~~Above the Mountain - Day 1~~
Snow falls lightly at Sun Valley Ski Resort, Idaho, late February 2015. From above, the 2,000 acre resort is striped with stands of green fir trees, white ski runs, and brown, snowless hills. It's been a bad snow year. From our airplane window, the resort and surrounding mountains remind me of cinnamon buns, brown dough with swirls of white frosting.
In 1936 when the Austrian Count, Felix Schaffgotsch first saw the location, it was a very good snow year. The Count was out scouting for sites to locate a ski resort for W. Averell Harriman (1891 - 1986), politician, diplomat, avid skier, and founder of the resort. The valley along the Big Wood River and its main peak Bald Mountain (9,150') — affectionately referred to as "Baldy" — provided the right combination of sunshine, elevation, and snowfall. Sun Valley was born.
The highway of ski runs trace the ridges and creases of Baldy and end at one of two lodges: River Run and Warm Springs Lodges. Many of the run names speak to the resort's history — who practiced here, who lived here, and who died here — including skiers, workers, actors, and writers. Run names include Gretchen's Gold (Gretchen Fraser), Muffy's Medals (Marianna Davis), Christin's Silver (Christin Cooper), Picabo's Street (Picabo Street), Leigh Lane (Janet Leigh), Arnold's Run (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway).
Sun Valley's reputation is for friendly skiing. The rounded slopes and gently undulations of Baldy allow for slopes of constant gradient and pleasant skiing. When we arrive for a 4 day ski vacation however, the slopes intimidate me and the names rattle around in my head. I can't tell Picabo from Muffy. My main concern is to stay unbroken.
Sun Valley: Map, Paraglider, Lookout
~~On the Chairlift - Day 2~~
9:15 am, cloudy and foggy. Not the type of day Schaffgotsch experienced in 1936. The mountain wakes up as chairlifts and gondolas groan and hum, whisking the early-bird skiers up to find "corduroy" - patterned snow the grooming machines make.
Mark and I ride the Lookout Express Lift with our ski instructor Joanne. Our chair sways in the light breeze as it passes through stands of frosted trees. I clutch my ski poles, worried about dropping them. I try not to look down. I want to pull the lift bar down.
We chat about prior ski experience, which for Mark and I is less than a dozen times on the slopes.
"You work with words?" our instructor asks me.
"Well, sort of."
"I knew it! I could tell right away. People are usually word-people or number-people."
I don't press her on what she means, instead thinking about the approaching end of the lift and how to get off gracefully.
Just 15 minutes earlier we joined a group lesson. Each of us executed a few turns down a practice slope so the head instructor could gauge our ski abilities. I was weeded out from the group after one turn. After two more turns, Mark joins me and we were assigned to Joanne. Beginners. So much can be ascertained in a turn.
On the chairlift, Joanne stares straight ahead. She has a blonde braid that pokes out of her jacket. Her ski gear covers her from head to toe and prevents me from making judgments based on physical appearance other than the pony tail. I am not experience enough either to draw conclusions from her ski gear. One thing I'm sure of is that she is analyzing us closely even if I can't see her eyes behind the tinted goggles.
"I saw the way you slid forward on the bench when it was time to get off the chairlift. Why do you do that?" Joanne asks me as we exit the chairlift.
I try to explain I thought it was a better and safer way to exit the lift.
"Ah, you are a cautious type too," she says.
~~On the Slopes - Day 2~~
Most of our three-hour lesson is on the run called College. The irony of the name doesn’t occur to me until later: we are actually in ski-pre-school. Joanne draws "fall lines" in the snow and then "S" shapes around them to show how our turns are supposed to look, like a caduceus. Then she draws a zigzag to show how our turns actually look, like the pattern on Charlie Brown's shirt.
We stop and Joanne focuses on Mark for a few minutes. I relax and gaze east, across the valley at dry, brown, snowless mountains. The resort hasn’t made snow for a while. They just keep re-grooming what they have with a little help from mother nature now and then. The machines come out at night and wash away the marks and mistakes, giving the slope its new look: corduroy. Every day is a fresh start.
"Follow me. Link your turns!"
Joanne is the mother hen and we are little chicks that follow her down the slope in endless turns. She skis slightly ahead of us and turns to watch us.
My skis grind on every turn. I work to control my speed. I slide more than I ski down the slope. These slopes feel anything but friendly to me. A friend would later say that maybe I need to smoke weed before skiing so I wouldn’t be so stiff. Point taken.
Joanne stops us mid-slope again to draw some more S-shapes. Good and bad skiers whoosh by us. She gives commentary on the form of skiers who pass us. I imagine that back in the lodge later, with the other ski instructors, she would describe Mark and I as robotic skiers.
A young girl barrels down the slope almost hitting us. The girl slows down with a classic "pizza" or "snowplow," barely stopping uphill from us before falling on her butt. Joanne, the mother hen, can't resist.
"You got to make turns, honey. You can't go straight down like that. Okay? You are going to hurt someone."
"I tried to stop but I couldn't," the girl says and starts crying.
I feel like crying for her, but there isn’t time. There are more turns to make.
Scenes from the College Run
~~In the Lodge - Day 3~~
"I've never seen so many expensive ski jackets and bad facelifts!" Asa, a friend, says. We are relaxing in the River Run Lodge after a day of skiing. It's the time of day called Après Ski.
Rosy-cheeked, flushed, and disheveled skiers sprawl everywhere in the lodge. Skiers shed clothes and clomp around in loosened ski boots carrying beers and chardonnays.
They drink and recount the tales of the day under over-sized beige beams and rustic chandeliers. The vernacular architecture of the lodge is supposed to resonate with alpine ski adventure. To me the lodge looks like the architects spray tanned the Michelin Man, had him drawn and quartered, and then re-assembled the parts.
It was a good ski day: sunny and cold. Our group of six is happy. We talk about cold feet, almost-had ski mishaps, good runs, and people.
"She's got one of those ski skirts. I almost bought one of those," says Asa, pointing out a woman across the way. I find myself staring even though I'm not interested in ski skirts. The woman looks at ease, not like I feel. I feel uncomfortable on the slopes and in the lodge. My modus operandi for Après Ski is to shed my jacket and helmet quickly in the hope that no one will one will recognize the sliding, grunting robot they saw on the slope. Just maybe they'll think mistake me for a good skier.
~~In my Head - Day 4~~
The soundtrack for Sun Valley skiing is classic rock all the way. The music spills out of the lodges onto outdoor terraces, where people grab a drink or wait for friends. A calculated choice to appeal to the predominantly older patrons? Strains of the Who, Led Zeppelin, Golden Earring, and the Rolling Stones accompany the clanging of skies and boots and the clinking of glasses raised in toasts.
I don't need to pull out my Shazam phone app to find out what song I hear. I recognize them all. Yet, I don't feel part of this group that a friend refers to as the "boat in Seattle and a second home in Sun Valley" crowd. I don't have boat or a second home, and I am not quite sure I enjoy skiing.
I hear Neil Young's Cinnamon Girl several times during our time at Sun Valley. The lyrics stick in my mind: A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You see us together, chasing the moonlight. My cinnamon girl. The crunching, repetitive guitar riff of Cinnamon Girl are the soundtrack of my endless turns down the slopes. I don't particularly like heights or speed. How did I end up on a ski vacation? I started every day hesitant and ended glad that I was intact. And yet here I am.
Despite the name, Après Ski is really all about the before. Way before. Years of skiing, family ski vacations, ski camp, and not always, but helpful: an affluent family. I didn’t have any of that, so why beat myself up? Even robots can learn to ski and have a good time.
As I take in the afternoon sun on the lodge terrace and savor my accomplishment of surviving the ski vacation unscathed, the strains of the Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven pull my back to the moment. I smile and think: at least I got the music and I know the words even if I don't have a boat in Seattle and a second home in Sun Valley.