The distance from Utah’s state capital, Salt Lake City, to the iconoclastic mountain town of Park City is approximately 30 miles. And as if to dispel any anxiety over how long the route might take to traverse, roadside signs announce in yellow digital numerals the dwindling time to the destination. As I careen past a string of outlet stores, I eye the highway billboard. Sixteen minutes and counting.
Ironically, Park City’s close proximity to Salt Lake City has been one of the main reasons the old silver-mining town has managed to differentiate itself from a home state known for social conservatism and the Mormon religion. Each year, nearly 1 million travelers descend on Park City; many of them fly direct to Salt Lake City from either American coast and arrive in time to hit the slopes the same afternoon. I won’t be one of them today. I’m on a mission to find a local legend called George the Hack, who’s been described to me in almost mythic terms as a symbol of the town’s spirit.
I maneuver through a switchback into the Snyderville Basin and approach the final rotary leading to Main Street as the sun begins to fall over the snow-covered ridges. The Wasatch Mountain view before me is hazily imprinted in my memory, circa 1999. Sundance Film Festival. A friend’s premiere. Twenty of us sleeping on a beer-soaked floor, some making unidentifiable noises. Back then, Utah’s liquor laws still required one to join a private “club” in order to simply enter a drinking establishment. The 2002 Winter Olympics, for which Park City hosted numerous skiing events, were still a few years away. And the transformation the town is now undergoing wasn’t even on the horizon.
“Mr. Rubinstein,” a valet says as I tumble out of my rental SUV in front of the barn-red, loft-style Sky Lodge, where I will be bivouacking for the first part of my trip. The 33-room Sky Lodge, along with its spa, restaurant, and fireside bar, opened in 2007. Until then, this prime one-acre plot just off Main Street was a parking lot, the street was made of dirt, and I had only been divorced once. Needless to say, times have changed.
Upstairs, I splash into my outdoor hot tub overlooking the ski hill, trying to make sense of what I’ve fallen into. Single and nearly penniless, the country mired in a prolonged recession, I appear to have landed in a place betting big on luxury tourism. Within a few miles of where I float, several high-end hotel properties beckon, including the Waldorf Astoria Park City, the Montage Deer Valley, and the St. Regis Deer Valley Resort—all opened in the past two years. The restaurant scene is undergoing a metamorphosis as well, with the addition of outposts of Jean Georges and the San Francisco–based Spruce, as well as local star chef John Murcko’s Talisker on Main. Across the street, skiers plunge down the mountain. Somewhere else, a tabernacle choir sings. And I say unto myself: Find George the Hack.
The weeks preceding my arrival consisted of countless phone calls to various people in Park City: a ski instructor, a ski patrolman, a TV producer, a secretary. I wanted to know how a tiny Utah town that made William Randolph Hearst’s father a silver-mining millionaire and annually hosts one of the world’s most important film festivals seemed to fly under the radar. I was confused. Even the city’s name was an oxymoron.
The response I got was equally perplexing: The man who held the key to understanding the city was a 56-year-old stonemason who lived in a motel at the top of Main Street. His name? George T. Hack. The T., I was told, stood for “The.”
The problem was, apparently, he didn’t own a phone.