy if you drive over a pass or climb to a peak. Fleece comes in different weights and is something you wear not only in January but sometimes also in July. My favorite, an observation from a visiting friend: “There are no fat people here.”That I have lived here two years recently dawned on me. Time takes on a different dimension in the mountains. I routinely hear comments that reflect this, such as “I came here eight years ago to work as a ski instructor and have been here ever since.” Or, “We came here every year for vacation, until one year we decided we didn’t want to leave.”This led me to wonder: At what point does one become a local? I have a Colorado driver’s license and my vehicle has Colorado plates. I’m a registered voter and pay taxes here. I have a ski pass, and I patronize local businesses. Yet I don’t presume to consider myself a local. All my work is done on a computer, thanks to the Internet, and none of it involves a local business, though I recently began working with somebody who lives in a nearby town. Still, I am unlikely to have any local clients, and you won’t find me in the phone book. I’ve had the good fortune to live in my sister’s townhouse, so I don’t have a mortgage or even a lease. I’ve come to believe that one of the indicators of local status is how passionately one participates in the “holy trinity” of mountain activities on publicly owned land: Hike, bike, ski. Yes, I know there are many other mountain activities, but it seems to me that until I ski, bike or hike with unwavering commitment, I may never come close to being considered a local. I’ve been doing all three, though when it comes to participation with others, I seem either to excel or lag pitifully, depending on who I am with.When friends visit from sea level, they look suspiciously at difficult ski runs and can’t hike for more than 30 minutes or 300 feet, whichever comes first. So I hold back. Then with locals, for whom it’s not a hike unless it’s a fourteener, and who look scornfully upon skiing that’s not off-the-beaten path or at least black diamond, I push myself to keep up while keeping lungs and limbs intact.Recently, while traveling on business throughout Europe, I found myself answering the question about where I lived by saying that right now I was living in Colorado, as if it were temporary. Yet when I told clients in cities like London or Paris that I lived in the mountains of the American West, many expressed what I could only describe as a kind of awe and envy. There is a mystique to mountain living, and it holds its own against any great place to live: The silhouette of jagged peaks against a sun-washed sky at dusk. Clouds that sometimes touch the earth. The fresh pine scent and calm of a morning hike. Waking to a fresh coat of powdery snow and figuring out how I can arrange work to hit the slopes for a few hours. All of this leads me to say that while I’ve come to realize it might take a lifetime, I’d like to become a local.Cathy Houdek is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former Chicago resident, she now lives in Dillon.