Modern Romance in Never Never Land
By Claudia Martin
“This is a fucking ski town. What do you expect?”
Charley Turner, 27, works at the 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 long-haired, Pink Floyd-loving, James Franco look-alike who has spent the last two winters in Jackson, working the slopes and “f*&%ing the mountain.” He loves to drink. He loves women. He loves novelty and adventure, but 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.”
“I’m real laid back about relationships,” Turner says. “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,” Turner says. “I don’t know why shit has to be so complicated.”
Turner is also using this year to climb out of a financial hole.
Turner is one of a large number of people who are in town to “work the mountain” for the winter. His ski buddy from Vail just moved to Jackson for the winter. Zack Shelton, 23, is single and open to the possibility of a relationship but nothing too serious. His primary focus is snowboarding and working at the resorts.
“If you’ve never had to commit to anything serious before it seems kinda scary,” Zack says. “Commitment scares a lot of people. I think that’s the big part of it.”
So come with me, where dreams are born.
Ski towns are the modern, real-life equivalent of Never Never Land. The powder, the rides up the mountain, the countless days surfing down slopes, drinking beer, getting dirty, and disappearing in the mountains under a wide sky and moon glow. But is this 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?
“So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land.”
According to a 2007 study from University of Granada shared in ScienceDaily: “ ‘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 currently considered a psychopathology, given the World Health Organization has not recognized it as a psychological disorder. However, an increasingly larger number of adults are presenting emotionally such immature behaviors in Western society. They are unable to grow up. They don’t take on adult responsibilities. They prefer to dress up and enjoy themselves as though they are teenagers when in reality they are over 30 years old.
The times, they are a-changin’.
Kim Springer, 61, has been living in Jackson for three decades. She’s a wife, mother, part-time librarian and avid cross-country skier. She says the town isn’t what it used to be. “It’s changed quite a bit. When I moved here in ’84 it was starting to change, but it was still predominantly male.” She said it appeared to be ten 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.” Springer says her friends in their 30’s complain that there aren’t any guys whereas it used to be that there were men complaining that there weren’t any women. Whether it was the small airport, the intense and rugged winters, Jackson was a “nasty place to be and hard to get to” so finding a date was a man’s problem.
“Never say goodbye, because saying goodbye means going away, and going away means nothing.”
Byron Tomingas grew up in Jackson. He’s a guitarist, librarian, mountaineer and bachelor. Tomingas recalls that in the ‘60s and 70s, teenagers had every job in town. He started working in gas stations and grocery stores at 13, and helped construct Teton Village.
“In the summers Jackson filled up with teenagers from Idaho Falls, Ogden, and Salt Lake City, and every one needed a job. Of course they were all single. Dating in the summertime was fabulous.” The winter was cold and isolated, so it was the opposite, and dating someone from town was “like dating family,” so practically everyone Tomingas dated was from out of town or a newcomer.
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. Whether it’s the internet, cell phones or television, there are all of these distractions and less social events like dance halls and drive-ins.
Tomingas had a rock-and-roll band and played every weekend in town. “My brother and I had motorcycles and a water ski boat. That made dating pretty spectacular.” They would play on the weekend and re-cooperate on the weekend. When he was a teen people met at dance halls and now nobody knows how to dance. Unless you’re in sports there’s no good meeting place, Tomingas says.
His chief advice regarding relationships is to find a place outside of your phone, and then date the “type of people you really could be with long-term. It’s too easy to get stuck.”
Tomingas is concerned for young people building connections- friendships as well as romantic partnerships- today. He thinks that besides tinder and social media, there are very few places to meet someone today, with the exception of sports, like the ski resorts or running and skiing clubs. That 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.
A demographic perspective.
Jackson is filled millionaires and seasonal traffic from tourists. Then there are always the hardcore athletes and ski bums. Everyone is exploring the mountains and that’s the conduit that brings people together.
Jon Birger, author of “DATE-ONOMICS: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game,” 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 much more woman-friendly than the norm. “Ski towns tend to be disproportionately male because the skiing industry is so male. If you buy the 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.
In a recent Vice article by Jennifer Schaffer entitled “It’s not your imagination single women: There are literally not enough men out there,” Schaffer addresses the fact that even though there are nationally more women than men, as well as more educated women than men, there are also many women transforming their state of mind regarding relationships. Whether this is because they realize that they don’t need a man to make them happy or because they now in fact have enough external support from their educational backgrounds and professions not to rely on men for financial security, or a multitude of other reasons, cannot be determined for a whole society. Jon Birger believes “more and more women are deciding to live independent lives and not get married.”
Birger believes that women are more independent now and deciding to live more unconventional lives predominantly because they are pursuing higher education and professions that are a significant parts of their lives and leave less time for traditional romantic roles, like surrendering your independence for your partner. Today, when people come together, they are less likely to just fall into traditional husband and wife roles, but instead are maintaining their individual interests over the compromises of a conventional partnership.
Survival of the Richest.
Carol has lived in Jackson since the 1970’s. She met her husband working at the hospital three decades ago, after years of dating scoundrels and ragamuffins, and her husband has become her best friend and travel companion. 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 because they 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 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,” Carol says.
It usually takes a handful of “experiences” to really figure out what you want.
Experimentation and self-growth.
Madison, 27, works as a barista downtown. Every morning middle-aged bachelors come in for coffee and a chat with a pretty girl. “I think they’re lonely.” She says 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 of 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,” Madison says.
Outside of Teton County, most of Madison’s friends have corporate jobs, marriages and mortgages; they’ve started having children and saving for college. Jones 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 from work.
Madison says “this is pretty typical for most of the young residents in Jackson and collectively why we all live here”, but why is it so hard to find a partner in crime to do it with? All of her experiences dating in Jackson seem to meld into one collaborative routine:
“The calls or texts only received after the sun goes down, after the rods or skis have been put away and the fun has been had. … 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 the ladies she can laugh and cry with, roam the mountains and get lost in the woods with, and “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,” Madison says.
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. She says “When we face pain in relationships our first response is often to sever bonds rather than to maintain commitment.”
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 says.
Eliza, 35, is a self-employed oil painter and has been skiing, hiking, dating in the community for almost ten years. She thinks that, like Hooks, people run from the idea of love existing because they find that easier to deal with than the possibility that love is a real fact and it does exists but it just isn’t present in their own lives.
She thinks people come here for adventure but also come here to escape reality. “The people that come here running toward something instead of away from something are the people that stick around.”
She also notes that while many people may physically run away from problems that others do it 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.”
He’s better than the average guy.
According to Kim Kircher, a writer and skier from Crystal Mountain, Washington, there are lots of Peter Pans, but when you meet a guy who is ready to commit, he’s better than the average guy.
“In my experience, and that of my friends, many women in ski towns find themselves with underachievers. Or, there’s plenty of single guys, but they 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–either 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.
“On the other hand, there are lots of great guys at ski areas too. 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,” Kircher said.
“Ski patrol gals, for instance, tend to be strong and forthright and badass,” Kircher says. “Also, in my experience it seems like the women I meet from ski areas are that amazing mix of get-‘er-done efficiency and giddy enthusiasm that draws people to them. Want something done? Ask a ski town gal.
“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. It just seems that the women who move to a ski town are in it for the long haul, whereas the guys are just looking for a shorter-term thing,” Kircher says.
But this is 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 we are left feeling that the majority of the people we meet as potential lovers are more prone to value independence over partnership, send mixed signals, and devalue their partner.
Modern hook-up culture has one thing in common with the ‘20s flapper generation, Birger says. David Buss, a psychology professor, said 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.
“I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?”
It isn’t just men who are interested in pursuing commitment-free relations. What about intelligent women who choose to have intelligent sex only relationships?
“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 spent two vacations in Jackson and thinks that cities and ski towns have a number of similarities. She says both 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 adds 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. 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?’ ” Zhao says. “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,” Zhao says.
Are there female Pans?
Alice, 47, has been living in and around Jackson for 25 years. She moved from North Carolina to Teton Village with a girlfriend and lived in a room with four other nomadic ski bums. Right away she started dating her friend’s ex from the previous winter and was engaged to him twice before deciding that he wasn’t the one.
“Jackson is incestuous. You don’t lose your girlfriend here, you just lose your turn,” Alice says. “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 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. I’ve put off growing up- not taking on marriage and responsibility, just out of college for 25 years. … I’m trying not to take it out on my boyfriend,” Alice says. She craves something with more stability now but “it would be hard to live with someone at this point.”
She says she’s still “just dating” because she never “fell head over heels” and because she was so scared of being trapped. “I didn’t have the wherewithal.” Alice thinks that if she could do it over again she would have a family. 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.”
People are wired differently here.
Long-time resident Walt Berling, 61, says “ ‘the odds are good, but the goods are odd’ is a saying one often hears here. It is a glittering generality, but like most generalities there is probably some truth behind it. Beyond that, a town [resort] is centered around fun. I think as a surf town or ski town, the culture and underlying values could be seen by some as skewed. I would say another generality, is that men and women here may be wired differently, me may be more focused on the physical, and a ski area would attract more that are inclined in that manner,” Berling says.
“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.” He says people will continue to learn and grow throughout their lives, “hopefully, but you really only have control over yourself,” Berlingsays.
Single and satisfied.
Maggie, 57, originally from Rhode Island, is a chef and masseuse. She moved to Jackson for the summer of 1982 and ended up returning every year for seasonal work, divided between months in the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and New England.
“For a long time I cared more about places than people.” She adds 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.
While she 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 muses.
Maggie’s resume is evidence of a life spent exploring the far corners of the world. It’s resume that people in Jackson love but back east would appear lie a testament of “mental instability.” What she 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 just bought a small home in town and spends her free time reading, backpacking and trail running.
Greta Eagan, 33, editor-in-chief at FASHIONmeGREEN, and life-long Jackson native, had this to say about her experience dating in a small ski town:
“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.
“It was very important lesson for me, as 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,” Eagan says.
“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 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.
Build a support network.
Jackson is developing fast but it’s still a small town with a giant support system. To make it here you need independence but also a strong sense of community. Kim Kircher thinks that the best thing about ski towns isthe strong men and women. 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 says building a support network whether you are single or currently in a relationship will rekindle friendships, increase confidence, and give life meaning outside 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. 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,” Kircher said.
** many real names have been changed for anonymity