They call it the paradise paradox.
It’s a catchy title for the eponymous film, executive produced by 5-time Olympian, Bode Miller. It premiered in Park City earlier this year, and was screened last Thursday at Canyon Lodge—the latest stop on the film’s tour through mountain towns across the west.
Catchy though it may be, it’s a paradoxical phenomenon that’s been around for decades.
Here’s the rub—we live in a beautiful place. Such a beautiful place, in fact, that all the people who have consigned themselves to living in ugly places for the majority of the year will shell out a pretty penny to escape toward it for a week or maybe two and make believe that the high-country life is their own.
And yet, the high country, while home to some of this country’s most sought after enclaves—Grand County, Summit County, Eagle County, and our own Mono County—report some of the highest suicide rates nationwide. In otherwise “happy states,” these resort towns are statistically and disproportionately unhappy.
In school, we learned that a paradox is a contradictory entity that, in being contradictory, reveals a curious truth.
At its best, what the high-country, après ski, and historically illicit substance-lax culture has come to mean is Fireball-laden gondola rides until 4:00 p.m. followed by more partying and more boozing until an ungodly hour after that. Rinse. Repeat.
At its worst, what the high-country has come to mean are communities underserved by behavioral health resources. Communities plagued by substance abuse, income disparity, familial isolation, burnout—all of which might lead to or exacerbate existing mental illness.
The truth, as explored in the film, is that the crisis is reaching an inflection point. And the toll of these deaths in small, mountain towns is profound—when you lose a lift operator, or line cook, or the best rider in Winter Park (as the late Ben Lynch was) the whole community mourns it. The whole community feels it. The whole community must ask itself, How did we fail him? How could we have been more receptive and reactive to her indicators of self-harm?
The film, which is partially sponsored by Alterra Mountain Company, suggests worthy reactions might include providing free therapy for ski-patrollers at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, or having a quicker and more sympathetic finger on the pulse when it comes to intervention and treatment-based healthcare.
Eagle County resident and Paradise Paradox subject, Amanda Precourt, recalls waking up in a hospital room after her suicide attempt to two armed guards outside the door, and not a mental health professional in sight. So, then, how might we better allocate and redirect existing resources toward more healthful and sustainable alternatives? Precourt’s answer—funding a transitional, inpatient behavioral health center in her native Vail Valley.
That said, the film tends to overlook certain barriers to initiating effective mental and behavioral health solutions. For one, Eagle County (the film’s primary setting anchor) boasts a higher median income than most of its resort community counterparts. After all, as gregarious as individuals like Precourt may be, a handful of angel investors does not a sustainable fundraising strategy make. And while the 2.5 hour drive to a major city and metropolitan hospital system like Denver is no small feat, it’s chump change when compared to a Mammoth resident’s drive to Los Angeles city proper. Isolation has degrees, and money has commas.
Logistics and qualms aside, the lowest barrier to entering lasting change—and the one most culturally cogent—is mitigating the stigma with which we regard mental health. It’s putting to rest the tropes with which we characterize our own endured pain, and those with which we characterize the pain of others. That, it would seem, is the through line of the film.
I had a professor in college, Cynthia Huntington, that, in the wake of our campus’s pandemic shutdown, was hosting her first ever virtual classroom. For all of us, isolation was the theme of the hour. She said something that stuck with me: “There is no glory, or artistry, or beauty, or point to mental illness. For those who have experienced it, you know there is only monotony. There is only loneliness.”
Huntington, back in the day, was the poet laureate of New Hampshire. I trust that she was onto something.
I think a lot of us come out here looking for peace—looking for some redemption in that loneliness. Because, if we are to be lonely, we might as well do it somewhere that’s beautiful. We come here to be alone with our thoughts, or to ski, or create, or to write. We come here to redeem the loneliness for something worthwhile. Or, at the least, to live somewhere so special, it’s the envy of those we leave behind.
But then, oh God, it gets quiet. We’re alone. When the snow is this bad, and it’s gray and cold for no reason, all there is to do is wrestle with our thoughts. And maybe we start to miss those people back home. Because there is no redemption. There is only the monotonous rinsing and repeating. And how awful, how guilty, how damned are we that we can’t be happy in a place like this? Because if we can’t be happy here, we can’t be happy anywhere.
And so, therein lies the other paradox. On the one hand, there is intense loneliness in a place like this one. On the other, there is profound community, too—community, maybe, bound together by a shared sense of dreading, adoring, and being in the world.
No matter where you go, there you are. Here we all are, in paradise. And all there is to do is lean into the place, and onto each other. Rinse. Repeat.