Farmers pray for clouds, with dirt beneath their nails as they watch the sky and wish for rain. Sailors feel their hearts beat in time with the tides, and the saltwater flowing through their veins. And in Denver, the mountains stand at the end of every westbound street like a neighboring magic kingdom, succeeding blue waves that never break along the horizon.
Winter turns them into white castles. The weather and seasons come through them; the gold at the end of the day at the house by the airport when the jets were over the roof and there was a drawer filled with plastic-wrapped butterflies that my brother and I spread out on the table in the kitchen. The older kids married me to the French girl down the street in a soda-pop wedding. Minot was her name. I drank water from the gutter to stay out and play. And upstairs in my bed, I thought about Betty Rubble until a thrill went through my waist like lightning.
“The dogs pee in that water,” my mother called from the den. She had blonde hair like cotton candy; big blue eyes like ice cubes in a glass of gin. She had big round tits on a tiny frame, so small sometimes it seemed as if she was just those tits, that hair, and a little squeak of a voice like air escaping. “It’ll make you blind.”
She was from Minnesota, the Dairy Queen. And she arched her back and watched my father with those big blue eyes like he had just carried her into the room.
He was a handsome man. He had high broad shoulders and long swimmer’s arms, a thick black mustache and the mean look of a friendly policeman. There were pictures of him in his flight suit beside his silver jet, in black wraparound sunglasses beside his green Austin Healy and in his officer’s uniform standing at attention. He was a captain in the Air Force before the migraines grounded him. He would vomit all over the control panels on flights out of Texas. It was always someplace over New Mexico where the holes in his vision would open.
“There were parties at the Officer’s Club,” my mother said, with her eyes as big and wide as if a camera were rolling. “And everybody smoked, and drank beer. We didn’t know it was just speed in all the diet pills we were on. Oh, you should have seen him.”
I remember how he whispered in my ear, “You’re standing still,” when I was two, when he first took me skiing. Then he held me between his legs and tilted us over the hill until the wind was on my face and the sky was set in motion. “But you’re flying.”
I leaned into his red down parka, looking up at the icicles on his mustache and thinking he looked like a walrus with a tall red hat on. I watched his clear goggles, and his gaze so still and serious that I felt like we were levitating. With his hands out front and his legs coming close together, we went looking for the softest snow on the side of the runs.
“In the shadows. Away from the sun.”
He grew up in Syracuse, New York, where winter is like a mini Ice Age with some of the biggest blizzards of the year and the wet constant cold that seeps
into your skin. Only broken little slopes like Song and Labrador sprout up in weather-beaten remnants of the Adirondacks to the north, and that first day on the golf course, on the white wooden pair of Army Surplus skis he bought for $15, he knew there must be something better. He could feel it in his toes like a tingling sensation. He could see it in the pinned-up pictures of the Obermeyer girls of Colorado, the beautiful blonde skier Gretchen Fraser, the beautiful blonde skater Sonja Heinie, and the Sun Valley brunettes with the cold apple cheeks staring into black peaks in the distance as if they were windows in his room.
“It’s like you’re king,” he said about standing on top of his first Colorado mountain. “Like what you see is what you own.”
He read us “Hamlet” when we were too little to understand, except for the slings and arrows, the ghost on the wall and his voice like a soft wind. To train for the winter, he ran up the stairs with a backpack full of sand. In the early ’70s, he worked at Vail every weekend as a volunteer ski patrolman.
Every Friday night, we drove up out of Denver in our Volkswagen station wagon. It was before Eisenhower Tunnel was blown through the mountain. Over the icy switchbacks of Loveland Pass to the top of the world with snowflakes like schools of fish against the glass, white whales past the headlights, big bare winter moons and the orange-lit faces of men beside jackknifed trucks; the skeletal aspen. Ghost stories on the radio: The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and only because I say it now, Gram Parsons.
Copper Mountain was like a truck stop where we never stopped. Vail Pass was like a haunted forest of deep secrets in its bunched-up black trees and empty frozen meadows, the heater against our hands and the lights in the valley below like we were coming down in a covered wagon. The waterfalls were as blue as rock candy against the cliffs and there were so many stars that your head would swirl to see them.
“There, with the golden belt, is Orion.”
His friends owned a house in East Vail. Then it was called Big Horn. It was like a Swiss chalet with indigo shutters and white walls into the trees where we hunted raspberries in the spring. We built a fort in the boulders above the house with realty signs and dead aspen. Two ski instructors rented the downstairs and kept a greenhouse in the woods. They played guitars and rolled cigar-sized joints that the adults would smoke in the living room. We were there when they said Elvis was dead on the news. It didn’t make me sad until I really started to listen.
We slept swaddled in sleeping bags on the floor and woke up with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches already packed in the pockets of our parkas. Ice on the beaver pond. “It’s like they’re on fire,” my brother said as the sun smoked snow from the tops of the trees. But I was already dreaming.
“You have your father’s eye.”
Vail is built on the idea of beautiful women. In the showers and saunas where Spanish-speaking girls sweat away the chill like chocolate melting. In the wood-carved doors that lead away to restaurants with candles on the table, fireplace bars, stringed white lights and bright European ski clothes like presents waiting to be opened; green-eyed girls from Cherry Creek with red hair and perfect crooked teeth, freckles and big brothers in letter jackets that want to drink Coors with you and chew Copenhagen. How it feels to be cold, then warm again. The way the sunlight falls into the condominiums. And the best blondes in the best restaurant windows as sudden as white ponies in the streets, in fur coats and cowboy hats when you turn around to see who is laughing. Brunettes from Boston, as indifferent as an away game, with Christmas card lists that they learn to turn into weapons, Rossignols and fuzzy mittens. The smell of woodsmoke like sex on the wind. The slopes into town like falling ribbons. And in everyone’s breath, the smoke signal surety of human warmth held up against itself; under all those puffy parkas, long-knit scarves, tight turtlenecks and black stretch pants with the promise of secret skin.
“I think about it with my legs,” my brother said. The memory. The anticipation. In the drum of our boots as they would sound through town, carrying our skis over our shoulders by the tips like off to the cool war, as if just by walking to the lifts we were capable of a greater something. “The way it feels to have people stop and watch you come past them.”
The preceding is an excerpt from Kray’s book, “The God of Skiing,” scheduled to be released next year by Shred White and Blue Media. Kray lives in Santa Fe.