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Thoughts on Ski Bumming 1 February 2011

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Twenty days before I left for Colorado, my father died. The cancer the oncologists had identified in April consumed him faster than anyone, including those same doctors, had imagined it might, leaving him a shell of a 66 year-old man on an October hospital bed. Room 547.

In the weeks leading up to that day, he and I argued about my choice to spend the next several months playing in the mountains, he in favor and I against—against myself. I’d worked too hard up to this point, I said. Ski bumming would throw away an education, my opportunities, any remaining chance that I might enter the Peace Corps. After a summer spent waiting to leave for Togo, only to have my departure postponed indefinitely, I’d chosen this: to ski bum and to kill what had up to that point existed as a resume of polish and pretentiousness.

Dad disagreed.  A sixth month stint in the mountains could not “kill” a future. The Peace Corps required more waiting anyway. Either they would take me afterwards, or they wouldn’t. Or I would no longer care. Our last, worst arguments turned on these contentions, and ignoring my father’s decline, I spent time worrying about my own future. The doctors had given him years. They’d fix the chemo regime, and he’d improve. In six months, we’d see who had better predicted my future.

And then he died, I left, and the Peace Corps helpfully called to say that my “family trauma” would bar travel for at least a year.

So I arrived in the mountains, still trying to figure out exactly why I’d come. I’d ski, certainly, but to what end? The Midwestern child grows up without interest in mountain towns. Creeks and baseball and bikes dominate the playscape.   The basement fills with old copies of Field and Stream, not Powder or SKI. Until I settled into my too-cramped apartment in Keystone, the idea that a ski-bum narrative existed—that people wrote about such things—had never occurred to me. Who was Warren Miller? That was a little over a year ago.

The realization swept in: drugs, booze, and irresponsibility were easy to come by if you wanted them. Women weren’t. The conversation never left the snow. It was the prospect of snow, the current snow, the snow that fell last night and last year and in years past. The snow on your car. The snow tires you’d need. The snow that gusted into drifts behind the boulders on the river, as it swirled, gelid, until finally on a December morning it froze solid and the snow covered that, too. Snow became a determinate of being. There was snow. Or there wasn’t. We lived for that. More than anything else we lived for new snow.

And I thought about my father, and life, and why I’d come to Colorado. About why I was still in Colorado. On a Thursday night, I walked home from The Goat in Keystone with a free t-shirt hanging over my shoulder, holding back tears. Back in October, I’d cried for the first time in I didn’t know how long. It wouldn’t happen again. Life in the mountains was taking its toll. The lack of aim. It was drifting, this time  here. My arguments with my father came back and hung in my breath. Why?

I grew as a skier in the mountains, from the kid who’d skied ten days and didn’t know how to carve, to the kid who dropped cliffs. I bought three pairs of skis in a year. We traveled to Wolf Creek (and I wrote about it), and we traveled to Solitude and Brighton (and I wrote about those, too), and I, on the weekend after my roommate left for an adult job in Washington, D.C., drove alone to Moab because I could think of nothing else to do. It was something and everything. I sat on a cliff overlooking Canyonlands, the La Sals and the Abajos fading into lavender. The cars made their circuits on the road to the overlook. Shutters clicked; the sunset; the sun set. This had nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with why I’d come to Colorado.

Yesterday: Where did you come from? 14 July 2010

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So, um, yesterday was like the biggest day in this blog’s history. Thanks to all of you for that, but mind if I ask where you came from? Comments appreciated. Promise I don’t bite.

Independence Day Hipsterism? 8 July 2010

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Ian S. downs his glass of Jack Daniels and steps up to the piano, an 1880s Steinway baby grand. It was the first of its kind to arrive in Colorado, its owner says, and the instrument has since made its way to this house in Denver’s Lower Highlands. Ian clasps his hands, addressing the crowd. “I’m going to start with a Chopin waltz in C minor,” he says. “I know, usually waltzes are boring, but I think you’ll like this one.” His fingers fly. Conversation halts in the audience. Ian is a gifted pianist.

He is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and cut-off shorts. This is the Fourth of July in Colorado.

The night progresses, and celebrating America opens a window into the life of a certain brand of twenty-something in this county—over-talented, underemployed and not necessarily disappointed in that. It is, to give a nod to another country about to celebrate a birthday (of sorts), a seeming Frenchification of American young adults. For now at least, work has taken a backseat to other pursuits. It isn’t hedonism per se, but maybe another way of channeling energies? I hesitate to bring the term “hipster” to the conversation, but at the same time it seems to fit.

The internet overflows with investigations into hipster culture, but reading through it, the only insight available is that no one is actually a hipster. But then, no one really likes labels. Who wants to be the “kind of person who…”? It’s too simple to paint with that broad brush. Dave Matthews fans beware. Same to fixie-riders. In any event, let’s stick with the label for these Independence Day partiers if only for continuity’s sake. Hipsters. Of a peculiarly Coloradan bent.

To enjoy Colorado, you don’t necessarily need to wear cut-off jeans. You don’t necessarily have to ride a fixie or a cruiser. You don’t have to listen to music so new it hasn’t even been stolen off the internet yet. But it helps. Behind all that affectation, though, lies thousands of dollars in performance outerwear, mountain bikes, skis, climbing gear and helmets for every conceivable pursuit. The Colorado hipster is a geode best cracked on sunny weekends.

The personalities take on a similar structure. Hipster outside, enormous and diverse talent inside. It peaks out every once in a while, as it did in Ian’s performance, but more often it remains hidden under a bushel basket. A soft egalitarianism reigns. Perhaps it’s too cool to show off. Maybe egalitarianism masks feigned effortlessness.

I don’t really know, but as it appears I’m going to further insinuate myself in this culture, I’ll continue to study it. If I become a hipster, I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, I”ll keep on exploring the twenty-something life here.

Try on the photos for now. No fireworks, but it’s America just the same.

Denver: First Impressions 31 May 2010

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I’ve been living out of a suite in the Warwick Hotel for the past few days. It was an unintentional thing–friends in town on their way to Seattle, a one-night stay that grew into several, and a balcony view of the Central Presbyterian Church. We’re still here now, listening to the street noises six stories below. So this is what it’s like to live in the city?

Denver’s the only major metropolitan center in 500 miles–the distance between here and Salt Lake City–so it collects and concentrates all the city types in that enormous catchment area. A huge percentage can’t call Colorado their state of birth. By contrast, you can hit every major east coast city from Boston to DC in and still keep the trip under the 500-mile mark–not bad if you enjoy car trips to visit friends and family, but quite the opposite when you start looking to leave civilization behind for a few days. The Poconos and the Shenandoahs don’t count.

So anyway, Denver lies at the base of the Rockies, this bastion of culture against the country music and bible talk radio of the surrounding plains and cowboy hills. And against Colorado Springs, too, I hear. Lots of military men and mega churches down there and little in the way of liberality. That dichotomy, however, has lent the state its libertarian leanings: hard on government, soft on drugs, and conflicted about the environment. Whether the influx of transplants will rebalance these politics or push them further, I’m not sure, but for the time being the red/blue sparring will continue to make this state a stop on every presidential hopeful’s tour.

You can bet Denver proper will remain blue as a bunting until the end of time, though. It’s that concentration thing again. No adjacent state offers a thriving, diverse city of its size, so despite a population just a fraction of Chicago’s or New York’s, Denver manages to support all the urban crowds you’d expect: hipsters, punks, professionals, those groups of weird, baggy-jean wearing 17 year-olds. Our hotel backs up to the gay district, it seems. I imagine these folks have left Wyoming and Utah and Oklahoma for the promise of urban life surrounded by those who remind them of themselves. Strange that that observation should follow the last post’s concerns about diversity of thought, but there it is. Denver’s the big city in these parts, but the the variety of lifestyles and backgrounds concentrated in its urban core make it feel larger than even that.

Of course, Colorado’s capital still lacks the diversity of its seaboard peers–if New York and Philly will allow the comparison–and to mention cosmopolitan with respect to Denver’s demographics is to misunderstand the meaning of the word. Without looking at the census data, you’d never know that Hispanics comprise nearly a third of the population given the sea of white folks who crowd the streets. No, this is not a place to hear a new foreign tongue on every street corner.

Even my grocery store in Summit County with its complement West African immigrants seemed more exotic. How they all arrived there, I’m not sure, but my hazy memories of sophomore year Human Geography return to “chain migration.” You can look it up, because I don’t plan to.

At any rate, Denver offers many, though not all, of the qualities and opportunities I’d been seeking: an outdoorsy lifestyle, a vital downtown and a smart, growing population. Most of the women I’ve seen in the park have been attractive, too. This helps.

A Letter from my Father 20 May 2010

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Surveying Sion

November 2nd, 2005: my father wrote to me just prior to my coming home for Thanksgiving. This morning, I found that letter while cleaning out my bedside table. His words offer a coda to the thought I posted about DC a few days ago.

Andrew,

Both Mother and I look forward to seeing you on the 22nd. It seems as though a hundred years have passed since Mama’s memorial service. I got an email from [your sister] this morning–she and S- are house-hunting, something further north and closer to the G- family insurance agency. She and S- haven’t made concrete plans for T-giving yet, and I have no idea when they will. It’s possible, I suppose, they will be in town, but if I were betting, I’d bet they stay in Chicago.

You made an interesting comment on the phone the other day. You said something about being homesick for people who think as you do–and that got me thinking. Most of the resident folks at Roanoke were from the Northeast and all, or almost all, were more more liberal than I. So I have some idea what you mean when you you use “homesick” in this context. I also found out, though, that the different viewpoint was somewhat helpful. I was (forced) exposed to a different opinion, and that made me examine my own opinion. When that examination occurs, one of three things can result. One, your opinion remains unchanged (and this often happens with the “bedrock” principles). Two, you can abandon your opinion and convert to whatever you have heard. Third, and this is more likely, I think, is where your opinion undergoes some change. Sometimes, the change is rather significant; other times, there isn’t much movement at all. What I found to be most infuriating was not the opinion, though, it was the smugness of the individual: “You’re not from New Jersey, Linc, so I can see why and how you’re so behind in your thinking. ” It wasn’t really arrogance, it was just a sense of superiority, I guess. These people, or many of them, it seems, were so sure their approach was right that they tended to view (and treat) those who disagreed as they would some lesser being.

This certainly was not the case for all, but there were times when those who acted this way seemed to comprise the majority. Hang in there–learning to tolerate the almost insufferable is a mark of maturity and wisdom. But I do think being almost forced to examine your own positions is crucial to development. It may have been Camus, probably someone else, who said the unexamined life is not worth living. He wasn’t advocating suicide, but he was suggesting that a person who does not examine himself and his opinions loses out on self-development and his existence is diminished because of it.

Reading two pages of my handwriting is enough for anyone, so I won’t keep you on the page much longer. Again, we look forward to the 22nd and hope you will find time to spend a little bit of your break at home–but both Mother and I know that there are other attractions awaiting you. See you soon.

Love,

Dad

No doubt, I appreciated the perspective at the time but never stopped to consider the implications. Seven months earlier, my golf coach had stopped me on the practice green. “Peters, now you’re going to one of those East Coast schools, right?” he asked.

“That’s right, coach. Virginia.”

“That’s what I thought. I’m sure you’ll like it there, but I want you to remember where you came from when they start teaching you that we were all monkeys”.

“I understand. No worries about that,” I said, and missed my four-foot putt.

Two years later I sat in my biology professor’s office with a waning belief in creationism, trying the best arguments I’d heard, and that summer, I made up my mind: evolution better explained the progress of life on earth.

The value of college, I think, derives not so much from the courses taught but from its role as a marketplace of ideas. Staying home, staying local, staying “homesick” for those who think alike does indeed stunt our intellectual growth. Our beliefs stand stronger when we have considered and rejected others.

2 a.m. edit: Turns out the quote came from Socrates.

Coming “Home” 9 May 2010

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It snowed a week an a half straight in the run-up to my departure from Summit County. All that after two and a half weeks of sunny skies and greening grass. I’d even tried finding a disc to get some ultimate games together before winter returned in a way that no one in the mountains had really desired but that everyone had anticipated. Just the same, my own mountain life has ended, and this will no longer continue as a blog written 9300′ above mean sea level. Today Google Earth says it’s–let me check–a hair under 500′. And a few weeks from now, it’ll split the difference, settling for six months at least in the Mile-High City.

For the time being, though, it’s enough to have come home after this longest span spent away–six months, longer than any other single period outside the St. Louis metro area. Yet since I first left for college five years ago, coming home has meant less and less with each go around, I imagine following a pattern set eons ago with the first crop of students to leave crying mothers behind. This time, with the house prepared for sale, my room stripped and re-painted and all the effects removed to meet realtors’ requirements for sterility, it has transformed into nothing more than a familiar floor plan with a dog I’ve known for 13 years. And a mother. It’s Mother’s Day after all.

House or no house, crossing all those cornfields brings back the supersaturated memories of growing up Midwestern, the Steak ‘n Shakes and riverfront fireworks. Humid afternoons and snows days for six inches the night before. Counting silos out the car windows. If the East Coast has forgotten the Midwest, it has just as much forgotten a suburban sensibility born of hard, tangible work and big family reunions.

Have you ever looked at a map of Illinois? Traced its rail lines and highways to discover the towns built for the sole purpose of supplying grain to a hungry nation? The main street parallels the tracks; the elevator rises higher than the church steeple, yet you watch the Tour de France rapt. What curious towns! What culture! Oh, Languedoc! Ici, je suis ailleurs.

I’m leaving the Midwest, of course, but I want so badly to stand up for it in its fight against irrelevance, its perceived stagnation. But by every objective measure, I can’t. In 2008, St. Louis finally staunched an exodus over half a century old while Phoenix continued to balloon and New York set more population records. The coasts are better educated, per capita incomes higher. I’m left with this vague emotional appeal and the waning grandeur of a city that hosted the first Olympic Games seen in the New World, then looked inward and set about its own destruction. See: Pruitt-Igoe. And for a counterpoint: Peter Cooper Village.

There is hope yet, but yes, for now this is coming home.

To wander… is to live? Or: 2827.43 square miles 5 May 2010

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I started packing a week ago, eventually stripping my walls of posters: the collage of ski maps came down without any fanfare, no eulogy for A-Basin and Vail and Brighton and all the rest that hung there as I drifted off to sleep. Teenage girls doze to David Beckham, but for six months, I fantasized about fresh powder, the next untracked run, the opportunity of the West.

Friends, family and Vail Resorts guests had all heard that these months spent in the pursuit and attainment of happiness constituted my mental decompression after college. I’d spent 18 years in school fearing an A-, and when the Peace Corps fell through in October, the trajectory I’d plotted since high school left me hanging like Wile E. Coyote, 47 feet over the edge of the cliff. Cue the double-take. But the thousand-foot freefall never followed.

To be sure, I’d worried it would: six-months as a ski bum would render a WM degree useless. Prospective employers would read “squandered potential” not “vacation coordinator” as the first line on my resume. And then I arrived in Colorado. I began to meet people, to experience a life unmoored from expectation. The possibility of it. Adrift.

This morning turned up an article on the predictability of human behavior, that triangulation of cell phone signals indicated their users rarely ventured more than thirty miles from their houses. Work, food, home, rec center–sometimes. The patterns remained the same. The average cell phone user, we discovered, was not Carmen San Diego. Far from it. She lived in a 2827.43 square mile bubble. The Truman Show, creepy as it was, came closest to mapping the extent of our lives.

So what would it mean to press against the confines of our bubbly pen? To wander, as wayfarers in life. To watch the sunsets from one thousand different peaks and one thousand different beaches. The salty, piney air alive and for those last gleaming moments, ourselves as well… living well beyond the humdrum. These are the possibilities held just outside the reach of expectation. The study abroad semester? The European vacation? Forms and shells, already freighted with the anticipation of a “cultural experience,” narratives for the most part written before they begin. Like Mad Libs. Are we really the richer for that?

No, that’s bad form, to make a point with a question. I’ll restate it: we are the poorer for the eventual fulfillment of those narratives. At every turn, the student abroad wonders, “Is this it? Is this the authentic experience? Have I really achieved whatever I came here seeking?” And maybe at some point, rounding the corner the student will run across a local doing something peculiarly local, say putting out a tin of milk for the cats, and the student will have discovered… something. That is, until the window next door reveals a young man playing World of Warcraft. Such is the evanescence  of perfection.

But to wander, without expectation… I’m not sure. Can we ever again approach the world as a child might, in awe of even the most mundane? Wandering seems to offer that possibility because of its disjunction from seeking. The narrative of fulfillment disappears and life’s experience washes by. We are left free to roam and discover without the need to prove their worth through anecdote and observation.

We won’t find the end in the experience, since that entails events already assimilated, but in the ongoing process “getting experience.” I make a subtle distinction, to be sure, yet consider the difference between someone content to experience new things and a collector of experiences. The latter expresses a desire to talk about having done X. “I need to be able to say I climbed a fourteener” etc. The former, though, lives in the present. Lives. Right. Now.

Even after six months as a ski bum, I still can’t say I lived that way for more than the briefest of moments. But I’d like to try. I’d like to wander.

Still not summer 26 April 2010

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Titling a post “Never Summer” a while back probably makes this one redundant, but hey, it’s been snowing for I think five days straight now. And although just about every mountain around here is closed and you’re probably golfing, that doesn’t mean the Coloradans aren’t still heading for the hills. In droves. In bunches and bunches.

Nearly three feet of snow had fallen by Sunday, and the eleven inches that settled on Arapahoe Basin’s angry pitches only buried another ten from the two days before. “Where,” Coloradans collectively asked, “had this been the entirety of the season?” Then they skied it for a few hours–until the sun came out and the powder piled into clumps and bumps–and wished that winter would get it over with already. They drank bloody marys(ies?) out of plastic cups and chatted about the possibility of mountain biking the next weekend.

I won’t say this is Colorado distilled yet it represents the ennui that has set in at the end of the season. And after so little snow has fallen there’s, this sense that despite the obligations of lawn mowing and hedge trimming and flower cutting in the Front Range that, well, 21 inches has fallen in the mountains. Time to dust off the skis. Put the cover back on the Lawn-Boy. Fight the crowds. Everyone on the lifts hadn’t skied in weeks. It was a last hurrah. One guy wished for kayaking season to begin, and I’d agree, but kayakers are certifiably crazy. Just YouTube some of it.

Thinking about it, I guess it’s my last hurrah as well. I leave my position at Vail Resorts just a few days from now. My storage locker is secure. My unwanted clothes are now at the thrift store. And now I’m left with the task of picking up my life and moving it somewhere. Not to Missouri of course, but perhaps back to this state in a different, more challenging capacity; perhaps to Seattle to discover the possibilities of the northwest. Five more days.

What I’m Doing 14 April 2010

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Stuff White People Like # 120: Taking a Year Off

If you work with this person, be sure to give them a FAKE email address on their last day on the job or you will be inundated with emails about spiritual enlightenment and how great the food is compared to similar restaurants back home.  Also, within the first five days following departure, this person will come up with the idea to write a book about their travel experience.  Sadly, more books about mid-twenties white people traveling have been written than have been read.

More here.

Skiing the Bell Curve 29 March 2010

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I haven’t written anything in a week, I don’t think, and although I’m tempted to blame that on something in life that intervened, it won’t work. Yes, topics came to mind, and I even put down 300 words on one of them, but every effort struck me as uninspired so I carried on in the belief that if I couldn’t write something worth reading, then I wouldn’t write anything at all. It’s been too long, though. Perhaps I need a change of scenery, some sights other than these same townhouses and pines that continue to sit outside my window at work… although if the Forest Service is right, the beetle larvae will kill the trees in a couple years anyway. I guess that’s progress.

It’s not that I’m anti-townhome necessarily, but rather that The Seasons, West Keystone’s option for more discerning and spendy travelers, represents the evidently inevitable progression and dilution of skiing into just one of the many activities offered at a full-service mega-resort. Like putt-putt golf on a cruise ship. Well, no, that shortchanges the product I sell, yet it hints at the direction the sport is moving. Open the pages of Ski Magazine (Skiing’s well-healed sister publication) and you’ll notice nearly as many articles and advertisements for Land Rovers and fine dining as you’ll see for mountains and techniques. Page 42 of February’s edition highlights the ice wines of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, and although dessert drinks hold a special place in my heart, I can’t remember the last time I gave much thought to a glass of riesling while on the slopes.

In all, it is the depiction of skiing as one facet of a lifestyle complete only once accompanied by golf-filled summers and a home on a cul-de-sac, not as an individual pursuit. Notice the language involved: “I am a skier,” not “I ski,” or “I enjoy skiing.” When we talk about skiing, then, we illustrate that it defines who we are, not what we do. That a sport can figure so largely as part of an identity ensures its durability, certainly, but perhaps at the expense of progress. And while I understand that the demographic figures indicate that the Land Rover-driving, town-home-vacationing types account for nearly all the money spent around here, I will not bow to the idea that these five-day visitors in any way advance or even sustain the sport. Money cannot replace vision, and the opportunity cost of every new condo is the terrain that could have been.

Or, as is the case of Crested Butte Mountain Resort near Gunnison, the Forest Service’s decision to kill a proposed expansion will probably work in the opposite direction, forestalling construction on any new condos. CBMR’s Snodgrass Expansion would have opened hundreds of acres of intermediate terrain rounding out a resort known almost exclusively as an experts-only, so-steep-I-just-wet-myself-a-little Shangri-La.The resort’s owners had argued that CBMR would survive if the new area opened–the dearth of blue runs had pushed skiiers to tamer mountains and visits had continued to fall. Otherwise, who knew how CBMR would fare. I can guess, however. Without miles of cruisers, without Breckenridge’s benign, well-groomed reliability, CBMR will not attract the crowd that reads Ski Magazine. And it won’t attract their dollars either.

At the same, time I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the progress: fat skis and hike-to terrain, the trickle-down from the experts, backcountry explorers and young skiers unsatisfied with carving. Innovation lies at the margins, even if the money doesn’t. When the Baby boomers retire, can we place our hope there? 

I know it shouldn’t bother me that a resort might die for lack of unchallenging terrain–after all, the bell curve applies just as well to skiing as it does to everything else–but it does. The cash has settled at the top of the curve, not at the tail with the ski bums, and so long as that remains the case (that is, indefinitely), the mega-mountains will cater to the median.

Stand strong, A-Basin. Stand strong.

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