Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #192

Artificial Snowstorm

Artificial Snowstorm, The Beginning of The End • Aspen, 1982

The beginning of the end began with a rumor that electrified the 1950s ski underground with the smoking news that, “They’re actually packing the snow in Aspen!” And they were. And it was my first job in Aspen–packing the snow. The “packing crew.”

“We could side-step the whole mountain, from top to town, and be down and done by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. This being mid-October, there was hardly anything else to do except spend the rest of the day drinking beer at the Red Onion. Tough duty.

No such fine nostalgia attaches to the gradual insinuation of the pipes, pumps, fire hoses and gun turrets of the artificial “product.” Nor does the unremitting roar of slurry under high pressure remind you of the solitude of a silent storm of featherlike snowflakes drifting quietly down on top of  one another onto the buried shapes of once-earth-like objects all around you.

But it’s not supposed to. It’s only supposed to keep quad chairs full of bodies, at least one head on each pillow in town, and to keep the ACL ward at the hospital occupied and in demand. “Skiing for the Millions,” (a title from the 1940s) and millions it costs to do it.

No, the packing crew has gone elsewhere, places like Telluride, where they side-step uphill, instead of down, and it’s all by invitation only. Otherwise, it’s turned into a fleet of 8,000-pound machines, which doze and roll and chop ice that’s been dumped into a pile, where the water drains out of it, so it can then be moved somewhere that it’s wanted by dozer blade. But if it’s ice you want, you may as well find out what the real thing is all about; at the local rink, they can show you how to skate, how to scrape ice and how to make ice. Hijack the Zamboni, and you can re-surface the whole mountain with hot water after every hockey game, which is pretty much what you are doing already. What’s wrong with artificial snow? Very simple. It’s not powder.

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

Skiing Is Believing

cartographic October

Who knows if any of this news will matter to anyone now that Snooki has given birth, but Michael Phelps wants to join his mountain brethren in our sports of choice. Some parts of the U.S. will have better snow than they did last year; some of us will freeze our asses off. And no doubt there’s a pending lawsuit in whatever we choose to do.

1. A WTF frontrunner

We’re not sure if this 2006 entry in the WTF Hall of Fame is the absolute nadir for the legal world, but when seven-year-old Scott Swimm got sued for accidentally crossing over a man’s skis on a Beaver Creek catwalk at 10 mph, the reputation of the human species took a decidedly southward turn. The 48-pound Swimm and David Pfahler, 60, of Allentown, Penn. tipped over after Pfahler turned in front of Swimm. Pfahler reportedly grabbed the boy and told him to expect a lawsuit. Months later, a sheriff’s deputy showed up at the Swimm home in Eagle-Vail to serve papers to the child. It’s anyone’s guess who felt worse — the newly appointed defendant or the cop. Suffering a shoulder injury and claiming the young Swimm was in violation of the Colorado Ski Safety Act, Pfahler sought more than $75,000 in losses. His wife got in on the action as well, claiming that she had spent considerable time nursing her husband back to health. Long story short, the Swimms reluctantly let their insurance cover the claim — thereby giving up Scott’s right to sue Pfahler when he turned 18. They were featured in a 2009 U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad campaign against lawsuit abuse.

2. Clime and punishment

Having called the shots on the 2011-2012 Winter That Wasn’t, the Farmers’ Almanac is back at it for the 2012-2013 season, predicting that places suffering from drought should start to trend toward normal — if not seriously good — precip. Using several variations on the word “excrement,” there are many descriptions for the worst season in 30 years, so for the sake of bringing skiers and riders in off their window ledges, we hope the FA is right. In addition, we personally checked out the NOAA/NESDIS Geo-Polar Blended 11 km SST Analysis for The Equatorial Pacific, and initial conclusions point to a little less snow in the northern Rockies and Northwest, with southern storms fueling better-than-average powder in Mammoth, New Mexico, northern Arizona, Utah’s Southern Wasatch range, and in Colorado: Wolf Creek, Durango and maybe even Summit County.

3. Swimming sucks in comparison

Michael Phelps has a lot going for him as he segues into skiing/snowboarding. Before shattering Olympic medal records in London, the swimmer declared he’d like to take up snow-sliding sports when he could get a little mangled and not damage his career. “I knew if I got hurt, it wouldn’t be good,” he said. Anyway, we’re guessing those award-winning paddles at the ends of his legs are going to make boot-fitting difficult and that Phelps will ultimately use his own feet — adequately waxed, of course — in lieu of boards. And while he hasn’t revealed where he plans to obtain his new skills in skiing, snowboarding or paddlefooting this winter, we’re putting our money on Aspen.

4. At what price do we pay to play?

When Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke died from brain injuries last winter after crashing at the bottom of the Park City superpipe (following a routine 540-degree flat spin), the very sad incident raised the question: Can protective gear keep up with extreme sports? Stating the blatantly obvious, researchers say human bodies just weren’t made to withstand hard impacts at big speeds, or to get dropped upside down, and that despite the continued development of helmets, boots, bindings and various braces and paddings, the fatality rate in snow sports hasn’t improved in 40 years of tracking — although there have been changes in how we specifically die. Thirty-five to 40 people die each year at U.S. ski areas, not counting heart attacks, avalanches and the occasional fall from a lift. Statistically, there are .7 trauma-related deaths for every million skier visits. For those not wearing helmets, head injuries are the cause of death more than 75 percent of the time. If you’re wearing a helmet and manage to expire on the slopes (short of a heart attack), it’s most likely due to torso trauma, usually the result of hitting rocks, trees or other skiers. It also should be noted that, while helmets help the statistics, nearly half of deaths among people who wear helmets are due to head injuries. That kind of sucks, no?

5. Bargains

A survey last year by TripIndex claimed that Salt Lake City is the best place to ski on the cheap, where a trip can cost as little as $239. That compares to Vail, at $746; Aspen, $673; and Park City, $667. The figures are based on one night in a hotel, a basic ski-rental package, an adult one-day ticket, a local restaurant meal and a beer purchased at a ski resort. The Salt Lake City ranking was apparently due to affordable lodging — $122, compared to Vail at $582 nightly. MG researchers, however, found considerably better deals at the latter, and if you want to get the best rates for lift tickets, remember that the ticket window is usually the most expensive way to go. Plan ahead, find a couch and know that you get more mileage from your beer dollar the farther you get from a ski area.

Tara Flanagan is an equine enthusiast who lives in Breckenridge, CO.  

On The Temporal Nature of Loss

burnt house

Photo courtesy of B. Frank

Way I remember it, he was wearing a corduroy jacket, or maybe it was wool flannel — either would have stood out as old-school, since we were already living in the age of miraculously wicking fabrics with trademarked and patented pedigrees, available even to thrift-shop-haunting dirtbags like me. I’d been following his outbound ski tracks for a mile or so away from the snowshoe-chopped roadside trail. I was climbing with my partner toward a paradise best left unnamed, the better to keep trail-choppers from realizing how easy it is to reach from a certain over-used highway in my home range.

He appeared at the top of a hill and stepped out of his ski tracks. While waiting for us to pass, he pulled out a battered old thermos and poured himself a cup of steaming dark brew. As we neared and could see his white-whiskered chin and weathered face, I idly speculated that he might’ve started skiing these mountains before I’d been born.

After exchanging comments with the old man about the day’s snow and sunshine, as people tend to do about impermanent things, we skied toward paradise, he continued down his back-trail, and I forgot that day for years — until just now as I pass by the soon-to-be-forgotten hulk of yet another piece of my home range’s history.

To hear the mourning former regulars tell it today, without the Hollywood Bar, there will be no haven from the “ … hippie bar across the street,” no place a man can “ … get a cheap beer, shoot some pool and go smoke a joint on the patio out back.” You see, this is the story of the last days of the Hollywood, a bar with a reputation for trouble and comfort, for providing sustenance to sawmill savages, dam-builders, fire-fighters, dirtbags and bar bums of all stripes, so long as you kept your name off the 86ed list. One local remembers hanging out at the Hollywood as a child, while his mother tended bar and added a few more names to the list, some with a note that the ban would last a lifetime.

As with my version of skiing paradise, I’m not going to name the town the Hollywood called home, so you’ll have to seek it out if it’s that important. If you find it, though, nothing will look the same to you, because the history is different now — so let’s go back to those final days. The tin ceiling tiles wore a bronze patina of ancient cigarette smoke, and there were brown splatters above the ceiling fan from the time a guy got his throat cut at the bar below. (It’s said he lived. It’s also said that Cactus Ed Abbey drank here, but that might not be any special distinction, judging by the author’s self-reported reputation.)

A couple years back, I took a newly arrived resident of my home range to the Hollywood, hoping to show him a piece of the area’s history, but since I’d last been there, the bar had been bought by a Texan, who’d replaced the tattered tables and ripped chairs with polyurethane-smelling wooden booths. The bartender treated my friend (a scion of a still-wild place in another urban-wildland-interface blighted state that [you’re right] I won’t name here) like a tourist. I left with only the blood-splattered ceiling, the bar-top with generations of names carved into it and a silent television screen showing a burning oil rig as reminders that the Hollywood still had a bit of history in it. I never went back inside to witness its decline into yet another sanitized caricature of a mountain-town bar. Now, of course, I wish I had.

My partner and I walked by a day before the fire, noted that karaoke night was just beginning, and went across the street to the “hippie bar.” It’s a micro-brewery that serves good food, while providing a place for traveling musicians to earn a little gas money to get to bigger, more lucrative gigs on the other side of the mountains. At least a couple of local kids have grown up behind the bar and in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping make the place a destination for the area’s younger set, along with more than a few miracle-fabric-clad dirtbags. I’ve seen forest workers, construction crews, skiers, river-rats and rednecks mingle there. The brewery was packed, the band was good and the next time I saw the Hollywood, there was a bouquet of flowers in an old Jim Beam bottle on the sidewalk, in front of a burned-out hulk.

Crime-scene tape blocks the door. A sign says that arson is suspected and warns that trespassing is a felony. The old stone walls are blackened, the roof gone. Firefighters say the blaze was so hot that it almost ignited an apartment building next door. Local gossip says the bartender 86ed an unruly patron, who slipped around back and started the fire a couple hours later. The bartop, the ceiling, the list of 86ed lifers, the still-new wooden booths, the pool table — from the alley behind the patio, it looks like a total loss.

The owner of the hardware store down the street remembers that his wife’s family ran the place back in the sawmill days, but now the mill site is underwater behind the dam, and the people who remember those days are dying off, or selling out to new folks who are more likely to take their kids to a micro-brewery with live music than a bar with blood on the ceiling and karaoke Wednesdays.

I now have almost as much white in my beard as the old man who broke trail to paradise, and as losses keep piling up in my personal history, I’m spending less time with other graybeards lamenting changes in my home range. More often, you’ll see me nursing a good micro-brew while I eavesdrop on the multifarious life stories playing out around me. Here’s to hoping the next time I pass through that little town, at least a couple of the Hollywood’s old regulars will be bellied up to the bar with me.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He splits his time between the Colorado Plateau and the Border Country.

Cold, Snow and the Fire in My Soul

Snowy Blueberries

Is it the Northern European and Highlander blood romping wildly through my veins? And that bit o’ Japanese blood found cavorting there; clearly it must hail from one of that island country’s many mountain ranges. For I cannot deny, nor would I want to, that I am a woman in love … with winter.

In the summertime, I hold my breath until it rains. Here, there are long stretches of time during which nothing wet falls from the clouds. If we are lucky enough to have any clouds. I grow bored of the blue-on-blue backdrop, the scorched and arid air. It is not very interesting. And then there are the rampant wildfires with that angry, maraschino cherry of a sun.

When summer finally ends, I am pleased as punch to see it retreat in a cowardly and vapid puff of dust. Good riddance to friable rubbish! And should 55⁰F still feel downright chilly, burr, go grab a sweater. Start adding to your coffers of rounds and splits and kindling. Chastise yourself repeatedly for not worrying about your firewood needs earlier in the season, like you always plan to do. Worry about it, get over it and then get on it. It will warm you up.

Graciously by mid-September, the days have cooled and the nights are chill. Soppy stuff falls from the gathering clouds in big, fat, confident dollops. A little more time passes and October clip-clops in, riding in his pumpkin carriage — no glass slippers here! And thank my Lucky Stars, snuggling up to October, draped in puffy white fleece and sucking on purple popsicles, is the delirious Promise of Winter.

Firewood has been split and carefully stacked under cover. Chimneys and stovepipes cleaned by the man who travels way up here from way down-valley, wearing a stovepipe hat and with a smudge of ash on his pointy nose. I stop holding my breath and release an overdue and hearty sigh, a sigh that looks like my papa’s pipe smoke spiraling upward in the Jack Frost air.

Praise Earl, god of weather, two-dog nights are fast on autumn’s heels and champing — never chomping — at November’s bit. Ready the hot wax! Add to your quiver of skis if fortune has smiled graciously upon your rosy cheeks! Damn if 22⁰F begins to feel toasty. Know that eventually 12⁰F will become blessedly doable if you are splitting more rounds or skinning up the mountain. Then, somehow make the negative numbers work.

Make certain to take midnight kick-and-glides in the light of the bright and waxing moon. Do not use your headlamp. Slide your fish scales across the mountain highway deep with snow and long since closed for the season. Gather a few good friends and bring along a thermos of blueberry
tea, a hot, adult beverage that has nothing to do with blueberries and yet tastes magically of the delicious fruit. A very adventuresome friend of mine proclaims, Everything’s better with booze. And while this may be an arguable point, it makes us laugh.

Watch as disembodied, reflective eyes mystically hover two feet above the glacier-blue and mica-garnished surface. Lynx in the sky with diamonds.

Much later, go on home, stoke the woodstove, sleep like a puppy.

The season becomes circular: shovel-shovel, split-stack, skin-ski, shovel-shovel, sleep. Grow quick and sinewy, in spite of the extra calories consumed. Snow and firewood management grow muscles. Skiing grows wings.

I dread the encroachment of late spring, with the threat of fierce and fiery summer lurking in its shrinking shadows, biting viciously at its heels. With some amount of sorrow, I anticipate the holding of my breath.

At the end of an extended winter season, across the border in northern Cascadia, when the cold and snow continued late and well into spring, nay nearly into summer, while many grew weary of the lingering cold and less enthusiastic about the promise of greening hills, an absent fire season and an increased water table, my dear and very adventuresome friend Anne called out heartily into the grey and frigid air, eyes skyward, fists clenched, Grow me some glaciers!


Blueberry Tea for a Moonlit Ski

1 oz. Amaretto

2 oz. Grand Marnier

Lemon Peel

Piping Hot Earl Gray Tea

Absolutely No Blueberries

Pour piping hot Earl Gray tea steeped with lemon peel into thermos.

Add measurements of Amaretto and Grand Marnier for each full cup of tea.

Gently swirl.

Serve hot, while moving across snow, under the light of a shining moon.

Senior correspondent Tricia M. Cook is an avid wolf preservationist who lives in the North Cascades of Washington State.

Poker Face

Though variations on this conversational/argumentative/conceptual subject had been percolating and ping-ponging between my ears pretty much ever since I first landed less-than-gracefully as a Western tenderfoot/greenhorn/newbie/moron/dumbfuck in Gila Country in the summer 1976, the whole notion attained something at least resembling cogitative coalescence one winter afternoon as I sat (not for the first time) quaffing a few brews in Sluice Box Saloon. Several stools to my starboard were three corpulent bubbas, all of whom were attired in the height of retro flatland ski fashion, and all of whom hailed from a state that decorum mandates I not herein name. They were a jovial enough lot, though their jocularity was often punctuated by boisterously stated examples of extreme political incorrectness that, were one inclined toward stereotyping, one would consider pretty much cliché for the state I shall not herein name.

Fortunately, the local resident sitting closest to these three bubbas was not yours truly; rather, it was Big Del, who ordinarily avoids conversations with tourists as aggressively as he avoids alimony payments. This go-round, though, he was apparently enticed into friendly banter with the bubbas via a tried-and-true method: he was offered unfettered access to the bubbas’ pitchers of beer, which were being re-filled in a manner that could best be described as “frequent.”

This was a time in the M. John autobiographical train wreck when my normal tendency to socially interact with folks at the bar, even bubbas from the aforementioned state I shall not herein name, was mitigated by a ruminative mindset based upon the fact that, after 24 years, I had decided my time in the High Country was fast drawing to an end. I was torn about that decision clear down to my marrow, and my life at that point consisted of one period of second-guessing a move not yet made followed by another period of second-guessing my second-guessing, until, finally, the sum totality of my mental processes became nothing more and nothing less than a flushing-toilet-like downward spiral dominated by future perfect verb tenses. (It is often not so easy being me.) As I sat there at the Sluice Box that winter day, my life at altitude played between my ears like one of those old scratchy black-and-white movies from the ’30s, wherein the actors’ voices all seem about two seconds out of sync with the sound. And, out of that not-pleasant, but not-totally-unpleasant meditative state comes bellowing from the barrel-sized voice box of Big Del, “What the FUCK does that have to do with anything?” You could hold a gun to my head and I would not be able to tell you what prompted Big Del’s verbal outburst — he and the bubbas might have been talking about yet another impending ski-area expansion or they might have been talking about the last time the Sluice Box’s unsavory men’s room was hosed out — but I can say sans compunction that, when such outbursts occur in the vicinity of Big Del, you’d best be ready to duck. But these three bubbas hailed from a place where educational standards are not high. They did not back down.

“Hay-ull,” drawled the Alpha Bubba, “we been skiin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years.”

“Well, asshole,” Big Del responded, “I’ve been livin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years!”

“Yeah, but there are, uh, three of us, which means we got a total of, uh … ” (and here the Alpha Bubba removed one of his rear-entry ski boots so he could utilize his toes throughout what ended up being a long and apparently mentally challenging ciphering process) “ … let’s see … 30 times 30, no … 30 plus 30 times two … no … 30 plus 30 is 60 plus another 30 is …  90! The three of us have been comin’ up here skiin’ a total of 90 years!” beamed the bubba, apparently mighty proud of his advanced mathematical skills.

And so this chronological dick-swinging contest proceeded apace for another five minutes, till Pattycakes, a bartender who weighs about 95 pounds soaking drunk, looked up from her cribbage game and yelled “that’s goddamned enough!” and all three bubbas and Big Del post haste changed both the subject of their inebriated discourse and their tones-of-voice.

But I, sitting there innocent and alone, could not change the subject, at least not within my cranium, for that subject, as I mentioned several hundred words ago, had been with me for decades. And that subject, germane to my impending exodus from the High Country, is/was/always shall be this: In a part of the world defined by residential impermanence, how does one temporally measure one’s connection to place?

For many years, I covered for local papers various High Country municipalities. It was not uncommon for people addressing town council meetings to begin their presentations with a recitation of their relationship with the area. “We first began visiting before the local ski area even opened. We would drive up almost every weekend for years so the kids could ski. We eventually bought a condo, which we sold to buy a town home, which we have owned for 14 years. Now we spend six months a year here and hope to one day live here full time.” You can imagine how many variations on this theme there are. I swear, it sometimes sounds like Klingons reciting their various martial accomplishments when trying to impress the family of the mate they are wooing.

I have long thought that it would make life in the Mountain Time Zone easier if there could be established a rating system, a way for people who have been “coming here to ski for 30 years” could lean upon an equation that established plus-or-minus common denominators with, say, people who were born here, but left for seven years, then came back two autumns ago, and people who were born in Iowa but who have been living here for 35 years, and people who live down in the city, but who come up every weekend to play.

And then, just as that thought began to grow both branches and roots, I looked up above the Sluice’s back bar where, for more years than even local old-timers can remember, is hung a faithful copy of one of the single best pieces of art ever produced by the hands of man: The well-worn and well-known painting of the dogs playing poker (based upon a series of 16 paintings by C.M. Cooper commissioned in 1903 by Brown & Bigelow to help sell cigars). And my question was answered before it was even fully posed. Though I have never been a very good poker player (I’ve always preferred blackjack, because, when one wins, one does not draw down the bank account of one’s chums, but, rather, the evil house), for many years I participated in regular games — sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly AND monthly. Ergo: I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the hierarchy of poker hands, which, I reasoned sitting there in the Sluice in a pondiferous frame-of-mind, could, by way of a translation process that admittedly would likely not stand up to scrutiny by a professor of logic (unless, of course, that professor was a poker player), be applied to the sociology of the transient West. So, even while Big Del and the corpulent bubbas from the state that I shall not herein name began to ramp their contretemps back up, I pulled out a pen and reached for a stack of proletariat stationary: cocktail napkins.

Before I proceed, it’s important to stress that there’s no way to compare poker hands to cultural dynamics without relying a bit too much upon aesthetics-based subjectivity, a subjectivity that, for example, rates a troop of dirtbag snowboarders living in the back of a camper well above a troop of well-coifed Boulder-based developers. This is not to say that decks of cards do not contain within their various suits and ranks the seeds of subjectivity. Verily, until the late-1700s, aces — the people’s card, as it were — were the lowest of the low, a reality that has partially survived the past 300-plus years by way of hands — such as straights — wherein an ace can still be used as either the highest or the lowest card. Until the earliest days of the French Revolution, the king was of course the highest card and it was near-bouts treasonous to suggest otherwise. As guillotines were dealing very effectively with royal pretensions, the people’s card displaced monarchal precedence.

Moreover, the subjectivity of the deck continues with the assumption that higher numbers are somehow superior to lower numbers. Certainly, there are instances when and where such is the case. Having nine beers, for instance, is generally better than having two beers — unless, of course, you’re trying to talk your way out of a DUI. But, with cards, we’re not talking about anything save numbers printed upon heavy paper. There’s no inherent reason why 10s should automatically be “better” than 9s. Still, the deck we now play poker with is what it is; its subjective components are now neatly corralled into a stack of 52 cards that have a potential of 7,462 combinations, and the ranking of hands is based not upon aesthetics or personal political or numeric prejudices, but, rather, by the mathematical probability (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of a given hand occurring.

Thus, the following rankings do not correspond seamlessly to real-life poker algorhythms. Still, if the transitioning of part-random, part-manipulated card combinations to real life was good enough for Dmitri Mendeleev, who was inspired in ways my non-scientific mind can not fathom by the hierarchy of poker hands when he invented the Periodic Table of the Elements in 1869, then it’s good enough for me as I’m trying to fit the round pegs of mountain-town sociology into the square holes of common denominators. And, as usual, if you have any Mountain-Town poker hands you’d like to add to the list, please fire them off to

• Royal Flush: Technically, this is just the highest form of a straight flush, a 10, jack, queen, king and ace of the same suit. (Here we should note that suits, despite the opinions of many players, are not hierarchal. Exact hands of different suits — say, a 7-high straight spade flush and a 7-high straight clubs flush — are tied and thus split the pot.) The Mountain Country sociological equivalent of this hand is someone who lives in a cliff dwelling, a pueblo, hogan or tipi who still speaks Ute or Navajo as his or her first language.

• Regular straight flush: Someone who still maintains enough Native blood coursing through his or her veins that they retain legal enrollment upon tribal rosters. The mathematical chances of being dealt (as opposed to drawing into) a straight flush, of which there are 40 possible permutations, is 0.0015%.

• Four of a kind: Born in a mountain town, went to high school in a mountain town, moved back to the mountain town directly after college, kids enrolled in local schools, serves on numerous town boards because it’s the right thing to do rather than because of self interest. Chances of being dealt four of a kind: 0.024%

• Full house: Same as above, the only difference being that you were not born in a mountain town, so you make up for that inexplicable cosmic oversight by diligently volunteering for trail projects and town clean-ups and such. Came to a town with enough money saved that you could get your toe in the real estate industry before prices sky-rocketed. Chances of being dealt a full house: 0.14%.

• Flush: Grew up in a city within drivable distance of a mountain town. Family drove up to ski or hike almost every weekend. Always knew you were going to forego any semblance of a real life by moving to a mountain town minutes after graduating high school. Worked for years doing menial jobs and lived for years in a rented room the size of a closet. Now work for the town government in a quasi-respectable gig. Met your wife, a long-time local schoolteacher, on a chairlift. Have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a flush: 0.20%.

• Straight: Moved to a mountain town with the idea of staying a season or two before moving back down to the flatlands, but ended up never leaving. Bought a condo, and rent rooms out to help pay for the mortgage. Still work at the ski area or in the restaurant industry in order to procure a season pass. Probably will end up one day moving back down to a city that’s close enough to the mountains you can still drive up to rub elbows with those who were once your neighbors and co-workers. Do not have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a straight: 0.39%

• Three of a kind: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job, but realized after living in that town that you liked it enough to maybe stay, maybe forever. Chances of being dealt three of a kind: 2.1%

• Two pair, high cards: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job and, though you’re making the most of it, will leave as soon as you’re offered a better job somewhere else. Chances of being dealt two pair: 4.75%.

• Two pair, middling cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, but who for the rest of their lives regret leaving.

• Two pair, low cards: Visitors who live close enough to a mountain town that they visit often, and who dream about being able to move to the mountain town, but can never pull it off.

• One pair, but high cards: Second homeowners who do not act like they are official residents of the mountain town in which their second home is located and who, despite their second-homeownership relationship with the town, volunteer for trail projects and town clean-up days. Chances of being dealt one pair: 42.25%.

• One pair, but middling cards: Tourists who have traveled long distance for years to visit a mountain town and who love the mountain town and who are always in a good mood and tip wait-people well.

• One pair, low cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, and never regret leaving.

• High card, face-card level: Second homeowners who act like they own the mountain town the minute they arrive, ones who immediately start attending town council meetings and castigating the locals for being rubes.

• High card, middling: New resident to a mountain town who immediately wants to turn the town into the place he or she just left.

• Seven high (the worst hand possible in poker): Carpetbagger developers who drive up to the mountains from the safety of their gated flatland McMansions to build ugly condo and retail complexes that they push through local town boards by utilizing hordes of lawyer whores who, while touting the supposed economic and aesthetic benefits of their proposed projects, tacitly hold the threat of legal action over the head of the community they’re invading should their development not be approved.

• Lowball. Long-time locals who have forgotten that they too once rented rooms the size of closets just so they could ski every day.

• Joker: People who think, just because they’ve lived in the Mountain Time Zone for more than 36 years, they are wise enough to reduce the sociology of the turf they inhabit to a series of poker hands, when, in actuality, that sociology has more in common with the Periodic Tables of the Elements.

Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee’s latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State,” can be purchased at your local bookstore or ordered directly from 

Mountain Acts

mountain acts

We motored along the Peak-to-Peak Highway a few miles south of Ward, CO, I in my silver Honda S2000 with the convertible top presciently up and my friend in his red Mazda Speed 3. In my rearview mirror, I caught the blinking of his directional signal. I pulled over onto the hissing shoulder as he rolled beside and through the open passenger window asked, “Hey, you wanna switch cars?”

I replayed this brief exchange many times in my brain during the days that followed, but it seemed so normal, I couldn’t remember much of it. And then the Van-Gogh-looking man behind the wheel of the red Mazda lustily licked his lips, and with a sharp twist of the wrist, cranked the car stereo and sang drunkenly along with Morrison who was singing the swinging shit out of the “Roadhouse Blues” chorus and “Let it roll, baby, roll!”  

That would’ve been more appropriate. Much of the time, fiction makes more sense. I guess, because it’s created to make sense. Real life, not so much, especially when we act upon the mountain, or perhaps more accurately, when the mountain acts upon us. We don’t huddle up with our ski buddies just after we’ve hiked to the summit of Breckenridge’s Peak 8 and ask, “OK, guys, now what experience would logically follow this one?”

I didn’t want to switch cars. We were at the tail end of a spirited early Sunday morning drive — if you have a yen for sports cars, a mountain road is only a mountain road when no other cars are upon it — and I had already blown my automotive wad gunning over the ridges and snaking the tight twisties of Golden Gate Canyon State Park. We were just cruising now, just cruising, like when you’ve been skiing the back bowls all day and then doing your best to enjoy the long and traversing run across the front side of the mountain so you can get back to your car. We would dip down through Ward, where the elements of nature transfigure the residents’ many rotting cars into roadside art, and then onto Left Hand Canyon Drive, which would drop us back into Boulder.

Six or so years before, he and I were returning to Boulder along this same stretch of the Peak-to-Peak after skiing a blustery day at Eldora. We had passed one or two of the marked-if-you-know-what-you-are-looking-for turnoffs between Nederland and Ward when he made a sweeping gesture with his right hand and said, “Back in high school, I almost got laid down one of these roads.” So many people are so full of shit that I tend to trust a person who says he “almost got laid” down a mountain road in high school. If a 21st century John Denver ever appears (I can’t be the only one sort of curious), I hope he writes songs like that.

We switched cars. It was about quarter of eight, which to me is a bittersweet part of the day, a time when the innocence of the morning dissipates in the glare of the sunlight and all the things we have to do in it. Still, it was quite pleasant gliding downhill through the gentle S-turns with Left Hand Creek roaring just outside the passenger’s window. Gliding next to running water, I become it, and there’s a slight, quasi-suicidal urge to let go of the wheel. Let the car feel the way for me.

I passed a man on my left walking downhill on the shoulder. Five hundred feet ahead, the road dipped slightly to reveal a shallow left-hand bend around a cropping of rock. “Not a great place to go for walk, my man,” I thought. I made the shallow left turn and then in the rearview saw my silver Honda S2000 rolling six feet in the air toward the shoulder of the uphill lane like a trained dolphin in a Sea World show.

Did I really just see that!?

I don’t know about you, but, these days, whenever I have the “Is-this-really-happening?” feeling, it’s a bad thing, as in really bad. When I was young, I did have two or three positive versions of this feeling, for instance, the two weeks in eighth grade when Sue Muller (who had actual breasts that pressed into me the one time we kissed) decided she could stoop below her station and date me — until that bus ride home from the school field trip, during which she asked me if I liked Judas Priest. The positive version of the Is-this-really-happening experience is mostly a young-person thing, caused as it is by an explosion of newness. When newness explodes around me now, it usually takes out something I sort of liked having around.

In the 30 seconds it took me to turn around, my friend had gotten out of the car. He had a respectable cut on his forehead right at the hairline (where his head most likely hit the road when the car rolled), but he moved good. The S2000 sagged on the right shoulder, like a crouching jungle cat vainly denying that its front legs have been crushed by a high fall. It pointed downhill, as if ready to go on. Then it died. It did what it was supposed to in a rollover and died. Windshield cracked but not shattered, all four tires blown, the tops of the front wheels canted seriously inward, right front and rear panels crushed, the frame surely bent beyond repair. Totaled, no question.

The dude we had passed walking (Good Samaritan Mountain Man, as it turns out) ran down to us. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it — are you alright?” GSMM asked my friend, who now seemed to be trippin’ on adrenaline and consequence: walking in tight circles, many “Dan, I’m-so-sorrys,” running his hand through the back of his hair like guys do when distracted or nervous. I told GSMM the car belonged to me. He took that in and replied, “Well — I’m not saying that you should tell your insurance company you were driving. I’m just saying that I didn’t see it.”

I understand you perfectly well, Good Samaritan Mountain Man. No witnesses. 

They stared at me for my decision. I remember wishing for more time as I stared back at them. Few cars passed this early, and the lean, androgynous cyclists from Boulder still needed 15 minutes to climb this high. I, too, began to freak at this point, but some part of me while on that wide shoulder smelled the fresh mountain morning, heard Left Hand Creek susurrating just a stone’s throw away, and thought “Jesus, this would be a pleasant place to be right now — if my friend hadn’t almost crushed his skull while totaling my car and the Smokeys weren’t about to roll up with their measuring wheels and their “Are you the owner of the vehicle, sir?” and other questions of that sort.

Like most people (but unlike my dad), I will usually lie if it will save me tons of cash. Yet, in the moments I was wrestling with whether or not I should tell my insurance company that I was driving, so as not to get ratscrewed out of the 20 grand necessary to replace my now scrap-heap of a car, a feeling shot through me that I simply couldn’t lie about anything this weird. Lying would have meant we were guilty, that we shouldn’t have been out there on the mountain. Lying would have cheapened the experience. The feeling, which was really resonating now, told me I couldn’t do that. The mountain punted my car off the road, and I had to tell the truth about it.

“I gotta go with the truth on this one, I gotta tell them you were driving,” I said to my friend upon whom I had just laid another brick of freak-out. “It just feels right.”

I grabbed my cell and, of course, had no service. I didn’t hear it, but I’m sure the mountain chuckled at this.

“You can use my phone. I live just up the way,” said Good Samaritan Mountain Man.

We drove him up to his place in my friend’s car. A one-room house with many windows and a hardwood floor. It reminded me of a large studio apartment, but, you know, on the mountain. No woman to be seen or presence felt. GSMM apparently read a lot, pop fiction mostly. Inconvenient for sure, but I had to take a dump, so I asked GSMM if I could use his bathroom. Somewhat apologetically, he said that he didn’t have a bathroom, but an outhouse. “But don’t worry, it’s clean.”

I walked up a winding path through some aspens to the outhouse. As advertised, it was commodious and clean with a windowed door that offered a nice little view of the pined canyon. One minute, you’re calculating the best line through a corner, and, the next, you are shitting with a view in GSMM’s outhouse.

My conversation with the representative of the insurance company grounded me. An experience doesn’t become truly real until we tell someone else about it. She told me to go down and stay with the car. Apparently, Smokeys don’t like it when people leave the scene of an accident, especially ones involving a convertible sports car that has obviously rolled a few times. We thanked GSMM and went down to the car to wait for Smokey.

To get out of the sun, we sat on a large, shaded rock across from the wreckage, and suffered the rolling commentary of Boulder cyclists. We felt guilty because we looked guilty. I mean, how could that much damage have been visited upon the car without us having done something completely boneheaded? I felt as if I were 15 again and waiting for my dad to pick me up, having been busted for pot or vandalism or some other stunt that only teenaged boys think they can get away with.

“Is everyone OK?” Yup, everybody’s fine. Just dandy.”

“Oh wow! That car is TOTALED!” Thanks for noticing. Please keep pedaling.

“You guys should have a party tonight and celebrate the fact that you’re alive.” Not a bad idea, actually. And while we are at it, we should toast that you are alive, dear Boulder cyclist. If you had been precisely where you are now during my friend’s flying dolphin act, you would have been gruesomely crushed. But let’s not mention that to the wives, OK?

A Boulder County sheriff’s deputy eventually rolled up. She sat in the cruiser for a few minutes, undoubtedly running my plates and analyzing the situation for herself, before asking the two clowns on the rock what had caused the accident. We crossed the road and stood in front of the automotive corpse and waited. She swung the cruiser’s door open and stepped out. On her proudest day, she maybe stood 5’3”. Aviator sunglasses dominated her face. If she had breasts, she had hidden them somewhere.

She walked over to us, slow and measured, which in my mostly law-abiding experience, is the only way cops walk. She asked who owned the car and what had happened.

Who knows why the mountain does what it does? We certainly didn’t, but you gotta tell a Smokey something. Our best guess was that, as my friend moved through the middle of the shallow left bend, a large rock rolled off the mountain and lodged itself in the right front suspension first causing the back end to come out and then the car to roll. I agree — a pretty much bullshit explanation. The deputy asked my friend how fast he was going. “About 25,” he replied.

The deputy walked (s l o w l y) over to the bend and did her measurements from all various angles with her wheely thingy. She came back over. “You weren’t doin’ no 25 — that’s bullshit,” she informed my friend and then pointed to my crushed jungle cat of a car. “That wouldn’t have happened at 25. The speed limit here is 35 mph and you were doin’ 40 or so. The rest of your story checks out, though. Seems like you hit a rock. The county may contact you about replacing the road sign you took out, then again, they might not.”

And with that she was gone. He wasn’t ticketed.

“Cal,” the chipper tow truck driver, arrived. I walked over to the S2000, leaned in under the convertible top that looked like a mountain troll had whacked it with a sledgehammer and placed my right hand on the dash. “You’ve been a great car, and I’m sorry it has to end this way.” That was all I had time for. Cal was backing up the truck, and my friend was waiting to drive me home.

A few years ago, I read an unpublished piece by writer and colleague David J. Rothman in which he stated that the “mountains…are not scenery; they are a cause, in the sense that they actually make things happen.” The mountain certainly acted upon me that morning. Instead of feeling maligned, though, I feel sort of chosen.

I continue my high-revving mountain practice and, drive by drive, come to understand the mountain’s action.

Daniel Brigham taught writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His essays appear regularly in the Denver Post and Boulder Daily Camera.


Ephedra Cover

With summer hitting full stride in the Roaring Fork Valley, the Ideas Festival crowd turned into more of a Mountain Fair crowd, and instead of contemplating the economic value of a human life, I find I am contemplating the value of a poetic life. Partially spurring these thoughts have been two recent local poetry readings from the late-Karen Chamberlain’s posthumously published book, “Ephedra.” While I am not the first to say I miss Karen — who served for many years as Mountain Gazette’s poetry editor — I might possibly be the first to hope she really is just late, and maybe so wonderfully late, she will miraculously appear at a poetry reading, barn raising, horse dusting or goose-inspired fly-by.

Or perhaps, while collecting stinging nettles or yarrow, or plucking small wild strawberries, which are, at this very moment, very ripe, and very very tasty, I’ll look up and she’ll be there, smiling, the dusty desert and mountain babe of my dreams, second only to the salty surf and mountain babe of my reality. Until that time when Karen might appear, I’ve been reading and thumbing through the pages of “Ephedra” the same kind of way I might be reading and thumbing my way through the West. And what I have found in Karen’s collection, among poems dedicated to James Tate, Louis Simpson and Larry Levis (I have a bumpersticker on the back of my manly black Ford Ranger 4×4 that says “I heart Larry Levis”), are poems about real places and real people. OK, maybe not “Yerokastrinos,” which I wasn’t able to find in either Google or the Encyclopedia Britannica, though it captures both Greece and the feeling of longing in a particularly sweet, dark-red-pear kind of way. And who doesn’t love poems about real places and real people?

In “Medicine Women,” Karen takes us on a rooted, ridiculous and incredibly spiritual journey centered around sponge-capsule animals, of the variety you put in a glass of water and watch the gel capsule dissolve and the sponge saturate (along with mini-stories about the healing and strengthening of the three women). In “The Holy Fool of Bahia Kino,” Karen seeks a humane, human and spiritual connection with a boy who her friend describes as the village idiot, but who Karen listens to use the language of beauty to connect with both a dog and herself. Karen ends the poem by saying: “…Hapless boy,/ wronged by wonder…/ tomorrow I must leave the sea, drive/ the road of broken glass and dead tortoises,/ turn north toward the border. Then, even more,/ I’ll want for whatever’s wrong with you/ to be what’s wrong with me.”

So what’s the value of a poetic life? Everything. And then some. And then some more. As the old adage goes, you might even be one and not know it. A poetic life is like a bluegrass band wailing away on center stage with a sweaty audience dancing their hearts out. A bottomless dish of elephant ears, sno-cones and curried lentils. The righteous and valiant forward thinkingness of Carbondale’s Green Team, bio-degradable everything and coalitions that protect us against thoroughly fracking up the environment. But I digress. “Ephedra” captures, if ever so briefly, the life and lens of one of our very own poets. If we may claim her. And I think she would be generous enough to let us. One who graced many of us with her presence, and continues to grace us with this collection of poetry.

“Ephedra” is available through People’s Press,, and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation,

Cameron Scott is a freelance writer, teacher, and a fly-fishing guide out of Basalt, CO. If you have leftovers, he will eat them.

Way of the Mountain: #192

In celebrating MG’s 40th year of publication, we thought to reach back to one of our most beloved poetry editors — Karen Chamberlain of the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs) — as this issue’s featured poet. Production issues led to a postponement of the poetry column to this October issue. We teased you on the cover of Aug./Sept. issue (blame Fayhee!) and here’s the real deal.

Karen’s work certainly embodies the Way of the Mountain that Dolores LaChapelle of Silverton championed. In 24989, we were both awarded a Colorado state arts fellowship in poetry (back when the state had an arts program). Karen was such a gracious soul. She loved poetry. She encouraged young writers. Maybe her greatest passion was for the wild — from Mt. Sopris and the Southern Rockies to Utah’s slickrock canyon country. She wrote a lot, won awards, but published only sparingly, although she generously published many of us in MG’s pages.

It’s wonderful that the People’s Press of Aspen has posthumously issued a collection of poems Karen had completed just before her passing, “Ephedra.” They’ve agreed to let us publish one of the poems from the collection in these pages. For more information on the book, an inspiration to all of us who love peaks and poetry, visit

Oh, yes, and what’s with the strange dates in this column, you are asking? As an earth-based spiritualist, I find the Christian calendar inappropriate for my worldview. So, I’ve created a Ancient North American Calendar (ANAC) that takes my keeping count back to one best-science guess at the millennium when humans first stepped into the New World of North and South America (names that memorialize European notions and explorers — maybe North and South Turtle Island would be more fitting). And then I’ve coordinated the ending date to match the Christian calendar, so we can begin the transition away from the Julian/Gregorian and into a new calendar system appropriate for our current understanding of this ancient world. Happy 25012.

— Art Goodtimes
Cloud Acre

White Lady

Sleepless before dawn
a woman opens the mirror
into her medicine cabinet, stands
for long minutes
leaning against the sink,
staring at the contents
arranged wearily
behind her face.

— Karen Chamberlain,
from “Ephedra” (25012)

For Don Lumpkin

Looking back
after cleaning out
my parents’ apartment:
Golden dust motes dancing
inside an empty room

— Kirk Lumpkin
El Cerrito

Stone Trail

A stark white slate of stone
abruptly faces me.
It waits, demands
I face myself
stripped to stark
white bone.

— Barbara Test
from “Raw Potatoes” (25011)

no temple bells
still the crow goes on
about awe, awe

— Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer


The pager wailed and we gathered
headlamps probing the inky night.
Four-wheelers inserted us deep
into Coal Canyon. We never practiced
folding a once-warm form
into a black, zippered coffin.

— Richard Scott
Walla Walla

Untrainable SEAL

What a kick, carousing
in “big city” To-Hell-U-Ride

with fellow eco-roustabouts
who survived the Sixties

which used to mean San
Francisco, only to morph into

most of my best friends

— Capt. Barefoot
Kuksu Brigade (Ret.)


to the west
a mass of undifferentiated grey

to the east
a flock of small white clouds

half wolf, half sheep
scudding sunward

somewhere in between
a place of letting go

— Tony Alcantara

Summerville Trail

Talus slope
Chirping marmot
Bear? Me? Both?

— Joseph Van Nurden

Spectacular Mountain Country Club

Gated Ski Lodge

There are two strikingly stylish people behind the desk. One man. One woman. Both are helping the V.I.L.P. (Very-Important-Looking-Person) in front of me. I wait. Patiently. Looking for information brochures. Not wanting to be here any longer than absolutely necessary.

Suddenly, I begin to worry about all the things to which I rarely pay any mind. Should I take off my ski hat now that I’m inside? How many white dog hairs are visible on my maroon wool sweater? Insecurities peak their heads out where they rarely do. For how many days in a row have I worn these Carhartts? Maybe I should have shaved? Such odd, unusual thoughts and feelings.

I glance around at the spotless décor. The cathedral ceiling. The imitation rustic lodge feel. The shiny black Range Rover from Connecticut parked just outside the two large, imposing wooden doors. The whiny, middle-aged (but not admitting it to herself) white woman in the impeccable one-piece ski outfit with matching make-up, struggling to control/talk to/be with her two pre-teen children. They, struggling to grow up and remain children at the same time, already having more than enough to contend with without the added pressures of this first-class second-home asylum.

My thoughts are interrupted by a phone ringing. The stylish woman behind the desk answers it after a couple of rings. Fashionably late, I guess. “Good afternoon.  Spectacular Mountain Country Club.” Her voice sings to the caller on the other end. In my mind, I picture a secretary calling for an executive on Wall Street. He too busy wearing his three-piece suit to be bothered. Or a young trophy wife in Fairfield County, telling the Latino nanny to keep her kids quiet. Rolling her eyes in dismay, at her nanny, at her kids, at her life/style. “Well, we are currently putting names on a waiting list. You could be #82.”

I wonder how long it will take for someone to address me. To at least ask me what I’m doing here. I wonder how long I would wait, unnoticed, before finally giving up and leaving. The seconds tick by like hours.

This is an exhausting environment.

I think about my pick-up, parked outside in a spot that threatens the penalty of towing if it is not removed after fifteen minutes. I try not to worry.

I take a quick but deep and reassuring breath.

I try to look like I belong. I do, in a way. I’m no stranger to the growing annoyances of the New England ski mountain experience. The generically groomed trails of blue ice. The over-crowded lodge bursting at the seams with some of the most-entitled people you’d never want to meet. The impending unreality of its gated-community feel. The weekend warriors trying too hard to make it all seem worth it. When it’s not.

Something has gone wrong. Terribly wrong. This place is out of control. It needs to be reined in. I figure I may as well try. Do my part. And they know it. They know I’ve forsaken them. That I’m refusing to play the game. I’m not fooling anybody.

In the pit of my stomach is the growing nausea of being surrounded by so much plasticity. So much fakeness. I’m sure the proverbial pink elephant must be just around the corner, waiting for someone to notice it. The absurdity of this place.

The stylish woman hangs up the phone and glances over at the stylish man, who is still helping the V.I.L.P. We both know the stylish man doesn’t need any assistance. Dejectedly, she turns my way and smiles.

“May I help you?” It’s a rhetorical question.

“Hi. Yes. I’m looking for information on the club. The folks at the main desk suggested I try the desk here.”

She looks puzzled. Or annoyed. Or both. Obviously, the inferiors at the main desk hadn’t followed the proper protocol. They are never to tell someone to come here to get information. Interested parties are to use the elusive website or make a phone call only.  No face-to-face interactions. No Nobodies wandering in off the street. (Or slope.) That bothers the clients of the prestigious Spectacular Mountain Country Club. It makes them feel like they are part of a dynamic environment. It destroys the illusion that they are impervious to society’s Unknowns. Like me, wandering into their space, looking like I don’t belong. Which I pray is true.

“Do you want to be a member?” She tries not to look stunned.

“Yes,” I lie.

“Well, not surprisingly, we’re at full capacity. And there’s about an eighty-person waiting list.” Her tone is firm. Her message clear: Go away. You aren’t welcome here.

I try to remain undismayed. “Well, at this point, I’m really just looking for information. What does being a member in the club entail?”

She reaches for a sheet of information-packed official stationary, hands it to me, and highlights the most exclusive privileges. “Well, there’s a private ski lodge, complete with Lunatic, a fine-dining restaurant that is open to the public on a limited basis” (how did they let that happen? I wonder). “And there are private lockers and changing rooms with showers, private underground parking and valet parking, and a ski valet during the winter season. As well as the usual concierge service, to assist with tee times, ski school, dinner reservations and babysitters.”

The middle-aged woman with the two kids looks like she could use some assistance from the concierge. “Wow. That’s a lot,” I manage.

She manages to continue smiling at me. Eager, I’m sure, to get back to something or somebody else. I think about tipping her when I leave, just to mess with her, then reconsider.

“There is, of course, a one-time fee of $20,000, plus the annual membership fee,” she states matter-of-factly. “If you’d like to leave a check for the $5,000 deposit, and fill out this form, I can put you on the waiting list.”

It takes all of my self-control not to drop to the floor, laughing at the ridiculousness of this request. “Oh. I don’t have my checkbook with me,” I manage.

She doesn’t look the least bit surprised. “I see. Well, I can give you this Waiting List Request Form, and you can mail it in later with your check,” she continues, obviously well trained.

“Yes. That would be fine.” I try to sound self-important. Which is more difficult than I would have thought. “Thank you for your time.” Enough is enough. Time to exit this strange unreality.

She nods. Smiling. Always smiling. “Have a nice day.”

I manage to return the fake smile, look around in dismay one more time, and head out through the imposing doors, half expecting security to be waiting on the other side. (They wouldn’t want to disturb the patrons of the Spectacular Mountain Country Club.)

“Would you please come with us, sir,” they would command, in the kind of tone the V.I.L.P. being assisted at the front desk wished he could employ.

“Is there a problem, officers?” I would respond, noticing that my car was being towed.

“Not if you come with us, sir,” they would politely threaten.

I would be afraid.

They would bring me to a secret room with no windows, located somewhere deep under the frosted ground, far beneath the heated sidewalks of the ski village. They would charge me with being a nuisance in a rich person’s playground.

But I do manage to avoid security. This time.

Pete Redington lives in western Massachusetts, where he is a regular contributor to the Valley Advocate. Visit him at

An Evening Walk At Snowbowl

San Francisco Mountains

We had just spotted the tree — an ancient gnarled limber pine triumphantly reaching for the heavens through golden evening light — when a voice from behind disturbed our wonder. “Hey, stop!” A young man in blue jeans and grey fleece jacket staggered up the dirt road, gasping. Thinking he was in need of first-aid, I switched into medic mode. Having patrolled these very ski slopes in years past, I felt naked without a radio to call in the 10-50 — radio code for an accident needing attention. Just then I noticed that the youth had his own radio, and he appeared not in physical distress, but rather in a fit of frustrated anger. “You can’t be here,” he sputtered. “This is a closed area. I need your names and information.” His skin was flushed pink. Pure unbridled agitation radiated in palpable waves from his excited voice. He was in a tizzy.

My wife and I attempted to soothe his distress by explaining that, in any case, we were headed away from his apparent closure, en route to potential record limber pines, which we intended to measure for a national database. For a moment, it seemed this information helped alleviate his crisis, but as we struck off to continue our evening walk, his alarm switch flipped. “No!” he barked in a cry of panic and utter desperation, “you’re coming with me!” I honestly thought the boy was going to burst if we didn’t in some way help. So we walked with earnest Ian Smith, his nametag proudly pinned to his Snowbowl-issue security jacket, and we talked him down.

Yet, we were unwilling to offer every detail of personal information he requested, including social security numbers. You could see his blood pressure rise. He called his boss, Terry. “I’ve got a couple trespassers resisting escort,” he chimed to the great OZ, hidden away somewhere on the far end of that little black cell phone. The situation was quickly devolving into the absurd, so I asked for a word with boss-man Terry before my wife, arthritic ankle and all, and I were swept into a hovering spacecraft never to be seen again. Such a scenario seemed probable given the surreal events that were unfolding. After introducing myself over the phone, I leaned toward the receiver expecting a measured, consolatory tone. What spewed forth on the other end were thinly veiled threats straight out of the good-cop interrogation handbook. “You give him all your information to complete the card or we call the sheriff and they’ll charge you with class-III felony trespass. It’s really out of our hands.” “Of course it is, Terry,” I said, “you’re just a pawn.” I couldn’t resist the quip. I don’t think he got it.

So, we finished our altered evening stroll accompanied by a gradually calming Ian, our enthusiastic escort, gaining a glimpse into the convoluted circumstances that landed him here on security detail at the Snowbowl. We learned of his brief internship at a Tucson brokerage, cut short by slow economic times, and his forced transition to snowboard instructor in the White Mountains, where, he explained, he was swindled into sixteen days of free work during his first season, fourteen days his second. Curiously, Ian did not recognize the injustice of that indentured servitude, trained as he was in economics to willfully plug-in as a cog of the profit machine. “It’s the way you have to run a business,” he opined. Now, with an unplanned child of his own to care for, he was grateful to work the front lines for Arizona Snowbowl limited partnership LLC. “They found out that I was an Eagle Scout and I’d work my tail off, so here I am.” Like a foot soldier conducting house raids in Baghdad, his genuine naivety was both charming and unsettling.

As we approached an assemblage of metal buildings at the fringe of forest (“The Shop,” it’s called at Snowbowl), a circle of a dozen laughing men dressed in grease-stained work clothes traded stories at the end of a long day. I half expected to recognize a familiar face in the crowd. I didn’t, but no matter; open, friendly faces greeted us as Ian herded us out of the woods. They immediately appreciated our predicament, silly as it was, and offered us both a beer. The voice of J.R., area manager, crackled over the radio just then with frightening timing, “Ian, there’s a fire truck coming up the road, do you know about that?” The distraction allowed us a moment to crack a PBR with newfound friends while Ian juggled priorities.

I thought we might be free of our detention, but Ian quickly put out the emerging fire truck peril and got back on task, hiking with us to our car, where he could learn more, scribe additional information on his folded white form, get us in the data base. As we approached our battered decades-old Honda Civic, we confided, “I guess that rope right there is where we crossed the boundary.” Indeed, it was the ski area’s lease boundary, delineating that portion of public land that they have been granted to act as stewards. In years past, I had strung more of that rope than I cared to remember, which is likely why I gave little thought to stepping over it as my wife and I picked through logs and ferns, buzzing with anticipation to reach the record trees.

We paused on our way down the mountain, a safe distance from our little ski hill’s security zone, of course, and sat on a log to ponder what had just transpired. Is this what life has come to in Flagstaff, a place we glowingly refer to as a “mountain town,” whose one real mountain is now cordoned into a security zone? I remember a time, not too long ago, when I cherished Snowbowl — a place I learned to ski on a Hart Prairie handle tow, ditched school to spend my meager teenage wages, happily, on a lift ticket to ride the Poma to the top of today’s Blackjack Run over and over, a place where I skied for class credit in college, and later traversed every nook of the area in a red jacket, occasionally sledding patrons down the mountain with twisted knees, dislocated shoulders, broken femurs. I took visiting friends up the mountain with pride, eagerly showing off my, our, wonderfully quaint diamond-in-the-rough ski area. That time has passed.

We decided, sitting on that log, that time marches on to the pendulum swing of events and attitudes, and that presently the pendulum has swung in a disconcerting arc. But comeuppance is being meted nonetheless. For what is the cost to Ian, to Terry, J.R., Mr. Borowski, of the daily edginess they must now feel, of the hostility they have brought, continue to bring, to themselves in their quest of the holy dollar, or millions of dollars. It must be a hollow existence indeed. Too bad we can’t go back to the good ol’ days, they might think. But I guess for, some, the good ol’ days just weren’t good enough.

We don’t now a damned thing about Tyler Williams, except that this is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.