Ski slope dreams

Jeff Tyler Jun 1, 2012

Ski slope dreams

Jeff Tyler Jun 1, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Ask any random group of people about their dreams and of course you’ll get all sorts of answers. A beautiful house, a fairy tale romance, the perfect job, a thriving business.

Troy Caldwell has always dreamed of owning his own ski resort. And after years of hard work, he’s living that dream. But it’s come at quite a cost.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler reports.

Jeff Tyler: Last month, 62-year-old Troy Caldwell took me on a tour of his mountain. I mean that literally. He owns it.

In a 10-ton snow-grooming vehicle, called a snow cat, we drove across the wet snow.

Troy Caldwell: This stuff is like glue. You can feel my tracks kind of pop every once in a time. They’re going, “What the heck?”

If real estate is all about location, Troy’s got it made. His property is near Lake Tahoe, right between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Those two resorts merged this year, but they need to access Troy’s property in order to connect the two mountains with a chair lift.

Caldwell: Those guys are great for me. I mean, for most scenarios, a corporation would look at this and go, “Get the guy some money and get him out of here. Move him on.”

That’s the thing about Troy Caldwell. He’s not looking for someone to buy him out. Developers have offered him $45 million for his land. He declined. It’s all about his dream of building his own modest ski resort called White Wolf.

Caldwell: If you have some dreams, and you want to fulfill those dreams, maybe it may not be just having a huge bank account.

In front of a crackling fire, I sat down with Troy and his wife Suzie. They live in a cozy bunker-like structure designed to withstand avalanches. Troy and Suzie bought the 460-acre property more than 20 years ago. Back then, it cost less than half a million dollars.

Caldwell: We sold everything off and moved into a trailer. And started on our road. We call it our “Daniel Boone era.” We had no sewer or water to the trailer. And no electricity.

On top of that, the neighbors also sued to block the planned ski resort.

Caldwell: I think we were in a lawsuit for about 14 years. So, it is very expensive. It was a tough going, for sure. So I appreciate Suzie sticking it out through the dreams, and hopefully there’s better days ahead now.

That’s another thing about Troy; he’s relentlessly optimistic. So says Pete Crosby, one of the lucky few to have skied White Wolf. I met him in Troy’s 1,700 square foot garage, which is almost twice the size of the Caldwell’s living area.

Tyler: Is this guy unusual?

Pete Crosby: Oh, completely. I’ve never met a guy like him in my life. Never gets frustrated. Keeps his eye on what he wants to get done. And it’s not about money. It’s really about building something that’s going to be lasting and,valuable for the community and something really beautiful.

Caldwell gives new meaning to do-it-yourself. He gets some help from Crosby and a few devoted volunteers who provide free labor.

Crosby: The stuff that he’s been able to pull off. I mean, mind-boggling what he can do as one person. I mean, you’ve been up on the hill. All that, he built. He built most of it here in the garage.

And it’s all on Troy’s own dime.

Caldwell: I sleep real good because I don’t have a partner. I don’t know if that’s a good philosophy for everybody. For a mountain kid, that certainly worked for me though.

That philosophy also means he’s limited. He only makes around $60,000 a year. Not a lot when you’re shopping for snow-grooming machines.

Caldwell: Pretty darn expensive, you know, for a household budget kind of scenario, to try to build a chair lift on your own or to try to own one of these machines. These machines new are about a third of a million dollars. So they’re pretty darn expensive toys. They’re like three Ferraris.

To understand why Troy is so committed to his dream, you have to see him in his toy — driving his massive snow cat up the side of the mountain.

Caldwell: I enjoy the heck out of this. What we’re doing right now is just plain fun for me. You’re out by yourself in a big ol’ grooming machine. Running around. You and the coyotes, flattening out the snow.

Good thing he finds this stuff fun. Putting together a dream project can be trying. You need patience.

It’s not just that Troy Caldwell has been trying to launch White Wolf for more than 20 years. He could have to wait another fifteen years to get all the permits for his ski resort. But until then, all the money in the world won’t make him happier than he is, tinkering away in the garage, building his dream piece by piece.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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