Because I am, through no fault of my own, a suburban kid from Denver, I was in a ski club as a teenager. Ski clubs had a pecking order, much like country clubs. The really nice ones went to Vail. The pretty good ones went to Summit County. The hardcore ones went to Aspen. Mine, the Winter Fun Ski Club (which still sounds like a Chinese restaurant in Norway to me), picked us up in a rickety, ancient white van and drove us up to Winter Park. It was definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, and it was awesome.
Every Saturday in winter, I'd wake up at negative-four o'clock in the pitch-black morning and shove my body parts into various wool underclothes, then squeeze on another layer of neon Goretex clothes that swished with every movement, then wrap my feet in two pairs of socks, then somehow cradle my boots in my arms while carrying my paired skis over my shoulder, the butt of the bindings tucked under my gloved fists, and trundle out to the curb where I'd climb into the van. After all my stuff was put somewhere, I could take off my gloves and put in my yellow Sports Walkman earphones and listen to the radio, which played "Paradise City" and "Eternal Flame" every morning, as if by law. I read Mad Magazine. I ate the peanut butter sandwich that was supposed to be my lunch. I pinched at the zits that were always growing on my neck. I stared out the dirty window at the snow-dazzled pine forests of the foothills, always holding my breath if we passed a graveyard or went through a tunnel.
At Golden, my friend Jan and I started placing little bets about how long it would take to cross Berthoud Pass. The loser had to buy candy at the commissary during lunch break. It was a quiet ride, mostly, due to the extreme early-ness and all.
At Winter Park, our bus pulled right up to the turnaround at the end of the village, ten yards from the first lift. We hopped out into the squeaking parking lot snow and began the struggle to put on ski boots. If you haven't done it and you want to know what it's like, imagine taking your fist and jamming it down the throat of a struggling horse. Putting on ski boots is like that, only with two layers of itchy socks on and a numbing cold on your fingers as you work the buckles. Ski boots on, gloves on, hats on, goggles perched on our heads (nobody wore sunglasses then, and snowboards, it's true, had just been invented, and therefore weren't around), we did the halting, jerky ski boot walk to the Zephyr Express.
Uphill from the lift line, we'd use our poles to tap the snow from our boot bottoms and step into the skis, then push off to the ski school lines. Being there are at the start of the day meant no wait. We'd fly up the four-seater and imagine what it would be like to bail out whenever the lift stopped -- and the lift stopped all the time, for the most mysterious reasons -- landing in a whoosh of powder and schlussing backward down the mountain, thumbs in the air, cheese-eating grins on our face, just hot doggin' it, man.
At the top, it was a left to Mary Jane and her man-sized moguls, or a right to the blue-black chute of Bradley's Bash, or an awkward pole forward to some boring greens that led into the depths of Vazquez Ridge, with its all-day lift-and-drop speed runs. I loved Bradley's Bash, but it ends in what is still the most annoying flat of any ski mountain on earth -- a slow zone around Discovery lift that guarantees you a walk if you don't coast through it just right, or if you stop at Snoasis for a snack. When we were new, or in a lesson, we'd often wind up there and curse the stupid layout of Winter Park, and the endless drudgery of taking Turnpike's dead flat walk back to base. When I was on my own or could convince some friends that moguls are overrated, it was all Vazquez, all the time.
I loved going fast. I loved the feeling of complete control at unfathomable speed, the way a gently placed knife edge could send up a spray of powder/packed-powder (as the newspapers dutifully called Colorado's perfect snow every day, p/pp in abbreviation), the way an island of trees could be skirted, flirted with, or bashed through (inevitably with a BMX-style jump somewhere in there), the way it all felt like driving. When you're 13 or 14, going downhill at 40 mph and feeling like you're behind the wheel of a bitching convertible is as good as it gets, no matter how cold the air.
Lunch was pulled pork brisket sandwiches and syrupy soda in giant red plastic tumblers for some exorbitant price. We'd go to the bathroom and hold our gloves open under the handwarmers, then quickly stick our hands inside, believing that the cushion of air would stay in there the rest of the day.
I remember the careful strategic planning it took to get to High Lonesome and then traverse over to the lift for Parsenn bowl, 12,000 feet and way above treeline, for a chance to scoop curves in an unmarked free-for-all of crusted snow and winds so strong you felt like you were handgliding down the mountain face, and probably could, given some wings. I remember how nobody would do it if it was cold or there was wet snow falling, because the Timberline lift was a miserable, cranky old beast that was likely to strand you in the biting wind for 10 minutes at a time, just you and a buddy at neck-breaking height, bouncing gently on the cable, not talking, breathing into your neck gators even though the moisture from your mouth would freeze in the wool and turn it into an ice muffler.
Winter Fun Ski Club sorted people by ability level, and named those ability levels after colors, not unlike karate belts. The best I managed, before I decided I was good enough to have fun and just hang out at the ski jump with the Olympic trainees, was orange. Jan got up to maroon, which was only one step from black. If you were black, you were recruited by sponsors and your parents started studying the financial sacrifices involved in competition. All I ever wanted was speed, so I found all that slaloming and mogul hopping (a skill that seems to require an absence of knees) needlessly stupid.
I loved the ski jump, though. One winter, I even got the balls to try it. Not as hard as it looks. Without my parents knowing, I spent my lunch money and some allowance to rent the wide jumping skis and took a lesson. The morning consisted of balance exercises that I sucked at. The afternoon consisted of throwing myself down a ramp and launching off of it and sticking my arms out in the air and trying not to fall after landing. Everybody pictures Olympic jumps when I say this, but the reality was visually disappointing. Us beginners didn't jump off the (small) ramp so much as fall off it. But the experience of that drop was every thrill I ever wanted, as awesome as all the roller coasters in the world combined. I went home that day with really sore feet, and it hurt to walk for days, so I never did it again.
I haven't gone skiing in at least six years, maybe seven, and now I live in Texas, where skiing happens on lakes. I hadn't missed it until just tonight, when -- of all things -- a description of horseback riding in a book I'm reading jolted me back to that white van in the morning, groggily deciphering the action of "Spy vs. Spy," listening to the Black Album again, anxious for the 180-minute ride to be over so I could fly down those hills again, wild and carefree.