There are a lot of evening events that cater to outdoorsy people around here. Local calendars are lined with avalanche awareness nights, ski film premieres, outdoor nonprofit fundraisers and the like. Most of these events involve free beer, and there’s almost a dress code: a homogeneous sea of plaid and denim, scarves and branded trucker hats.

It’s easy to fill your week with these meetings, running into approximately the same people at every event, and the conversations eventually all blend into one mumbling mass of avy reports and snow conditions and whatever band played most recently.

So last week, when I showed up at the Radical Neighboring Community Forum in Driggs, Idaho, I was subconsciously prepared for more of the same, even though the event description promised to address immigration issues in our area. After all, I’d put on my cleanest flannel shirt, tried to make sure the brim of my hat was straight and headed downtown like I would for any other outdoors event. Except when the meeting opened I was reminded that “radical” can mean something other than retro one-pieces and neon-framed glasses, and when it ended I left with a newfound awareness of, and respect for, our community.

The fact that the current political climate is less than ideal for immigrants should be fairly obvious to even the most clueless of ski bros by this point, so I won’t belabor that. But this event took that issue from impersonal Facebook frustration and throwaway chairlift conversations to real, pressing and immediate discourse. For too many of us, especially living in an area as privileged as ours, immigration is a topic for politicians to argue about on TV while we plot our next powder day. The forum in Drigggs was a stark reminder that it’s a desperately important problem for many of our friends and neighbors, as well as our community as a whole.

Speaker after speaker drove that home. From those fighting for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., to business owners struggling to find and retain employees to “Dreamers” threatened with deportation, the issue affects everyone on both sides of the Tetons. It is desperately important that we continue to make progress in regulating, legitimizing and naturalizing these hardworking people who make up an often-invisible but absolutely vital part of our community.

That event also drove home the privilege many of us enjoy as skiers. The fact that Teton County has some of the highest income inequality in the nation gets thrown around a lot in conversation among service-industry-working ski bums. But what we fail to see is that we’re the lucky ones in that conversation. I don’t want to take anything away from my friends who bus tables all night so that they can get first tracks in the morning, but that’s a far cry from people who risked their lives to come here illegally so that they could work the jobs none of us will take in an effort to support their families.

It’s sometimes tempting to view the generally college-educated ski bums who cook and clean and ski instruct and work a myriad other mountain town jobs as the bottom of that income gap, the hardworking subset who keep things running smoothly so rich tourists can come and live stream their walks around Town Square with their iPads. That is simply not the case at all.

I find it easy to get trapped in a bubble of like-minded people, a mass of skiers and boarders and bikers who ended up in the Tetons because of some combination of an addiction to mountains, senescent John Muir quotes and a lack of desire to sell out and work a “grownup job.”

Staying trapped in that bubble is unsustainable, and inhumane. It overlooks a workforce that’s vital to our economy, and it disregards a huge subset of our neighbors who just happen to not be American citizens.

But if we as a community remain more obsessed with the snow totals and the avy forecasts, the lift openings and trail closures, than we are with the safety of those around us, we don’t deserve to ski these mountains, ride these trails, hike in these national parks.

Looking out for your neighbors is a fundamental part of basic society, and a lot of us think we’re pretty good at it. After all, we go help out at trail days, donate to nonprofits, post our snowpack stability observations online. And that’s all well and good — but it’s not enough.

So find some time on your calendar for something a little different, something that takes you outside that comfort zone of plaid and forecasted snowfall and persistent weak layers. There might not be free beer involved, but it will be worth your time.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via

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