Sunday, February 25, 2024

Put a Sagehen On It

The landscape is bright and lonely.  In the sagebrush steppe, the canopy is only the height of the tallest bush around, which is usually sage or bitterbrush, punctuated by the occasional juniper or hackberry.  The snowy ground is smooth and expansive.  At lower elevation, bumps caused by bushes scatter the rolling hills.  Draws between these hills offer moisture.  At lower elevations, they’re clogged with dogwood and willow brambles.  At higher elevations, aspen trees run up the ravines, creating ghostly-white groves, their bare, winter branches seemingly reach out to draw you in.  The rare skin track and the subsequent turns write a story over the hills, stretching out beyond where you can see.  Patches of dry, temperate forest host ponderosa and subalpine fir patches to break up the blankets of snow.

It’s a vibe, as the kids say.  (Or they did some time ago.  I am no longer in-touch with what’s hip with the kids these days.  I still think “put a bird on it” is funny.)  Eino has a playlist called “sage country snow,” inspired by said vibe.  Back when we both drank alcohol, one of our favorite things to do while dinking together was to make playlists.  I never listen to Neko Case on my own, which is a real shame because she always has my favorite songs on our playlists.  I don’t really miss drinking, but I do kind of miss the creativity that would flow during these sessions, one song inspiring the next, our differing tastes finding compliments in rhythm, lyrics or cheesy key changes.  Now, in sobriety, I’m finding more creativity through writing, which, unfortunately has not manifested itself in anything publishable, but, oh well. (Hah! Nothing is manifested except through doing the thing.)

Sage country snow.  Photo by Eino.

Eino and I celebrated our 14th anniversary on Saturday.  The longer we’re together, the more I marvel at how long we’ve been together.  Longer than most people are married.  If we’d have had a kid in the first few years of our relationship, they might be a teenager by now.  We spent our entire 30s together.  Moved to three different states together.  We’ve lived in this house for 7 years.  WTF?  I just realized that that is half our relationship.  I was talking to my mom the other day about the houses we lived in when I was a kid, and we lived in our first real house for 10 years.  In kid time, 10 years is an eternity.  We’ve lived in this small, weird mother-in-law rental for almost that long, even though the house has changed hands three times and our rent has doubled.  We like it here, so we’re still here.  Through that time, I experienced and adjusted to life-altering medical injuries to my brain and body.  I guess my point is, I’ve changed.  But so has Eino.  Thank God we’ve changed in ways that still work together.

We skied at Soldier Mountain last weekend.  It’s only a two-hour drive from our house, so I was surprised we haven’t been there before.  Soldier is totally our jam.  A small lodge, built after the old one burned down in 2009,* contains the ticket office, rental shop, food service, bar and boot-up area with cubbies(!), all under one roof.  The ski patrol shack sits beside the lodge.  It looks like it might have started as a mechanic shop or a barn and has been added onto at least three times.  No ski school building to be found, although there is a good-looking beginner carpet just beyond the main lift.  We pulled into the parking lot about noon on Sunday and I would’ve guessed it was a Tuesday for the lack of cars.  But, it’s Mormon country, so maybe they’re busier on Saturdays.  And their school district is down to a 4-day week, so, as Eino discovered the week before, the kids go skiing on Friday.  Soldier has two fixed-grip lifts, one painted sage green and pale yellow.  The first lift takes you to mid-mountain and the second takes you the rest of the way up.  They have cat skiing on the upper and outer ridges.  Usually I scoff at cat skiing as a snobby cash grab, intended to create a sense of exclusivity, but in these wide open, rolling hills in the middle of freaking nowhere (between Utah, Boise and Sun Valley), it makes sense.

Runs and the spaces between.  Photo by Eino.

Most of the runs are swaths of groomed snow between ungroomed, bare stretches.  With enough fresh snow, the mountain’s nothing-to-scoff-at 1,150 lift-serviced acres* would open up, and I bet you could ski virtually the entire area.  At some point recently, some patrollers bombed some nice-looking off-piste.  I’m no expert, but it didn’t look steep enough to me to be avy terrain; I bet they did it just for the fresh turn.  Some of the north-facing slopes take you through forested gullies.  As it is, most of the runs are about the same pitch, despite what the trail signs might imply.  Which was just fine with me, because all I can ski these days is less-than-very-steep groomers, so there was a lot of room to explore for a few hours.  The grooming was good: nice and smooth and still there in the late afternoon.

Soldier Mountain has changed hands a few times since we moved to Idaho.  Bruce Willis owned it for awhile in the 90s, then donated it to a non-profit.  A young couple bought it a few years back for a third of the price of a house in our neighborhood.  Then they sold it a couple years later, and now, like so many ski areas in the U.S., it’s owned by people who (I assume) don’t ski (some investment group in Utah).*  I have to spend some time in nearby Fairfield, ID for work over the next few months.  On our drive through town, I spotted the motel, the U of I extension office, and the school, all along the same main road.  It’s a small town, in the vast expanses of mountainous Idaho.  And, it's easy to pass on your drive to not-too-far-away, bigger, fancier ski areas.  I would know.  We passed it by for 12 years.  If Soldier was located next to a bigger town, it would be a totally legit, locals' hill.  As it is, I question its long-term viability.  They’ve added mountain bike trails recently, and run the lifts on the weekends in the summer.  That’s supposed to be good for business.  Maybe if they can actually capture the elite snowcat market, that’ll help.  So, maybe.  Hopefully.

Eino and I met at Crystal Mountain, when we both worked there.  We actually met over a year before we started dating.  I was working at the ski school sales desk before I became a full-time instructor, and he worked at the tune shop in the next room.  I’d say hi to him, but he didn’t say much.  He’s quiet is all, and I was dating somebody else and our paths didn’t cross much except briefly in the hallway.  My second year at Crystal, some of our mutual friends got it in their heads that we should date.  So, we hung out a few times, skied together with our mutual friends a few times.  Then, Eino asked me out.  I suggested we go skiing together on our day off, to which he responded, “That’s not really a date.”  And I said, “But it’s easy.”  So, on our first date, we skied together.  We had a great ski day, hiked the King and ate lunch at the mid-mountain lodge.  Our second date was a “real” date at a cute, little Italian restaurant in town with an over-attentive teenage waiter.  Our relationship was built around our love for our sport.  We’ve stayed together because we share more than this common interest, but skiing has been central to our relationship.  So, when I destroyed my knee 5 years ago, and then developed arthritis despite/because of my diligent rehab, skiing because something we could not share without lots of pain and anxiety.  It took me several years to accept that I was never going to get back to where I was.  Even if I replace the damn thing, I won’t be able to ski like I did.  And I need to put off the replacement as long as possible if I want to be able to walk when I’m 80.  I can still ski, but I can only handle not-steep groomers for an hour or two every other week or so.  At first, I doubted that I could still find enjoyment in the sport at this lower level.  First world problems, yeah, I know.  But it’s a part of my identity, so yeah, it matters to me.

Eino getting some nice angles. Photo by Amy.

I didn’t feel like skiing this year until about January.  But then, one day, I wanted to go.  I looked forward to the weekend that Eino and I could go up to the hill and make some turns together.  We did, and it was fun.  I didn’t over-do it, stopped before my knee started hurting, and made sure to do all the after-care that keeps my knee working okay enough.  And I’ve been able to ski several more times since then.  I skipped last weekend because my knee was kind of sore, but I’ll probably be able to go next weekend.  Eino doesn’t ski as hard or as long as he used to either, due to injuries.  But we can still ski together.  Last weekend at Soldier, he made a few runs while I taped up my knees and put on my boots in the lodge.  We skied about 6 runs together, ate chili in the lodge, then made a few more runs.  I quit for the day before he did because I was starting to hurt.  I hung out in the lodge, watched the staff and skiing public kick the snow off their boots—ski or cowboy—as they tromped through the lodge.  Eino took three more runs, then we stopped at the coffee shop on our way out of town.  We don’t ski like we used to, but we can still do it and we can still enjoy it together.

*Wikipedia, y’all