Park City, Utah: A Houston in the Rockies?
When it comes to wintertime destinations, Houston will always have a special place in its heart for Aspen and Vail, where crisp, January mornings on the slopes resemble nothing so much as Saturday afternoons at Central Market. But Park City, that tiny outpost of culture and world-class skiing in the Utah Rockies, is fast becoming an expat colony of its own thanks to Houstonia’s movers and shakers, who’ve begun stumping for the place in earnest. Indeed, one local couple’s invite last summer induced no fewer than a hundred Houstonians to make the trek northward, many with only a limited knowledge of the former silver-mining town less than an hour east of Salt Lake City. For them, Park City had hitherto been something to glimpse in the background while watching bobsled runs at the 2002 Winter Olympics, or in B-roll footage of the Sundance Film Festival on Entertainment Tonight.
What they found was a town that had none of Aspen’s attitude or Vail’s venality. Park City was instead a nice place, a place neither self-important nor bombastic nor cutthroat. A place very much like Houston, in other words, or at least how Houston imagines itself to be.
Later in the summer, however, a very different Park City began to emerge. Park City Mountain Resort, a local institution for 50 years, became embroiled in a most unusual legal battle. In brief, the resort, which owned lifts and lodges but not its own ski slopes, had a longstanding sweetheart lease arrangement with the company that does. Or at least they did until this year, when Park City’s general manager, in what she termed a “clerical error,” forgot to renew the lease until two days after it expired. What followed was a nasty fight in the courts between two local heavyweights. Lawsuits were filed, eviction notices were issued. There were threats of chairlifts being ripped out and snowmaking equipment destroyed.
It was a potential public relations nightmare for a town that has always been thought of as serenity incarnate, an 8,000-foot respite from sea-level brutality. (Sundance may be the only film festival in the world known for its relaxed vibe.) The tension was palpable when we paid a visit to the resort in October. On the hillsides, the disputed slopes sat forlorn amid the poplar trees, their leaves a shivering gold in the wind. Park City’s famed alpine coaster, not to mention its mountain bike trails and coffee shop, seemed oddly quiet—even for October, even for a town that prides itself on quiet, that owes its popularity to short-ish lift lines and easy last-minute restaurant reservations.
But it was also the case that Park City was slowly returning to itself, and in a way that might soon make it even more alluring for winter sports–loving Houstonians. The noisy squabbling of summer had been silenced finally, ironically, by one of the loudest voices around, Vail Resorts. The Colorado firm, a giant in the industry, purchased Park City Mountain in September and resolved the resort’s disputes with its landlord. That’s significant, because Vail already owns the adjacent Canyons Resort. If, as seems likely, Park City and Canyons are ultimately fused via lifts and the like, the little silver-mining town in the Wasatch Mountains will become home to the largest ski resort in America. (Already, skiers have the option this winter of purchasing single- or multi-day lift tickets valid at both Canyons and Park City Mountain.) Thus might Park City become even more like Houston, with its complicated love of dreams both big and small.
In a way, Sundance embodies this same contradiction. Begun decades ago as a small, intimate showcase for independent films, it is now the largest festival of its kind in the country, playing host to some 50,000 movie fans each January. The festival has become so big, in fact, it now has its own small festival to compete with, Slamdance, which runs simultaneously and enjoys a reputation for attracting edgy work by new and emerging filmmakers. This month, the two festivals are poised to do what they do every winter at this time, which is to transform Park City into the strangest ski town in the world. Overnight, paparazzi will descend on Main Street and begin stalking anyone vaguely Hollywood-looking in a fur hat, swanky parties will pop up in unsuspecting parking garages, and the ski slopes will instantly empty. (It’s a little-known fact that Park City is a skier’s paradise during Sundance.)
And then, a couple of weeks later, it will all be gone—all of it, the traffic, the William Morris agents, Demi and Kristen and Keira. The 14-foot-long ice bar at the Waldorf Astoria will return to its rightful place as one of Park City’s most interesting attractions (complete with ice furniture covered in fur throws). The town’s cultural epicenter will no longer be the Egyptian Theater but the Goldener Hirsch Inn, a Bavarian-ish chalet with an in-house yodeler leading sing-alongs at the bar. Deer Valley’s favorite spectator sport will not be celebrity-watching but World Cup freestyle, its annual jaw-dropping spectacle of aerials and moguls by moonlight. And tables at Shabu and Chimayo and The Mariposa will mercifully become available again, as Park City says goodbye to the spotlight with a shrug and returns to the once and future niceness for which it is rightly known.