The lights are dim, kinda smoky even. New Year's Eve, 1999, Crystal Mountain. It's Noël, Chelsea, Peter, and me. We're all acting like it's a normal night, that the world isn't going to end in a handful of hours, cos, well, why would it end on Pacific Standard Time if it didn't end, say, on Japan Central Standard Time earlier in the day? We're all in various states of curiosity, though, if nothing else. All around us are people we don't really know, even if we each know a handful of 'em a little bit in our own ways. Peter and I had bumped chairs all Summer, Peter first with his head eight or twenty times on my 18th birthday back in June when the two of us were building that old, elevated, loooong ramp on Old 3 from whatever crunchy corn Bruce Engdahl brought up from the Back Traverse. I don't think Peter'd ever really spent much time around chairs. Maintenance was running the beautiful ol' '63 Riblet double to find any kinks they hadn't found during the short spring fix-it season. For whatever reason, Peter couldn't grasp the fool-me-once adage. I'd felt bad. Anyway, this night, six months later, it was both light and dark, quiet and loud, quick and slow.
I asked Kim Rausch the next morning, just to confirm, and she said the two booms had been a 50 sack and a hundo. Or whatever jargon she used. ANFO, that slow-burn explosive that so nicely dovetails with a stick or two of DynoAP for avy control, makes one heck of a shockwave when Patrol sets off about 45 kgs at once. I've experienced this twice, and the second was no less surprising than the first. Kim said that even though they were on top of 70-odd inches of good snowpack that they'd controlled all season, they still brought up dirt.
Walking around the base area was a little surreal, orange light and crazed locals and all. Griffin Eshpeter slid by us on the slickery* Boulevard heading down, fireworks already all boomed and ANFO all burnt, smoke still hanging above Silver Creek. Maybe it was Alex Kemp, doesn't matter. They didn't crash, and I don't know that whoever it was was actually drunk, despite appearances. They were a year behind me in school, but my age. (That shouldn't have mattered then, and it certainly doesn't today.)
The light slowly faded, and by the Family Cabin at the bottom of the Boulevard, it was a normal Winter night. We shared some Champagne, or at least bubbly; I don't know where it was from. The elkers and White River ghosts watched us from the trees, digging for food under the snowpack.
Lisa leans out from the shack at the top of New 3. "GO TO SIX NOW!!" she says. Stina and Catherine and Steve Holmsen and I don't wait. We point it. Six has been closed all day, and there's a break in the weather after puking for who knows how long. I don't know it for sure, but I think Baugher wants some skier compaction before the cycle gets going again. It's one of those glorious March days, cool and showery, and the snow piles up more than you think. Steve and I ride up in the quiet. Baugher is bumping chairs at the bottom, Patrol Director name tag and thirty years of service notwithstanding. His assistant, Brent, is up top. He's grinning as he does, crooked tooth and general good nature.
Brent pulled me over once, seventh grade, but I dodged a ticket. I argued with him like a good 12 year old. I'M IN CONTROL BRENT WHY YOU PICKIN ON ME. He was polite and firm, like Noël told me to be with the missionaries in Ogden. "You were out of control, son. I know it when I see it." The difference between being able to change direction, but not stop, and being able to stop on command. I don't know that I really understood that until I was bumping chairs myself years later.
Stina and Catherine and I wait at the bottom of 6 a good ten minutes for Steve while he digs under the line for his phone, somewhere up near the Punk Rock. Stina's yelling, as though he can hear us from this distance. HURRY THE (*&$)@#(*&^#$(*&#^$(*&#^(*#&$^(*& UP STEVE ITS JUST A PHONE THIS IS SNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW and then he finally finds it. He reaches his hand up like some kinda treasure hunter, and then heads on down in that albatross stance of his, turns solid, round, expert, and just a little bit goofy. Catherine and I ride up this time, shoulder to shoulder, still quiet for these two irreplaceable runs. So unique in the midst of all that year. 114 days on snow that time, and these two runs right under Crystal's marquee stand out like the first day driving Blue by myself,
power sliding skidding out of Fed Forest by the ol' hollow-truss bridge at almost 90 cos, well, yer 16. How else does one drive at 16?
Sometimes it takes years to build a community. People on this here internet always talk bout building one, but really, you can't. They happen, quietly and otherwise, through shared experience, or shared value. Some are as transient as the snow they're built on, some are as durable as the pavement connecting the houses and schools.
Most ski areas, the good ones anyway, this takes a few weeks or months. Maybe the bonds are tenuous, and years later you sit bolt upright in bed and wonder just where did Food Service Ryan With the Earrings and Goofy Grin go? It's been 21 years since you lived together accidentally, and you'd long forgot. Sometimes you wake up in your house in a different time zone, with a friend sleeping in her van in your driveway, boyfriend beside her. It's funny calling Stina in her 50s and Martin in his 60s "boyfriend and girlfriend", but there you go. I've known her for over 20 years, and we've been good friends for almost all of that. I skied up next to her and the Former Guy and Kenny Tataku in line at the bottom of 9 headin South, and she looked down at my skis and said, "Do your skis fight?" I mumbled something about Ma and Pa bein Scandihoovian and how on a map, Norge is on the left and Sverige is on the right, but basically, she's been there ever since. I appreciate someone who can joke at my expense.
The dark closes in quickly at the bottom of any valley, killin' woods or not. The White has those and more, deep cover and crunching elk hooves and the ghosts of who knows how many. Only a handful of folks in modern times have ever really called it home for life. It's a ways to town, twenty or more miles just to the bottom of the hill. The local tribes hunted up here, for elk and deer and whatever else they looked for. Millennia stretch to epoch, with the alternating quiet and violence of natural life interrupted by snow and fire and flood and lahar.
In peak Pineapple, there's nobody to help but neighbours, conservative-value cliché aside. Filling sand bags at the Fire Hall, watching a friend's dog if she's stuck in town, loaning your shovel and your time to throw logs from one side of the bridge to the other on the Greenwater to keep the lumber roiling downstream from blowin it out. It isn't always life-and-death. In point of fact, it rarely is. Sometimes you just sit on the floor with Jen's awesome old lab mutt and scratch the poor girl's ears and think out loud. Discuss the verities, and head home when it's bedtime. Wonder what those noises are outside the door.
Usually they're just the elk.
Crystal is known for its view, something I took almost for granted for most of my time there. Tahoma, obvs, but Pahto and Loowit, and sometimes all the way to Kulshan. Stuart and the Wenatchee Range, the Castle, Fifes Peaks, Aix, Goat Rocks, countless smaller hills. The White almost five grand below, silent at this distance. The upper White isn't this dramatic, punchy place full of toothy giants. It is home, though, time and distance and interlopers notwithstanding. Just over the ridge, in the next small drainage, a couple small subalpine lakes sit quietly under some impressive rock bands, with a nice mess of Abies lasiocarpa for company. Crystal is not known for tree skiing, even though it should be. Stina and Kenny showed my scores of little lines, whether before we officially met when I was just the 18 year-old kid chasing one or both of them, or when we were there together and on purpose.
One run, not really tree skiing, per se, but with trees, I snuck between some hemlock and dropped about three or four feet onto what I had assumed was a puffy, ten-inch-thick pillow of angel hair and unicorn dreams, just to find it was two inches on top of a rock-hard ankle biter. My back has not been the same since. I don't know that Stina or Catherine really knew that my life would be different after, that my chiro bills would run into the many thousands and my identity as a bum would slowly winnow until I'm in a different drainage entirely. A desert, really. I can't say at all that my ganked back and fussy ribs led me here, but nothing is ever isolated. In the rental shop Stina showed me some stretches I still use today, and Catherine did some energy work that I as a cynic don't really believe in, but still absolutely appreciate and cherish. Sometimes someone giving a shit about you means more than anything else in the world possibly can.
Moving day is hard, really no matter where you are. Sometimes it's physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual. Sometimes it's the last you'll see of someone. I keep in contact with a handful of people from the various hills. Some have moved on, some unfortunately have passed on. I wish them well, mostly. Even that one jackass who hit on Amy in front of me, and then had the stones to come to my shop for basework. At least he could make a good beanie. My other good beanie--besides my favourite that I can't wear here because BoyCee people just cannot let go of BSU--was also knit by someone I haven't spoken to in years. Kind of an odd reminder, each of these. These pieces of people, real or felt, keep the past nearby.
We headed down the Boulevard that last day, mid-April of '011. We'd had a couple beers, shared some nachos on the tiny deck of
Rafters The Bullwheel Rafters with Sean, absorbing the late April Sunday evening and the warmth that surrounded us, laughed at some jokes, wondered at the ethereal among the fir and hemlock, generally acted as though it was another day, and, well, every day is just another day, I guess. No controlling that. Haven't seen Sean since, though I hear tell from time to time. Abbie, Sam, so many people whose names I forgot or didn't bother to really know. Sam, unfortunately, passed away this winter. The details aren't important, but dammit, I wish he could have caught a break. He and I started working for Brad the same day, tuning skis and generally tryna avoid responsibility. We were never close, but he's a good dude and we got along really well. We joked about entering the Powder 8s on our teles just to do a single Powder 8, but full-length. He fell into a crevasse doing sweep on the Emmons Glacier as a climbing ranger, and never quite recovered. His seizures got to the point where he thought speed-flying was a good idea cos it was fast, and he only had a minute or so from start to finish where he was in danger. He still had to be airlifted a couple times.
Sam was rumoured to be a better-than-decent cat driver, and for a ski area, he was definitely a fairly hard worker. Stina said the last time she talked to him, he was figuring stuff out, and had been seizure-free for quite some time. Some sort of medical progress or surgery had helped out, and things were looking up. His passing was accidental, and yet it wasn't all that surprising. It hurt more than I expected, that understanding that none of us really controls anything. I had made peace with the knowledge that either Pa or Stina would call, matter-of-fact as they both are, and I still almost threw up. Sam deserved better, or at least to be taken while he was chasing some adrenaline high. I always hoped he'd find some help, the kind that he actually did, and that his seizures and his luck would both improve. That he'd find another lady, someone who'd love his dog, someone like Abbie, but like, not, at the same time. I hoped we'd actually one day get to skate out to the Boxcar, and drop in. Sam first, me following. He'd go left, make his one right-hander, then I'd jump and we'd make that tandem, knee-dropped left, then I'd finish with my one right-hander, and we'd ski off knowing whoever it was we thought we were competing with so long ago was long gone, and it was just cold smoke off the top of the snow, some mountain hemlock, a little breeze, and a lifetime of stories.
Almost as an afterthought, we dropped by Sean's trailer that last night. It was closing in on dark, and a handful of instructors and random folks were milling about drinking brown bottle beer and wondering just what came next. We'd already technically closed that year, but as these things seem to go, Crystal kept reopening for weekends until they either ran outa steam or snow. We left before that happened.
As parties go, it wasn't. Just some tired, sad folks slowly aging out of the scene, looking for grander dreams or a way out of the flatland life. Either chasing a dream of bumming from here on out, or of finding some real motivation and a "real" career. I certainly wish there was some way of forgetting the emotional damage and the physical toll a life of bumming actually exacts. I wish I could show up for closing day, wear a cape or whatever and throw a backie off the end of the pond skim, and slither into whichever cave I'd find for the summer, but I cannot. What might have been, I guess.
As Closing Days go, it wasn't. Everyone else had already left, LB and Abbie and really anybody, and it was just me and Brad, and then just Brad. Amy and I met my buddy Jason on the side of a road in Oly and then it was foot-down until Exit 19 in the late afternoon, catching up to Pa and Ma and unloading the trailer they had pulled out of Enumclaw at 5 am. Ashland, OR is such a different place than Greenwater, WA. It's a small town, comparable to Enumclaw, but it feels like a city. Shakespeare and folks from The Bay and fancy hotels. Lithia Park wedged between million dollar houses, but even with all that money, there are cougars and bears in the trees and chupacabra on the highway. Eleven years have passed, some successfully and others, well, I speak for both of us when I say I'm happy they are passed.
The nachos we shared with Sean that night weren't memorable, but I still remember them. The nachos Marquez and his ex shared at the old Caldera dive under 99 the night before we left Ashland three years later weren't any better, but I still remember them, too, also. Mt A hadn't opened that year, not even for a day just cos, so that quiet night with a couple beers was all that we really got. Closing Day can border on spiritual some years, to the point where I can't stomach missing it and I also can barely stomach participating. I grab my Closing Day Poles from behind the door, the ones I got from my Father-in-Law all those years ago, and hope to ski in a button-down and sunscreen and maybe, if we're lucky, some real good spring corn.
The light is dim, kinda smoky, even. Catherine and I are at the top of Rex, a couple years before that silly gondola. It's chilly, the April corn freezing slowly in the waning warmth. The sun sets quickly, as it does when one doesn't want it to. The lifts are silent, unlit. Green Valley is dark, disappearing quickly, and we don't dawdle. The freezing corn snow is skiable, 100 or so days on snow so far that year. (4th of July would be 114.) My legs are solid. Quads and hams and calves ropy from dropping the knee at speed 10 or 12 days a week. It's embarrassing, really, but in the 14 years since, I have never been as fit.
To be honest, I don't remember the turns. I say the snow was skiable, and it had to be cos we made it down, but Catherine's like a PSIA Level 5 Alpine and Level 7 Tele, and I'm, like, pretty good, so skiable is relative. Six inch sun cups in 4th of July fog is skiable, too, if you want it to be.
It's the light I remember. The White, milky in the early spring runoff, down below to the west. The dim, smoky sunset red and black. The orange flashed and faded, and then we just had to turn tail and run. Neither of us had lights. These moments are always there, as are the old ones watching from the subalpine fir atolls. I don't know if they're benevolent, and I don't know if it matters. We'll all join em, one at a time.
Interesting resources for them killin' woods:
*Pa coined this term. Don't argue.
Title from Iris DeMent's "Our Town"