From New York to Big Sky

By Beacon Staff

Forty-five years ago, a friend of mine named George sponsored my ski film and personal appearance in Albany, N.Y. He and his ski club always filled the local high school auditorium.

Last week, I was doing a book signing at a nearby ski resort and he put his money on the counter, bought another copy of “Wine, Women, Warren and Skis” and re-introduced himself. After the signing we got together and he caught me up on his life since 1965.

George lost his wife Emma 20 years ago, when he was 54 years old, and, by the time he turned 60, he was tired of being a carpenter and pounding nails for a living. He had always wanted to ski out West, so he sold his small house in Albany, bought a pickup truck with a camper on the back and headed West. He has been living in the Big Sky parking lot every winter for the last eight years. He washes dishes five nights a week in exchange for lunch and dinner (no steaks) and buys a season ski pass every year. His truck-camper is about to turn over 150,000 miles and he always completes routine maintenance on it. He has a lot of friends at Big Sky and, occasionally, someone from Albany will ski there for a week. When they do, George gets the chance to get together with them and reminisce about the old days and, so far, he is the only member of his old ski club who skis seven days a week all winter.

He has his freedom and his Social Security check is mailed to him. What else does he need? He is good friends with the local ski shop manager and buys his next year’s equipment at 50-percent-off sales. There is a laundromat, a gas station and grocery store about 10 miles away. So he has everything he needs. When the inevitable 20-below-zero week heads his way, he drives his camper down to the village and plugs in his electric blanket to an outlet in the local gas station in exchange for cleaning the floors while he is parked there.

Is this lifestyle for everyone? No, but he has what everyone in his age bracket is looking for. He has freedom, without paying for a condo in La Paz or Aspen every year. His only real overhead is his annual truck license plate renewal, gasoline and vehicle maintenance every year.

When spring comes and the lifts shut down, he uses his trout fishing license for a month or so on the Gallatin River or Henry’s Fork and then heads for Yellowstone National Park. There, he signs on as a maintenance employee and spends the summer putting doors back on cabins that have been ripped off by grizzly bears, clearing trails and replacing light bulbs in the restaurants. He gets a room to sleep in and three meals a day, a small but adequate salary for his work and a lot of freedom.

George looks 20 years younger than his age of 79. His health is good and he still has a spring in his step. Once in a while he hears from one of his three kids, but they are leading their own lives. Besides, neither they nor his grandchildren know anything but Albany.

Three years ago, one of his kids, with wife and two grandchildren, visited him in Yellowstone and tried to convince him to return to Albany. No such chance. He is helping to teach a couple of Montana State University geology classes on what is important in life, while they search further for the origin of life in the over 900-degree pools in the park.

His world is so full that he actually missed a truck maintenance appointment for the first time in the 22 years.

I was very lucky to have lived that same way for a couple of years after I got out of the Navy in 1946. Everyone I knew thought I was crazy to be living in the Sun Valley parking lot and skiing seven days a week. Did I waste those two years? I don’t think so.

The son of an old friend of mine just obtained a Master’s degree from a prestigious college out east. His major was business management. When I asked him what he was going to do now, he replied, “I’m going to find a business to manage.”

Even at my age, 85, I’d rather be living in the parking lot than managing a business in today’s world.