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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Here is the top of the bubble. Proof that it has not burst entirely--but needs to. Here is Park City, Utah, mecca for those who live to ski. (Utah's license plates feature a figure on skis carving through the powder for which their mountains are known, and the injunction to "Ski Utah." OK, thanks, I will.) Those who live to ski are necessarily rich. One week of skiing here--lift tickets, lessons, lunch at the lodge--would consume the equivalent of two months of my family food budget. This kind of money is as nothing to the thousands of people who pour into the ski resorts of Park City. There are six of them; and this is just one town in one state. So there are, daily every winter, hundreds of thousands of people raining money onto the ranges of the Wasatch, the Rockies, the Catskills, the Berkshires. Once upon a time there were animals here, and silence. Now there is busy enterprise. Over it all hangs the persistent whir of ski lifts, and clouds of two-stroke exhaust from the skimobiles of the ski patrols.

The houses crawl up the sides of the foothills, grab on with mighty arms of concrete and steel. The pounding must have been ferocious. The sound of graders scraping away the soil to adhere the ribbons of roads that wind through the canyons and up the slopes; the vast condo cities biting into the earth, the huge houses times hundreds. The first wave of building here--the second and third have been ever more grasping and huge, making the first look positively innocent, though it was hardly that--was documented by photographer Lewis Baltz in his powerful and depressing book Park City. It revealed, starkly and with an unavoidable truth, the rape of a land.

It bends the mind to contemplate this many people with $4 million in their pockets to build second (or third or fourth) houses that sprawl to contain so much faux Mission style furnishings, vast beds and six bathrooms and echoing kitchens and several flat-screen TVs and Wolf ranges that are basically like having a Boeing 767 in your kitchen. The decor comes from Anonymous Central; the houses are owned by people who simply do not have the time to furnish them. They hire others for that. And these others forget small items like books: there will be none of those, though the Jacuzzi with multicolored lights and little waterfalls, and of course the gaming system and billiards table in the basement, will have been seen as essential, top priority. Perhaps you will feel an unnameable twinge, this is odd, I think, when you first notice the large "painting" over one of the four fireplaces picturing a village of colorful stacked huts on a mountainside, possibly somewhere in Peru, where a family of seven lives in a space roughly the size of one of the walk-in closets. But this is an irony-free zone: This is America, home of the free, the willfully ignorant, and the over-leveraged.

From these roads you can walk up into public lands (what has been left for everything else not already displaced by 5,000-square-foot shelters for the most important animals of all). At the top of the earth here the clouds meet the ground, under a wide sky. In the distance sparkle all the lights of Park City, and the curving lines of a multiplicity of ski runs. This is where the moose wander free, and occasionally after the human interlopers. It is a sight of supernatural power, this landscape. You may wish to come live here. With all your heart.

It is so mythic a place it might well be the scene of such a tale as that set forth in Hayao Miyazaki's fist-in-the-gut environmental fable Princess Mononoke. I first watched this elemental, eminently sad animated movie--it crosses the samurai epic with biblical allegory--about the battle between the spirit of the forest and the humans who will kill all other life in order to feed their own needs--upon returning from Utah. Is it any wonder I wept?

Maybe in the future, though, I think in childish hope, those massive houses will become communal living spaces for those who, displaced by the bursting of the unsustainable bubble we blew and blew up until it could stretch no more, cannot live anywhere else. We could form small units of people helping other people simply to live. Not to take more than is needed. And the ski runs will cease to be groomed, and the scrub will regrow, the wolves returning to the place they belong. They will do what they can to right the balance.

I told you, I am a child, lost in an animated feature where the bad guys look like they're winning, but in the end some hope appears. Always, always, hope.

This is not going to be all bad, you know, the bursting of the bubble. There are silver linings to all clouds, no matter how black and how full of hard rain.