Posing for pictures for strangers, whether they are from Oklahoma or Ohio, has always been odd. Though I live in what many view as an Old West theme park, I grew up on the East Coast. In Disneyland, it is not important who is under the Mickey costume. Here in Crested Butte, a resort town sprinkled with pastel-painted storefronts and souvenir shops housed in refurbished log cabins, I sometimes feel the same holds true.
I worked briefly as a trail-ride guide, complete with ten-gallon-hat and fringed chaps. During that time, my image must have filled rolls of tourists' film. It did not seem important that I was a cowgirl from the Philadelphia suburbs and couldn't toss a lasso to save my life.
The snapshot visitors take home of me strolling down the street only captures a partial view of life in a resort town, the shiny side of our Western Magic Kingdom. They don't take shots from the window of the condo where I live, and for which I pay city-rate rent. It's a different vista from the one from the veranda of their bed and breakfast. My bedroom overlooks a dumpster.
They don't take pictures of my meager bank account. They don't take shots of me sitting through hours of planning commission meetings, staring at grim maps splashed with subdivisions that may be the future of our county.
A Crested Butte with ten times the traffic and thousands more condos, backlit by magnificent sunsets, may not be the Tomorrowland visitors envision, though it is one they are making possible.
Though not every resident literally dons the local version of Mouseketeer ears -- the snazzy purple employee jacket of Crested Butte Mountain Resort -- nearly everyone has a pair stuffed into their back pocket. Even locals who work in khaki Carhartt's on construction sites labor in a market with a value driven by tourists.
The company mascot of Crested Butte Mountain Resort is a polar bear named Bubba who chuckles along through the base area, posing for pictures with visiting children. But the Personnel Department realizes that not every employee is cut out to bounce around in a furry costume with a permanently smiling snout, or to teach students how to snowplow in a purple jacket. These people have been assigned, or more often, have chosen, to work away from the vacationing masses. They clean hotel rooms. They drive snowcats through the night around our version of Space Mountain. They staff the vast laundry center in the bowels of the Marriott.
Then there are those who refuse to work directly for The Man, in our case, The Bear. Many staff the kitchens of the restaurants in town. The dishwashers, or "divers" are examples of those who live off tourists but never actually have to speak to them. It is a strange symbiotic relationship. The divers are crucial to the flow of the restaurant and the tourists are crucial to the numbers on the divers' paychecks. In kitchens where I have worked, I've seen divers nibble on leftover elk steaks and untouched souffls.
But it's a small world after all, here in Crested Butte, and everyone has tourist tales. Often, they become like fishing stories, with guides and instructors trying to top one another's accounts of Stupid Tourist Tricks and Top Ten Tourist Questions. House cleaners and caretakers will boast of the Picasso or the extensive wine cellar in the homes where they work.
Often they are incredulous at the amount of money people spend. Sometimes they're bitter.
But the rancor is often cured with a bike ride through a golden aspen grove, or with a ski through untouched powder. The tourists themselves are helpful reminders of how fortunate we are to live in a place where thousands of people every year spend their two weeks of vacation.
So I sit back and watch the changing of the tourist seasons. Camera wielding foliage fans replace guidebook toting mushroom hunters, who are, in turn, replaced by out-of-town hunters in neon orange. Now families spending the holidays in winter wonderland have inundated the valley, soon to be replaced by a flood of drunken college kids on spring break. I've assumed my position as ski town Cinderella, cleaning the castles so to speak, waiting for Prince Charming (though most of the men here are Peter Pans, refusing to grow up).
I'm already pining for those few brief weeks before the ski lifts opened, that brief shoulder season when the bar is filled with familiar faces and nobody asks to take my picture. Us Mouseketeers are a lot less cranky when we don't have to be worrying about biting the hand that feeds us.
-- Shara Rutberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo (www.hcn.org). She lives in Crested Butte, Colorado.