Freedom, Death and Glory

For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you.
Photo: Frank Shine

Look at the line one more time, get that sick little smile on my face, click my poles behind me a couple of times, exhale and shove off. Keep breathing. As a coach used to tell me, if you can’t hear yourself breathe, you probably aren’t. Work the fall-line where it rolls over and feel the sheer pitch of the slope, like someone too close behind me. Try not to cackle and choke on the powder billowing around my face. Don’t get sloppy or forget where I am. Breathe. Cut across the fall-line and set hard, release the slough, then flow with it off the cliff, stay tight, drop, drop and whoof! Hip-check into the hill, disappear in the powder then spring up out of it and bound on down the mountain, still charging, still breathing, the blood pumping in my head, a lunatic light in my eyes and wild laughter in my heart. If it sounds a lot like sex, you understand the feeling.

Why not? Those two words may be the essence of freeriding. “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” That hard-used George Bernard Shaw quote can define a way of looking at mountains as well as general human endeavor. For those snowboarders and skiers who spend a lot of their lives seeking and riding beautiful, exciting lines, the question they ask themselves most often is, Why not?

Why not enlarge the possibilities, the way any athlete does with any sport, looking at what’s never been done? With serious focus, preparation and passion, big new lines are being carved daily by the mad poets of the mountains. Especially around the Roaring Fork Valley where I live, which has become one of the country’s freeride capitals. Sometimes, with all of the other distractions in Aspen, people forget that it still has big-time slopes and riders.

“This valley has such an athletic population,” says 33-year-old native Kiffor Berg, “that there’s a huge talent pool to draw from. Combine that with the world-class terrain here and you get a very large and strong freeride community.” One that counts Berg among its headliners.

Will Cardamone, 25, grew up here as a third-generation local who knows his home-slopes. “This valley has become such a big freeride center for two reasons,” he says. “First, because it has the goods. The Elk Mountains are absolutely amazing and hold some of the best terrain in the country. Now, we do deal with a continental snowpack, which means the consistency throughout the snow is always changing and snow stability is a very serious factor. But when the snowpack is solid, there is so much potential and most of it is untapped. The other reason is due to the transformation that skiing and snowboarding have taken over the last ten years or so. It used to be that most kids like myself went to AVSC [the Aspen Valley Ski Club] to learn how to ski fast around gates. Now they’re going to the club to learn how to throw a cork 9 over a table or rip a steep line.”

Instead of the rigid discipline of ski racing, there have been options. “I am definitely independent,” notes Cardamone. “And the freedom associated with big-mountain telemark skiing hooked me pretty quickly. Plus, the feeling of fear mixed with adrenaline that hits when you’re about to drop in on a big line is as alive as I have ever felt and when it is directly followed by the feeling of flying and then that overwhelming joy after it all comes to a perfect ending, there is nothing that I have done yet in my life that is more fun than that.”

When you grow up in the circus, the rest of life can seem a little tame. Aspen has a long history of pushing all kinds of boundaries, especially in the mountains. Freeriding locally is just a product of our surroundings, mentored and godfathered by the likes of Lou Dawson and Chris Davenport, who have helped inspire the whole scene.

“This valley established its community long before skiing became its most paramount commodity,” says freeskier and photographer Frank Shine. “The passion that grew from within the town as the sport became more popular still remains. I ski with people who range in age from 16 to 50, all equally motivated by finding that perfect run through the trees, down the bowl or during the quiet of a deep-winter storm.” And, as Shine points out, “Every run is an unknown with endless possibilities around each corner, allowing for continuous chances to be creative.”

Onna Konicek, a 30-year-old family doctor from Vermont who works full-time in the winter at the Snowmass Mountain Urgent Care Clinic and who took second in the women’s snowboard division of the Colorado Freeride series in 2008, agrees. “Aspen has become synonymous with ripping. It’s a great gathering of the vibes, so to speak, for exceptional skiers and snowboarders. Skiers and riders are drawn here by one love and the strong sense of community.”

What draws people to freeriding itself isn’t too complicated, either. As U2 sings, “You don’t know if its fear or desire. Danger’s the drug that takes you higher.” Fear, adrenaline and the rush are all components of the freeriding package that’s rooted in doing what you love and loving what you do.

“It reminds me of skiing on Prospect Mountain when I was a kid,” explains Konicek. “We would tear around like little maniacs, dodging trees and skiing off of boulders. On the mountain, I’m excited and happy. I’m living in the now, flying down the mountain on the ever-breaking wave of the present. I am surrounded by the most miraculous substance — snow! I am alive with every cell. Freeriding is about the rush, fitness, camaraderie, challenging oneself, excelling, conquering fears, pushing limits … and just being out there, surrounded by the glorious beauty of the mountains.”

Ask anyone who does it, and he or she will tell you the same essential thing. They all get it. “It just seems that the ultimate pleasure is to float through pow arcing big fast turns,” says one of the guys I ride with whenever I get the chance. Snowmass mega-boarder Dave Watson has competed all over the world, won the 2008 North American Snowboard Freeride Tour and is helping promote various freeriding comps and projects in Colorado. “Big air usually goes hand in hand with deep pow,” he points out. And so does every run Watson makes. Why? “It’s like coming up on Gowdy’s at Snowmass — you can’t see the run because it’s pretty flat before the cornice. I cut some speed as I approach the cornice and send a slow 360 into the gnar. After dropping 20 feet into a 50-degree chute, it’s just one big toeside turn out into a wide open pow field spraying snow with every turn,” he explains as his eyes go a little wide and he flashes a big grin just thinking about it.

The art and soul of freeriding
Photo: Frank Shine

At its finest, freeriding doesn’t involve any competition or filming. “The thing that pumps me up is the atmosphere freeriding creates,” says Aspen native Jesse Hoffman who, at 16, rocked the 2008 North American Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte before blowing up, has appeared in several movies and coaches in Portillo. But what he likes most is going big with friends all over the West and the world. “You’re out in the mountains with your buddies skiing sick lines all day, and you all share the same passion for skiing. I’m not sure about competing … For me, it’s more fun to just go freeskiing with my friends. There are no scores, no judges, just me and my friends ripping it up.”

Essentially, freeriding gives a name to something people have been doing forever: seeking the limits of what’s possible on snow and within themselves. I did it 30 years ago with my friends all over these same mountains: throwing flips off the old mining roads in Little Annie Basin, poaching dangerous lines down Highland Bowl years before it was officially “opened,” launching large air off backcountry cornices in Lenado and generally behaving like invincible idiots when there were no cheering crowds and no cameras rolling. It’s always been about finding the right way to flow down a slope, working with a mountain to make something nearly impossible into something almost hysterically easy, blasting through deep snow at high speeds, rolling over whatever comes up — big drops, cul-de-sacs, death cookies, the last shreds of a sane restraint. One of the best skiers I knew, who died driving a snowmobile off Mount Sopris, used to compare our early freeriding to his specialty of dirt-biking, where you just cruised over everything out there as fast as you could and learned how to handle it. None of that has changed much.

As Jacqui Edgerly, another Aspen native now in her early-20s, observes about her peers, “We all grew up skiing on the same mountain, jumping off the same cliffs and skiing deep pow. There’s quite a range of ages, but since everyone is always up on the hill cruising around, it’s hard not to have a laugh!”

One of her good friends is another birthright local, 25-year-old Nick Devore, the winner of the 2008 World Freeride Telemark Championships and widely considered the best big-mountain telemarker in the world. “Now, for me, freeriding’s a way of expression and prayer, it’s something to keep my mind on and something to dream about,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful, ever-evolving art form that brings out all sorts of emotions. Really, there’s just nothing more fun that gives me a greater sense of freedom than skiing. It’s a great way to explore the mountains and nature and myself.” Devore has discussed with Will Cardamone that “We didn’t really have a cultural background or know much about it, but then we realized that our mountain lifestyle and skiing was our culture, it is a new culture, it is our way of life and I hope to have kids to continue this culture and help it evolve.”

Cardamone’s sister Kate, 28, is also one of what some have called the Aspen Ripper Factory. She’s a free-heeler who won the women’s ski division of the Colorado Freeride Championships in 2008 and sums up things for many of their crew. “Appreciation for the outdoors and adventure in wild places was instilled in me at a young age. Our parents are definitely worried about what we do, especially because we’ve both taken falls. They also understand that the environment they raised us in and the activities we grew up doing feed straight into the love we both have for skiing. We were cut out to find this type of skiing fun.”

For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you. Aspen has long nurtured dangerous pursuits, including mountain climbing, bicycle racing, hang-gliding, rodeoing, motocrossing,  kayaking, hard-drugging and, not incidentally, ski racing, which has claimed lives and limbs from its inception. The season of 2008 was a big one for a lot of locals as they swept through various competitions with top podium performances. But that same year, three different skiers with strong ties to the local freeriding scene all died in bad accidents and suddenly there was great hue and cry about it.

On January 22, 2008, former local Billy Poole, 28, was skiing for a Warren Miller film crew in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, when he cartwheeled through a rock field and died. April 4th, Aspen native and triplet Wallace Westfeldt, 22, landed on a concealed rock and perished after airing out a cliff band in Tonar Bowl off of Aspen Highlands for local filmmakers. April 11th, John Nicoletta, 27, hooked a rock while skiing an exposed line at the Alyeska Freeskiing World Championships and tumbled brutally to his death. Three bright lights extinguished in less than three months.

Jacqui Edgerly was there when both Westfeldt and Nicoletta died within a week of each other. “I was present while Wallace gasped for his last breaths as we tried to lend him our own. Continuing on the World Tour Finals in Alaska, I cheered for John as he dropped from above skiing his best, but was snagged by a rock along the way. My body and mind were weak, tired, sad and confused. I was empty and drained. I just needed some time to settle myself and now I couldn’t be more stoked to get after it again,” she told me in November of that year. “I have realized in the past year that people and friends come and go. We cannot do anything about that except love them and laugh with them while they are with us.”

Kate Cardamone, whose dangerous header off the Burnside Cliffs at Snowmass the same winter was photographed by the Aspen Times and horrified everyone, including her parents, reflected about others who said they’d slowed down and started thinking about things. “The tragedies and falls we have experienced in the sport have been wake-up calls and made me very nervous,” she admitted. When columnist Paul Andersen and newspaper letter writers questioned the motivations of the freeriders following Wallace Westfeldt’s death, it caused the surviving riders and their parents to take stock.

Andersen, the father of a 15-year-old son who probably cringed at being evoked in his father’s stories, insisted the Westfeldt death, and others, were avoidable. “Why did Wallace jump off that cliff?” wrote Andersen soon after the fact. “I see a multitude of reasons — peer pressure, excitement, validation, reward, challenge. The culmination was a soaring moment of immortality, a modern-day Icarus parable spurred by a culture of titillation and thrill-worship that fuels part of the ski industry … ‘He died doing what he loved’ is an unacceptable epitaph for sacrificial youth. It’s time to reevaluate the direction of the ski industry — and soon — before more deaths and injuries shock us into the grim awareness that the cost of selling risk is way too high.” Andersen suggested one of Westfeldt’s primary motivations may have been fame.

“I didn’t like the column one bit,” says Kate Cardamone, “but I had to figure out why. Well, I don’t have a death wish and I have learned that if you are in it for fame, go to Hollywood instead. I can’t deny it feels good to do well and accomplish your goals and be recognized for it. But I do it because I have been able to test my own limits, and knowing myself, skiing has helped me open up and gain confidence that I have been able to carry into other parts of my life. I know my limits, but I do it for me and when/if I ever feel otherwise, I will do something else.”

Wallace Westfeldt’s father Weems is a long-time honcho in the Snowmass Ski School, a veteran of the sport and the industry, and an eloquent writer. He responded forcefully and passionately to Andersen’s pieces. “Paul’s ponderings of why Wallace jumped off the cliff are fair questions. It is extremely sad, though, that other reasons were not available to Paul’s imagination. So I will add some, which I think are more accurate: Joy! Art! Expression! Adventure! Exploring the limits! Being in exquisite harmony with the mountain, gravity, the snow and the snowboard! Quest for excellence! Transcendence! Was he killed by the camera-glory? I’ve got two answers to that. The first one is ‘no.’ Wallace was not a heedless person. He took responsibility for his actions… My other answer is that, if yes, then so what? If one builds a career on pushing limits and living the adventure, then filming is a natural and beautiful part of it.”

If you talk to serious freeriders these days, as I do all the time, most are articulate, mature beyond their years and extremely self-aware in the most positive way. Many people who are critical of what freeriders do or their motives for it have never spoken to them. Still, it’s not easy for people who love them, especially parents. It wasn’t for mine. I didn’t particularly think about getting hurt or dying. And when I did get hurt (four knee injuries, mostly from jumping), it didn’t change me much. Hell, I accidentally went upside down and backwards off some rocks at Snowmass just a couple of years ago and I wasn’t even doing anything that tricky or stupid. When friends die (or sometimes worse) doing these things, we mourn and we do it in the mountains as they would have wanted us to. But it’s hard on everyone. My parents were great skiers, but my mother didn’t care to watch when I was in big gelande contests. On the other hand, my dad liked them because he was a jumper once himself.

For the Cardamone’s parents, Tom and Jody, there is the same “mixture of pride and fear,” as Tom puts it. “Kate and Will go into the mountains in all seasons as comfortably and competently as if they were going across town to visit a friend. We’re immensely pleased to have given them lives in which they find such deep enjoyment and fulfillment.” They also note that the level of risk for what Kate and Will do is something they “are not particularly comfortable with.” Kate’s header could have had far worse consequences and Will smashed a kidney several years ago. However, “Our discomfort doesn’t translate into holding them back. They know life is wonderful and fragile and they are seeking that balance point between the regret of not drinking fully from the cup and the other extreme.” Then he pauses and chuckles softly. “Jody and I don’t worry that they’re not drinking fully enough.”

Nick Devore’s mother Karinjo says people come up to her on the street and ask why she lets him do it. “And I say, well, first of all, he’s in his 20s, I don’t have a lot to say about it. And even though it sounds weird, within the realm of what he does, which is definitely not safe, he’s really kind of safe. He’s done his avalanche training and his CPR, he doesn’t take chances when he doesn’t feel good about them, he does yoga and he stays in unbelievable shape. These kids are all such mountain kids and such naturals that you can’t say they don’t know what they’re doing.” Especially when a big part of what they’re doing, says Will Cardamone, is focusing on “respect for and a connection with the natural world.”

As Nick Devore put it, “It has been very sad and challenging losing friends to skiing, but I have grown tremendously as a person and as a skier from these losses. They have definitely made me rethink why I ski at the level I do and have slowed me down and helped me rethink my decisions.” After a summer of reflection, he told me, “I am ready to continue pushing myself and my skiing. I would rather die skiing than never experience the sense of freedom and joy that it brings.” Devore had a bad avalanche accident the winter of 2010, but hasn’t changed what he does because of it.

John Nicoletta’s good friend, photographer Zach Ornitz, wrote about him, “John was the most solid skier I’ve ever seen and I know he carefully weighed his decision before plunging down the fall line [the day he died]. He aspired to making a life out of the activity that he loved most. Who wouldn’t want to achieve the dream of a life filled with turns in champagne powder, travel to exotic locations and days spent with true friends? I think John’s advice would have been simple: ‘Ski it because you love it. Ski it because it makes you happy’.”

While questions would continue to be raised about each of the three deaths — the reasons, the preparedness, the culpability of film-makers and so on — many in the mountain community agreed with a letter written to the Aspen papers by long-time local ski patrol person Roine St. Andre, who said, “Myself, I’m so happy they died in sacred places rather than in a war zone or a nursing home.”

Obviously, freeriding will never be safe. It would lose much of its appeal if it was. And there are bozos all over the mountains that will huck themselves off or down anything without a moment’s thought if there’s a camera involved or just some bragging rights. It’s the “Jackass” syndrome, another form of gene-pool thinning in a process that’s been with us a lot longer than freeriding.

Onna Konicek, through her work at the Snowmass clinic, sees what she does from both sides. “It is a calculated risk we all take based on our riding ability, but it is important to realize no one is exempt, no matter the level of expertise. Nature rules and the mountains must be approached with humility and respect. We should all ride to live another day, as well as live to ride.”

Smart riders do all they can to improve their odds. On a daily basis, Dave Watson wears a girdle with plastic hip and tailbone pads, foam quad and hamstring pads and a Leedom helmet. “During comps, I always wear the Mack Daddy body armor with foam and plastic shoulder, elbow and forearm pads, a chest pad and an armadillo back protector,” he says. “If the venue is particularly sketchy, I wear my full-face Giro Helmet.” And he’s not doing it for the money or glory. He competes as one of the top American boarders on the World Freeride Tour in the U.S., Austria, Norway, Russia and France with minimal sponsorship. Prize money is scant and, underneath the gladiator garb, there aren’t many who even know who he is. Others do better with films and travel expenses, but it isn’t X Games glory or dough. Freeriding, even competitively, is really just a labor of love. And we’re all addicted to love.

Jay Cowan writes for a variety of magazines and has books on Hunter Thompson and the Alps in publication. “In The Land of Living Dangerously,” about the Indonesian region, will come out as an ebook this winter. 

A Wheel Well for a Pillow: Getting By In Breck

A Wheel Well for a PillowThe single’s line is a place where dirtbags rub elbows with millionaires and conversations unfold with ease. Yet during the winter of 2005, these conversations often took an awkward turn for me. After small talk about the snow and life in Summit County, the same question inevitably surfaced: “So, where are you living?” No matter how many times I answered this inquiry, I stumbled in my efforts to explain that I lived in my Jeep Wrangler in the free parking lot at Breckenridge. The reactions were varied, ranging from “Doesn’t it get cold?” to “I didn’t think there were real ski bums anymore.” Kindly, a handful of people suggested I find a girlfriend with a living arrangement better than my own.

This was my life in Breckenridge. In order to construct my winter residence, I had removed the passenger and rear bench seat from my Jeep. There was then just enough room to sleep with my feet against the tailgate and my head beneath the glove box. In the midst of such luxury, the days proceeded with a repetition matched only by that of boot-camp recruits and the chronically drunk. In the morning, the water once contained in my lungs melted from the hardtop of the Jeep, creating a reliable alarm calibrated with the sunrise. If, on rare occasion, the water falling on my face or delicately thumping on my sleeping bags did not wake me, tires crunching through the snow and car doors slamming did.

With a little finesse, I wiggled out of my mess of sleeping bags each morning. This pile of bags formed a makeshift nest constructed around the center console and wheel well of the Jeep. I would peel my condensation-crisp pants and down jacket from the tailgate, where they prevented my sleeping bag from freezing to the exposed sheet metal. Awkwardly, I would then slip on my snowboard gear and open the passenger door to lace my boots.

With frozen water bottles in one hand and a bag of groceries and toiletries in the other, I would walk across the parking lot to the bus station bathroom. While others were relieving themselves before heading up the hill, I brushed my teeth. Although stares were frequent, few people had the necessary blend of curiosity and courage to ask what the hell I was doing. Now fully awake, I would fill a bowl with water from the bathroom faucet, as it was the perfect temperature for oatmeal. After a bagel, some oatmeal, an overly ripe frozen banana and cold-brewed tea, I returned to the Jeep and grabbed my board. It was time to ride. This was all I needed — and all I had. How I lived, how I slept, how I survived were all subservient to time on the mountain.

I had finally escaped the Midwest after spending a few too many years lapping the icy terrain parks of Iowa and Wisconsin. At the start of January, I hit the road for Summit County. Somewhere in northeastern Colorado, the fifth gear in my Jeep gave out. Nonetheless, I washed ashore in Breckenridge with a handful of dollars. Once in Summit County, I briefly debated getting a job, but knew it would only interfere with riding. I wasn’t sure if I would be in Colorado for a few weeks or a few months. I just knew that, when the money ran low, I needed to save a few dollars for gas back to the flatlands.

Once on the mountain and strapped in, I warmed up playing in the glades and often ice-licked faces of Peak 8. Each morning was a mystery, as the exposed runs could either shine like freshly Zamboni’d ice or be miraculously buried in new snow from an evening of wind loading. These patches of snow were always a pleasant surprise in the midst of a dry winter. To my dismay, the occasional call home confirmed that Iowa was enjoying more powder days than Colorado. Nonetheless, bouts of wind frequently sculpted pillow lines from small cornices tucked among the trees.

Even if the conditions left much to be desired, the T-Bar provided entertainment that made the pilgrimage to the upper mountain worthwhile. To the uninitiated, a T-bar lurks like some mythical beast waiting to slaughter the innocent. In the presence of such a thing, determination presents itself in various — albeit misdirected — guises. The T-bar frequently pulled proud spring breakers up the mountain on their bellies. Equally impressive, however, were the efforts of young riders who refused to be left in the dust of their two plank progenitors — even if this meant the T-bar dragged them like forgotten dogs leashed to the bumper of a truck.

Although Breck boasts varied terrain, much of it comes in the form of the rails in the park rather than the trails carved out of the mountain. Nonetheless, Chair 6 provided reliable amusement. Whether it was little hits along trail edges or lines that snaked through trees to drop wind lips, there were plenty of ways to blend terrain with imagination to forge a new line each lap. By afternoon, however, it was time to ride the lower mountain.

Dropping into the Freeway Terrain Park is akin to walking into a circus tent only to realize you are the main attraction. Breck does a good job shielding the inexperienced from their unbridled enthusiasm by making the park as menacing as possible. Although the jumps are meticulously groomed and the rail approaches manicured with the greatest care, the park simply pushes things to another level. The bar is raised just far enough for vacationing Texans to realize that dropping into a sixty-foot booter is a bad idea. Jeans, cowboy hats and liquid courage do occasionally meet their match. Consequently, the fence that marks the entrance to the Freeway Park gathers lurkers like flypaper. Even with an audience, it did not take long to feel at home in paradise.

A certain camaraderie exists anywhere people wait to drop in — even if the occasional snake session snaps riders out of their patient revelry. Waiting to session a rail or standing on top of the drop-in for the superpipe always brought me back a decade or so to the USASA contests at Tyrol Basin in Wisconsin. Even when the mercury failed to climb above zero, a hundred riders smiled at the top of the pipe in patient anticipation of dropping. This was a time when everything was so new and possible. Still in its infancy, no one knew — or cared to ask — where this thing we loved would take us.

This energy and kinship still existed in the park at Breck. It came in countless forms — watching Todd Richards in awe as he lapped the pipe, the communal wait for clouds to pass in the midst of a spell of flat light or the shared agitation when a family man would fearlessly lead his flock of snowplowing minions down the middle of the stunt ditch. I still smile when I think of the flock of European girls with matching jackets that stood guard over the pipe. They raised hell all over the mountain, insulting the elderly in one-piece suits or chewing out the “big, sexy man” who accidentally plowed into them in the lift line. They could boardslide a box and break a heart in a single move. I wish I knew where they came from — and where they went.

The park never got old, in part because any park in Summit County tends to be populated by fellow flatland expatriates. Countless times in Breck and Keystone, I’ve run into friends from back home — from the Sundown days, as we affectionately refer to them through a filter of nostalgia. Although most days in Summit were spent riding in solitude, days with old friends brought back fond memories of riding twelve hours at a time in Iowa with only pickles, ketchup and crackers from the condiment bar at Sundown as fuel. These were memories marinated in flat landings, ridiculous lines through mud and snow and backcountry sessions at local golf courses. It was impossible to escape the past as we debated whether or not local legends were floating 270s onto rails or spending time behind bars after getting caught bumping rails of another kind. Our friends from back home were just as likely to be pulling 9s off of ten-foot tables as they were to be fixing radiators or laying tile. After these sessions, we always parted, wondering, wondering if we had lost too much of this past or if this thing we loved had simply changed with age, just as we all had.

After the last chair and the final lap through the park, I would climb aboard the bus back to my home in the parking lot, as my time in Breck preceded the gondola that now links the town with the base of Peak 8. Once again, a sense of community surfaced — even in the midst of exhaustion and the wet dog smell that pervaded the cramped bus. Smiles and nods of approval conferred that today, like every day, was a good one. Yet, on Sundays, this sense of community faded, as it became evident that some of us would return to another life. Some of us would go back to a world of careers and obligations and cities, places where the day of the week mattered, while some of us would remain in the mountains to ride another nameless day. For those of us who stayed, our pockets may have been empty, but each day we could work on our goggle tan and assert with authenticity that life was wonderful.

Once back in the parking lot, I would shed my snowboard gear and begin dinner. This occasionally involved firing up a backpacking stove to cook pasta, but more often entailed sitting down in the bus station to a can of cold beef stew and a smashed loaf of bread. Once a week, I would fill a backpack with a change of clothes and set off across town to poach a shower wherever one became available.  And then it was night — both a blessing and a burden.

Although some evenings were spent riding at Keystone, most were simply dedicated to loitering. I frequently hunkered down in a chair in the bus station to read and relax. Most nights I would also walk all over, simply enjoying the pulse of the main street in a mountain town. These strolls inevitably led to the Crown Tavern. Here I passed hours sitting by a fireplace and sipping iced tea by the gallon. Although all humans are drawn to fire, the glow of a flame becomes especially magnetic when one is aware of the cold that waits outside. Once I began to yawn and my thoughts returned to riding in the morning, I made my way home.

During my journey to the parking lot, I watched snowcats crawl up the mountain as tiny beacons of light. The late-night silence was only interrupted by the crunch of snow underfoot and the drunken musings of the young erupting from bars. I often walked past the Gold Pan Saloon and saw kids my age talking and hollering, reflecting on the day’s labors or laps in the park. On one level, our paths were parallel — we gave all to that which we loved. Yet, at times, I felt so distant from them. As simple as life was, boundaries still existed. Or I created them as a result of my abode. Although days on the mountain served as membership dues to an unspoken society, the evenings erased any of these fraternal bonds forged in snow and sun. I remained solitary in the night.

A home in the parking lot afforded more than solitude and convenience. I learned how to fall asleep despite the oscillating orange lights and backup beep of snowplows clearing the lot around me. I learned which colors in toothpaste freeze first. I learned that strangers on chairlifts enjoy giving unsolicited dating advice to a kid who lives in his car. The value of many of these lessons washed away with the spring thaw, but I emerged with something greater: the ability to whittle away the layers of life until little remains but passion and survival.

Mike Sudmeier lives in Jackson, Wyoming. He divides his time between writing and riding. 

The New New Colossus: Preface to Maurice Sherif’s ‘The American Wall’

The New New Colossus. Photo: Maurice SherifAbout a year ago, I was three or four hundred yards from the wall in a National Forest when a military drone lazed by a few hundred feet above the ground. The aircraft was almost silent and directed by men sitting in a control room many miles away in Fort Huachuca, the U.S. Army intelligence center. They were hunting poor people — men, women, and children. The summer day felt fresh because of recent rain, the hills glowed with green, and a small canyon with water tumbling across its rock bottom sliced south to Mexico. I was standing on American ground and staring into the face of American dread.

The wall is a political stunt whose time has come. In some places, the wall looks ugly, in other places it seems innocent. Sometimes, when it snakes across valleys and deserts and mountains, the wall looks like a work of art. But it never looks like it will do the job of keeping people out of the U.S. and it never does that job. It cuts communities off from each other, illegally takes land here and there for its footprint, and severs connections in biological communities. But mainly the wall billboards American fears and murders American ideals.

Most U.S. citizens support walling off Mexico and most U.S. citizens will never even glimpse this wall. But they will believe that it is essential and no fact is likely to upend their belief.

For the people coming north, the wall is simply one more obstacle in a lifetime of obstacles.

The body was found three and a half miles south of the Duquesne Road at 7:39 a.m. July 18th. Ramon Alejandro Mendoza-Alcaraz was from Magdalena, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture, drug smuggling, and an annual fiesta for San Francisco that has been celebrated for centuries and draws people from both sides of the border. Those who have made vows walk from fifty to a hundred miles to be present at the celebration. Ramon lived twenty-seven years. The other body was found July 25th. Jose Francisco Lira-Cendo lasted twenty-eight years and came from Caborca, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture and drug smuggling. So far thirteen bodies have been found in the county this year. They were all in the U.S. illegally. They had crossed fences, car barriers and, in most cases, the wall.

I stay calm by ignoring what is in front of my face. The dead men were within ten or fifteen miles of my house. I know the towns they came from, and I know what it feels like to enter the U.S. illegally since I have done it many times. Almost thirty years ago, I crossed the line in western Sonora on June 21st and walked forty-five miles across a burning desert in one night. I was in pretty good shape then but this walk almost finished me off. The Mexicans moving around me that night had an added pressure: they were hunted by agents of the U.S. government and would be thrown back into Mexico if they were caught. I was simply trying to dramatize for a daily newspaper the fact that the Mexican border had become a killing field as men and women and children trekked across the hardest ground in hopes of finding a living in these United States. There was no wall then and there were not twenty thousand agents on the line trying to catch Mexicans. But there was desperation and death, and this misery has been a constant over the years.

I feed birds here. I raise flowers. And I try to forget all the dead. And I almost always fail. I have spent my life on the line and nothing about the migration of the Mexican people from death toward life is ever far from my mind and heart. The wall is merely the most recent denial of what is happening and why it is happening. The wall divides human communities, the wall illegally seizes ground, the wall costs billions, and the wall stops no one. In the Altar Valley, a spot I have loved since childhood, the wall was hardly up a week before gates were cut through it. The Mexicans thoughtfully put the hinges on their side of the barrier.

The U.S. border with Mexico has never been secure and never will be secure. It is too vast to police and the U.S. economy is too rapacious to endure a sealed border. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to create a country so repellent that no one will try to sneak into it. The former Soviet Union comes to mind as a possible model, or perhaps modern-day Somalia.

Many Americans like to boast that their ancestors entered the U.S. legally. They forget that it was almost impossible to be rejected. One third of the current population is descended from people who came through a single place in New York Harbor, Ellis Island. They had to answer twenty-nine questions, not be dangerously ill, insane, or known criminals. Only two percent were ever rejected by the U.S. Of course, almost all of them had been rejected by the nations of their birth. That is why they arrived at Ellis Island. They were human garbage cast off by their native lands. I am descended from such people.

The Mexicans coming north are very similar. Badly educated, poor and unwanted by Mexico. And capable of creating a new life in a new language in a new place. They are exactly the kind of people Mexico needs if it is to prosper and they are exactly the kind of people Mexico rejects because it is a corrupt plutocracy that functions by terrorizing and crushing its own citizens.

There are many forces driving the migration north — a free trade agreement that destroyed peasant agriculture and wiped out small industries, a growing violence fed by the U.S. prohibition against certain drugs and by the deliberate policy of the Mexican government, a growing population on a sacked land base — and scholars will be picking over these facts for generations seeking causes. It hardly matters now, the movement has begun and for people to stay in Mexico means doom for them and the explosion of the state, just as there are many forces feeding the backlash against the migration in the U.S. These matters too will be parsed by scholars over time. But like the migration itself, the rise of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. now has a life of its own and fits a pattern of American nativism whenever new arrivals suddenly change the faces in towns and cities.

But what will prove more damaging than migrants or drugs is the sudden fear in the American people that makes them build a giant wall. At most, the illegal numbers in the U.S. comprise four percent of the population, but somehow this sliver of flesh terrorizes the remaining ninety-six percent and has created a new iron curtain walling off the brown nation to the south.

I am living through an ugly time and this new age of walls and fear is alien to my nature.

So I watch birds by a creek near the line while the Border Patrol sweeps past my door and the wall slowly strangles the pathways of life on my ground.

That is why this book matters. The wall now being built on the southern border of the U.S. is a statement about the shuttering of American society. It is not a tactic to control immigration since no one in government seriously thinks it will do that. It is an almost two thousand mile-long monument to the American fear of others. The country that located the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor right by Ellis Island has vanished. The new America needs a wall to sleep at night.

Emma Lazarus’ poem sits inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It reads:

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

No one has written any poems celebrating the wall.

Maybe it is time to take good look at it.

California Imperial Desert. Photo: Maurice SherifBlack-headed grosbeaks returned as the summer rains arrived here on the border. I try to think of them and not of the dead men to my south. Three separate groups of illegal migrants have told the federal agents of passing a line of about nine men wearing backpacks just this side of the border. They had all been cut down by automatic rifle fire about a month ago. They were smuggling marijuana into the U.S. and were killed by competitors.

Of course, maybe this never happened, maybe the dead are not dead. Just as no one thinks that all those who die trying to cross are found.

This shooting was a month ago. So far, no federal agents have looked into these reports because they don’t matter in this new America. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for drugs and contempt for the people who supply them. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for cheap labor and contempt for the people who take such jobs.

In this new America, there is a wall almost two thousand miles long and a growing desire to hunt down illegal Mexicans and ship them home. In this new America, migrants are seen as a threat to national security and national security is never defined. Or questioned.

In this new America, the biggest drug is legal and handed out freely by politicians. This drug is fear, and the American people have become addicted to it.

That is why the wall exists and that is why this book exists. The wall exists in our mind as a solution and exists on the ground as a gesture. The forces it tries to contain — drugs, poor people — cannot be answered by a wall or stopped by a wall or defined by a wall. But the wall speaks for a new America as it mutilates the cherished ideas of an earlier America.

That is why the Statue of Liberty must now be retired, and perhaps banished from public view before it confuses children.

The lamp by the golden door is now a battery of lights blazing against the long wall in the hours of darkness lest the tired and the poor sneak in here to fulfill their dreams.

The American Wall“The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” (University of Texas Press, two slip-case-packaged hard covers, 224-plus-160 pages, 100 quadratone photos: $150 — $100.50 if ordered directly from the Univ. of Texas website http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/sheame.html. ISBN: 978-0-292-72697-0.)

Regular MG contributor Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including, most recently, “El Sicario: The Autobiography of A Mexican Assassin” and “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” He lives in Las Cruces, NM.

Maurice Sherif studied communication art at the University of San Francisco in California. His first book, “Lumière Métallique,” was published in 2003. Sherif now divides his time between his native Paris and Albuquerque .

Some Off-Snow Education

In my skiing scrapbooks is a newspaper clipping:

ARMY SKIING STAR CLOCKED AT 109 MPH

Portillo, Los Andes
Chile, Sept. 2 (UP)

Ralph Miller, former Dartmouth skiing star, now serving in the United States Army, today sped down a specially measured 45-degree Andean slope at a speed of 175.6 kilometers (109 mph) per hour.

He exceeded by 19 kph (12 mph) the former record skiing speed of 156 kph set by Italy’s Zeno Colo.

Others who bettered the Colo mark but failed to equal Miller’s were Bud Werner of the University of Denver; Marvin Melville of Salt Lake City, Utah; Ronald Funk of Sun Valley, Idaho; and Chick Igaya, the Japanese skier who is attending Dartmouth. All are training for next year’s winter Olympic games.

Dick DorworthThat was in 1955 and I was 16. My school beer-drinking fellowship drove automobiles that fast, but the 16-year-old mind stampeded at the concept of 109 mph on skis. It magnified the living legends that were Ralph Miller and Bud Werner in the mind of a young ski racer for whom ski racing was everything. The teenage competitor tended to view living people in mythological terms, suspecting that good downhill racers were better humans than poor ones. At the time, all downhills frightened me, and I progressed in admiration and sometimes awe of the mythic downhill racer. I studied this breed, reaching to understand what enabled them to go straight where I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I even categorized courage according to three men — Ralph Miller, Bud Werner and Dick Buek, on anybody’s list of the best downhillers of the time.

Ralph Miller’s courage was studied, thought out and calculating. Miller looked at possibilities and consequences, prepared better than anyone else and jumped in to do his best. It is revealing that Miller gave up racing to become a doctor. He would have made a great general.

Bud Werner had courage as hard as marble and as cold. Bud gave you chills because, once he had chosen his territory, there would be no retreat. Bud’s courage was win or lose, succeed or die, black or white. Werner said, “When you’re afraid of speed, it’s time to quit.” He also said, “There are only two places in a race, first and last.” And he must have known some lonely moments. Bud Werner was the leader of an age in American skiing, a peculiar sort of genius, a loner, the last of an American species, and he was loved the most.

Buek possessed a courage opposite to Werner’s — hot, loud, indulged in for its own sake. Dick got his kicks more from the moment lived in heat than from the results of the race, though he was a hard, conscientious competitor. Dick was nicknamed “Mad Dog” and he laughed the most. Dick carried the reputation of amazing feats and he enjoyed his life and himself, and he was long dead in a plane wreck before I knew the joy of mastering fear.

Courage was a calculating risk, a primitive hardness or a touch of insanity. What chance had a boy who lacked an essential trait of the brave? I couldn’t know then that confidence and resolution are organic and that there are more than three varieties. Each person carries his and her own courage within, and we cease growing when traveling heavy or feeding lean. Like anyone who reflects the past as a future hint, I know much now I didn’t know then, but I knew there must be a way to true desires and false ones will sooner or later show their hands. I knew a person’s endeavors are closely related to his or her inner needs, and I needed a lot.

In March 1957 something happened in an Aspen bar that followed me around for years.

It was the night of the Roche Cup banquet after the races, the end of a good time. After my first semester of college, I moved to Aspen to train and race, living in a rented room with Tony Perry and Ron Funk. Ron was just divorced and leading an athletic, monastic existence and we did not learn to be good friends that year. Tony and I were American college fraternity boys (he an SAE at Denver University and me a Sigma Nu at the University of Nevada, majoring in journalism), and we made up in Aspen social circles for Ron’s seclusion. In terms of ski racing, it was a discouraging winter, but my 18-year-old fraternity house mind saw a form of success (a word one distrusts more each day) in parties, romance, lust and participation in the races. I was sorry the season was over.

I was having a beer in my favorite saloon with my old friend Howie Norton of Piedmont, California. Howie is about 5”6’ and 120 pounds. Suddenly, a gentleman estimated at 6’2’ and 200 pounds became pushy about ordering a beer and he and Howie exchanged words. Howie was raised in a society where barroom fighting is looked upon the way Norman Mailer must have appeared to Jacqueline Kennedy when he informed her he wanted to write a book proving the Marquis de Sade’s sainthood. Howie would no more consider a barroom brawl than he would have invited Lenny Bruce to dinner.

My background did not preclude barroom fighting, but I was clearly outsized and under motivated and told the heavyweight we didn’t want any trouble. He asked me if we were “chicken shit” to fight and I said “yes” and that seemed to satisfy him and he left, my pride a foolish sacrifice to peace.

Soon, he returned. We learned later that this fighter was a miner, married to the sister of a friend who was one of the best American skiers. He was neither satisfied nor about to be less than the traditional Saturday night liturgy of a certain strain of man who earns his subsistence by hard, physical labor. Again, he and Howie exchanged words. A disaster was imminent. I got off my stool.

“Hey, man, we don’t want any trouble.”

He shoved me violently against the bar, hissing obscenities. Next to my right hand on the bar was a full, long-neck bottle of beer. I picked it up. He threw his right, which I blocked with my left, and I hit him in the head with the bottle of beer. His eyes were like an electric light that has had the current switched off, and when I hit him with the left that had blocked his right it was like knocking over a wooden statue.

End of fight.

The bottle breaking against his head sounded like an explosion. There was blood and excited people. The wounded warrior had a serious concussion and several stitches in his face and head and he spent a few days in the hospital.

The bartender saw it all and he gave me another beer. When the scene quieted, I sought out the warrior’s wife to apologize and explain my side. Considering her husband’s condition, she was quite nice. She wished I hadn’t hit him with a bottle but explained with a wife’s patience that he had chosen that path before.

Then I sought out the owner of the bar. I’ll call this man Number Seven, a well-known personality, wit, skier and saloon keeper. I apologized. He accepted. In the ensuing years, we saw each other many times in the skiing world and always spoke and were friendly.

That night Howie and I left Aspen. A good winter and time in our lives left with us, the fight a good war story, an ugly memory.

At this point, let us more closely examine the 1955 UP (United Press, now United Press International UPI) story about speed skiing.

Zeno Colo’s old record was 159.292 kph, not 156 kph, and neither Werner, Funk, Melville nor Igaya bettered that mark. Melville and Igaya were never close, having quit many kilometers slower. The day before Miller’s record run, Miller and Werner went 158 kph. Funk was clocked at 156 kph, but fell in the transition and suffered a badly broken ankle and leg. Ron’s fall helped Werner decide that new territory might not be worth the price of holding.

Miller, who had MacArthurian traits, repaired the track after Ron’s fall and the next day went up alone as high as possible. Then he came down. He was timed by the great French skier Emile Allais with a hand-held stop watch over 50 meters, and his speed was actually measured at 108.7 mph/175.402 kph, not 109 mph. At 100 mph, a tenth of a second difference over 50 meters is about 18 mph, and anyone who has ever used a hand stop watch knows that two timers timing the same thing will always have a tenth of a second or more difference. For that reason Miller’s run is considered unofficial. He may have only gone 99 mph, but it is just as likely he went 112 mph. People who have raced on the Portillo track and know where he started tend to believe Miller was the first to go over 100 mph.

This revision of the 1955 UP story took me years to learn, and I was interested and spent many hours talking with Ron and others about it. What sort of truth and awareness could exist in the mind of a person who had, for instance, only that newspaper clipping to go on? So much of what we think — therefore do, therefore are — is based on newspaper and television reporting. We of modern civilization and culture are to some extent journalism products. I even majored in journalism in college before switching my major to English and graduating with a journalism minor. One of the better descriptions of journalism was given the world by James Agee:

“Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism, but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those unachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood. Journalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it (which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science); but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, that it is telling the truth even of what it tells of. Journalism can within its own limits be “good” or “bad,” “true” or “false,” but it is not in the nature of journalism even to approach any less relative degree of truth. Again, journalism is not to be blamed for this; no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse. The difference is, and the reason one can respect or anyhow approve of the cow, that few cows can have the delusion or even the desire to be horses, and that none of them could get away with it even with a small part of the public. The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”

Part of the answer to why a man finds himself in big speed on a pair of skis is involved in and attributed to the journalistic mind. The American of my age was reared as much by journalistic media as by family and school, and I do not think it has changed. There is something uncomfortable about the desire to be better than other people, but the newspapers said it was a good way to be, and to a sports-oriented teenager, the path lay through the self-conscious swamp of his own fear, lack of knowledge and unripe skill. Step by step.

This is a methodical approach to one-upmanship, as opposed to more spontaneous forms of the game, but evolution is in evidence here. By continuing through the swamp of fear (or any other swamp), familiarity will make the difficulty known, then understood, then natural and bearable. By persevering through eternally new swamps of the mind, man has progressed to his present state. By forgetting where he came from while never letting go of what he came through, man binds his vision and freedom and lives on the brink of a threatening tomorrow, neglecting the fullness that is today. I learned something about this through speed skiing.

The preceding is an excerpt from “The Straight Course,” by long-time Gazette senior correspondent Dick Dorworth. The book, scheduled to be published this fall by Western Eye Press, recounts Dorworth’s speed-skiing days, during which time he once held the world record. Dorworth, author of “The Perfect Turn” and “Night Driving,” splits his time between Ketchum and Bozeman.

Sad River Roundup

Ride along on a modern day cattle driveIt may be the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore. The cows have been on the mountain for four months or more, getting fat eating every blessed chewable thing they can reach. Just about every cattleman in the nation would truck their animals as far as these critters will have to walk to winter pasture. They are hamburger plants, not distance runners. You’d have to be crazy to trail a herd right down the main north-south corridor from Telluride to anywhere. The Switzers are that kind of ranching family though, a little different. They aren’t mountain people in that the fanatic spiritualism that runs in a streak through the clan is a product of dwelling for generations in an ascetic vacuum of empty desert. Great-grandfather Switzer had bought a piece of McElmo Canyon and the badlands beyond that was the size of a county in Vermont. He also locked up most of the grazing leases in West Fork of the Dolores River Valley. They say he had the same jihadi gleam in his eye as the current crop of Switzers, who are in close and immediate communication with the Lord and recognize a sinner by the look on his face. If you think you might have that look, head the other way.

The route takes the cows right through the middle of the town of Dolores. By then, the herd has been trailing for days, off and on. It used to be there were more places big enough to park a congregation of cattle that size and let them eat and rest, but most of those places have been carved up. Now you have to push the cows a little harder than cows would naturally go. It takes all fifty Switzers cowboying and every body they can find who can ride a horse to keep them grouped. A lot of people help willingly, as it is, after all, probably the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore and the authenticity of the experience is unquestionable.

The thing about herding cattle is to understand that one thing they do well is walk around. They don’t go fast, but they go willingly, for the most part, and would be going somewhere after a while even without your encouragement. Your job is to point them. A cowboy galloping around shouting “Yeeha” doesn’t speed up a herd one bit. It might just scatter them like a rack of billiard balls and you’d be the next two hours coaxing the calves out of the thickets. Just gently get them all going the same direction. Sit back and watch the parade. If you’ve got good dogs, you can just idle along in the truck if you’ve only got a few cows. The Switzers had hundreds.

They got to town about noon that year, spread out for half a mile. Railroad Avenue was pretty much solid cow from one end to the other, and the early crowd at the Hollywood Bar & Cafe drug off their stools to watch the longest cattle drive in the country troop buy.

Among the blurrier spectators, Dexter B. had found it was safer to drink early in the day, as the various agencies charged with enforcement of restraining orders and arrest warrants didn’t seem to get fired up till late afternoon. That’s when they had chased him into the alley and cuffed him the last two times anyway. Dexter is a flight risk the same way a homing pigeon is. If you need to drop a leaned-over tree that’s otherwise going get in bed with you some windy evening, Dexter is who you would call, only you wouldn’t call him, you’d just go down to the Hollywood and maybe knock back a couple of drafts while you talked it over. Dexter is a mountain person. He knew that the deputies couldn’t get around town any better than anyone else. Not when there were two dozen four-footed animals in town for every person, and that’s not factoring in the dogs. The cops wouldn’t be motoring by.

If you could get to the north-side streets, you could drive around the herd’s flank and proceed a couple of blocks toward or away from the center of town. Leaving the city limits was like going the wrong way at the Hajj. A lot of the locals were creeping down side streets trying to get to the bank, the market or the bar. One of these was Mark Morane in his flashy Jeep, running a little late. Mark leaves his Jeep in town on nice days and switches to his motorcycle, which he keeps in a garage on Fourth Street, for the last five miles in to his office. Born and raised nearby, Mark is a lawyer, which is not a well-represented population among mountain people. Mark is no exception to this generalization and, birthplace notwithstanding, would be a dense-atmosphere-sucking flatlander if he lived to be a thousand. He can’t help it.

Immobilized in the stream of steers that day were a number of automobiles that had encountered the bovine frontal system in the middle town and become embedded in its flow. Southbound vehicles could sustain a walking pace while watching a shifting vista of four-to-six shit-smeared cattle bottoms like a drive-in movie. Northbound wasn’t going much of anywhere, and this group included Victor, who was headed up to the West Fork in the strangest thing he had ever driven, and that included just about anything with wheels or tracks. It was a 1974 NATO military fire truck built on a German Unimog chassis. The Unimog was an internet purchase, kind of an impulse thing, bought by the owner of a resort that is so far from the nearest fire department you may as well not bother calling. The Unimog had been delivered “as is” on the back of a flatbed, from a shipyard in Baltimore.

Luckily, its driver was a genius of the physical. Last month, when somebody put his truck in the ditch and his equipment trailer like a barricade across the rest of the road, Victor loaded up a bunch of timbers and built a road right over the damn thing and got the valley’s commuting population home that night. This morning, he had poured a quart of Baltic seawater out of the fuel filter of the Unimog, purged the fuel system and rebuilt the throttle linkage with a piece of wire he found on the ground.

Born on a ranch in Chihuahua, his size put him in the position of jockey for the family’s race horses, till, still in his twenties, he was too old. He was fluent in Spanish, diesel and horse. A mountain person, he knew the Unimog had been mistreated. As it stood 37 hands at the shoulder and was skittish and ill-tempered, he wasn’t about to push it.

There’s not a lot of foot traffic when the herd is coming through and it’s best to watch your step for a couple of days afterward. This day, one of the scarce pedestrians was Patricia the Yoga Instructor, tall and lovely beyond words, to whom cows may carry some sort of bleed-over sanctity from a geographic proximity to Hinduism of the “sacred cow” type, which has some kind of vague association with Yoga. At least their outfits are the same. You might think she was walking among the herd because they are a natural thing, like a mayfly hatch, which is to be neither applauded nor decried, but simply lived through, endured. Patricia seemed to be, at times, only lightly tethered to the earth. Bright fires of health shown out through her skin and blobs of inadvertently jellified males bobbed in her wake. She didn’t seem to notice, but despite her ethereal aspect, Patricia, a mountain person, was actually strong as an ox and quick as a snake. She was also well used to walking through cow shit and simply didn’t want to be late for her class. Among the herefords, Patricia stood out like a statue of Madonna on the backs of the Penitents.

It all might have played out peaceably but for the Lady in the Burgundy Escalade. The car shined like a new penny except where it was streaked with fresh cow excrement to the tops of the windows. She must have been doing ninety down the stretch of 145 that had served as the herd’s latrine for the last couple of days. There was nobody else in the car, but if you don’t think the situation was explosive, it had Texas plates.

There are pockets of a toxic gas that chemists refer to as nobium-bromine-butane, nobrotane or nobrane for short, which leak from depleted oil wells and gather in invisible bubbles across the state of Texas. Though mostly concentrated around Crawford, hazardous nobrane enrichments occur randomly statewide and many, if not most, of the states residents have suffered the effects of nobrane poisoning. Loss of brain tissue is immediate and dramatic and the resulting voids are often inflated with an indelible sense of self-worth. In its end stages, nobrane poisoning can result in “Texas Vertigo,” the chronic sensation that the world is revolving around you. The lady in the Caddy weaved right then left, gunning the ponderous, careening burgundy tank around one group of cattle and another, gaining a cow length each time till she came up short against a solid wall of shitty rumps. This was ridiculous. She gave a tap on the horn.

She gave another tap, then two more solid honks, then, with a fury that was palpable through the grape-colored skin of the preposterous auto, she mercilessly straight-armed the horn button, lurching the car forward while screaming noiselessly at the windshield.

The effect was spectacular. Cows scattered from the epicenter as if launched by catapult. A dozen turned left up Fourth Street toward the bridge and a similar number did a complete about face and were galloping upstream, creating havoc among the following herd. Cows in front of the Escalade were climbing over one another and one big calf went down in the rush. When it scrambled to its feet, it was under the Unimog, which presented the calf with a situation for which there was no behavioral precedent. It began to bawl at terrific volume and throw its 50-pound head-bone against the empty 200-gallon water storage tank on the underbelly of the Unimog, making a noise that was not of this world. The lady was still leaning on the horn, perhaps frozen there by the magnitude of the reaction, but the call of the Escalade was now lost in the din.

In the vicinity of Eighth Street and still gaining speed southward now flew Jacob Switzer at full gallop on a horse the size of a locomotive. Sparks flew off the pavement where the giant’s hooves touched down and, passing Seventh, Jacob grabbed his coiled lariat, stiff as a cable by design, from where it hung next to the saddle horn and began to whip the flying steed across its flanks. He wrenched his mount’s head up when he was fifty feet from the Escalade and set it back on its haunches where it slid to a stop directly adjacent the Caddy’s left front tire. Raising the coiled lariat over his head, he smote the hood of the car with the terrible strength a just and all-powerful God had given him. It left, the first time, a crescent-shaped dent that would hold a gallon of water. “You.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Bitch.”  Jacob intoned, beating on the hood with every word. Then, considerably calmed, he headed up after the group of cattle that had taken off toward Mancos.

Forty head of stampeding cattle were southbound at a high rate of speed along First North. It looked for a moment as if it might be the end of Patricia, trampled two blocks from her house, but she turned to meet them and raised her hands in front of her, palms out, as if delivering a blessing on the multitude. She floated a couple of feet to the right or left as the circumstances dictated and the thundering pack flowed around her like water.

Mark wasn’t so lucky. Oblivious to the ruckus, he had just opened the door of his Jeep and had one foot on the ground when 980 pounds of terrified beef smacked into the door two inches from the handle. The impact flattened the door against the body of the Jeep and jerked Mark out of it. He was deposited face up and perfectly centered for an instant across the backbone of the rampaging steer. There he stayed for four or five seconds, certainly not long enough to make the buzzer, but adequate time to carry him to the reviewing platform in front of the Hollywood Bar & Cafe.

“This your first rodeo?” asked Dexter.

“That was a tough draw, Mark,” said another.

Victor got out of the Unimog fire truck and was amazed to find he could not extricate the calf from under his rig. It was totally blinded and beating itself slowly to death repeating the opening bars of the Dirge for Martian Gong. The racket was making it hard to think. Victor had the inspiration then that he might motor slowly to the park, where the bar ditch was three feet deep and drive right down the ditch with wheels on either side, effectively raising the Unimog off the calf. His path took him and the stumbling calf right in front of the gallery outside the Hollywood.

“Hey Victor,” shouted Dexter, “I hope you’re not expecting that little calf to pack yer goofy rig all the way to Dunton.”

Cooper lives near Dolores, Colorado, in a state of disgruntled bemusement. He lists his occupation as “fabricator,” which just about covers it. His last story for the Gazette was “High Water,” which appeared in #178. 

Creation and the Dirty Shame

RoadtrippingOn the first day, I created the Roadtrip, and I saw that it was good. And the Days stretched out before me, gangly arms reaching high over glossy heads, first long and deep breaths taken.

The Days collectively winked. They smiled. They licked their full and rosy lips. The Days lined up in front of me, just waiting to be taken. With an easy equanimity borne from frolicking amidst the wild and green, they waited. Some tapped their toes and hummed contentedly. Others danced joyfully in circles. The first three sat cockeyed on barstools at the Dirty Shame Saloon, rang the bell and ordered another round of something dark and yeasty. The first Day belched moistly without covering his mouth.

Earl old pal, god of weather, graciously bestowed upon this adventure into the imagined and unknown clear skies and breezes mild. Two conditions imperative considering my mode of transportation: VW camper bus with high-rise fiberglass turtle-top, a vehicle that is entertaining as hell to keep within the lines in any kind weather. Be it inclement, be it fair. It’s just easier in fair.

The bus putted on, faithfully if not enthusiastically, over one state line and then another. In celebration of the busted radio, I composed psalms to the Roadtrip to sing along with the arrythm of the engine. Often I pulled off the road, listening to rivers meander, stretching my long and restless legs, letting the two big dogs out to pee and frolic. I watched the odometer tick off miles and I grew thirsty. I imagined English would be waiting at the Dirty Shame, wedged solidly between Days One and Two, ordering another round.

He was not. Prayers to Earl and myself answered, I arrived two hours ahead of schedule. This never happens. So I continued up the byway in search of a site therein to revitalize. I parked the bus in the cool shade of dense and fragrant pine gathered about an old service road, and let the big dogs out to romp. I romped right along with them through tall trees until the overgrown gravel road gave way to primitive trail and the trail gave way to thick impassible brush. Eliciting goose bumps, I stripped down and cleaned up in a chill and snow-lined creek, decided to go cowboy (cowgirl?) — very liberating — and pulled on fresh and faded blue jeans and a clean T. I brushed my hair. I brushed my teeth. I fished a barley wine from the cooler and drank deep.

At the Dirty Shame, Rick, Bartender Proprietor-Priest, poured me a tall one, relaying that English had phoned to say he was two hours behind, his intended route yet to be plowed out from the past season’s heavy snows. But with a Moose Drool bedded down patiently before me and new friends in the making, none of the waiting mattered. The big dogs were invited into the establishment and life was sweet. So I made those friends and nursed that beer, while the big dogs lounged on the worn wood floor.

Day One tipped his hat to me and promptly fell off his barstool. It had been a long one.

The sun was just narrowly above the hills when in walked English, throwing open the door to release long, sinewy fingers of cigarette and cigar smoke, friendly vulgarity and loud guffaws. I stood up and walked over. We grinned and wrapped our arms around one another. Squeezed. Tendrils of soft dark hair were blown askew and into his dark, mischievous eyes. It was a very nice effect. He was wearing a thick cotton shirt that had seen better days, a tattered pair of shorts, and he smelled like the forest. For all of my waiting, the payoff was fine.

I introduced English to my new best buddies at the bar. With eyes bleary, Days Two and Three scootched over to make room as he pulled a battered barstool next to mine.  Spread-eagled and snoring, Day One hadn’t budged from his spot on the floor.

All through the evening, the bell was busy ringing. Thirst was no longer a dilemma. Another Rick grabbed a guitar from the back of the room and played Celtic folksongs for a while. He really was good. Barkeep Rick joined in at times and was pretty good himself. Old Bernie told a few tall tales and we all belly laughed. Bernie had been in the valley for a very long time. I felt like I had been in the valley for a very long time. It was beautiful. Before English and I ended up joining Day One, who was clearly passed out cold and had begun to drool, on the floor, we thought we’d call it a night. We slept entwined and peacefully in the bus parked on the grass and weeds behind the saloon, beneath a starry starry sky, full moon, big dogs, thick blankets.

In the wee hours, Day Two arrived naked — without a stitch of cloud cover, entertaining temperatures in the high teens and masterfully finger-painting a layer of serious frost onto the inside of the bus’ windows. It was so cold, Day Two’s teeth were chattering loudly and her knees were knocking violently. All three of us were in dire need of hot coffee. We walked over to the wee mom & pop, cozy’d up to another fine drinking establishment. Yaak Valley: population 300 give or take, two taverns, one one-room schoolhouse, one place of worship and one sparsely stocked store offering bad but gratefully hot coffee in leaky paper cups. It was easy to see wherein the priorities of this populace lie. Good for them. We reclined in the bus, watching the sun straddle the hills, while eating trail food and sipping steaming Joe. Day Two burned her tongue on the coffee, cussed sweetly under her breath, smiled sheepishly and quickly began to warm up.

Adventure beckoned. We left behind the bus and boarded English’s late-model pickup. Up the road we traveled. The big dogs sat eager in the back of the extended cab, long tongues lolling, twitching noses poked out of windows. Past cabins and homesteads, past the board-and-bat schoolhouse, past the little log church, past a few more cabins. Up the road we rolled until it was flanked by continuous forest, and then out into the woolly wild we ventured. Packs packed and boots laced. We were keenly aware these woods were home to black bear and grizz, big cats and an assortment of ungulates. Neither of us had hiked often in grizzly territory and it felt a little spooky. I watched the big dogs closely.

Upon returning down valley, for two bucks each, we bathed at the Yaak-O-Mat, finding our way back to the Dirty Shame. It was handily the next building over. We ordered burgers and brews and let the good times continue to roll. We saw a few new faces. We made a few more new friends. A slight woman, brown hair gathered into an awkward ponytail, burst like a balloon into the saloon and, wasting no time, tried to talk a familiar patron out of paying any attention to the ring on his finger. He was a good sport about it. A short while later, she slipped into an unintended cartwheel behind the bar, both feet flailing in midair, legs splayed. Her landing scored low but she appeared unharmed. Rick paid her little attention as he poured another round. Sometime before last call, in through the front door, the ponytailed sprite maneuvered a child’s bicycle, resplendent with glittered banana seat and colorful plastic streamers hanging from the handlebar grips. She peddled forth a few feet before tipping over, joining Day Two who, with moss ground into her knees and forest detritus in her hair, had curled up on the floor for a nap.

A blond man walked up to English and me, grinning wildly and dancing with his own round belly while adroitly balancing a drink within his big, chapped paw. He winked at me. He winked at English. He introduced himself as Jeff, flirting with me and teasing English about his mop. He wondered where we were sleeping, so we told him. Jeff said that was no good, offering his cabin located a few miles up the road. He wasn’t using it. What about the big dogs? Without the slightest hesitation, Jeff said to bring ’em along. I pictured a cobwebbed and drafty shanty with an outhouse if we were lucky. Probably no running water, likely no electricity. Hey, just like the camper bus only perhaps a bit roomier.

We arrived to Jeff unlocking the door and flipping breakers. He motioned us in with a hearty sweep of his big, burly arms and mixed himself a drink for the road from a cupboard in the kitchen. He told us to enjoy ourselves and then he left. Just like that.

The cabin was not cobwebbed, nor was it drafty. The cabin’s interior was blanketed in hardwoods and softwoods, comfortable furniture and picture windows that would offer 180-degree views of the sunrise, mountains, river and meadows. We selected a bedroom and made ourselves comfortable, if not ready for sleep forthwith. One big dog made three circles on the braided rug at the foot of the bed and began drafting ZZZs. The other, chin resting on front paws, kept an alert canine watch from down the hall. When all was said and done, we closed our eyes, slowed our breathing, and were carried blissfully away to our own private dreams.

Day Three bolted upright as dawn cracked bright and shiny. We let him out the front door along with the big dogs and found coffee to brew. We reclined on the sofa and watched the big dogs chase Day Three around the frosty meadow.

We found ourselves in a vast and lonely sea of mountain acreage. We moved casually around in our birthday suits, swimming peacefully in the low tide of morning sun that slowly crested through shade-less windows.

There were more Days of course, as I had created quite a few of them. But they had traveled ahead as a group to the top of the next valley east, damn near a stone’s throw from Canada. Days Five and Six, an extremely athletic pair, had already strapped on snowshoes and were camped out at the base of Terriault Pass, sharing an exceptionally succulent apple. It was snowing again in the high country and English and I would catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile, we had mountain to climb and road to travel.

And on the seventh Day, I rested. I still had a long, long way to go.

Tricia M. Cook writes from a wee hamlet snuggled into the eastern toes of the North Cascade Mountains. Her last story for Mountain Gazette was “Eating Wolf,” which appeared in MG #176. Catch her bimonthly blog, “Living Beyond Lost,” at mountaingazette.com.

When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire

Beyond the service industry shroud, there is madness and mayhem in Moab. Within each river guide, shuttle driver, restaurant server, bike mechanic and hotel operator, there exists an undercurrent of something more. This undercurrent is a man rolling down Main Street in a handmade hamster wheel. It is the annual fashion show, wherein minimum-wage workers get to be top models — bedecked in mini-blinds or vacuum hose — for a night. It is Molotov cocktails tossed off Hurrah Pass at 2 a.m. It is a 28-day Daily run on the Colorado River. It is a stealth mission to turn the iconic “G” on the cliffs above town (“G” for Grand County) into a directive to “Go Away!” during Jeep Safari. It is the brilliance of Moab Community Theatre, the thrill of breaking world records at the Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival, and the hushed glory of prominent community members dancing with nearly naked skydivers — leather-bound leg acrobatically propped up on bare, brawny shoulder — at the bar on Halloween.

Yes, we are a tourist town. Yes, we survive by the grace of our guests, living thanks to those who love our surroundings. But Moab is also something more. There still exists an element holding steadfast to eccentricity amidst the onslaught of gentrification and commodification. For, once we’ve lost our idiosyncratic heart — beating to a rhythm as unpredictable as summer monsoons and sudden rock fall — then the real Moab is dead. Eccentricity is vanquished. And I will have to plant the seeds of my landscape love elsewhere.

Moab needs its eccentrics. It needs its darers and dreamers. They are the essential artists painting on the canvas of the day-to-day, reminding us that this life is less desperate — and more urgent — than we suppose. The eccentrics advise us that imagination is not a childhood relic, that dreams need not be confined to the brain and that conformity is the first sign of societal heart disease. But eccentricity is a dying breed, relegated to the shadows — especially during tourist season.

My boyfriend, Tyler, is an import to Moab from Durango, a town where, much to his sadness, the flame of eccentricity is flickering out. He came to Moab for me, but other loves have since abetted the original, including mountains, canyons, friends and the town itself.

He, too, is a daring dreamer, an important addition to the Moab milieu. Together, we ran the Colorado at high water on an air mattress, asking hapless boaters, “We just woke up; where are we?” and noting, “Wow! We’ve never seen the Dolores this big!” Inspired by the sweeping cinematography of a National Geographic documentary, he built operational camera equipment — an enormous jib and a dolly — out of scrap metal. During the first month of our courtship, he bought us a 1971 Streamline trailer to live in. He is my mountain man — a firefighter, a flawless feller of trees, a fearless adventurer. And he is my artist — with an ear for the essential, an eye for the emotional and a mind for the intuitive. And when he dresses as a bunny to run the half-marathon or plays alt-country versions of Lady Gaga on the guitar, no one around him can take this life too damned seriously. Like any good nonconformist, he helps me to see the comic within the consecrated. And for that I am grateful.

Tyler was a Moab resident for just a week when he experienced the town’s harbinger of the holiday season, the Winter Sun Festival. We ran the 10K, we visited the craft fair and we bundled up to stand among the crowds on Main Street for the annual Electric Light Parade. This is Moab at its shining finest. The spectacle is an assemblage of trucks full of teenagers and bisexuals on bicycles, antique tractors and elaborately decorated trailers, livestock and live music, dance troupes and costumed groups. The unifying theme is that every entrant — animal, vegetable or mineral — is adorned in lights. And the greatest beauty is that, for 30 golden minutes, Main Street is closed to everything but this one, locals-only holiday event. Suddenly, Highway 191 isn’t bisecting our town, cleaving west side from east with the noise and girth of semi traffic. Instead, it’s simply Main Street. And it belongs to Moab, a town not worried about making a buck — because there isn’t one to be had in December.

I was thrilled to share the parade with Tyler, the neophyte Moabite, to show him that this desert town is much more than the Slickrock Trail and Jeep Safari. We are passionately quirky in ways our visitors will never know. We live hidden lives of authenticity, colorful communion and song. Our increasingly short off-season is full of creative pursuits — parades, fashion shows, theater and craft nights — to while away the darker, carefree hours. We give off a shine that money can’t buy when winter is at its worst. I wanted Tyler to know that he was in the midst of kindred spirits.

At the parade, he got it. He loved it. And I loved him for loving it.

Following the procession, Frankie D’s Bar hosted an after-party with Moab’s best (and only) disco cover band, Sparkle Motion. The bar is housed in a Quonset hut painted with enough magic and memories — or alcohol, I suppose — to make its origins seem less humble. One never knows when Frankie’s will implode with debauchery — it’s hit or miss, directed by some devious turn of collective consciousness — but when the masses arrive, it’s disorderly perfection.

Ty and I sat in my darkened car parked across from a crowded Frankie’s, downing the contents of my thermos (a drink we labeled Hepatitis C on the Beach in honor of one of Moab’s many eccentrics). As any good, recession-era dirtbag knows, you do your drinking before entering the bar, to save money.

Just as we were about to make the move from car to bar, a straggler from the Electric Light Parade rode his bike across our field of vision, headed toward Frankie D’s. The scene was double-take-worthy.

His bike trailer was on fire.

Initially, the flames were small and confined to one portion of the trailer. We assumed that it was perhaps a portable barbecue — in Moab, why not? However, as he swiveled and swayed his way across the street, the mobile conflagration grew. When he hit the curb in front of the bar, the trailer broke free from the bike. With this, he finally became aware of his dangerously flickering hitchhiker.

We watched from our shadowy vantage, unobserved and absolutely titillated.

The cyclist stood above the trailer blaze and scratched his chin, seemingly unperturbed, puzzling over the predicament as if it were a simple mechanical problem that could wait until morning. But inspiration struck, and even in the dark, we could see it light up his features. We watched him unzip, extract, aim and fire. His urine flow was so copious that, not only did our hero douse the blaze, but hardly a wisp of smoke remained in the aftermath.

The alcohol that likely led to the fire’s ignition also helped to put it out. The inundated bladder saved the day for the inebriated brain. It was a glorious display of bodily self-correction. We silently cheered from the car.

Seconds later, a figure emerged from the bar. She wore a glowing, spinning electric fan on her forehead and a boa bedecked in sparkling lights. It was none other than Moab’s Queen of Westwater, our most infamous and beloved eccentric, trained (among other things) in the arts of branding and bondage. She stormed over to reprimand the hapless biker, fan spinning on forehead all the while. We desperately wanted to hear what was being said, so I inserted my key in the ignition to roll down the automatic windows. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that the key-ignition combo prompts illumination of the dome lights and commencement of buckle-your-seatbelt beeping. I’d blown our voyeuristic cover. We froze. But the Queen of Westwater and the King of Firewater didn’t notice. And we’d already missed the bulk of their absurdly surreal confrontation.

With the eventual dissipation of the spectacle, Tyler breathlessly broke the silence in the vehicle with, “I think I just fell in love with Moab.”

And he’s been falling in love ever since.

Finally, we made our way into the bar for a typical night in Moab — fires, fans, freaks and all — our lives painted vibrant by the creative palettes of our compatriots in nonconformity.

Jen Jackson resides in Moab, where she will spend the off-season learning the finer arts of driving a 1976 Kenworth W900A, servicing a Stihl MS290, shooting rabbits with a .22 and loving this life —quirks and all — with an ever-bigger heart. 

Snowmen

It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.

Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.

The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.

Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.

We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!

It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!

We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off.  The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.

We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.

I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!

The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its own rewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.

In the distance, I heard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!

Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder.  We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.

Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.

We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.

It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.

Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?

As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.

Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.

As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!

Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.

The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”

I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.

In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.

Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.

After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.

My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.

And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.

The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.

As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.

Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.

It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.

A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.

Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol.  Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.

When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.

When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!

That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!

Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.

Kitzbuehel

In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.

But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.

When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.

“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”

He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.

He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”

The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.

“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”

The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.

By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.

“But the French are no good.”

His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.

“Swiss?”

“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”

“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”

The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.

But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.

We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.

“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”

It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”

I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”

“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”

The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.

“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”

“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”

Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.

“Can I light that for you?”

Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.

“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”

The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”

He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”

They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”

“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”

Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.

He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.

The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”

Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011. 

Ski Days, Redux

Twenty years ago, I fell in love. A suburban girl, I spent four years at college in rural Vermont, where the winter entertainment, besides copious drinking and complaining about the cold, was skiing. I got a student season pass to Mad River Glen and discovered the joys of going downhill in a rush. I enjoyed the camaraderie of skiers and being part of a crazy social club for which only requirement is the senseless desire to get up at O-dark-thirty to spend a day sliding downhill in the freezing cold. But most of all, I experienced something I hadn’t yet in my almost 20 years: a sense of solitary contentment, a sudden consciousness that I could experience joy alone while doing something that I loved. When I was schussing downhill, there were a few moments in a day that transcended mere pleasure, the ones when I was aware of a rare and fleeting sensation as gravity, my body and my skis worked together on just this side of control. In these brief moments, I would laugh out loud for sheer pleasure, heedless of anyone else.

I was not particularly good, but I possessed a recklessness that brought inclusion with a group of skiers far better than I was and caught the eye of a cute instructor at the college’s small ski bowl. We piled into barely functioning cars, careening up and back the slippery roads leading to the mountain, spending the drive time recounting spills, comparing runs, telling fish stories of snowy exploits. We ratcheted up our bindings with the screwdrivers chained to the lift line posts, then took to the slopes, our skis all but welded to our boots. With my buddies, I embraced all types of terrain: the trees, the steeps, the downright stupid, heedless of injury potential. My skis were 185cms, two narrow slices of arrogance that towered over my 5’1” frame, but went downhill in a hurry. I loved the group experience, the nod of acknowledgement to another raccoon-eyed student in the library or chatting at night with someone in the dorm I’d shared a lift with earlier in the day.

But as much as I loved the group experience, it was the solitary moments that helped define my developing identity. I nodded knowingly through my philosophy classes during the morning as we discussed philosophy and the self, but it was during the afternoons on the slopes that I had anything approaching understanding of it. In my poetry classes, we parsed the words of Yeats, and when we got to how can we know the dancer from the dance?” I thought not of ballerinas, but of myself carving turns, my body and skis moving together more gracefully than my awkward legs could ever do alone.

As for the cute ski instructor guy, well, Reader, I married him. We moved out to Seattle and began that real life with jobs and health insurance and mortgages. We didn’t get out skiing as much as we liked. When we did, we were out of shape and out of practice, our gear out of date. One day in 1998, on a rare ski day, I took a tumble. My bindings were still set to “idiocy” from my screwdriver-antics years before, and would not release without a sledgehammer. The sound of my anterior cruciate ligament snapping was like a gunshot. That was the end of skiing for a few more years. When knee surgery and physical therapy were finished and I was pronounced slope-worthy, I became pregnant. A kid. Then another. Then several years of the juggling of infants and toddlers, wonderful years, but a time when a good night’s sleep and children who can use the toilet take far more headspace than skiing. These are also the years of true selflessness, a loss of self, where it is easiest to forget you were ever anything but a parent, that you ever had an identity separate from the family sphere.

Finally, my husband and I decided to brave the mountains again with the kids, three and five years old, in tow. After an almost six-year hiatus, we emerged Rip Van Winkle-like into a brave new world of skiing. We rented equipment, my 185s long since gone, probably still in the storage unit of our first apartment. Acquiring new equipment was humbling and confusing. Stumpy curved skis! Helmets for adults! We mocked the skis at first, then made a few turns on them, so effortless it felt like cheating. We scoffed at the helmets, then changed our minds after nearly being taken out by some crazy college kids on snowboards. There was something vaguely familiar about them, but, regardless, skiing without helmets now seemed as prudent as driving blindfolded, a quaint throwback to the days our parents piled six kids into back of a station wagon, sans car seats, cigarettes glowing out the window on the way to the ski area.

We didn’t bother with poles, as they would only be a hindrance as we slowly followed our skiing progeny, scooping them off the slope and setting them back on their skis over and over. Poles only made it more difficult to lift bundled children onto lifts that hit them square in the center of their back. On lifts and in lines, we doled out candy, dropping gummy bears into their mouths, open and expectant like baby birds. We struggled through lost gloves, pinchy goggles, outgrown ski pants. In those days, we’d finally make it to the top of the mountain with our many-layered children only to hear the dreaded words: “I have to go potty.” We paid the usurious prices for full-day lift tickets, never to even get off the beginner lift, never to move at more than a glacial pace. In short, we muddled through two seasons of a very expensive and cumbersome sport known as “nearly skiing.” Like skiing, but twice as expensive and with half the fun. I was as far from my skiing self as I had been in the slopeless years.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on. One day toward the end of the season, the weather brought an unexpected gift of snow. After checking the ski report, we began to prepare for another family ski day. Somehow, the kids managed to gather their own clothing and gear and lay them out the night before, chattering excitedly about the upcoming day. In the morning, everyone remembered to use the bathroom before piling into the car in the still-dark morning. The two-hour ride to the mountain went by in a blink. We’ve fallen into a routine of reading stories and playing car games that make the time fly. Once at the mountain, we stowed our sack lunch in our usual spot and joined the line for the high-speed chair, bypassing the line at the bunny lift. My daughter raised her arms at the precise moment, and I lifted her up onto the chairlift, a practiced duet. My son sat next to my husband, adjusting his goggles, lobbying for a harder run, rather than the long green warm-up run I insist we start with every week. Candy was delivered to small mouths, a habit I’ve maintained, mostly because I like candy. As we approached the top, we swung up the safety bar and unloaded swiftly, without the tears or spills on the part of parents or children. Even a year ago, all four of us would have been ready for a break.

We stood at the top for a minute, then wordlessly slipped into our follow-the-leader routine. My husband went first, skiing with the same distinctive form that I can pick out from any lift, the same form that drew my eye 20 years ago. Soon he was far below me, carefully carving out exaggerated turns, laboring under the illusion that the kids were watching him and attempting to emulate his actions. I could see him about to be overtaken by my son who was in a full tuck, poles under his arms, his skis chattering straight down the hill, as he experimented with the limits of physics as only an eight-year-old boy can. Trailing them at a distance, my daughter was cruising, searching the trees on the trail’s edge, looking for a path into the woods that she loves. I watched her unconsciously shift her weight as she turned, her small form moving gracefully. She has a natural affinity that I never possessed, and I know that she will be a far better skier than I ever was.

Watching them, I realized we’d reached a new point in our family dynamics. My days of enjoying the shared experience of skiing were back. I could see the whole day ahead of me. At lunch, we’d be replaying the inevitable crash of my son, soon after he passed his surprised father. My daughter would gush about the waist-deep powder, and we’d respond that it was only knee-deep to us. We’d eat the traditional Fig Newtons on the drive home, and the kids would fall asleep and then my husband and I would have time to talk, the dashboard-lit car a setting more intimate and familiar to us than a candlelit restaurant. Standing at the top of that mountain, watching them, was one of those rare moments when I realized that I was currently living a day that I’d be revisiting again and again throughout my life, a lifetime memory freshly minted.

But first I had to get down. My family was far ahead, so I had to pick up speed to catch them. I took my usual spot at the rear. No one needed scraping off the snow right now, so I concentrated on myself. I made a mental note to buy some poles in the near future, then pushed off and picked my own line down the slope. The only sound I could hear was my skis carving through snow. I made a few good turns, then fell into a rhythm, turn, turn, turn. Muscle has a long memory, I thought. Then I stopped thinking and focused on the skiing. Suddenly, I was a college student again, and in love, and in that moment, there was only me, just a deep satisfying sense of self as everything else fell away. Picking up speed, I felt the old thrill. I laughed out loud, the sound echoing off the snow.

Hilary Meyerson is a freelance writer living in Seattle. This story, which was first published in the June issue of This Great Society, is her first for the Gazette.