Extreme sports: for some towns, a 'fiscal engine'
Off the beaten path, a new breed of adventure sports outpost is thriving.
By noon, the rain had swept through this small town in northern Kentucky, flooding the valley with a slow-moving, spectral mist. Along Route 11, the storefronts and motels were dark. Most residents had holed up inside; the rest headed to Lexington, a one-hour drive due west.Skip to next paragraph
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But in the parking lot of Miguel's, a climbing shop at the outskirts of Natural Bridge National Park in the Red River Gorge, four men played a raucous game of basketball, shouting over the roar of the wind. Behind them, in a small pasture, several more figures wandered amid a brightly colored tent city, lashing down rainflies and tying off gear.
Inside the shop proper, under racks of ropes, shoes, packs, and helmets, a small party had arranged itself in a nearby booth, playing poker with pennies, drinking black coffee, and poring over guidebooks.
A sign in the window read, simply: "Climbers Only."
Welcome to the adventure sports town, circa 2007. In recent years, pursuits such as climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and surfing, once chalked off as "extreme," have become staples of mainstream American culture. The industries supplying boards, ropes, and bikes are thriving; ESPN's X-Games, widely credited with introducing the "dual downhill" and "supermodified shovel racing" to the masses, now looks almost commonplace.
Correspondingly, as more Americans indulge their penchant for all things extreme – and as domestic-flight fares continue to plummet – adventure destinations have spread outward. Twenty years ago, enthusiasts huddled around established hubs: Moab, Utah, Santa Monica, Calif., Bend, Ore., Boulder; and Crested Butte, Colo.
Now, they also venture further afield, to smaller, more tightly knit outposts, where an "adventure-first" ethos has sprouted up alongside local culture. There's Ouray, for instance — a hamlet tucked into the mountains of Colorado. There's Rumney, N.H.; Greensboro, N.C.; Slade, Ky.
Miguel's, which was founded some 20 years ago by Northeast transplant Miguel Ventura, has become, in the past decade, ground zero for rock climbers visiting the gorge. On spring and summer evenings, the pasture is jammed with visitors from across the country who come to rip up the acres of sandstone nearby and, later, over roaring bonfires, trade tall tales. When it's wet, they huddle inside, checking e-mail, eating, and planning. Some climbers stay for days. Some, spurred on by reports in a widening swath of climbing magazines and websites, stay for weeks.
Erin Eddy, the executive director of the Ouray Ice Park, which draws the best ice climbers in the world, says he's recently observed a similar phenomenon.
"For us, the biggest increase came in 2001. The park had puttered along for about seven or eight years, and we were almost bankrupt," Mr. Eddy says. "Then we started getting all the media coverage – last year we were on the front cover of The New York Times – and the number of visitors shot up. It's been a huge impact on a town of 800."
These fledging adventure communities have traditionally felt the effect of publicity economically, as word spreads among athletes. In Ouray's case, locals have observed a steady climb in demand for lodging and for restaurants and cafes.