You won’t admit it, even though your bluegrass friends might be more understanding, but you are secretly amused by the emoto-schlock lyrics served up by classic country music. Country music vocalists are basically soul singers, but what is it that makes country lament in ways that are deeply rooted in the same stuff as the blues? Hardship … hard luck in life, love and unfulfilled expectations. Traditional country is a romance novel rolled into a reality show and set to music. Clever, vengeful, heartfelt and notoriously comical, the lyrics span content ranging from d-i-v-o-r-c-e and the habitually jilted to countrified patriotism and redneck validation. There are love songs about pickup trucks, philosophy for raising children, memorials for grandmothers and odes to dogs.
No other music genre does love songs, splitsville and misery better than country, except maybe Italian opera, where someone is always betrayed, lied to, murdered or foreclosed on, with spectacular flair. La Scala’s country cousin is in Nashville and called the Grand Ole Opry. Achy-Breaky as it is for diehards, the old genre morphed into mainstream Americana acoustic rock and the lyric writers of the three-minute joke became noticeably more poetic a decade or so ago.
Craig McManus, a knowledgeable country DJ of both camps, explains the transformation of the music. “What you’re not hearing anymore are the silly lyrics that country music was known for. It wasn’t catchy, it was just silly and contrived. Most of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson stuff was that way during that time. What it’s evolved into is from the real heart of soul.” Craig still sees two factions. “It’s almost split into one wing that’s God, country and family and the other has gone into actual human feelings that are more honest, more down to earth. What they used to call down to earth back then was a little lofty and not down to earth at all. In country, folk and rock today, some of the music is so similar, you can segue between all of those styles. The genres have blended so much that alternative root is alternative country, which is now a combo of folk country and acoustic rock.”
This month, you can witness the contrast of both modern and classic country up at the end of the road in Crested Butte. Although they’re calling it an inaugural event and even changed its name to the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival, the town hosted the wild hootenanny called Country in the Rockies for well over a decade. In 2008, during a remodel of the main accommodations for the performers, the hoedown was moved to the champagne snow slopes of Steamboat Springs and then to Nashville for 2009. However, by 2010, the clamoring arose to bring it back to CB with much of the hooting coming from the musicians themselves … perhaps it was all the local ladies unabashedly gyrating on the bar tops, coaxing donations into their collective cleavage to help the stars raise upwards of $50k in a single evening for the fundraising breast cancer research sponsor T.J. Martell. The newly renamed Crested Butte Songwriters Festival will stir up the sequins and glitter in a sea of cowboy hats, January 13 and 14, 2012, and build on the popularity of its former self without sacrificing the caliber of talent or fun, and still continue to raise big bucks for breast cancer research.
Country in the Rockies brought hundreds of visiting big spenders and jovial locals out to cruise the many different acts throughout the liver of Crested Butte. There were songwriting seminars with the stars, celebrity bartenders and concerts in the round for almost a full week. The stars got to shred the slopes alongside the town clan. The new event is starting out smaller for its first year, but will undoubtedly expand back into a party of extended workshops and concerts in the coming years as it gets rolling again.
The entourage starts at 8 p.m. on Friday the 13th at the rowdy Kochevar’s bar and moves to the Eldo Brewery at 10 p.m., with the admission a reasonable pay-what-you-can. If you prefer the less boisterous, Saturday night will feature a real concert ($50, crestedbuttearts.org). It’s just fine if you only have a few bucks to toss into Friday’s kitty because others will toss several thousand into the hat. So get on up and take an honest look at the real country music of dirt roads and hollow body guitars through its singers and songwriters. And the locals will even invite you up to dance on the bar.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in Crested Butte. She can infamously shake it dancing on the bar. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Style. It’s how we define ourselves. It is also a fine method of establishing a common ground on which to meaningfully discuss beer. Tucked under the category of Strong Ales* lie three of the most beguiling and gnarly of all the creations in brewdom — the elusive Strong Ale (discussed in MG #184) and the fraternal twins of British- and American-style barleywine. As the name implies, these concoctions are created using an enormous amount of malted barley, which allows the final product to finish with an alcohol level akin to beverages produced from the fruit of the vine. British-style varieties feature an intense malt body and bready sweetness, with extended aging leaving a characteristic dried fruit signature on the palate. American varieties add piles of high-test domestic hops to the equation, aiming for a full-throttle mix of heat from the booze, sweet from the malt and a citrus hop rip to finish. Born brash and bold, subtlety of flavor comes with age for barleywine. The high level of alcohol and heavy hopping rates allow the potion to weather the ravages of time. Where a lesser brew will lose body and flavor complexity, the slow magick that yeast and malt begat in barleywine evolves over time, changing the flavor in a strange and persistent manner. Sharp hop notes and cloying sweetness may dominate a young brew, but the same bottle a few years later may exhibit sherry or port-like notes, with a moderate sweetness balanced by a subdued dryness from the hops. Barleywine is meant to be savored, and is best served on a cold winter evening where the stars shine hard and bright like diamond nails hammered into the midnight of heaven, and the icy light of the full moon echoes from the stellar blue blanket of snow covering the peaks around you.
A celebration of all things barleywine occurs in Vail on the 5th of January when the 12th Annual Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywine Festival takes place at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa. Featuring the “A” list of commercially produced beer over 7% ABV, paired with dinners, seminars, tastings and a home-brewing competition, this event is the festival to attend to experience all that is happening with high-gravity brewing today.
If you are lucky enough to ride at Wolf Creek this winter, do not miss the chance to stop at Pagosa Brewing Co. in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Doing this prior to or après soaking in the hot springs is your choice, but either way, a glass of the gold-medal-winning Nipple Mountain Nipbarleywine ale is required. Brewed each year, the 2011 release is in the American-style and comes in at 10.5% ABV. To celebrate its 5th anniversary, brewer and owner Tony Simmons tapped kegs of the “Nip” from each of the five years he has produced it as a commercial brewer, and offered this side-by-side in a vertical tasting event that was a privilege to attend. Some of these prior-year releases may survive through ski season and should be asked for at the bar. Tawny, dry flavors of raisins and fig came through in some, with toffee and sweetness lingering in others. The 2008 was particularly well rounded, with each year exhibiting remarkable vitality in body and flavor complexity despite their age.
On a larger craft-brewed scale, the wizards at Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, have released the 2011 batch of Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale. Prominently featuring a bold palate of Pacific Northwest hops, the Old Boardhead is a heady hop treat to pour in the glass now, and should develop nicely if stashed in the cellar. In particular, the bright, faintly metallic notes from centennial hops accent the caramel flavor of the malts, and while tasting it, the thought of examining the changes that occur in the bottle to be opened next year is intriguing.
Head brewer Alan Simmons (no relation to Tony) at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco also brews an American-style barleywine, which he named after the “beater” van that has proudly served as the Backcountry Brewery distribution workhorse since its inception. The Olde Beerwagon Barleywine is modeled after a West-Coast-style brew and features big-hop notes to balance the 10% ABV. Alan also has 50 gallons of the ’wine aging in an oak bourbon barrel and set for release during the ski season this winter. Aging in bourbon barrels imparts a lot of character to a beer, rendering vanilla and smoke components from the toasted oak itself, along with a solid dose of bourbon esters from the liquor remaining in the wood.
Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO. He is an avid home brewer, a hobby for which he was recently awarded “Area Man” status by the local newspaper. Further musings about all things beer in and around the San Juan’s can be found at beerat6512.blogspot.com
We think, perhaps rightly so, of our animals as extensions of our families, and we treat them like people. For my entire life, family dogs have slept on the beds, the couch and the recliner, never spending a single night outside unless we were camping. They licked the dinner plates clean, gobbled expensive dog food and occasionally received thousands of dollars in veterinarian care, even when they were approaching the natural end of their lifespan.
Such attitudes would have been almost unthinkable a century ago. My Grandma grew up with a series of dogs named Shep, short for “shepherd” of course, which is what they were used for. Shep, all of them, slept with the animals in the barn; the very same barn where cows were slaughtered, strung up by their hindquarters and butchered; the same barn where elk hunted in surrounding mountains were turned into steaks; and where thousands of local trout were cleaned — knife in the asshole, slit the belly, guts thrown to the dogs. I’m sure the family loved Shep, and they certainly valued the vital role he played in keeping the cattle in line, but they still made him sleep in the barn.
There were horses in the barn as well, used to supply HORSEPOWER: the power of a horse, which, for thousands of years, was how people and goods moved upon dry land. It sounds idyllic, until you remember the brute animal force needed to pull tons of freight, drag the plow, the hay rake, the logs — and the crack of the whip required to get the beasts to carry your burden. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have been too soft hearted toward animals in those days, because you would have been in tears much of the time — during the late-19th century, for example, 700 horses were worked to death in New York City every day just to pull street cars.
When I was eight years old, I had a friend in Tabernash, a tiny town not far from Fraser. There were a number of Hispanic families there who had come up from southern Colorado decades earlier to work on the railroad. Many of them still kept chickens, and slaughtered them, cut their heads off right in front of us. I had never seen that before, haven’t seen it since — the chopping block, the sharp hatchet, the frantic fluttering, and the final crazy dance of a bloody headless chicken. Later that afternoon, we happened to have chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. I ate my sandwich, reluctantly, but not without pondering, for the very first time, the animal I was chomping between my teeth.
Not long ago, customers of Whole Foods market decided that the live lobster tanks behind the seafood counter were cruel, and they successfully demanded the tanks be removed. Just imagine what those folks would have thought of my Tabernash chicken experience. Had that chicken been slaughtered in front of a Whole Foods market anywhere in America, especially in front of children, irate customers would have called for a boycott of the chain, and the ouster of the CEO. Just like those poor lobsters suffering in the tank — peering through the dirty glass, claws banded shut, waiting to be boiled alive — the sight of a headless chicken would have ruffled some yuppie feathers. Blood. Guts. Death. A terrible tragedy. Yet those same consumers, vegetarians notwithstanding, have no problem snapping up shrink-wrapped free-range chickens, ground-up grass-fed cows or filets of various fish, not to mention a bit of lobster tail when it suits their fancy, provided they don’t have to see the actual living creature beforehand.
My daughter and I recently watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” — a horribly cute movie that features a surprisingly harrowing scene where dogs are kidnapped and forced into an underground Mexican dog-fighting ring. It was a short scene, with no actual violence, but it made my daughter cry and her daddy cringe. I think we can all agree that folks involved in that sort of thing are among the lowest scum of the earth, and in my mind there is a special place reserved for them in hell, but at the same time, on some bizarre level, I have more respect for blood sport spectators gambling on vicious pit bulls than I do for sensitive do-gooders trying to ban live lobster tanks from grocery stores: at least the dogfighter vermin are witness to the carnage they’re responsible for.
We smugly think we’ve evolved into a kinder, gentler people, who treat animals in a civilized way, but really we’ve simply relegated the killing floor to some unknown place far removed from our daily lives, out of sight and out of mind, leaving the dirty work to immigrants whose names we’ll never know, and whose lives are as abstract to us as the meat that ends up on our plate. We don’t whip horses anymore — now we use refineries to whip energy from barrels of crude oil, and the trusty sheep dog has been replaced by soldiers (backed by billion-dollar weaponry), who herd petroleum into secure stock pens. Not to mention related externalities: drowned polar bears, poisoned groundwater, failed blowout preventers … we’re not kind, and we’re not gentle — we’re in denial.
Perhaps we need some blood on our hands. Not metaphorical blood — we’ve got plenty of that — but actual blood, warm and fresh from the animal we’re about to eat. Or maybe a whip in our hands, a mule in the driveway and an urgent need to get to work on time. Not so we can be cruel to animals, but so we can remember how utterly dependent we are on them (and their TEMPORARY petroleum substitutes) for our collective survival. Life feeds on life, and, for now, we’re at the top of the food chain, which makes us the biggest feeders of all. It would behoove us all to remember this next time we’re snuggled up on the couch with the family dog.
Frequent contributor Charles Clayton, a native of Colorado’s Fraser Valley, lives in Taos, NM. His last story for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.
Author’s note: Though this represents a stylistic change of pace for Smoke Signals (I thought I’d give my liver a break for a month), a book project I have been working on for several years has given me the opportunity to research songs about/from Colorado, most of which have the word “Colorado” in their title and/or their lyrics. I have herein opted to share the fruits of that research. There is no doubt that there will be many reactionary exclamations along the lines of, “Fayhee’s a frickin’ moron! How could he not include [such and such a song] or at least something by [fill in the blank].” Well, I am all ears. Please send suggestions (as well as any corrections to this list) to email@example.com. I would also be interested to hear songs from other parts of the Rockies, especially those that contain state names within their titles or lyrics.
• John Denver, who was born Henry John Deutschendorf, penned the lyrics of “Rocky Mountain High” (Mike Taylor composed the music) after watching the Perseid meteor shower with friends near Williams Lake, outside Aspen. It was recorded in August 1972 and released the following year. Because he lived most of his adult life in Colorado, a large percentage of John Denver’s discography hailed from the Centennial State. Many of his tunes make reference to his adopted home state, but, if you’re going to seek out a Denver song not named “Rocky Mountain High” that is about Colorado, your best bet is “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.”
• Bob Dylan, another singer who, like John Denver changed his name (from Robert Allen Zimmerman), at one time maintained a second home in Telluride (maybe he still does). In “Man of Constant Sorrows” he sings: “I’m going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I’d known how bad you’d treat me honey/I would never have come.” And, in “Wanted Man,” he sings: “I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea/Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be.” (Note: Contrary to some published reports, Dylan’s “Romance in Durango” is not about the southwestern Colorado town that is home to Fort Lewis College, but, rather, the nice big city that is in Mexico.)
• While still with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Rick Roberts wrote, “Colorado,” which was included on that group’s self-titled 1971 album. “Colorado” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1973 album, “Don’t Cry Now.” Roberts went on to help found Firefall. Several versions of “Colorado,” as performed by both The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ronstadt, can be found on YouTube.
• Stephen Stills’ “Colorado” is an example (of many) of a great mountain-based song with lyrics that you wonder how much pot these folkies were actually smoking back in the earliest days of the Rocky-Mountain-High era. To wit: “I am a man/I live alone/Don’t much bother me/It won’t be long/Come a woman who wants to be near/Me and my mountains, we’ll be right here/Colorado.” At least the tune’s catchy!
• James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (of “Lonesome Dove” fame) sang in “No More Buffalo” (“Live in Aught-Three”): “We headed south across those Colorado plains/just as empty as the day/we looked around at all we saw/remembered all we hoped to see/looking out through the bugs on the windshield/somebody said to me/no more buffalo, blue skies, or open road/no more rodeo/no more noise/take this Cadillac/park it out in back/mama’s calling/put away the toys.” This one also boasts a catchy tune.
• Merle Haggard recorded two Colorado-based songs, “Colorado” and “Lucky Old Colorado.”
• Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” from his “Rear View Mirror” album, is one of the most fetching songs about the state. Steve Earl does a wonderful cover of “Colorado Girl” on his “Townes” album, which is a tribute to the late Van Zandt.
• If you are inclined to travel to the deep, dark, musical past — a past that was hilariously skewered by the 2003 movie “A Mighty Wind”— you might like the Kingston Trio’s folk classic, “The Colorado Trail,” which was written by Carl Sandburg and Lee Hayes. The fact that this song came out a solid decade before the Colorado Trail was even conceived, much less constructed, is perplexing. But any song that contains the near-Wordsworthian words, “Weep, all ye little rains/Wail, winds, wail/All along, along, along/The Colorado Trail,” is worth a listen, if for no other reason than to thank the gods that the early-1960s folk music scene was short lived. This toe-tapper can be found on “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies: Soothing Songs of the Old West for Home and Fireside” album. One listen to this dog and you won’t be able to resist lacing on your boots and running as fast as you can 500 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail. It should be noted, as you’re scrambling to download “The Colorado Trail,” that no other album that has ever been produced contains the word “Colorado” in as many song titles as does “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies.” It should also be noted that, sadly, this is not THE Melanie (Safka), of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) fame.
• Even though it may be considered a mildly good-natured anti-Colorado song, National Lampoon’s “Colorado,” sung by, of all people, Chevy Chase, is actually a surprisingly melodic satire of “Rocky Mountain High.” “Colorado” is found on the 1973 “Lemmings” album.
• Folk singer Chuck Pyle is often referred to as the official singer/songwriter of the High Country. His 2007 album, “Higher Ground: Songs of Colorado,” contains one song named “Colorado” and another named “Moonlight on the Colorado.” But it’s his “Little Town Tour,” which begins, “Bayfield, Cascade, Manitou, Palisade … ” that is most interesting in that it includes the names of almost every single mountain town in the state.
• While, admittedly, its Colorado connection is somewhat oblique, Tom Waits’ “Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street),” which appeared on his seminal 1975 live album “Nighthawks at the Diner,” contains the lines, “Maybe you’re standing on the corner of 17th and Wazee streets, yeah, out in front of the Terminal Bar, there’s a Thunderbird moving in a muscatel sky.” Those words were penned long before LoDo — which Waits would hate — spontaneously combusted. The Terminal Bar is long gone, but the building, which now houses Jax Fish House, remains.
• One of the great musical shames of the past decade is that Denver-based DeVotchKa is not a household name from Maine to Australia. That changed a bit with the release of the Academy-Award-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was completely scored with DeVotchKa songs. It did not appear in the film, but “Commerce City Sister,” with its line, “You know I ain’t never going back to Commerce City,” expresses the sentiment of many people who have actually visited Commerce City, an industrial Denver suburb. Hopefully, “Little Miss Sunshine” will serve as a gateway drug for many future DeVotchKa fans. This is truly a wonderful musical ensemble.
• No Colorado-based song list would be complete without mention of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which spent a lot of time in the state. One of its long-time members, Jimmy Ibbotson, still lives in Woody Creek, where he performs often. One of the Dirt Band’s best-known songs that contains the state’s name is “Colorado Christmas,” which was actually written by the late, great Steve Goodman, who served as a mentor for folk/rock legend John Prine. (Goodman and Prine co-owned a bar in Chicago named Somebody Else’s Troubles, after one of Goodman’s best-known tunes.)
• You’ll be forgiven if the words “Ozark Mountain Daredevils” have not entered your thought processes for many years. In the mid-1970s, this band from Springfield, Missouri, was one of the hottest acts in the country, and their “Colorado Song” (by Steve Cash and John Dillon) was released on their first album, “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” This song is highly recommended, despite its second-to-the-last verse, which consists entirely of “aaaahhhhh” being repeated over and over, and the last verse, which consists of “lalalalala” being repeated over and over. At least those lyrics are easy to remember.
• So, OK, it’s technically a song about leaving Colorado, but that can easily be overlooked, due to the fact that Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is flat-out one of the best songs ever penned. It has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and the Starland Vocal Band (yes, they of “Afternoon Delight” fame). The lines “I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire/And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn/ I watched it burn/I watched it burn” are made lovely by Harris’ voice.
• Folk diva Judy Collins was actually born in Seattle, but she grew up in Denver, where she attended East High School. Many of her songs contain references to Colorado. Few songs about the state are more accurately evocative than Collins’ “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” which contains lines that show the singer was intimate with the realities of life at altitude: “One night on the mountain, I was headed for Estes/When the roads turned to ice and it started to snow/Put on the chains in a whirl of white powder/Halfway up to Berthoud near a diner I know.” You never heard the Ozark Mountain Daredevils singing about chaining up in the middle of a blizzard. They would have just lit a joint and waited for the blizzard to pass.
• So far, these Colorado songs have been a bit on the heavy, philosophical side. Fun needs to be part of the equation, and that’s where Bowling For Soup’s “Surf Colorado” comes in. With lines like, “She’s traded rattlesnakes for bunny runs in Colorado Springs,” it’s easy to overlook the fact that this song is essentially a rant by a Texan who’s angry that his paramour left the Lone Star State to move to Colorado without him. Also, the fact that the album upon which “Surf Colorado” appears is titled “Drunk Enough to Dance” ought to gain it some style points in the hedonistic High-Country resort towns.
• There’s no denying that, when John Denver released “Rocky Mountain High” in 1973, it marked the first time that many Americans gave the Mountain Time Zone the mental time of day. Many people even believe that “Rocky Mountain High” was in and of itself responsible for drawing nationwide attention to Colorado, the same way Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” drew attention to Utah’s Slickrock Country. But Denver was not the only person singing about the Rockies in 1973. While it does not mention Colorado specifically (and, hey, if the official state song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” doesn’t even mention Colorado, then all bets are off), Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was in the top 20 at the very same time as “Rocky Mountain High.” Walsh was living outside Nederland in Boulder County when he recorded “Rocky Mountain Way.” The fact that it makes no sense at all does not diminish its place in musical history.
• In the mid-1970s, Dan Fogelberg wintered outside Nederland, Colorado, otherwise known as Ned (its residents are known as “NedHeads”). A decade later, with his popularity definitely on the downslide, Fogelberg released “High Country Snows.” The title song will never become a mosh pit favorite, unless there’s irony at play, but it still does justice to life at altitude, as does “Nether Lands” — which is close enough to “Nederland” that we’ll call it good.
• The Grateful Dead performed at least two songs that contained references to Colorado, “Me and My Uncle” (“Me and my uncle went ridin’ down/South Colorado, West Texas bound”) was actually written by John Phillips, of Mamas and Papas fame (Judy Collins and Neil Young were anecdotally connected to the song by way of extreme drunkenness in a hotel room in 1963). And “I Know You Rider” (“I’d shine my light through a Colorado rain … ”) is considered “traditional.”
• Even though none of his songs contain the word “Colorado,” Elton John did record his 1974 album “Caribou” at the famed Caribou Ranch outside Nederland. The best-known song from that album was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but one of the lesser-known tunes was “Cold Highway,” which contains the lyrics, “Where the corners turn blind like the graveyard ground/Oh your black icy snare once cut down my friend/In the deepest dark winter when the world seemed to end.” Before it burned down in 1985, Caribou Studios housed record efforts by dozens of world-class acts such as America, Badfinger, the Beach Boys, Chicago, Phil Collins, Rick Derringer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, U2, War and Frank Zappa. Rumor has it that, in addition to its isolation, the main attraction to the Caribou Ranch was its altitude, which apparently allowed singers to hit, appropriately enough, high notes that they could only dream of at sea level.
• Any song containing the lyrics, “I didn’t kill that man, I called it self-defense/Now I watch the world go by through a twelve-foot barbed-wire fence” deserves to be listed, especially if it’s titled “Colorado.” That would be performed by 19 Wheels (from the album “Six Ways from Sunday.”)
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.
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.
The 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 burled walnut stock of the shotgun feels cool and smooth against my cheek. Flexing my knees slightly, I shout, “Pull!” From behind my right shoulder, Josh releases the spring-loaded trap, and an orange clay disc squirts across the horizon. I track it, swinging the long gray barrel in an arc. At its apex, I squeeze the trigger. The report echoes, but the clay pigeon’s flight continues uninterrupted until it bounces into the dirt.
“You were behind again,” says Josh. “You’re not leading it enough.”
“How can you tell?” I ask as I reload the trap. “Do you have special buckshot vision?”
“Sure do,” he grins, cradling his 20-gauge Ithaca Featherlite in his arms. “Pull!”
Quick as a snake, Josh uncoils, the gun roars, and clay shrapnel drops out of the sky. “It takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says. “Here, try again.” “No thanks,” I reply. “Let Laura or Lexi have a turn.”
Shooting skeet wasn’t our original plan. We had left town that morning intending to meet for a day of rock climbing. But when we arrived, Josh was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip and proposed an alternative expedition. Rock climbing seemed humdrum compared to the novelty of firearms. Now my Subaru, full of unused climbing gear, is parked a few miles up a dirt road at an impromptu firing range in the national forest.
When we pulled up, it was obvious this was a place where people came to shoot guns. The bare ground was littered with spent cartridges, empty shells, broken glass and other shrapnel. Josh gave us a safety briefing and showed us how to load his double-barrel shotgun. Then we popped in earplugs and took turns blazing holes in the sky.
Josh was a crack shot. Even when we filled the trap with two skeet, he brought down both with ease. We three newbies were more hit and miss — with heavy emphasis on the “miss.” After we’d burned through a case of clay pigeons, Josh produced a couple of pistols. While I watched Laura and Lexi merrily plinking away at bottles and cans stacked in a dirt berm, I considered my uneasy relationship with guns.
A couple of years ago, I joined a friend who works in law enforcement at the shooting range. Under his tutelage, I learned how to shoot in various positions — standing, prone, etc. — but I never mastered the essential element of accuracy. For him, firing a gun was a form of yoga: Breathe in … squeeze trigger … BANG! Breathe out. For me, the anticipation of “BANG!” always made me twitch. I reckon the twitch was a result of a childhood experience.
My father owned two firearms — a single-barrel 12-gauge Winchester shotgun that he kept in the back corner of his bedroom closet, and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that he stored in his dresser drawer under his T-shirts.
My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, was pretty tame in the 1970s, so Dad wasn’t worried about nighttime marauders. He didn’t store the guns loaded and he kept the ammunition in his basement workshop. Dad didn’t own guns to dole out vigilante justice; he used the guns at work. Dad wasn’t a police officer or a mercenary. He was a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Waring used his guns for scientific purposes in the field. The shotgun served as a tree-trimming tool, bringing down branches from the tops of the tall evergreens in the Cascades. He subjected those trimmings to a battery of tests, and the results revealed the overall health of the tree and thus the surrounding forest. Early in his research career, he’d determined a shotgun was the best — and perhaps only — tool for the job of harvesting samples high above the forest floor.
Dad didn’t carry the revolver in the mountains; he only wore the big iron on his hip when he worked on Oregon’s dry eastern slope during the hot summer months when the rattlesnakes were active. The pistol hung in a holster on a heavy leather belt studded with shiny two-tone bullets. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated. The six-shooter spoke to all my boyish cowboy fantasies. But before I could draw down on the family cat, my father nipped my Wild West dreams in the bud by taking me out shooting.
I was too young to recall now exactly where we went — somewhere deep in the Oregon woods, I know that much. I remember we hiked together for a long while, and Dad’s voice turned very serious when he took the pistol from the holster. He broke open the chamber to show me it was unloaded. He showed me the safety catch and told me never to point a gun at something unless I was ready to destroy it. With those words ringing in my ears, Dad plucked six bullets from the loops in his belt and loaded the pistol. “See if you can hit that tin can on the stump,” he said.
Shooting the gun was easy. Aiming it was not. I finally knocked the can off the stump with a lucky shot. Watching it skitter across the dirt, I felt my young life had reached an apotheosis. I wanted to ride off on a horse named Silver and enlist in the army as a sharpshooter. I felt an unfamiliar surge of power, of strength, of control.
Looking back, I realize that moment was a rite of passage. Holding a loaded gun was the first major responsibility I’d ever been given — one with far more ramifications than remembering to feed the hamster or mowing the yard on a Saturday morning. Handling a gun required gravitas. For the first time, I held the control of a deadly force over all the creatures around me. In return, I had to exert absolute control over myself. Handling a gun forced me to behave like an adult instead of a child.
Dad holstered the pistol and picked up the shotgun. He broke it open to show me the firing mechanism and explained how the red plastic shells were filled with tiny pellets that created an expanding pattern in the air.
“See if you can bring down the highest branch in that Douglas fir,” he said. I lifted the heavy gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Like a right cross from Mike Tyson, the recoil dropped me to the ground. Slightly concussed, I rubbed my bruised shoulder and decided that guns weren’t so enticing after all. My father, in his wisdom, was probably counting on this outcome.
My relationship with guns has remained distant ever since. I understand their utility, but I want no truck with them in my daily life. Now, whenever I hold a gun, I find myself thinking about Columbine High School, about murder and suicide and war, about the terrible power and life-and-death responsibility a firearm represents. I’m not mentally unstable. I’m absolutely certain that simply holding a gun won’t cause me to lose control and become a homicidal maniac. But I’ve decided my life-and-death decisions should originate from choices made while climbing or skiing instead of from the flash from a grey-blue muzzle. And I’m content with that.
Josh’s voice rouses me from my musings. “Hey, you want to shoot a few rounds with the pistol?” he asks. “No thanks, I’m cool,” I respond. “Everything’s under control.”
Lance Waring is a ski bum with a writing habit. He lives in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.