An Evening Walk At Snowbowl

San Francisco Mountains

We had just spotted the tree — an ancient gnarled limber pine triumphantly reaching for the heavens through golden evening light — when a voice from behind disturbed our wonder. “Hey, stop!” A young man in blue jeans and grey fleece jacket staggered up the dirt road, gasping. Thinking he was in need of first-aid, I switched into medic mode. Having patrolled these very ski slopes in years past, I felt naked without a radio to call in the 10-50 — radio code for an accident needing attention. Just then I noticed that the youth had his own radio, and he appeared not in physical distress, but rather in a fit of frustrated anger. “You can’t be here,” he sputtered. “This is a closed area. I need your names and information.” His skin was flushed pink. Pure unbridled agitation radiated in palpable waves from his excited voice. He was in a tizzy.

My wife and I attempted to soothe his distress by explaining that, in any case, we were headed away from his apparent closure, en route to potential record limber pines, which we intended to measure for a national database. For a moment, it seemed this information helped alleviate his crisis, but as we struck off to continue our evening walk, his alarm switch flipped. “No!” he barked in a cry of panic and utter desperation, “you’re coming with me!” I honestly thought the boy was going to burst if we didn’t in some way help. So we walked with earnest Ian Smith, his nametag proudly pinned to his Snowbowl-issue security jacket, and we talked him down.

Yet, we were unwilling to offer every detail of personal information he requested, including social security numbers. You could see his blood pressure rise. He called his boss, Terry. “I’ve got a couple trespassers resisting escort,” he chimed to the great OZ, hidden away somewhere on the far end of that little black cell phone. The situation was quickly devolving into the absurd, so I asked for a word with boss-man Terry before my wife, arthritic ankle and all, and I were swept into a hovering spacecraft never to be seen again. Such a scenario seemed probable given the surreal events that were unfolding. After introducing myself over the phone, I leaned toward the receiver expecting a measured, consolatory tone. What spewed forth on the other end were thinly veiled threats straight out of the good-cop interrogation handbook. “You give him all your information to complete the card or we call the sheriff and they’ll charge you with class-III felony trespass. It’s really out of our hands.” “Of course it is, Terry,” I said, “you’re just a pawn.” I couldn’t resist the quip. I don’t think he got it.

So, we finished our altered evening stroll accompanied by a gradually calming Ian, our enthusiastic escort, gaining a glimpse into the convoluted circumstances that landed him here on security detail at the Snowbowl. We learned of his brief internship at a Tucson brokerage, cut short by slow economic times, and his forced transition to snowboard instructor in the White Mountains, where, he explained, he was swindled into sixteen days of free work during his first season, fourteen days his second. Curiously, Ian did not recognize the injustice of that indentured servitude, trained as he was in economics to willfully plug-in as a cog of the profit machine. “It’s the way you have to run a business,” he opined. Now, with an unplanned child of his own to care for, he was grateful to work the front lines for Arizona Snowbowl limited partnership LLC. “They found out that I was an Eagle Scout and I’d work my tail off, so here I am.” Like a foot soldier conducting house raids in Baghdad, his genuine naivety was both charming and unsettling.

As we approached an assemblage of metal buildings at the fringe of forest (“The Shop,” it’s called at Snowbowl), a circle of a dozen laughing men dressed in grease-stained work clothes traded stories at the end of a long day. I half expected to recognize a familiar face in the crowd. I didn’t, but no matter; open, friendly faces greeted us as Ian herded us out of the woods. They immediately appreciated our predicament, silly as it was, and offered us both a beer. The voice of J.R., area manager, crackled over the radio just then with frightening timing, “Ian, there’s a fire truck coming up the road, do you know about that?” The distraction allowed us a moment to crack a PBR with newfound friends while Ian juggled priorities.

I thought we might be free of our detention, but Ian quickly put out the emerging fire truck peril and got back on task, hiking with us to our car, where he could learn more, scribe additional information on his folded white form, get us in the data base. As we approached our battered decades-old Honda Civic, we confided, “I guess that rope right there is where we crossed the boundary.” Indeed, it was the ski area’s lease boundary, delineating that portion of public land that they have been granted to act as stewards. In years past, I had strung more of that rope than I cared to remember, which is likely why I gave little thought to stepping over it as my wife and I picked through logs and ferns, buzzing with anticipation to reach the record trees.

We paused on our way down the mountain, a safe distance from our little ski hill’s security zone, of course, and sat on a log to ponder what had just transpired. Is this what life has come to in Flagstaff, a place we glowingly refer to as a “mountain town,” whose one real mountain is now cordoned into a security zone? I remember a time, not too long ago, when I cherished Snowbowl — a place I learned to ski on a Hart Prairie handle tow, ditched school to spend my meager teenage wages, happily, on a lift ticket to ride the Poma to the top of today’s Blackjack Run over and over, a place where I skied for class credit in college, and later traversed every nook of the area in a red jacket, occasionally sledding patrons down the mountain with twisted knees, dislocated shoulders, broken femurs. I took visiting friends up the mountain with pride, eagerly showing off my, our, wonderfully quaint diamond-in-the-rough ski area. That time has passed.

We decided, sitting on that log, that time marches on to the pendulum swing of events and attitudes, and that presently the pendulum has swung in a disconcerting arc. But comeuppance is being meted nonetheless. For what is the cost to Ian, to Terry, J.R., Mr. Borowski, of the daily edginess they must now feel, of the hostility they have brought, continue to bring, to themselves in their quest of the holy dollar, or millions of dollars. It must be a hollow existence indeed. Too bad we can’t go back to the good ol’ days, they might think. But I guess for, some, the good ol’ days just weren’t good enough.

We don’t now a damned thing about Tyler Williams, except that this is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.

11 thoughts on “An Evening Walk At Snowbowl”

  1. Wow, our beloved has become not so? The good ol’ days at the bowl should be called the great old days. I miss the Snowbowl! The friends, dry snow, trips to the IB and the great times. Old Flagstaff shares the same memories. Guns holstered used to hang behind the bar at Joe’s when I first moved to the shadows of the peaks. Everything changes and evolves (seems for the worse in American mountain life) but remember those trees Tyler.

    J.R. is kind of a tool in the functional sense of course. We all have financial obligations and money seems to be second only to oxygen in our current American existence. Compassion and everything money does NOT buy has to become valuable to the masses before we are allowed to travel through areas like the bowl in our land of the relatively free. We all yearn for the good old days but must remember if we are looking in the rear view mirror while moving forward we are likely to run into something we should have avoided. Cheers!

  2. An unfortunate human proclivity is give someone a radio, and a hat/T-shirt/badge/jacket, (add water)
    Instant Nazi

    I’m sure the youngin’ was trained to keep trespassers OUT. Enthusiasm is rewarded, and sometimes a bonus is tacked on to a meager paycheck.

  3. Those of us who have been fighting Snowbowel’s plan to make fake snow from reclaimed wastewater like to refer to the ski lodge as – well – Snowbowel, Snowfoul. Please read this: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/2842:from-sacrilege-to-sacredness-whats-the-big-deal-about-snowmaking
    After ten years of fighting what thirteen tribes believe to be an act of spiritual genocide, we lost a few months ago. We – Native Americans and enviros and people who just plain give a shit – took legal action, monkey-wrenched, were arrested in civil disobedience, put on teach-ins, paraded, went to endless city council and forest service meetings. The opposition was not just the profit-hungry Snowbowel but the Forest Service. The woman who made the decision was forest supervisor, Nora Rasure (now overseeing Cultural Relations for the FS) After four hours of testimony from Native elders, council members, medicine people and scientists – during which middle-aged Native American men spoke with tears running down their faces – Nora Rasure said, “This has all been very moving, but I also have to consider the rights of the skiers.” If any of you out there remember the part in the constitution that says people have an inalienable right to make snow on a desert mountains, educate me.
    Thank you, Tyler Williams, for one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read on Snowbowel. You nailed it.

  4. I used to live in Flag so many moons ago. I used to walk up and around the roads up there with my dog, and sit on the side of the mountain that is now a parking lot. I suppose I might even be close enough to attaining geezer status in the eyes of some, especially those with name tags and radios, and authority. My heart stays young, or tries to, but it grieves with the Native Americans and the tree huggers and all of us who kiss the old days and old ways goodbye. I keep thinking I’ll move back to Flag one of these days, but I’m afraid it’s too late for me. It may be too late for all of us. Yet another sad commentary on Progress.

    1. Thank you Tyler Williams for this. So true, and its simply too painful for me to finish my comment….

  5. Know nothings take heart in this one sided article which fails to present factual information and relies solely on a exploitative caricature of a lonely and earnest young man trying to do the job he was hired for. The perimeter and security at Snowbowl is a requirement of both the Forest Service and our overly litigious society as construction work on the mountain creates multiple hazards to the general public, something Mr. Williams was conveniently oblivious to.

    Those opposed to the installation of snowmaking on the mountain have used every argument imaginable to try and stop what from the resort’s point of view is simply a way to create a sustainable business model. The idea that artificial snow will suddenly allow the owners to reap millions of dollars in additional profit is laughable, especially when you realize the cost not only in terms of installation, but the monies already spent litigating the case in court for nearly 10 years, as well as the subsequent cost of operation.

    In order to survive as a viable business and continue to offer recreational skiing and snowboarding on the mountain, Snowbowl is doing what every other ski area in the world does – the big difference in this case is the source of water, not the practice of making snow to ensure a guaranteed opening date. If this spoils the hazy golden memories of those who harken to the “good old days”, then I guess that’s one more sacred cow off to the slaughterhouse.

    1. Wake up, pal. I’m guessing you’re a Snowbowl employee. And this isn’t about the good old days. It’s about disrespect for the people who lived here long before us white folks did.

  6. ” It must be a hollow existence indeed.” One more jackass turning cute phrases and insinuating how his life is better than another’s. Garbage, Tyler, Garbage.

  7. Agreed- I remember skiing there in the late 80s, after classes at NAU when they’d let you ride the lifts for free for the last hour of the day. I skied it again last spring, skinning up and taking one great powder run down, no lift ticket. I remember getting married in Lockett meadow, and untold hikes and bike rides all over The peaks. The whole town has changed (grown up?) and the change and growth is not for the better. (I agree with nearly everything in Mr. William’s story, except the comparison of the wheezing Snowbowl worker to our fine soldiers in
    Baghdad, an unfortunate mistaken camparison, indeed.)

    It’s time to push back, folks, to push back against the arbitrary closures and and locked gates (except for the wealthy key-holders) on the Coconino NF. These controls are exclusive, not environmentally necessary and extremely oppressive. I remember Abbey drinking a Heineken and signing books in the NAU bookstore one afternoon, and I am remined of his advice: “Resist much, obey little.”

  8. I remember the good old days with snow so deep the chair lift had to be dug out just to get to midway! I have skied the mountain using the lift and/or hiking to get to where others would not take the effort to go. Snow making at the Arizona Snowbowl has been a part of the plan for as long as I can remember. Interesting that the militant attitude the area has adopted is similar to the militant attitude adopted by those who would disagree with snowmaking. The judicial system has spoken. Like the present weather patterns, we have seen this conflict coming. This is change that we must learn to live with. Still being belligerent is no way to smooth the way for compromise. This is true for both sides of the argument. The bad news is the Snowbowl is compelled to protect their business with a heavy hand. Let us not forget, this is a LOCAL ski hill, and a PLAYGROUND for those from the big city. The good news to this parable is that Tyler was not thrown into jail. Thanks Tyler for sharing you story.

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