In my late 20s and early 30s, I lived in New York City. Like most New Yorkers, I had a favorite bar (McSorley’s, the oldest pub in the borough), but the place that felt most like a second home, in the cozy idyll of fictional barkeep Sam Malone’s Cheers, wasn’t a watering hole but a diner on West 43rd Street across the street from my office in Midtown. Every morning when I walked through the door, I was greeted by the Greek cook behind the griddle, who looked up, waved a mitt-size hand, and bellowed, “Hey! French Toast!” Because after sliding into the same worn red vinyl booth, that’s what I ordered every day: two slices of eggy white bread with a cup of dark coffee. I never asked the cook for his name, nor he mine, yet we were friends. It was comforting to find somewhere where I was known yet unknown, familiar to a stranger yet still able to go about my routine in anonymity, and be woven, however tenuously, into the fabric of that bewildering city.
As Kelly Bastone writes in the introduction to this issue’s cover story (“Vice Royalty,” p. 66), quoting Hemingway, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” That was the idea behind the feature: identifying the places that define the character of a ski resort that was built from the ground up, the first in America without a foundation of a town with a previous history like Aspen or Breckenridge. Detractors dismiss Vail as “Plastic Bavaria,” skiing’s equivalent of Disneyland, a resort without a soul. When I hear that, I remember something the late Scott Carpenter told me (quoting Will Rogers) when I visited with the white-haired Mercury astronaut in his East Vail home just after I moved here in 2012: “It ain’t what you don’t know that makes you ignorant. What makes you ignorant is what you do know that ain’t so.” People who think they know Vail say there’s no “there” here, but that ain’t so. If you want proof, just walk into a bar.
I was reminded of this when I bumped into Louie Boyd, beer in hand, up at The 10th (one of the venues included in our cover story) at this ski season’s kickoff party hosted by Vail Resorts. I hadn’t seen Louie in four years, since the day I spent skiing the Back Bowls with the Vail legend and a pack of septuagenarian and octogenarian ski patrollers from the resort’s earliest days who call themselves the Senior Snow Pigs. Every Wednesday, the Snow Pigs meet up at PHQ, ski all morning, then decamp to Henry’s Deck, where they grill pocketed sausages and reminisce. Everyone has a nickname. On deck with Louie (whose real name is Steve) and the Snow Pigs, grilling brats and sharing stories, I met Jimmes, Big Daddy, Chilly Willy, Hatsy and Scooby, and Jungle. Like I said, I hadn’t seen Louie in four years, yet at The 10th, he remembered my name—and that day. Strangers on the street, there, we were old friends. That’s the magic of bars.
My neighborhood bar may be Craftsman (where, like the diner where I was “French Toast!” I am “Hot Wings!”). But in Vail Village, Pepi’s is my McSorley’s, a place so steeped in history that when you rest your elbows on the bar, they fit into grooves worn into the wood by generations who preceded you. Founded in 1964, Pepi’s was remodeled recently, but the Bridge Street landmark remains true to its past, and its character. The ski-racing trophies of the bar’s Austrian namesake, who still lives upstairs with wife Sheika, crowd shelves near the door, and on the paneled Wall of Fame hang framed pictures of famous patrons, including Scott Carpenter in a silver space suit, signed, “To Pepi & Sheika: The King and Queen of Vail.” And so, tongue in cheek, I titled the package Vice Royalty. Because venerable bars are the soul of a ski village.