The Daring Dirtbags Who Make Salt Lake City Sparkle

It’s the day after Halloween. Under a gray sky, pumpkins are smashed on the sidewalk, and wind is whipping across the lawn of a giant house perched on a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac in a posh section of the neighborhood called Cottonwood Heights.

“This is the last house I’d want to do on a day like this,” Irvin says as he scoots a 40-foot ladder along a brick wall between wind gusts, trying not to crack the ceramic roof tiles on a “carriage house” where four Ferraris reside. The house, owned by an insurance executive, has pointy spires and hundreds of trees planted along a cascading river that flows through the yard. The owner pays $5,000 to have Christmas lights hung every year and almost as much for Halloween, along with smaller hangs for Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July.

Irvin is working with Aubree Campbell, a blond, cherub-faced 22-year-old from Idaho who’s dancing to music in her headphones. She’s as bubbly as can be, but at week four on the job, she admits to having a “weeping hour” every night when she breaks down from the stress.

“After hours of climbing the same ponderosa tree, the adrenaline of the heights and fear and wind while high up on the ladder is taking its toll,” she says. Campbell was going to become a nurse, but after a brief work stint in New Zealand, she changed life plans and impulsively bought a van she calls Stewie. With no passenger seat and a dog named Gwen, she made her way to Alaska, picking up barista shifts along the way and eventually finding work river guiding for Chilkat Guides, out of Haines.

“This is way better!” she says about the fast money that comes from doing lights. Eight other guides from Haines are on the crew this year too, all of them experienced at running rivers like the Tatshenshini and Alsek. Several are planning to take their light-hanging money and raft the Grand Canyon for the month of February, then they’ll go to Mexico to rock-climb and Spain to backpack. Two of them are planning to ride motorcycles from India to Vietnam on a three-month expedition. For obvious reasons, some L-pros tend to hesitate when you ask where they live, usually settling on a vague mention of where they came from most recently.

“The transient out-of-towners work best here,” Vance says, “because they have a more focused ten-week mindset—without local commitments or distractions, like going out and partying at night.”

Down on the ground, 20 feet below Irvin and Campbell, another import from Haines—a 25-year-old named Raven Delhanty—is learning the ropes after signing on just four days ago. A veteran installer is showing her how to properly wrap pine trees, to make the lights look evenly distributed.

Delhanty finds the whole Christmas-lights thing to be over the top, but she’s rolling with it. “It’s wasteful, it’s opulent, excessive, and pointless, but I like that it pays me,” she says from inside the tree. “If I worked at Walmart, I’d feel abhorrent about that, too. That’s true of most people here—not in it for the joy of Christmas and decorative spirit.” Delhanty’s boyfriend, Hayden, was wrapping a treetop the other day in Park City; at one point the homeowner came out and asked if he could go even higher, to make the lights look taller and brighter than the neighbors’. “People see the Hallmark cards and want that,” Hayden says. “I get it. But it seems ridiculous to me. It feels like it’s all a competition.”

The sun sets, and the crew still has an entire cluster forest of scrub oaks to wrap in red and green. Straddling the top of an articulating ladder is 24-year-old Duncan McWilliam-Grench, another first-year installer getting thrown into the fire. He lives in his van, and he spent several weeks climbing in Moab and Indian Creek before taking this job. He hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, then worked in North Carolina in a jigsaw-puzzle factory, in a gear shop, and as a climbing guide.

“Work is work,” he says. “I’m not serving a community in need with this job, but it’s not bad.” His parents are just glad he’s working. They keep telling him to get a steady job or finish school, neither of which he wants to do. He was closing in on an outdoor education degree at North Carolina’s Brevard College when he dropped out with a 4.0. “It’s a degree for a field you don’t need a degree in,” he says. “Most second-year installers here make more money than my outdoor ed professors do in a year.” That’s hard to confirm, but these days it’s not uncommon for a second-year installer to bring home more than $30,000 in the ten-week season.

There are plenty of ways to wring the juice out of life, and as a freelance journalist for about half my adulthood, I’ve managed to see a substantial slice of the world. The work is a stressful, inconsistent, low-paying grind with a bleak future, but the stories I get to tell are enough to make people think I have a dream job. Talking with these young installers about what they plan to do with their money and time after Christmas, I can’t help but feel a rare spot of envy for the way they’re going about their youth, prioritizing experiences over any sort of traditional, prescribed career track. Why work all year when you can condense it into a shoulder season, doing so with people who share your passions and values? What would I have done with such quick money in my twenties? Maybe I would have taken on fewer unpaid internships and assignments I didn’t really want, instead focusing on pursuits that seemed more important and lit me up with inspiration.

While I’m pondering my life, I hear McWilliam-Grench fighting a snarl of branches in a tree. “I’m going to fucking hate Christmas after this!” he yells.

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