Caught in the tourist trap

An Aspen Times writer was recently fired from her snowboard instructor job for referring to one of her young students as "whaleboy," among other things, in a column. At issue was not whether or not the boy was the victim of a glandular problem, but the fact that the instructor showed a wanton disregard for the well-manicured, cash-wielding hand that fed her. And as obvious a faux pas as it was in hindsight, those of us who have spent any amount of time shlepping drinks, stuffing butts or teaching snowplows likely know exactly where she was coming from.

Let's face it, life in a tourist town is not always what it's cracked up to be. Sure, it may be paradise, but the brochure never said anything about the strings attached. For starters, you have to share it with others and that goes for trails as well as parking spaces. The pay is bad, rent is high and there's never nearly enough time to play as one would like. To add insult to injury, you are forced to cater to those who do have enough time and the funds to go with it. Of course, such conditions can cause fierce resentment, territorial behavior and superiority complexes which of course lead to the aforementioned cracks about the size of one's ski pants.

I, myself, spent my formative years living in a ski town and being a really bad waitress at an all-you-can-eat rib house that appealed to busloads of Texans who all wanted separate checks. In this town, residency was worn like a badge of honor. "How long have you lived here?" was usually the first question asked of fresh-faced ski bums, accompanied by a dubious eye roll and look of disdain.

Can't say I blamed the oldtimers. It wasn't that they were hostile so much as ambivalent. See, each fall the town's ranks would swell with youthful exuberance, in search of their own slice of "Hot Dog" heaven, only to shrivel back down again come the following spring. Add to this the slow march of McMansions up the hillsides and the constant stream of tourists, and after a while, it was hard to tell who was who anymore.

Therefore, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the vacationing masses, new recruits quickly learned to manipulate the mountain town space-time continuum. Two months' residency was equivalent to a year; six months was five years; and a whole year was bonafide localship. And with that came the privilege of membership into the secret society of locals. Sure the tourists had the money and time, but you knew what back roads to take, where the powder stashes were, when the buses ran, where the best rides were, which restaurants to go to, and which ones to stay away from. And if you were lucky enough to infiltrate the inner circle of restaurant workers, you also had a friend behind every bar in town. In other words, you were so connected that, if your life were a mob movie, you'd a been given the secret handshake and a kiss on each cheek.

Of course, like any mob movie, sooner or later, you either turn informant and join society or die. I opted for the former, moving myself to Durango, where I got a job that didn't involve keeping my earnings in a sock in my top drawer. Along with that came 9-5 hours and three weeks of regularly scheduled vacation.

And in that time, I came to appreciate the tourist.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to the tourist plight because I, myself, have been the victim of tourism discrimination. I once was verbally assaulted by a short, smarmy French man in a Parisian caf`E9 as I struggled to pronounce "caf`E9 au lait" while disguising my Minnesota accent. Later in the same trip, I sat at a bistro while the woman at the table next to us, unaware that we understood French, complained to the waiter about how "stupid" we were in between drags off a cigarette that was exhaled in our faces.

Of course, we expect such treatment from the French. They are, after all, famous for it. If you go home without at least a little abuse, it's like going home without seeing the Eiffel Tower or ogling the Mona Lisa. You feel cheated.

Unfortunately, such treatment is not confined to the other side of the ocean. Nor is it reserved for people who don't speak the language and keep their travelers checks in a secret compartment in their belts. In fact, one need not even leave Southwest Colorado to experience a generous helping of degradation.

Just last week, I ventured with friends and family to a small town north of here, which shall remain nameless except to say it rhymes with Smelluride. After blowing our wads on $35 concert tickets that earned us standing room along a wall in the nosebleeds and a few extremely overpriced beers served in plastic cups, we were heading down the street in search of the next place to spend our hard-earned cash. And that's when we were accosted by a young woman leaving a bar apparently a few drinks too late.

She turned to face us as we approached and then slurred "Y'all are tourists!" with the proud satisfaction of a newly inducted "local."

I'm not sure what was more annoying: the fact that she was wrong (some of the group had grown up blocks from where we were standing, and one still lived in town) or the fact that she was right. See, up until her proclamation, I had thought I was doing a pretty good job of blending. It's not as if I had just disembarked from an RV or was clomping around in my ski boots after dark.

Which of course begged the question, so what if I was? After all, unless we stay forever confined to our small, isolated, homogenized corners of the world, sooner or later we all will have to assume the tourist role. And something told me, with that sugar-coated drawl, that she had been local about as long as the snow covering the streets which I was tempted to rub in her smug little face.

But I took the high road, complimenting her on her astute observation and preferential social status. However, she made it clear she had no time to commune with pariahs such as ourselves she had better things to do, like rummage through discarded items in the town's free box.

As we parted ways with our one-woman welcome wagon, it was apparent that the irony of the situation was lost on her, as was the fact that people like us made it possible for her to live her ski town existence. And as she took off in search of whatever it was she was looking for, I hoped that she would at least find a clue.

Missy Votel




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