By Eino Holm
Highway 101 never really got off the ground, even though they had a handful of hits and their first vocalist, Paulette Carlson, has one of those voices. They were decidedly neo-trad country before Clint Black and Alan Jackson really broke the dam, but after Dwight. Not really skiing music, when you think of it, but that doesn't matter. Given some of the $#!@ Matchstick used during the Ski Movie years, one apparently needs to listen to horrible noise with some dreadful misogynistic posturing and terrible lyrics to really send it. I prefer to listen on the way to and fro, and then just be in my own head listening to the conifer whisper while gettin' after it. I am sensitive, you know. An artiste.
Long about Madras, if you grew up like me, you realise this really isn't Kansas anymore. Nor is it the Wet Side. That first time was the first time I'd really seen the dry side. It's open country, sage and bunchgrass; if yer payin attention there are trailers and cheatgrass and truck stops as well. The Cascades over Blue Box Pass aren't really all that high, yet they are effective orography. Madras gets a little more than twelve inches of precip in the water year. If we're feeling poetic, I'd call that a couple drops of trillium nectar north of being Desert. If we're feeling poetic. I don't remember Madras at all, other than the Taco Time at some intersection or other. A popular internet mapping service (thanks, Eben!!) says it's permanently closed. It seemed to be around dusk, or maybe later, every time we hit town all those years ago. I still don't know how Ma and Pa could even afford to take a ski vacation, let alone one that today feels as ritzy as heading to Sugarbush on Spring Break from The New School.
From these trips, at least one or two in the old Bronco II, I remember three albums. Dwight's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., Highway 101's second record, and some to-me unknown Merle Haggard collection that I think, correctly or otherwise, led off with "Rainbow Stew". Of the three, great though they all are, it's Paulette's plaintive alto that stands out for me. And, I mean, who can resist a country song with somebody named "Cactus" bangin on them drums? Not me. When those high desert lights get to stretching off to the distance, some Mojave dive-haunting honky tonk dripping with Opuntia glochids seems to fit the bill. Paulette's midwestern roots notwithstanding. They weren't the most authentic band around, with three quarters of the original lineup being session guys, but since when do most seven year olds even know what that means? I did not. Besides, Mr Tambourine Man was mostly the Wrecking Crew, save Jim McGuinn's 12-string. I merely absorbed that heartbreak, the anxiety, the beat, and importantly, that twang. Twang and ponderosa are like Athens and a nice Rickenbacker.
Mt Bachelor, the volcano, stands above the plains in the same exact way that every other Cascade volcano south of Stampede Pass does. This part of Oregon is so crowded, though, that without the association of chairlifts and ski vacations Bachelor remains small. The Sisters to the north, then Seekseekqua, then Wy'East, all stand taller and more massive. Broken Top to the north is more complex in shape, and the more remote peaks south of Willamette Pass are just, well, mysterious. I didn't even know McLaughlin existed until I was damn near 30. From Mark and Liz' ranch out a little southeast of Bend, one sees a fun jumble of peaks, some 20 or 30, that are certainly or at least most likely all volcanic. Bachelor, the volcano, is one among many. To me, a six or seven year old kid, Bachelor was the biggest thing in the world. It really doesn't matter that Tahoma loomed over Southwood Elementary at home, bigger than life, or that the Root Chakra of the World, Shasta, is even bigger than Tahoma. Tahoma was local, and for some reason it seems most skiers equate local with somehow diminished and not, I don't know, enough.
All three of us brothers were enamored of their detaches. At least if memory serves. Pine Marten and Outback were quads, early Doppelmayrs. (Pine Marten has since been updated.) Summit was exotic. At the time, it was a Doppelmayr triple, one of the earliest detaches out there. Sure, sure, Byron and crew built detachable mining trams in the 19th century, but, you know, video or it didn't happen. Summit had faded green slats for the seat back, ran at whatever speed they did then, which was slower than me when I wanted to
carve power-wedge Beverly Hills at Mach 7-Year-Old. We were comparing Pine Marten to Rex, an early Poma detach, which today seems silly cos both are just fine, but then seemed like no comparison at all. Doppelmayr FTW. I think the entirety of our experience was that Bachelor was new, and distant, and fancy, and like, Pole House #2 in Sunriver was tops, whereas Rex was local. That misapprehension again, that anything local is less than anything distant.
I remember the view from that little loft bedroom, looking directly at Bachelor in the Central Oregon sunrise. Lowland ponderosa fading to montane Tsuga. I remember Monday night wrasslin' on the cable TV. That old Bronco II that Ford decided to resurrect but not really. Battleship. Spaghetti and French bread. (Why is that a thing in the States?) J-O dropping his glove off Rainbow and never finding it. Sidestepping up to Summit, tryna huck all my 50 or whatever pounds off the rollers on Cliffhanger, or hitting Boomerang under the Outback chair after lunch and finally understanding moguls--I thought; I was 9. Hot chocolate with cinnamon at the Pine Marten Lodge. These things we build into mythology when really they're just things. A good turn or two.
Vince Gill's When I Call Your Name is the Snoqualmie Valley, heading up to Stevens. The 4th movement of Brahms' 1st is Alpental. The Desert Rose Band's True Love is the 2.30 employee bus down from Crystal in a last-gasp inversion, late February, parking lot dust on the floor and that one suicide lane by the mill, the one I'd use on tourists who were tailgating me. I'd slow just enough that they'd get even closer, antsy to get to Enumclaw and whatever it was they NEEDED to get on to beyond that, like the Ski Inn or 169 or Renton (It's Ahead of the Curve!) or whatever, and at the last chance I'd slide left into the middle lane and all that dump truck dust from the the gravel pit would explode and when I could see them again in the rearview, they'd be a handful of car lengths back, whatever important thing they couldn't wait to get to not quite as important.
Axel Jaffee passed away a few years ago, I don't know, 8, 10, 12 years, somewhere in there. He (along with my friend and co-conspirator Dustin) taught me to swear. He also was in his 60s when we carpooled my first year bumping chairs. Dustin and Peter and I worked with Alex over the summer, after the storied Winter of '99, and in the fall Axel and I were buddies. He had an old, slow, two wheel drive short-bed Ford pickup in faded white, with sand bags in the bed between the wheel wells and the cab for traction. I had my front wheel drive '81 Tercel 5 speed. I think my snow tyres cost $25 a piece including studs. I never did get that car stuck. Anyway, Axel, he had maybe two records in that truck. Don McLean's American Pie, and then his "buddy" Julio Eglesias. No clue what that one was, but it had "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" with Willie Nelson, and I just couldn't take it. I'd tune out and watch the Pseudotsuga and lowland Abies slide by, hoping it'd turn to snow before Silver Springs.
That winter, '000, I was pretty certain listening to female singer-songwriters would draw me closer to either of the two women I couldn't get out of my head. (To this day, I am grateful they tolerated my utter uselessness and that I still get to call each a good friend, distance and time changing all in its path.) Along with Jonatha Brooke and Tori Amos, I had Mary Chapin Carpenter's Stones in the Road stuck in my craw. Axel for some reason would think the volume in his truck was petering out after the first song, even though the song had simply ended. He'd turn the volume way up, uncomfortably high. The second song, "House of Cards", starts with a loud kick and snare, and those tiny speakers always sounded broken. I'd commandeer the volume knob from there, until the next time we'd listen to the record when he'd do it again.
That winter wasn't particularly big, especially since it followed the Big Winter of '99, but we still got good snow for most of it. Many cycles we'd get snow down to the river. There was snow in Greenwater most of the season. It passed like all those conifers bending under their blankets, the dark stands of timber my buddy Todd calls "killin woods". I never knew if Axel actually liked Stones in the Road, or if he simply tolerated it cos it's a fairly straightforward record, easy for the uninterested to tune out. I still enjoy the record, and some of those mid-90s social commentaries still resonate. I still laugh inwardly every time those twin drum beats hit.
If I was driving, if Axel was in a talkative mood and I wasn't, I'd put Tori Amos or Jonatha Brooke on, and those soothing voices would put him to sleep. Usually by the Sand Flats, at latest by the bottom of the Boulevard. I know I have been driven like the snow. . .
The next Winter, I bumped chairs at Baker. I'd headed to Bellingham to finish school, AA under my wing and a BA in writing on the horizon, but life gets in the way sometimes. This one lady, Amrah, we were talking at the bottom of 5 one day, making a list of pros and cons. It's funny to think that little list led me here, out in the desert, 21 years later, but that's definitely the way these things tend to go.
I'd attempted to register for Winter quarter, but some compounding mistakes on the colleges' part--with some ignorance and a lack of curiosity on my part--added up to me being without actual admission credentials. When I asked why I'd been able to register for class back in August, the dude at the registrar's office sighed in a condescending manner and, Eino-phrasing here, said, "D'uh! We give you a quarter's length grace period. Yer sposeta figure it out." I asked why no one had let me know that I was derelict in whatever it was, and he just said it was my job to know or find out my status. Turns out GRCC hadn't shipped my transfer degree/AA up to Western, only a class transcript. I'd only been admitted to Western on state transfer regs, so classes and grades (3.49 gpa) and strong SAT scores be damned, I was only accepted to University based on token agreements. After hanging my Grandmother's old cordless landline in its cradle and gassing up the GL, I high-tailed it the 115 odd miles south, grabbed my degree, then headed back north. In the morning, I got my admission straight, but I was at the back of the line, and missed out on every class I could have put toward this phantom writing degree.
On the cons side, Amrah wrote "harder to restart than continue," and she could not have been more correct. I took Winter quarter off to ski. Now I'm a 40-year-old English major with no actual credits toward that major and no fancy paper to back my hubris up, but with, I don't know, 1500-odd days on snow and countless turns, and the memory of Amrah rewinding Dulcinea over and over on the tape deck so she could hear "Something's Always Wrong" again, and again, and again, them killin woods slipping by in the dark. I only had a few cassettes in that red GL wagon. Ropin' the Wind, August and Everything After, and Dulcinea.
In among the decent snow that January, Amrah, some dude named Andy from Mount Vernon who did. like. binding repair or fry frying, and a lady from South Africa whose name is escaping me, and I had time to take the Tsawwassen ferry over to the Island. It's an incredible ride, across the more northern/less western of the two northwestern-most corners the lower 48, through the Gulf Islands, landing at Schwartz Bay on the north end of the Saanich Peninsula. It was cold, wet without any rain, and we huddled on the deck so we could watch those mysterious islands drift past and the gulls ride the ferry's slipstream. We slept on the floor of a float house in Victoria's Inner Harbour, owned by I think an older woman who had at some point dated the lady from South Africa's Pa at some point in the hitherto. Or something like that. The gentle swells of the Inner Harbour, combined all the driving I'd been doing as the sole owner of a car, knocked me out early. In the morning, we headed back east. Across the water and up the Nooksack, through all that endlessly deep conifer wood, up the lower Arm to the E-Lodge, and then I don't even know where one of those kids is. In the three days off the hill, I'd missed three days of skiing. The next winter, I decided that wouldn't do, and by July I'd been on snow 127 days. I only missed possible ski days if I was anærobic from too many days straight in the deep. 800" in a season is not a time to be gallivanting, and so I did none of the sort.
At the dock in Tsawwassen, there were giant screens to convey informations and entertainment. (I will not utter that most horrific of portmanteaux.) One could tune the car radio to the correct FM station, and the audio would come alive. Or that's what the ferry folks wanted. That day, they just looped Our Lady Peace's "In Repair" for the entire two hour sailing wait. It's not a bad song, and I still enjoy hearing it every year or two, but that's a lot of repeats. Maybe that's just how the Canadians do.
School of Fish's Human Cannonball is driving the ol' puke-orange Tercel up Chinook in the Spring, nothing specific lyrically, just full throttle alt-rock that fit in during the Grunge era. It was loud, a little off-kilter, much distortion. Those hairpins and Abies lasiocarpa. I spent my 21st up there, shuttling road shots with John John Rutherford's Pa, John Rutherford. We got after it pretty good, skiing from morning until almost dinner time. The last time climbing into the GL, my left hamstring locked up like I was still playing football.
The Turnpike Troubadours' albums, all four, hit pretty hard here in the desert. I don't care why.
Turning the corner above the new Stack Rock trail, that goofy 90 degree left, where before the trail, you'd find less expensive cars and some Fred Meyer winter clothing and $8 discs or garbage bags, you'll now see a new Defender in amongst the new Outbacks and new F250s. The awkward, less-than-thought-out jargon for the corner was "Ghetto Sleddin'". Today, with the addition of a trail, it's a "trailhead."
Evan Felker's plaintive voice and Kyle Nix' roughly, expertly sawn fiddle, I don't care what day it is anymore. Sometimes it's above the capping layer, sometimes it's puking, some days it's just mare's tails and faded blue denim above. Ponderosa mixing into the struggling, mistletoe-addled Doug fir. The country was cold, with the sun westward sinking; it's good to be back in this place. My hands around a Belgian-made Brownin', my mind on the lines of her face. Experience. Something off-handed, but still meaningful. McMurtry's "30-year crush."
The dying fir slides past, if there's some snow I'll goose it just a bit to try and egg the engineers over in Shibuya City on a little, hope I can get sideways before the ABS stabs at the rotors and that stern voice says NO FUN FOR YOU. "How good does it feel?!" Sometimes I slip that CD in cos a) I'm old, now, and b) dag, it sounds good. It hurts, too, sometimes. Yesterday, I was droppin the knee for a third of the Throne per turn, 8-10 new and the maze at the bottom of 6 overfull, Pa laughing at me and also--hopefully--with me. "The whole line was watching, you know." Today, I'm 40, mysterious knees draining my youthful impudence. I'm afraid to drop the knee at all.
The punchline to the joke is that when I hear Evan sing "you belong in these hills," I'm seeing Grass Mountain, and the Sisters, and Carbon Ridge. Corral Pass, and Suntop, the White and the West Fork, Lonesome Lake and the Dalles. Governor's Ridge, and Yakima, and Naches, and Sheep Lake. The upper Silver Creek drainage and the King. Pa quoting Clint Black. The lights are on, but nobody's home.
Title from Zoë Muth's "What Did You Come Back Here For?"