Wednesday, October 4, 2023

If you stay, it'll get better.

 The last turn I made at Mt Ashland was the most painful single second I have ever experienced.  Broken arm, blowed out knee, wisdom teeth, lifelong back trouble, migraines, none of that hit like that moment by the rental shop, the only tele turn I attempted in all of the nearly snowless winter of 2014. 

Mt Ashland, Siskiyous, State of Jefferson.  Not exactly Mecca, but you'd be wrong to omit it from your dossier.  Just look at that gorgeous Riblet fan up there!  Seriously, get after it.  Photo via

The hills above Ashland, Oregon have a pretty diverse plant community.  To the northeast of town is oak savannah, right up into a high treeline made by Doug fir and ponderosa.  Down low, it's almost barren, reminiscent of the Great Basin.  Rangeland, sparse white oak that may have been more prevalent long ago.  It's hot, the afternoon sun hitting at right angles in three dimensions on the steep hillside.

To the south, it's cooler, calmer.  Where the heat on the southerly aspects northeast of town make the air feel hectic and the bugs aggressive, the steep, damp, dark mountains south and west of town are quieter, full of shadows.  The streams that drain the watershed are small, collecting together as they tumble.  The hillsides are heavy with the trees of many species, and the landscape changes with aspect and elevation.  The lowest forest is ponderosa and madrone, the soil a combination of slowly decomposing pine duff and even more slowly decomposing granite.  Late in the summer, it resembles moon dust on the trails.  As you climb the drainage, the ponderosa gives way to Doug fir, and eventually to mountain hemlock and Shasta fir.  I love conifers, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel there's a hierarchy among them.  Ponderosa is a widespread species, with many subspecies, and the Klamath-Siskiyou variety (ssp benthamiana) is gorgeous.  Red, red bark.  Tall, imposing, healthy.  Cones that won't kill you, not like a sugar pine will. Wet-side Doug fir, too, feels bigger and more, I don't know, anthemic than its Rocky Mountain counterpart.  It's the higher-elevation trees toward the Siskiyou Crest, though, that stand tall for me.  Mountain hemlock, reminiscent of but stouter than its wetland cousin the Western.  The droopy tops more upright, and the profile more suited to shedding snow.  Above them all, the Shasta fir.  It's a hybrid of some sort or other, depending on your perspective as a lumper or a splitter, of two majestic true firs representing two very different floristic provinces.  From the north, the noble fir, and from the south, the red fir.

Them's some cones, brati.  Abies x shastensis.  Pic from the American Conifer Society.

The crest above town is part of a bridge between the Cascades and the Klamath Range. Mt Ashland itself is the tallest peak on the crest, the tallest in the Siskiyou subrange.  Before we moved there for Amy's Masters program at Southern Oregon, the Siskiyous for me represented only the Summit on I-5, which frequently closes for weather due to its just-high-enough elevation and the sheer volume of trucks and other travelers who use it, and the Shakespeare Festival.  The three years we spent in Ashland showed otherwise, that the land surrounding it is a jumble and a crossroads, old and new piled up and twisted, with deep canyons and ancient species minding their own business.  Where here in the desert of southern Idaho I can count on one of Yoda's hands the conifer species, there are places near Ashland with ten or more in a small space.  The Miracle Mile due south in the Russian Wilderness has at least 17 different conifers, possibly 18, all within a square mile.

On a winter day with just the right flow, one can experience a twenty degree drop in temperature from Exit 14 to downtown, around two and a half miles.  My friend Rob used to live out by the golf course there, and one day when I woke up above the bike shop we both worked at to fog and freezing temps, he thought he'd ride in to work without a jacket because it was darn near sixty degrees at his house.  He walked through the door a little disoriented by the change.  This sorta deal isn't unusual under an inversion regimen, but that change is always with elevation, not just heading two and a half miles west.  It's that same Summit, the one that bedevils so many OTR truckers each winter, that allows strong southerly downsloping.  The warm Central Valley far to the south will be under high pressure, with the Cascades to the north being pummeled by yet another east Pacific low.  Wind will shoot the gap between Pilot Rock and Mt A, and drop down to the valley, heating as it compresses.  The flow usually isn't strong enough to scour the cold air much north of the bottom of the hill, so just that little Mediterranean pocket lives in blissful ignorance of the damp cold a few feet away.

The Bowl, Mt Ashland.  Them shits is right.

We moved to Ashland at the end of April in 2011, a couple days after our only nephew was born.  It was a long day, leaving Greenwater early and driving mostly straight to Ashland.  We got in late in the evening, and my parents helped us carry our lives up the twenty-two stairs to the surprisingly large apartement above the bike shop.  When Merrill and Ron tacked the apartment onto the building in order to fill the "owner-occupied" requirement that came along with being a retail spot in the Hysterical District, they were quite ingenious.  A spacious kitchen, stairs with storage leading up to a raised living room and one of the bedrooms, a ladder up to two rooms that could be offices, storage, bedrooms, a ganj-grow, whatever the Ashland hippie of the early 80s could desire.  It wasn't perfect.  The baseboard heating was inadequate to those damp inversion mornings, and the third-floor elevation without a/c or strong circulation meant we spent a goodly sum on fans and the loud window unit that did its best to keep us only somewhat too hot rather than way too hot.  The Armory (an historic building, to fit its surroundings) hosted shows sometimes that would keep us up late at night and into the early mornings.  We had a spacious attic that was technically shared with the shop, but Merrill hadn't really used it in some time.  The location downtown was ideal, walking distance to most things and riding distance to everything else.  We drove across town to the Shop'N'Kart by choice, because it had both the best prices and the best selection of any store in the valley, otherwise the cars didn't rack up many miles.

We left Crystal that year at the waning end of one of the biggest winters I have been a part of.  A particularly potent spring pattern coated the entire Cascades in a volatile snowpack.  Baker, for instance, got 227" in March. More than an average wet season, for instance, at Bogus, and a number that until this past winter ('023), I thought I wouldn't have the pleasure of skiing again.  At Crystal, it started snowing around the 15th of February, and for at least 8 weeks, there was measurable snow each day.  Not most days, each day. That could obviously be an inch a day for a week, but many times it was eight or ten or fifteen.  Colin Meagher had an ad in one of the bike mags that summer, a photo at Chinook Pass with Keith Rollins standing tall on his road bike, dwarfed by the fifteen-foot snowbanks.  Fifteen feet of snow in June, below 5500 feet.  It was a hard choice to make, leaving home, leaving that much snow behind.  It was at the end of a long run, frustrated, feeling trapped, maybe made a little in haste, but not one I would actually change if I had the choice.  We could have simply held on like the old barnacles so many ski area lifers become; crusty, angry, combative, entrenched.  Mossbacks.  It's easy to romanticise what might have been, but one doesn't really know, now.

THE Mossback.

We missed Closing Day.  Crystal moved on without us, got busier, more anonymous, hipper, more 'grammable.  I mean, the Silver Creek drainage has the same physiography, but don't tell all the new folks that. They DISCOVERED the place.  Mostly gone are our ilk, the Carhartt crowd.  LB is flying bush planes in Alaska, and last I heard, pounding nails when he needs to in Greenwater.  Abby's raising a family and fighting wildland fire.  Lizzie just got her Doctorate at the U in SLC.  Liza is in SLC, too, coincidentally, out of contact even though she is likely the fulcrum for Amy and me getting together and staying.  I lost patience and said some stuff and now there's just some good memories and a hope that she's doing fine.  Curtis and Dawn are long since broken up, Laura off doing stuff and I think she's also got a family, Brad has a Sugar Mama, his words, and a daughter.  The base area is a mess, and the community downstream is no longer a part of the day-to-day.  The entire goal of the new owners seems to be selling beer to bored tech workers and soliciting proposals from various middle-management.  (We watched one of these interactions this past February.  It was a scene from Office Space, to be sure.)

The night before we left, we shared some nachos with Sean Bold in Rafters The Bullwheel Rafters, hung out in B Lot with the few folks who were left, and then disappeared ourselves.  No closure.  We woke up, gassed up in Enumclaw, put our respective right feet down, and went to sleep in an entirely different place than either of us really knew.

Hurts to leave home when this is home. The King, CM Southback, on Pa's 75th. Shank Chute, Pinball, Pinball Face, the Toaster, Toaster Face, some rocks that probly have nice lichen communities, Samsquanch, A Basin Saddle where Eli lost his ski and made us lose valuable ski time all those years ago sorry Ma said it's best to forgive but Pa said it's more fun to hold a grudge or at least that's what I tell people cos it's funny I mean at least Brad laughed and Patrick guffawed.

Some years, Closing Day is timely, the second or third Sunday in April, with dirt showing through, sun, slush, and a kind of frantic last hour where you realise you are counting down the runs regardless of most skiers' superstitious fear of actually calling "last run".  Near panic.  Some years, the better and best years, there are a string of closings that last a few weeks, where if you have a thick enough wallet you can ski a handful of Closing Days without ownership, without the bittersweet drive downstream or the sad stumble into the E Lodge for one last night in the hills.

This year, ours was among the latest of any who don't normally do this sort of thing.  We expect that Mammoth will push into the summer each season--they made they 6th of August this year--as will A Basin.  Snowbird and Bachelor always aim for Memorial Day Weekend.  Timberline usually gets a Sunday or three in August.  Bogus, though, is among the crowd of areas closing regardless of snowpack, scheduled in advance, hoping just to make the projected last day.  Last year, we melted out in March and April turns were just hopping over dirt on the first Sunday cos, well, we can't close in March, now, can we?  Closing '019 was a deep day, 14 April, a bit of a surprise.  It'd been warm and dry on Saturday, and even though the forecast was for tenish inches, nobody thought it'd happen, but it was among my deepest days in an already really good year.

This year, though, was different.  Everywhere in the West had a good year, especially south of the 45th.  Everyone knows how big the Sierra went, but the Wasatch was at least one pay grade above.  Alta hit 900 for the first time on record, a mere 625" above the low set back when we were in Ogden.  Bogus--lowly, forgotten by the industry even though they started the affordable pass trend back in the 90s Bogus--hit 360" in mid May, 80% above average. Seven inches shy of Crystal, when in most winters the difference is Crystal 2, Bogus 1.  Or more.  We stayed open fully until the 16th of April, a respectable closing, then enjoyed three bonus weekends until a slushy, appropriately uncertain finale, the 6th of May.  It's the latest I have skied lifts at my home hill since 2002, and even that would require the asterisk of having moved back home after Baker closed.  It was bittersweet, of course, and I missed a good few runs waiting out a persnickety morning gut, and I left as unsatisfied as I always do.  Not because the turns were anything other than great.  They were memorable, and quiet, and mostly in the sun.  The corn snow piled up in places, ran smooth in others, rarely sticky, and, well, very much like I want from my May turns.  Sloppy, challenging, unappealing to most of the boozehounds who headed up only to find they didn't care enough to really do much.  A modest group of us hung out at the top of Chair 1 throwing snowballs until Patrol got impatient and quoted Semisonic quoting the apocryphal "you don't have to go home. . ."  I skied the Other Ridge to the Other Bowl at short-swing pace.  As many turns as possible, stopping long enough for Patrol to almost catch me before moving on.  Then, just like '011, I left unceremoniously.  Other folks were boozing in the lot, natch.  Honking their horns on the way out, yelling, whooping, doing what privileged white people seem to do in these situations. 

6 May 23.  Late enough, for once.  Of course, nothing is ever enough, now, is it?  Hiding from the Eye of Sauron with Closing Day Poles and shadows, Boise National Forest, Boise County, ID.

I'd like to think the ebb and flow of what most folks think of as ski season, November to April, has given me some sort of ability to handle endings.  I don't know that I handle them well all the time, given that I think ski season should run into July or at least until I just don't have the oomph anymore, but I actually feel good about the season for the first time in a long time, probably since before that white flash of pain by the rental shop at Mt A in 2014. Closing Day in 2013 was fun, a day like the 6th of May this year, a bonus Sunday where I skied with my Closing Day Poles for the first time, Amy and I slopping rather expertly through the moguls under Ariel, oblivious to the fact that it'd be the last time either of us would ride the lifts there.  I wasn't satisfied then, of course, but then I can only think of one day in my life where I actually thought "this is enough", and that was 9 July, day 127 on snow in 2002, and I was so exhausted and burnt out that the next year felt like nothing was ever going to be enough again.

I can still picture one specific run, directly under Ariel. We took turns shooting video of each other, probly lost on a phone Amy doesn't have anymore.  We were in progress, just another day in the life, thinking all things would continue onward, and upward.  The snow was that rare commodity, true corn snow.  Huge grains, easy to push around and yet not all that easy to ski until you know what you are doing and are strong enough to do it.  One day among many, and yet like the tall Shasta firs around us, somehow above the rest.  Only a handful of days measure up.  Cinco de Mayo at Alpental in 2006.  Easter, '06,  Closing Day at Crystal. Closing Day at Snowbird in '016. Opening Day, 4 November 2005, Crystal.  Veteran's Day, Crystal, '06.  Closing Day, Baker, 2001.  All of June, 2008, Central WA Cascades.  There's a theme here. Not many beginnings, and a blur in the middle, and then panic.  Postpone the inevitable for one satisfyingly unsatisfying day.

Daffodils before Closing, just the way it should always be. "Historic" North End, BoyCee, ID.

- -

Title from a song Suzy Boguss wrote with her husband, Doug Crider, Just Like the Weather. It was released as a single off her 1993 record Something Up My Sleeve.  Lotta good records that year, from all over the dial.  School of Fish's Human Cannonball, for example and for contrast. It's on the internet, kids.  Find out.