Ski towns, despite the strong push for modernization, retain vestigial traits of a time long gone. Driven by an inherent insularity and the interpersonal connections forged by living in close proximity to a small amount of folks, mountain culture holds onto quaint ideals, including nonmonetary means of value exchange. Giving a six pack to the gal or guy that tunes your skis is the prototypical example, a transaction that seems like lore, but to which we have all borne witness. It is a much more effective incentive to excellent work than say, the huffing and puffing that often typifies the attitude of non-local patrons.
Trading legal work for plumbing services or fence building for produce or wheel truing for massage are not uncommon practices around these parts. There is never perfect equivalence in the respective monetary values realized by each side, but part of the barter system is an acceptance of this imperfection. Bartering is rarely a one-off endeavor: its tenets contemplate repeat transactions. Thus, any inequity in a single trade is smoothed out over time and a camaraderie is created that builds further levels of trust, efficiency, and satisfaction.
Given the variegated links that bind members of a ski town community and the simple fact that we all tend to run into each other frequently, it is hard to shark someone and not take a hit to your reputation. This creates a tremendous deterrent to rude or predatory behavior in local barter interactions. Bad actors are culled and, at least in theory, the barter system protects itself. But the system is in jeopardy.
Undoubtedly, the Valley is now being rocked by a tremendous socioeconomic shift. Skyrocketing real estate prices are crowding out the service and middle classes. Those that remain are plumb exhausted from working doubles and bearing an unnatural brunt of ire from patrons. Their faith in humanity being tested or destroyed, and bartering requiring some leaps of faith, they are therefore less likely to take the risk of getting burned. Many simply do not have the time or energy to link up in barter transactions.
Those working in professional services are now finding that they can charge higher rates to the new affluent residents than those that have been replaced. While this is a nominally positive development, it has deleterious long-term consequences. In the short term, and as relevant here, it creates an imbalance in barter values that makes a fair trade more difficult to accomplish. The percentage increase in accounting fees charged far outstrips a price increase that a retail store can implement.
The influx of post-COVID remote workers has untethered economic activity from this specific geography: a marketing analyst or web developer does not have a storefront to visit or an office in which to kibbitz. The casual, natural pathways of connection between residents is therefore circumscribed, further suppressing the ability of people to barter and to call each other to account.
Bartering may be old-fashioned, it may be inefficient when viewed through an economist’s lens, but it is one of those characteristics of ski town living that made making my home here special. The erosion of these exchanges is perhaps just an example of my sentimental refusal to acknowledge not only my advancing age, but the inevitability of changing value systems, of change itself.
I would trade in a flash the theoretical equity in my home for a return to a more tight-knit ski town society. Yet, I know that I am walking uphill against an avalanche in so dreaming.