I open the door to Eagle’s Nest, clutching my skis the way I have discovered works best— I hold the rear binding of the bottom ski down to my front, with the top of the ski not resting quite on my shoulder, it is too close to my head, but resting on my arm in the groove of the deltoid and bicep— and run into Jack. “How was the ride break?” he asks. “Great. Awesome,” I say. “Lot of powder. I was cruising through these fields of it over by 2, it was beautiful. But I think we’re going to get slammed today,” I warn him, “I waited ten minutes in Game Creek and it wasn’t even 9:30.” “Well,” he says, duly warned, “get to work, then.” Jack is the boss, so I head upstairs.
The snow is still fresh in my head. Vail had a surprise little-warning Winter Weather Event last night and the report says ten inches, six of it overnight. Of course, in the mountains, that can vary from trail to trail, and it does, but there is nowhere there isn’t at least four. My first run down Columbine I stick to the groomers, but on my second down Avanti, I go for the deep. My skis are not adapted for powder, but I make do, and it is easy because powder this deep slows you down even on the steep blacks on the eastern front side. It is beautiful, the sky is blue, it is borderline sexual in a way that I don’t think I could have explained to myself before I moved out here, it is soft, and because it is slow and soft it makes me fearless. On my second run up I drop into Game Creek on the Eagle’s Nest Ridge side, down Faro, and it is even better than the front and halfway down I stop and look across the nine miles of open air to Larkspur, back home, back at Beaver Creek, and I exclaim to someone else who is doing the same, “Damn, it’s beautiful!”
So I am in a good mood, coming in, and my mood is only slightly dimmed when I realize on the stairs up that there is no jingle of keys in my pocket. They are probably in the locker, I tell myself, since that has happened before, and I am fully expecting that they will be at the bottom of my locker as I pull out my snow boots, my work boots, my backpack, my work hat, my jeans, my deodorant, check my jeans again and check my coat again and check my boots could they have gotten in there? and then I remember on Faro that I think I stopped because just really vaguely I heard this ching
and I have only a pair to the computer’s two pair, and I guess that means I lose a dollar, but it was my first dollar I ever spent in a real Nevada casino, and before noon at that! I’m not too upset, because after all, I am in here for the experience. It is Day Four of The Road Trip To End All Road Trips. So far we have been to the Sequoias, and to Yosemite, and last night we slept, we actually slept on account of we splurged on a hotel instead of crashing in the tent and also we were having a fight about something that was extremely yesterday, just over the border into Nevada, marking the beginning of the “we-are-not-in-a-state-either-of-us-knows-anything-about” phase of this six-week-long beautiful sort of catastrophe. I am feeling pretty good on account of it has been nearly one hundred hours and I have not yet had to call for Denny to pick me up on his motorcycle from a half-mile marker on some dirt road in eastern California. So why not spend a few bucks on the state pastime, say we did it, and get on up to Idaho? I reach for my wallet and it is not there and my heart just about pops out of my ribcage. I already know it is gone. I already know it is futile. I will make the poor casino attendant (because casinos, in Nevada, are not all the Bellagio and the Venetian) dig through the trash they already took outside, and I will get on my hands and knees and look underneath slot machines that are barely as high off the ground as my wallet is thick (and it is not very thick), and I will ask to see tapes they don’t have, I will give the attendant my name and phone number like they’ll ever call it, and I will go to the county sheriff and file a stolen-property report and get a temporary license with literally no legal force, and I know the sheriff is not going to help me because of the look he gave me when I mispronounced it ne-VAH-da instead of the correct way which I now know is ne-VAD-a, and I will eventually have to pay to get the real license mailed to my Syracuse address and then forwarded to Fairfield, Idaho, and I will have to cancel all my credit cards and get new insurance cards (I don’t even know if I have dental anymore) and I will get a new leather wallet at the rodeo in Fairfield made from a cow whose throat this guy probably slit himself, and there is no way that I can know the specific order of events at this time because all I want is a goddamn cigarette. I tell the casino attendant I am going to smoke and he tells me not to go outside because you can smoke inside in Nevada. Which I damn well do. Then I go outside and smoke again and cry and the girl, I think, is still in the bathroom, because my life has fallen apart and it has only taken thirty seconds, because everything everything is gone
and I am looking under the lockers, and under the other lockers, and in every pocket of my jacket and my snowpants and my pants and my other pants, where the hell are these keys, and I sweep the entire dining room and the ski school room and I’m just looking for a flash of light a glint of metal, but they’re not there, they’re not there, they’re not there. And I have to get my ass back to work. So I do. Colorado Club. Hot Italian. Turkey Yard. Time passes and I start breathing again and I realize: this is not at all like that.
This is not at all like that, I think as I throw the bread in the toaster, and the day passes, and I am sweeping up and panning chili. I have a spare key to the car, I can get a spare key to the apartment, this is not at all like that: I don’t have to call the New York DMV, I don’t have to cancel any credit cards, I have to leave the car in Vail overnight and maybe pay the building $25 for a new key and damn, I guess I lost that little Chapstick cozy Jill gave me but this is not at all like that, nobody is going to run up my credit cards, I still have health insurance, I don’t have to drive from Idaho to Chicago with no license, this is not at all like that.
And on the path home (the same path from the other day) even though I’m idly scanning the side of the walk to see if maybe they fell out here this morning, I am smiling: this is not at all like that, I think, not for any of those reasons, because in the end, it’s just stuff and money, I could lose everything I own and still have my body and my mind, this is not at all like that because that (I think to myself) was June and this is January, that was June 2013 and this is January twenty-fuckin’-fourteen and for maybe the first time in my life I am glad that it is January and snowing and cold and still somehow blue-skied, but maybe that’s because it’s never blue-skied in January in New York.
Behind the Ritz in Lionshead, where the cheapest available room for two people this week will fetch $1,500 before taxes, there is a street with no name, a cobbled path winding under aspens and past the pool, alongside Luxury Residences with real front doors. Technically this path, like so many possible paths in Vail, is for Homeowners And Paying Guests Only, but sometimes on my way from the parking lot to the gondola I take this shortcut anyway. Partially it is to shave about 200 feet off of the walk, but primarily it is because it is nice to walk under the aspens and by the real front doors, even if they are only somebody’s door for two months, instead of on the sidewalk past the grandfather bear statue where buses and snowplows spit diesel fumes and tire chain noises.
Today I walk this path alone because Adam, with whom I am skiing on our mutual day off, forgot his gloves at home and had to return to Avon. Because I do not have to work, I am here at the late hour of 9:30 instead of 7:00, and it is light on the eastward walk. Somewhat surprisingly, the town still seems sleepy, because it is a back street: there is no one in the pool, there is no one walking ahead of or behind me. A lone Homeowner sweeps his front walk which only his five neighbors, and I suppose everyone in the Ritz’s pool, is technically supposed to be able to see. It is silent.
No, it is not silent: there is a twitter, a cascading chuckle of birds. In the bare hibernating aspens on my left and on my right there is a flurry of motion, maybe twenty or thirty little songbirds hopping and fluttering from tree to tree. Unlike the birds I am used to they do not move in a single abrupt migration, but one by one and two by two, the ones in the back Indian-running up to the front, and I realize that they are following me, or rather, leading the way. The path is about eight hundred feet long from where it leaves the Frontage Road to where it jogs left and up the stairs to the Marriott, and yet the birds are always just ten, twenty feet ahead of me, crisscrossing over the walkway, singing when they fly. They are acutely aware of my presence, I can tell: they look me in the eye, one after the other, unsure what I am doing but nonetheless confident that I am no great threat. I feel myself in an aviary.
I think they are robins, but don’t robins go south for winter? Their little red breasts and brown heads are unmistakable, though, and if robins are not supposed to be here then I suppose nobody told this little band of troubadours. I am nearly at the end of the path and they are still serenading me. It is surreal, but I don’t think about it too hard for fear my new friends will dissipate in a puff of feathers and imagination. A lone magpie, three times the size of the rest of them and decked out in half-elegant, half-gaudy tuxedo black and white, rests his wings in one of the pines ahead, then to my side, and finally behind, not joining the transient robins and not in the least perturbed by my passing. I reach the Marriott steps and as quickly as they were there, the birds are no longer. I am not aware of them leaving, or staying where they are as I travel on, or turning around and going back to bother the sweeping Homeowner: even though I am paying attention to nothing but the stones under my feet and the chirping of the birds, I am only aware of a moment at which they have been gone for some time. I wonder, briefly, if they were real and decide it doesn’t matter, but I am pretty sure they were.
Reaching Lionshead Place there are now a few people walking around, skis slung over shoulders, walking the awkward walk of someone who is not used to ski boots (they are always awkward, only somewhat less so after practice), and their density increases as I near the gondola terminal. On the gondola I close my eyes and unashamedly eavesdrop on my fellow passengers, just like you might do on the subway, only more intimate. It is truly amazing what people will say to each other in a five-foot cube they share with strangers.
Every time I climb over this fence (there have not been that many times, three or four, and since I am not counting the first time I am only talking about two or three times, but nonetheless it has been every relevant time) I think about the first time I climbed over this fence. It was dark and snowy, and I had had one more drink than I probably should have, and I didn’t exactly not see the six-foot-or-so drop-off over at least three large rocks which I have never seen the entirety of due to snow, but I didn’t exactly land it either. In technical terms, I ate shit. I stood up and laughed it off, only to discover in the shower the next morning that a watermelon-seed-sized blister had formed on my right index finger, which was not disconcerting, and that it was bluish-green, which was a little more disconcerting.
I did not die of tetanus (or whatever disease one gets by falling off [on?] a rock), and so I have gone over this fence a few more times, sometimes just to hang out by the river, but the last two times I have brought my skis. My friend’s room faces the river, and behind his apartment there is a small hill, no more than fifteen feet high and maybe a hundred feet long. There is a dirt path wide enough for a car to get down, but not (it appears in winter) to turn around and come back up. Currently there is a layer of snow blanketing the hill, as well as much of the rest of Eagle County, that is deep enough that, like the ocean, it doesn’t really matter how deep it is: it’s deep enough.
On a day off, one of my friends went down to the bottom of the hill and built a jump, about three feet high, and a landing ramp, and on New Year’s Eve a group of us went out back to ring in the new year and catch some air. Now, I’ve skied a fair amount at this point, but the truth is that I’ve reached a certain level with my skiing and comfortably stayed there. I have basically no experience on any terrain park features, and the first time I rode this thing I was a little bit nervous. I pointed downhill and allowed gravity to pull me centerwards. “Hit it straight on,” Brandon called after me in his Tennessee twang. I resisted the urge to turn, knowing that the worst that could happen would be that I would wind up in the supercooled Eagle River.
I must have liked it, because I am now climbing over this fence in ski boots no less, grabbing for some kind of foot/glove-hold on the rocks forming the base of this man-size bumpy snowcliff, transporting poles and skis down in stages, and then I am on the other side and I am done with the hardest part. I trek the hundred feet or so from the fence to the top of the hill, and then again I put my skis together, point downhill, and crouch down to minimize air resistance. But today is a powder day, even at top speed I am sinking two or three inches into a much deeper layer of soft, dry, uncompressed ice crystals, the feeling of a pillow of air. I reach the jump, slow down as I go up it, teeter at the vertex, and fall forward onto my face, bindings snapping open to protect my knees.
I pick up my skis and poles and hike back up. I dig the toes of my boots into the snow like an ice ax. I drop my skis in front of me and step in. And again I point downhill. And again I fall.
Walking up the hill I think how eccentric a sport skiing, especially big-mountain skiing, must have seemed before the invention of the chairlift. I snap in and again let gravity guide me. And this time, this time I reach the base of the curve with enough speed: I am up, over, momentarily following a weightless forceless geodesic through the air, and my eyes go wide like a child realizing he is standing for the first time when the hell did this happen? I land the ramp, snap sideways to stop and a burst of powder flies out in front of me like the pillow torn open. I stare into the river, still unfrozen in whatever ungodly subzero temperatures we’re having, breathing hard.
I hit the jump maybe twenty times that night. It quickly gets dark, but no matter: I strap on my headlamp and the effect is even more surreal than flying, it is going straight straight straight and then all of a sudden there’s this thing in front of you and then you are flying and you weren’t even expecting it, even if you know it is coming it still feels like a surprise. Five, maybe ten times I tell myself this is the last one, it is getting cold, I am getting tired, but then I get to the top and without even thinking about it I am stepping back in and thinking again, again, again.