[Ed. note: This was written 15 or 20 years ago. The first page of my only (hand-written) copy is labeled "2", and the others are numbered consecutively after that. I can't really remember what page "1" is supposed to say, although I'm sure it is the best single page I've ever written in my life. Extrapolating back from what remains, it probably describes a "perfect ski run". I can imagine, given how page 2 begins, that it snowed 2-3 feet in Little Cottonwood Canyon between 3 PM and midnight, then the clouds parted, the temperature dropped to 0F, all the moisture was sucked out of the snow by the 9 AM first tram run, which I took to the top of Snowbird. From there, I stomped into my Haute Routes, strapped the cords around my calves, and skated towards "Teardrop", an hourglass chute beneath the upper portion of the Tram. Or possibly whisked on over to "Great Scott", or somewhere farther on in Peruvian Cirque. Then down Anderson Hill, and into the mogul fields of Silver Fox. The snow is bottomless, I have trouble breathing from endless face shots (I see some fellow powder hounds putting snorkels to good use), and I'm feeling at the top of my game. (For a memorable description of how an author feels when he loses something he knows was really good, see the preface to "Lake Wobegon Days", by Garrison Keillor. That's how I feel about this missing first page.)
However, the start of page "2" (which does begin at the beginning of a sentence, though not at a paragraph) seems to be a reasonable image for the beginning of a piece originally called "How to Ski".]
...The cushioning of all that snow over the usually knee-jarring mogul field had a deliriously clearing effect on my brain. I suddenly saw that skiing in these bumps was simply a matter of moving my knees from my chest down to my ankles and back again as quickly and painlessly as possible. Spurred on by this thought, I shot across the bridge over Little Cottonwood Creek, bounded out of my skis, and raced into the tram building. Flashing my pass at the turnstile, I scampered into the waiting blue car, hogging a choice spot by the door, making the third tram easily.
Knee deep powder, first tram at Snowbird, and a clear, cold sky - this was my skier's dream, and I was living it! I am not a professional skier; I don't work at a ski shop or wait at tables at night. Yet day after day, all winter from January 1st to April 30th, I showed up every morning to catch the tram. I figured a job would just get in the way of my skiing; the only true ski bum is unemployed.
Ten years earlier, in Aspen, I'd tried the dishwasher route. At Guido's Swiss Inn, no less! Guido Meyer, a millionaire European patriarch, was known to bodily boot out any male patron whose hair was not Swiss Army regulation length. He was the owner of the last neon sign in downtown Aspen. I heard the ad on KSNO for a dishwasher; it included the phrase "longhairs need not apply". Since I'd been on the swimming team at college just before I left in December, my hair was still reasonably short. As I approached the restaurant, I saw the famous sign, "Hippies Will Be Shot" (this was in 1970). But I only had $180 and a beat-up Dodge, and if I wanted to ski, I needed money, and money meant work. As a 20 year old college drop-out (majoring in Religion), I had few marketable skills. Luckily, dish washing was one of them.
Guido was a tall, overbearing man with heavy, greying eyebrows, and an accent so thick, I could barely understand the terms of employment. One dollar an hour, plus lunch and dinner, and a free place to sleep; four lunch hour shifts (11:30-2:00), and six dinners (5-10) per week.
Despite the lack of skiing time, I was satisfied with that winter. The only other skiing I'd done was the previous winter over Christmas and Spring breaks, in Aspen, with my family. Only ten or fifteen days altogether. But like so many others (my sister, for one, who that winter was setting up what is still a permanent encampment in Ketchum, Idaho), skiing hooked me very quickly. Between peeling potatoes and zucchini, gutting shrimp and slicing carrots, I managed to sneak enough time on my metal boards to make it down Ruthie's without embarrassing myself too much. But I was still doing my skiing on the beginner and intermediate slopes. The Ridge of Bell , the apex of Aspen Mountain, might as well have been on the moons of Jupiter, for all I might be able to schuss down its rock and bump scarred face. At that time, I was not ready to give another winter over to the snow.
That time would come, I felt. But over the next nine years, it had to wait; I could only dream. In the meantime, I was engaged in a very long and frustrating rite of passage. Most people eventually reach a stage where they can at least present a reasonable facsimile of being an adult to the would. Being responsible, answering the phone when it rings, opening a checking account, buying on credit - all that is important. But behind it all lies that horrid phrase, guaranteed to strike catatonia into the darkened corner of us all where the eternal child hides: "Get a job!" For some people, it's as easy as signing on at the nearest housing development, nailing two-by-fours together. Others have wistfully romantic dreams of living forever in ethereal thought, and endlessly grind their minds away in graduate seminars on English Literature. Still others seem hung up on "making a difference" in the world. With all of these motivations, and others still, I entered medical school, hoping to become a psychiatrist. Having spent three successive summers leading a band of kids on a swimming team to three straight undefeated seasons, I figured I should be a child shrink.
I quickly discovered I couldn't stand sitting around on my rear end eight hours a day listening to people tell me how rotten the world is, or listening to other psychiatrists trying to build an ephemeral, pseudo-scientific infrastructure for their therapeutic adventures. So I turned to something a little happier, with a little more action, a little more structure. I would deliver babies. Now, don't believe it when people say the only things certain are death and taxes. We all know about billionaires who pay Uncle Sam nothing. And as a doctor, I know that people are being pulled every day, not just from the jaws of death, but from its very bowels, regurgitated back into this life in a semi-digested state, but "living" nonetheless. No, the only thing really certain, is, all God's children got to be born. So I figured I'd never lack for work if I took up that profession. Besides, have you ever seen the smile on a mother's face as she plays with with her minutes old baby? A thousand smiles like that have gone by me, and I still get tears sometimes when I see it. There's nothing like recurrent birth to keep a fresh feeling in one's life.
But learning that took time; four years in medical school, and another four in training at a hospital. Oh, they let us out now and then, blinking and coughing in the LA sun. And every free day (what few there were), I'd run away, to find some ice or snow, to ski. I remember a day in January, my first year there: 95F outside, just finished with a six-hour exam covering three weeks of intensive lecturing on Cardiology. I raced home, and began to work on my roommate, who'd never ever been skiing, who thought snow was something you packed around your antenna to show the neighbors you'd been to the mountains (a great LA tradition).
"Look, it's only 900 miles; we can be there in 13-14 hours"
"Where is this place?"
Sun Valley ... I thought that was out by Tujunga!"
"No, no, no!. It's up in Idaho. World famous ski area - remember Sonje Henie?"
"I thought she was an ice skater."
"Whatever. My sister lives there. We can drive all night and be up there ready to hit Baldy by the time the lifts open!" Come on; it'll take your mind off all this study crap."
This was 1971, when Nevada had no speed limit, and gas was 25 cents a gallon. Put those two facts into my 483 cubic inch '66 Dodge Charger with a fold down rear seat, and LA to Ketchum really was an overnight trip.
"But I don't know how to ski!" Dave whined.
"Relax," I said. "They've got 200 of the finest instructors in the world there" I neglected to tell him, of course, that unless he was fluent in Austrian, all of their ministrations would be worthless. I also didn't tell him about the great dearth of all night gas stations between Las Vegas and Ely. No matter; I needed someone to spell me at the wheel for this five day, 2000 mile road trip.
We took off at three in the afternoon - just early enough to get past San Bernardino before the afternoon LA rush home began. Cruising past Barstow, we hit the headlights and started searching the AM radio for something other than static. We didn't find anything, but that didn't matter; we were free, with no human body to dissect and nothing to memorize for five whole days. Rolling into Vegas at eight pm, Dave tried to talk me into playing the tables. I said no, not because I had no money to lose (which was true), but because we had no time to waste. I did compromise by agreeing to sit in at a cheap buffet - an inch think slab of roast beef with all the extras - a bargain at $2.95.
Turning off the Interstate a half-hour out of town, we headed north on US 93. I'd never been through this section of Nevada before. I had assumed it would be like all the other roads throughout the West, where you usually see a town, a ranch, a mobile home, something at least every 30-40 miles. But here - 120 miles from Vegas to Alamo through complete desolation. Even the sage brush looked lonely, individually highlighted in the endless high beam from my Dodge. Dave had spent his whole life in Long Island and Los Angeles, and he was totally wired by the emptiness.
We had gassed up in Baker, but the neon nightmare of the Vagas striped numbed us into forgetting to check the fuel gauge as we drove through North Las Vegas past Jerry's Silver Nugget. On into the night we sped, slurping the Persian Gulf prime at 15 miles per. As we turned off I-15 onto old 93, Dave stirred enough out of his reverie (induced by a combination of the blank panorama and Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia" sputtering in from KTWO in Casper, Wyoming) to rustle the Rand McNally from under his seat.
Flicking on the under dash light, he mumbled, "Does Nevada come before or after New Jersey? Hmm, I though Nebraska was a town, not a state!" I was all set to berate his bicoastal provincialism, accuse him of confusing Idaho with Iowa, when he sat bolt upright and said, quite loudly for the compact space we sat in, "Jesus!"
At his outburst, my elbows locked the steering wheel; I started to see lights flashing, and dropped our speed a bit to just under 80 mph.
"Sorry. Did I wake you?" he said. "Look - there aren't any towns on this map until Alamo!"
"Well, that's about 80 miles from here. How much gas we got left?"
The tank was a quarter full.
In our sleepless state, it took us forty miles to argue out the merits of slowing down to 60 to conserve fuel, versus trying to hit Alamo before midnight, when, theoretically, a gas station might close. Finally, we decided that with two more towns, Caliente and Pioche, 10 and 20 miles beyond, we should slow down, enjoy the country side, and hope the road went downhill.
Alamo proved a bust. The one station there closed at eight pm.
"How much gas now?!"
"We just hit the bottom line - maybe a gallon or two left."
"Think there's a station in Caliente?"
"Well, we either park here all night until this one opens, or see what's up ahead, right?"
"Sounds good to me!"
Caliente sits at the bottom of an arroyo, a one-horse town bracketed by railroad crossings. In the middle was a blazing Chevron sign, giving enough light for the whole town.
"Looks like it's open!"
"Ah, you saw Vegas. These bastards here burn lights just to keep the juice flowing out of Lake Mead. It's their patriotic duty to keep the Colorado River rolling."
But, praise the Lord and pass the petrol, the place was busy pumping gas - the only place open between Vegas and Ely, 120 miles to the north.
The excitement of our gas scare had fully revived Dave, and he offered to drive. "Which way?" he said.
"Just follow 93 until we get to Baldy - it'll be on your left when we reach the Yacht Club."
But I was already gone, the Beatles crooning me to sleep with "Let it Be".
"Hey - Hey! Wake up; ya gotta see this!"
"Wha - what? Are we there yet? Geez, it's still dark. What is it, anyway?" I said, seeing nothing but mountains - valley - mountains all around me. Not even a rock to break the central Nevada monotony.
"Look!" Dave said, his eyes wide with a manic glee induced by seeing nothing but straight-line pitch dark blacktop for 2 1/2 hours. "A turn - we're gonna turn!"
"So?! It's the first one in forty miles. This place is amazing - there's nothing here. No houses, no cars, no rivers, just a couple of rabbits jumping across the road now and then."
I looked at the speedometer. It was somewhere above 100. I went back to sleep, mumbling, "Wake me when we get to Jackpot."
Naturally, Dave couldn't wait until then. He had been sneaking peeks at the map, and had discovered that the next landmark would be a spot called Contact, thirty miles before the border burg of Jackpot.
I awoke to silence - no tires, no engine no muffler. Just the creaking of a metal sign dangling from a chain outside my window.
Dave was not in the car. Wearily, I turned my head to see him tapping on my window. His eyes were blazing brighter than the late night moon slung low over the desert hills. He was pointing at the sign, smiling gleefully, raving some gibberish about "so small, it's on both sides!" and cackling his asthmatic laugh like some allergic refugee from a Marx Brothers marathon film festival. I decided the time had come for me to take command; he'd obviously cracked, and couldn't even be trusted with so simple a function as piloting a motor car down a deserted unbending road. Now he was probably going to tell me he'd stopped because this was the first sign he'd seen in 2 hours. Just before I flipped the door handle to "open", I realized that the white stuff coming from his mouth was frosted breath - that maniac was out there freezing in his short-sleeve California special Dacron/polyester college frat boy shirt. Arming myself with ski cap, gloves, and down parka, I stepped outside and was shaken fully awake by the sudden complete reality of the cold, dry air. I was at that time half-way through my first Southern California winter; never have I been so shocked by a blast of cold air; how quickly we forget, I mused. Still, there was Dave to consider and, hopefully, corral back into the shotgun seat. I briefly contemplated direct physical force, but quickly realized that, encumbered as I was by my cold weather accoutrements, he easily had the upper hand in that department.
So I tried humoring him.
"Whatsamatter this time, huh?"
"Look, this sign: this place is so small, they've really got the name on both sides of the sign!"
It was true. And you can verify it for yourself, should you ever drive through the town of Contact, Nevada, 30 miles south of Jackpot, on US 93.
Despite all obstacles, we eventually did arrive at my sister's in Ketchum by 9:30 in the morning. She lived in a little gingerbread house half-way out Warm Springs road, just above the golf course. We started to bring our stuff in, stacking it all in the corner of her kitchen. In the middle of our third trip, Leigh walked in, looked at our pile of clothes, skis, and books, and started laughing. We looked quizzically at each other, then at the pile.
"What;s so funny?!" I demanded.
"What are you planning to do with all these books?" she laughed.
If you ever saw pre-meds grind in college, you can triple the intensity they have for studying, and you've got the average medical student. We had decided we might get a few a few hours of study time in while we were there, so we'd brought along several textbooks, as unconsciously as some people bring tooth paste. But medical texts are each about two or three inches thick, so the pile was about three feet high and weighed fifty pounds - just the bare essentials, really, we'd thought. Wouldn't go anywhere without 'em, just like a spare pair of underwear.
"What books?" I said, innocently.
"Hmm, I see we've got to loosen up your attitude a little bit. King! Come in here a minute," Leigh said.
Her boyfriend, King, came in from the living room and surveyed us. He had lived all his life in Ketchum and sported that odd combination of rural airs and clothing, with jet-set sophistication common to residents of mountain resorts.
"What's up, Leigh?" he asked.
After introductions, she explained the situation, meaning the books.
"Well, they came here to ski; maybe we'd better go skiing!"
After depositing Dave in the beginner's class at Dollar Mountain, we swung over to the River Run parking lot. Three chairs later, we were on top. Leigh quickly began accumulating her acquaintances; she seemed to know everybody there. Two or three came with us down the impeccably groomed ridge of College, over to Flying Squirrel and down to the Warm Springs lift. I found myself riding up with Jim, who worked for the cable TV company where my sister was secretary. He dug ditches for the cables. It being winter and all (with the ground frozen), there wasn't much call for his services, so he spent most of his time skiing.
"So, you're sort of like a grave digger in paradise this time of year, huh?" I ventured.
Jim was skiing in overalls and a pea coat; his long blond pony-tailed hair hung out from his heavy watch cap. His eyes were perpetually smiling behind glasses almost as thick as mine. His glowing face broke into an even bigger smile as he laughed heartily. "Yeah, that's right I guess. All we do now is go around and unhook the boxes from the sets of people who won't pay their bills. Hey, you got any matches?"
Apparently Jim smiled all the time because he was stoned all the time. Who wouldn't be with the world wired like he had it? As I'd never tried skiing stoned before (and don't smoke cigarettes), he had to show me all the tricks of lighting up and staying lit on a chair lift. I quickly discovered the first problem was lighting the match; and the second was keeping it lit. Working behind four cupped hands, I tried igniting the joint from the match's initial flare-up. All I got was a nose full of sulfur. Next I tired working inside my parka; I quickly saw the dangers of self-immolation with that technique. I was getting desperate; Jim was still smiling benevolently. Then he drawled, "Hey, wait a minute; I've got a lighter in here somewhere." He fumbled in his overall pockets awhile, and drew out a Cricket.
Luckily, Warm Springs is a long lift, and by the time we hit the off ramp, I was totally loaded. I wasn't sure my legs were still operational. I had some Raichle Red Boots, which weighed about ten pounds apiece, some off brand metal skis, and Look bindings. In that get-up, I felt like a life-size Bozo balloon doll; knock me down, my feet stay planted, and I pop right back up. Of course, that's not what happens when your balance is disrupted while skiing - usually your posterior hits the snow, and hands and feet reach for the sky. But its a good attitude to have while skiing, to think your feet will always stay below you, especially if you've been up all night, and have reached that state of muddled euphoria where your brain is having a tough time distinguishing between aural and visual sensory input.
Forgetting my sister and her friends, we took off down the slope. Upper Warm Springs starts with a gentle track down to tree-line, then reaches a short, steep face (usually well-moguled) and opens in a long steady evenly pitched trail 2000 vertical feet to the bottom of Warm Springs and Plaza lifts. When packed smooth, as it was this day, it is a cruiser's paradise. The morning had been overcast, but the sun had been out for an hour or so, softening up the dry hard surface of the snow until it felt like the wet slick smoothness of a newly Zamboni'ed ice rink. I was still in the skid and slid stage of ski ability, and Jim was no better, but the sun, the snow, and the vaporous refreshment seemed to allow me total enjoyment of what I was doing. For the first time I experienced a feeling of disconnection between my observing, calculating self, and the part of me that was actually skiing. The first two or three turns were tentative, but after I realised I could actually ski in this seemingly debilitated condition, I began to enjoy myself totally. Meanwhile, my thighs and lungs were getting a workout. Desperately, they tried to send messages upstairs, but the circuits were blocked. I mean, I was lost in the scene somewhere, and I wasn't going to let little things like shaking rubber in my legs, or fiery dyspnea in my chest stop my fun. Reaching the bottom, I skidded to s stop, landing on my butt. Jim was already in a similar position, leaning back against the post of a "slow skiing Area" sign, letting the sun shine flush against him as he watched the skiers slide by.
"Whatcha doin'?" I asked.
"Look at these people!" he shouted, although I was only two feet away.
I looked. There was some kind of rhythm going on up there; everyone swinging back and forth, taking one turn to the right for each turn to the left. Skiers of all abilities, each coming down the hill in his or here own unique fashion, yet the whole scene had a consistent pattern. I was as if the whole hill were wired into one organic unit, with each skier running on his or her own little track, like a subway or an electric street car. Of course, every now and then, someone would jump the track, but, hey, they always got back up, maintaining the flow. As each person floated by me, the visual image seemed to precede the muted scrape of skis against the snow, much like a fast jet passing overhead. I focused on the sound of the hill, again a rhythmic swishing, accentuated by a dopplered ebb and flow as someone passed by. The noontime sun blazed directly into my face, burning the scene into an abstraction of reality.
"Yeah," I said.
That evening, after I'd slept a few hours, my sister took us out bar-hopping in downtown Ketchum. Start with a few beers at the Pioneer, cross the street and check out the Alpine, drop in next door for a serious Wild Turkey session at the Yacht Club, then outside for a bracing breath of frozen air, going all the way across the street to Slavey's. In Ketchum, bar-hopping is just that - you can get drunk four times over and never walk more than 100 yards.
On the way to Slavey's, Dave looked over his shoulder toward the summit of Baldy, where the snow-cats and Thiokols were criss-crossing the slopes, their headlights careening wildly off the trees and across the moguls. An eerie sight, especially for one who's been up all night, skied all day, then had six rounds of Wild Turkey.
"What's that up there? Dave said.
"What?" my sister replied, looking somewhere in the direction of Hailey, down Main Street. At least she was looking out for cars as we stood there stupidly in the middle of the road, leaning on the snow pushed into piles along the center line.
"Up there, those lights!"
One of Leigh's friends, farther gone than the rest of us, raced to the curb, lay down in the gutter, and tried to hide under his ten-gallon Stetson. "My God, it's true! They're landing - they're landing!"
Someone said, "They've already landed, and they're disguised as snow-cats!"
"Come one, what's going on up there?" Dave pleaded.
"Well, I said, the Chinese need lights, you know."
My sister eyed me askance. She was used to my cockeyed, but perfectly logical stories to explain almost anything.
"What?!" he said, eyes flaming as red as his hair.
"Sure, the Chinese. One hundred thousand of 'em. They go up there every night to polish the moguls."
"Polish the moguls?"
"Yeah. See, Sun Valley is famous for its bumps. They like to keep them shined, so they look sharp in the sun. Polish 'em every night when it's not snowing. The Chinese work cheap - they're descendants of the guys who put the railroad up here.
"Do they really do that?" Dave asked Leigh. He'd only known me for four months, so he hadn't quite figured me out yet.
"Well ..." she started.
"They work mostly on Limelight," I continued. "They get the undersides really smooth. It makes for easier skiing."
"OK, you're so smart," my sister smirked at me, "We'll go up there and ski Limelight under the lift tomorrow. Then you'll really see Chinese moguls."
Imagine if you will an Idaho January thaw, with the Chinook winds coming in and warming up the slopes, maybe even bringing in some rain to really make the bumps nice and wet. Then the freeze came, and the bumps turn into Chinese moguls, burnished hard and smooth on the underside, with frozen grapefruit-sized clumps of snow covering covering their uphill portion. You've skied them before, cursed them as you slid around them or rammed your skis into the irregular, unyielding upper surface. Well, now you know how they got that way. One hundred thousand Chinamen, out there at midnight, polishing up the bumps, just for your enjoyment.
My attempt at skiing them the next morning was, of course, a total physical and mental disaster. I had no idea how to maneuver my stiff 200 cm skis in the impossibly small chutes between the massive bumps, which looked like a bunch of white asteroids scattered randomly down the slope. My Raichle Red boots, like all boots of that era (known as the Year of the Jet Stick - remember?), were not high backed, and were incredibly unyielding in all directions of flex. It felt to me as if the mountain were trying to create a new set of ankles for me about five inches above the original ones. When I got home that night, I had a perfect ring of bruises, a purple donut (or maybe a bagel) around each leg where the boot tops had been torturing me.
I became convinced I knew nothing about skiing and couldn't possibly learn, especially with the big boys all around me actually skiing straight down the face of Limelight, suffering no trauma other than what appeared to be repetitive shoulder dislocation as they planted their poles in the ice atop each bump with every turn.
Seeking to placate my feelings, my sister took me to the only place on the mountain without any bumps - the Bowls. Great: six day old powder with a two inch thick breakable crust on top. Perfect for my ego. I told myself I really must learn how to ski some day.
Despite such steadfast resolve to single-mindedly apply myself to mastering the seemingly simple intricacies of skiing, my hang-up with being a doctor kept getting in the way. No matter how hard I tried, I could not bring myself to become a medical school dropout. It is very difficult to fail in medical school. For one thing, there was the persistent loam of guilt, knowing that there were at least three other equally competent people who didn't get accepted while I (somehow) did. And then, at least $40,000 [1971 dollars] a year was being spent in educating me. Most of the money went to the Xerox company, paying for the endless twenty-page "handout/outlines" which seemed to accompany each lecture. So the medical school has a great moral and financial investment in each student, and will do everything possible to maintain and justify that expense. Thus, merely not attending class for a few weeks, or failing several exams won't suffice. One must practically be a convicted felon, or die of leukemia (both dodges were successfully employed by classmates of mine) before the school will consider giving up on a student.
As an undergraduate, I had come across the concept of the "happy bottom quarter". Prestigious New England colleges and universities, knowing that all of their students of necessity must be academic over-achievers to gain admission, nonetheless consciously choose approximately 25% of each class who will feel comfortable at the bottom of a group of people of admittedly homogeneous intelligence. I attended such a school, but never worried too much about those in the bottom 25%; I was too busy making sure I stayed in the top 10% (that's the only way to get into medical school, bub!). Then I got out to California for medical school (determined to be a psychiatrist, remember?), and decided I really didn't need to know all of that stuff that was slung at us daily. So I meandered, happily, down to the bottom quarter of my class, for the first two years. Those first two years are exclusively lecture and book-learning, of which I had had quite enough by that point in my life. The last two years, however, consist of actual patient care in a hospital as a student doctor. My instincts had paid off; for the last two years of medical school in an environment more like being a doctor, rather than a monkish scholar (or, heaven forbid, a law student), I resided in the top quarter of my class. All of which, of course, bears absolutely relation to one's final ability as a practicing physician. But at the time, all those little academic games managed to occupy my time enough to make my skiing progress come in spurts. I felt like a lumberjack in vinyl pants trying to climb a greased telephone pole.
[This seems like as good a place as any to stop; the remaining page is best left to the next chapter of "Learning to Ski", which I may some day actually finish. But first, I'd rather write a bit about my trip to Loreto, Mexico, by way of Tibet and Cancun].