Not every skier in Northern New Mexico comes with a Texas twang. Although I must say that one of the clarion memories I have of skiing in that fair state involves a couple, married I presumed, conversing on a mogul run at Angel Fire. Conversing is not the right word. She was scared witless, frozen stiff as marble mid-pitch, and he was down at the bottom yelling up to her: “C’moan, Honey. You can do it! Just throw yer ass down the heel!”
Not every Aspen skier arrives by private jet. But there is a fur-bearing stratum there (perhaps you, too, have shared a perfumed gondola car with them) for whom the $2,250/night room at The Little Nell is but small change, practically an afterthought in the overall cost of a ski fling.
Telluride’s tofu-eating, hard-charging locals could care less if Oprah is on the hill. Crested Butte grows free-heel extremists the way Olathe grows corn. And so on. The clichés, while occasionally unfair, persist because they are true.
The throng at Powderhorn last Saturday, the first day of the Martin Luther King holiday, defied simple definition, defied especially the cliché about wealthy Boomers dominating the sport. This was a young crowd. Piercings in various shiny metals and in all manner of places jostled through the busy dining room. Tiny bundles of pastel with goggles snowplowed behind their instructors on E-Z. Peach fuzz seemed to be the uniform of the day in the parking lot and behind the French-fry machine. The rosy-cheeked girl checking our lift tickets had distinctive leather shapes stitched into her shiny, black snowboard boots. Jack congratulated her on her “wing tips.” “What’s a wing tip?” she asked, blushing.
Teenage sullenness appeared to have been banned. Everyone was having a good time, tugging on each other, whispering, looking around for friends. Everyone energized by the cold, the brilliant light, the beautiful, difficult task of standing up and sliding down the hill.
Most of the kids were boarders, but by no means all. Jack and I rode one chair with an articulate 9-year-old member of the Powderhorn junior race team. He should have been a J6, he told us, but he’d won too many races, and they’d bumped him up to a J5. The practice course his coaches had set on the smooth lower pitch of Wonder Bump was “sort of a GS and sort of like a Super G.” And as our chair floated over, I could see the lines etched around the red and blue gates were carved as if by knife blades. These kids were good.
Not everyone was young. I myself was skiing with a couple of guys from Paonia who can sing along all too accurately with the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” And we weren’t the only gray beards. I didn’t see him this time, but kept an eye out for John Jennings, an 83-year-old 10th Mountain Division vet from Collbran who often brings his pre-war Dartmouth style and 10th Mountain billed cap to his local hill.
There’s another old guy I’ve seen before who did show up this soft, post-storm day. He skis in antique, rear-entry boots and long, straight skis that look like fly rods compared to modern spoon shapes. But he skis them, right under the chair on Powderkeg, with a perfect, feet-together swivel. It’s a style so delicate and precise it makes him look like a tap dancer; the moguls under his feet may as well be stairsteps in a Busby Berkeley musical.
Not everyone was young, or current. And not everyone was outside. A loose-knit gang of non-skiing mothers and grandmothers sat in the sunlight inside the big east-facing windows. Some looked up from their crosswords, some knitted. Some guarded brimming lunch baskets. Although guarding was probably not necessary; people left their coolers and backpacks stuffed in cubbyholes and all along the walls. Lunchtime was one big family picnic: Thermoses of hot soup, baggies of sliced oranges and mounds of homemade cookies. Palisade HS Bulldogs sweatshirts. Denver Broncos caps.
Best of all, perhaps, not everyone was out packing down the powder. Even on a busy Saturday, we skied soft piles of fluff until last chair. I’m not sure why this is. Surely there are enough powder hounds in Grand Junction to shralp these aspen woods down to the dirt? But it doesn’t happen. I’m content to let the mystery be.
Powderhorn somehow walks the line between a throwback and what former Telluride pundit Hal Clifford foresaw (in his 2003 exposé, Downhill Slide) as a more-sustainable future. Not big. Not corporate. Not extreme. Not dependant on long-range jets or dominated by real estate sales. May its lack of all these things preserve it.
Next weekend I’m going over to Aspen to watch fur coats and snowmobiles fly through the air at the 2008 Winter X Games.