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10 Ways to Fit In in a Mountain Town

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By Kelsey Wellington EBS CONTRIBUTOR

ILLUSTRATION BY CY WHITLING

I first moved to a mountain town—Missoula, Montana—in the fall of 2016. A New Yorker for most of my 25 years, I had only my Subaru Outback and Birkenstock sandals to help me blend in. Everything else about me screamed East Coast, from my use of “wicked” in every other sentence, to my wardrobe of nightclub-specific dresses and heels. Even my beer preferences gave me away—Allagash Brewing and Dogfish Head were my staples. I had never met anyone who lived out of their vehicle, and I had never known backcountry skiing was a sport not only for the sponsored athlete but for the layperson, too. 

Nearly six years later, I have lived in two mountain towns—Jackson, Wyoming, is where I call home today—and visited countless others, and I’ve gleaned a thing or two about life in these bizarre places that could help future newbies fit in. I’d hate for them to show up looking as awkward and out of place as I felt, so what follows are 10 tips to help anyone fit in in a mountain town.

1. Promise yourself this move is only temporary, you won’t stay long enough to get sucked in, you won’t eventually embody the stereotype of the mountain girl who says “rad” and “dope” and has wildflower tattoos.

2. Own a Subaru, particularly an Outback. Or, if you really want to commit to the lifestyle, own a Toyota Tacoma—specifically a gunmetal gray Tacoma with a cap on the truck bed. If you don’t own either of these cars, make sure it looks like you live out of your car for at least part of the year. Hang some battery-operated string lights, store some valuables—climbing or camping gear, usually—in one of those black and yellow HDX storage bins, and make sure to have a thin layer of dust on everything. You’ll get bonus points if your car has a rooftop box or a bike rack. Anything that screams,
“I’m outdoorsy!”

3. Outfit your wardrobe with the following items:

  • A Patagonia fleece that will become pockmarked with holes from campfire embers, holes that will remind you of some of the best conversations you’ll ever have with strangers you’ll never see again.
  • At least three flannel shirts, even though only one of them is your favorite and you’ve already patched four holes in it. Honestly, the other two are just taking up space in your car/home and you should probably just donate them to Goodwill.
  • A Carhartt beanie because everyone has one, particularly in that tan color, and because mountain towns can promise you only one thing: It will be cold at any time of year.
  • A pair of Chaco sandals, which you will wear every single day of spring, summer and fall, regardless of temperature, so you can eventually sport an incredible tan line that will be the envy of your less outdoorsy friends. Well, it would be, if you had less outdoorsy friends.
  • Twelve different jackets—four down jackets of varying insulation; a wind jacket that will become your most-used layer; a raincoat that you will constantly forget to pack; three lightweight water-resistant jackets, even though you will always choose the same one for every activity; two casual jackets that you will forget you own; and one ski jacket for the most coveted season in this town.

4. Pick up any (or all) of the following sports in an attempt to find your identity as an outdoorswoman and a community of like-minded barely passing adults, but make sure you pick the right sport(s) because some are superior to others, depending on who you talk to, and you’d hate to choose the wrong one(s):

  • Rock/ice climbing (one is superior)
  • Hiking/backpacking (nobody actually likes hiking)
  • Trail running (some would call you a sociopath)
  • Backcountry/downhill skiing (one is superior)
  • River sports, i.e., canoeing, rafting, kayaking, packrafting, river surfing (maybe stay away from these people)
  • Mountain/road biking (one is superior)
  • Fly fishing (no egos here)

Then, amass a collection of gear for these sports that will be worth the down payment on a house in a far less expensive part of the country.

5. Complain constantly about the high cost of living in this town you swore you’d only stay in for a season, six years ago. Then, soothe your woes with retail therapy. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed by owning more gear.

6. Don’t even try dating. Or do, but don’t be surprised when you realize how limited your options are. You can choose from: people whose one true love is their chosen sport, people who have history with all of your friends, people who assume you can’t keep up, or people who are “not looking for anything serious.” It’s a shame about the non-committal guy, though. You really liked his Tacoma.

7. Adopt a dog that will fill the void left by every ex-boyfriend and take them out on every adventure. Expect to be stopped on the trails by strangers who want to talk to you about how cute your dog is, which will eventually turn into a conversation about what kind of mountain bike you have and, hey, do you want to ride together sometime? Don’t be surprised when this stranger is added to your list of ex-boyfriends.

8. Start saying the following phrases ironically:

“That’s so sick/rad/dope, dude.”

“I’m beyond stoked.”

“Send it!” (Defined as, “do the thing,” whether that thing is summiting a peak, skiing a particularly steep route, or doing the dishes).

Then, forget to notice the moment when the above phrases become part of your
regular vocabulary.

9. Replace your Outback with a Tacoma.

10. Get a tattoo of wildflowers.

Kelsey Wellington works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, and she recently completed her MFA in creative nonfiction from Lindenwood University. All jokes aside, she loves mountain town life and has found her community among climbers and trail runners. Her dog is cute, too.

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