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The Last Great Party of the 20th Century The October fire bombing now a memory, Vail continues full speed ahead as it prepares to host the World Alpine Ski Championships By Andy Stonehouse As the long-awaited snowflakes begin to flutter to the ground in Vail, Colorado, life seems like it may finally begin to make sense. And after an angst-filled, snowless pre-season complicated only slightly by those pesky fires, the snow couldn’t come soon enough for America’s top ski resort. Anyone truly interested in capturing a slice of the Hallmark Card lifestyle embodied by the Vail Valley would be best advised to tune into CBS Television this Friday night (Dec. 11) and catch the community in action in Kathie Lee Gifford’s Christmas Every Day special, filmed in Vail’s neighbouring Beaver Creek ski resort. Despite Whistler’s less-than-effective liaison with Gifford’s diminutive TV partner, Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee and family seem like the perfect spokespeople for Vail’s mixture of corporate gloss and All-American strip-mall culture. If you look close at the back row during the show’s crowd shots, you may see me sitting in the audience, looking a bit like I’d just taken six hits of blotter acid and was ready to jump up at any minute and chew the living pineal glands out the whole carol-singing TV family, or those flouncy-haired freaks in ’N Sync. In a message Vail Associates couldn’t pay enough to deliver, 12 million viewers will see that October’s fires on the mountain may have destroyed some buildings and lifts, but they did nothing to dampen the local spirits. I think that exact message will also appear on Vail ’99 T-shirts, commemorating this winter’s big event, the World Alpine Ski Championships. Personally, I have since conceded that resistance to this eternal and carefully orchestrated optimism is futile, so I will now drink a pint of Wild Turkey every morning before boarding the down-valley bus to work. Welcome to life in the Republican ski resort from hell, my friends. It seems like a very long time ago when locals woke up to news that crews of firefighters from as far away as Boulder had spent much of the night battling seven mysterious fires on the top of Vail Mountain. When the smoke cleared on the afternoon of Oct. 19 and the first of some 50 FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents began to scour the slopes (many from the same team that had worked the Oklahoma City bombing investigation), it became clear that a simple off-season gear-up to the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships was not going to happen. Typically, top-ranked ski resorts and monkey-wrenching $20 million (U.S.) acts of eco-terrorism don’t fall into the same catch-all. But deep in the heart of post-modern America, apparently anything is possible... like Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor of Minnesota. The first Vail resident I talked to on the day of the fires had a pretty direct reaction to the damage: He suggested that whoever was responsible ought to get the death penalty. I cautiously mentioned that this seemed a bit extreme for what was essentially a property crime (that Northern socialist in me coming out all too clearly), but his reaction pretty much summarized the sincerity of feeling which soon overflowed in local op/ed pages. Whether it was disgruntled university students or hard-core enviros actually linked to the Earth Liberation Front who set the fires, no one knows — and the ATF and the FBI still aren’t saying much. Somebody, however, was apparently very pissed off by the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to grant Vail Associates almost 900 acres of cutting rights for new trails off of Vail Mountain’s Back Bowls and decided to take some direct action. However, it seems more than a bit ironic that environmentalists would set a huge fire in the middle of a million-acre National Forest in order to save a tract of land frequented by the Canada lynx, which hasn’t actually been seen in the area since 1974. Less easy to finger for the crime would be the dozens of long-time locals with axes to grind over their treatment at the hands of Vail Associates, which enjoys the same love-hate relationship found between other ski companies and ski towns throughout the continent. After witnessing ski lift fatalities, earthquakes, heli-skiing accidents and even the death of a member of the Kennedy family unfold in Whistler, Mammoth and Aspen, I do have to give Vail Associates high marks for their crisis management strategy. A week after the fires, Vail president Andy Daly invited the community together for a slide-show and presentation at the local brew pub. With all of VA’s executives looking as positive as possible, Daly focused on repairing the damage, and then proceeded to get all 500 people present absolutely pissed on free beer and loads of gourmet food. Spend a day on the slopes now and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any evidence of the fires, other than a bit of construction being carried out on one still-inoperative Back Bowls lift. The mountain’s treasured Two Elk lodge was completely burned to the ground but visitors will still be able to enjoy an $8 U.S. bowl of chili in a huge tent set up to temporarily replace it. As the Vail ’99 clocks steadily count down the days until "the last great party of the 20th Century," the fires now seem like a side issue. Crews of construction workers are hurriedly putting the last touches on village touch-up efforts, and the entire valley is abuzz with seasonal excitement, especially after the weekend’s snow. In many ways, Vail still serves as the model for every other ski town in North America, Whistler included. The community, incidentally, is named after Charlie Vail, a highway worker who helped cut the first highway pass into the area in the 1930s. Pete Seibert, a lift op at the nearby Berthoud Pass ski area, scouted the valley in the late ’50s and helped raise funds for a rudimentary pedestrian-oriented ski community and ski hill he envisioned in the still-empty area. All that wide, flat, potentially skiable terrain practically cried out for development. The first gondola started serving skiers in an almost snowless 1962 and buildings in Vail Village took root that year. Slow but steady development followed until the late ’60s, when road crews again converged on the area to carve out a path for Interstate 70 across the Continental Divide. Then all hell broke loose. I-70’s gilded blacktop, now six lanes in stretches, rises off of Denver’s Front Range plains and delivers crowds into Vail at 75 miles per hour. More spectacularly, drivers now effortlessly drive through the ear-popping Eisenhower Tunnel (12,000 feet) and Vail Pass (11,000 feet). I-70 is also the reason Vail and its ever-blossoming fleet of bedroom communities (including Avon, Edwards and Eagle) are anything but quaint mountain towns. Rather, Vail itself is a five-mile stretch of frontage roads and roundabouts, with its various villages, service centres and residential areas permanently dissected by the transportation corridor. Down-valley sprawl puts much of the population more than 30 miles from Vail itself. In town, however, the freeway is the great equalizer. Even if you live in a multi-million dollar home perched on the red sandstone hillside, your 24-hour-a-day auditory experience is the air-brakes of a thousand transport trucks hurtling off of the Vail Pass grade, destined for Southern California from Chicago and points on the East Coast. Some respite from the highway noise can be found in the ski slope-facing Vail Village or the older Lionshead Village areas, developments which served as the model for faux-European ski villages from Tremblant to Tahoe. Vail Village has more successfully kept up with the times, reinventing itself every year and raising commercial rents to the point where even chain stores can’t afford to set up shop. Perhaps the biggest shock to visitors more accustomed to the Disneyfied glow of 12-month-old resort condominiums in other resorts is Vail’s Lionshead area, which rivals Mammoth (or nearby Copper Mountain) for sheer ugliness. Lionshead’s mishmash of 1970s-era, pine-panelled timeshares and concrete buildings that look like they’re straight out of Gdansk will eventually be replaced through a multi-million dollar Whistlerfication program, but the current experience ain’t a pretty one. But spend a good day on those adjacent slopes — one of those blue sky, just-snowed-a-foot, 32 degrees F at 11,000 feet kind of days — and you see why people come to Vail. The world beneath you dissolves and all those soaked-to-the-skin days on Whistler’s Green Chair seem a billion miles away. And with more than 4,000 acres of mostly intermediate terrain (or those legendary, ungroomed Back Bowls), the mountain deserves the prestigious status it receives. The Vail Experience Compared to Vail, Aspen’s cash-laden hippie Hollywood seems positively socialistic in its pedestrian-friendly streets, door-to-the-gondola bus service and the valley’s continued push for a billion dollar light rail system. Vail instead leans more to a kind of Midwestern pragmatism. The town and its neighbouring communities abound with strip malls, fast food, gas stations and Squamish-sized supermarkets — full of way more beef and Budweiser than brie and wheatgrass juice. There’s comprehensive bus service in Vail and into the valley but almost nobody but the Australians and the Mexicans use it, the world’s largest concentration of privately-owned Subaru Outbacks instead shuttling back and forth along I-70. Even the itinerant celebrity presence in Vail is strictly squaresville. Whereas Aspen attracted America’s moneyed liberal community, Vail is a haven for ex-politicians and sportscasters on the opposite end of the spectrum. Former President Gerald Ford is probably the biggest sometimes-local, along with geriatric astronaut John Glenn, Ross Perot and the Giffords. The Vail experience, however, has become much more than Vail itself. Most normal-headed people live well beyond the price-point-plus confines of Vail proper and instead rent in the nearby accessory communities, with Minturn, Avon and Edwards the favourites. Avon, better known as the town with the Wal-Mart and a maddening series of interlaced roundabouts, has a utilitarian ugliness but serves its taxpayers with a new recreation centre, a two-storey library and one of the world’s largest collections of brass statues of bulbous-headed children saluting the flag. Further west, Edwards is the infamous home to the Whalley-sized employee housing trailer park (perched under the curiously placed Scenic Overlook sign on I-70). Local gentrification efforts, including the snazzy Riverwalk and Edwards Village, are helping to make rent there and at other down-valley locales slowly climb toward Vail prices. Those who yearn for the born-yesterday gloss of Whistler’s just-unwrapped village streets are instead taking their business to Beaver Creek, where 20 years of village development were finally completed this year and a pedestrian village the size of Upper Village is now in business. Set in a valley two above Avon, Beaver Creek makes Whistler look like a historic district, or maybe a parallel universe where Joe Houssian was bought out by Jordan’s King Hussein and everything was built in 35 days, rather than two or three years. Our B.C. (or "the Beav" to locals) is the place you’ve heard about with the four-storey, parking garage-to-lift escalator system, the magnificent theatre which hosted the Giffords’ TV show, plus an open-air, year-round skating rink. Jerry Seinfeld stayed in a hotel there for a week in September, marking the valley’s only major market Hollywood celebrity visit of the summer. Provided you have a car to get around, life in the Vail Valley isn’t that bad. Rents are still astronomical compared to Whistler, but prices are at least half of what you’d pay for equivalent housing in Aspen or Telluride. As is the case in equally spread-out, transient communities like Whistler, it’s still a struggle for Vail to develop a concise sense of community. But October’s fires really did seem to make it clear that people cared, which came as a bit of a surprise to many people who live here. Ultimately, Vail is hedging a lot on this January’s World Alpine Ski Championships, being billed locally as a combination of the 1980 Olympics and the Second Coming of Christ. Vail’s police chief, Greg Morrison, has already been to Washington D.C. for anti-terrorist training; some 300 Secret Service, FBI and National Guard troops are to be quietly deployed in Vail and Beaver Creek during the two weeks of events, which start on Jan. 30. If you ask me, that’s just asking for trouble — I don’t see SWAT teams making the atmosphere all that more festive. Again, welcome to post-Unibomber America. So cash those bonds, sell grandma’s house and trade in all that devalued Canadian currency and come on down to Vail. Or do like everybody else in North America is doing this season and expect thousands of people from Vail to roll into your condo in Whistler this winter. photo cutlines: (Avon brass kids) In the search for a Norman Rockwell universe, Vail’s neighbour, Avon, has filled its streets with those uniquely American brass statues of fat-headed kids. (Wal-Mart) How can you tell you’re not in Aspen? Note even more brass art. (Los Lobos) Defying the Pete and Chad-centred universe, Los Angeles’ Los Lobos played a free show in Vail as a warm-up to the big World Alpine Ski Championships in January. (Beaver Creek) Imagine a world that makes Whistler look like a historic district: That’s Beaver Creek, designer village to the rich and famous. (Vail Village) With yearly reconstruction efforts, Vail Village has kept up with the times... and effectively priced chain stores out of the market. (countdown clock) Depending on who you talk to, the Vail ’99 ski event will either be the last great party of the century or an expensive ski race crawling with American military. Still the clock counts down. (Lionshead) Mixing the architecture of Eastern Europe and Whistler’s Creekside, Vail’s Lionshead Village is to be torn down and rebuilt over the next decade.