Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why We Come Back

And just like that, you're 25 years old.

The passage of time can be vertiginous when the places around you have changed far less than you. When you return to those formative places, those character factories of your late teens and early 20s, just the sensory nostalgia of homecoming is enough to make you forget all the interim. The same fiery sunrises, same cracked dirt oven heat of mid-afternoon, same raw smell of ponderosas after rain.

Then there are the re-lived experiences, the big dinners and star-strewn nights with your old friends who are back to visit. You talk, of course, about the new stuff, the desk jobs and the boyfriends and the graduate programs, but that's not what sticks in your abdomen and spins your mind for a loop. It's the dumb movie quotes you remember, the now-swollen legend of the day you peaked seven mountains and still made it to the bar afterward, the night you fell out of your roommate's truck.

But places with real depth do more than hold you in the bosom of the past. The land, like us, is never still. There is endless challenge in the mountains, a springboard capacity for absorbing even the longest fallers and propelling them back into the unknown clean and galvanized, bringing along the frontier zen of morning sun beside a little trout stream, the indefatigable cheer of banjo rolls on the crisp night air.

These are the places to which we return, the love we don't let die. An average of 29,127 days on this ball of earth and rock and water -- how many will be spent in the same stale fluorescent-lit air, having the same superficial conversations, thinking the same tedious thoughts?

We grow full in the shadows of the mountains. If we are lucky, we stay with them. If we hold anything like truth, they stay with us.

New Mexico Weather, Mt. Phillips, May 2012

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Morning, Ponil Park, June

A rare spot, this bend in the North Ponil Creek. The canyon widens into a meadow of sorts, gentle ponderosa slopes lining to the east and west, views of Little Costilla Peak upstream, Black and Bear Mountains downstream. There's a little cemetery and some ruins of old wooden structures at the mouth of a small side canyon. The gravestones bear 19th century dates – there was once a railroad here. Now, a carpet of golden pea and aspen fleabane. A rare return, indeed.

The North Ponil is flowing – over a foot wide and nearly as deep in spots. It's cause for modest celebration amidst the drought-stricken years which have descended upon the state, where the follies of our race which transpired in offices and oil wells elsewhere now cripple even our most Edenic sanctuaries. But late snowfall and a bout of strong spring rains have provided a temporary reprieve from choking dust and gloomy thoughts. Not enough to forget the problem, but enough to savor this return to health, knowing we may not see another spring of its kind.

The elk have been out these last two days. At the Beatty Lakes they were searching for moisture in the low golden shafts of evening light, cavorting like camels on a gilded savanna. Again last night, a handful came down to the creek to drink. They didn't linger in this less-exposed area where a mountain lion (or in bygone years, a wolf) could race from tree cover and be tearing flesh from bone in three bounds, completing the ancient rite which left another member of their ungulate society nothing but sun-bleached skull, vertebrae, ribcage, and hipbones a little ways up Seally Canyon.

This morning came the other side – rebirth – as seven elk (three calves) crossed the creek, drank, then turned Seally's way, the last of the cows waiting as the final calf struggled up the steep little gully from the stream.

This peace – this relatively untrammeled continuation of things ancient and integral – makes me leap and shudder all at once. I am here with the purpose of training three young adults who will then train seven more apiece to lead scouts through these tranquil places. Just north of Philmont and visited by a handful of its itineraries, the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest has long held easy magic – so accessible yet so quiet and healthy next to the busy thoroughfares of Philmont's own property. These common elk sightings would be rare indeed in the heavier-trafficked canyons of the Ranch.

The Valle Vidal from Little Costilla Peak.
But Philmont has plans for the Valle. The NFS wants us to expand our use of the area (it must be hurting for tourist money like everything else in the state). There's talk of a rock climbing camp just below Clayton Corral, smack on the edge of the verdant sprawling valley which gives the area its name, and barely a mile from the slopes of Little Costilla Peak which remain closed through June for elk calving. Would not the sights and sounds of dozens of scouts strapping on harnesses and bellowing juvenile war-cries from the top of a little ascent disturb these protected grounds?

Presently, we are making it work up here. But that could change, even this summer, with a few more itineraries slated to explore some new parts of the unit. If we do our jobs well, these crews will pass through as we have the last few days – quietly, respectfully, quickly. I'd like to believe that we can accomplish that, that we can expand at a rate which does not disrupt harmony. But I am not overly optimistic: all we have for an example, after all, is our deer-stuffed, road-covered tinderbox to the south.

Just a handful of miles down this canyon is Metcalf Station, our new railroad-themed living history camp. The staff there invigorate scouts with talk of making history, of being the first to lay track in this canyon in a hundred years, track that their sons and daughters will see when they come to Philmont decades from now. Is that the proud legacy we're seeking? How far upstream will the sounds of hammering ties and pounding spikes reach?

No, if we want to give these scouts a real interpretive experience, let them listen to the chilling whines of the coyotes at night and rise to the sound of birdsong. Let them fall in love with the wild lands of our past, not with the ways we tamed them. Fifty years since the signing of the Wilderness Act and we have yet to raise the generation of true stewards we so desperately need.

There is such potential for good in a summer here, and such cause for concern alongside. It's the paradox of this business, this leading people into wilderness. We want it to stay here and stay quiet for aeons eternal, but the more folks we show it to, the less likely that becomes. The solution must start from the bottom, with a wholesale shift in our conception of our place in the world. And nothing inspires that shift like extended time in the wild.

These are dangerous circles to run. If anyone asks, I'm taking the hermit route. The Valle is a mosquito-ridden wasteland, to be avoided at all cost.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Confessions of a Ski Bum

I. Arrival

The snowfall is harder now and the car thermometer reads negative one. The highway quickly deteriorates into two faint sets of tracks as the climb up the pass continues. The white pellets pepper the windshield, screaming like lasers out of the black night and into the headlight beams, fast and frequent enough to be dizzying. The little silver hatchback, stuffed to the brim, shudders as it crests the pass and changes lanes before the long descent.

Finally, the plentiful lights of the valley come into view, blinding and vertiginous after the dark travail over the snowy pass. Signs announce an abundance of restaurants, chain hotels, and supermarkets. There is a mountain back there too, but its form is obscured behind the brilliance of town. Soon, the prescribed exit arrives, the car curves slowly around a sharp bend and into a new canyon, and the lights cease briefly as the smaller road extends into the blackness. A few curves later, the lights of a smaller community begin to appear. Passing through a quiet little downtown, the icy car finally stops somewhere near the right address, and its driver exhales.

I have made it to Minturn.

In the morning, I will begin to acquaint myself with this place that I will call home for the next four months. After my first night on the sofabed in the living room of the little shack by the river, I will emerge to a world wholly changed by daylight, where the east wall of the canyon rises steep and mysterious, the snow, rock, and sparse vegetation forming distorted faces and other bizarre art. Where the western slopes rise more gradually into the sprawling national forest, Engelmann Spruce towering and dark against the plentiful snow.

But first comes the first trip to Kirby's. It's the one-room bar closest to our five-room house, full of strong beer, clean whiskey, and cabin woodwork. After the long drive, the light on the beams and the bartop is as warm and inviting as late afternoon sun. Despite the frigid night, there's a healthy crowd inside and the three men nearest us are huddled around an iPhone, talking hunting and looking at pictures of a mountain lion, two of them drinking Budweiser, one IPA. In one corner, a man and woman are playing guitars and harmonizing ably on a little pallet of a stage. At some point after the old friend who's given me the sofabed arrives from work and we've caught up on lost time, they start playing Neil Young's “Helpless” and I start feeling at home.

Soon I will really begin to understand Minturn. Each time I drive down Main Street – the only real street – the towering rock of the canyon will quickly impose itself upon my consciousness. I'll begin to see that the wild dwarfs the human in this little bubble of a mountain town, that I'm never more than a glance away from something massively older and truer than myself.

But for now, Kirby's is more than enough.


II. The First Powder Day

I'd been in Colorado for barely two weeks, but the moment had been almost two years in the making. It was my first day off after a busy run of job training, eight inches of fresh snow lay on the ground, and my buddy Chad and I were standing at the top of an untouched line.

I had skied out west for the first time two years prior during my spring break from an outdoor education job in Texas. After two magical days with the steeps and trees of Taos and a couple more exploring Crested Butte, the idea took hold somewhere along the desolate highway between Amarillo and Dallas. If I could swing it, I told myself, I'd head back to those mountains sooner rather than later. And this time it would be for a full winter.

A couple of years and a couple of jobs later there I was, about to start living, as they say, the dream. The slope in front of us wasn't the steepest at Beaver Creek, wasn't one of its much-heralded glades or chutes, and that was good. There would be plenty of time for those attractions. Right now, all they would do is distract from the real gift: snow.

I've only been surfing a handful of times, but I've had the comparison corroborated by those with far more experience: that there's something deeply similar to the thrill of riding waves and skiing powder. That harnessing of a gigantic, indifferent natural force and the fast and fluid travel with it across a forgiving surface: it stirs something both massively invigorating and soothingly harmonious within us, and for most every ski (or surf) bum, it's the feeling that breeds our insanity.

The winter had been unfairly lucky so far. The mountains of north central Colorado had been spared the drought crippling much of the West and instead received a wealth of early season snowfall. So far, I had certainly picked the right year to indulge my ski bum fantasy. As the powder piled up throughout December, every skier I knew was jealous, from friends in California cursing the dry Sierras to those like Chad, an old camp buddy now living in Denver, who'd followed the advised post-college route, gotten a steady job, and now spent his weeks dreaming of the mountains from a desk.

Of course, I had no idea whether this charmed life would continue all season, but in admirable hippie fashion, I told myself that none of that mattered as I stood atop the run. Today was a special one, and that was all I knew and all I needed to know.

Breathing deeply like some five-cent shaman, I pushed off into the rush of crisp morning air and saw my skis and boots disappear in the snow. I focused every ounce of energy and attention into the mountain-skier fusion of which I was half. Turn after turn flowed together like a rush of rapids and by the end of the run, I was more alive than I'd felt anytime since those fateful days at Taos.

The grand adventure had begun in earnest, and I knew that whatever came of this winter would be worthwhile. After that first perfect powder run, the rest would just be gravy. I had officially joined the dying and wonderful cult of the ski bum.


III. Notes from the Oregon Trail

“All that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”

Such was Edward Abbey's qualifier when he opened Desert Solitaire by calling the canyonlands near Moab, Utah “the most beautiful place on earth.”

Standing in Arches National Park for the first time, watching the white winter sun send huge, cartoonish shadows out from the bases of the red rocks, I am inclined to agree. This place is like nowhere on earth.

I have just gotten out of the automobile which carried me here from Colorado. It remains only a few hundred yards away, parked beside one of the several blacktop roads which snake through the park like restraining bonds. But as I walk down a little wash, with the big rock formations looming on all sides like gargoyles, the road is out of sight and feels, for a moment, miles distant. As I take my first good deep breath of cold canyon air, a raven floats overhead, sharp black on the still-blue sky. It gives a few noisy croaks of welcome and I chuckle inwardly, imagining it to be far more than itself. If Ed had been one for reincarnation, after all, it's hard to imagine a more fitting destination for his soul than inside the body of a sentinel raven at Arches.

My fantasy will only last a moment. Ed was right, of course, about the beauty of the roadless places, but for better or worse, this January vacation – a week-long barnstorm from Minturn to Portland with a college friend and her sister – will not be about all of that. Instead, I will find a different invigorating joy in the road itself, in changing faces and new landscapes appearing through the windshield.

Here at Arches, I long for more time. Time to fully explore the nooks and crannies, to find some of Ed's old haunts, to build a fire of juniper and cook up some pinto bean survival sludge while considering the painted desert and the snow-capped Sierra La Sal beyond. Instead, as daylight wanes, we zip from photo op to photo op. We reach Window Arch, along with several other parties, as sunset reaches the height of its drama and the low-angle light has the rock aflame in orange. It is beautiful and majestic and timeless, yes, but transcendence rarely follows the guidebook, and the real magic of this evening waits until after we've finished our scurryings and pulled off into an empty parking lot beneath the hulk of Balanced Rock. Without much convincing, Claire and Kelly join me in sitting atop the van and drinking a beer during the final minutes of daylight. Soon, the rocks are haunting silhouettes, sleeping giants still indifferent after another day on display. We sip from our bottles, sing a few songs, and watch Venus, Orion, and a perfect half moon take center stage. We have settled into the rhythm of one another and of the road, and the rest will be the stuff of legend.

After a detour south and west to the stunningly grand and Edenic canyons of Zion National Park, we work our way north from Utah through the Tetons and into Montana. The road is a slideshow of Western expanse, from red rock mazes to deep green forests to jagged snow-capped ranges. The company is top-notch, with good music and good conversation filling the old white minivan, the likes of Patty Griffin, Waylon Jennings, and Dave Van Ronk accompanying this undeniably Kerouacian montage.

On a cloud-covered morning we leave Driggs, Idaho and follow the western edge of the hiding Tetons north, emerging from the four-foot snowbanks of Targhee National Forest into the Madison River Valley of southern Montana. Sunlight and warmth greet our arrival, illuminating distant white peaks and black cattle punctuating a vast golden sea of ranchland. Our two-lane follows the bends of the swift-rushing river. Bald eagles perch above its frozen banks, scouring dark waters. Rich and contrasting color is everywhere in this bright land of extremes. I imagine the electrifying sensation of frigid water and warm sun, slipping into a Norman Maclean fantasy of summer afternoons, fly rods, and a current teeming with trout.

I'm awakened from reverie as we pull into the little cowtown of Ennis. It's just past noon, and following a friend from Helena's tip, we decide to take a quick hydration break at Willie's Distillery, a little family operation on Ennis' wide main drag. The smiling bartender, somewhere in her thirties, also the place's bookkeeper, is wearing a fleece vest from the Pro Rodeo Championships, and as she introduces us to Willie's damn good bourbon recipe, she launches into the story of their busy weekend working a big event up in Great Falls. Soon she is showing us photos of her own horses and as I tell her about my grandfather touring with a rodeo in his 20s and my mom barrel-racing in her younger days, I remember that here are my people too, that no matter how many cities I live in or degrees I earn, my roots are just as cowboy as cosmopolitan.

It's with this fittingly divided spirit that I will reach Missoula, where we spend the next couple of days with friends of Claire and Kelly. Missoula, the university town amidst the ranches. Missoula, the place Wallace Stegner has so exalted in my mind as the archetype for a true and sustainable western community. The place where I've already told myself I should attend graduate school. Inevitably, it falls short on first impression. After two days, I leave unable to pin down my feelings for the place. It is trying to hold onto the old western town of A River Runs Through It, proud of the glorious mountains, rivers, and valleys which surround it, but simultaneously trying to embrace the hip trends of Portland and Seattle. A few blocks from an old cowboy saloon is an establishment called the Peace Store, selling, among hundreds of other screaming bumper stickers, one that reads “Missoula: Just 30 Miles from Montana.” Above the icy Clark's Fork of the Missouri River, where I watch a kestrel range overhead, there are the familiar cafes and bars that can be found anywhere from Amherst to Ann Arbor to Berkeley. Perhaps Stegner is right and the tension is a good thing. Perhaps it will eventually lead to compromise and progress. As the droughts worsen it may happen out of necessity if not desire for harmony. But for now, I see only the extremes. As one of our hosts tells the story of a neighbor's beautiful and expensive Malamute dog being shot accidentally by deer hunters, I fear for the place and for all places where old and new attempt to coexist in such obdurate contrast.

A more genuine Montana presents itself just a night later, not in Missoula but an hour north on the southern tip of Flathead Lake, in the struggling Kootenai reservation town of Polson where my old college buddy and teammate Bryce has been toiling as editor of the tiny Lake County Leader, his office a cramped one-floor newsroom in a two-street downtown. Our entrance into Polson is impossibly dramatic, and not because Bryce has announced it to the entire town with a welcome note on the header of this week's paper. From Missoula we've driven north up the heart of the Mission Valley in late afternoon sunlight, dwarfed beneath the jagged forms of the range bearing the same name. Steep ridges, saw-toothed, snow-drenched summits, brilliant gold on the white faces, an alpenglow I'd only seen before in Alaska. Soon we're perched above town with a pink sunset stretching over the hazy expanse of the lake, beyond it another range, the Swans, looming in a coat of white, reminiscent of no less than the Alaska Range and Denali at this distance. The gifted author and activist Rick Bass settled in northwest Montana because as soon as he'd arrived he recognized a truth now apparent to me, that this is our most wild place left in the lower 48.

After this grand welcome, the evening in Polson plays out like some twisted and beautiful combination of On the Road and Glee. The setting: the Lake Bar, a dusty, low-lit and low-budget joint just through the wall from Bryce's office. In the red glow, locals return the sass of a young and aggressive female bartender named Leslie. We soon learn that it's open mic night, a new monthly experiment being organized by a gentle middle-aged townie named Mike. A pair of guys somewhere between high school and college age begin, playing guitar and singing everything from Dylan to Pearl Jam, one significantly more talented than the other, but no love lost because of it. Mike occasionally joins in for a tune on mandolin. Slowly the bar fills with a true smorgasbord of humanity, everything from overweight Kootenai women to sad-eyed and big-hearted white schoolteachers to the burned-out early retirees from the expensive lake houses outside town. Once Mike's two young regulars have decided to break, a tall, rail-thin Kootenai youth gets up to read a few slam poems. Pausing in front of the microphone to survey us from beneath his long, straight, jet-black hair, he belts out of nowhere the opening of “Ave Maria” in faux vibrato. It takes a few seconds after he's stopped with a quick “just kidding” for the bar to offer some nervous laughter. Then he launches into a set of rapid verses about the misunderstood youth of a kid on the rez. It's a wild change of pace from the last act and his aggression catches everyone off guard for a moment, but surprise turns to small-town support before long, and after his first performance a big round of applause rewards the youth's bravery.

And then, finally, the moment arrives as Mike heads to the mic and casts his gaze to our table in the back. Kelly has been writing songs for a while now, and one of our quickly-adopted goals of the trip has been to boost her performing chops wherever possible. So Mike calls her up, announcing that she's “on a sojourn to Portland,” and in seconds the night has become a special one for the good people of Polson, Montana. Kelly sings the opening lines to a song called “Reeling In,” and the bar falls reverentially silent. Folks who have only been paying half attention turn on their stools and stop their conversations as the sheepish hippie girl from Oregon finger-picks someone else's guitar and sings of fishing poles and laying an old body down in the river. Somewhere, I think, John Prine is smiling.

After Kelly does a couple solo numbers, she motions pleadingly to Claire and me and we join her for a three-part rendition of “I Shall Be Released” which we'd worked up in Moab. It's my first time on stage in a while and the entranced crowd is a sight to behold as we work through the old traditional. Middle-aged women mouth along silently, the local pot dealer nods his dreadlocked head slowly in time, Mike beams from the corner. A sojourn to Portland is a bit too high-stakes, I think. This is just having an adventure – a release – because we can.

By the end of the night, I'm a healthy number of Montana microbrews in and there's a jolly band of five or six of us on stage jamming to “Heart of Gold.” A few new performers have come out of the woodwork, like stocky, red-faced Paul, who claimed to only play in public once a year but was convinced by his friends' raucous chanting to make this the night. As we close our tabs and stumble out into a black night seared by stars, it feels like we've done something small but special. If nothing else, we've given them all a break in the monotony of a small-town winter, something to laugh about over coffee in the days to come. And for us, it's just further proof that this road – this so-called sojourn – won't be forgotten soon.


IV. Wild Mountain Children

It might sound trivial, as it would be most places, but at Beaver Creek, when your students choose skiing over cookies, it's the ultimate compliment. When it finally happened unanimously in late March, I knew I could declare my season a ringing success.

It was only a 10 minute drive, but when I left Minturn each morning for my job as a children's ski instructor at Beaver Creek Resort, I entered an entirely new and baffling world.

It's a world perhaps best described by the mountain's unapologetic slogan, “not exactly roughing it.” A world where one can park the car and travel to the chairlift via bus and escalator without taking a single uphill step in those cumbersome boots. That's if, of course, said patron is not, like most, staying at the Ritz Carlson or the Park Hyatt or the Westin Riverfront (direct slope access via private gondola!), or any of the other monstrous faux-rustic structures lining the lower reaches of the mountain.

It's a world where Tom Hanks and Gerald Ford have owned houses, where one can choose from three different reservation-only slopeside restaurants (entrees beginning at $25) accessible only by ski or private snowmobile. A world where a Swiss couple, as I once witnessed, will walk into my roommate's Patagonia store and walk out an hour later with brand new three-layer outerwear systems and a minor dent of three grand chipped from the AmEx (minor, of course, because the average family of four drops $20,000 of its non-average income over the course of its week-long stay at America's Premier Family Resort).

Closer to home, it's a world where my employer, without trace of sarcasm, markets itself as “The Ivy League of Ski Schools.” Where grim-faced instructors with decades of certified experience pinpoint their private client's flaws in ankle tipping, hip rotation, and knee flexion and administer the Professional Ski Instructors of America's (or, affectionately, the Pompous Self-Important Assholes) prescribed treatment for such heinous ailments.

Finally, its a world that is famous, above all, for chocolate chip cookies. Yes, chocolate chip effing cookies, handed out fresh, warm, and impossibly delicious at the base of the resort come three o'clock each afternoon. Indeed, for many years, it has not been the world-class instructors or the top-flight accommodations which have appeared most consistently on the resort's feedback surveys, but those damn cookies.

And it's telling that something so simple could be so transcendent, because beneath its embarrassment of riches and hilarity of pretension, Beaver Creek remains a world where families come to play in the snow, to slide down thousands of feet of Cretaceous uplift on pieces of plastic and metal and wood because long ago someone in the Alps did it and realized there was no greater thrill on earth.

With this spirit of freedom and abandon (the roots, after all, of the sport), I became an undercover rebel against the Ivy League of Ski Schools. I smiled broadly at the eight-year olds and cracked jokes with their parents when they showed up for class in the morning and again at 3:30, when I sent them off with their official report cards full of check marks. One day, I informed a Gucci-clad Dominican mother that I would not be working tomorrow and she replied in broken English, “but how can we find another teacher as happy as you?” I was at once flattered and concerned when I could only conjure a few names to recommend.

The thing about kids, even Beaver Creek kids: they're pretty damn hilarious when allowed to be kids. After an evening of artisan Mac and Cheese, ice skating, or Cartoon Network on the hotel flat screen, they'd show up for ski school and one of the first tasks I'd give them is to come up with a team name more original than “Matt's Class” (memorable consensuses included the Fluffy Doughnut Skiers, the Crazy Unicorn Shredders, and the Supersonic Snow Cheetahs). By the end of the first gondola ride, I'd be going all-out camp counselor and pounding them with icebreaker questions like “if you could have anything come out of your belly-button on command, what would it be?” (worst answer: my X-Box. Best: whiskey).

And so, on a good day, by 10:30 or so a group of once-sheltered junior millionaires would become one of the world's most kinetic and fearsome things: a pack of wild mountain children.

The next five hours generally warranted the description “organized chaos.” Between parallel turning drills, there were snowball fights (as long as all parties consent, which, shockingly, they almost always do). After a crash course on tree skiing safety, an intermediate class might get to play “Follow the Leader” through a glade, their smiling instructor sweeping the rear to clean up the just-short-of-disastrous results.

The characters and the stories which emerged from this relative freedom were nothing short of heroic. There was little Emery, the shy seven-year old with the missing front teeth who looked shaky enough on the first run of her first day that I tried to move her down a level, only to have her adamantly refuse and spend the next week doggedly improving into a confident intermediate who moved up two levels rather than down one. There was Jake, the portly and affable 11-year old who quickly became ringleader of my Presidents' Week class, who led the group in a rousing ceremony of Class Superlative Awards during afternoon hot chocolate breaks, all the while fighting desperately – and finally succeeding, with great joy – to overcome a debilitating fear of steeps and moguls. And of course there was Pierce, the hell-bent eight-year old terror who presumed that skiing parallel permitted him to ski any terrain at any speed, but who, by the end of a week spent making new friends and learning the art of control, was eager to hang at the back of the group and help up every classmate who fell.

Of course, against our best judgment, we become attached to the kids we teach, even when we teach them for just a day or a week. Before becoming a children's instructor at one of America's ritziest resorts, my experience with kids of this age was as an environmental educator for Houston's inner-city elementary schools. It's hard to imagine two more discrete populations from which to draw students, yet it was the same goal which precluded success in both settings, that of creating a space in which kids felt safe and free to be themselves. It was, too, the same kind of goofy and triumphant moments which made each job so worthwhile. And at the end of a day in Colorado, as at the end of a week in Texas, it was the same sinking I'd feel as I watched my students return to a stratified life which might never reveal to them just how similar they really were to those at the other end of the spectrum.

I wasn't changing the world at Beaver Creek, at least not much. I was working within a sphere of immense privilege, and by getting kids excited about skiing, of all things, perhaps I was just helping perpetuate that sphere. But I'll choose to believe in the other side of the coin, to believe that even if their parents are paying hundreds a day for it, simply being outside and active in the mountains – exposed, at least briefly, to something far older than their material existence – is the most positive experience a child can have.

Which is why I couldn't have asked for a better coda to the season than what transpired on one of my last days teaching. We finished a run just before that magical three o'clock hour, and expecting the answer any sane child would give, I asked the kids, “Do you want to wait a minute and eat cookies, or keep skiing?”

The response came roaring from every wild throat:



V. The Last Powder Day

It's perfect, I tell myself. It's so perfect I almost don't want to ski it.

Like a painter pausing in front of a naked canvas, or a musician relishing the silence between movements, I realize that the anticipation itself is perfect and I don't want it to end just yet.

On my last day freeskiing at Beaver Creek, somewhere in the sidecountry past Royal Elk Glade, my bladder has stopped my traverse at a most fortunate moment. Half a foot of snow has fallen overnight, but by early afternoon even my favorite out-of-the-way spots on the resort are tracked out. So I've gone exploring, and been rewarded. I've found the dream line: an untouched pitch of moderate steepness cascading down through the dense Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, just wide enough for turning, too narrow to feel completely safe.

The sun is out now after last night's snow, the still-wet trees sparkling in the warmth of early spring. Around me, however, hangs yet the deep silence of winter. The welcoming pungency of the evergreen boughs, the sharp contrast of dark, rich green over the cream-white carpet. It's all so damn poetic – how could I interrupt this perfection?

But if I don't, someone else, I know, will. We're all greedy in this business.

Greed, after all, has been one of the driving forces of this whole adventure. Not just the benign greed that permits a family to spend twenty grand on a week of vacation, but my own. What besides self-indulgence could inspire a young man to suspend his admittedly-murky career goals in favor of a teenager's ski bum fantasy? In favor of a sport reserved for an immensely privileged, overwhelmingly white sliver of the world? Yes, somewhere along the line I've decided that this would all be okay, that as long as I remained aware and grateful and tried to pass on a bit of that humility to the kids I taught, I could get away with this grotesquely greedy life decision.

And make no mistake, I have reveled in that self-servitude. As a first-year instructor at a resort aimed far more at out-of-state vacationers than locals, I have had more than ample time to exercise my greed. A feast-or-famine work schedule has provided not only greater plummeting of my checking account balance than hoped for, but also a great many days of sublime skiing far from the Smurf-blue uniform or the raucous eight-year olds.

I think back on it all with far more pleasure than guilt. On the days of tearing through the trees at Vail with the buddies up from Denver, or the lung-splitting bootpack up the Upper East Wall of A-Basin and the primal rush of the descent. And also, just as fondly, of the lazy mornings of drinking coffee at home then driving to the back of the employee lot, hiking up to one of the smaller lifts, and skiing the bumps and trees as hard as I could for three or four hours, all without speaking to anyone besides the occasional liftie. Even at a glitzy ski resort, after all, the mountains love introversion and extroversion equally.

Yup, I'm a greedy sonofabitch, I tell myself as I return to present. But it's been a damn fun ride with some great stories to tell. And suddenly hearing the traffic of others behind me, I cast a last lustful gaze upon the line below, already pulsing with the perfect smoothness and rhythm of the turns to come, and push off into the sea of snow.


VI. Valedictory

It's dusktime during my final week in town. For the last time this winter, I'm walking the half mile down to Kirby's, where I'll meet some roommates and neighbors for a few last beers and laughs. It's been warming up and a mild breeze hints with joyful anticipation of the coming months, of many a pleasant night under the great western sky. But I will not be in Minturn for them, and the thought quickly transforms my walk into an emotional valedictory.

The place, I realize, is singing to me. As I stride along the sidewalk, reclaimed from several feet of snowbank in recent warm weeks, the Eagle River follows me, chortling irrepressibly just a few yards down from the road. I can picture it in another month or two: what's left of the snow receded, families or lovers or friends sitting along the needle-strewn banks beside a picnic or a crackling campfire. I can practically hear their laughter now, and am once again flooded with the desire for more time and great wonder at its passing.

On the western side of the canyon, the Engelmann spruce cast their grand silhouettes against the blue-black mirror of sky. It is that final moment when one can still see things in detail from a good distance away. Soon the darkness will be at hand, the world turned to flat shadow, and I'll plunge on, trusting that the unknown will prove benevolent upon arrival.

The river sings with the unquenchable freshness of Eden. Rock looms steadfast above. How can I, so transient, possibly feel such deep love for them, so timeless, as I do in these waning moments? I will return – I must – I promise myself, knowing already that I may just as likely not, that the only certainty is uncertainty. Stealing one more savoring glance at it all, I walk forward into the night.


VII. Epilogue: The Future

My first homeward stop lies south, not east. It's the last weekend of March, but there's just enough snow left in the mountains above Santa Fe. It's only fitting: it was Sam who first introduced me to western skiing two years ago; he should also be the one to accompany me on my first true backcountry tour.

Three hundred miles south of Minturn it has been an entirely different winter. While the snow came in heaps to north central Colorado, it left the Sangre de Cristos of New Mexico high and dry. Sam has kept me apprised of the damage via text message, so I'm not surprised to hear the phrases “only a couple good weekends” and “historic drought” tossed around by his buddies as we catch up over beers in 65-degree Santa Fe (of course, in this state, each year's drought now seems to carry that label). The warmth is fitting too, I suppose, for this visit is at once a coda to the season now passed and a preview of the one to come, when I'll return to the Land of Enchantment for another summer in the mountains at Philmont Scout Ranch.

Despite the balmy weather in town, I'm determined to ski, even with high winds in the forecast and assurances from Sam that what snow remains between 10- and 13,000 feet in the Pecos Wilderness will be far more like the stuff we grew up skiing in New England than the powdery diet I've been spoiled by this winter. What's more, I've flouted ski bum tradition and tried to actually leave the mountains without declaring myself completely broke, meaning I've resisted purchasing the full backcountry ski arsenal of new boots, bindings, climbing skins, and avalanche safety equipment. But if New Mexicans are anything it's generous, and with only a couple of phone calls Sam has outfitted me from friends' gear and declared me fit to join him and our buddy Steve in the backcountry. Borrowed equipment, poor conditions, and a dicey forecast? Just the makings of a grand adventure.

The tour does not actually begin in the backcountry, but at the base of Ski Santa Fe, the little resort 20 minutes from town where it is still 50 degrees and the locals are loving it, riding in tank tops, baseball caps, and of course, jeans. We strap on skins and hike up the sides of a few groomers in our baselayers before cutting off into the woods of Santa Fe National Forest. With a few good Minnesota winters of nordic skiing under my belt, I take to the skinning quickly and as we climb up through the last of the spruce and fir, the scents and shapes of this particular forest quickly remind me of a favorite stretch of trail at Philmont. Breathing deeply, I push doggedly after Sam, at once in love with the landscape, the exertion, and my freedom to experience them both. It never takes long for these New Mexico hills to welcome me home.

And now comes the moment of which one never tires: the emerging from treeline into the open highlands. Soon we're atop Nambé Ridge, the earth sprawling below, a fierce but tolerable wind whipping across our shells. Predictably, I insist on stopping to enjoy it for a few moments before we drop into the chute we've picked out to ski. To the north and east rise big Truchas Peak, Santa Fe Baldy, and the rest of the Pecos Wilderness, to the south and west the rooftops of Santa Fe and the sun-baked flats of the Rio Grande Valley. While just as impressive, it's a softer, more rounded landscape than the jagged ranges of Colorado. It's a reflection, I believe, of the elusive harmony which its inhabitants still seek, the balance prized above all else by its native residents, the Diné.

I could meditate with these hills all day, but now it is time to chase my own modern version of balance. It is time to counter austerity with adrenaline. The Nambé Chutes are steep, there are rocks aplenty to avoid, and the unpredictable snow conditions will require undivided focus. This is no buttery powder line at Beaver Creek, and the thought exhilarates me. I've always been one to seek out the ugly in nature along with the glamorous, to cherish the raw force of a July hailstorm as much as the dazzling sunset that might follow. So I launch myself into the chute full of piss and vinegar and the reward is a good one: the borrowed skis respond well to the alternating corn snow and ice, my legs feel powerful as I jump through each turn, and before long we're exchanging fist-bumps at the bottom of the wall.

Our joy won't last. The mountain has other ideas. We begin to climb back up for a second lap, but are halted before long, the pitch too steep for skins, the snow too slushy to bootpack. Our plan of another descent or two in the chutes then a glorious victory ski through the resort to cap the day will have to go. The bulk of Nambé Ridge separates us from our destination, and there's no way to get back over it here. We'll have to pick through the woods on this side and cut back further down.

Fending off frustration, I hike up as far as I can just to grab a few more turns. You're preposterously lucky to be doing this in the first place, I tell myself. Don't get greedy. But as I start carving through the slush at the bottom of the chutes, I do get greedy. I'm feeling great about my skiing and decide to play around, exaggerating my turn shape and letting my speed pick up. No sooner has my focus shifted from the mountain to myself than my left ski stalls in some heavy snow and I'm tumbling headfirst down the still-steep pitch, sunglasses askew, hat flying, one ski ejected. Thankfully I'm far from any rocks and the damage is only to my pride. But the lessons are clear: no matter how much sweating the climb might induce, I'll never leave my helmet behind again, and then, for the second time today, the hard truth that the mountain cares not. There's no room for selfishness in the backcountry. The moment harmonious thought gives way to egotism, a price is paid.

Humbled, I resolve to embrace the rest of our adventure in whatever form it takes. And once we've handled a few hairy pitches through the trees and navigated around a pair of small but still-frozen lakes, we're rewarded. There are few sights more relieving than that of a trail sign when lost in the woods. Of course, my trusted companions will be the first to tell you that we were never really lost, and indeed, I was never too worried, but with the afternoon turning to evening and our stomachs growling, we breathe a bit easier once we've intersected the well-traveled Windsor Trail and begun a gentle two-mile skin out. As we cruise through massive colonies of aspen, Sam feels the need to apologize for the fact that my first tour has featured far more uphill travel than down. Damn selfless New Mexicans, I think, laughing. “You're forgetting,” I tell him, “that I spend my summers hiking these mountains for fun.”

As we finish off the tour carrying our skis down the muddy trail to the resort parking lot, I'm feeling decidedly harmonious. Suspect conditions and unforeseen detours have done nothing to diminish my love for these mountains, and the limited amount of downhill has made those turns all the sweeter in memory (the ones, at least, that didn't result in me upside down). But after we've feasted on pizza and beer in town, after we've spent a last night playing old songs and plotting new adventures, after I've re-packed the car and begun the journey from one home to the other, there's another feeling that rises with surprising force. And it's fear. As the images of that day in the backcountry replay themselves, I'm no longer able to filter out the details I chose to ignore then: the dry trees, the quickly-melting and slushy snow, the omnipresent brown and dust of the warm flats below. It will be a hard summer – a hard future – for this land I love. Whatever harmony I might feel with it in my moments of inspired recreation is little to the discord begun long ago. Silently, I recommit myself both to the place and to the work I will soon begin. I must hold onto hope that my meager efforts will help spark greater motions, that it is not too late to step back toward balance.

And of course, I must hope that these efforts do not come at the cost of hopefulness itself, that no matter how bleak the outlook, I will remember the words of this wildly enchanting region's fiercest advocate and enjoy it all, while I still can.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


A tangerine sun rose over the smog of Dallas to welcome the last week of 2013, and I wasn't sure I'd ever been more discouraged by society.

Engulfed in the fourteenth hour of a comically disastrous airline travel saga, my return to Denver waylaid by corporate rigidity, I tried to tune out the latest half-naked pop star on the ever-present televisions. I watched the masses file by, eyes on screens, ears plugged with headphones, lost in hollow realities.

Every step of the way, from a delayed flight out of Hartford to an unwanted overnight in Texas, airline employees had said whatever necessary to pass me on to the next person, to make me someone else's problem. Everywhere I looked, people were treating human interactions with the aversion of car crash aftermath. Admitting defeat, I put in my own earbuds and opened my laptop.

This was all before I got back to the mountains and a landscape, as they so often do, recharged me. On the plains by the airport, the sun reigned and it was sixty degrees. Driving into the city, the homeless patrolled intersections in short sleeves and tanktops and for a moment I thought I was in California. With the skyline smog thin enough to overlook, my gaze, as always, rested on the peaks of the Front Range, snow-covered and popping in crystalline clarity against the rich blue sky.

Travel frustrations quickly disappeared into the rearview as I stopped for a few hours to visit a college friend who was home for the holidays in Denver. Catching up on his front porch, drinking coffee in our t-shirts, the pleasure of firm friendship eclipsed my last dregs of bitterness. And so despite a lack of sleep, when David suggested a quick drive out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, I couldn't decline.

The refuge lies out on the plains east of the city, just beyond the last commercial buildings and suburban neighborhoods but still squeezed between downtown and the airport. It's existence alone is a stirring story of healing: the land, now home to a restored short-grass prairie ecosystem, was a site of chemical weapon development during World War II and the Cold War, then hosted Shell Chemical's scarring DDT productions.

Entering the park, we drove past several expansive prairie dog towns, the squat rodents quivering to attention and chirping shrill warnings upon our arrival. From a distance, we admired the refuge's herd of bison. The population is thriving, expanding too quickly, in fact, for its limited space, as High Country News reports, but there is a nearly zoo-like artificiality to its presence just a stone's throw from suburban neighborhoods. Along with a handful of other parties, we gazed from inside a car at animals as large as motor vehicles themselves, at animals who once flooded the region as pervasively as the automobile now does.

We'd come to go for a trail run in the unseasonable warmth, but those plans were soon delayed by a moment chilling and timeless. As we approached a new pocket of sepia-toned prairie, David caught a glimpse of something unexpected from the passenger's seat. Nearly perfectly camouflaged in the undulating terrain, a large, healthy coyote stared back at us from fifty yards away.

Elusive scavengers, coyotes are the masters of sneaking in when no one's watching. In five summers of leading backpacking trips in New Mexico, I could count my coyote sightings on one hand. But here was a prime, undaunted specimen in daylight, just a dozen miles from a major city. We stared at one another blankly for several minutes and I found nothing but ancient indifference in its gaze. We were on its turf, and after a few more moments of stalemate, we decided to move on.

It wasn't hard to understand why this particular coyote seemed so robustly well-fed. With large prairie dog towns littering the refuge, a meal would never be far away. An ecosystem like this might, in fact, represent something like paradise to Canis latrans. Far enough from major human populations to avoid the wrath of farmers and pet-owners (federal protection doesn't hurt either), close enough to prohibit the presence of larger predators, most notably that feared and mythic cousin, Canis lupus.

And so we turn to the tangential meditation portion of this story. As the gray wolf disappeared from the American landscape, the coyote expanded. Ever the opportunist, it slid into the lupine niche as wolves were exterminated out of fear, greed, and lust, wiped out for their pelts and their predations. Less inclined to pack travel and more flexible in diet, the smaller coyote grew into coexistence with human society, adapting itself into a more nocturnal, more scavenging species and taking up residence across the country, everywhere from city parks to mountain meadows.

But here, in a National Wildlife Refuge for Gawd's sake, I let myself imagine something grander. So bold and sturdy was the dog staring back at me that for a moment I wandered into a fantasy I've hosted many times and imagined myself face-to-face with a wolf.

The species has been frequenting my mental avenues of late, thanks in large part to “Lone Wolf,” Joe Donnelly's marvelous account in Orion of OR-7, the first wild wolf to return to Northern California in nearly a century. With the species making a slow recovery across the northern Rockies, it's not too surprising that a ranging individual would cross the man-made border from southeastern Oregon into California. Still, the symbolic value of the development isn't insignificant. A wild wolf has been hunting in the same state that's home to Rodeo Drive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Disneyland. And boy is it causing a big old fuss.

Ever since the gray wolf began its successful American reintroduction in the mid-90s, the human battles have raged wherever Canis lupus has roamed. While ecologists have repeatedly concluded that wolves greatly aid the biodiversity and general health of their native ecosystems, ranchers curse and bullseye them as a menace to their profits. Of course, livestock die at much higher rates by a whole host of other causes (including domestic dog attacks), but to be honest, who am I to tell a hard-working rancher not to protect his stock, especially when I still enjoy a hamburger every now and then? (Killing wolves for sport, though? That's another story).

And so, of course, now that wolves have begun to stabilize themselves in northern states, the hunt is on. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting the species from federally endangered status, states have begun to permit a limited amount of hunting in the name of population management. But conservation hardly seems the mindset in Salmon, Idaho, where the ironically-named Sportsmen's Group Idaho for Wildlife held the First Annual Coyote and Wolf Derby last month, with cash prizes for the biggest wolf and most female coyotes killed (the “sportsmen” did not achieve their goal of taking any wolves, but 21 coyotes were gunned down). As Donnelly wrote in a recent update on OR-7, “it’s like the turn of the century all over again when wolves, bears, and anything else that competed with man for domain over the land got crushed by the wheels of Manifest Destiny.”

As I recall the penetrating stare of that coyote near Denver, I know that the wolf wars, like so many other conservation issues of our time, return us to the age-old question of how we view our relationship to the nonhuman world. Are the species and the landscapes with whom we share the Earth tools to be used in our quest for greater power and ease of life? Having risen to evolutionary dominance, is it our right to do as we please with everything else? Or does the nonhuman world possess its own intrinsic value, one that can't be quantified by its utility to us?

Nearly a century ago, a young federal forester named Aldo Leopold was sent to the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico to kill wolves and protect ranching and deer-hunting interests. On one trip, watching an old female in her dying moments, the Yale graduate found the reflection in her eyes pointing deep into his own being.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he later wrote. “I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.”

Decades later, Leopold's Land Ethic stands as the backbone of our conservation movement and there remain masses who would kill wolves with the same trigger-itch he once possessed. We must ask ourselves if we are humble enough to think like a mountain, or rather, to accept the existence of the mountains' perspective without ever truly knowing it.

We can love completely without complete understanding,” wrote Norman Maclean.

The big coyote at the wildlife refuge was too far away for me to see any green in its eyes, but the truth of its being filled me nonetheless.