Hard to believe these days – and maybe even harder to believe in the free-love years of the early 1970s – but our secret affair, mine and E.’s at Keystone, was platonic, right up until the day she drove east near the end of that winter.
We kissed once, standing toe-to-toe in her apartment one early morning before ski school. Another day she told me she had dreamed of my weight pressing down on her in bed.
At the time, I was housesitting a place on Ptarmigan Hill, alone, with the absent owner’s cat. The cat seemed to sense my happiness, my happily sublimated physical desire. She slept most nights curled up between my feet.
The plan had been for E. to leave at the end of the season, when the ski area shut down in April. But by mid-March her home life had become too uncomfortable, and she decided to go sooner. She had been sleeping on the living room couch. Her husband knew she was desperately unhappy in the marriage. But we didn’t think he knew about us.
We promised to meet back East later that spring, in the Lord and Taylor’s parking lot in Manhasset, Long Island, where she grew up. On a bright, chilly day we drove in tandem over Loveland Pass and down to Denver, she in her VW bug, Puce (French for flea), me in Tortuga, my 69 microbus. On the way we stopped in to see my Uncle Hal and Aunt Mary in Golden, preparatory to our one night together before saying goodbye. Then E. headed off toward Kansas on I-70, into a late-season blizzard that would close the freeway behind her.
I drove back up to Keystone and a final week or two of preparation for my Stage 1 exam.
I’d learned a lot that winter. I knew the difference between a carved turn and a skidded one, and I could perform them both on command, mostly. I worked hard on the final forms: steered wedge turns (formerly snowplow turns), traverse with lower-body absorption (think finishing school, balancing a book on your head), parallel turns with down unweighting, and the dreaded high-speed sideslip.
This one was a potential fail maker. On a steep slope you had to ski straight down the fall line, right at the examiners, then pivot your skis into a sideslip while keeping your upper body facing straight down the hill. Then pivot back to tips-down straight running. Then twist the other way. All the while never deviating from the straight path. If your weight shifted even slightly, fore or aft, during the sideslip, your skis would hook up and start to turn. This was a test of high-velocity not turning.
At this, and many other skills, I was still a rookie. But I went into the test buoyed by a floating feeling, a certainty I’d never known before, one that began when I tried to match E.’s sinuous ski track, and was confirmed by our one night in a friend’s basement double bed.
The examiners were a star-studded bunch. Kennedy family instructor and demo team veteran Scooter LaCouter came over from Aspen. Former French downhiller Serge Couttet, whose fractured English once resulted in the classic line: “You are very happy to meet me,” drove up from Loveland where he was the ski school director. And there was E.’s husband; I’d drawn his group.
I searched for signs that he knew about E. and me, that he might (understandably) wreak a kind of revenge with his grading. But I didn’t see any. If he knew, he remained professional, gentlemanly.
I survived the high-speed sideslip, did better on some of the other demonstrations, and fared pretty well, I thought, in the hypothetical teaching situations. E.’s husband scored me about the same as the others, and I passed with something like an A-. (I don’t remember how the numerical scoring went.)
I floated down to Tortuga and began preparations for the drive east. We did indeed meet at Lord and Taylor’s, where the kiss rivaled the one at the end of The Princess Bride. We both got jobs teaching skiing at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra, and then a few years later at the (very new) Telluride ski school. We both took our Stage 2 certifications. And we married a year after E.’s divorce was final.
At stressful moments during the exam at Copper Mountain, I thought about our visit to Hal and Mary on the way down to Denver. Hal, a wide-roaming landscape painter, had been the one to suggest I apprentice at a ski school, to abandon conventional job hunting and do what I “loved.” I wanted them both to see this fantastic good luck, how following that advice had turned out so beautifully.
When they answered the door, it was as if they knew already. Hal took one look and wrapped his big artist’s arms around E., as if to say, welcome to the family.