I spent the weekend in Bachelor Gulch, that little enclave in the narrow draw just to the west of Beaver Creek. The Aspens were at their colorful peak, the trout were biting, and the scenery was as significant as I remembered it. As is my way, I browsed some real estate while visiting, and the market was as hot as I imagined it would be, only hotter. Everything was pending sale. Everything. Crappy condominiums? Pending. Superlative homes hanging off of craggy hillsides? Pending. It didn’t matter if the price was $800k or $15M, the property was likely pending. As hot as Geneva has been this year, Beaver Creek was hotter. I thought a lot about what it all meant.
The luxury real estate directive of 2020 is quite simple. It supposes that no one wants to live in cities anymore, and because of technology we can live wherever we want. Since the jobs that can be conducted over email and Zoom tend to be white-collar jobs of some stature, this means most of the geographical freedom belongs to the rich, or at least to the very upper middle class. If you don’t have to live in a city anymore, you very well might remember that ski town you visit every President’s Day Weekend and think that such a place might be a nice place to live. So you run out and buy something in Beaver Creek, or Vail, or Aspen, or Park City, or Jackson Hole, and you breathe (gasp) in the thin mountain air and sit under the smoked filtered mountain sun. This is what everyone did, or so it seems.
I do pretty well here, in case you didn’t know, and yet I do not qualify for ownership in these elite towns. My sales income does not hold up well to the luxury of these locations. I’m what I like to call “rural Wisconsin rich”, which means I can go to any small town in Wisconsin (excluding Walworth County) and buy a house, even though I don’t really want to go to those towns, and I certainly don’t want to buy a house there. Nevertheless, I can’t afford even the most repugnant condo in Beaver Creek, let alone a single family home, but apparently everyone else in the United States can. And everyone else is there now, sitting under that smoky sky waiting for the snow to fall.
And fall it will, soon. Then the boring afternoon hikes will turn into boring afternoon ski sessions. Want to go for a hike, or maybe also a hike? What if we went for a hike!? Will turn into: Powder Day! Let’s go ski today! This is what you have to be willing to say for approximately all of the days each year if you live in a mountain town. Because what else will you do? Drive into the small town and buy yet another cowboy hat? How many Moncler jackets can one person own? How many times a week can you visit the dispensary before you are faced to recognize the possibility that you just might have a problem? How many times can you sit and watch a mule deer wander through your neighborhood before you realize that it’s just a regular deer and it’s absolutely eating your arborvitaes? How long until all of these newly minted mountain home owners realize that some places are best visited and not lived in? I’m betting the answer is soon.
For now, the mountain towns are bursting with sales. Businesses are still struggling, by the way, as evidenced by several empty or otherwise closed stores in Beaver Creek and Vail. The hotels are operating with skeleton staff, as the absence of J-1 employees has led to a serious labor issue. The main reason I stay at the Ritz in Bachelor Gulch is because of the stone fireplace in the massive great room. Sitting by those fires ordering the cast iron skillet nachos is something that I consider to be very ideal, but this weekend there could be no fires because the entire state of Colorado is a tinder box. This winter will test these towns, and I have no doubt that through the bumps and outbreaks the towns themselves will be fine. But what about the family who moved from Lincoln Park to Beaver Creek, because Zoom and the pandemic?
I contend this family will not last long in this little town. They won’t last for the same reason that no one actually moves to Wailea Beach. For the same reason that Nantucket is terrific, but you don’t really want to live there 365 days a year. For the same reason that Lake Geneva is fantastic, but most of my clients don’t actually live here full time. Vacation destinations are vacation destinations in large part because they do one or two things very well, but they lack the sort of infrastructure (social and structural) that can support a larger populace on a full time basis. I’m sure Covid will change behavior for a while, but as soon as this miserable virus is in our rear view (or at least trampled under our feet) I expect behavior to return to some semblance of normal. That will be bad news for the ski towns and for the buyers who drove up the prices to obscene levels. Someday, they’ll all realize that mountain towns are super fun in small doses, but they aren’t necessarily conducive to full time living. Jack Torrance tried to warn us.