Monday, September 26, 2022

Lookin up to watch the birds

The only person at my twenty-year reunion more cagey than Amy was my first ski buddy, Aram Scott.  I saw him a couple times, and by the time I got through the crowd to chat, he was out the door, a ghost in the window.  By the time I got out the door, he was simply a ghost.  

Aram was one of the few kids in school I grew apart from but for whom never felt anything other than the simple affection that comes from knowing we once were friends and could be again if circumstances allowed.  They never really did, and for that I am still sorry.  Aram and I made a lot of good turns together, (think "good for 11 year olds"), ditched both the ski bus and class together, played baseball together at least one year, the sort of important things kids do that in the long run don't amount to much other than basically everything.  I totally get why he snuck out of the reunion.  It was just a weird amalgamation of the same but different.  James Cline looked exactly like he did the day before graduation, late 90s fashion included.  Keri Nietsche looked like she hadn't aged, but had lost the awkwardness of youth.  My little crowd, Chelsea and Noël and Crosby and Aaron Mayer (ever the salesman, just passing through), we all showed our age.  Crosby and Chelsea have a family, a house on solid ground, and careers.  Noël is married, has been successful in one form or another since basically graduation, and lives somewhere around DC.  Her parents moved here to southern Idaho cos politics.  Mayer's some big cheese or at least long-tenured cheese at the Ford dealer.  I hope he still skis.  I remember one time in the Brown Bag Room (RIP) he and Shane were arguing about boots.  It was some time in this millennium and he still thought his rear entry boots were the shit.  Shane and I both assured him that they were, but drop the "the".

I hope Aram still skis.  Neither of us were all that good, but that's not what we thought.

Some friends are Pa.

Life has been challenging since moving to the desert.  First Ashland, then Ogden, then BoyCee.  These places don't feel permanent.  Ashland, specifically.  It felt like a permanent vacation, like I could blink and it'd be gone.  In truth it's me who's gone.  

By all reports, Ashland still stands, above the fog but below the peaks.  I couldn't convince anyone from town to ski with me more than a run or two, and at the hill, it felt like the best thing I could do was keep my head down.  The trees were inviting.  Southeast Right held better snow than the ski area itself.  Longer runs, too, and fewer people.  The quick skate back on Road 20 thinned the crowd to near non-existence.  The Void musta had too many satyrs or something.  I wasn't the only bloke making turns under those beautiful Shasta fir, but I never met anyone else in there.

My buddy Rob lives in Talent, a little downstream from Ashland.  He grew up in Steamboat, but grew tired of shoveling snow, and after a season tuning skis at Mt A during a bad winter, gave up on skiing entirely.  I will never understand, but I'm grateful to know him.  I just wish he still skied.  Dude's fit, mellow, and cynical.  The kind of skier, I assume, who'd kick my ass most of the time while maybe not making PSIA-sanctioned turns.  My type of skier.

I like good turns, but more than that, I simply like turns.

--

The low pole is a little brody.  Kinda like forearms in lieu of high fives in baseball, but like, in skiing.  

Catherine and I are at the bottom of some pitch out south of Crystal Lakes.  The pitch was steep, and the snow was good.  Worth the challenging skintrack.  We both made nice turns, natch, and I don't know if she went first, or me, but I do remember she ate some homemade raw crackers and homemade yogurt for lunch.  She shared some crackers and they were darn tasty.  Anyway, it was steep and sloughy, and when we finished our turns, equally as tasty as her raw crackers, I reached out with my pole and we made that satisfying *click*.

I said, reminiscent of Dax Shepard in Idiocracy, "I like skiing."  And I do.

Amy's ski buddy, Dad, at Buck Hill.  With those skis.

Some folks make an impression, and some folks make a difference.  

Kenny Tataku and I were never close, but the guy is responsible, almost single-handedly, for where I am at this exact moment, sunset just expired, food on the range, partner rolling her muscles and stretching after a hard day in the desert sun working in someone else's garden.  Kenny is the definition of ski buddy, someone easy to be around, who doesn't hold a grudge when you aren't around cos he's been there, seen how this life can take its toll even though we're all just chasing a good feeling.  

It was Kenny who said, "Go talk to Brad, and tell him I told you to."  I started the 1st day of December, '007.  The best job, without qualification, I've ever had.  Not for nothin', it was the only way I could have met Amy, my partner of longer than most marriages.  I often feel all sorts of things, negative or not, that I'd avoid, but to avoid those, we would have had to have never met, and that is just not okay with me.  I'll take whatever bullshit this uncaring universe gives if it means we face all of it together.

I was about 24, 25, Kenny and I were talking about technique.  I was trying to lay railroad tracks on the Back Traverse, failing at speed, and frustrated.  Kenny just said, "You're turning left with your right foot, and turning right with your right foot.  You can't.  The turns need to be a mirror of each other."  Something like that, anyway.  It made sense.  Load that cuff, let your inside leg follow, draw the knee to the inside of the turn, just glide back and forth, back, and forth.  The rest will work itself out.

It has.

Brad hired me on the spot, after I mentioned Kenny's name.  Brad said "Kenny taught me to tune, and he wouldn't send me a jerk or an incompetent."  Everything for me, today, draws from that moment.  The difference between a kid and a man, between guessing and knowing, between following orders and making one's own way.

--

It's a curse of good low-light lenses that every time you notice the sky on a storm day, it seems like the sun has just started to break through the heavy Cascade stratus deck.  Today, it's been raining since God knows when, and Dustin and I simply followed through on our plans.  We were gonna ski, and by God, we did.  I mean, d'uh.  That's what one does here in the PNW.  Or at least that's what we tell people.  I think it's '99.  That winter.  I could be wrong.

The snow wasn't great earlier in the day, but as the rain abates, the snow settles further and the surface water thins, and it gets better.  And better.  Dustin and I have a timeframe, and we just keep skiing until we have to head down.  Skiers' right of Green Valley is that choice, slarvy snow, each turn more effortless than the last.  People talk about Pisten Bullys and Champagne Powder Snow tee-em and yet here, some random day, the name of which I cannot remember, rained-on snow is all there is.  And it is glorious.

I don't remember what skis Dustin had, and it doesn't matter.  I'm 41 years old, and I still remember those turns, 98 or 99 or whatever.  I've forgotten a hundred deep days, give or take a 20 or 30, but skiing with a good friend in the rain, some clammy base layers and soaked socks, wax scraped entirely from our bases, that is irreplaceable.

You already assumed this is coming, but when we decided to head for the barn, knowing we had no more time in the frame, is when the sun decided to poke through.

--

My phone died on my 27th birthday.  Well, the battery ran out of juice.  You'd think I would not remember a specific day when my phone battery ran out of juice unless it left me stranded in a desert basin, somewhere in the eastern Mojave, sun beating down on my parched neck, canteen long since pierced by a vindictive roadrunner, but no, it's the top of Pineapple Pass, June of '008, with the whole ramp below me, Catherine making those turns you want to make when you are imagining this exact scene.  There was no danger, I had a charger in my car down in North Bend, and really I just missed filming the scene.  I usually didn't think of taking crappy flip-phone video, except for that day, and the dern battery died.

The turns weren't memorable for the type of the snow.  It was just June of a Good Snow Year, and not really anything else, and that snow is consistent.  I know the snow was good, because I absolutely love summer snow, but I don't remember the actual turns at all.  I remember the views.  I remember the pitch.  Chair Peak, buried Source Lake somewhere under the remaining snowpack. I remember the short skate back to Catherine's Outback.  I remember the Kuhl jeans I had waiting for me, the ones that looked out of style and felt great and still made me sheepish enough when wearing them that I sold them at a second hand store.  The pockets were wrong, or the legs too baggy, or the gray too gray, I don't know.  It's interesting to remember the jeans, who drove, the date, my phone, and not the turns, but there it is.  The crux of all this memory.

Pineapple Pass, Alpental.  Not June.

--

Amy was fast.  She had her GS boards on, natch, and it was a vintage PNW January drought.  (I've since confirmed with at least one other person, Ryan [the Owner], that this really is A Thing.) This time, I remember the snow.  It was. . .um. . .white, it covered the ground, and if used correctly, it was also fast, like Amy.  I am always fast.  They (well, Lisa and Bob, anyway) didn't call me Two Turn Eino for nothin'.

I don't think I knew she was behind me, and when she passed, I noticed.  Her GS boards were of suitable vintage, late 90s Salomon, that F$#@ You Red they used for their racing program.  Silly Prolink arms on the topsheet, my absolute favouritest bindings and yellow race plates.  She looked comfortable, arms low, eyes goggles to the fall line, helmet, well, on her head, I guess.  Almost 13 years later, I'm sitting at our dinner table, grateful for all the years and even the shit we've been through, no matter how high it piles or how rotten the silage was that the cows ate.

I do not, however, remember much about the run.  I remember Amy ripping past me when I stopped at the top of the Gulch, her hands forward.  In my mind, it was sunny, but so what if it wasn't?  The outcome is the same.  I know what she sounds like at 7 in the morning, a minute after the alarm goes off.  I know that if I find a good pic of a cute elephant baby on the flappy internet box, she'll squeal a bit and maybe be a shade happier than she was before.  I know that we'll fight about certain things, and that the fighting can hurt like hell and also make each of us stronger.  Individually, and together.

Amy isn't fast right now, and that's totally okay.  Her knees fight her, to the point where the docs say she needs some Ti upgrades and some UHMW poly, to where skiing isn't always the right answer.  This from a man, a stoic Norske, an arrogant Svenska, a silent Sámi, who for 41 years has thought skiing is always the right answer.  We age, we change, we hopefully grow.  We're old enough to start thinking about second acts.

--

Stina had to leave her house to The Former Guy.  She built the damn thing herself, including the chainsaw carvings.  It's a beautiful structure, open, comfortable, cosy somehow, set back a piece in the foothills, away from the road, invisible until you right underneath it.  We're from different places, different worlds, really.  That house, though, before TFG stole it, it's like I designed it, except I did not.  Wood for days, open, isolated, quiet, air to breathe and room to believe.

My earliest memory of Stina is somewhere long before the new Northway chair.  I was chasing her group, 18 years old, just then learning how to bum, bumping chairs for Jace, fighting off those demons we all seem to face.  Mind on everything except this moment, whatever this moment is.  We're down low in the draw below Spook that led to Lower Northway or I-5, moguls and icy spots and all those lichen-hung Abies.  (The new chair kinda changed things some.  The draw isn't quite the same.  The moguls are bigger, the hardpan easier to scrape clean.)  Stina had one of those hats, I don't know, fleece? Colourful, kind of pill-boxy, not hip at all.  Out of time.  It is the best illustration of Stina for me, style borne of force-of-will rather than some other asshole's idea of what is cool.  Not hip, and better for it.  She doesn't need your approval anyway.

I'm not lying when I say Stina Stringer is one of the best skiers, both freeheel and fixed, that I have ever seen, let alone skied with.  (In the vacinity of? At the same mountain as?)  That exit, the creekbed draining Upper Spook and the Horseshoe Cliffs and Paradise Bowl, before Pa widened it, it wasn't exactly smooth going.  Slackcountry, as some of the more with-it writers say.  Those shoulder-high moguls that never really go away until Mud Season.  Pa calls em Volkswagens.  Stina's crew were all experienced dudes, current and former bums, strong skiers, and she's the one who really got it done.  All five-foot-not-much and a buck-very-few, she was (still is, hopefully, once her blowed-up foot heals) the strongest and smoothest, by at least one order of magnitude.

I remember her gliding through the bumps, and I wondered, "Who does that?!" Knee not quite to the ski, cos even when tired, she still held her technique.  I wanted to do what she was doing.  That mythical, mystical turn.  Bending the ski through technique and strength, demurring when people say, "That looks haaaard," like they were some bumpkin who just learned what a freeway is.

To learn that a person such as her, sought after by many dudes, quiet when you don't know her, is also kind, giving, and loyal, well, sometimes people are good.  I am grateful for that.

--

I like good turns, but more than that, I like turns.

If memory serves, it's the 25th of February, '008.  Pa's birthday, number 60, to be exact.  He was probly working.  I missed 70 cos people are terrible drivers.  (Ma and Amy and my mother-in-law, Jane, all thought I should stay alive, that even skiing isn't worth fighting off 70 mile-an-hour cars driven by idjits in what really was a prime, deep, cold cycle.  Stina had to rub it in, of course.  I was pretending to tune a shitty bike in BoyCee while she was dropping the knee out South.  Stina's Chute, even, in the cold late-February sun on 8 or 10 or whatever had settled there.)  '008, that was a different story.  Same weather on the day, but it'd been a minute since there was any snow.  It was cold, chalky, that hero snow I can't get enough of.

Kupsis and I kept sprinting South, skating and booting quickly to whatever line we fancied.  Nothing could stop us, and I don't think I've skied much better faster on anything as steep.  Somewhere around the fifth or thirtieth lap, at the first gate, a strawberry blonde stranger asked "What's skiin' well?"  and I just spat, "Me."  I had been enjoying, more than usual, the alpine gear.  I was in my own boots, I think, not sure I actually had alpine boots right then, and on a demo Katana.  The first model, the one with the UHMW swallowtail that the mags all hated.  Glorious.  Ugly, like, in a good way.  That ski always had its nose vaguely up, and it was right in line with how I was feeling.  The snow was hardpan, but the good kind, like the dirt all the mountain bike mags used to sweat about back when there were actual mountain bike mags.  Confident, I'd call myself.  Arrogant, even.  She, this to-me-unknown skier, was with Sean, the Snowsports guy.  He mumbled something about my sense of humour and the, y'know, undeniable fact that yeah, I'm pretty good.  Mike and I booted up the Throne to the first gate with something more than urgency, and skated hard around the back.  Dodging those Abies lasiocarpa branches at speed.  Pretty much ran up the King.  Hazy sun.  At the top, I took a short breather.  I'd been fighting bronchitis for two weeks at that point, my lungs wheezing, only my anger and hubris allowing me full-speed South laps.

As I dropped my skis, she ran up the traverse as fast as Mike and I had, and I, I had to stop.  Sean was nowhere to be seen.  She'd dropped him outright.  She nodded, laughed a little, said her name was Catherine, and asked,

Well, Mr Confident.  Where you gonna go?!

The King.  If you know, you go.  Bluff suitably called, I went Hourglass, third shot skiers' right of the summit, the easy way.
--

Title from the classic Roger Miller tune, "Old Friends".  Willie did a handful of versions with different ol' friends.  Give 'em a listen.  I hope you'll like at least one.