I Live In A Mountain Town And So Should You

It’s a pretty terrible financial decision but it’ll improve your mental health.


With a real smile on my face for the first time in a week or more, I hopped onto the California Zephyr at Chicago’s Union Station after my grandmother’s funeral. I was headed to Colorado, Telluride specifically. Scott was already a day ahead of me. Baz picked him up in Grand Junction and got Scotty set up with rental equipment after speeding back to town. When my train finally pulled into Junction, Baz and Scott scooped me and we watched our Butler Bulldogs take on Joakim Noah and the rest of the defending national champion Florida Gators in the Elite 8 at a sports bar close to the train station.

I’d been wearing my BU shirt for more than 24 hours and, following the heartbreaking loss and the drive to Telluride, I really needed a shower. But when we walked from the car to Baz’s apartment, and snow puffed up off the ground with every step, and the stars glinted in a deep purple night sky, and the ridgeline silhouette drew the precipitous union of heaven and earth, I needed nothing, nothing at all in this world but to be exactly where I was.

That was March 2007. By October, I had an apartment and a job in Telluride. Scott had the same in November. The ski trip that previous spring had done something to us. When we ascended through the aspen trees on Lift 10, Baz told us about the town, the people, the culture, and life in the mountains. The hook set in deep. “We should be around people like this, live life like this, live in a town like this…well, why not this town?” Mountain town livin’ does something significant to the quality of my life.

Psychologists say that where we call home is a part of our self-definition, not just who we feel we are but how we evaluate our worth as an individual. We have an innate longing for community and desire to be a special, contributing member of that community. We seek belonging and distinction. Small towns offer this in bulk. A 2003 paper authored by doctors Stephan and Rachel Kaplan, entitled “Health, Supportive Environments, and the Reasonable Person Model,” links a person’s behavior, well-being, and mental health with their choice of home. The Kaplans contend that small town living makes people more cooperative, reasonable, helpful, and satisfied. The deep sense of belonging acquired from small town social interaction and community and the role the outdoors plays in the mountain town way of life enhance mental and physical health. Basically, mountain town livin’ equals happy.

Last Friday, I hiked to a lake on Indy Pass with a deflated Red Paddle stand-up paddleboard on my back. I split a bag of chocolate covered almonds with my friend Xan and we SUP’d around the tiny lake as sun shower droplets made the water’s surface dance with expanding circles. It’s was magical and relaxing and a great way to start my weekend. Now, I’m not saying that one can’t SUP in a metropolitan area. Denver has lakes, so does St. Paul, so do a lot of cities. But there’s something about outdoor activities and outdoor culture that make more sense, feels a lot better, and seems at home in a mountain town. Say you live in your truck or car in and around Jackson Hole. You’d be considered a passionate, thrifty mountain person. But anywhere east of the Rockies and you’re just homeless, friend. Your parents would lose sleep with worry and your grandmother would surely not sing your praises at her weekly bridge game. See what I mean?

Yes, there are numerous and obvious mountain town detractions. Groceries cost a fortune and the price of a gallon of milk fluctuates like gasoline rates. Liveable wages are, ahem, tough to come by. Having one job is scarcely an option. Having a career, even more rare. And housing, much less buying a home, is a total junk show. Exposure to other cultures, an eclectic friend group, more than a handful of restaurants, art; these things are tough to come by. But ya know what I really like? A three-hour long post office run and the Main Street conversations with neighbors that make any “town chores” take nearly half the day. I love watching films in our one room movie theater and the fact that the kids behind the counter at the coffee shop greet me by my first name. I love that I live in a hugger’s town. And well, the out-the-front-door access to the mountains ain’t too shabby either.

Mostly, living in a mountain town helps me feel like the bricklayer of my future, rather than a victim of it. After college, I fell into a metropolitan track that seemed inescapable, a white toast urban predestination. I worked a job I wasn’t truly invested in. I bar hoped in the city on the weekends, played some men’s league lacrosse and co-ed softball. I thought I was going to marry an Irish gal from my hometown, buy a house and have a litter of little ones, gain a few million pounds, get in over my head financially, and figure “it” out at some point down the road. I felt like I was watching my life rather than building it. But then Telluride happened and I became an active member of my story. Everything changed and changed for the better. For me, mountain town livin’ offers me the richness of experience, the possibilities of adventure, and the connection to community I felt eluded me in Chicago. And I think it’ll do the same for you.

My car has been parked in my driveway for more than a week without moving. There’s been no traffic on my street all day, except for a couple of folks walking their kids to school and headed to a mountain bike ride or a trail run. I’ll ride my 1970s Schwinn cruiser to the pizza joint tonight, grab a few slices and a root beer float, and grub on the curb while I watch the sunset paint the sky tangerine above the mountains that cradle my town. I’ll talk to some folks and we’ll smile and we’ll laugh. We’ll talk about skiing and how excited we are for winter. We’ll make plans to get into the mountains together and stick to them. They’ll ask me things about my life that only a true friend would know to ask about or care to. I’ll cruise back to my little pad that I rent for too much money and I’ll take a deep, contented breath and I’ll feel damn good. Because I’m home and so are you.

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Showing 18 comments
  • Hansel
    Reply

    Cool story bro

  • Sean
    Reply

    Telluride is awesome. I don’t get to spend enough time down there but is my favorite place on Earth. Everything you mention is completely true. The thing that gets me when we’re there isn’t the quality of life, although that’s readily apparent with the people you meet on the street, but the pace of life, the rhythm of it. Good for you for moving there.

  • jim
    Reply

    yeehaw!
    love the mountains but it’s kind of hard to think of telluride as “small town USA” …been skiing there for years now, it’s kind of a playground for rich people, not as bad as aspen luckily!!

  • Ken Achenbach
    Reply

    Great article. It sums it up exactly right.

  • Justin Housman
    Reply

    Dude I know you’re training for an ultra, but pizza and root beer float? At the same meal? Does living at elevation speed metabolism?

    • Hunter
      Reply

      yup

    • T.J.
      Reply

      So funny, cause it actually does! Around 8,000’ or so it’s hard just to get in enough calories, especially if skiing is a daily routine.

  • Dave
    Reply

    It happened to us, too…. came to visit. Fell in love with the place. Went back to the rat race… sold our house and moved here a year later. Best decision we ever made. Life is good.

  • jr
    Reply

    So how do you make a living in a mountain town?

  • Mo
    Reply

    How I WISH I could escape Chicago and move to a mountain town! I wish I could even just SEE a mountain before I die. The Midwest in general is not know for its mountains, after all!

    Alas, having been unemployed/under-employed for 10 miserable years and now with a family health crisis, I am trapped in this hellhole.

    I loathe it here.

  • Becky
    Reply

    In fact, living at altitude does speed metabolism…

  • Michael Patterson
    Reply

    The allure of a ‘Mountain Town’ is great but how about a few other locales…Keene Valley NY, Jackson NH, or Marquette MI. I have lived in Marquette. Great town with a university and 10 minutes in any direction the great outdoors.

  • Kooba
    Reply

    Nice story. We moved into the mountains in Europe (city of 6.000 people), from the capital of the country (+1 mln). Peace, calm, nature, mountains, fresh air, lots of trees, great trails for running, national parks, great small roads to cycle. If we had to work there stationary it would be extremely difficult to live a life as we want, because the paycheck would be half or even one third of our “normal” previously, so what we’re doing is working on different projects, doing our own events and working remotely. I work mainly for a running magazine, one day I just went to the office and said that I wanna move out south (ca. 400 km) and asked if it’s ok that I work from there and come to the office once a month. We agreed to try, but it’s been 18 monts now and everything works smoothly. I recommend looking for a job that can be done from anywhere. It would be perfect for someone like you 😉

  • Allen Law
    Reply

    glad you’re happy and t-ride is sweet, but movie star mecca resort does not equal quaint mountain town

  • Dirk Funk
    Reply

    Sorry, the mountains are full! Stay where you are.

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    Indeed, T-ride is beautiful. Think back to 1980. We were ‘poor white folk’ in our 30s and we wanted a house or land. Thus, we had to leave T-ride.
    At the time, we looked into Ouray, but declined. Ditto Joseph Oregon. Either probably would have worked out well.
    Instead, we found a small town in the West Kootenays in BC. Selkirk mountains and snow. Simple life, easy pace, absolutely no bling. Inexpensive housing — our 1980s mortgage payments were about Cdn $100 per month. For me, that was one of the best decades of my life. In the 1990s, we moved on to Missoula(great mtn city) and then to the rural woods near Victoria BC (mtns and sea close by).
    Michael Peterson, I’m with you, there are many beautiful mtn towns in the vast expanse of this continent.

  • Jeff Fujita
    Reply

    I live in a trailer and the trailer gets parked in or near small towns. I would include canyon towns having similar characteristics, like Escalante, pop. 800: no stop light, no shopping mall, two gear shops, and no garish sales pitches for materialism…just open space beyond the buildings. I haven’t thought of car pool lanes, downtown plazas, or congested resorts in a few years now. Like Cheers, almost everyone knows my name and vice-versa. Yes, in small towns everyone can know your business but I’ll take the trade-off – friends for all things outdoors and the unknown corners in life.

  • KP Travers
    Reply

    “I became an active member of my story.”
    Awesome.

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