FEATURE: Hole Romance

By on December 1, 2015

Exploring the female experience of dating in a mountain town.

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Jackson Hole, WY – “This is a ski town. What do you expect?” Charley Turner, 27, works at Teton Village and spends his free time cooking, reading, playing video games and exploring the mountains. Turner says that while he appreciates the company his girlfriend gives him, he doesn’t want to be tied down or to take anything too seriously.

Turner is a longhaired, Pink Floyd-loving, James Franco look-alike who has spent the last two winters in Jackson working the slopes and “f*cking the mountain.” He loves to drink. He loves women. He loves novelty and adventure, but he says nothing compares to snowboarding. Is it possible that he hasn’t met the right woman? Had the best sex? No. “Snowboarding is better than sex,” he says.

“I’m real laid back about relationships,” Turner said. “I don’t like talking about ‘us’ all the time. I don’t like emotional obligations or being expected to do shit, and being made to feel shitty if I don’t. I don’t know why things have to be so complicated.”

Turner is also using this winter to climb out of a financial hole. He is seemingly among a large number of people in town for the winter to “work the mountain.” His ski buddy from Vail, Zack Shelton, 23, just moved to Jackson for the winter, too. Shelton is single and open to the possibility of a relationship but nothing too serious. His primary focus is snowboarding and working at the resort.

“If you’ve never had to commit to anything serious before it seems kinda scary,” Shelton said. “Commitment scares a lot of people. I think that’s the big part of it.”

Ski towns are the modern, real-life equivalent of Never Never Land and hence, seem to attract certain playful, childlike personalities. But is the concept of Peter Pan Syndrome unique to mountain and ski towns, or is it a modern, generational phenomenon that just so happens to manifest more obviously in these areas?

According to a 2007 study from University of Granada, “Peter Pan Syndrome affects people who do not want or feel unable to grow up; people with the body of an adult but the mind of a child. They don’t know how to or don’t want to stop being children and start being mothers or fathers.”

The syndrome is not considered a psychopathology, given the World Health Organization has not recognized it as a psychological disorder. However, an increasingly large number of adults and, most noticeably, men, in Western society are exhibiting emotionally immature behavior. They are unable to make the shift to adulthood, or at least what society has defined as such.

Back in the day

Kim Springer, 61, has been living in Jackson for three decades. She’s a wife, mother, part-time librarian and avid cross-country skier. Springer says the town no longer offers a favorable dynamic for single females. “It’s changed quite a bit. When I moved here in ’84 it was starting to change, but it was still predominantly male,” recalled Springer, who said it appeared then that there were about 10 men to every woman.

“Now I hear there are so many great women in the valley and the guys, well, all they want to do is ski,” she lamented. Women in their 30s, Springer says, complain to her that there aren’t any suitable mates, whereas it used to be that there were men complaining that there weren’t any women. Whether it was less access to the valley or the intense and rugged winters, Jackson was a “nasty place to be and hard to get to,” so finding a date, she said, was a man’s problem.

Raised in Jackson Hole, Byron Tomingas is a 60-something guitarist, librarian, mountaineer and bachelor.  When asked about modern love in Jackson, Tomingas began to reminisce on the way things were when he was a teenager. Tomingas believes dating has changed a great deal over the years in small ski towns like Jackson. He recalls that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, teenagers had every job in town.  He got his first guitar when he was 13, began playing in bands, meeting girls, and working in gas stations and grocery stores, even helping with the construction that would comprise some of Teton Village.

He has noticed that there aren’t as many teens taking summer jobs and there really isn’t a good gathering spot for young couples now.

Tomingas is concerned for young people today trying to build connections – friendships as well as romantic partnerships. He thinks that besides Tinder and other social media options, there are very few places to meet someone outside of sports, such as ski resorts or athletic clubs/groups. This seems to be the one thing that, over the years, has remained a consistent connecting point for men and women: a love for the outdoors and athletic pursuits.

151202CoverFeat-2_origThe numbers favor females

Jon Birger is the author of “Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game.”  To aid his research, he hired the Census numbers-cruncher used by The New York Times (a researcher at Queens College) to create custom Census data sets.

Birger says that the dating demographics in Wyoming, generally, and Teton County in particular, are more favorable for women than the national numbers. Nationally, there are more women than men, and more educated women than men, but “ski towns tend to be disproportionately male because the skiing industry is so male,” Birger said. “[In my book], you’ll find an anecdote about a woman who left NYC for Aspen after years of NYC dating hell. Two weeks after arriving in Aspen, she met her future husband.”

Jennifer Schaffer recently penned an article for Vice: “It’s not your imagination, single women: There are literally not enough men out there.” She explains that many women are transforming their state of mind regarding the need to be in romantic relationships. Perhaps this is because they realize that they don’t need a man to make them happy, or because they do not need to rely on men for financial support.

Birger believes that women are more independent now and deciding to live more unconventional lives because they are pursuing higher education and professions that are a significant part of their lives. That leaves less time for traditional romantic roles. Today, when people come together, Birger says, they are less likely to just fall into a traditional husband-and-wife dynamic, but instead are maintaining their individual interests over the compromises of a conventional partnership.

Who to lean on

Carol* has lived in Jackson since the 1970s. She met her husband working at the hospital three decades ago, after years of “dating scoundrels and ragamuffins.” Her husband has become her best friend and travel companion. But times they are a changing. She believes one of the primary problems with meeting someone interested in a serious relationship in Jackson is that “ski towns are expensive and tend to make people more self-centered; [some people here] don’t have the financial room in their lives for someone else.”

Carol argues that a lot of women at this point have “had it” with men and are independently wealthy enough to “go it alone.”

“They would like to have a companion but are not willing to put up with any bullshit. If you become so focused on snowboarding or whatever, you don’t want to relinquish any of your time or energy for a relationship,” she said. It usually takes a handful of “experiences” to really figure out what you want.

At the younger end of the spectrum, Madison*, 27, is someone doing just that. The Jackson barista has identified a strong support system among her female friends. Every morning, she says middle-aged bachelors come in for coffee and to chat with a pretty girl. “I think they’re lonely,” she said. Madison believes that when you’re ready to find a secure relationship then you’ll project that confidence and readiness to the world. In the meantime, she says Jackson is a place for experimentation and self-growth.

“The guys in Jackson seem to have their own agenda, and finding a female counterpart doesn’t seem to fit into that equation,” she said. Outside of Teton County, most of Madison’s friends have corporate jobs, marriages and mortgages; they’ve started having children and saving for college. Madison says that she, personally, is not interested in that routine lifestyle right now, and prefers “busting ass for the thrill of adventure” on her days off. “This is pretty typical for most of the young residents in Jackson and collectively why we all live here,” she said. But Madison wonders why it is so hard to find a partner in crime to do it with. All of her dating experiences in Jackson seem to meld into one collaborative routine.

“The calls or texts are only received after the sun goes down, after the rods or skis have been put away and the fun has been had,” she said. “The ‘bros before hoes’ phase is magnified, so I have my crew of the most incredible women that share the same mentality on the opposing end: ‘chicks before dicks.’” She calls these friends her “ride or die” crew. They’re ladies she can laugh and cry with, roam the mountains and get lost in the woods with. “We are no longer waiting for the invite to catch that cutty, we are going out there and teaching ourselves. It’s empowering and puts blinders on the ‘Pans’ in town,” she said.

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Running toward adventure or running from pain?

 In the book “All About Love,” Bell Hooks attempts to transcend the idealistic  noun “love” and reinvent the term as a verb, razing the cultural paradigm of romantic longing and lovelessness. “When we face pain in relationships our first response is often to sever bonds rather than to maintain commitment,” she writes.

 So perhaps Jacksonites aren’t running from complication as much as from pain. “Widespread addiction in both poor and affluent communities is linked to our psychotic lust for material consumption. It keeps us unable to love. Fixating on wants and needs … addicts want release from pain; they are not thinking about love,” Hooks writes.

Eliza*, 35, is a self-employed oil painter and has been skiing, hiking and dating in Jackson Hole for almost 10 years. Like Hooks, she thinks people run from the idea of love when they have had trouble finding or keeping healthy relationships.

She says people come to Jackson seeking adventure but also to escape reality, though those folks are more transient. “The people that come here running toward something instead of away from something are the people that stick around,” she said.

While many people may physically run away from problems, Eliza says others run away by trying to maintain a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable. “Young women feel an urge to ‘heal everything’ and ‘fix everything.’ When they’re confident with themselves they’ll find someone who isn’t looking to feel good in the moment but is ready for a real commitment. Complaining about someone who isn’t ready for that is like complaining that McDonald’s isn’t real food: pointless,” she said.

Better than the average guy

Kim Kircher is a writer and skier from Crystal Mountain, Washington, who acknowledges that ski towns are inundated with Peter Pans, but when a woman meets a guy who is ready to commit in a ski town, he’s better than the average man.

“My experience is a bit unique. I am a long-time ski patroller for 26 years. I was married for the first seven years or so, then got divorced. I dated a few guys during that time, but not many because I was picky. I dated one guy for a year, then he just left and that was that. After that I was also like, ‘Who needs a guy when you have a dog and a pickup truck?’ I figured I might try to date a weekend warrior, but I was done with guys from the ski area.”

Then Kircher met her husband John, the GM and owner of Crystal. “At first, I didn’t even think we should date because I knew that if it didn’t work out, it would be awkward. But he was everything a girl like me would want—athletic, charming, handsome, adventurous, and most importantly, can hold an intelligent conversation. I’m not saying that these Peter Pan guys aren’t all that too. But the difference was that John was really into me. He wasn’t afraid of commitment any more than I was. The ski area that I love dearly is his baby.” Kircher thinks the age gap between her and John helps, too. She is 44 and he’s 57.

Kircher, like many who get talking on this topic, believes ski areas attract a certain type of person. The women tend to be less conventional in their dreams and desires. Many ski town females want to break out of long-held expectations. They seem to want to do big things, maybe live the life they’ve always dreamed of but were afraid to try.

“Patrol gals, for instance, tend to be strong and forthright and badass,” Kircher said. “Also, in my experience, it seems like the women I meet from ski areas are this amazing mix of get-’er-done efficiency and giddy enthusiasm that draws people to them. Want something done? Ask a ski town gal.”

Kircher says ski area men, on the other hand, tend to be looking for an escape of a different sort. Many are just looking for a diversion from their lives for a few years and plan to return to ‘normal life’ once they settle down. “I’ve seen this a lot, but of course it’s a generalization. I also know quite a few couples that have met at Crystal, gotten married, and stayed until at least they had kids and needed to be closer to school, family, community. It just seems that the women who move to a ski town are in it for the long haul.”

But Kircher says she sees many of these women finding themselves with underachievers. Or, there are plenty of single guys, but women don’t want to date them. “That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of great guys out there. I found one myself. But I’ve also noticed women who’d rather be single than be with a guy that doesn’t bring much to the table—emotionally, physically or financially. There’s the old saying, ‘the odds are good, but the goods are odd.’ I still think that might be true in some places.”

Still, Kircher acknowledges that there are perhaps plenty of great guys in ski towns, but they just don’t seem to stay single for very long. “That’s just been my experience in my small corner of the ski industry,” she said.

The hook-up generation

In the book “Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find—and keep—love,” Amir Levine and Rachel Heller point out that the majority of daters on Tinder and out socializing at the bars have “avoidant” dating personality. A secure dater is in a relationship for longer and spends less time in the dating pool, so folks in the singles pool are left feeling that the majority of the people they meet as potential lovers are more prone to value independence over partnership, send mixed signals, and devalue his or her partner.

David Buss, a psychology professor, wrote in Vanity Fair that apps like Tinder contribute to a “perceived surplus of women” among straight men, which leads to more hookups and less traditional, monogamous relationships.

 But it isn’t just men who are interested in pursuing commitment-free relationships. What about women who prefer a fling?

 “There’s no commitment, nobody is willing to commit in cities or in ski towns,” New Yorker and Twitter personality Gagarin Zhao says. Zhao has visited Jackson several times and thinks that myriad dating parallels can be drawn between cities and ski towns. She says people in both environs idealize love and, while Wall Street guys look for perfection in a partner, mountain men look for perfection in their own “personal narratives.” But she thinks that women aren’t all that different.

 “I have so many guys to booty call but none I could actually date because they don’t even make it seem possible,” Zhao said. “Like I haven’t been asked out on an actual date in years, it’s just, ‘let’s hang,’ ‘let’s chill,’ ‘I’m in the area, wanna grab a drink?’ But I feel as though I’m also in that stage. I don’t feel the need to date anyone for real right now. I want to have sex with people; I enjoy the company of people I like and respect.”

‘Wendy’ regret

151202CoverFeatAlice*, 47, has been living in and around Jackson for 25 years. When she first moved here from North Carolina to Teton Village, she lived with a girlfriend in a room with four other ski bums. Right away she started dating her friend’s ex from the previous winter and was engaged to him twice before deciding he wasn’t the one.

“Jackson is incestuous. You don’t lose your girlfriend here, you just lose your turn,” Alice said, referring to a prevalent saying in ski towns. “My family doesn’t get it. It’s hard for them to fathom my lifestyle. They’re all married with kids. I think they feel sorry for me.”

 She said she’s not single for very long because she just dates the next person that comes along. She was never looking for someone who looked good on paper, or had an important corporate job, or a large wallet. Each engagement she eventually ended because the prospect of a long-term commitment felt like a trap.

“It keeps you young in a way, but it’s kind of wearing on me a little bit,” she said. “I’ve put off growing up—not taking on marriage and responsibility right out of college for 25 years. I’m trying not to take it out on my boyfriend,” Alice said. While she craves something with more stability now, she admits “it would be hard to live with someone at this point.”

“I didn’t have the wherewithal,” Alice added, admitting if she could do it over again she says would have a family. Alice says she used to think everything to death instead of jumping in and figuring it out along the way.

“I thought it was bravery but I realize now it was fear.”

Different wiring

Long-time Jackson resident Walt Berling, 61, says while raising kids here who are college-age, and working at the high school coaching and teaching, he’s seen plenty of dating dynamics. He said the ski town saying rings true: The odds are good, but the goods are odd. “It is a glittering generality, but like most generalities there is probably some truth behind it,” he said. “Beyond that, a resort town is centered around fun. I think as a surf town or ski town, the culture and underlying values can appear skewed. I would say another generality is that men and women here may be wired differently. We may be more focused on the physical, and a ski area would attract more that are inclined in that manner,” Berling said.

“The ski culture also idolizes the here-and-now risk in the present culture, because skiing is becoming more a stage for some than a healthy pastime. On the whole, though, people are people; both men and women come with baggage, a past and a dream for a future. Male or female, one needs to know their value system, and not expect someone to drastically change.”

Single and satisfied

Maggie*, 57, originally from Rhode Island, is a chef and masseuse. She moved to Jackson the summer of 1982 and ended up returning every year for seasonal work, dividing months between the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and New England.

“For a long time I cared more about places than people,” Maggie said, adding that there’s something special about being remote and working in small camps in isolated environments. Before the advent of modern computer technology, the community experiences were more intimate than anything a city could offer, she explained.

Maggie always thought she would be married five years down the road, but whether due to a “defective biological clock,” a lack of “relational blueprints” from her childhood, or years of working with kids as a nanny or in seasonal camps, she never felt the need to settle down. She sees Jackson as a single-friendly community where people value freedom and independence over traditional standards of commitment and monetary success.

“Back in New England everyone is married and has kids and serious jobs. I think it would have been more difficult,” Maggie mused.

Maggie’s resume is evidence of a life spent exploring the far corners of the world. It’s a resume that people in Jackson love, but back East would appear a testament of “mental instability,” she laughed. What Maggie used to believe was the difference between the East and West coasts she sees now may be a unique trait of ski towns: celebrating the individual.

“When I moved to Jackson nobody asked me where I went to college. What mattered was that I was a good person. There was room to be what I wanted to be.”

Maggie recently bought a small home in town and spends her free time reading, backpacking and trail running.

Don’t settle

Blogger and stylist Greta Eagan, 33, is a Jackson native who has spent significant time studying and working abroad.  Of Jackson’s unique dating dynamic she says, “It builds independence and forces you [in a good way] to create your own happiness that fulfills you before you make space to share your life with anyone else.”

Eagan said navigating romance in a ski town offered her a very important lesson. “It showed me that the individual truly is responsible for their own happiness and any amazing person they date gets to be an awesome added bonus, but not the source of their happiness. I think Jackson breeds this kind of strong and independent person, which ultimately positions us for success in relationships when we do find someone special. My only advice would be: don’t settle.”

Maybe another piece of advice would be not to wait for a traditional romantic ideal and to remain open to whatever partnership may arise that can bring a person some level of happiness and personal growth. Perhaps it isn’t a matter of finding a man to fill a void of loneliness, but finding a community to build confidence and camaraderie that will eventually lead to a healthy, long-term relationship.

Support equals strength

Jackson is developing fast but it’s still a small town with a vast support system. To make it here you need independence but also a strong sense of community. Kircher thinks that the best things about ski towns are the strong men and women who reside in them.  Instead of focusing on finding a soul mate, focusing on the great people already around us is what matters—and before finding a good man, women need to stick together, she said. Whether you are single or currently in a relationship, Kircher believes building a support network will rekindle friendships, increase confidence, and give life meaning without being dependent on another person for validation and livelihood.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how women can help each other. We are all part of a sisterhood, and while this is a separate issue, I think we can really help each other,” she said. “I’m sure in a town where there are few good guys, the gals might get a little jealous and catty. But in the end, it’s your sisters that you’ll bond with the longest.” PJH

*Many real names have been changed.

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