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.
Downtown Park City basically boils down to a single street—aptly named Main—and as I huffed up it later that evening, I kept my eyes and ears peeled for The Hack, who my sources said “looks and sounds like Yosemite Sam.” It was around dinnertime. A blue haze fell across the sky. Lights twinkled, framing the two-story, brightly painted wooden buildings, most of them dating back to the early 1900’s. Couples walked arm in arm, lingering in front of gallery windows.
The temperature was mild, but at an altitude of 7,000 feet, my legs and lungs were heavy. An old red trolley car rumbled by. Across the street, the triangular Egyptian Theater marquee announced its newest production, Reefer Madness, the Musical.
I had a reservation at Talisker on Main, the most significant new addition to Park City’s restaurant row. As I entered the bistro, I found myself happily immersed in the sights and sounds of an open kitchen. Talisker’s debut last year marked a changing of the guard in more ways than one. The restaurant is owned by the Toronto-based real estate company of the same name, which won a bidding war over Vail Resort Company in 2008 to buy the Canyons, one of the three ski mountains in the Park City area. Talisker was a dark-horse buyer to many. Never having been in the ski business before, it suddenly had a massive stake in Park City, controlling not only Canyons but also the private, all-inclusive, 14,000-acre Talisker Club in Deer Valley and the Waldorf Astoria Park City.
“Most people, when they get enamored of a town, they buy a condo. These guys bought the entire mountain,” Mayor Dana Williams said to me later.
As part of its takeover, Talisker wooed John Murcko away from his position as head corporate chef of a five-restaurant group he had run for years in Park City with Bill White, who had defined the food scene here for nearly two decades. White’s restaurants—including the popular Southwestern-style Chimayo and the Italian standby Grappa—can still serve up to 2,200 customers a night. When Murcko broke the news to White in 2007, he remembers his partner responding, “I thought we were going to win the Super Bowl together.”
Murcko is a soft-spoken man with intense blue eyes. Although he oversees all of the food for Talisker’s properties, Murcko has poured everything he learned and loved about restaurants into Talisker on Main. It’s small and intimate, has an extensive wine list (and a lauded sommelier), and seeks perfection down to the smallest detail. Murcko personally tested 32 combinations of ketchup before arriving at the one he liked best.
As I devoured a short-rib shepherd’s pie with roasted-corn bisque, I listened to two sunburned young men in T-shirts and jeans talking real estate at a nearby table. I introduced myself. Turned out the two were Park City natives who had jumped into the real estate game at the right time. One of them, Reza Fakhrieh, was an original developer of the Waldorf Astoria property. “People used to just fly over Utah,” Fakhrieh said. Murcko, stopping by the tables, agreed, “The Olympics changed everything—Park City was ready for something new. Now it’s getting it.”
Outside I heard the 10 o’clock whistle, a throwback to the turn of the 20th century that was installed after a fire destroyed many of Main Street’s buildings in 1898. I was tired.
“Listen,” I said to Murcko. “Do you know George the Hack?”
“The Hack? You can probably find him at the Alaska House.”
The Alaska house is a long-term residential motel just above Main Street. I planned to go by in the morning but I woke up late and had no time before my meeting with the mayor. I quickly dressed and bounded outside. On the sidewalk in front of the hotel, a homeless man stopped me. He had Neil Young sideburns, a linty brown sweatshirt, and sunglasses propped atop a baseball cap.
“Julian Rubinstein?” he asked.
He stubbed out a cigarette (he has since quit) and extended his hand. “Dana Williams.”
Park City’s mayor was a surprise on every level. Now in his third term, he took office in 2002 by symbolically breaking a gavel instead of banging it, in order to signal the end of authoritarian rule. Despite the building boom and the tourist industry, Williams is hardly a big-business type. His family moved to Park City in 1963, when the only way up the mountain at Deer Valley was a towrope. He first became an alfalfa farmer, and then got into politics by starting a political action group called CARG, or Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth. CARG got 58 local laws changed and became enough of a thorn in the side of its opponents to earn the nickname CAVE, or Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
But cave is one thing Mayor Williams doesn’t do. “As mayor I’m only as well-off as the worst-off citizen,” he told me. And his constituency isn’t like that of other international ski towns. Of Park City’s 8,000 residents, about 40 percent don’t have health insurance. Williams himself, who makes $26,000 a year as mayor, was recently laid off from his second job as a real estate agent. He now works part-time as a guitar salesman and barista at a local coffee shop and performance space called Riffs.
As we walked up Main Street to lunch, we couldn’t get far without being stopped by friends and townspeople who wanted to chat about various sustainability projects he has going. All of the city’s buses and trolleys now run on biodiesel, which is 20 percent vegetable oil, and electric buses will be tested soon. He recently took the city’s municipal building and the police station completely off the gas grid; they now use geothermal power, heating and cooling themselves.
Finally, we got to our destination, a lunch spot called Café Terigo, and over grilled-salmon salads we talked about his days as a farmer (“I was the only Farmer of the Year winner who had a Grateful Dead sticker on his tractor”) and about being ticketed for speeding on Main Street (“I was on a skateboard”). As mayor, he’s raised $30 million of voter-approved municipal bonds to protect land from development; so far, he’s gotten 8,000 acres around town permanently preserved. “One guy called, pissed off, saying my job is to protect his property interests. I said, ‘We’ll get you a real estate agent in Vail.’ ”
On our way out, we ran into resident Adam Bronfman, son of the business mogul Edgar, who was instrumental in helping raise money for one of the biggest achievements of the mayor’s tenure: a health center that guarantees treatment to anyone without insurance. “Park City is an island, I feel,” Bronfman told me. “This may be a red state, but it’s not a red city.”
I left the mayor and headed across the street to the No Name Saloon, where I had been told George the Hack could be found most afternoons.
There are swankier places in town, like the Sky Lodge’s fireside Bar Bohème and the ski-in, ski-out High West Distillery, in a historic building. But No Name is the locals’ drinking hole, and when I entered, seven men arrayed around the corner of the bar eyed me warily. I cast a glance to see if one might be The Hack, but I could only make out a few cowboy hats and bushy facial hair.
A moose head stared down at me. I made my way to the bar. The high, arched ceilings hark back to the days when the building was the home of the Utah Power & Light Company. The men turned back to the television hanging from the ceiling, where a rerun on ESPN Classic of American Gladiators played out.
“Bud,” I said when the bartender came over, and when he put the bottle down in front of me, I asked about George the Hack.
I felt the gaze of the men on me again.
“You know The Hack?” one of them said. He had a walrus mustache and a baseball hat pulled low over his head.
“No, I was just looking for him.”
“He’s a rock guy. He made that bench out front.”
“I heard,” I said.
“Well, he’s out but I can let you know when he’s back.”
“That would be great,” I said, relieved.
We shook hands.
“Lemme get your P.O. box,” he said.
I was beginning to lose faith I would ever find The Hack. My nights filled up quickly with meals—a succulent seared elk carpaccio at the Riverhorse on Main stands out—and an after-hours gallery crawl, which happens the last Friday of every month. One evening I went to the Sidecar to see the Motherlode Canyon Band. The mayor was on electric guitar. By 10 p.m., the dance floor was full of white people with no rhythm screaming along to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”
I also thought I should sample some of the other new hotel options, and chose the St. Regis Deer Valley, which also houses the Jean Georges restaurant. I couldn’t help thinking that if Caesar were alive, he would have loved the place: a sprawling spa, stone pillars, and a fleet of bellhops referred to as “butlers.” The only thing missing was the vomitorium. But the best thing about the St. Regis was that I could literally step outside and be on the slope, a third of the way up the mountain.
One day I met up with a friend, Deer Valley ski patrolman Matt Davy, and a two-time Olympic freestyle mogul skier, Jillian Vogtli. The entire Park City area is a bit of a jock town, with what must be more Olympic residents than any other city in the country. This is at least partly due to the new $22 million state-of-the-art Olympic training facility, where many of them work out year-round.
It had dumped about half a foot of snow, and we wanted to head over to Lady Morgan Bowl, but the weather had temporarily knocked out the lifts there. We stayed instead on the western side, Bald Mountain. Unlike at many other resorts in America, the peaks are not forest-service land but privately owned, and hulking houses line some of the cruiser runs, including, I’d heard but couldn’t confirm, those of Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and basketball legend Michael Jordan.
The snow was phenomenal and I didn’t bother to mention to my posse that I grew up in Colorado. There’s no easier way to start an argument than by claiming one side of the Utah-Colorado Rockies has better skiing. Of course, it changes every season, every day. But as I blasted through the powder on Stein’s Way, I gave a nod to nucleation, the “lake effect” from nearby Salt Lake, and Utah’s dry air, all of which give the snow a fluffier feel.
Stein’s Way was named for Stein Eriksen, 1952 Olympic champion and king of Deer Valley. He was the director of skiing for real estate developer Edgar Stern, who founded the Deer Valley Resort in 1981 with the idea of making it North America’s first service-oriented ski mountain. When you drive up, valets will unload your skis from your car. Free guides will show you around the mountain. For the past four years straight, Ski magazine’s readers have voted it the best ski resort in America.
Stern died in 2008. But I found Eriksen with no problem. He still saunters around his luxury rustic European-style mountainside hotel—the namesake Stein Eriksen Lodge—as if he’s about to enter the starting gate: snow pants; Lycra turtleneck plastered with equipment-sponsor patches. For a fee, you can even ski with him. But after a nasty wipeout in 2007, he’s not on the piste as often. After all, he’s 83.
On my last day, i woke up and called my butler to bring around my car and pack it. The previous afternoon I had driven by the Alaska House searching for The Hack, but the huge Confederate flag hanging in the window didn’t encourage me to approach.
I phoned up the mayor, and asked if he wanted to meet me for lunch before I left for the airport. I suggested the No Name. “Then we’re going to be doing shots at one p.m.,” the mayor said.
When we arrived, steam was coming off the heated bench The Hack built. It seemed fitting that I hadn’t found him. In my mind, he was a part of Park City that was vanishing. I wondered if he even existed at all. Then I noticed a plaque on the side of the bench with a phone number. I took out my cell and called it.
I didn’t even know what to say. We chatted for a few minutes. Turns out, on a whim he’d recently decided to get a phone. He was in Salt Lake City for a while, on account of a girlfriend. He was sorry he missed me. Did he care to say anything about Park City? “I don’t know what I’d say for a magazine article,” he decided. “It’s changing. I don’t know what to expect, you know what I mean?”
“I do,” I said. Then I thanked him and went inside to do a shot with the mayor.
Julian Rubinstein is the author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber (Little, Brown).
When to Go
Ski season runs through mid-April. All three of the area’s resorts offer half- and full-day lift tickets (from $55) and small group and private skiing lessons (from $145). For more details, see parkcityinfo.com.
Montage Deer Valley The latest outpost from founder Alan Fuerstman opened last month atop Empire Pass, just five minutes from Park City’s Main Street. The resort has 154 rooms and 66 suites and private residences (equipped with fireplaces, soaking tubs, and private balconies); a 35,000-square-foot, Alpine-inspired spa; and three restaurants (one sports bowling lanes). 9100 Marsac Ave.; 888/604-1301; montagedeervalley.com; doubles from $845.
Waldorf Astoria Park City Opened in July 2009, the ski-in, ski-out resort at the Canyons claims one of only six Golden Door spas. 100 Frostwood Dr.; 866/279-0843; waldorfastoria.com; doubles from $500.
Great Value Zermatt Resort Choose one of 58 rooms in the Swiss-style chalet, or take over one of the Chateau Villas, 126 one- to three-bedroom condos. Either way, you’re smack between Park City and Sundance. 784 W. Resort Dr., Midway; 866/643-2015; zermattresort.com; doubles from $295.
Eat and Drink
Bar Bohème 201 Heber Ave.; 435/658-9425; dinner for two $90.
Café Terigo 424 Main St.; 435/645-9555; dinner for two $70.
No Name Saloon 447 Main St.; 435/649-6667; dinner for two $25.
Riverhorse on Main 540 Main St.; 435/649-3536; dinner for two $60.
Sidecar 333 Main St.; 435/645-7468; drinks for two $12.
Talisker on Main 515 Main St.; 435/658-5479; dinner for two $120.
Riffs Acoustic Music 1205 Iron Horse Dr.; 435/647-1940.