Welcome to the ChockaLife podcast. Today my guest is Tracey Flower. She moved to Vail in 2005 and we’re going to chat a little bit about what she does in Vail and what kind of mountain town this is.
Tracey: Thank you, I’m happy to help and talk about life in Vail.
Great – so why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in Vail?
Tracey: I actually grew up in a small resort town in Michigan, right on Lake Michigan, really small town. Basically, no offense to Michigan, but I never wanted to stay there. I always thought I’d move west and I kind of always pictured myself in Southern California, with the water and the beach, having grown up on Lake Michigan. But I actually had some friends who came out to Vail in 2004 / 2005 to do a ski season, and I had just graduated college and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So I came out here and visited them and fell in love with the area and the mountains. They decided to stay that summer and so I just decided to move out and join them. (Laughs)
Easy as that, right?
When something grabs your heart you definitely know it, don’t you?
Tracey: Yeah, exactly.
Tell me a little bit about what kind of town Vail is. I know it has a huge reputation for many things but how would you describe Vail?
Tracey: Vail is, first and foremost – the mountains might have brought me here and the sheer beauty and all of that – but what’s kept me here has been the community. It’s a large resort town, lot’s of tourism, but at its heart it’s a really strong community. The people here are all very like-minded and just very warm and kind and it’s just a really strong community; which you might not see at first glance but it’s really powerful and really strong here.
Yeah, it’s funny that you say, maybe not at first glance, because Vail is a pretty chi chi town, it’s right up there with Aspen. It’s got its celebrity and very high end everything but, typical of a resort town, you have that really super community that is everywhere.
Vail is kind of interesting because it is right off a major freeway and in a wide valley, so you have kind of suburbs maybe, that you might have in say a box canyon town like Telluride or Crested Butte even.
Tracey: Yeah – right.
Tell me about where most people live and whether there’s a lot of commuting and that kind of thing.
Tracey: So we call it the Vail Valley – it’s disputed whether it’s really the Eagle River Valley or Vail Valley – but really it starts from the very bottom of Vail Pass and East Vail and runs to Eagle, which is a good fifty minute drive from East Vail. But people that live in Eagle consider themselves Vail locals. So a lot of the long term locals live in Edwards or Avon or Ealge, so down valley, we call it, and then do commute to Vail for work.
I live in East Vail. So that’s when I say it’s a really strong community, it’s kind of the community that stretches more west of Vail that really makes up your year-round community and schools and families and that sort of thing – more so than the actual town of Vail does. I’d say the majority of people live down valley where it’s just a little more affordable if you’re ever going to look to buy a house. Any friends I have, who have purchased homes, are all kind of in Eagle and Edwards. You’re definitely going to pay more in living and housing expenses the closer you are to Vail and Vail proper.
Is there a bus system that runs between those kind of far-flung towns to Vail?
Tracey: Yeah, the public transportation system here is fantastic. The town of Vail bus system within the city is entirely free. There’s an Eagle County bus system that will take you as far as Eagle (from Vail) for, I believe four dollars one way – so really affordable and they run really regularly. I have friends that will use it. Also being right on the I70 freeway corridor, the commute between Eagle and Vail is pretty straight forward which is also an advantage because you’re not climbing over any passes, going over any major curves or going from one highway to another, it’s all pretty straight forward. It’s also nice versus somewhere like Telluride where you’re really remote. We can be to Denver in an hour and a half.
On a good day (Laughs).
Tracey: Exactly, maybe not today (laughs) I just got notification that the pass is closed. I find it an advantage to be on I70. People will complain and say that they can hear the noise, etc. but I find it to be an advantage just because we get to live in a resort town but it makes everywhere else in Colorado accessible. Moab and Utah are all really accessible, so I think it’s fantastic.
Is there employee housing as well?
Tracey: Yeah, Vail Resorts is probably one of the largest seasonal employers in town and they do have some housing. Also, I think the town of Vail has some employee housing for their seasonal workers. I’ve actually heard here and there over the years – even a t-shirt company had an employee housing situation. So I think a lot of the seasonal employers have at least a small amount of employee housing. Obviously, Vail Resorts is the biggest employee housing, although it’s not the nicest, but it’s still affordable.
(Laughs) yeah, I’m sure that with housing being a premium right in town, the employer wants to be able to offer it to employees, so it’s good that they’re doing that for the workers.
Tracey: It’s really good. They work really hard to make the move easy for their employees, so that’s great.
So tell me the main reason you moved there, which is probably the mountain to begin with. What’s the mountain like?
Tracey: You know, I moved here in summer in May of 2005 and I ended moving here never having skied before.
Tracey: I really fell in love with summer before I fell in love with winter. The saying is usually people come for the winters and stay for the summers.
Tracey: I came for the summers and stayed for the summers. (Laughs) but the mountain is fantastic. It’s where I learned to snowboard and the mountan that I snowboard on the most. If you’ve never skied Vail or been to Vail, it’s bigger than anything you’ve ever experienced and there literally is something for everyone. – for all levels – for all athletes, and for the most part our snow is just phenomenal. It’s been snowing here every few weeks this winter – it’s been great.
Well the mountain is legendary for its back bowls. That’s something you don’t find at a lot of the resorts in Colorado – these giant back bowls that are pretty forgiving, wouldn’t you say?
Tracey: Yeah, exactly. The back bowls are what everyone wants to talk about when they’re here and everyone wants to get back there and ski them for good reason. It’s just vast amounts of terrain that, on most days, are really wide open too which is just fantastic. It means that on a busy day you’re going to have, because there is so much terrain, because of the back bowls, a lot more space for everyone to go versus at a smaller resort where everyone’s on the same runs and on the same lifts.
Right – that’s the thing, Vail does get crowded, let’s be honest.
But if you’re a good enough skier you can get away from the crowds because it is a gigantic mountain and you can go back there and kind of lose yourself.
Tracey: Yeah, exactly.
Except for that last run at the end of the day (Laughs)
Tracey: It’s true, it’s true.
So what would you say to someone who wanted to work there? You’re a long time local, you have what they would call a professional job there, but what about for those just moving there – what are the best places to work to get yourself established and maybe make the most money or have a great ski pass…?
Tracey: I would really recommend looking for jobs starting immediately with Vail Resorts, especially if it’s winter. For the most part, they’re always hiring for something and you’re going to get a ski pass. In terms of making the most money, maybe not so much. But there is the benefit of automatically having your ski pass and that’s fantastic. I actually still do. I worked on the mountain for years and still do some shifts up there on weekends for my ski pass.
I would say be prepared to work really hard in terms of when you’re working it’s going to busy and a lot of work and also, most people, especially in your first years here, end up with two jobs. If you want more income – more than just enough to live on – then most people end up with more than one job. The restaurants are always hiring. Those are always good opportunities to make some money if you have any waiting skills and that sort of thing. Come out with the attitude of wanting to play but knowing that if you want to play hard – you’re going to have to work hard as well.
Vail Resorts is probably the biggest employer and that gets you your on mountain job and ski pass. What are some of the top places to waitress or cocktail that are the hottest places that a local would want to work?
Tracey: You know a lot of the restaurants in the Vail Village are Vail Resorts owned and that could work out well.
Yeah, because then you get tips and a ski pass.
Tracey: Right, exactly. I’m trying to think of which one. The Tavern on the Square and Lion’s Head are the ones that are owned by Vail Resorts. There are a couple others like that too. And then, in terms of making the most money in Vail Village, The Red Lion is always packed, Vendetta’s is always packed, Los Amigos is always packed, The George is always packed. Some of those aren’t really high end fine dining establishments but they’re always packed so you got to think you’re going to make alright tips at the end of the night just based on the shear volume of people that go to those places.
Tracey: A lot of the places, I’m not sure which ones, but it would always be worth enquiring when applying for a job if they do any ski pass reimbursement, if they have a merchant pass program, because I think more often than not a lot of those places that hire seasonal help will have a system set up for a ski pass because everyone understands that’s what brought their employees here. So I think it’s always worthwhile to ask if they have a (ski pass) program.
So any tips on looking for housing or work if you’re a new person in town?
Tracey: Yeah, for work I’d say the three sites I’d check out are skijob1.com – where Vail Resorts lists all their postings, and then the Vail Daily which is our local newspaper – the classifieds there, most businesses will list their job openings there, and then also Craigslist, a lot of people list on Craigslist.
Also, the Vail Daily and Craigslist for housing. I’d also say if you find a job, and you’re applying for a job, ask the prospective employer about housing because that’s another thing, housing and ski passes are things that they know their employees need and if they have something set up they can let you know or maybe they have an employee who’s looking for a roommate, or something like that. But yeah, the Vail Daily and Craigslist are good places to start because a lot of people do post on those.
Because Vail is a little bit tougher to find a place to live, do a lot of the jobs want to know if you have a place to rent first? Do you have to worry about that kind of thing – do they want to make sure that you’re going to be there for awhile?
Tracey: Not really, I don’t think. I think it’s more finding the employees and then giving them recommendations on places to live or setting them up with employee housing. I think if you were looking for something more professional, employers might be more curious as to your long term plans for life in the valley. I think most seasonal employers are just looking for good employees. They’ve been doing this for years and years and so they know the challenges of living here and making a move here; so they’re really willing to help out in making sure that it’s a smooth transition and that you can have all the things you need so you can enjoy your job and your time here.
So you actually work in a professional job as an Executive Director of the Vail Symposium, what did it take to get a job like that?
Tracey: It took a lot of hard work. I was actually in the restaurant industry. I bartended on the mountain for years and years and worked a billion other places. My first years here I worked at every t-shirt shop, coffee shop, anywhere I could and often times two jobs at a time.
Finally, I got to a point where I decided I knew I wanted to stay here; but I also knew that I wanted a career, and wanted to make the fullest life I could. So, I started by interning for the Vail Symposium. They needed someone to come in – and we’ve always been a really small staff – to help with some of their communications projects. So I started anything that was a writing project that I could take over for them. I started one or two days a week in the office. Finally, a part time position opened up about a year and a half after I’d been working for free; so I applied for that and got it. I think I worked three jobs during that time.
Tracey: It was only in the last year that I started full time. Since January, I became Executive Director. So really it’s been four years of working really hard and being prepared to do anything and everything and making good connections within the nonprofit community. So it wasn’t easy. There were times when I was looking for jobs outside of Vail on the chance that something wouldn’t come along here. So – a lot of hard work.
Yeah, I would say your story would be pretty typical for a town like that where those jobs are hard to come by and they also want to know that you’re going to stay – because those are the coveted jobs where you can actually have a professional career, make something decent and stay there.
Tracey: Yeah, if a career is your goal and a career here is your goal – you really have to perservere and be ready to say yes to everything, and work really hard for nothing in order to get there. And, get an understanding of who the contacts are in the field and make yourself known to them. Figure out what the networking opportunities are and don’t be afraid to show the prospective employers that this is something you want and you’re committed to it.
So tell me what you think makes Vail unique.
Tracey: Thinking in terms of winter- and right now we have the Burton US Open for snowboarding. It’s an event that Vail just took on last year. It was originally in Vermont or New Hampshire: I believe it was an East Coast event. It’s a really fun event. They do free live concerts and it’s all the world’s best snowboarders in town. So that’s a pretty exciting event. Throughout the winter – there’s a winter kickoff they do in December – it’s a snow days festival and there are all kinds of free concerts and events associated with that.
Then in the spring at the end of the season, they do a Spring Back to Vail festival with more free concerts and that sort of thing. Honestly, those things are more geared toward the guests and tourism but they’re really fun for locals too. I’ve lived here almost a decade and I don’t ever lament those or get sick of them. I’m excited when they come. It’s not like oh gosh, this is going to bring all these people in town, it’s something that myself and all my friends get excited about and look forward to participating in – and they’re really accessible to locals, which I think is an important aspect. The summers are full of cultural events; we have the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival, the International Dance Festival – there’s a jazz festival…
And these are world class.
Tracey: World class, yeah. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra does a residency. They’re outstanding. We’re so fortunate living here because we can live in a resort town, a small town in the Colorado Rockies and still have access to all these world class cultural events. We have the Vilar Center that brings in amazing concerts throughout the year and part of it is that we’re really fortunate to be in a place that people want to come to, so it’s not a hard sell to get the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to come to Vail for a few weeks because it’s spectacular.
Tracey: Those things really elevate the quality of life here.
You probably have some world class nonprofits as well?
Tracey: Yeah, absolutely. All of those that I just listed are nonprofits. (Laughs) not to push my own, but the Vail Symposium has a speaker series in the summer and winter. We bring in speakers from all over the country who speak on everything from adventures that they’ve been on to hot topics – we have a debate on using GMO’s coming up. We do this series once a week and it’s a really exciting intellectual opportunity. We have some partnerships like the University of Denver, so it’s exciting to bring their staff and contacts for lectures up here. Again, it’s just exciting because we have some place that people want to visit. There are actually more than forty nonprofits in this valley which I think it amazing and remarkable. They serve everything from arts and culture to basic human needs.
Is there one quirky, really local’s festival – I’ve heard of a few, so far, in other places – is there anything, even in the off season that’s particularly really geared towards locals?
Tracey: There’s the WinterWonderGrass Festival – I haven’t actually gotten to it yet – but Crazy Mountain Brewery is one of our local breweries here and they’re super involved in the community, very active in giving back and organizing events, and they brought together a local beer and bluegrass festival. I think that’s a really local festival. It was in Avon this year and Edwards last year, so it’s kind of a down valley thing not a Vail central event. It’s by our local brewery and for local supporters of that brewery.
Tracey: It’s not all flash. (Laughs)
Tracey: Yeah, exactly – it’s beer and bluegrass in a park. I think down toward Eagle and Gypsum they do little events there just for families. I can’t think of anything in particular – but they did start a yoga festival last fall down in Eagle. That was pretty cool and unique and I think they’re planning to grow on that from last year. So that’s exciting too.
And the other end of the spectrum would be private clubs. Does Vail have a lot of private clubs?
Tracey: Yeah, Vail itself has a few. There’s the Vail Mountain Club and the Passport Club – a lot of ski clubs where you can store your skis and go in and get spoiled and have access to food and drinks and warm slippers, and whatever else.
Tracey: I don’t know a ton about them. I’ve had friends who have worked in them.
Right, right and I’m thinking they’re for pretty well-heeled locals, that have to pay quite a bit of money to join.
Tracey: Exactly, mostly locals by way of second home owners (laughs).
Right, right – exactly. Speaking of them – I really wondered about Vail – a couple high-end ski towns have a lot of empty houses that are right in the village because there are a lot of gigantic homes and people are only there maybe a week or two a year – is that an issue in Vail?
Tracey: Yeah, there are definitely – I’d say the majority of homes in Vail proper would be second homes. There are those that you drive or ski past and the lights are only on in them once a year. Anyone I know who owns property and lives here year-round, mostly live outside of Vail. I think it’s really rare to find someone who owns a home in Vail and is here all year.
What about some things that you would say are insider facts.
Tracey: I think one of the best things about being here is the access to the rest of Colorado. We’ll spend the spring in Fruita (Colorado) and Moab (Utah).
Right, doing mountain biking, because it’s right down the road, practically.
Tracey: Right. Every now and then you’ll meet people who’ve come here for their first winter and they’re thinking that they’re going to stay the summer and I always tell them you’ve got to go to Moab, you’ve got to go to Fruita.
Right – it’s mud season (in Vail) – don’t just leave without exploring all these great places nearby.
Tracey: They’re right there and it’s so warm and so beautiful. Last summer I discovered – and I don’t know if this is something people around here knew for awhile – but Eagle actually has some really great mountain biking trails.
That don’t go straight up a mountain? (Laughs)
Tracey: Exactly – that’s really huge, especially if you’re like me and really a beginner mountain biker because everywhere in Vail you are going straight up and down the mountain. Eagle has really started putting an effort into building and improving their mountain biking trails. Also, I don’t know if it’s a secret, but my very favorite hike in Vail is the Gore Lake Trail out of East Vail. It’s just spectacular.
Would you have to be a serious adventurer to get up there?
Tracey: You’d have to have some stamina. The thing about it is it’s a really long hike – about eight or ten miles round trip. The first three quarters of it are so gradual and flat. The last mile or so is steeper and takes some effort but the first portion is really gradual and fairly easy. I’d say you have to be prepared and give yourself enough time and it’s a long day hiking; but it’s just stunning. It takes you up into the Gore Range and you end up in this spectacular alpine lake. It’s really fantastic.
For those people that don’t really ski, would you say that Vail has a bunch of stuff even if you’re not that much of an outdoors person? I remember in Aspen, people would move there and they didn’t even ski because you could do so many other things there. Would you say Vail is similar to that?
Tracey: I’d say that Vail is similar to that if you don’t ski but you still want to get outdoors – there are so many opportunities for that. I honestly don’t even ski that much but I love snowshoeing and you can go snowshoeing anywhere. A lot of the trails are open in the winter as well as the summer. A lot of them are beginner and intermediate and you can rent snowshoes somewhere really cheap and get a map or recommendations from folks working in the store and go. There’s also shopping and that sort of thing. If you’re not looking to get outside and be active, I think probably Aspen does have more. Vail, I would say, you’ve got to do something and get outside.
So Tracey tell me what it’s like to live in a resort town as a single woman.
Tracey: Well (laughs), it’s not easy. Any girlfriends I have that live outside the mountains will say, “oh, aren’t those towns full of men?”
Yeah, the ratio’s really good if you look at it scientifically.
Tracey: Yeah, purely from a numbers point of view. I’ve actually even read in national magazines where they say “Oh – Vail Colorado there are so many men!” – you know that saying, “the odds are good but the goods are odd” (laughs) It’s challenging to find men who want to stay and want to be adults. You know, you find a lot of what I call, to be honest, Peter Pan Syndrome, which is guys, and people in general, who really don’t want to grow up. I think it’s out of the fear that committing to a relationship, and to a family, will eventually mean that they have to sacrifice their single life and skiing every day and that sort of thing.
Tracey: I can understand a little bit of that, I’ve been single for awhile and sometimes it scares me to give up my independence a little but that being said I have several girlfriends that are married and in really wonderful relationships with great men. Friends of ours – some of them have children – and it proved to me that it really is possible.
Wouldn’t you say that if you came there right after college you could find a million great guys to have a relationship with, but it’s the long term staying power, if you’re going to make it a life choice and stay there forever, a little bit tougher maybe.
Tracey: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You can find a lot of great short term connections but the long term are more difficult. It’s tough because you kind of get to a point where you wonder where you’re going to meet someone because once you get to a certain age you’re not wanting to go to the bars all the time and that sort of thing. The online dating thing, which I know in cities is a lot of what thirty something singles have started doing, is really tricky up here because it is such a small community. I’ve looked at the sites before and it’s a lot of people in Denver and other outlying cities rather than someone in the mountains. So yeah, I’ll have to do some more research (laughs) on what the secret is there. But I will say that if there’s a place to be single, there’s nowhere better than here because you can have a really fulfilling life and never think twice about a relationship or marriage or a family – not that I wouldn’t want all those things – but I don’t have any concerns that my life will be just as fulfilling with the people and things in my life living here.
So, I guess my final question to you is, can you imagine living somewhere else now?
Tracey: No, I really can’t. About a year ago, I thought really seriously about moving to Denver – mostly for a career and to try to make a real (laughs) life happen – but it really hit me how important it is to be somewhere that I love and how important it is be somewhere where I have a community. I have those things here and to be somewhere that’s so remarkable on top of that – you know, every day people say, “you look out at those mountains and probably take them for granted but they’re so beautiful” – and I really, truly don’t. I look at the mountains every day and feel grateful to live here and feel really lucky. Even having a job that has me in an office all day, I still drive home each day and think, Ah! This is fantastic! That’s the thing – people who end up making a life and a home here – it’s a place where you can really find a work/life balance – you’re family understands that and your employer understands that and your friends understand that. We’re not living to work – we’re working to live. I can’t imagine living somewhere with a different attitude. It’s kind of just everything for me. No, I don’t see myself leaving any time soon. (laughs)
Well, wonderful, thank you so much Tracey, I appreciate you talking to us today.
Tracey: Yeah, I’m happy to, this was really great and if anyone ever had any questions about living in Vail or moving to Vail, they can come find me.
Fantastic, thank you Tracey.
Tracey: Thank you.
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