Almost exactly six years ago, we went under contract on the house we now call home, which we’ve since paid off, the home we originally (and jokingly) called our “retirement home.” Though we already had our eyes on early retirement at that point, we really thought we were 10 years out at a minimum, putting us at a quit date sometime mid-2021 or later, and what we called our “10 year plan” was still really a plan to make a plan. We wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told us then that, only six years after moving in full time, we’d be pulling the plug for good. (We would have believed you that the house was paid off at this point, though. That was the whole idea with buying far less than the banks would have liked us to.)
Being able to get a house at all was one of our motivators of leaving the city and moving to the mountains. The city we moved from had single family home prices even then which would make us laugh or cry but never seriously consider paying them, and it’s much worse there now. But we lucked out in being able to buy here in 2011, near the bottom of the market, which let us escape the shared walls and nosy neighbors that come with condo life without slowing down our forward financial progress.
That alone makes the move seem worth it, and that’s not even counting all the huge quality of life upgrades that came with uprooting our city life in favor of small mountain town living. The cleaner air, the trail access, the mellower people. Plus all the money we save no longer traveling to ski, practically enough to roll around in.
But there’s a whole set of stuff we didn’t think about when we moved here, which is what we’re talking about today: What it’s like to make our home in a place that others call vacation, and the unexpected lessons we’ve learned.
Living In a Vacation Destination
When we used to travel to ski or to backpack in the summer, we were always instantly picked out wherever we’d go as being not local. And we were confused by that. We weren’t rolling up in a Range Rover and kitted out in the latest, most expensive gear (because you don’t need that stuff). We weren’t loud and intrusive. And we really don’t look like “city people.” (Take my word for it for now. We’ll prove it when we unmask in a few months.) We never got a satisfying answer for why we stood out.
But now, having lived in a place for a handful of years where plenty of people come on vacation, I understand. It is totally obvious when people are not from here, in ways I often can’t articulate. I just know. And I don’t say any of that to judge anyone or to lament that they come here. Quite the opposite — we feel lucky to have more services nearby than a town of our permanent population size warrants, and that’s entirely due to the volume of visitors. For that, we’re stoked and thankful.
Realizing that I could pretty instantly tell when people aren’t from here, though, made me wonder what it is about them that gives it away. It’s not how they dress, which varies a ton, what they drive, how they talk or any of the obvious signifiers. Instead, it’s in their actions, which offer a lot of unexpected lessons for our own early retirement.
1. Even people on vacation are in a hurry
If you drive around our area, or go to the grocery store, it’s obvious right away who is just visiting, because those people are in a great big hurry. Even when it’s dumping snow and the roads are all kinds of slippery, they’re the ones going too fast (and often ending up in the ditch), acting like they’ve got somewhere to be. (*Not all visitors display this bad driving behavior in the snow.) They’re the ones looking impatient that they have to wait in the long lines at the grocery store, and getting snippy with other customers, rather than just rolling with it. And they’re the ones getting agitated at the popular spots when parking is in short supply.
And that’s super weird, because it’s vacation. Isn’t this the one chance most people get to slow down? To move at a different pace, to breathe a little deeper than in the rest of life? And also, because there is literally nowhere up here anyone has to be, unless you’re in labor and need to get to the hospital. Sure, you might want to have a little more time at Pretty Spot X, and your time off is in short supply, so every minute spent standing in line at the store is a minute you’re not hiking that trail or sipping a beer next to some water.
But seeing that constant and nearly universal hurry, it makes me sad for all of us. That we don’t know how to slow down and truly relax anymore. That, even on vacation, all we’re thinking about is sticking to the schedule and packing in as much as possible. Seeing this play out day after day has made me resolve to move more slowly whenever possible. To remind myself not to act like I’m in a hurry when I don’t need to be. And it has definitely made us question how we behave when we travel away from home, whether we move faster or more urgently than necessary, and whether knocking that off would be good for us. (Answer: yes.)
2. Visitors don’t see a place the same way the people who live there do
Alpine ecosystems are fragile things. Just one step on high altitude soil can render it lifeless for many years. That’s why so many recreation areas in mountainous regions beat you over the head with all the Leave No Trace guidelines, reminding you to stick to trails or durable surfaces like rock and snow, rather than wandering off trail. And locals tend to be decently good about following those guidelines, because we are the ones who see the ramifications of human carelessness. But a lot of visitors disregard those guidelines, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t know them. Too many times, though, I’ve seen someone ask others to stick to the trail, and the response back has been “So what?” or “What I do doesn’t matter.” Which is an easy mindset to have if you won’t be sticking around to see what happens later. That’s just one example, but there are others — littering, pocketing rocks at landmark sites, generally leaving things messy. I’m sure locals are guilty of that stuff too, but on a different scale.
There’s the flipside of all of this, too, though, which is that most people passing through don’t give themselves enough time to appreciate the best stuff in depth, and they miss out on a ton of the beauty. Even in a busy tourist destination, there are plenty of places where very few visitors venture, most of which aren’t all that far off the beaten path.
Witnessing all of this has made us more intentional when we visit other places, careful not to come across as reckless or disrespectful to their local ecosystems or culture. If we all treated the places we visit as though we lived there, the world would be better for it. And if we all slowed down when we travel (notice a theme?), we might realize how much of the most interesting stuff we’ve been missing.
3. Visitors rarely engage with locals
So all those places that are the best spots? They aren’t secrets. I’d tell anyone who asked me how to get there. But no one asks us, or any other locals. It’s amazing how we can go to place and consult a guidebook or Google rather than the human being right in front of us, and more technology is only intensifying that effect. It’s not like when we traveled to Japan and had a significant language barrier. We’re talking about English speaking visitors who could easily ask a server at breakfast what their favorite local spot is, but we so rarely see that happen. We’ve always loved engaging with locals when we travel, and it’s how we picked our mountain town in the first place, based on the conversations we had with friendly residents when we first visited. Not all locals everywhere are down to chat, but when they are, we love getting to know them and what they think is most special about their area. It’s never what’s in the guidebooks.
4. We all need to put down the screens
Here’s a scene I have seen play out dozens of times: Car pulls up at premier tourist attraction X. People get out of car, phones in hand. Without looking up, people aim phones at attraction, snap pictures and then, all the while still looking at the phone, get back in the car and drive away.
I am as guilty as anyone of being attached to my phone. But so many people aren’t actually even seeing the thing they came to see with their actual eyes. They’re only seeing it through a camera and a screen. And that’s not the same. We all need to be more intentional about being present for those experiences in life that are special or beautiful in some way. It’s fine to commemorate the moment with a photo, but living entirely through the photo is doing it wrong.
5. Stress is a choice
Soon enough we’ll be able to share with you guys where we live and why we love it so much, but for now it’s enough to say that it’s stupidly beautiful, and the beauty should be enough to make anyone take a big breath, exhale deeply and smile like the Buddha. This is the epitome of why so many of us love the outdoors, because it’s inspiring, calming, grounding, and a whole bunch of other positive adjectives that have nothing to do with feeling more stressed out. And yet, I’ve seen some things. Not universally (#notallvisitors) by any means, but not the tiny exception either. People out on a trail that leaves most hikers in awe, fighting about something petty. A grown-ass person having a meltdown at a bar server on the mountain at the end of a perfect bluebird powder day. Aggressive driving in the middle of a Tuesday.
I know everyone’s got unknowable life circumstances, and I’d like to believe that all that stressed out behavior I’ve witnessed was because those folks had other hugely overwhelming things going on in their lives, and that just happened to be the outlet. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe a ton of the stress in our lives is actually stress we create, and stress that we can even bring with us on vacation to beautiful places if we don’t intentionally choose to set it aside. It’s a good reminder to all of us to look at that stress we feel, and see if any of it is of our own creation. And then let that stuff go, look up and enjoy the scenery.
6. Money doesn’t buy happiness
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all. We have seen some serious wealth living here, and we have met some seriously happy people. But there is no overlap between those groups. We know there are happy wealthy people out there, but it’s clearly not automatic. The research tell us that after we hit about $75,000 in income, additional income doesn’t bring much more happiness, and our experience living around wealthy tourists definitely bears that out. A good reminder for anyone who still had any doubts.
I’d love to hear from lots of you guys — are there any special lessons to be learned where you live, either by observing the locals or by watching those who come to visit? Or anything you’ve learned in your travels, other than that Americans are pretty easy to pick out abroad? ;-)
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Categories: we've learned