Embrace Your Inner Ski Bum

By Warren Miller

Warren MillerAccording to Webster’s dictionary, bum means “inclined to sponge off others and avoid work.” My definition of ski is “a device of wood or metal that offers total freedom for anyone riding on a pair of them.” Put the two words together and you have a description of the pioneers that created most of the American ski resorts.

The pioneers that built Mammoth, Vail, Boyne Mountain, and dozens of other American ski resorts were called ski bums when they were thinking about creating the freedom playgrounds for your annual week of vacation. If I were a psychologist, I would call these pioneers obsessive-compulsive with a different goal than most people. Instead of striving for a house in the suburbs, a wife, three kids, a lawn, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and two weeks of vacation per year, these ski bums preferred to make ends meet just so they could ski every day. I know all about this because I am still one of them.

Let’s examine a local ski bum who has skied at this resort every day it has been open for the last 11 years. He takes whatever odd jobs that show up from time to time in order to buy his season pass and he probably bootlegs a ski lesson here and there for a little walking around money. This guy makes more turns on his skis every winter than many people will make in a lifetime. He doesn’t buy a $5 double latte to sip on while stuck in the morning freeway traffic. He doesn’t argue with his wife about who is going to take which of their kids to which soccer practice. Instead, his only worry is buying the gas to get him back and forth to the ski lift from his bedroom in the nearby town.

Is being a ski bum the life for you? Probably not, but think about it for a minute. How would you like to ski seven days a week all winter? You can do this because whatever job you have in the city, there is one just like it at a ski resort. A ski resort is a microcosm of city life, with fire departments, trash removal, police, real estate agents, secretaries, clerks, computer operators, ski patrolmen, or any manner of employment. The difference between doing the same job in the city or in a ski resort is that with your job in a ski resort comes at least two days a week of skiing. If you land a night job, you can ski seven days a week.

Was I a ski bum in the formative years of my film career? I wear that name proudly, but not in the strictest sense of the word bum. Even when I was living in the parking lot on less than 25 cents a day, eating oyster crackers and ketchup for lunch and frozen rabbits for dinner, I was drawing cartoons and selling them for a dollar and painting pictures on casts in the evening. I skied seven days a week from November until May.

I think I had a purpose in life then, but I can’t tell you what it was. I had just spent three and a half years in the Navy and had been sunk in a hurricane in the South Pacific. I had saved enough money to self publish a cartoon book of my impressions of skiing. As I look at that 1946 cartoon book now, I remember that every time I sold a copy for $2, I earned a $1 profit. I sold a lot of copies of “Are my skis on straight?” Sure, I was called a ski bum, but did I care? No, because there was almost no one else at Sun Valley in those days that was skiing in the powder snow from one storm until the next all winter long.

Anyone who fits the title of ski bum today probably has a harder time of it than I did because there are a lot more people around a resort today, making it harder to slide under the radar screen. However, now you can buy a season pass at some major resorts for less than $250 if you accept the blackout days. And you should do it that way because the ski runs are way too crowded on those holidays and more part-time jobs are available during the blackout days. Grab the right part-time job and you will have enough money stashed away to keep you eating well and skiing every day until the next blackout day. Cheap housing, on the other hand, is an entirely different subject.

I have friends who have been on major resort ski patrols for 35 or 40 years. Do they have the latest car in a garage alongside of a house full of material possessions? No. But they do have a life full of great memories and a wife and kids that love freedom on the side of a hill just like they do.

People usually look at ski bums with either envy or disdain. Just remember that those ski bums are usually major contributors to your fun meter when you finally get that once-a-year week to ski and shop in their town. You too could be a ski bum. You only need the courage to throw away your commuting life and reexamine your obsessive-compulsive goals of suburban life.

There is no magic equation to becoming a ski bum. If you want to ski a lot more, just drive to the mountain and do it. The only person stopping you is you, so always remember my motto, “If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.”