A line of fidgeting skiers and riders began forming half an hour before the lifts opened. It was the last day of a three-day visit to Grand Targhee and I stood three chairs from the front of the line.
On our first morning at this powder haven, our busload of revved up skiers from Boise had gorged on an appetizer of three to six inches of fresh powder. The next day brought us beautifully groomed cruisers and fun off-trail chop. That evening, while we celebrated two days of stellar skiing, a fine mist of tiny snowflakes began their descent. Anticipation blossomed as we staggered from the bar to our rooms.
I woke around four in the morning, frustrated because I couldn’t see what was happening outside the bedroom window. Slowly the last few hours of darkness ticked by revealing eight inches of fresh white crystals piled up around the base area with snow still falling. We converged in the lift area, a mass of green and gold ribbons—colors to honor our Packers-loving leader. The streamers identify us on the mountain and promote camaraderie. During our days on the slopes, groups of Totally Bogus skiers form and morph fluidly, insuring that no one skis alone.
Now, poised at the top of the mountain for my first run of our last day, I had three or four sets of streamers to follow. But fresh powder trumps etiquette. I dove off the lip of the run just behind my new friend, assuming we’d ride back up together on the next run. As I lurched about, adjusting my stance and technique for unaccustomed conditions, my partner shot down the mountain like an airborne arrow. I swooped into the lift line at the bottom of the run just as her derrière settled onto the chair in front of me. That was the last I saw of her till noon. Everyone zoned to their own bliss. From the chair lift, I’d occasionally glimpse a lone streamer floating down the slope beneath me. Released of the obligation to match my pace to someone slower or faster, I slipped into my own rhythm; I found the balance point.
It was just me, the music on my Nano, the snow brushing my cheeks, and my boards floating effortlessly through knee-deep powder that puffed at each turn. I was living a vision. This is a vision I’ve carried in the back of my ski mind since before I ever strapped a pair of skis to my feet. It began with a movie I saw when I was 12 or 13—probably an early Warren Miller film. The vision that stuck with me and compelled me to keep working, to keep perfecting my technique, to keep spending time and money on a sport that sucks up both like a drain sucks water, was that of a lone skier dressed in black, floating and bobbing lightly across the surface of the snow through a glade of naked aspen limbs, white spraying from either side of his skis.
At last, I was living that vision. It was ethereal. During my third trip down the slope that morning, everything came together. I was filled with love and gratitude and humility. I felt a presence; I felt many presences. There was my mother, embodied in the gold ski charm that she gave me when she tacitly acknowledged that I was going to be a skier. I wear that charm around my neck every time I hit the slopes, a talisman of hope, security, and love.
But in the winter of 1993 I was returning to the slopes after nine months of rehabbing a knee injury. I was tense and apprehensive as record amounts of powder piled up at Bogus Basin. Erich, always a sucker for the latest technology and for the easiest possible solution to a problem, presented me with a pair of Rossignol Axiom skis for Christmas. I would never have bought these cheaters for myself. But there they were, gleaming and daring me to ride. I ambivalently stepped into the bindings and headed for an off trail run through powder that would normally have toppled me in less than four turns. By the eighth turn I was giggling uncontrollably. I used those giggle skis everywhere for the next few years; even the places where I wasn’t supposed to be able to ski them.
Through the years, technology has churned out newer, fancier, and even more highly specialized skis. The Rossi’s have hung forlornly in the garage. But I could never part with them; that day at Grand Targhee was my reward. Dead now for two years, Erich floated with me on that nirvana ride through virgin powder. He’d never been much of a skier, but he’d loved the idea of skiing and his generosity and wisdom had provided me with these marvelous cheater skis.
Erich’s brother, Chris, was floating along with me also. He was the die-hard skier in the family. He would foam at the mouth while regaling us with tales of snorkel-deep, champagne powder in Canada. He’d sail down the mountain, first on skinny skis and later on fat powder skis, with a grin as wide as his open arms. He was Erich’s ski guru and role model. How I envied his experiences and his ability to take advantage of powder, as I fumbled in his wake, falling, thrashing, and wrecking the snow for everyone behind me. Chris, now gone for almost 10 years, shared that run with me.
My nirvana run couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. But within those moments, I was suffused with glory and love. My eyes brimmed and my chest heaved with that crowd of spirits, given life now only through moments like this. I saw God on that flight down the mountain—and I’m not even a believer.