As a young man I was pretty “stoked.” I was a little skate rat, a pariah on wheels with scabby knees, flying across parking lots, drainage ditches, and sidewalks. The ‘80s marked a major resurgence of skateboarding around the world, and that included my hometown of Granite City, Illinois. In the Midwest, skateboarding was something of a fringe activity, and my skater buddies and I were sustained in our obsessions by Thrasher magazine, direct from the holy land of skateboarding: California. We copied the moves, built jump ramps, and dreamed of the perfectly smooth, crack-free concrete of that golden mecca for polyurethane wheels, largely free of the freeze and thaw cycle that destroyed our ‘crete. The daring feats of my skateboard heroes like Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi, the murderous “Gator” Rogowski, and the greatest skateboarder of all time, Tony Hawk, thrilled a generation (check the links for an amusing where-are-they-now—some flew high, some are in prison). Beyond all the skateboarding photos, there was something else being hyped in Thrasher, mainly in ads, something…well…beyond.
This asgaardian something I speak of was snowboarding; men and women “skating” on seemingly endless waves of snow. Having never skied, I was thoroughly mystified by the whole sport, and, while utterly fascinated by it, I put it into the same exotic category as hang-gliding, skydiving, and surfing. I honestly never thought that I would ever do any of those things, and now, at the ripe old age of 33, I’m only missing the hang-gliding. Sometimes you just have to wait for your chances. My only regret is that injuries take much longer to heal, and that extra 50 pounds floating on my body sure increases the force with which I hit the ground.
Fast forward from my teen years to my mid-20s. I was in a dead-end job selling cars for a bunch of disreputable jerks, cheating people out of money and generally suffocating in the blackness of my aura. To be perfectly honest, I was terrible at my job, because I wore my guilt on my sleeve. I made a mistake one day and was called on the carpet. I was then berated and browbeaten by a succession of dishonest fat men in gangster suits, attempting to make me quit. I made it clear that I wouldn’t quit, so they fired me. In hindsight it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it led me to the greatest thing I’ve ever done while heavily clothed: snowboarding. It served as a much needed chapter break for an infinitely better part of my life.
It was late March, and I was so sick of Chicago I was ready to explode. I went home that day and thought about what to do. I knew deep down that I needed something to blow the dust off my stagnant soul and make me want to be alive. I called various friends around the country to say hey, seeking a destination and a friendly couch to crash on. One of my good friends from college was living in Frisco, Colorado, working at a ski resort. I called her and she raved endlessly about snowboarding and how I would fall in love with it. She assured me that my skating background would be a serious advantage. I was lamenting aloud that it was a bummer that it was spring when she cut me off, “Dude we got snow, the season doesn’t end for another few weeks at least. You should come out!”
So that was it. The next morning I hopped into my ’84 Honda Accord and drove straight from Chicago to Frisco, which is about an hour-and-a-half outside of Denver. I drove all day at the highest rate of speed possible for my trusty little beater. I crossed the seemingly endless expanse of Iowa, only to find that Nebraska was more endless than that. I did something nearly unthinkable to most people: I turned off the radio for most of the day. I listened to the obedient hum of my little Honda, cutting through the spring winds of the great desolate plains. I just thought about everything: my failed academic career, my failed career in car sales, my lack of direction, and my general mediocrity.
I took a brief rest about an hour before the sun sank below the flat line of the western sky. I was really doing it, and I felt better than I’d felt in years, entering the night far from the city I’d come to loathe. When the night fell it was flecked with diamonds, diamonds I’d not seen in years because of the permanent city glow in which I lived. The portent of my resurrection flew above me in the northern sky; the Halle-Bopp comet paced me through the night, reminding me of the insignificance of my problems and the grandeur of the universe. That dirty snowball hurtling through the interplanetary void left its glowing tail, and each time I looked over I thought it looked as if God was pointing a flashlight through fog. (Warning: Sappy passage ahead.) I felt a kinship with this fellow traveler in the night, traveling to a rendezvous with some sort of cosmic destiny. I read things like that into my travels because of all the significance that primitive people placed in celestial happenings. Beyond that, it made me feel some sort of higher power at work. Being an agnostic, I sometimes feel the urge to give into the grand notion of God’s plan. Okay, I promise I’m putting away my shovel now.
It was the proverbial middle of the night when I finally hit Denver. My little car limped into one of those ultra-mega truck stops and I gassed up and recaffeinated for the final push into the mountains. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been driving, because I was totally spaced out in a ragged way that all cramming students know well. I was hitting that desperation point, that four-in-the-morning, drank-too-much-coffee, haven’t-slept-for-days, can’t-control-my-body-temperature, seeing-odd-things-in-my-peripheral-vision point. I chugged an industrial-sized Styrofoam cup of coffee, and the miracle of artificial stimulation transformed the aforementioned beast into a human once more, but I could hear my body saying, “Dude that’s the last goddamn time you’re pulling that shit on me today.”
Driving out of Denver one almost immediately heads straight up; the front range literally looms over the greater metropolitan area. I headed up the interstate, ever upwards, encountering my first snow. In the bright reflected moonlight, my comet was no longer so prominent, and the mountainsides were mottled black and white, like the backs of enormous dairy cows. I knew I was getting up in elevation, because the air started to feel thin and slippery in my throat and lungs. My poor little Honda started to lose power dramatically, its carburetor gasping for more oxygen. I was able to maintain a blinding pace of about 30 miles per hour uphill. Cars and trucks whizzed by me while semis kept pace.
At an altitude of about 11,000 feet above sea level, I finally made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel, the passage under the Continental Divide. A note on the Continental Divide: It’s not something you can see. It is the line that separates waters going to the Pacific from waters going to the Atlantic. The tunnel allows you to avoid Loveland Pass, an avalanche-prone white-knuckle ride for much of the winter. Needless to say, by the time I reached the tunnel I was in an altered state of consciousness, and the white walls of the mighty passage made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie. After minutes in the tunnel I spilled out into Summit County, what I now know to be one of the best places in the entire USA.
Finally arriving in Frisco, I found a little town nestled in a valley, asleep under the blanket of moon, stars, and comet. My coffee power was gone, and the reserves of blood sugar were nearly expended. System shutdown was imminent. To my delight, I found my friend’s apartment, a huge snow cave dug in the front yard. The light was on. I knocked on the door, to be welcomed into a two-bedroom apartment, shared by three people, but occupied by at least 12. It seemed my friend’s roomie’s sister and posse were in town for another day or two. I was too tired to speak, and finding a spot en route to the only bathroom, I threw down my sleeping bag and collapsed into unconsciousness, rife with frenzied dreams.
I awoke with somebody’s stinky foot stepping over my head to get to the john, and due to over-occupancy, was forced to flee outside and make yellow snow behind a handy tree. I was blown away by the view around me, from flatland to mountains in less than 24 hours. I hung out walking around town that day, because everyone was already gone. I played with the stray snowboard equipment around the apartment, and waited for the next day.
My friend hooked me up with everything I needed, borrowed from various people: a board and bindings from her boyfriend; boots from her friends at a board shop, slightly damaged (this guy had burned a few holes with acid, trying to clean crystals); snow pants from some hippy dude who was moving to Hawaii; goggles from someone couch-surfing at her house. I was decked out and ready to go.
I received a cursory lesson from a friend, consisting of how to stop: “Dude just lean back and dig your heels in… If you get scared just speedcheck, brah.”
We drove in my wheezing little car to the base village of what is now my favorite mountain, Copper1. The drive from Frisco to Copper is very short, but the scenery is fantastic, flying along the interstate in a valley between towering mountains. The roadway tilted slightly up, and we gained 500 feet of elevation in the short trip to the mountain. When the mountain came into view, I was struck dumb. Not speechless—I continued to talk—but struck dumb in the sense I was stupid with fear. It was the fear of the man from the plains encountering the heart-attack seriousness of extreme grades for the first time. I wanted to pee my pants watching the people specks on the hill as we approached, white snakes of snow seeming to fall vertically from the mountainsides. I say “pee” because “piss” would sound far too masculine to encompass the complete yellowing my liver was undergoing at that time.
I arrived with my friend, who’d taken a day off of work to go with me. Quickly removing our stuff from the car we walked toward the lifts, with me mimicking her board-carrying technique, board perpendicular to my ass, bindings out, my hands cupped under the edges, leaning forward. It yielded a “Three Stooges” moment when I collided with a guardrail while walking, dragging me down to one knee, to the tittering of various gawkers. Y’see I hadn’t switched to an underarm carry, so it led to the sort of problem that Moe and Curly might experience carrying a ladder. I realized that I looked the part: I was young, poor-looking, mismatched, and carrying a two-edged blade of potential self-destruction. I was proud of myself… I was there… I was a snowboarder (insert needle skip here). Oh wait, I hadn’t even done it yet. My stomach boiled with acid produced by pumps controlled by the part of my brain I have in common with a gibbon.
I was supposed to just imitate; quite literally I’d been told, “Just do what I do, and you’ll be fine.” We approached the lift line, and I wasn’t expecting such a mix of ages. Having never skied, I hadn’t realized that tiny children would be blowing past me at breakneck speed, only to hockey-stop at the last second and yell at their lagging parents to hurry. I strapped both feet into my bindings and was ready. I immediately realized that I looked like a total doofus, because you cannot board the lift strapped in, you have to “skate.” Skating involves having your front foot in a binding and your back foot free, pushing yourself along like you’re on a skateboard. Trying it, I thought my knee was going to explode. The enforced angle of the binding made me want to cry with pain, my ligaments and tendons twisting at unnatural angles. I shuffled along, bracketed by skiers in odd neon shades, headbands, and cheesy snowsuits, looking like a derelict bum amongst business people in downtown Chicago.
Finally, we were at the front of the line, and time stopped for me. A scruffy-looking kid greeted us in a more than perfunctory “Duude”, grabbing the lift chair and directing us onto the pick-up line. Next thing I felt was my knee being ripped off my body, stuck to the snow. My ass was going up, and my snowboard was caught underneath me. I started to scream, “Ahhhh, my knee, my kneeeeeee!
The lift operators immediately stopped the lift due to my hysterical cries, my friend trying to obscure her identity with her hand. “Lift up your leg dude!
!!!” she whispered emphatically. Suddenly we were cool, yet the lift was stuck for a couple minutes while they made sure everything was a-ok. People delayed in line glared at the back of my head, cursing me silently for my ineptitude and nancy-boy histrionics.
We started to ascend, and the gap between our chair and the ground grew rapidly to about 40 feet. I tried to bring the safety bar down to ease my terror, and I struck my friend in the back of the head. She was bent way over, messing with her boot. She informed me that only pansies used the bar. I insisted we use the bar, embracing my inner pansy. For those of you who’ve never been on a major-league mountain, it’s pretty scary at first. I’ve since learned that this lift was a joke, and there are far scarier ones out there, but at that moment I was engulfed in a web of terror and self-doubt.
The moment of truth loomed in front of me: the end of the lift. I suddenly wasn’t as afraid of the mountain as the prospect of getting off the damn lift. On skis it looks easy, but on a snowboard it’s a rather non-intuitive, sketchy operation. Needless to say as I tried to imitate my friend, who planted her back foot on the area in front of her binding and used her forward momentum to gently glide down the little hillock to safety, I bit it. I went down, and then crawled out of the way of the people in the next chair. I didn’t hurt myself, luckily, so I got to my feet and shuffled toward my friend. I strapped in and pointed down the fall line. I remember picking up speed, terrifying speed, speed that would have made a skateboard start to death-wobble. I was doing it! I was snowboarding! I was the king of the world! I was hooked at that one moment of exhilaration, irrevocably and for all time. Trust me, I eventually fell—hard—but it was worth it. I got up and kept going.
Copyright 2005, Joe Martinez
Images: Joe Martinez; Clare Briggs
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