Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Winter Recovery


              Itching to get away from our overcrowded - corporate ski resorts and regional effects of global climate chaos I packed up the car and headed north, adapting. I motored at a safe and prudent 84.5 mph in my modern Turbo VW wagon listening to satellite radio and talking on the remote, mind and hands-free phone, as the other cars and my baggage peeled away.  Nothing like a road trip to focus thoughts and dreams while resetting priorities and passions.  It is an indulgent 400 miles to Montana but only 5 hours.  The smoky Utah valleys cleared and my mind reawakened somewhere above the Idaho border.  It is so nice to come to Utah but so liberating to leave it.


              The sun flattened on the horizon to the south west while the Tetons played peek-a-boo over the local sepia-colored farmland hills to the north-east.  A closer view revealed countless small, shithole farms mired in the poverty of subsistence living and immune to the concepts of aesthetic, architecture, design, or maintenance.  The huge corporate-clean farms in the distance faded away eventually with their subsidized silos and seasonally stalled, center-pivot sprinklers bleeding the aquifers to the bone, until all that there was left to see were the dilapidated snow fences and a few miserably cold, lost cows.  Are they immune to cold and climate or just too numb and dumb to mind?  Are we?

              Finally, over the divide into Montana, the land and the farmers seemed cleaner, more organized and proud.  The men in the Co-Op feed store wore real cowboy hats and boots, not hay-seed hats with sneakers, with button-down shirts under their Carhartt that didn’t have shit all over them.  They took off their gloves when they shook hands and looked each other in the eye when they talked.  The houses I passed were neat and clean with one unflattering neon light on in the kitchen and comfortable smoke curling out of the chimney.  Montana is like a big clean, conservative, empty Massachusetts with huge mountain ranges floating everywhere you look and big water flowing in all the icy rivers.


              After filling the gas tank in a drippy muddy college-town that was feeling, but still denying, the warming winters, I headed off into the hinterland, the mountains and the wilderness.  In the fading light I shifted into four-wheel drive and turned north towards a small un-plowed canyon, past a small ski resort and up to a rustic hot spring resort where I found a small cabin with a wood stove and an old friend having a beer and an appetizer of cheese and crackers, shrimp and guacamole.  I expertly parallel parked my car backwards up a steep side hill.  When I got out and slammed the door proudly, the car began a driver-less slide down the hill and crashed innocuously into my friend’s truck.  I had arrived. 

              My old buddy and I told old stories and partied away the night.  We took a nice soak in the adjacent hot spring with a crowd of millennial Montana locals replete with modern mullets, omniscient goatees, beer-belly bikinis and tramp-stamp tattoos, who were, under their own admission, ‘hooking up for the evening’ - whatever that means.  I felt very welcomed and at home in that place with those people except my friend’s dog kept biting me suspiciously and instinctively in the hands and face.  It kind of freaked me out, just a little bit.  Bite me once, shame on you, bite me twice, shame on me.

              After a fitful night with several trips to the frozen, snow-blown out-house, where I wondered odiferously if it was the shrimp, the healing hot spring waters or the dog bites, we woke to warm Montana clouds and snow flurries.  After a hearty biscuit and gravy breakfast at the rustic log lodge, we headed down the road to go skiing at the local resort.  Showing up at ten on a Saturday was not a problem as we squeezed into the front row of the dinky parking lot and let the dog out of the truck to go bite other people.  Lift tickets were a miraculous $36, $28 if you had a season pass to another resort, so we felt lucky as we headed to the one small slow lift that served this cone of a mountain. 

              After a refreshingly long, slow ride to the top that allowed a snack, a smoke, a nap and a complete conversation[1], we disembarked to good views and better snow.  It had been a day or two since the last storm but there was still good powder everywhere.  We took a warm-up run down something we called ‘Death Cookies’ before heading to the trees, both north and south facing, that held plenty of ‘snippet’s’ of pow in varying degrees of ‘bakeage’ – from Crème Brule to powdered sugar.  None-the-less it was refreshing to ski at a place where there was more powder than people and more terrain than time.  There was no snow-making, minimal grooming and the only high-speed quads on the mountain were on our legs.

              We repeated these languid but luxurious laps all morning before stopping for lunch at the small, cozy lodge.  Unfortunately, it was packed with 20-30 kids from ski classes eating corn dogs and fries, running around randomly and using their outside voices inside the hot and humid, cramped cafeteria.  After immediately fogging up we decided this wouldn’t do and so we went out to let the dog out of the truck and eat lunch in the parking lot.  This seems to be a Montana past time since there were several pic-nickers eating on tailgates, letting their feral mutts run around to fight and bite, poop and pee.

              After lunch we returned to the slopes, exploring new angles and aspects, all good, all empty.  We adopted a European tempo we call Stop-en-Snacken where we would ski a few laps and stop at the pub for some Jalapeño Poppers or Greek Gyros, beers or bourbons, then go out for a few more laps.  We eventually closed the slopes and kitchen down and watched football on TV until the band finally showed up after five and began playing bluegrass jazz while the après-ski crowd slowly drifted home in the orange alpenglow of the northern evening.  It seemed odd to me that the kitchen closed when the people showed up and the band began to play while the people left.  When I tried to leave a healthy trickle-down tip the waitress chased me down outside and said it was too much.  It was a Montana business model I could not understand but I was going with it, at least for the weekend.  Simple ain’t easy.

              We went back to the cabin for a fire, a nap under down sleeping bags, hors-d’oeuvre’s, a warm soak, dinner with the band at the lodge and a great night’s sleep until the very next morning when the day broke early, sunny and clear.  We had another soak in empty pools and breakfast at the lodge before we said our good byes, each of us heading our separate ways to the backcountry or another ski resort. 


              I drove further west and north through cold valleys and one-horse towns, to the Continental Divide, where the gas station attendant said it was 'way below zero'.  I found a slightly larger, more sophisticated ski resort, magically enveloped in the fog-cloud that was streaming over the Divide like a wave of water over sand castles at the beach.  Here was more snow and more terrain but about the same amount of people and powder.  With the direction of an overly helpful, volunteer patrolman[2], I explored the Sacajawea trees and the Lewis and Clark chutes.  Everything was named after the Corps of Discovery here since this was where, in 1805 they hired an incompetent Indian guide named Toby and wallowed around in these woods for months before finding the Snake river and their ride to the sea.  I guess it was tougher seeing the forest through the trees back then, but with my trail map and chamber-of-commerce guide book, it seemed obvious to me the best way home. 

              I headed south after a full day of skiing and a few beers, to a nice hotel in a small town on the Salmon River.  I slept with the window open so I could hear the burbling rapids and the wind in the trees.  There was a brew pub and coffee shop to satisfy my every need and in the morning, I started for Utah.  The long cold mountain valley spread out in front of me with snow-capped peaks on either side and a lazy creek meandering down the middle.  The sparse dry subsistence farms gave way to the larger industrial-agriculture compounds replete with Quonset huts and large American Flags.  Other cars eventually appeared on the highway and I was soon jockeying aggressively for position on busy freeways with trucks and Travel-all’s, Tesla’s and Winnebago’s.  The snows melted away and the blue sky was replaced by a haze, imperceptible at first but then all encompassing.  Civilization.

              In a few short days up north, I had renewed my faith in winter and my love for skiing and the skiing lifestyle.  I had returned to my roots and discovered who I really was and what I really enjoyed about the sport and the season.  I wasn’t tired of winter or skiing, but of what it had become.  I found good, affordable, uncrowded, low key family skiing.  This new experience wasn’t a combat-corporate-industrial experience where I was treated like a widget to be manipulated and minimized or fulfill someone’s duty to the stockholders and bottom line. 

              I found good simple people, complacent with their modest, sustainable northern lifestyle, needs and ambitions.  I found a resilient régime that was simple and social, based on a brotherhood of people devoted to an extreme season and an athletic, outdoor aesthetic that doubted but still adapted slowly to the modern realities of the outside world and climate.  I found a winter environment that was cold and clear, brisk and bracing, snowy and satisfying.    The way winter used to be, the way it should always be. 



[1] Later, with a local Carhartt clad teen, conversation was like pulling teeth, but he finally loosened up and told me about rodeo.
[2] Almost all the Ski Patrol is volunteer, weekend warriors.