Walking down Vail’s central pedestrian street, with its immaculately maintained, Swiss-style lodges and whimsical outdoor sculpture, I feel like I’m in a whitewashed bubble, where everything is beautiful and perfect. Flower boxes and pocket gardens overflow with brilliantly hued poppies, daisies, and geraniums. Restaurants and cafés are filled with people eating gourmet burgers, crisp, colorful salads, and handcrafted pasta beneath perfectly pleated umbrellas. The boutiques carry desirable, high-end merchandise (including a pair of adorable glass birds I’ve spied that cost $600 each one). There are never any sales. And everywhere you look, Vail Mountain rises high above, beckoning all into the depths of its wilderness.
I love it!
Except something seems amiss.
The mountain may be beckoning all, but there’s no way “all” are able to experience this oasis. You need to have a lot of money. So much money you don't even think about the jacked-up prices. You just have to. My appetizer-size Caprese salad at dinner last night cost $17. Meaning, the average American will probably not find their way to Vail. (I'm only here because my husband's company is holding a conference here.)
During my stint as an editor with National Geographic Travel Publishing, we always strove to showcase authentic travel, to share local experiences. Vail is not authentic. It looks like a Swiss village, but it’s not a Swiss village. It’s the shell of a Swiss village, taking only the Disneyesque aspects, with every tiny detail meticulously taken care of.
I don’t even know who the locals are (other than the hotel and restaurant staffs – though a lot of them seem to be students from elsewhere, here to enjoy the bubble.)
That said, I feel exceedingly safe here. Protected from the world and its chaos. Far from the threats of terrorism and crazy politics, where turning on the nightly news is at your own risk. Here I don’t see any homeless people who make me feel guilty, questioning whether I should give them a few coins. There are no shadowy characters forcing me to walk on the other side of the street, clutching my purse.
But that’s not reality, right? It’s certainly not, where I come from: Washington, D.C.
And I wonder, what is the role of the Vails of the world?
The word artifice comes to mind. According to Webster’s, artifice is “in a work of art, making excess and lack of naturalness.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau fought the whole notion of artifice in Nature in the 18th century, stating that Nature is seen as a living system and is deemed “good” as opposed to artifice and superficial appearances. And to be in harmony with Nature is considered a moral good. Meaning, Vail as a glossy alpine city should be eschewed. Even with Nature on its outskirts, it's not a Swiss alpine village. It’s a synthetic replica.
But those thoughts began changing in the 19th century, as artists and writers began fiddling with the notion of transcending Nature. Poet Charles Baudelaire was one of its greatest advocates, praising the art of self-creation as a way to liberate the imagination. To concern oneself with strictly aesthetic concerns, completely divergent of any organic origin.
This was the period when the dandys appeared. Baudelaire, who was one of the finest dandys around, described this genre of humanity as such: “The wealthy man, who, blasé though he may be, has no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness, the man nurtured in luxury, and habituated from early youth to being obeyed by others, the man, finally, who has no profession other than elegance, is bound at all times to have a facial expression of a very special kind.”
He goes on to say, “These beings have no other status but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions of feeling and thinking.”
Meaning, it's okay for Vail to exist for the very essence of its artificial beauty, and it's okay to like it for that very reason.
Of course, to be a dandy, you need to have money, and Baudelaire addresses that as well. He states: “Money is indispensable to those who make an exclusive cult of their passions … but the dandy does not aspire to wealth as an object in itself ….”
That fits Vail to a T. Only those who don’t have to think about money, who already have an excess of money, can enjoy walking its picture-perfect streets.
Is that okay?
I do know one thing. We all need escapes. We can’t always be focusing on the bad things in the world. We’ll drive ourselves crazy if we do.
And there’s something truly beautiful about getting out into nature and enjoying its pure beauty. On my hike up Vail Mountain one day, I spotted a deer standing statuesque in the forest, just watching us. At one point we turned and saw the breadth of snowy Rocky Mountain peaks in a scene that took my breath away. I felt the exertion as we climbed higher and higher, my heart racing as I admired the beauty of highly groomed, extremely well-marked trails.
And it got me thinking ... Despite the fact that these were no hoary backwoods and I was no intrepid explorer ... Even if it occurred in Fake Vail ... My imagination had been liberated.