Editor's Note: Alas, the time has come to profile one of the most intriguing, perplexing and entertaining fixtures in our mountain towns: the warm-weather Gaper. These lost and confused souls are one of the main reasons people in ski towns have some semblance of job security. Whether it’s serving drinks, explaining River Rat mating patterns, or guiding a boat, helping these folks negotiate the high-wire perils of gaperhood can be a meditation in character building. As we’ve said before, gaping is a four-season activity! In this Summer installment of Ski Town Caricatures, we turn the TGR lens on the often seen — but rarely understood — Summer Gaper.
The Summer Gaper Experience. Ryan Dee illustration.
Aimless wandering, confused looks, fresh-pressed synthetic outdoor gear that's a little too clean and likely hasn't seen any sweating. Maybe they came for a quick getaway, or maybe they own an exclusive property high above town, but either way, these folks are out of their element.
Upon returning home, they’ll be lauded as ruggedly adventurous and worldly by their banking and insurance sales friends. But here in the mountains, they just look lost.
Every year around June, busloads of out-of-towners flood into the mountains to get a piece of the wilderness action. A hallmark of all gapers, no matter the season, is an almost total disconnect with the natural world. Physical laws of nature that would normally be relegated to common sense are tossed out the window. Removed from their urban and suburban comfort zones, gapers seem confounded by simple things like gravity, geology, animal behavior, and so much more.
Back by popular demand, here’s a list of trademark gaper qualities to keep you vigilant and informed during these semi-warm summer months. Enjoy!
A: Shameless Narcissism
Is it on?
A classic rule of thumb when guiding a group of gapers through the wilderness: never trust one who's fiddling with a GoPro in the parking lot!
What was supposed to be a fun rafting trip down the river is now a swiftwater rescue at 23,000 CFS because little buddy was more concerned with sick footage than putting his paddle in the water. Now mom and dad are getting worked in that recirculating wave—and becoming hypothermic—because the teenager who seemed strong and able-bodied at the put-in cared more about getting the shot than putting the hammer down. Now he has footage of the boat dump-trucking and a few of his family members having near-death experiences, which is in a ‘glad-it’s-not-me’ way is still pretty fun to watch.
The self-documenting of outdoor exploits has become a serious hindrance to those tasked with people’s safety. Nothing speaks of frustration more than being high up and exposed climbing an alpine peak, and having one of the inexperienced boy scouts you’ve been guiding almost decapitate you with his selfie stick.
For someone who is not well acquainted with risk assessment, such as a gaper, the distraction and mental bandwidth devoted to narcissism can endanger themselves and the ones they love. But at least when an accident happens, there’s proof that it wasn’t caused by guide negligence.
B: Parking in the Middle of the Road
The Johnsons drove their RV/mobile home all the way from Houston, Texas, and now that they’ve arrived in God’s country, they’re going to capitalize on every ounce of wildlife exposure they can. Driving around Jackson Hole, they stop every time they see someone else stopped, even if there is nothing going on. For the Summer Gaper, herd mentality reigns supreme, and if there is something to see, they need to stop and see it, damnit! Especially if it only requires taking a few steps away from an A/C-controlled vehicle.
Bear and bison jams are a contemporary hallmark of visiting Yellowstone. Such an obstruction is caused when an oblivious family, lacking a berm to pull onto, stops their car in the middle of the road—restricting the flow of traffic for everyone behind them. This practice is mildly understandable when dealing with something spectacular, such as a Grizzly or a well-antlered moose, but the gaper most often clogs traffic for something relatively unremarkable, such as a deer, squirrel or marmot. Sometimes the only option is to join in, and channel your own inner gaper. But if you choose to do so, make sure your vehicle is as inconvenient to pass as possible.
C: Huge Tour Groups
In the West, we pride ourselves on our independence and grit in the context of travel. In a sort of pretentious way, those of us from ski towns talk about travel like we talk about alpinism—it’s all about style. Were you self-supported? Did you go light? Or did you hire 1,163 porters and/or Sherpas to shlep your shit up to basecamp while you chain smoked and debaucherized at every village on the way up?
From this point of view—putting an emphasis on style—the tour-bus tour-group is the absolute lowest you can get. Most of us dread being crammed in with the same people day after day—even our families. So it’s a shock that other people would prefer this mode of travel for their own vacation.
Coming from a Western culture, it can be easy to forget that to many people around the world, having to make decisions for oneself can be seen as immensely stressful. After all, why choose where to sleep, eat and play when someone else can just choose for you?
D: Ignoring Wildlife Warnings
As there have already been a couple of gorings in Yellowstone this year, it goes without saying that a person being threatened and/or killed by a wild animal is never a funny occurrence.
But what is funny is the amount of determination that some gapers have in not using common sense. Fully aware of the inherent dangers of these creatures, the National Park Service actively issues flyers containing graphic warnings and guidelines to all people entering these high-risk zones.
So when someone attempts to sneak up on one of these massive wild animals that literally weigh multiple tons, it comes as little to no surprise that the beast in question may find it necessary to enforce his or her personal space, and perhaps teach someone a lesson in the process. Once again, trying to snap a selfie within a few yards of a massive, wild animal is just a bad idea.
E: Overreacting to Wildlife
In regards to how they treat wildlife, gapers come in two distinct varieties. The gaper will either completely overreact in the context of a wildlife sighting, or totally disregard the inherent dangers of such an encounter, as detailed in list item D.
Once barely pulled onto the shoulder, the gaper family will empty out of their vehicle and begin snapping pictures of the family of black bears or ‘buffalo’ (bison) or whatever else happens to be taking a meal within eyeshot of the roadway.
However, as one of the cubs begins heading towards their vehicle, mom and dad blow things completely out of proportion, and hysterically shriek for their kids to “Run for your lives!!!”
The bears are startled by the commotion. Frightened, they unhurriedly ramble off to go find some less noisy locale to amble and play in.
The gapers swear that they barely survived their encounter: “He was huge, and coming straight for us…”
F: Once Again, Really Dumb Questions
Sometimes, people ask you questions that you just can’t answer without sounding like a dick. Personal favorites include “Is that cliff manmade?” and the always unbelievable “I can leave my stuff here [river put-in], right? This thing [river] goes in a circle, right?”
How do you politely inform someone that they fundamentally do not understand the basic laws of nature? “Well actually ma’am, no, this river does not go in a circle... as no rivers do.”
Other notable standouts include queries involving a river’s depth (always changing) and the means by which all the wildlife is housed. This shit makes your head hurt.
For all the gapers out there, just remember that your guide is a cold-blooded pathological liar who sees taking advantage of your ignorance and naïveté as good sport. After all, she or he has already done that section of river hundreds of times in the past two months, so today’s entertainment is likely to come at your expense.
G: Generic Matching Outfits
Now that the gaper family has conquered the perilous trial of the day lodge at Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or some other blown-out tourist destination, it’s time to pick something up that will attest to their boldness and bravery in visiting such a harrowing locale.
This is one of the few parts of this list where people are actively self-identifying as gapers. Intentionally.
If you spot Mom and Dad with the kids in tow, and all seven of them are wearing the same Jackson Hole t-shirt while taking pictures in the main square of Jackson, it’s fair to assume these folks are gaper pros with an entire wardrobe of these back home—soon to be relocated to the Goodwill donation box once the Christmas card photo's been snapped.
In some countries, littering is kind of built in to the social experience. In China, for example, nearly everyone litters because there are people whose sole job is to bike around and pick up garbage. They get paid by weight, so the more you litter, the more you’re theoretically helping out the downtrodden street sweeper.
America doesn’t work this way.
If the truck driving in front of you just throws a McDonald’s bag out the window, it’s fairly safe to assume that their infraction is not culture-based, but more accurately asshole-based.
But whatever the cultural context, both subsets of behavior rightly qualify for gaperdom.
I: People Bear Spraying Each Other
Recently there was an initiative in Yellowstone to equip every hiking party with a complimentary can of bearspray so as to pre-empt potential loss of life and injury in the park’s famous trail network. I don’t know about you—TGR’s faithful readership—but the idea of thousands of gapers walking around with cans of weaponized, industrial-strength mace seems like a recipe for disaster.
Already on-edge due to recent reports of human-wildlife run-ins, many of these folks will spray anything that moves.
What is scarier: a park full of scared and nervous tourists armed with cans of pepper-spray, or the risk of a random bear or bison attack that can mostly be mitigated by making good decisions (i.e. hiking in numbers, staying on trail, etc.)?
J: On the Hunt For Corporate Chains
Most people avoid change above all else, and gapers are no exception. During a trip, there are essentially two types of people. There are those that view the place they’re visiting as a means to experience the finest of local offerings, such as local cuisine, coffees and venues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the people who mostly want to go someplace exotic without really having to delve outside of their comfort zone and experience anything different, potentially challenging, or unfamiliar.
Essentially, this is why the Starbucks, McDonalds, Applebees and Pizza Huts of the world can be successful—because people can go anywhere and rely on the same predictable but shitty quality of a standardized product, whether in Rome, Italy, or Rome, Illinois. So if one of your customers or clients asks where to find the nearest Starbucks, just give them directions to the closest local coffee house; it might be an opportunity for that individual to experience something new.
From The Column: Ski Town Caricatures
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