Despite my grown-up age, I’m suffering a premature case of panic at the thought of what lies ahead. Call it existential dread, a kind of pre-terror before the real thing arrives and wraps me in a stomach-churning, middle-of-the-night state of icy apprehension for the rest of my life. I had hoped to secretly enjoy the warm, sticky nostalgia that often accompanies a visit to the scenes of one’s youthful meanderings and misdeeds. Dangerous Daryl, who is sitting beside me on the shuttle bus to the Portland airport, appears unfazed about what is coming. Our fellow passengers are two couples, roughly in our age range (mid-50s to mid-60s), certainly not of our mountain tribe, and about to embark on their holiday. They are in high spirits. The women giggle at one another’s jokes; the men, wearing pressed jeans, new tennis shoes and cotton Hawaiian shirts, nod and grin. Happy campers.
To gauge our sociability, one of the men leans toward Dangerous and in a conspiratorial voice announces that they are on their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Idle, good-fellow vacation banter follows. The women eavesdrop, until one, eyeing our backpacks and antique kickback chairs, brings the verbal ships-in-the-night-love-fest to a halt. “Where are you two going?” she asks. It is clearly a demand dressed-up as a request. I am not sure why, but before Dangerous can reply, I blurt out “1972.” Silence fills the shuttle bus like icy Arctic Ocean water pouring into a sinking boat. The women lean closer to the men; the men fold their arms and wait. Dangerous, who cannot hear out of one ear, is still smiling. The few seconds of pause feel like an hour in time-out. Finally, my she-interrogator has sized me up as the smart-aleck I am. “Ha! 1972. Ha! Ha!” Everyone breaks out in laughter. She is, however, not done with me. Arms-folded-and-teacher-like, she waits for the correct answer: a place, a destination, a fixed point on the map. How can I tell her this is no laughing matter? Where Dangerous and I are headed, Place and Time are inextricably entangled, a motherboard of tall tales, communal narratives, decades-old rumors, fleeting glimpses and fading memories.
In fact and space, we are bound for the Mountain Round-Up and Pig Roast, the biannual rendezvous of Bear Valley-Ebbetts Pass residents past and present. The three-day event is held in the hamlet of Sheep Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The better-known town of Murphys, California, is nearby. In 1860, gold was discovered in the area. A boomtown sprang up overnight, harboring five gold mines and fifteen saloons. At one time, the two-story Pioneer Hotel and Bar, ground-control center of the Mountain Round-Up, competed mightily with the Eagle Hotel for patrons looking for comforts and distractions. The last time I attended a Round-Up, nearly 30 years ago, I was single, immortal, foot-loose and fancy free in a way only mountain life allows.
During the early 1970s, Dangerous and I lived in Bear Valley/Mt. Reba ski resort, an hour’s drive and a few thousand vertical feet up Highway 4 from Sheep Ranch. The marketing department had labeled the area “the best kept secret in the Sierras,” an oxymoronic phrase that to this day carries the scent of mountain tomfoolery and a sliver of truth. Due to historically outrageous amounts of snow, Ebbetts Pass (Highway 4) closes in the winter. Marketing the concept of an uncrowded destination ski resort, vacation homes and luxury condos (with a relatively limited night-life, a handful of shops and minimal, but essential, services) on a dead-end winter highway with snow banks ten to fifteen-feet high in places, however, was always going to be a challenge. Nearby Lake Tahoe, glamorous but swarming with tourists, was the perfect Las Vegas-like foil for The Secret.
In spite of these climatic and geographical handicaps, the area showed promise when it opened in 1968. Throughout the early 1970s (if you didn’t count the drought years of 1975 and 1976), the area thrived. Ski racers, instructors and patrolmen came from the nearby ski areas of Dodge Ridge and Lake Tahoe, as well as resorts in Utah, Colorado, France and New Zealand. Hollywood celebrities, seeking sanctuary from the publicity storm, arrived with their families and found themselves welcomed into the life of a small mountain town. The lack of through-traffic and the intimidating amounts of snow gave the area the lure of a ski-town beyond the pale, a location where you could get in, but perhaps not get out. The pristine natural beauty was enough to make you cry. The lift lines on Mt Reba were ridiculously short midweek, the ski passes reasonably cheap. Demo equipment could be purchased for a pittance. One could step out one’s door and cross-country ski into the backcountry. Locals were friendly, irreverent and hard working (depending on the season). Lacking entertainment and with time on our hands, the community embraced the child-like concept of making fun out of high-altitude thin air. The Mad Hatters Ball (to celebrate the end of the season), the Bastille Day Parade (to celebrate French Independence day, but mostly an opportunity for locals to make and wear silly costumes and parade flagrantly through town) and the Spring Street Olympics (to get the same locals out of the bars on those stunningly beautiful warm spring days in the Sierra) were anchor events in a sea of chronic spontaneous efforts at making our own fun. None of these events were scripted. Ski-resort management had yet to realize the value of these “natural” happenings, much less corral and co-opt the local madness into marketed events. Signs of a maturing community appeared — a library, a fire station and a grammar school. Locals became involved in local governance. Nevertheless, Bear Valley had the feel of a frontier village wonderland, a place with promise, where the first residents might claim bragging rights for having stumbled upon a real find.
The two cops in town were actually Alpine County sheriffs. Markleeville, the county seat, was on the eastern side of Ebbetts Pass and unreachable for seven or eights months of the year. Thus, the Law Enforcers and the Law Benders were stuck with one another. To their credit, the cops realized that the locals, though hopelessly beyond redemption, were harmless, fun-seeking missiles. As long as the miscreants were reasonably well-behaved and willing to listen to a common-sense warning why they should not be spinning donuts in the icy parking lot in an overcrowded VW van, a relatively harmonious relationship existed. How can you make an enemy of someone who you may be sitting next to at the bar on Saturday night swapping horror stories of driving up the Pass in a whiteout with no chains? Live and let live. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Hide and seek. The handful of restaurants, shops and bars coupled with the jobs on the mountain provided enough employment to keep economic life viable. If you found your way to Bear Valley and stuck it out, you had landed in an unlikely high-altitude Paradise, the perfect place to misspend one’s youthful capital.
Depending on who you talk to, the Round-Up/Pig Fest has been going (with occasional unscheduled lapses) since 1980. The location in the Sierra foothills has remained steady, although the exact venue had changed on occasion, usually without warning. Attendance ebbs and flows depending on births, deaths, weather, regular jobs, the feeling that you may have outgrown mountain reunions, the desire to avoid people you hoped to never see again and the wish to not disrupt the stories you have told yourself (and possibly your children) about those glorious days in the mountains. The chances of being reminded of who you once thought you were, or worse, that you haven’t changed one iota and are the same self-absorbed, beer-swilling, fun-loving, risk-taking suntanned idiot boy (or girl) are better than average. Returning to Sierra Mountain Past Time (SMPT) is more akin to making one final late run in the black-diamond zone of the mountain with a storm rolling in. Advance at your own peril.
It was Dangerous who alerted, then cajoled, me to this year’s Roundup. Given our ancient common mountain vices and background, it is hard to believe that we fall on different points along the political spectrum until I remember that he once owned a Doberman named Killer and was a volunteer deputy in town. He was also an excellent ski-instructor and damned good, cool-under-pressure dinner cook who tolerated no excuses when a waiter or waitress failed to pick up an order within ten seconds of the order-up bell. Think of the position Roger Maris or Roberto Clemente played; Dangerous is now firmly ensconced somewhere in the bleachers, high in the bleachers. No matter. He can’t help himself and has been generous enough to use his executive business card that allows us to literally walk through the car rental agency at the Sacramento airport and step into an upper-tier vehicle that screams speed and comfort. As we drive out of the parking lot, Danger hands me his GPS. I have to search my short-term memory for the meaning of the acronym: yes, of course, GROUND POSITIONING SYSTEM. Good to know where you are going and how to get there. It is, however, yet another nagging reminder that the shape of Time and how I measure it at 60 has undergone irreversible change. I lack the will to scale the peak of my hard-earned indifference to electronic gadgetry and so I fumble halfheartedly with the pocket-sized nuisance. Danger finally pulls over and rescues me from my Luddite intransigence. He pushes a few buttons and magically the compact screen lights up with a cartoon image of a highway in primary colors of our exact location (in real time), estimated arrival time and mileage. He slaps the miniature gadget to the windshield, a screen upon a screen.
No sooner do we miss the off ramp that will carry us east toward the Sierra, and then the seductive voice of a woman challenges my “we-don’t-need-no-stinking-map” inclinations. This is not the gravely, no-nonsense tone of a post-modern ramrod like Rowdy Yates/Clint Eastwood of “Rawhide” fame. I have, however, heard the faceless feminine intonation with the tidal pull before. But where? Everywhere, of course: shopping malls, robo-calls, grocery stores, kitchen gadgets and social networks. Welcome to the 21st century. I cannot help but like her. She is calm and self-assured, I suspect, as long as we do her bidding. She-who-must-be-obeyed will get us to the Mountain Round-Up whether we like it or not.
Near Lodi, we bend and wiggle east on two-lane back roads through farm country. The spring sunshine is California-dreamland-soft; the scene at 75 mph is all blue sky, green fields, honey and promise. I put my hand out the window and surf the warm air. Danger and I swap mountain stories built on common memories. When he offers another interpretation (actually based on facts that I did not know, but suspect are true) of some of my long-cherished mountain narratives, I am forced to reconsider the possibility of large and time-consuming revisions of the mountain stories I have been telling myself for thirty years. Shit!
Dare I count the numerous leave-in the-middle-of the-night road trips to Tahoe, Reno, Sun Valley, Sandpoint, Jackson Hole and Aspen 35 years ago, tra-la-la-ing along back roads and empty desert highways, through anonymous towns and over mountain passes, gloating when our sense of direction matched reality, cowering when the flashing red lights pulled up behind us as we hid the beer under the packs and gear. We traveled on cheap gas and a shoestring; I could hear an unlikely crowd — Muir, Whitman, Frost, Kerouac, Watts, Roethke, Dickenson and Thompson — in the jam-packed backseat arguing or singing or sighing over the great American landscape. I shudder to think what they might say about my present mode of travel, not to mention my growing affection for the electronic Muse. Historically, I have been inclined to driving beater tank-like station wagons with one hand on the wheel and a creased, coffee-stained paper map on my lap. Leaving in the dark was mandatory, if only to make miles and have breakfast in some nondescript café as the sun came up. Who was that unabashed romantic of the road, distance and scenic viewpoints? Embedded in the wiggly lines, symbols, colors, numbers, altitudes, place names and road notes, of course, was a universe of chance, mystery, adventure, error and redemption, cycles, rhythms and seasons, overwhelmingly American in nature, though not obvious at the time. To this day, a tired cardboard box of yellow, weightless, marked-up maps sits under the stairs, calling.
The fun of those mountain joy-riding adventures, of course, was the promise of an encounter with the unexpected and the raw thrill of physical movement over great expanses. With a smattering of Western literature coursing through my addled brain, the myths of the West — frontiers, greener pastures, fresh starts, eternal possibilities, heart-stopping beauty — came alive. Oblivious to any consequences less than extremely serious, we courted serendipity and the offerings of the road — broken-down cars, roadside attractions, lonely miles of desert highway, cold green rivers on hot days, bars, hitchhikers, restaurant waitresses, scenic wonders that came and went in the bat of an eye and left our ignorant souls brimming over. What would my electronic Muse have to say about the pleasures of taking the wrong turn, straying off the beaten path, getting lost? Enough. I can hear the grating sound of my memories side-slipping into the gully of Nostalgia. Me thinks it’s time for a shot and a beer to halt the unseemly descent into wistfulness. Dangerous and I stop at a roadside establishment seeking refreshment, something rundown, earth-smelling and dark enough that customers go unrecognized at lunchtime.
Wallace, Valley Springs, Mokelumne Hill — the valley and foothill towns roll past and recall vague, pine-scented memories. We reach San Andreas and turn into the spring-fresh-green foothills of the Sierra. An hour of winding, light-dappled back roads brings us to Sheep Ranch at our estimated time of arrival. We have avoided the joys of getting lost. Our electronic guide purrs, and then falls silent. Sheep, which outnumber residents, crowd the Main Street. We slow to a crawl. Up ahead, the Pioneer Hotel. We drive through the gate. Base camp. Ground Zero. Visitor’s Center to SMPT.
The Pioneer Hotel hasn’t changed in thirty (or one hundred?) years. The two-story, century-old hotel exudes a shabby, effortless charm and a structural predisposition to leaning. The wrap-around veranda is lined with overstuffed couches and easy chairs, the perfect location for morning-coffee-spiked-with-bourbon and repetitious storytelling. If nothing has changed (and everything), the interior is complete with creaky floorboards, a belly-up bar, ornate red wallpaper, high-ceiling rooms and Gold Rush memorabilia. Being a virtual tinderbox, smoking is not allowed in or near the wooden building The grounds around the hotel are green and overgrown. Black oak and ponderosa pine line the broken-down wooden and barbed-wire fences. There is no gas station, store or post office in Sheep Ranch. The town had its zip code revoked (it is unclear why) and residents pick up their mail in nearby Mountain Ranch.
Dangerous and I linger in the car, engine running. Escape is still possible. Four figures pitch horseshoes on a patch of dirt along side the hotel. They turn, they stare at the sleek rental car, huddle together unable to recognize the occupants, unsure if we are friend or foe. We can still back out of the parking lot slowly and dash for cover, if only the sheep will move.
The short guy with the grey mustache and cowboy hat, we both agree, is Cowboy. Portuguese ski-instructor-contractor-sailor-restaurateur-rancher-in-an-apron and primary organizer of the Mountain Round-Up, Cowboy is pushing 70. He moves light-of-foot like a man half his age and bears a passing resemblance to the actor Tommy Lee Jones. It takes longer to recognize Miller, 44, and son of close friends, who was in grade-school during my time in Bear Valley. Husband, father of three, Olympic-caliber racer and now a contractor in Murphys, Miller has the square jaw and compact build of his father, Jack, who died recently. When I arrived in the mountains, I somehow was pulled into the orbit of this mountain family, relative stable planets in the ski resort universe of shooting stars, black holes, and time warps. I ate at their dinner table, worked in their shop and slept on the floor of the family cabin after all-night sessions cobbling together editions of The Bear Valley Spectator and Boogie News, the resort’s first, only and last newspaper. The other two beer-clutching, horseshoe-tossing miscreants remain temporarily beyond our collective recall. Over the next two days, this failure of memory will be a recurring problem. Only when someone mercifully pitches a name to a face will the lens of recollection wheel into focus.
As we climb out of the car and step into the deep end of the pool of the Past, we are greeted with embraces, laughter, disbelief and beers. A round of bullshit chatter before Miller escorts me to a prime location between two pickups in a grassy corner of the compound, a rickety wooden fence at my back, a location I can crawl to if I revert too old habits. I am frankly touched by Miller’s concern of my welfare. A small wonder! He insists on helping me put up my two-man tent and asks if I need another cold beer. Base camp for an aging fun hog, my observational post to watch the Reign of Terror as it is unleashed. Later, we will spend a portion of the afternoon in the shade of his mobile home discussing fathers and sons. For now, I arrange my sleeping bag, fluff my pillow and place my headlamp within reach. I resist the urge for a quick nap. The couches on the veranda beckon.
Throughout the morning, a crowd trickles in. The families pitch their tents: circus-sized, room-sized, two-man. Others circle their trailer-homes under the ponderosa pines, wagon-train style. Solo pilgrims squeeze their lightweight miniature tents between the enclaves. The camps of non-breeding mountain bachelors are sprinkled around the perimeter, the outliers and boundary sentinels, the Swedish farmers of the High Sierra. Couples have taken rooms in the red-curtained, whiskey-stained, ghost-haunted hotel. No one will sleep well in the paper-thin-wall rooms with the bar below. A rolling tribe of children cruise the grounds before I realize they are not the spawn of my generational cohorts, but the grandchildren, rug rats of once-upon-a-time rug rats, evidence that it will be impossible to escape or soften the notion that Time has passed, is passing, will pass without some form of medication. Damn the little beasts!
Cowboy has spent the day preparing the 120-pound domestic pig for roasting. He has stuffed it with onions and garlic, and marinated Porky in some Portuguese concoction of mint and rosemary. The blaze he started this morning, fueled with a steady supply of hardwood, has turned into a fine pile of embers. Thirty or more of the usual suspects mull around, waiting for Cowboy to skewer the pig end to end. They are like characters out of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” eager to join the procession to The Pit where the sacrifice will be laid to roast. A brown bottle of tequila makes the rounds. Sips instead of gulps, signs of adulthood, the moderation only the memory of youthful dancing along the edge can bring. Warnings about falling into The Pit are issued. Everyone nods in agreement. It is common knowledge that a decade or more ago (memories are fuzzy as the exact date), one of the evening tenders took a tumble into the Pit, only to emerge miraculously and without injury, her down jacket sprinkled with small bonfires and the smoke of burning fleece rising into the hill night air.
If all goes to plan, the pig will take 15 to 18 hours to cook. Cowboy has circulated a sign-up sheet for volunteer pig-guardians among the crowd. Duties include stoking the fire, rotating the beast on the spit a quarter turn every fifteen minutes throughout the night, keeping revelers out of The Pit, listening to stories you have heard a hundred times and telling your own stories as though they were brand new. Determined to pace myself and stay the course, I have taken a midnight shift. Charlotte, wife of Jack, mother of Miller and Henry, one-time co-editor of the Bear Valley Spectator, owner of The Dirty Nickel Co., and present-day hospital administrator, will stand watch with me. As the night grows chilly, the crowd closes in around the roasting pig. Gone are the wild days, the uproarious mountain behavior along with the stamina to push boundaries. The din is the tempered conversation of travelers who have survived the journey over the Donner Pass of our Mountain Life, managed not to devour one another, wonder how they got here and rejoice in that simple fact. When Charlotte fails to show up, I am left to shoulder the pig-guardian duties alone under a chilled mountain sky filled with stars. It is dark and beautiful.
Any chance for serious reflection is short-lived. Out of the shadow a figure emerges and sidles up beside me to join in the communal hypnosis a crackling, red fire pit offers. “Nice pig,” a feminine, non-GPS voice growls. A creeping sensation runs along my spine. I should know this voice. Ex-mountain girlfriends are not to be ignored or tampered with, even after three decades. Avalanche territory. Rainbow Star and I exchange safe pleasantries. It is not long, however, before the slippery slope of the Scorned Woman/Paul Simon “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” Past beckons. Rainbow Star, of the sharp tongue, long memory and big heart, was always a woman to speak her mind. Her un-sugar-coated, tequila-stained review of my personal shortcomings would sober anyone up. It is far too late to beg forgiveness. I could agree to my relative immaturity with little cost, but I decide to feign loss of memory and well-timed silences. I can only cringe and hope the dawn comes up sooner than later. We agree to agree that “Life is funny” and let it go at that.
The smoke from the roasting pig wafts up into the second-story rooms on the backside of the Pioneer. A shadow appears at one of the windows. Annie Oakley, one of the bevy of fast, beautiful, untouchable ski-instructor-goddesses that left me gasping in the bars and on the slopes years ago, yells down in her throaty voice, “Is the hotel on fire?”
As the night wears on, the bulk of the crowd wears out. We mountain elders, who once skied all day, worked in the local restaurants at night, made sure the bars closed safely, made all-night runs to Reno to ski and gamble, saw the sun rise and repeated the routine day in and day out, are in retreat. I slip into the shadows beyond the cozy camaraderie of The Pit. In the belief that I will need my wits about me for the next day, I resist the temptation to visit The Bar. I crawl into my tent, congratulating myself for adult-like behavior. Before my head reaches the pillow, I am nose-diving into the Land of Nod, the muffled laughter of the next set of nocturnal pig-tenders playing a background lullaby in my ears.
The scent of freshly-brewed coffee percolates into my tent. Out of my sleeping bag, past The Pit with its handful of blurry-eyed, last-men-standing tenders, I drag myself toward the kitchen to fetch a cuppa Joe. The morning sky is a warm blanket of blue, the spring sun like a child’s yellow balloon on a short string. Whispers and giggles drift from the nearby campsites of families and couples. It’s an outdoor, circle-the-wagons sleep-over with a hundred of your closest friends. The breakfast crew is hard at work, preparing a small feast for a large crowd. Classical music, idle chatter, Bloody Marys. I’d like to help ,but the over-stuffed couches on the sunlit veranda are calling. I slip out and park myself lizard-like in one of the upholstered nests, sipping coffee with sunshine on my shoulder. I suspect I may be approaching a minor version of Wonder unwittingly. Does it happen like this? By chance? Can it last for an hour, a day, a week? Well, maybe ten minutes … an eternity.
Abe, Cowboy and Rose’s son, sits down next to me. Abe is in his late-thirties, soft-spoken with his father’s mannerisms and his mother’s eyes and build. A one-time ski instructor (like his old man), Abe grew up in Bear Valley. In his twenties, he did his time in the ski resorts of the Rockies, but returned to the Sierra foothills, Ebbetts Pass and Bear Valley: home. The last time I saw Abe, he was a mere sprout, one of the throng of eight-and-nine-year-old grommets who swarmed the mountain, skiing like they had come out of their mother’s bellies carving G-slalom turns. He remembers me, probably due to the stories his old man told him about our adventures cross-country skiing over the Sierra from Bear Valley to Mammoth Mountain or the sailing voyage in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We share the sunshine and what-are-you-doing-now stories. Abe segues into a litany of fond memories about growing up in Bear Valley: snow camping, trudging through snow up to his waist, snowball fights, digging out the car with his dad, rushing to see a cabin on fire, summer hikes and backpacking trips. He remembers having a free rein, going into “town” to the general store, the Red Dog Saloon or the Altitude 38 (long since torn down) to hang out, play games and drink rounds of Shirley Temples at the bars. Someone was always around to keep an eye on the kids. He had never forgotten the first time his father took him into the Red Dog Saloon to show him where his name had been carved into the slab of varnished hardwood that served as the bar.
It is an unexpected relief to hear a young mountain dude talking about his “good old days.” I am spared the sound of my curmudgeonly self bemoaning the loss of my own good old days in the mountains. Wonder has ambushed me again.
Abe laughed at the thought that as a child he had the feeling of “missing out” on things that kids in flat land towns and cities had access to — malls, MTV, fast food, cool toys. He thought mountain life kept you humble. He treasured his father’s admonitions, once upon a time an irritation, about the importance of getting the seasonal work done in preparation for winter — cutting cord wood, cleaning gutters, patching holes, watching over burn piles, prepping ski gear. Not much fun, but there was something in the labor that made you feel alright.
Surveying the stirring campers and campsites, Abe marveled at the extended family and decades-long friendships of his parent’s generation.
Wonder of a different kind catches me napping. What of the Fun and the Mountain Party atmosphere common to ski-resorts? How did my parent-friends with mewling spawn like Abe manage? Late to the parenting game and with 16-year-old daughter who would love to know everything about her father’s Mysterious Past, I shudder, glad that my wandering ways did not allow me to father and try to raise children at the same time I was on the search for “peak” experiences in whatever form I could find them. Abe had seen it all, what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the mountain scene. As he got older, he experimented with various drugs and drinking, not unlike kids in the suburbs and city. As he said, “The adults seemed to have fun with them, so why not?” Ouch! In hindsight it was plain to see that the trouble with life in a small mountain resort was that everything was hidden in plain sight.
As he reached adulthood, Abe found the most disturbing part of mountain life to be the realization of the casualty list among his parent’s (and my) friends. Serious consequences of the dark side of fun — jail-time, financial problems, addictions, family break-ups, despair, death before its time — awaited those who did not (or could not?) stop or slow down their partying. In the mountain culture of the late-’60s and ’70s, drinking and drugs were common recreational pursuits that dovetailed with the outdoors be-here-now, pedal-to-the metal, experimental, spontaneous exuberance. Was it any different than risk-taking at sea-level or the valley? Perhaps, in the sense that the mountains offered natural beauty and challenges that cracked your heart wide open on a daily basis. Strong, athletic bodies coupled with an unusually high degree of physical and mental freedom attracted a contingent of like-minded, risk-taking, free-wheeling souls, disciplined when discipline was called for and certainly not careless when climbing or skiing, but who liked to push the limits whether on the slopes, in the backcountry, all-night road trips or at the bar. Just where that mystical line, the boundary between soaring light and bottomless dark, good fun and irresponsible behavior, calculated risk and mindless foolishness lie was ever the challenge.
And there on the couch in the spring sunshine with Wonder tapping me on the shoulder and Abe as my unsuspecting cross-generational time-guide, a wave of sadness sweeps me away. It is the Dolores of Loss, the reawakening of the knowledge that, in the midst of the high times, strong bodies, playfulness, and blue skies of Mountain Past lurked shadows and portents of danger. Over the last two decades, a handful of mountain and river brothers had been lost to their demons, alcohol the main, but not only, protagonist. Two friends in particular had served as mentor-like figures. Talented, fun-loving, generous free-spirits who welcomed me to the mountains, taught me to ski and climb, shared the secret places, got my nose out of my beloved books and showed me how to have fun, to make mirth. Major characters in the core narrative of my mountain life, they had become figures in a cautionary tale. It is an inescapable fact that both friends, at some point, crossed into the Steep and Deep and Dark of self-destructive behavior. It is a troublesome observation that I strain to understand. Had they not seen the line? Was there no line to see or did they simply keep moving it beyond sight, and eventually, reach? When did the Creative Fun, the Mountain Energy morph into something else? Most of us recognized the Black Diamond signposts ahead and turned back.
Abe had opened his own door to Mountain Past and I was not going to let him escape without the question that always nags ex-mountain people: “Had life in the mountains changed substantially, for better or worse?” Abe, however, is saved by the breakfast bell. Place, Time and Memory give way to the search for a plate of huevos rancheros … and more java. A week later Abe emailed his response:
“There used to be a whole ‘mystery ski life’ that the world found intriguing and now that ski life is more a hobby for most. This has changed for the ski-bum too … It used to be neat to ski bum and sleep in the parking lot, but in today’s multi-million dollar neighborhoods, ski-bumming is frowned upon. That is another change I see is the people who flock to ski areas. It used to be everyone did. Rich and poor and young and old, would join up and having skiing in common. Today it is the old timers, the young people working at the mountain, and the wealthy who build huge houses. The wealthy usually only come up to their house several times a winter and never hang out with the others. There is now sort of a class separation at the ski areas.”
By mid-morning, the next wave of celebrants has begun to arrive. They come from the valley and the foothills and descend from familiar-sounding places along Ebbetts Pass — Alpine Lake, Bear Valley, Tamarack Springs, Ganns, Cottage Springs, Dorrington, Big Trees, Arnold, Fly-in-Acres, Avery and Forest Meadows. More tents go up. Circles of kick-back chairs sprout on the overgrown grass; teenagers prowl the grounds, looking to catch their parents in activity they have been warned about. The couches on the veranda are crowded; pockets of people in earnest conversation float about, shrink and expand, evaporate. A number of the owners of trailers have set up outdoor mini-bars, specializing in a variety of unnamable concoctions with rainbow-colored stir sticks, pink straws, umbrellas, flamingos. It is part circus, part pilgrimage of the usual and the unusual suspects: ranchers, bikers, bush-oakies, wine-makers, construction guys, lift-operators, grandparents, school teachers, young mountain hipsters, solid middle-class business types, beauty and adrenalin seekers, ski patrolmen, waiters and waitresses, hairdressers.
Clang! Clang! Clang! The horseshoe tournament is in full swing. Along the margins of the narrow strip of packed earth between the pits stand the spectators who encourage one another to distract the contestants with friendly verbal abuse and reminders of decades-old foolishness. The game itself, tossing U-shaped pieces of iron at a metal pole in the middle of a wooden, three-sided unfinished rectangle, suits aging bodies and wandering minds as long as none of the spectators crosses into the zone of rise, arc and descent, an apt metaphor for this crowd. It is a mountain minimalist exercise suited best, really, for mountain palaver. Opponents, of course, are paired together at opposite ends of the pits to pester the hell out of one another. Up on the porch, slumped in the couches, groups of ex-ski racers, instructors and patrolmen cruise the backcountry of their mortality, comparing health notes — hearing aides, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, skin cancers, back problems and colonoscopies.
The great mountain sun begins to dip behind the ragged ridgeline. The kegs have been tapped and the crowd hums. Cowboy holds court around The Pit, where the fun-loving specters of my Mountain Past have gathered in close tribal quarters. Pigpen, one-time renegade architect, loaned me a pair of wooden Bona skis for the cross-country ski trip to Mammoth nearly four decades ago. I cringe, wondering if he recalls that I brought the skis back in battered condition, looking like they had been run through a wood-chipper; HazMat (Hazardous Material), one-time Snow-Lord of the road crew and part-owner of the infamous Crazy’s Cantina — Latin Cuisine and Local Abuse (where many of us found work at one time or another), snaps digital photos for posterity’s sake. There is “Tomato,” who I shared a house with one season; Berta, who seems to have undergone a transformation, and Christine, who seems to have hardly changed at all, inform the assembled audience that they are on their way, “Thelma and Louise”-like, to Disneyland after the Round-Up. They dare anyone to accompany them. Tim gave me my first job in the mountains, a primo position as waiter at the Red Dog Saloon, my first season. Sam, a lead patrol man, who allowed me to tail him (to gather information for an article for the local paper) on an early-morning mission to set off avalanches with a very large and cool artillery gun. And T.R., the sky-diving parachuter, welder and ski-patrolman, who, upon my spontaneous request at a boisterous summer party, cut a sunroof in my late-model-beater station wagon with his welding equipment, even as the synthetic headliner caught fire and smoke billowed out of the side windows.
Despite being a non-drinker, Ricardo T. (one of the founding members of the Grunge Brothers Band) takes out a portion of the fence while backing up his pickup to unload equipment. Cowboy reassures him that he has more carpenters than he knows what to do with. Ricardo and his brother, D., who lives and works in Aspen, and two other locals, serve as the perennial Mountain Round-Up house band.
The Pig is done! Cowboy begins the lengthy task of carving the meat. In the hotel kitchen and dining room, a small army of helpers lays out the long tables with an astonishing buffet of pot-luck dishes and deserts. A steady stream of load-bearing runners brings platters of roast pig to the noisy dining room. The dinner bell sounds. Lines form. Soon, the tables in the dining room are full. The mischief-and-merry-makers overflow out on to the deck and the line of stuffed couches and chairs. A spring evening in the Sierra. There will be no cues, ceremonial speeches or blessings.
The Grunge Brothers, stationed on the elevated front porch of the Pioneer Hotel, begin their first set. Their repertoire is solid ’60s and ’70s, cut with some of their own tunes. Below them, the level green lawn fills with couples, but it is Sexy Sadie and Dirty Dan who take to the dance arena first and promptly steal the show with their “Pulp Fiction”/John Travolta moves. As the evening light fades and the safety of darkness arrives, the reluctant, the hesitant and the shy slowly drift onto the dance grass. By the second set, the pairs turn into trios, which reshape into circles of dancers that reform into larger circles until the crowd reaches a kind of critical rhythmic cross-generational mass. Ex-ski patrolmen lurk along the fringes. They will tell you they are there to keep us safe. Cowards, one and all!
Despite being musically and rhythmically handicapped, I cannot resist the gravitational pull of the Mountain Dance. I slip into the fray and find myself momentarily paired with 31-year-old Cleo, daughter of Tommy and Suki. Cleo insists on leading. Tommy, jack-of-all trades and mountain mechanic, once tore apart and rebuilt the engine of one of my numerous station wagons (with minor, hold-this-tool help from me) when he learned that I was preparing to drive to Sun Valley in a vehicle that had white smoke spewing out the tailpipe.
My enthusiasm has arrested my common sense. Cleo throws me about like the downhill racer crashing and bouncing and somersaulting down the course and through the safety fences before being launched into space in the iconic sequence of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I am at her mercy, if she has any. How long I can keep up before I my shoulder is separated or I collapse is anyone’s guess. An ancient Sinatra tune plays in my head. We’re dancing in the dark and it soon ends/We’re waltzing to the wonder of why we’re here/Time hurries by we’re here and we’re gone. The dance of the mountain generations is not for the faint of heart or the wobbly of leg. I am running out of breath. When Cleo turns her head, I seize the moment and run for cover … to the sanctuary of The Bar, the den of antiquity. I should know better.
Noisy, crowded, bourbon-warm light, a panoramic and daunting mirror on the back bar revealing all, the close camaraderie of the damned and the delighted. Anchored firmly to the century-old bar, where a dozen empty shot glasses are lined-up and waiting for refills, are the usual suspects. I suffer a flashback in sepia. The adult voice in my head urges me to retrace my steps and sprint for the safety of my tent and sleeping bag. A voice rises above the din, “Get over here!” It is Cowboy. Maybe just one.
It is a straight-no-chaser crowd, equal amounts men and women. This group seems determined to not go quietly into the Mountain Night. There will be no pondering over Time on these premises. No nostalgic reminiscing or cheap hindsight wisdom; no blinking, no averted gazes, no excuses or sentimental poems, no palaver about going to heaven or burning in hell. This crowd is charging down the fall line together in search of an irreverent act, an old-fashioned, up-lifted vertical digit waving out the car window at the High-Speed Passing of Time and its inevitable corollary, our own mortality. We will settle for a Toast, or two, and so we raise our glasses in unholy communion. To save ourselves from ourselves, we perform simultaneous toasts — to our departed, gone-before-us, mountain brothers and sisters, our “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” high-altitude companions; to our misspent youth, powder snow, cabin-fever and driving without chains; to the Red Dog Saloon and the Altitude 38, Vaurnets, the Slide on the Stanislaus River and black ice; to Jean-Claude Killy and Spider Sabitch, “the agony of victory and the thrill of defeat,” the butterscotch aroma of ponderosa pine and the pungent odor of Jack Rabbit Black ski-wax; to the volunteer fire departments, heart-breaking mountain beauty, summer unemployment checks, snowcat drivers, forgiving local cops and to our kids’ generation and those here already and those to come; to the wonder and terror of it all.
If there is a Morning Here After, no one is particularly worried.
Long-time contributor Vince Welch is presently at work in his backyard shed sanding down the rough edges and putting the finishing touches on a biography, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West.”
Author’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent and those in between, but especially the author from crank emails, libel suits and felonious criminal retaliation. The whimsical aliases are based, in part, on the colorful personalities or past behavior of those who skied past the gates of my imagination without permission.