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Guest story: Chairlift to Satori

[Front matter: this piece from my Dad is about a ski trip to Telluride, near where I grew up. He wrote it right after Bush II was reelected.]

There is no real equivalent in human relations to a ski lift ride with a perfect stranger. There will be 6 to 14 minutes of cheek-to-cheek proximity and few other givens. Verbalization is allowed but not mandatory. Touching, apart from what is necessary, is strictly forbidden, as in a crowded elevator. It is acceptable to be utterly oblivious to one’s seatmate. You can even mouth the words to whatever is on headphones and sing every other word of the chorus out loud. No one will object if you spend your moments together craning around in the seat and shouting to acquaintances below.

Should any party make the choice to interact, snow condition and weather are safe but relevant topics. Geographic origins are commonly used as an opening statement, as in; “I’m from Tampa and it looks like pretty good snow to me,” which serves to place an individual within some category about which one can make unwarranted assumptions. A chairlift ride as previously unaccompanied single is usually an exercise in postmodern, weightless human relations. Occasionally though, I have gotten off the chair knowing more about my fellow rider than I know about all four of my cousins in Kansas combined.

There seemed to be such a wide range of appropriate behaviors that I was mystified the other day when I seemed to be exuding some aura that was causing my chairmates to react to me in peculiar ways. A snowboarder on Lift 4 regarded me with such open hostility in the singles lane that I let him take his own chair. He then turned and glared at me till we passed tower 5. “Nice lip screw,” I said in the spirit of goodwill, as I passed him at the top. No reason to court animosity.

Shortly thereafter, a woman and her husband, whom I discovered were high school sweethearts from Houston, volunteered that they were happy to finally meet someone from Colorado who had “some sense.” Though faintly pleased, I was perplexed as to how they had made that determination. The very next ride a Phoenix realtor clapped me on the shoulder at the top of Prospect Bowl, with assurances that it was all “for the best” and skied off into a snow fence. What was going on here?

It wasn’t till lunch, when I was sitting at an outdoor table trying to hastily lighten my pack by one soggy sandwich and two frosty beers that I figured it out. I’ve got this sweat-stained corduroy ball cap that I favor on sunny days, because it has a big bill, isn’t a helmet, and doesn’t blow off when you’re going fast. There was a new stick-on fabric logo on in it that I hadn’t stuck on. “Viva Bush ’04,” it said. Ahah.

There can only be once source for such a devious practical joke. One or both of my own children, the twisted rascals. I laid my hat on the table and regarded it as I wolfed down lunch. What magical icon was this, that could so serve to define me? One piece of a small Chinese self-adhesive production run of 100,000 was obscuring the real person like a cloak of invisibility. Once this hat had served the promotional purposes of “Mulvaney Studio Services” but their name had been illegible for years. Now my flimsy headgear had become a thing of power. I finished lunch, decided there are certainly multiple paths, fixed the hat back on my head with the sticker still stuck on, and headed for the bottom of lift 6.

Our President was going to be re-inaugurated this very day and I was trying to shake it off. I had wanted to assume that there was something in the realm of human experience that was common to us all. There wasn’t. I know good people who had come down on the other side. In conversation it is a territory we don’t cover. There might be quicksand. The nation had decided. I was here to let the sun and rush of frigid air displace the feeling I had that this was the beginning of the end.

With an augmented friendliness, I discovered the guy in the right seat was from Connecticut and owned one of those log-majals under and around chair ten. In a decade’s worth of skiing here I have never seen a living person abroad in this neighborhood, except for the workmen building the next chateau, or shoveling the roofs as the existing ones. My momentary partner was a resident, as much of a foreigner as anyone from Zimbabwe.

“We’re putting George back in office today” I observe. There is only a brief silence. “I voted for him,” he says, without enthusiasm. My chairmate is a big fella, six four or five with a perfectly uniform tan. “I’ve always voted Republican,” he says, looking at the tips of his new Volkls, talking to himself. “Those poor bastards in Iraq,” he says, not specifying. “What a mess.” I must have been staring at him, one of the few violations of chair protocol. “Those guys are going have every diaperhead on earth out for our blood.” He’s shaking his head, I nearly snag a tip on the ramp. “I just don’t want to pay taxes,” he says as we dismount. I watch the back his one-piece cinnamon ski suit glide off down See Forever.

I survive the steep bumps in the gully at the top of Happy Thought. When the trail hits the first catwalk I decide I’m going to follow the fall line down to lift 4, seventeen hundred feet below, and let the rattle of these snaky little boards keep my attention. I need to focus. It’s a glorious day, indeed. Glorious. Across the Ilium Basin to the west rises the bulk of Mt. Wilson, the Rocky Mountain icon depicted on the Coors beer can, as just about anyone here can tell you. That makes it the most reproduced image of Colorado presented to the larger world. One drainage over, where I live, at this elevation you and I could see the auburn cloud produced by three of the world’s larger coal-fired power plants creeping up the valley of the Dolores River, the “River of Sorrows”. They want to build another plant nearby, on the Navajo Reservation, because clean air, emptiness and coal are what the Indians have to sell. The power plants are too poisonous to put close to population centers and out here, well, there aren’t very many of us. That’s democracy.

Out of breath, I get on lift four’s high-speed quad with three male members of the Colorado Springs First Baptist Church’s Young Adults group. Apparently, it’s something like a dating service. Feeling bold, I offer my comment about the propitious events of the day. An overture is all that’s needed. “We can’t know what the President knows,” says one. “We are blessed to have someone like him, who has studied the Scriptures.” Oh Lord. “Mr. Bush is too much of a diplomat to point it out,” says another, “but do you know how many Christians were killed in that tidal wave?” I don’t. “None,” he says. “None.” Pause. “The tsunami was God’s hand.”

I get this unshakeable image of the great Aztec pyramid at Tenochtitlan, the blood of thousands glistening down the stones, while a priest carves out another beating heart with an obsidian blade. The Gods must be repaid. It was the same gene being expressed that serves to make a Baptist, a Methodist or any of the thirty-one flavors of Islam. Perhaps that was the Darwinian purpose of it all along. Something will keep the population in check, be it starvation or disease, jihad or ritual slaughter.

If I’m not called to heaven, or somewhere, before we get to the top, I’m going to go hang out with the telemarking pagans over on lift 9. Give me some vertical, some clear space to traverse. The point of life is living, in teasing out the choice morsels from an offering of deadwood and thorn. I wish I’d waxed my skis. It’s pretty flat around the corner on the traverse to the town-side lifts.

There’s a single snowboarder in the maze and we’re chaired together. I point out that the snow is terrific and display my badge. He’s eating a Clif Bar and is too dry to speak for a minute. He’s an electrician from Montrose, maybe 26, taking the day off while the house in the Ranchos he’s working on is being plastered. “The bastards have pushed us around for ever, Bush finally stood up to them,” he says after a while. “It’s about time. That Kerry was a pussy.” He makes a gesture like he’s drinking tea with a pinkie stuck out to the side. “What’s he going to do, debate the fucking terrorists? And the ketchup lady, what a bitch. I knew this rich girl like her once. All hoity- toity and know-it-all. You know, like she’s got half a joint of conduit up her ass. What a pair. Reminds me of the owners I’m working for.”

It’s all right. We’ll either make it or we won’t - as a country, as a species. The cards have been dealt. I’m a citizen of the most obese, indebted republic in the history of mankind. Like the Pharaoh, the chief executive thinks he talks to God. That’s fine by most of us. Gravity has killed more freedom-loving Americans than all the terrorists in every flyblown, oil-soaked sand trap on earth. Perhaps gravity too is evil, but I’m going to let it suck me down this mountain before the armies march. The Plunge is a fairly steep run, which is groomed to the point that even middle aged duffers like myself can feel like the Herminator for a minute. I flog myself down, lungs burning, thighs aching, stopping only to gasp. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but for now I need to concentrate on oxygen transfer.

To the North, across the headwaters of San Miguel, at humbling vertical mile of rock, ice and snow rises in abrupt ramparts from the valley floor. Several dozen square miles of unblemished whiteness and depth hoar beckon from Bear Creek to the east. The worst kind of hypocrite is what I am. I’ve worked to gain this elevation enough times the right way, by my own exertion, to know that this is cheating. The only method of properly appreciating the San Juans is through hypertensive retinas at the end of a lung busting climb.

I love it anyway; the clear distance, the forbidding crags, the speed; those parts. You can keep the six-dollar hot chocolate, the fashion show and the rest of these toads. Ski company owners will soak the average vacationer nearly three quarters of C-note to spend a day here enjoying their public lands, which comprise most of the terrain. It is the priciest ticket in Colorado this year; in a tie with Aspen I’m told. And they wonder why growth in the sport is flat. Can you really wear make-up and call it a sport anyway? It is more properly the “ski industry,” I suppose.

Part of that sulfurous cloud creeping up the valley toward my house is a result of the power they must generate to keep the bull wheel turning on this creaking old triple that’s hauling my carcass up to one of the most spectacular vistas on earth. From the top of this lift you can see the black and white enormity of the Wilson massif etched on the western horizon like an outsized lithograph. Further on and north are the red deserts of Utah, the corseted peaks of the Monti la Sal. The earth curves away into a bright haze, spinning on. When it’s clear, which it is today on this particular side of Lizard Head Pass, you can see it all. That’s what you live for. That’s why we’re here. The rest of it, well, it will still be there when you come down.

Copyright 2005. No part of this writing may be reproduced without the prior written authorization of the author. Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.


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