My family and I live on the receding slope of a hill beneath Iron Mountain in Park City, Utah. Our house stands bracketed by summer cottages, winter cabins, and shuttered homes, all to be occupied at the expense and pleasure of the tourists. The tourists migrate at varying times of the year, but manage to return with consistency. They descend upon the locals in town, strutting like roosters in their tawny cowboy hats and floor-length chinchilla coats the color of salt and pepper. They drive Escalades and F150s in the winter, white knuckles and warm faces glimpsed briefly through fashionably tinted windows. Wet snow, flecked with dirt and gravel, jumps back from their tires.
When I was younger, I wondered why all these strangers considered my home a destination – a place to go to, then return from. What purpose did they find in passing by, in dragging their fingertips along the surface without ever plunging through?
A tourism industry cannot exist without the tourists’ reserves of disposable wealth and sincere desire to experience something of the outside world. What this experience entails and how it comes to be accommodated vary, naturally, among the traveler. In my life among tourists, however, I’ve found myself concluding that this traveler’s spark, this wonderful yearning to feel beyond your tiny fraction on the human spectrum, is a fraud. There is a world to gain from travel, but the pursuit of a quintessential, post-card experience has made it impossible to have an authentic one. Those who are fortunate enough launch periodically from their gilded residences. They touch down now and again in a new location, indubitably changing it, little by little, to reflect themselves. They want a “local experience” but liberally impose their own definition. Out West they wear sheepskin jackets and drink whiskey in the ski lodge. The locals can be found snickering from across the bar.
But the money in tourism is dead serious. If a town sees enough luxury traffic, it will proactively adapt to accommodate more, bending its heritage and personality to fit a carbon-copy mold of resort hospitality. And those bold adventurers, out to feel the depth of humanity’s offerings, find themselves content sleeping in the newly constructed Waldorf Astoria, drinking the same French wine they could find in New York or Chicago, running in the same social crowd of doctors, businessman, and financiers as home. The runoff is thick and sweet from this oh so conspicuous consumption. White beaches and mountain towns have sprung up across the globe in response, willing to twist and warp until they snap into a configuration that turns a profit. Always, they hope to become the next Vail or Cabo, the next Park City.
Tourism has turned my town into a cardboard cutout. It looks like a holiday card and feels like the painted backdrop of a play. Main Street is lined with neat, wood-paneled shops colored in pastel, the windows framed handsomely with white washboard shutters. Taught lines of yellow and blue Christmas lights outline homes in pretty perforations. Clydesdales draw crimson sleighs from November to May. Park City is a mountain mirage, a facade that permits tourists to believe that the resort built by their money and credulity is an organic construction and a legitimate lifestyle.
I feel uncomfortable mentioning that we, the locals, desperately need the tourists. Of course, we will mock them for taking selfies on the bear bench, and yes, I Jerry-dodge – ski as fast as possible through the erratically moving mass of dawdling out-of-towners at the base of the ski resort – like a champion, but it’s painfully apparent they’re the lifeblood pumping through our streets. Park City was a declining silver-mining town for most of the 20th century. From 1940 to 1980, the US Census recorded four consecutive decades of population loss, a cumulative drain of nearly 75%. The first ski resort, dubbed Treasure Mountain, was financed by the last surviving mining operation, United Park City Mines. It opened in 1963, aided by government funds for the depressed region. This nascent tourism industry predicated on a lone ski resort quickly expanded, then diversified. The Park City Art Festival debuted in 1970, Deer Valley Resort opened in 1981, followed immediately by the United States Film and Video Festival (now known as Sundance Film Festival), and in 1995 Salt Lake City won the bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Park City was propelled onto a global stage, becoming an international destination for the beau monde. Upper-class families and trendy professionals followed eagerly. Sans tourists, Park City wouldn’t have made it this far. It’s easy to see the alternate reality – another sun-bleached Western ghost town just like the ones my football team passed through on our way to play the coal miners’ sons.
Still, I detest the take-it-as-you-will nature of the tourists. They know nothing of the drug addiction in our town, a byproduct of the wealth flooding into our neighborhoods, or the environmental damage caused by the never-ending development of condos and luxury hotels. No tourist has ever asked me about the sustainable future of my town and what happens once the snow is all gone. Why should they? They’re on vacation.
In time, everyone will play at being both a host and a traveler passing through. Even we, the natives of the most sought-after places, cannot exist inside our cramped bubbles without some curiosity of the outside; and as we come to other people’s homes by car, bus, or plane, discomfort lingers. Only those who do not live in a bona fide tourist destination can shamelessly tour, oblivious to the hidden sentiments that follow their passage. Naturally, we Parkites feel scrutinized and veritably anxious outside of our sheltered Wasatch Mountains. Our domestic circumstances afford us insight into the heads of our hosts. We walk the unfamiliar street in deference, knowing how it feels to see strangers wandering in a private and sacred space. It would be foolish to believe our paid accommodations buy an authentic experience. Rather, we’ve learned to see through the decorative veneer draped so very carefully over the raw, tangled essence of a place; to understand the reality masked by peppermint-painted balustrades and endless Christmas lights. But it’s hard to resist the allure of such a finely crafted exterior.
On occasion, I have found myself telling my friends about Park City. I mention the sprawling mansions, the rough-hewn stone and long wooden planks in the mountain style, and the four-star hotel where my family and I get dessert every New Year’s Eve. I talk about mountain biking in October when the fallen aspen leaves lie, a bullion carpet, beneath bone-white trees. Have you ever taken a sleigh ride? The words tumble out effortlessly, gushing. To my chagrin, I can’t seem to stop. I don’t understand why I always forget to mention the two 8th graders who overdosed on synthetic opioids last year. It slips my mind that none of my high school teachers can afford to live in city proper, priced out by the unceasing construction of vacation homes. What ever happened with the Treasure Mountain Hotel development that threatened hundreds of acres of alpine forest? The farther I am from home, the more difficult it becomes to see the desert through the swaying palms.
Many years from now, I imagine that I will visit my childhood house on Aspen Springs Drive. I will ski or mountain bike, depending on the season, and dine on Main Street. I will admire the storefronts, the mansions, and the evergreen trees. I will see what I want and ignore the rest. I will have returned, but not to home.
Jackson Burton has lived in Utah his whole life and still doesn’t understand why autocorrect thinks Utahn isn’t a word. If you like talking about skiing, tourism, or how disappointing the Utah Jazz are this year, shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.