North By Northwest

“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”
— Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), “North By Northwest”

We ALL know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, when the physical and psychic walls came tumbling down. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, and people began reliving and rehashing the events in bars and restaurants, at work and at the gym, on the trail and on the ski lifts, I noticed that everyone seemed to have a well-honed tale relating to that day and how their lives fit into that day. This was more than just, “I was at school when I heard Kennedy was shot.” The scale of 9/11 was so massive that almost all of us are able to make some sort of six-degrees-of-separation-type connection with the events that unfolded that tragic day. We knew someone who once worked in the Towers. We knew someone who was stranded in Boston for two weeks, unable to get back home to Colorado. As I was verbally test-driving this edition of Smoke Signals, I was astounded by the richness and resonance of the stories I heard as a result of me bringing the subject up, sometimes to chums, sometimes to perfect strangers, by way of asking simply, “Where were you when the planes hit the Twin Towers?”

Par for my personal course, my 9/11 experience was a bit off the mainstream radar.

My wife, Gay, late dog, Cali, and I were happily ensconced in a motel room at Mile 0 of the ALCAN Highway, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, ’96 Outback pointed toward the Northwest Territories, which we planned to ingress that very evening.

It had already been a sorta weird trip. Several days prior, with Gay behind the wheel, we left U.S. territory at Sweetgrass, Montana, and approached the Canadian border crossing at Coutts, Alberta. As we neared Coutts, my mind predictably wandered back 21 years, to the last time I passed from the Big Sky State into the Sunshine Province.

My amigo Ed and I had procured an ounce of red Lebanese hash somewhere along the line and had been doing our damnedest to get rid of it over the course of a journey that had already seen us meander our way from Georgia to Montana. Though we had made an impressive dent in that hash stash, it had not sufficiently diminished in size to the point where we stopped referring to it as  “The Big Chunk.”  We still had a lot of hash left on the day our extremely disheveled selves were scheduled to cross into Canada.

The unspoken unthinkable was starting to get thought and spoken: We had too much hash! — which marked the first time those words had ever visited my young cranial mainframe. Alas, we were going to have to either modify a travel itinerary that was months in the making or we were going to have to … to … dump … that … hash … before crossing the border. That was a mighty depressing proposition. Rather than toss The Big Chunk unceremoniously into a ditch, however, we hoped to find some wayward hitchhiker(s) or fellow backpacker(s), and bequeath The Big Chunk to him/her/them.

Stunningly, Ed and I cold not locate anyone appropriate to give our hash to, which shocked us, given that, in those days, you could scarcely throw a rock in the woods without hitting some variation on the partying freak theme.

So, as Ed and I approached the Canadian border, a “plan” started gestating within the bowels of thought processes that were without a doubt extremely dulled by massive doses of THC. Rather than give our hash away, and rather than attempt to smuggle it across the border — which, even stoned nitwits such as ourselves knew better than to try — we would just smoke it all before leaving America! Great idea! The only flaw was, when we made that decision, we were only 30 miles from the border. Not much time to inhale what by then was probably 10 grams of moderately strong hash. So, we loaded bowl after bowl and smoked as fast as our respiratory systems would allow and, by the time we passed a highway sign that let us know Canada was a mere half-mile away, we were obliterated, and we still had probably eight grams of hash in our possession. The Big Chunk would not go away.

What to do? Three choices: Pull a Bat-turn, throw the hash out the window or plow ahead, consequences be damned. Of course, we opted to follow the path of least wisdom, clear up to the point of no return. The hash was stashed in the pick compartment in my guitar case, which was in the back seat, on top of Ed’s guitar case. Not exactly a sophisticated smuggling operation, but there we were. When only a few cars separated us from the Canadian border authorities, I looked over at Ed and pretty much dookied my drawers. Not only did he look as wasted as a person possibly could be, but he was also sweating profusely, fidgeting uncontrollably and coughing his lungs out. He might as well have had the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his forehead. We were doubtless doomed. So, under the pretense of making sure the hash was secure, I surreptitiously moved it from the pick compartment in my guitar case to the pick compartment in Ed’s guitar case. That way, if — when — we got busted, I could at least pretend I was totally innocent, completely unaware the man I was traveling with, someone I thought was an upstanding citizen, was in fact an international narcotics smuggler!

The Canadian customs officers took one quick look at us and asked that we park in the Special Assured Imminent Arrest Area, where several uniformed officials, all of whom were wearing latex gloves, stood smiling. They pulled every item out of the back of the car, wincing as they rummaged through piles of crusty skivvies and malodorous hiking socks that had not been washed in weeks. They went through the glove compartment with a fine-tooth comb. They looked under the hood and in the console and under the floor mats. The ONLY place the customs officers did not look was in the two guitar cases there in the back seat. They likely thought, surely, even obvious stoners such as Ed and I would not be so stupid as to hide the drugs in a guitar case! After an hour of searching, they welcomed us to Canada through gritted teeth. The Big Chunk made it all the way to Vancouver Island.

As Gay and I approached the border at Coutts, my home- and business-owning, long-married, semi-responsible self could not help but smile at those memories. I could not help but look at M. John through the prism of time. It would be inaccurate to say I miss that irresponsible pack-toting hippie who used to bear my name. After all, I have plus-or-minus grown up to be the person that young hippie wanted all along to be (mostly). Still, it’s hard sometimes to overcome nostalgia, to wonder where all that youthful innocence went.

Little did I know.

Little did any of us know.

It was Saturday, September 8, 2001.

“Have either of you ever received a DUI?” the immigration lady, who looked like an orc, asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I responded from the passenger seat.

“Then I can not allow you to pass, because, in the eyes of the Canadian government, you are a felon.”

Utter instantaneous deflation! Vacation plans mixed metaphorically torpedoed before they ever got off the ground.

Just as we were about to turn around, the orc said words to the effect of, “Well …  we might just be able to make an exception for people who look as responsible as you two.”

Gay and I have done enough traveling that we instantly understood the words, the inflection with which those words were spoken and the words that were not spoken. We glanced at each other and prepared for a border dance we never expected in, of all places, Oh Canada. I was pointed toward an upstairs room that was already populated by several dozen forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, I came to learn, had, like me, answered honestly when asked about their DUI history. One by one, we were led into a small office, where we heard the exact same obviously well-honed spiel from the orc: For $200, we could pass into Canada. Cash only. No receipt. No guarantee that, the next time we tried to enter the country, the same “opportunity” would be available. Understand? Yes, I understood fully. The entire process took four long hours, which totally screwed up the rest of our travel day. It was dusk as we approached the first town in Alberta, Milk River, which had a public campsite, which we ended up sharing with most of those same forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, like us, were $200 poorer.

By the time we arrived in Dawson Creek, a beautiful little college town, the bad taste of the border crossing experience had begun to dissipate. We were finally feeling like we were on the road, unfettered and free, with nary a care. We found a bar with a TV that had upon its screen, of all fortuitous things, a Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Giants. The Donkeys kicked ass, 31-20, and we returned to the motel happy about the result of the game, happy about the fact that, here we were, way the hell up in British Columbia, happy about the fact that, before we left the bar, one of the rather surly locals, who we’d been chatting with, told us that we didn’t seem to suck as bad as most Americans.

The only down side was that we heard a cold-weather front was moving down, and, when you’re that far north, that’s news you pay attention to.

It was September 10, maybe 11 p.m.

Next morning, with Gay in the bathroom enjoying what was supposed to be her last interface with indoor plumbing for quite some time, I turned on the TV to check out the weather report.

You all know what I saw. Same thing we all saw. Even as I was trying to reconcile a mild hangover with the images flashing on the screen, the second plane hit. “Uh, Gay, I think you’d better check this out.”

We watched for a few minutes before going down to the motel’s breakfast room, which was filled with people staring slack-jawed at the images being replayed over and over. All eyes fell upon us when we entered the room. People started saying how sorry they were. We don’t know how they knew we were Americans, but they all did.

It is fair to say we were a bit shaken, but, man oh man, I wasn’t going to let even the biggest attack on American soil in history stop me when I was six hours from the Northwest Territories. We lit out, passing by the last vestiges of civilization, fast getting to the point where the world was defined by wild. We saw bears, moose, raging rivers, endless lakes, thick boreal forests and vistas that did not end till they reached Hudson Bay. We were cut off from the outside world, and the last word we heard before even the AM band went totally dead was, “War.”

When we finally anticlimactically arrived at Fort Liard, NWT, people streamed out of houses and businesses to ask us for the latest news, like somehow we had a proprietary cosmic communications connection to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. A French-Canadian, whose English was poor and whose accent was thick, told us that he had heard via short-wave radio that the President was unaccounted for and that most high-ranking government officials had already been taken to their secret bunkers.

We stayed at a community campground by a lovely lake that night. Ours was the only tent; everyone else had a hard-sided camper or motorhome. The campground host came by at dusk to warn us that there had been some recent bear activity in the campground. He suggested that we remain constantly vigilant. “I’m really sorry,” he said before departing. I don’t know whether he was sorry about the bear situation or what had happened to New York City and Washington. Maybe he was sorry that we lived in a world that required constant vigilance.

On September 12, we arrived at an end-of-the-world outpost called, of all things, Checkpoint. The café had a small black-and-white TV with a grainy image and scratchy sound. We could barely make out the face of Donald Rumsfeld. He looked like shit, which I guess is understandable. He was also incoherently babbling something about the media being at least partially responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. It would be inappropriate to turn this into a political diatribe, so suffice it to say that, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove with access to the Big Red Button at that particular moment, our nerves were not exactly calm. When we got to the intersection of Canadian highways 1 and 3 — so close to the Mackenzie River, Yellowknife, the Great Slave Lake and Wood Buffalo National Park — names I have been uttering since I was a child — that we could almost touch them, we sighed and, instead of taking a much-desired left, we took a reluctant right and pointed the Outback south, toward a home we hoped would still be recognizable upon our return.

Since the border was closed, we had conscionable opportunity to dilly-dally in Jasper and Banff on the way down. Not Wood Buffalo National Park, but not too shabby either. Everywhere we went, people would eyeball our license plates and go out of their way to express heartfelt sympathy. On the Icefields Highway, we parked next to a herd of scary-looking Canadian motorcycle enthusiasts. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest one walked over, extended a brotherly hand to me and said, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes, “I hope you guys bomb the living shit out of them.” I thanked him, but 1) I did not know who “them” was, but 2) I knew we would indeed end up bombing the shit out of someone, somewhere. It often seems that is the only thing we know how to do anymore. What happened to us?

By the time we got back to Summit County, the vitriolic barroom arguments were already commencing full bore. I remember one lady in Pug Ryan’s shouting me down after I mentioned that, maybe, we ought to have our ducks in a huddle before we start sending troops abroad to who knows where in a masturbatory attempt to avenge the 9/11 attacks. She was of the opinion that people like me ought to just shut our traps and get with the national goose-step program, whatever that program might be. My response was, predictably, that, in times of intense jingoistic flag-waving, getting with an undefined program just for the sake of national unity is the absolute goddamned worst thing a person can do because, at such times, that’s when crazy shit like the Patriot Act gets passed by a compliant and inept Congress.

And so it went. For months. For years. Clear up until the wounds started healing and people started composing their personal 9/11 stories and telling those stories to each other in measured tones-of-voice.

With two 9/11-based wars still raging on the other side of the planet, without the slightest hope of positive outcome, I opted to pull up stakes and relocate very near a completely different border, the other side of which can be found the most-dangerous cities in the world — which was not the case pre-9/11. Two weeks ago, while passing through an airport security checkpoint manned by TSA people, I had my toothpaste confiscated. Last week, while driving down Interstate 10, I was pulled by Border Patrol for no other reason than … who knows why? The National Guard is deployed south of my home. There are people seriously talking about permanently deploying regular military troops along a border that is now seeing erected upon it a 50-foot-high, million-dollar-per-mile wall that will never, ever work, and anyone who thinks it will is deluded.

Ten years after 9/11, it has come down to this: The higher the walls you build, the deeper your prison becomes. And that is no way to live.

I’d like to hear your 9/11 stories, especially if they have any connection whatsoever to the mountains or life in the mountains. Send them along to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

 

Slide

Mountain Gazette - Slide
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

Friends try not to stare, but they can’t help it. Stop with them at the garage to pick up some motor oil or lag screws — floaty toys in summer or cider jars in fall — and they stop cold in their tracks. They did not see it coming, this descent. You did not seem so obsessive, like a hoarder, like those addle-eyed freaks on TV. But it’s hard not to notice. The paint cans, the fire pump, the beer fridge, the rubber boots, the broke-down saws all turn, apparently, invisible. Skis are all they see.

Skis tucked in cinder blocks. Skis leaning on stovepipe. Skis hanging, properly, from a ceiling rack scabbed together with rough-cut scraps: tips in two-by-twos, tails in plastic six-pack holders, scissored in thirds. Skis with spiders. Skis with dust. Skis with bindings that look like paper clips and hold like a vice, bindings that were only available for two seasons in the mid-1980s, which have lasted against all odds, like Madonna or Prince. Side-cut skis that don’t edge on ice. Straight long skis that slide fast in slush and turn poorly in slop, though god knows you tried.  For years, for decades.

Which ones do you use? your friends ask.

All of them, you say.

Then they know they are in for it. The stories. Skis you stuck like a cage into the crust to keep your bivvy from sliding down the ridge. Skis you held like swords to fight off coyotes encircling the tent. Skis you wear every Tuesday, no-whining day, to slog with friends up this same untracked road and back down. Once you saw wolverine tracks; often you see elk. Not the skis you wore when you fell — those like the ligament are long gone — but the ones you wore after surgery, inching back, sliding through hoar frost tinkling like glass, tentative but stubborn. Stubborn, too, on the lifts in your leather, in your three pins, shrugging off the sneers at resorts or near-resorts — Targhee, Bachelor, Bridger Bowl, Purgatory — splitting a half-day pass with a friend and switching jackets after each run, eating jerky from the pocket of your anorak with the dirty Kleenex and the slushy cans of Pabst or Rainier. Sometimes, when you were learning, you skied with these pink Minnie Mouse poles to keep your arms low. Then later: for the hell of it.

You can’t show your friends the ones that didn’t make it. Skis you shredded on cinders, red stone rooster tails spewed behind each sunlit turn. Skis that delaminated in the woods. Bindings epoxied then heli-coiled until screw holes grew wide as dimes then nickels, until wood puddled to rot. And you don’t show them the tool kit with steel wool and zip ties, screwdriver and wood screws, matchsticks, duct tape, candles, wax.

Time is getting scarce. There are other things to do: hiking, biking, kayaking. Your friends fidget, check a watch, gaze out the open door.

You show them the snowshoes you use to take the nephews to the gravel pit to sled, the ones you used to carry for emergencies, like the time you got lost on a trail you’d skied a thousand times before and ended up in a canyon bottom and had to climb back up and …

Why don’t you carry them anymore?

You shrug.

Because we’re dumb?

But it’s not true. You’re older; you’re wiser; you have more discretion. You are a better skier, a more balanced person. You know that it is time to leave this musty hole. Get on with life. But you’re not ready; you’re not even really in the garage anymore; you’re thinking ahead to the day, not too far from now, when you’ll haul them out, one pair at a time, and not put them back. By mid-winter, they’ll be stacked on the porch, strewn in the woodshed, stuck in the shed-side berm, the full selection in full view, in case you have to decide fast before dark to head out in blue jeans with no cap into the dusk, onto the snow, because what the hell else is there to do? Just slide.

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus,” “Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” and, most recently, “ “Potluck: Community on the Edge of wilderness.” You can eyeball her blog, “Wet Wool,” at mountaingazette.com. Spagna lives in Stehekin, Wash. 

Behold the Ski Boot

Mountain Gazette - Behold the Ski Boot
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

A ski boot sits on the floor of my bedroom, next to the box where its mate resides. It’s new — a Tecnica. The “foot” part is black, the sides white. Orange swirls splash across its surface. I was told the names of these boot parts (and a lot of other technical information) when I bought them at Flat Iron Sports. But I was too distracted by the feel of the boots on my feet to remember the details: last year’s women’s model — ladies,’ as Larry called it — strangling my right foot and calf, and this year’s men’s model cradling my left. Snug. Warm. Full of promise.

“What do you think?” Larry asked me.

I leaned my back against the carpeted riser where I sat and stalled. I’d already promised Larry that buying a men’s model didn’t bother me. Two years ago, I bought a men’s road bike because I have long legs, but mostly because all the women’s bikes were pink or pale blue. But a brand-new ski boot wasn’t a purchase I expected to make.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl,” I said, “or because I’m from Minnesota. But I worry about having too much boot for my skill level.”

Larry and his coworker Peter laughed. I’ve only known them for an hour, but Larry feels like my own personal buyer, and Peter reminds me of Santa Claus. Together, their laughter makes me relax.

“That’s human nature,” Peter said, shaking his head.

The last time I skied, I was at Grand Targhee, over the pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first day, the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the tips of my skis. My then-boyfriend disappeared ahead of me while I snowplowed through the fog and talked to myself: “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.” I longed for clear blue skies so I could see where I was going, until the second day, when the winter sun illuminated the mountain. I looked down from the chairlift and swore. The mountain dropped away from under me, more of a snow-covered cliff than a hill. That’s what I’ve been skiing? I thought. But by the end of the trip, I followed my then-boyfriend down most slopes without checking the color of the run; I was loosening up on my feet, bending forward instead of leaning back. Wishing I lived out West so I could do this some more.

I told Larry and Peter that was eight years ago; they said no problem.

“You look pretty athletic, and you’ll be out with your friends,” Larry said, gesturing at the empty space where my roommate stood before she left the fitting to head to work. “They’ll push you. It’ll be a quick learning curve.”

I smiled at being called athletic. But it was probably more like nine or 10 years ago, enough time for the then-boyfriend to become the husband and then the ex-husband. Enough time to live out — and unravel — what felt like a lifetime of dreams, until I felt out of place sitting in the bar in a ski town. Prior to Targhee, my downhill experience was limited to Afton Alps in Minnesota, an ice bomb smaller than Targhee’s bunny hill. I have two vivid memories from Afton, both from junior high. In the first, I am sliding down a black diamond on my back, head first, resisting the urge to wave at the skiers on the chairlift as they stare down at me with mouths agape. In the second, I am unable to stop. At the bottom of the run, I take out an entire rack of skis with the tips of mine and then slide over a snow bank, once again on my back, skidding to a stop in the parking lot. I rarely tell that story; I can’t get the words out around my laughter. And I’m not sure how I can tell a story like that and then say, “I just moved to Crested Butte. It’s a backcountry-skiing mecca, and the birthplace of mountain biking. I don’t do either.”

Before my roommate and I went to Flat Iron Sports, we walked up the rec path toward Mt. Crested Butte, killing time during the off-season. We walked quietly while my small black herding dog ran to the end of her leash and barked at the empty horse corrals. Then Laura asked: “Do you know if you want to shop for skis or a snowboard yet?”

I smiled down at the brown grasses on the edge of the path, the way the sun lit them up from behind. Snow is late this year.

“No,” I said. “I always assumed I’d learn to ski, but the idea of snowboarding makes me smile.”

I looked up at the mountains around me, stoic and removed and covered in snow. I tried to imagine winter — snow banks taller than my car, ski tracks down Red Lady’s bowl. But I couldn’t quite picture it. Couldn’t conjure the feel of getting onto a ski lift, winter wind pinching my cheeks as I flexed my fingers to keep them warm.

“I don’t really know how to decide,” I said instead. “I think I need to go learn about both so I can get smart about buying gear. I doubt I’ll buy anything today.”

“So, where does this pair fall in the general price range for boots?” I asked Larry.

He wandered over to the wall of boots in front of me, picking them up one at a time. High-end boots two and three hundred dollars more than mine.

“We don’t really carry anything less than five,” he said, which is less than the pair on my feet. I know what he is really telling me: they only sell quality boots. “I could take 15 percent off for you.”

I debated putting the purchase off for a week — going home and having Laura tell me once more it’s okay. That I can go from not knowing if I wanted to ski or snowboard to buying ski boots. Expensive ski boots. But the shop keys were hanging in the door, the florescent lights overhead bouncing off the darkening windows. Somewhere, the sun was setting, and Larry and Peter had stayed past closing time for me. Had looked at my feet and measured them, addressed the way they are long and narrow and prone to falling asleep in ski boots. Had carefully fitted each boot until I settled on the Tecnica. Had treated me like I was for real, not some kid falling down a slope. And before Laura left, she had coached me: “If you find something you like, go for it. You’ve been saving for this, and you’re ready. Go for it.”

So I did.

For a week now, the ski boot has sat on my floor. I glance at it periodically and then out the window, wondering when snow will arrive for good. Marveling at the way snow means everything here: the start of my job, the return of people to town, the beginning of learning to ski. I wonder how long I will have to wait until my new life truly begins, and that is when I understand why I bought those boots. When Larry told me to stand on the riser and slip my foot into the boot, he told me to push against the front of my calf — to really crank it down.

“I don’t worry about selling you a man’s boot, even though they’re stiffer,” he said, kneeling in front of me. “You have long legs so they won’t pinch your calves and you’ve got some strength there.”

And standing there, I could feel it, too. I could see me, strong legged and upright, skiing down a mountain. Sometimes that is the power of a material thing — a simple piece of gear. It gives us the vision of where we are going, something to believe in before we have fully arrived.

Alissa Johnson is an associate editor at the Crested Butte News. You can find more of her writing at alissajohnson.wordpress.com.

Way of the Mountain #182

It’s exciting to see the Western Slope of Colorado hosting its second regional poetry festival of 2011. After this spring’s greatly successful Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival in Carbondale (honoring a former poetry editor here at MG and presented by the Thunder River Theatre Company), Sandra Dorr and the Western Colorado Writers Forum is featuring The Language of This Land in Grand Junction, Oct. 7-9. Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason will be one of the lead performers.

Robert King has been an important voice for poetry throughout Colorado. His on-line directory of state poets — the Colorado Poets Center — is an essential listing of over 140 poets, bios, photos, contact info, poem samples and more recently a quarterly newsletter that keeps poets in touch with publications and poetry happenings around the state www.coloradopoetscenter.org

King is also a very fine poet, and his latest work was this year’s winner of the Grayson Books Chapbook Competition. “Rodin & Co.” is an outgrowth of King’s fascination with the famous sculptor after a visit to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Included herein is a poem from the new book. For more info, visit King’s personal website: http://robertkingpoet.com
— Art Goodtimes
Cloud Acre

Western Slope Poet Laureate Art Goodtimes is a 4th-term San Miguel County Commissioner, co-chair of the Colorado Green Party, fungophile, basketweaver and spud farmer. http://goodtimespoetlaureate.blogspot.com/

 

Send poetry submissions to poetry@mountaingazette.com

Winter Carnival, 1979

Deep in my heart there is a party barn.
The band has run a cable from the dorm
And now everyone is dancing, drinking,
Laughing, flirting, yelling, not really thinking
About Monday’s classes or graduation.
And why not? Most real sadness is yet to come.
Which is why cocky boys pour beer down the stairs
Then surf the suds on their bare chests in February,
For this is Carnival, and there are girls to impress…
And what did you expect? A city on a hill?

— David Rothman
Poetry Director, Western State College MFA in Creative Writing
Boulder/Crested Butte 

Surfaces
Only innumerable surfaces, undulations without end.
 — Rilke

He’d execute a contour of the body
sometimes by candlelight, each muscle’s edge
found as light flamed up around the flesh

rolling through dark, a series of horizons,
a single planet always arriving,
the human form with its “infinite

number of outlines” he loved, who watched these men,
these women, move in the light, their darkness
slowly lost, one shadow at a time.

 — Robert King
Greeley, Colorado

Pure

Light seeps in
under door
pure entry

one red leaf
in the road
omen of fall

in the garden
fragrant petunias
full-blossomed cannas
belie season’s finale

I give you this:
take it
and go on

— Linda Keller
Denver

Of wisdom

it steps armored out of the head
and commits itself

to battle
itself and teaches us to prize

the self-made wound
by displaying its purple bruise
 

— Dan Beachy-Quick
Fort Collins

Lunch

In my red bowl, last fall’s
Hawkswing mushrooms (Hydnum imbricatum)
Gathered with whistling kids
Nudge beet greens I plucked yesterday
From my garden in the hailstorm
Which explains the store-bought yellow squash
And miso for stock; nothing ever
Tasted so good.

 — Ellen Metrick
San Miguel County Poet Laureate
Norwood, Colorado

Skiing and DNA

If you live in the Mountain West, chances are you are a transplant, and if you’re not, your parents are/were. While the occasional mountain dweller arrived here to work a legitimate 9 to 5, there is overwhelming evidence that skiing initially lured a high percentage of us here (and, cliché time here — summer seduced us into staying). And even if your knees, lungs and bank account have given out, plenty of people have stepped in to take your place. The National Ski Areas Association announced a record 60.4 million skiers and riders nationwide for the 2010-2011 season.Mountain Gazette #182 - Cartographic

1) Cheap turns

If you’re paying more than a hundred bucks for a lift ticket or haven’t made your arrangements until you get to the ticket window, you haven’t done your homework and probably don’t have it together enough to ski or ride safely anyway. If you ski more than five days a year at any given area, look at a season pass. The Tahoe Value Pass (as of August) was a scant $379 for both Heavenly and Northstar. Plus, many of the pass programs include huge deals at related ski areas and discount companion tickets (so if you don’t ski enough to buy a pass, suck up to someone who does). If you’re scouting out smaller resorts that hearken to days of yore, check out Badger Pass in Yosemite, where a mid-week ticket will put you back a mere $35. In Montana, there’s Lost Trail Powder Mountain, where 2010-11 rates were a scant $36. And in Colorado, there is always Ski Cooper. An adult ticket is just 44 bucks this year, and there are abundant cheap eats and real bars in nearby Leadville. Meanwhile, the steep and deep is available at Wolf Creek for $54. And if you’re still looking for cheap skiing, simply join the U.S. military, which will usually get you the best daily rate on the mountain — and get you fit enough to ski or ride the whole day — thereby increasing the value.

2) Got GNAR?

Inspired by Robb Gaffney and the very-missed Shane McConkey, GNAR is Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Raddness, which assigns points to your actions based on the level of discomfort and your attitude toward conquering it. For 500 points, you can do the entry-level PC, or Pro Call out: “Hey (name of pro)! I can’t believe you’re a pro. I’m totally better than you!” Then there’s the EH, or Employee Housing. This is when a non-employee spends the night in employee housing for 5,000 points, PLUS a bonus 15,000 points if you successfully score with one of the occupants. Vomiting (YP, or Young Gun Puke) sets you back a whopping 5,000. Similarly, a gaper gap (GG) will cost you 1,000, and the TT is a devastating minus 20,000 if you wear a tall T-shirt on the mountain or around town. A $25,000 GNAR contest was underway at Squaw Valley in March 2010, but not surprisingly, company officials put the kibosh on it after the general manager personally caught one of the participants buck naked (BN). The pulled pass was a 5,000-point deduction.

3) Nix on Global Warming?

Gasbags who still don’t believe in climate change used last season’s record snows on the East Coast and much of the West’s ski country to inflate their arguments against global warming. While Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) built an igloo on Capitol Hill and invited Al Gore to live there, some more intelligent discourse linked a warmer planet to bigger, more frequent weather events. That said, skiers and riders had some of the best snow anyone can remember. Vail, for example, had its snowiest season in its 48-year history, marking 511 inches (nearly 43 feet) mid-mountain between the opening and closing dates. Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail was closed 31 times due to bad weather for a total of 84 hours — compared to 12 closures the previous season. There were 159 weather-related accidents on that much-used section of Interstate, compared to 63 in 2009-2010. And, this year, 12 ski areas in the West had enough snow to still be open for the Fourth of July.

4) The National Brotherhood of Skiers

celebrates 39 years this season with its annual Summit at Sun Valley. Boasting about 3,000 members, the group’s aim is to promote athletes of color with the goal of having them on the podium in the Olympics and other major competitions. The group started in Aspen as the Black Ski Summit with 350 participants. While the numbers of black skiers and riders has grown, people of color still comprise a seriously small percentage of those who ski. Blacks are roughly 2 percent of the downhill skiing population, with Latinos at 3 percent, Asians at 4 percent and Native Americans at a scant 1 percent.

5) Get scared. Really scared

Corbet’s Couloir (named after one-time frequent Mountain Gazette correspondent, the late-Barry Corbet) at Jackson Hole consistently ranks among the scariest ski runs in the world, and tops many a domestic list for white-knuckle experiences in which you’re best to check your insurance policy and don a Depends beforehand. The entrance is a 10-to-30-foot free fall off a cornice, followed by a 60-degree slope. If you fall, that’s it. You’re pretty much committed to falling the remainder of the run. Crested Butte’s Body Bag gets considerable bragging rights, boasting a 275-foot vertical drop at 55 degrees. If you survive these, head over to the Silver King Runs at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in Washington, where you can experience why Pin Ball, Brain Damage and Lobotomy are so named. Indeed, a good day is any day you finish with the same number of bones you started with, and all the ligaments attached.

Tara Flanagan splits here time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her blog, “Out There,” can be found on mountaingazette.com. 

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #182

Bob Chamberlain's Mountain Vision #182Bell Mountain, Aspen, 1964

It’s hard to get anyone to ski with you when you first start carrying a camera, because they think it slows them down, and makes them do things right, which it does.

Deiter was the only one in the ski school willing to give up his morning coffee break with the other instructors in order to ski the last of the powder on Bell Mountain with me, and have his picture taken doing so, as well.

Anyone who aspires to be a ski instructor needs to know how to do this, and what it looks like, in order to understand what he or she is trying to teach, and how to realize it on film. Otherwise, he is left in the realm of the “New School,” with nothing to teach, and nothing to learn. Too easy.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

Ski Days, Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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