The Winter Wait

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I did a double-take in my grocery store the other day.

Here in my toney north Lake Tahoe neighborhood (it’s affluent, so I’m legally obligated to refer to it as toney or leafy, and since this is a pine tree-dominated environment, you get the former) I’m one of a small handful of year-round dirt bags.

That’s why it surprised me so much to see a young guy in a flannel shirt, basketball shorts and Tevas walking out with a pair of Tecate tall boys and a rotisserie chicken. That’s a confirmed bachelor, fuck-it-this-is-dinner-and-maybe-tomorrow’s-breakfast move only three other guys and I pull off with any regularity when just the locals are in town.

It signaled the entrance of the ski bum set, and ‘the wait.’

‘The wait’ is the potentially perilous period just before the ski season starts, when the workforce (or, in acknowledgement of skiing’s long association with trust funds, the playforce) rolls into town, but before they have anything to do.

‘The wait’ is essentially in a study in climatology, wealth (or lack thereof), sexual politics, testosterone and the outer reaches of human chemical tolerance.

It works something like this: Nobody really knows when ski season is going to start. Even in the midst of the past few straight-up drought years we’ve been suffering in the Sierra Nevada, resorts can turn an early season snowstorm and consecutive days of sub-32 degree weather into an open day on the mountain. That could mean late October, it could mean mid-December.

That sudden demand for skiing necessitates workers be on hand to load-and-unload you and your once-used planks from chairlifts, stuff your face with overpriced cafeteria items and clean up the hotel hallway when the 552 fun-sized Snickers Junior consumed come back up.

Locals fill a lot of these slots, but, because ski towns cannot support year-round workforces, bros from far & wide know they can make $7.75/hour and get a ski pass just by showing up in a ski town just before the snow flies.

Many—most—of these people are men, perfectly content to live 6 to a three-bedroom hovel that never, ever, warms above 59 degrees. They’re here during their gap year between undergrad and grad school, or undergrad and real life, or high school and some methy future in the suburbs beyond Schaumburg. And, because ski resorts don’t start actually giving hours until customers appear, they’re floating off those trusts, the meager sums they saved up during summer, or whatever they got for mom’s hand-me-down ’98 Grand Cherokee at the parking lot of Wal-Mart in Reno from some dude off Craigslist.

They subsist off a diet of Clif Bars, bong resin and beer when the checks are coming in. Before these bountiful paydays hit, God only knows.

I digress. The point is, you suddenly have a massive influx of marginally-employable, broke, single young men in your town at once with almost nothing to do until Mother Nature lets loose. The gender scale, already tipped way, way toward the Y chromosome during the off-season and summer, adds another influx of swinging dicks to its sum during ‘the wait.’

Early on during ‘the wait’ they figure out what we mountain folks do when the weather is nice but not nice enough to be at the beach every day. They hit the trails, ride their bikes, and are generally amiable.

Then the cold starts to hit, and more of us elect to hit the pool or the gym every day. These guys sure as shit are not paying for a gym membership, so they become idle. You see their dirty beanies at the bar for long stretches. The price of pot—generally rock-bottom given our relative proximity to California’s bountiful foothills—starts to creep up. Tensions begin to flare.

A class of people forced into dense living quarters with little economic opportunity (it sounds like I’m talking about some Sao Paolo favela here, but keep in mind this is all by choice) do not long remain calm. Romantic rivals begin to square off at the local pubs. House parties erupt on Tuesday nights when you’re just trying to get some goddamn sleep. Scooters are ridden into your local skate park, followed closely by paramedics. The local library starts to smell like a locker room.

The last days of ‘the wait’ are, almost uniformly, unpleasant. Together, the locals and imports seethe, anxious for the weather to break in their favor and end the monotony. The payoff is so sweet—fresh, clean, rideable snow; a town that returns to its permanent inhabitants—that it makes ‘the wait’ so fraught.

Every year, ‘the wait’ is a reminder that there’s really only space for four of me in my town.

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