As we stepped out of the bright noonday sun into the murky dusk of the shadowy pool hall/bar/cafe, my dad’s jaw fell open.

“Jesus Christ, would you look at the size of that Polo Bear?” he said. My Uncle Herb just smiled and laughed out loud at the look on his brother’s face.

I’ve never seen you look like this without a reason

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you

Shock

polarbear

I headed to a nearby booth as my dad and my uncle did a very slow waltz around the inner sanctum of Ole’s Big Game Lodge, a huntsman’s paradise with walls that were smothered with every kind of mountable trophy except a decent Yeti. There were elephants, goats, wildebeests, and a rhino. There were lions, and tigers, and bears, (oh my) and yes, it was a big-assed polar bear that had ambushed dad once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. A great eight-footer about to snack on an understandably pissed-off harbor seal trapped under its giant paw.

After nine long hours, we’d finally made it to Paxton, an interstate town just inside the Mountain Time Zone on our westward voyage up to the mountains. We were nearing the overnight point of our trip to Steamboat Springs, soon to be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. After two horizon-expanding summers as a camp counselor just at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had been seduced into pulling up stakes on a pretty dim future as a teacher in Iowa and rolling out west to tackle a winter on the powdery slopes with the romantic dreams of everything that a blank check like that might hold for a twenty-seven year old with no money and no future. It was a siren call that already captured two of my buddies, Greg, the original transplant, Sully, the teacher and Bob, the pearl diver. All Midwesterners looking for something closer to adventure than what could be found on the rolling plains of the heartland.

So, that next day with a bit of a lump in my throat and a few tears held back for the sake of pride, I bid farewell to Dad and Uncle Herb as they dropped my few bags off at condo on the hill above the old west ski town and headed back down the road to the safety of Iowa. As Bob helped me toss things onto the floor that would be my bed, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I never took the smile away from anybody’s face

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child

It didn’t take long for the plan to unfold. That night when Sully came dragging home from a full day of social studies with sixth grade hooligans, we hopped into his yellow Opel and headed out to the mountain to begin my internship as a full-fledged snowbird…albeit the working kind. It turned out that Bob had recently been promoted from his position as a pearl diver to that of short-order cook at the Sidestep (née: Side-ache) Cafe. This left his dishwashing job open to the next man up. So began my working life in the mountains. As it turned out, the money wasn’t great and the free meal was even worse. Still, until something better came along, it was my last best hope. The job I was really waiting for was on the mountain. But the corporate bigwigs were still a couple of weeks away from holding the open interviews. So liquid Palmolive became my friend.

In the meantime, I was tightly holding onto the four hundred dollar grubstake my mother had secretly endowed upon my adventure. Rent would be due long before any possible paycheck might come from the “real” job I had yet to secure. My share of the rent was about to go up, because Sully’s original roommate Greg had found a better place to hang his hat and get away from the now overcrowded condo. Greg still held tight to our new friendship and proved valuable on many occasions. Bob and I quickly learned the art of turning hotel hors devours into a full meal. On Fridays, Sully would join us, but during the week, teaching was too demanding to turn him into a happy hour punk. Bob was my guru in this newfound survival skill. We would work our way across the base of the mountain, from one hotel happy hour to the next, drinking pretty cheap swill and living on cocktail wienies and cheese cubes. We looked like tourists, and we acted the same. But really, the waiters and bartenders all belonged to the same seasonal brotherhood of vagabond workers and as such, were required by the very bylaws that joined us to watch out for jokers like the two of us. As such, we survived. On the nights we didn’t scrounge, Bob’s idea of a home cooked meal was half a package of Top Ramen noodles and some sweat and sour sauce, lifted from the local Chinese carryout joint. I was a potpie man, myself…a full meal wrapped in a crust. The beer of choice around our condo was whatever we could afford. These were desperate times. One weekend adventure found us pooling our combined pocket money to afford a twelve pack of Buckhorn. With the aid of some environmental voodoo that allowed us to return bottles for a nickel apiece, we were only twelve cents short of our goal. That problem was quickly solved when Sully found a quarter stuck in the cushions of our Goodwill couch.

As the weeks quickly passed, first I, and then Bob got jobs as lift operators on the mountain. Bob was either a better skier or a better liar, as his lift was on the backside of the peak where the finest powder lay waiting for the first shift operators to come and violate it in their sacred runs to the bottom shack. I, on the other hand, a relative novice with boards strapped to my feet, was assigned to a place called Headwall, the beginner slope right in front of the Steamboat Sheraton. We were the first faces that our adoring public would see if they knew little about skiing on snow. When Thanksgiving finally rolled around two very noticeable things happened. First the sun went away for over a month, to be replaced with dark skies and the most beautiful, fluffy snow one could imagine. It really seemed a bit like living in a snow globe…that was being shaken on a 24-7 basis for thirty-five straight days. The second was my lift mates and I soon became introduced to every form of southern drawl that had ever been loosed by overweight, acrophobic women forced into a vacation not of her choosing. On more than one occasion, we would have to bring a snail-paced lift chair to a complete stop to accommodate a stressed out skier who knew her legs were about to be torn off by that seat slowly crawling around the bull wheel.

When finally the ever-present clouds shred themselves into nothingness, it was on New Year’s Eve. As it happened, a full, gigantic moon crawled up over the mountain long after dark and it’s orange blood flowed down the jagged strips of pale snow where the runs had been carved into her side like so many painful wounds. It seemed to freeze the warm air from our lungs like a Polaroid snapshot. But for the temperature and deep snows, it had a look and feel more like Halloween than the final day of the year. With the breaking of the snowy spell, the rest of the New Year fell into a more normal routine. An occasional large snowstorm followed by several days filled with enough sunshine that at least mentally, we felt warmer as we crept into spring.

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

 When March tossed St. Patrick’s Day down at our boots, Bob and I decided that the time was right to push back and show this mountain who was really in charge. We’d adopted another lift operator along the way. Anthony was from South Carolina and his low country twang was charming and nearly undecipherable to Bob and me. It was he who brought his love of the Scottish band, Big Country to us. This alone would have endeared him to the two of us. Their music seemed to follow us around the town, in and out of most every bar. It became our anthem. Anthony was athletic and wiry and was all but impossible to catch on a downhill run. He fancied himself a rock hopper. He lived for deep powder and the larger snow-covered boulders from which he could get some serious air. In this regard, Bob was his compadre. I was a chicken in this area. I had learned to ski and love deep powder and I had acquired an ability to handle the bumps on a black slope, but I stayed away from runs that might combine the two. Above all, I knew I was too big to be skiing off of large rocks thinking that I’d do anything besides plummet like a pig without wings.

On this particular day, the sun was pushing the temperature into the mid-forties. After a winter of sub-zero days on the slopes, this was too tempting to disregard. The three of us ignored the crowded, subway mentality of the gondola and instead headed up the mountain first hopping up on one lift and then the next in only shorts, light coats, gaiters and gloves instead of our heavier togs and Anthony had hidden a fifth of peppermint schnapps that we felt would serve us better once we got to the operator’s party, secretly being held on the west side of the peak.

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

ski-lifts

The schnapps never made it to the west side party. It was gone before we got off of the third and final lift dropping us just above Buddy’s Run. It took only a few minutes to ski down to the informal gala, which was hidden, from the touring public by some fairly deep powder and quarter mile of firs. We shared a beer or two while standing around soaking in the warm rays, joking and making plans for later with a few dozen of our brothers and sisters in arms. It was one of the most vibrant, and pleasant memories that I return to as I think about that time in my life. I can remember telling Bob and Anthony that I was surprised the schnapps hadn’t bitten back at us. I reasoned that it was likely because three of us had shared it and already skied off any of the bad juju. After half an hour or so, we knew it was time to head back down to the bottom, so we thanked our friends and made ready to go. The mountain broke before us in a cascade of feathery runs, an open invitation to breathe deep and become one with nature and all its beauty.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime 

I should have known I was in trouble when I tried to step into my skis and fell over for no apparent reason. Bob began what would be a nonstop cackle that would last for the next thirty minutes. Of course the unapparent reason from my balance issue was that the schnapps had indeed caught up to me. The two beers at the gathering proved to be just stupidity in action. After a couple more attempts, the skis were on my feet and I was pointed downhill with my friends laughing with every awkward slide I took. What usually should have been a ten-minute run at good speed eventually took about half an hour. Tears had started to freeze to my face as the temperature had started to sink with the sun. I could manage about thirty yards or so before my balance gave out and I’d have to right myself and start the agonizing ritual over once again. My lower half had taken on the painful pink one might see when glancing at frozen crab legs in the seafood shop. I was laughing so hard that I could barely see the trail. It was all I could do to keep from pissing myself, which the dropping temperature had taken off the table as an outdoor option. Bob and Anthony were less than helpful in any regard, whatsoever.

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

Shock, One, Two

In the end we made it back to the employee lockers and thawed out a bit. I threw on some pants and we decided to keep the day moving and headed into our happy hour routine. About at week later, Anthony flew awkwardly off a rock and snapped his tibia. It proved to be his ticket home as the season was winding down. With April came even warmer weather and fewer skiers. By the end of the month Sully was counting down the school days, Bob was making plans to ride his bicycle to Alaska and I was on a plane back to Iowa…waiting for another adventure to pop up calling me forth somewhere in this big country.

 In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

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