No Rowdy

Sometime in mid-December, when Brexico’s lack of snow showed signs of transitioning from Early Season Nuisance to Legitimate Problem In Need Of A Solution, I found myself at an old friend’s birthday party. Other old friends were there, too, and soon after flipping the tabs on our first beers, we began to commiserate about the dire conditions on the hill.

The 10-day forecast looked like a sunshine festival. The long-term forecast was even grimmer, with phrases like “extended high pressure” and “does not look good” staining the same sorry paragraph. It didn’t take long before someone brought up interior British Columbia, and once that happened, we stopped talking about other things for the rest of the night.

I was waiting to hear about a potential trip to the South Pole, so I couldn’t commit right away. But within a few days, the South Pole trip fell through, and I suddenly had the month of January to fill.

I sold the idea to my wife as “the last big dudes trip before we have kids,” and two weeks later, three friends and I pulled into a snowy motel parking lot in Golden, B.C. The sign on the poolroom wall read: “No Rowdy.” We had come to the right place.

Concealing our Rowdy in backpacks and pockets, we spent the next two days at Kicking Horse Resort, 15 minutes up the road from Golden. I’ve never seen so much steep terrain accessed from two chairlifts. We skied 2,000-foot fall-line runs with hairy entries and shin-deep snow the entire way down. We ate yam fries and drank Kokanee pitchers. It was like we’d landed on a sandy atoll with nothing but supermodels and margaritas for life. Except, we were mobile.

From Golden, we purred up and over Rogers Pass into Revelstoke. “Revy,” if you’re cool, is kind of a big deal in badass snow land. I don’t say that to make light. I say that because the resort has more than 5,000 vertical feet of intense terrain, and about 50 ways to scare yourself per acre. We got busy as best we could, which means as much as our quaking knees would allow. Steep tree lines and seriously legit fish and chips at a pub called the Last Drop (where they serve two big pieces of halibut for under $20) left us struggling to put down any respectable number of pints.

We cut a left turn to Whistler in pursuit of a phantom storm, then spent the next day’s drive back to the Interior searching for Sasquatch.

“Squatchy!” Bock kept yelling out the window. It was cold and wet and unusually dark, with droopy trees that looked like the ones in the rodent bog from “The Princess Bride.” If Squatchy was going to be hanging out near any road on the continent, we felt strongly that he would show up here.

Alas, he did not. We hit Revy again the next morning then spent eight marvelous hours on Rogers Pass the following day with ski mountaineer Greg Hill. I had a hard time getting over the powder, and at one point Greg’s friend Joey Vosburgh confirmed my suspicions. “Even when it’s bad up here, it’s usually still really good,” Joey said, surrounded by a bleached landscape of pillows and pyramids.

We drove south out of Revy to the hippieville of Nelson, catching the ferry at night while swigging cans in the back seat. Part of the untethered beauty of a road trip is you never feel like you’re on someone else’s schedule, free instead to follow your inner Rowdy. Before long you feel like destiny is in play yet again, and everything feels right. Holding back is like treason.

We met Rainbow at Open Mic Night in Nelson, where the powder lasts for many days after a storm. He was a cool cat — I wish we had a Rainbow in my town. I wish we had a lot of the Interior in my town, come to think of it. But because most of the fun is getting there, I’m glad we don’t.

Brexico and the Holidays

The holiday season in Brexico is different than most holiday seasons in the world. For starters, if you go by how long Christmas lights remain on pine trees and buildings in town, which is how I judge it, the season lasts about four months. Some years, five.

This is less a show of laziness and more a fact of life. People in ski towns, particularly those who run retail stores, simply enjoy leaving their decorations up until the season’s over. It’s like when Pavlov made the dog salivate. You might go into your spring-break vacation thinking you’re broke and planning to eat crackers and mustard, but after a few hours walking up and down Main Street and staring at those dang Christmas lights, buying a jacket feels like the only way out.

At least, that’s the logic I imagine we can blame for why the lights stay up so long. I really have no idea. Anyone out there know?

On the island where I was raised, holiday lights went up a few weeks before Christmas and came down the week after. It was a different scene entirely. No quaint little winter-wonderland Main Street, and definitely no snow. I still remember when Santa got busted smoking a joint on the beach. I think I was 10. It made the paper and everything.

If I sound like Scrooge complaining that the lights stay up so long, it’s because in some ways I view the holidays as a shadow of their former selves. The Christmas spirit usually eludes me until the last minute. Mostly because I don’t enjoy shopping, and maybe also because I don’t have children, so it’s not my job to get excited about Santa when I know he’s just a guy with a beard up from Idaho Springs. But when the season gets stretched like Gumby this way and that, suddenly it’s so diluted that I feel like it’s lost its magic.

Bear in mind, I’m writing this in late-November, a few days after Black Friday, the most depressing phenomenon to hijack the world since the Macarena.

I actually love the holidays themselves. I love skiing on Christmas morning and eating turkey that afternoon, then again later that night and on through the rest of the week. I love holiday parties and football, and I love seeing how excited my mom gets on Christmas Eve. I love when it’s cold outside and toasty inside, and I love the lights on our tree at night.

In fact, I was sitting around late last night and feeling a bit cynical about the whole buildup, so I walked downtown with my camera. I wanted to see what kind of decorations people have up — see what the next four months will look like. It surprised me. I walked home feeling better about the season.

Not the winter season, mind you, the holiday season. There is a difference.

Starting Over

Pat mountain biking in Brexico before his move to HawaiiTwo weeks ago, my friend Pat flew to Hawaii on a one-way ticket. He had lived in Brexico for 25 consecutive years, but recently decided to move somewhere warmer and lower. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he liquidated everything he owned, right down to his coffee table and shelves, then left town for good on his 55th birthday.

Such a decision sounds typical, and maybe it is. A lot of mountain men and women have charted similar routes. If not to Hawaii, then Arizona. Or Florida. One can only take so much wind across the cheeks on 10-below mornings up here.

But until Pat departed, I’d never watched a friend endure the emotions of leaving somewhere you’ve lived for so long — and making that move totally alone. It broke my heart, partly because I could tell it broke Pat’s heart to leave, but also because I realized I might follow him someday.

As his departure date approached, we went on sentimental mountain bike rides, met for beers on random nights, talked about what might await him in paradise. Pat, a gray-haired waiter who lived alone and was known as “The Legend,” or simply “Ledge,” because of his ability to mash up 12,000-foot mountains even into his 50s, tried to conceal his emotional cauldron. That lasted right up to the end, when it released like an avalanche and he told us all he loved us, tears streaming down his face.

He didn’t have much of a plan once he landed in Honolulu. He’d booked a room in Waikiki for a week and toyed with the idea of working on an organic farm, but ultimately ended up being disgusted by the city and hopped a plane to Maui. He was there, in Lahaina, when we finally spoke on the phone, 10 days into his new existence. He sounded quiet and subdued at first.

I asked him if he was doing all right.

“As you can imagine, it’s really difficult, man. You try to be strong and deal, just knowing it’s going to be hard and a change, but it’s pretty much like someone grabbed you by your ankles and shook you upside down for a while. Next thing you know, you wake up and you’re thousands of miles away from friends you’ve had for 25 years, knowing you can’t just give ’em a call and hook up for a ride or a ski.”

For the record, this is how Pat describes his decision to leave Brexico. “Six or seven years ago, I started entertaining the thought, knowing that I was getting older and that the mountains wouldn’t really be ideal for me to be old, because I don’t really like being cold all the time. And that air, too — the altitude is pretty tough. You don’t even think about it when you’re younger, but after 20 years you do. The decision was kind of gradual, and that’s what makes it harder than anything. It’s not like I didn’t like it there; I did. I just knew I was going to have to make a break sooner than later, and it’s hard when you get older to do stuff like that.”

Pat moved to Hawaii after over 20 years in Colorado
Pat

Pat had rented a room in a house with three other people. He was looking for work at restaurants like the Lahaina Prime Rib and Seafood Company. “I still kind of feel like a mountain guy, but at the same time, I’m in a beach town,” he said. “I have my yogurt and bananas and berries with a bowl of cereal, try to pass out some résumés and take care of some business, and I really look forward to going down to the beach and just sitting, listening to the surf.”

At age 32, I can’t really grasp the concept of starting over halfway through one’s life. Instead of looking forward to the first powder day, Pat is waiting for the whales to arrive. And the tourists. He’s hoping to meet a friend or two. “There’s random moments where you’re just going, ‘What have I done?'” he said. “But I know exactly what I’ve done and it’s pretty exciting. There are just so many unknowns.”

At that, we said goodbye and went about our evenings 3,500 miles apart. I was a little worried about Pat, until he e-mailed a few days later to make sure I wasn’t worried about him. “Went to Hana yesterday, very cool, you should google the ‘road to Hana’ and check it out. Jungles, waterfall, black sand beaches, a most awesome trip,” he wrote. “Wanted to spend some time there, but trying to watch my pennies. So far, have been in the ocean and gone barefoot every day. Let it snow!”

Open Spaces

One of the undeniable human instincts, I believe, is to want to claim land and space for oneself. It’s why property ownership was invented, it’s why wars have been fought, neighbors killed, guard dogs bred, white picket fences erected. Yet the whole reason I love living in the West is because of how much public land there is for everyone.

Now, if everyone actually ventured out and enjoyed this land, it would not be as sweet a place as it is. That’s the sad truth: I like that the land is public, but I love that the public isn’t crawling all over the land. Because, the fact is, there aren’t many people out in the mountains. Most days you can get up high and not see anyone.

So when I recently learned someone is writing a guidebook about all our local backcountry ski lines, I was bummed. It was instinctive, like mourning a loss.

Guidebooks are like talking maps; one step below dashboard-mounted GPS units. Do we really need talking maps? Or do we just need regular maps and word of mouth? This is a fundamental question, and certainly not a new one. Locals have long been protective of their surroundings. Look at Amazon tribes, or how localized surfing is.

Still bummed, I sent an e-mail to the guidebook writer — who happens to live an hour and a half away, on the Front Range — asking him why he was writing his guidebook. I was simply curious; I didn’t even beg him not to write the book. He never wrote me back. I can only surmise he is doing it for his ego — so everyone knows he skis the backcountry and is privy to all the stashes — or for money. And if it’s money … really? Who is projecting his sales numbers?

I’m aware there could be some hypocrisy here. I write for a living, and there have been stories in which I’ve included a tip for where to get a juicy burger or which outfitter to hire for a run down Gore Canyon. But I can never bring myself to write about a place’s true secrets. It’s easy money, but it comes with a dirty feeling, like I’ve just sold out every explorer who made a point to discover those secrets on his or her own.

Lately, another issue has been evoking similar philosophical thoughts: the collision of public lands and big business. Our local ski resort, which is part of a public corporation, and which brings in more visitors than any resort in America, is trying to expand onto a fifth peak. The issue is too deep and complex to dissect in this space, but basically, a bunch of locals are against it because the town’s already too crowded, and there are plenty who believe the expansion would attract so many more people that the new terrain wouldn’t even matter; the resort (and town) would become even more overwhelmed.

It’s turned into quite the political issue, as public-lands battles tend to do, but one of the main points of contention, as I see it, has more to do with the public process than the issue at hand. The sole decision maker is a federal employee who lives an hour away and candidly admits he never skis Breckenridge, nor spends much time in the town, least of all during the few weeks a year when it takes a half-hour to drive a half-mile down Main Street.

Which begs the question: That’s the best we can do? I realize the land, by definition, belongs as much to a farmer from Topeka as it does to me and everyone else who lives here. I’m not arguing that. But it’s one thing to allow equal entitlement, it’s another for outsiders to establish user rights and approve development when the implications are much broader than they realize, or care to admit — federal employee or not.

As for the guidebook writer, his book will come out and maybe we’ll see a few more people in the places where we used to see nobody. Not the end of the world, and certainly enriching for the new visitors. But as I wrote to him in my e-mail, if his reason for writing the book is to share these cool spots with others, why not let them experience the rush of finding the places on their own, or with a good friend leading them? Seems pretty fair to me.

Jonesing

Jonesing bad.

I was skiing along the other day at our local mountain when I bumped into an old friend. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call him Jones.

Jones and I had corresponded via text message the prior evening about meeting up for some runs. But since cellular service is unreliable at Arapahoe Basin, it was convenient to ski up to each other on the cornice instead. His delightful-sounding plan had been to get up very early and secure one of the coveted front-row spots on The Beach, then grill some meat and wash it down with a brewski or two after cutting through fresh powder all morning.

The only problem with Jones’s plan was he didn’t get to the Basin in time to secure a spot on the front row. April and May are party months on the Beach, where real estate is in such high demand that arriving any time after dawn basically means you should’ve slept two more hours and come up at 8 to fight for a mezzanine spot.

When I saw Jones on the cornice, he informed me he was row-parked just like everyone else who didn’t make the cut. “What happened?” I asked. He turned and looked at me with a grin, like what he was about to say could’ve been called trivial.

“I think I’ve lost my jones.” Then he kept right on skiing to our drop-in point.

It was the first time I’d ever heard those words. Suddenly my mind filled with questions. Can someone really lose his jones? How does that happen? Is it a long process or an overnight thing? What happens to the jones once it gets lost? Is there some big jones graveyard where all the excess joneses go to be buried? Is that graveyard in the suburbs? Does life as a whole start going downhill once you’ve lost your jones? Can it be found?

I had more questions, but right then I needed to start skiing again so as not to be left on the cornice. The only thing I said to Jones about his shocking disclosure was, “Really?” Then I let it pass, to be posited on my own time later.

Truth be told, it’s perfectly acceptable not to want to wake up at oh-dark-thirty just for a decent parking spot in a free dirt lot. I don’t think that alone means you’ve lost your jones. But Jones knew exactly what he was talking about — he is neither ignorant nor naive when it comes to this kind of thing. On the contrary, Jones has dwelled in many a high-altitude community over the past 15 or 20 years, and he knows exactly what a jones feels like, and is. For him to say he lost his, well, I took him seriously.

This is why you jones.

Personally, I don’t think one can lose his jones. I think it can fade, just like hairlines do, but I don’t think it ever really goes away. A jones, to me, is not just a desire; it’s one level above that, sort of this ever-present zest that steers your decisions and keeps your priorities straight. Surfers jones for ground swell and offshore winds. Skiers jones for light, dry powder. Climbers jones for the rain to stop.

To jones (as you probably know, it’s a wordsmith’s chameleon, usable either as a noun or a verb) is to want something more than you might want, say, sprouts in your salad. It’s not an inner urge reserved exclusively for one realm of life, but rather a general quirk to your personality that applies to many realms. I don’t think every member of our race is born with a jones inside him, because there are some slugs out there who seem to lack any zest whatsoever. But those who are lucky enough to possess a jones — I don’t think they can lose it simply due to age and the been-there-done-that syndrome.

How does a jones evolve, then? Naturally. When I picture myself as a man in my 60s or 70s, God willing, I picture myself on a backcountry hut trip with some close amigos or family members, watching the powder mount on the hill out the window. I highly doubt I’ll be bounding out the door in full winter gear to make 7 a.m. powder turns. But I am optimistic that my jones won’t let me sit there past 8.