The boy crouches over a pad of paper and a scattering of colored pencils. He looks out a window, takes a breath and begins to draw. A mountain takes shape on the page — a triangle with a white cap, blue slopes, and a range of green foothills. He shakes his head, rips the paper off the pad. The cartoonish mountain drifts onto a haphazard pile on the floor. He stares at the next blank sheet, then looks out the window and draws a line …
Meet François. Keep in mind that this story takes place in the shadow of a mountain deemed to be a faultless destination for winter tourism, in a time that most assure could never happen again, and that maybe never was. Myself? I’m not so sure, so you are the jury, dear readers.
A bus pulls into a circle, bristling with skis in a rack that stretches from front door to rear bumper. The doors open, and its driver looks out his side window as the passengers get off. Another bus driver waves a flat blue cloth hat that vaguely resembles a beret; points at the hat, then at the first driver. When both buses are empty, the hat-bearing driver walks over, says, “I just found this thing, and you’re the only one of us crazy enough to wear it.”
They say the resort was imagined by an adman, a vision of celebrities on snow and ice designed to sell train tickets to city-dwellers. The railroad baron’s men found their perfect mountain at the end of a rail-line. It was a forested cone on the western horizon of an old mining town. The baron’s money imported a sport and a gaggle of European instructors to accent it, commissioned a concrete dream of a stone lodge a mile from town, and cut ski runs down the mountain. The town’s residents never could have suspected what was coming, and may have welcomed the promise of tourism as a replacement for the played-out mining trade.
By the time François came to the resort, the lodge was old, the European instructors gray and imperious with years of elegant instruction to beginning skiers, and the town’s young and defiant were exploring off the mountain’s trails on a motley variety of scarred Alpine and Nordic skis. François was young, and even his name was a rebellion against a nickname that other drivers started using when he wore the hat. As he drove his bus through the town from mountain to resort, some called him Frenchy on the two-way radio, so he corrected them by getting a new nametag, replacing his given name with François, which suited his sense of himself as a budding cosmopolitan adventurer. Then came the scarves, and soon François was known as a friend to alley dogs and frozen skiers, a judicious confidant of certain romantically inclined middle-aged wives taking time off from the week-long ski school, encouraged perhaps by his response to the innocent question, “Parlez-vous française?” “Non mademoiselle — but I do many French things.”
They sat behind his driver’s seat, leaning forward as details of their lives tumbled over his shoulder, the breath of expensive perfumes and liqueurs wafting on the intensity of their angst over trifles and perceived wrongs. They vented their frustrations with relish, and occasionally stroked his neck or arm to make a point. Details of parties, spousal indiscretions and failing affairs filled his ears, but François kept his eyes on the snow-packed roads, except for occasional glances in his interior mirror to watch the show. He soon learned it was all a façade, which his anxious passenger would drop when she got to the part that they all got to, eventually. It was fear of never quite getting it, no matter how much money and time she spent trying to learn. What the parade of occasional skiers wanted to share were fears of failing to make graceful turns take shape on the snow under their skis.
Finally, it would pour out — details of the European instructors’ perfect lines drawn down the mountain’s flanks, and of expectations that they learn to do the same. The confessions always came just before the end of the bus route, where François would send them back onto the snow with a sympathetic smile or a brush of the hand.
It was a town blanketed by snow for all the months of winter. Snow that came in Arctic storms pushed south across the continent, great drifts that covered the roads and sculpted the rooflines with fantasy shapes, skeins of snow that flew from the mountain’s sunlit top on the mornings after a storm. It was a town blanketed by snow under the roofs too, lines of it on glass-topped tables at the parties, dustings under the noses of wide-eyed novices, traces in the eyes and jerks of strung-out partiers as they tried to ski powder the next day as if nothing at all had happened the night before. Now, though our François was a man of great passions, the parties and recitals of fears soon took his innocence, leaving a jaundice he hid behind a line of patter that kept his passengers at bay so he could go back to his contemplations.
a2 + b2 = c2
Contemplations of what? Imagine drawing a right angle of any size, say the elevation of a mountain and the distance from a town nestled at its base. From this half of a box you’ve made for yourself, draw a line angling from a certain point on the upright angle to the baseline’s end, and you’ll have a perfect proof of a theorem first stated on a stone tablet almost 4,000 years ago. Now put yourself at the top end of the angled line. Ignore the upright line above your starting point for this exercise, and lean your body to a perfect right angle to the slope in front of you. If there is enough snow, your skis are waxed properly and you give up the human desire to maintain a level horizon line, you will begin to descend. Now, feel the imperfections of the line you’ve chosen, and adjust your angle to compensate and carve turns. Done right, there is no need to use the poles in your hands. Keep adjusting to the mountain’s shapes, and eventually you will reach the edge of town exhilarated, flying higher than if you’d ridden to the top of the ski lifts and followed your instructor’s tracks all day.
The town had a community art studio and small coffeehouse on a side street where such exercises were discussed, and conversations examined mathematical equations for scale and meter as often as predictions of when the next Arctic storm would hit the mountain. François would contemplate the theories of his cohorts, throwing an occasional bone from his own pile into the conversational fire. Then he would go back to his bus and scribble lines of poetry in his sketch pad, or surreptitiously draw the features of his latest group of passengers. Ah, yes, our conducteur d’autobus was an artiste.
It had started with the triangular mountains he drew as a child, and he was hooked by a feeling of immortality the first time he looked at a mountain and his hand made the shape come alive on a blank piece of paper. It felt like a secret drug. Chasing the high, he found a way of synchronizing thoughts, scene and movements; breathing just so, angling his gaze and ignoring all that wasn’t part of his vision. The perfection was fickle though, and he searched old masters’ techniques for a formula to call up the feeling on demand. Sometimes, it worked, and he would lean the finished painting against a wall to consider it.
François learned enough telemark technique to occasionally feel the same high as he slid down the mountains near town, and he began climbing the old mining roads on early mornings, to find untracked slopes where theories could be tested without the interruptions of conversation. He also practiced techniques of survival essential to starving artists of romantic persuasion in upscale economies. He wore a thrift-shop wardrobe, got free drinks and meals from local restaurants in return for discreet endorsements to bus passengers, and skied on cast-offs from the more affluent resort visitors: soft leather boots, battered poles, a pair of soft-edged Nordic skis designed for touring through gentle meadows. Elegant turns required a perfect shift of weight to the forward ski, with angle-to-slope finely tuned to the mountain’s imperfections. Many times, the artiste dug himself out of a snowy pit at the end of a face-plant, a cartwheel, or a careening skid and desperate butt-plant just before kissing a tree or tipping over a cliff. Eventually, François got the angles right more often than not, and it felt like drawing a picture that could transform a perfect feeling into a vision.
How to translate a vision? There is the phrase attributed to French master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the perfect moment,” when scene, action and photographer become one. The “sweet spot” of baseball is where size and shape of bat and angle of swing dictates a vibration-free collision with a fastball. Some say this is “the zone” — or “flow.” Skiers, rock climbers and river runners have long used the ubiquitous “perfect line.” In classical and jazz music, some call it “the perfect note.” Some Zen practitioners believe it is “the sound of one hand clapping,” and the Indian mystic Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha) named it, “A place beyond identity, called Nirvana” — though the rock band that adopted this name couldn’t save their lead singer from himself.
On a topographic map, the symbol for a mountain is a triangle, though its perfect sides are belied by the squiggles of elevation lines surrounding its peak on the page. To experienced eyes, the map reveals slopes that can draw a skier to Nirvana, or to a line that leads to an explosion of snow and a growing run-out of debris that just might encase the skier’s last insights, along with the body. Some of François’ friends followed the high of a perfect line to this end, a few fell from cliffs, while too many fried their lives on cocaine or its chemical cronies. Some started families, others moved away. A few seemed to balance temptations and desires, while drawing discreet lines on the mountains around that town, or another one less pressured by fame and greed. Some chased money and power until their lines blurred with the resort’s tourists. A fellow artist from the community studio, who had created one masterful abstract painting after another, became a slum-lord in a budding resort town far, far away.
François lived somewhere between, seeking lines in pictures, mountains, canyons, words and the theoretic equations of jazz. Eventually, he stopped expecting perfection from artistic representations, and reveled in the evidence of an attempt, no matter how unsuccessful the result. He left the gentrified resort town that introduced destination skiing to his continent, put away the tattered beret and scarves, and adopted another name. The artiste François, le conducteur d’autobus, was no more.
Many years later, the traveler who had been François began asking practitioners of various arts if they had ever felt that ephemeral moment of perfection, how it had felt, and if they had found a way to get back to it. He got: a river guide’s “feeling the current with my oars,” a jazz musician’s “becoming one with the thing,” a painter’s “the one with no imperfections,” a writer’s, “like time standing still,” an extreme skier’s “total commitment.” Then each described a formula with variously eloquent or convoluted language. The traveler stopped asking questions, and contemplated the problem while observing the imperfect lines of mountains rimming the horizons of his retreat.
“In any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle). If c denotes the length of the hypotenuse and a and b denote the lengths of the other two sides, Pythagoras’ theorem can be expressed as the Pythagorean equation.”
Exercise, memory and song. One old Greek story has lucky poets being anointed with these gifts by three goddesses of the arts. Others say there are nine Muses, and generations of artists have believed in one personal muse bringing perfection. In the literature, there are no proofs for these claims, but about 2,600 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras started using mathematics to illustrate his theories, and his school produced the first known proof of the theorem that bears his name.
Pythagoras is credited with discovering that musical notes can be represented by mathematical equations, and is said to have believed that the movements of planets and stars could be translated into a symphony. He thought living harmoniously, practicing mental and physical exercises as daily rituals, and meditation on cosmic harmony would deliver immortality. His philosophies were feared by the surrounding communities, who attacked and chased the practitioners from their sanctuary in what is now Italy. A story says Pythagoras accepted death rather than breaking one of his own philosophical taboos. His son became leader of the dwindling sect, and three daughters preserved or explained Pythagorean theories. The one known as Arignote wrote, “The eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth and the region in between. Likewise it is the root of the continued existence of the gods and daimones [demons], as well as that of divine men.”
By the time of Leonardo da Vinci, art students were dissecting and measuring cadavers to learn mathematical equations for imitating Greek sculptures said to depict the perfect human form, and then drawing boxes and circles to block out the areas for face, torso, limbs and extremities. Somewhere in Leonardo’s notebooks, he illustrated a formula first recorded by a Roman named Vitruvius.
To try it yourself, do this exercise: Hold a sketching pad in a portrait orientation. At the top of the page, draw a square as wide as the paper. Inside this, draw a remembered human face 1/10 as tall as your box. Measure this from hairline to chin; the brow is 1/3 of the way down, the nose begins 1/3 of the way up. Height, length of leg, arms, hands and feet, even the width of shoulders, are dictated by this beginning, and the arms might reach off the page.
I have no proof for a formula that will bring life to your representation of human perfection, though a poet named Dante Gabriel Rossetti sketched this intriguing equation in an ornate Victorian-era poem directed to the figures in a Venetian painting —
“Say nothing now unto her lest she weep,
Nor name this ever. Be it as it was,
Life touching lips with immortality.”
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He dreams his livin’ in southwest Colorado.