For a couple of decades I was in what I call “the envy business.” I traveled to wonderful places and wrote about what I saw and did for the sole purpose of making readers envious. I was pretty successful at it.
My articles were published in the national magazine I wrote for with accompanying photographs that made my holidays look even more glamorous than they were. I was not photographed. They hired models to stand in for me. They wore the clothes better. I found out later the models were paid more by the clothing manufacturers than they were by the magazine. I envied them.
The travel magazine I wrote for was in the envy business, too. Their chief—their only—business was inspiring readers to purchase travel gear and airline tickets and book hotel rooms and reserve tables at expensive restaurants so they could be like me. Not me as I was, dressed indifferently and prone to sunburn, but the tanned and fictionalized me in the photographs of attractive models wearing desirable and expensive travel costumes and using high-end equipment that could be purchased by following the instructions in the ads.
Not only did I not tell my readers that my hotel accommodations and dinner checks were far outside my price range; I intimated that elegant rooms and meals of peacock tongues were given to me as tribute, implying that achieving this particular destination made one an eminent personage or a holy man and caused everything to be free of charge.
I think readers knew the truth but didn’t like to read about it in our magazine. We travel to escape practicalities, which is why we spend 51 weeks of the year working feverishly to pay for what we did during that one week last February. Those intervals spent elsewhere become our dream landscape; the people who went there, our better selves.
During the Dark Ages, and to this very day in poor rural parts of this country, people dreamed about a state of paradise they could achieve by being obedient and good and by not leaving the neighborhood. Today we are granted this paradise periodically in one-week portions, during which we travel to a place where no one knows us so we can violate our credit limit and generally misbehave, thus precluding the paradise at the end that we never really believed in. Enjoy now. Pay later.
I intimated that elegant rooms and meals of peacock tongues were given to me as tribute.
I was the Satan in this arrangement. I engaged in temptation of innocent readers. I am racked with guilt over this, but I suffer more acutely from the arthritis in my knees, caused by decades of skiing moguls at Aspen and Vail and Alta and Stowe and Taos and Sundance and Deer Valley and the Laurentians and Lillehammer and Sun Valley and Lake Louise and the resort previously known as Squaw Valley. The sins of the flesh are hell on the cartilage.
Most people who read travel magazines these days read about travel in lieu of traveling. They can’t afford travel—probably—and who can? Or perhaps they are afraid of catching an exotic virus from an exotic locale or the exotic people who insist on breathing while vulnerable Americans are nearby. Or, and this seems the most plausible, they can’t imagine behaving the way the writers of travel fiction tell them real travelers behave, which is like James Bond, without the part about killing foreigners or being tortured by foreigners, but including the sexual performances.
Moguls were my only torture. I never slept with any of the natives while I was a travel writer, nor did I shoot anyone or feed anyone to the crocodiles, of which there are none at ski resorts. My suavity slipped occasionally. One time I was abusive on the telephone about the noise at the discotheque five floors below my bankruptingly expensive hotel room at two in the morning. But I wasn’t at these places to enact anything or exhibit prowess of any kind. I was there to observe and record. I was a stranger in a strange land, the land of fabulous wealth. Fabulous as in fabled, as in unreal, as in pornographic.
The sins of the flesh are hell on the cartilage.
Here is where I am supposed to admit that I never really enjoyed the meals and the rooms and the views and the servility, that it was strictly business, but I did enjoy them and I wasn’t especially businesslike about it. For all those years, once I’d gotten past the indignity of getting there, what we shall call “the travel part,” I actually enjoyed being a professional traveler. Apart from the wear and tear, I enjoy it all to this day, in retrospect, like a condemned man in his cell reliving his crimes. I barely travel anymore; I no longer have an expense account.
I laugh at my former self. I was laughing at the time. Unseriousness is the crucial gift of a travel writer. If one is too serious or too good at it, too self-assured, too blasé, the story lacks a necessary tension and suspense. Expertise is dull. The elaborate and unalarming mishaps I described gave my accounts a laconic self-irony. The wise-traveler persona wears better when it’s ironic, and the irony is accomplished by behaving foolishly for the sake of the story.
Yet I never broke a leg on the moguls. Never drove a rental car off a cliff, or died in an avalanche, or woke up in a room I didn’t remember with a woman I didn’t recognize. I never ordered shellfish out of season, because when you are a writer nothing is out of season.
I was never sick and never hungover. I was never actually jailed for insufficient credit. I was never detained by a foreign government. Most gratifying of all, many of the people I met and engaged with believed I was as elegant as the life I was leading, not knowing this was a life I led only one or perhaps two weeks out of the year. I was a spy in the mansions of the rich.
I do feel remorse, though, about the places I have ruined. Compared to how Columbus ruined the paradise of the Americas, I should not feel too badly about the hordes of tourists who followed me to certain undiscovered destinations and destroyed them utterly. The natives usually appreciate being ruined because it’s so profitable. It’s the first discoverers, who purchased a little property for pennies and built a neat hideaway and never told anyone about the place––they resent me. I seldom go back.
I was a spy in the mansions of the rich.
However, I am not responsible for the thoughtless way the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen has obscured the view of the mountain from the windows of the Red Onion. Other writers more celebrated and blasé than I have written about Aspen.
I take comfort in the knowledge that one perfect little knotty-pine bar in northwest Montana survives because I wrote about it. They told me they’d planned to demolish it and changed their minds when they read my article. I expect there is a little shrine where visitors can light a candle and pray for my return.
Now most of my own traveling is vicarious. I sit on my porch overlooking the lake and read about Arnold Lunn inventing the slalom in Mürren, and Hannes Schneider inventing the Arlberg technique at St. Anton, and Hemingway and the Murphys inventing the Lost Generation at Schruns, and Galbraith riding the chairlift with Buckley at Gstaad, and Hunter Thompson undermining the glamorousness of his neighbors in Aspen.
I’m certain my longevity in the craft would have been greater if I’d chosen to write about beaches instead of ski resorts, but I was never as expert at sunning myself on a beach as I was at sunning myself on an up-mountain terrace, which is a more arcane gift. My talent was rarer, like the air at 10,000 feet, and expended more quickly. I plan to leave my remaining cartilage to the Mayo Clinic for study, and my unexpurgated galleys to the Ski Museum in Ishpeming.
Eric Hanson wrote for Skiing magazine for 20 years. He’s written three books and illustrated for Rolling Stone, Outside, Spy, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and other magazines.