Lynn Douglas was driving to work in San Francisco when the news broke on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks, 3,000 miles away, destroyed her company's New York offices in the World Trade Center and killed 299 of her colleagues. The tragedy caused her to look hard at her own life: Was she satisfied handling insurance portfolios in an impersonal corporate world? Was there a more fulfilling way to spend whatever time she had left on Earth?
"It made me re-prioritize," says Douglas, who had devoted 17 years to planning liability coverage for major business clients. "From then on, all my passion for the job was gone. I just wasn't happy. In January, 2002, I walked into my boss's office and said, 'I quit.' He said, 'I wondered when that was going to happen.'"
Douglas, an avid skier since childhood, decided it was more important to be on the slopes -- preferably in Lake Tahoe, where she already shared expenses on a rental cabin. Within three years, she transformed her life, selling her home in San Francisco and starting a new career as a ski instructor.
Although the work pays only a fraction of the big-money salary she earned before, Douglas gushes with enthusiasm at having one of the great winter fantasy jobs. She teaches the sport part time at Squaw Valley Resort -- where she met her husband, Dave, on a chairlift in 2003 -- and spends her free time skiing, traveling, scuba diving and taking classes to do voice-over acting.
"I made a lot of sacrifices," says 50-year-old Douglas. "I left friends, left my career, but I made my dream come true, and it was worth it to me. Sometimes you can be by yourself, going down a run, and just stop and realize how lucky you are."
Her work space is a snowy wonderland of craggy ridges and trees, with Lake Tahoe shimmering within view of her new home. "It is magical," she says. "I feel whole. Every need I have is met -- physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually."
Winter jobs at ski resorts are appealing second-act careers for adventurers tired of being confined to routines in the city. Oddly enough, though, the Sept. 11 tragedies made skiing-related jobs easier to get because tighter visa restrictions have kept some foreign-born employees from entering the United States. Traditionally, people from Australia, New Zealand and various nations in South America have followed the winter from one hemisphere to the other, serving as ski instructors, ski patrolmen and service workers at resorts all over the United States, says Rod Riley (right), who left Florida five years ago to settle in Park City, Utah.
"We have a tremendous number of employees who still come in, but there aren't as many as before," says Riley, a onetime property developer who now works full time on the slopes at Deer Valley Resort. Like Douglas, Riley re-evaluated his own life after 9/11, particularly because his commercial real estate duties required frequent trips to Germany, Italy, Boston and New York, all of which have been affected by terrorism, he says.
"The event itself," Riley says of 9/11, "refocused us. We said, 'Let's find a safer place, stop flying as much as I had been.'"
He, his wife, Stacy, and their four children moved to Park City five years ago intending to retire and enjoy their passion for skiing, Riley says. However, because of the shortage of workers caused by visa restrictions, he was enticed to take a job at Deer Valley. At 47, he is a "mountain host," roaming the slopes and answering questions for tourists. The task requires him to know more than 100 ski runs by heart.
"My job is in ski boots. I'm never not in ski boots," Riley says. "I've got the best office in the world."
During summer, he enjoys roaming the national parks in and around Utah -- Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. "In a couple of hours' drive," he says, "you can see some of the most incredible natural sights in the world."
In Vail, Colo., the ranks of full- and part-time ski instructors include ex-banking executives, ex-doctors, and at least one ex-economic advisor to the United Nations who speaks half a dozen languages, says former attorney Jim Ruh, who, at 65, teaches skiing on weekends and holidays. Ruh and his wife, Barbara, who also retired from a law practice in Denver, moved to the upscale mountain town in the early 2000s, and spend their summers in Santa Barbara.
For several years, Ruh held a volunteer job aiding guests; then Vail encountered a shortage of ski instructors. "After 9/11, the visa restrictions started to become a problem," Ruh says. "Vail lost a lot of experienced ski instructors." He immediately applied for a spot that pays $11 an hour. "They hired 110 of us, brand-new. A bunch of us were retired people from all walks of life."
Drawn by one of the key perks -- getting to ski for free on days off -- some instructors commute from so far away that it costs them money to be working, Ruh says. "They do it for the fun of it."
Vail is a popular place for baby boomers who want to scale down their careers and remain physically active, Ruh says. There are even some, such as ex-lawyer John Turchan, who had no intention of scaling back, but who ended up there anyway.
Turchan (left) had a six-figure salary and a fine lifestyle in Chicago, including a condo overlooking Lake Michigan. He specialized in probate law for Cook County until his boss, a gubernatorial appointee, was replaced by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Turchan, too, lost his job, and was forced to consider Plan B.
"I'm canned. Now what do I do?" Turchan recalls thinking. "Well, I always thought it would be cool to be a ski bum in Vail."
Seven years later, at 56, he has a full-time gig driving a luxury van, hauling visitors to and from Vail-area ski slopes and restaurants. His pay is less than a third of his previous salary, but he's always around people who are having fun. He works evenings and skis as much as he wants. Turchan, who is single, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Beaver Creek, just outside Vail, and in the summer travels to Alaska, where he drives a lumbering school bus, transporting guests for a whitewater rafting company.
If he hadn't lost his job, Turchan says, he probably would have stayed in Chicago with shined shoes and a suit and tie. "I enjoyed the notion of being a professional, a lawyer, but practicing law is a tough business."
Life in Vail is easier.
"The question is, are you happy making money, or are you happy having a lifestyle that makes you happy?" Turchan says. "Here, I'm happy. I enjoy what I'm doing."
SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a Southern California journalist and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel