A-Z Day 12
I recently had a dream. It went something like this:
I heard a honk. And then another. I walked down the stairs, still in my pajamas, and peered out of the window. In front of my house was a shuttle bus. It was empty, save for the driver. He honked again, impatiently. I put on my boots and coat—there was snow on the ground—and went outside.
“What’s this all about?” I asked the driver.
“OK, OK. Where we going?”
“You will see!”
I had barely sat down when he roared into the pre-dawn gloom. The streets were empty. Even the Interstate was abandoned. My driver sped furiously, southbound, clutching the wheel, his knuckles white, his brow determined and furrowed. I looked around the interior of the bus. It was dimly lit, and still dark outside. I could make out advertisements on the panels above my head, but the details were lost in the shadows. We exited the Interstate, and started east, toward the mountains.
We traveled through Provo Canyon, and to Sundance, a small ski resort where I had grown up skiing, hiking, and mountain biking. But the base of the resort looked differently than I remembered it. The small ski lifts were gone. And so was the lodge, which had once been tucked away in a thick stand of tall pine trees. Indeed, the trees were also gone. Instead, there was only pavement. The hill I had learned to ski on was a terraced parking lot, filled with cars. The Alpine Loop, one of the Mountain West’s most scenic roads was closed to public traffic.
“Why is the road closed?”
“It’s not a road anymore, it’s used for overflow parking.”
“Overflow? But what about the campgrounds and the trails at the top?”
“The what? Oh, right. Nobody’s used those for years.
“No hiking or mountain biking?”
“Mountain bikes were banned from trails a decade ago, and hiking and camping are just too dangerous. You never know what might be lurking in the woods. Rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, although nobody has seen a bear or lion in, oh, maybe 8 years.”
By this time the sun had risen above the mountain peaks. The morning light streamed through the cold air, above us Mount Timpanogos was surrounded in alpenglow. And that’s when I noticed the advertisements on the ceiling of the bus again.
Experience Mountopia™! A Division of Talisker Mountain Entertainment®: High-Altitude Luxury, Low-Altitude Cost.™
“Mountopia™? What’s that?”
“It’s this.” He gestured out the window. “And it’s a whole lot more. Follow me.”
We boarded a crowded tram and started to ascend. Nobody in the tram had ski gear. Some didn’t even have coats. People peered out of the windows and cooed at the scenery below. A child squealed in delight “Look how small the cars are!” We were only 25 feet off the ground.
The tram followed the route of the Old Highway (as it was now called) for a mile or two, before it peeled away, and made a straight-line for the summit of the Loop. Below us I could see meadows and narrow canyons that I used to ski tour in. But now there were cabins, narrow paved driveways, and a 7-11. A 7-11. Here? At the top of one of my favorite backcountry ski runs was a cell phone tower and a small wood cabin.
“What’s the cabin for?”
“That’s the top of the Sundance Mountain Coaster. 1,200 vertical of pure wilderness fun!”
The tram docked at the summit of the Alpine Loop. The small parking lot was gone. The tram dock was connected to a massive restaurant and gift shop. I wandered around for a few minutes in the store. Plush mountain goat: $27. ‘Coon skin cap: (“made with realistic fur!”) $35. A toy shuttle bus emblazoned with the Talisker Mountain Entertainment® logo: $19.
I felt sick.
In the restaurant I could have paid $45 for a burger made with “actual range-fed beef”, or $29 for a chicken burrito with “ingredients imported from very close to Mexico.”
Both the gift shop and the restaurant were crowded. I still hadn’t seen a pair of skis.
My guide urged me onward. “We’ve got another tram to catch!”
From the top of the Alpine Loop, we traveled northward. The tram descend low over the trees, following the route of the Tibble Fork Trail. I wondered if it still existed under the snow below.
“Are mountain bikes really banned from the trails?”
The look on my face prompted him further.
“People don’t ride bikes much anymore. There’s no place to ride them. And it’s hard work. A tram or gondola is faster and cleaner. And anyway, trams don’t discriminate against anyone. That’s one of the reasons bikes have been banned in the mountains—not everyone had the fitness or skill to ride, and so it left people feeling inadequate.”
“Riding a bike in the mountains is illegal because it’s considered discriminatory?”
“It’s not considered discriminatory. It is discriminatory.”
“What about backcountry skiing? Is that also banned?”
“All skiing is banned. Too dangerous. Too risky. And yeah, just like bikes, not everyone can participate equally.”
My mind reeled. I sat down, dizzy.
The tram came to a stop where Tibble Fork Reservoir used to be. Here was another gift shop, another place to eat, and more cars. The road in American Fork Canyon had been widened. The river was gone.
“Where does the melted snow go?”
“Holding tanks under the lodges. Come on, we need to hurry.”
From Tibble, another tram took us to the top of Mary Ellen Gulch (more food at the top), and from there, a smaller gondola traversed the ridge line to the top of what used to be called Alta Ski Resort. Everywhere we went was an extension of an enormous network of trams, gondolas, moving sidewalks, and in the summertime, jeep rides (“to experience the old west as it used to be!”).
From Alta, we descend in another gondola to the Old Base, where Snowbird was once located. More food, more kitch, and more cars. Like American Fork Canyon, the narrow road in Little Cottonwood Canyon had also doubled in size. The campgrounds and trailheads along the way had been made into parking lots. 18 shuttle buses ran 24 hours a day, (in addition to private vehicles) shuttling people up and down the various stops. The ride up the canyon, from top to bottom, all stops included, took 60 minutes.
“Let’s go! No lingering!”
We boarded another tram, this one bigger than all the others. “Up and Down, Non-Stop!” We climbed Flagstaff mountain, which was now filled with cabins and winding driveways, and then dropped into Day’s Fork. Day’s was once a wide, vast, backcountry skiing paradise. But now it was a sprawl of neighborhoods, schools, and grocery stores.
“You turned Day’s Fork into a community?”
“We had to. Silver Fork City couldn’t accommodate the growth.”
“Silver For—!” I choked.
The Tram terminated at the mouth of Day’s Fork, and from there we rode a shuttle bus to a busy hub of shops, pubs, bars, and restaurants, where Brighton and Solitude once were. At one point, the two resorts were only nominally “next door” to each other. But now the buildings and parking lots and people bled together seamlessly and relentlessly.
“This is Mountopia™’s busiest hub.” I was told. “This is where it all began.”
“Where what all began?”
We walked through the “Village of Trees” (I didn’t see any trees), to yet another tram dock. This one looked a little older than many of the others, but not so old as the ski lift chairs that were parked randomly as benches around the village (with historical placards!). The line for this gondola was a little longer than the others as well. But nobody seemed to mind. The line itself wrapped through a sort of walk-through museum, with historical photos, and important dates arranged on a life size timeline. An ornate banner read “SkiLink Throughout the Years“. Among the highlights:
December 2012: Governor Gary Herbert cuts the red ribbon at the Big Cottonwood groundbreaking.
January 2013: Construction begins
October 2013: SkiLink officially completed
“SkiLink!” exclaimed my guide, a sparkle in his eye. “This was the orignal connecting gondola, built in 2013. Talisker had to fight off the environmentalists, the skiers, the hikers, the communists, Nazis, and, if you believe the legends, even God himself! But once it was built, everything else fell into place.”
“It didn’t take long to buy up the other resorts. They welcomed the capital. The land came next. Private owners, the USFS, it didn’t matter, money talks. Once Talisker owned the land, the lifts, and the lodges, it took less than 5 years to connect all the Park City and Cottonwood resorts. When non-skiers started to outnumber the skiers, we lobbied the local legislature to ban skiing. We save millions in insurance premiums annualy. The Sundance connector just opened this year.” He was beaming with excitement.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Me? I’m Ted Wilson, Director of Public Guidance and Affairs at Talisker Mountain Entertainment.® “
“Come on, let’s ride this before it’s torn down and upgraded!”
“Next year this will be a full size high-speed tram, ride time will be cut down from 11 minutes to 7!”
Underneath the SkiLink gondola, once home to thick aspen groves, natural snow-fed lakes, and amazing ski terrain, were more neighborhoods, more driveways, more grocery stores, schools, and parks.
At the top of the lift, I walked along a (paved) trail where the Wasatch Crest Trail once sneaked through meadows and trees. I looked down into Summit County. Park City stretched beyond the horizon. Snyderville Basin had skyscrapers, as did Kimball Junction. I turned around to see Salt Lake City, but it wasn’t there. Instead, it was hidden under layers of smog, and smoky, clouded exhaust.
Nearby, some tourists were shivering in the cold. The father was reading from a brochure, “…before Progress arrived, the Wasatch Mountains were an empty, unredeemed, untapped blight, populated by brigands, lawless mountain-men, and dare-devil skiers and bicyclists. Before Talisker Mountain Entertainment® brought civilized luxury to these rugged lands, they were inaccessible and too dangerous for normal, clean-living folks to enjoy…”
“Wow kids, these mountain were pretty dangerous!” he said.
His wife quickly chimed in, “But not anymore! So there’s nothing to worry about!”
The kids looked disappointed and bored.
I was riding SkiLink back toward Big Cottonwood Canyon when I finally woke up.