It doesn’t surprise me that I went back to Montana Snowbowl after Peace Corps. Many of my friends and former colleagues found jobs with federal agencies or NGOs. Several studied policy or took for the Foreign Service exam. Not me. I couldn’t get into that sort of thing.

This wasn’t long after George W. Bush usurped the presidency and squandered the goodwill and sympathy of the world. These were times that the historians of the future will look back on as “The Oil Wars”—when millions of poor people died to secure a soon-to-be-obsolete resource, just as they did for spices, slaves, and religious trinkets in Dark Ages past. The government color-coded our fear and gave us a list of products to purchase accordingly. Electrical tape for yellow alert. Batteries for orange. Rolls of plastic for red. There was talk of a draft.

I’d naïvely spent the past three years trying to serve my country and save the world. The President was—much more successfully—destroying both. Everything was backwards. War was peace. Liberation was invasion. Freedom was hate. I didn’t want any part of it, of the problem or the solution. I couldn’t tell which was which anymore. I wanted to ride, to find my own line and cut my own turns. Deep in the woods, I wanted only the sound of my board against the snow. So I went back to the Bowl.

I managed to usurp local status through a series of clever mishaps. A guy I worked with did a man-on-the-street article for a Missoula weekly. He asked me some questions about how the town should promote itself. I gave a tongue-in-cheek response about claiming to be a cold, dark hellhole with no skiing to keep all the Californians and Washingtonians from moving out. I never thought he would use it. At any rate, it made me a hero up at the Bowl. I was terrified someone might discover that I was, in fact, an easterner—the second-lowest rung on a long ladder of impostor scum, only slightly higher than a Californian.

The Duct-Tape Army

Coming from the east coast, it never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a ski area without hotels, day-care, gift-shops, or rich people. When I hitchhiked up that mountain road for the first time, I found a gravel lot packed in with old cars. A humble A-frame lodge stood beside a bar, both surrounded by stacks of firewood. The lift-chairs looked like something that you might see rusting in piles behind the fence at an amusement park.

The people there were the first ski-bums I’d ever seen. I dubbed them the “Duct-Tape Army” for the silver squares that adorned their once-waterproof clothing like badges of honor. They were the unemployed and underemployed stepchildren of a ski-industry that had forgotten them. As a suburban kid, I’d never met adults who had dedicated their lives to something that didn’t involve earning or spending.

Everybody was a hustler; all had some scam to get through the winter. The cleverest got themselves laid off at the start of the season. Renewing unemployment via cell phone from the chair lift was the most envy-inspiring trick a skier could pull at the Bowl. Many others did what I did: working odd hours in the food service industry.

My first winter, a friendly soldier in the Duct-Tape Army taught me how to ride in the woods. At Snowbowl, that’s like teaching somebody how to walk. “Don’t look at the trees,” he told me. “Look at the spaces in between the trees.” It’s hard to say how many times that phrase saved my life.

Breakdowns

I was actually worse than a transplant; I brought my friends. I had convinced my buddy Paul, a fellow easterner, to move out. He left a fairly cushy teaching to move to Missoula. He spent the customary four to six weeks looking for a decent job. By the time he was delivering pizzas, the snow was too good for him to resent me.

Our lives took place in between the trees. We lived in the narrow spaces among hours of crappy jobs and minimum paychecks. We snaked our way through a thick, confused forest of apathy and contempt. At Snowbowl you can ride for miles in the woods and not see another human. Good turns, nice jumps, a small stash of fresh snow—these things were our value system, our economy.

The news had been reduced to a series of body counts and the rest of the world’s steady, galvanizing hatred for this country, with these wonderful mountains in it. Running away isn’t about getting someplace new. It’s about hearing the wind whip so hard past your ears that it drowns out all other noises.

Paul’s first winter we began a tradition of filling out comment cards and dropping them in the suggestion box. We may have been the first customers ever to do so. There were a lot of good ideas: lift-line comedians who only did ski and snowboard-related humor, orange jumpsuits and glowing wands for the parking lot attendants, bellhop uniforms for the lift operators. We never heard back on any of them.

That was also the winter of all the Grizzly Chair breakdowns. The Griz Chair is an ancient piece of machinery that passed through the hands of several higher-end ski-areas before finally ending up at the Bowl. The rusty poles each have two or three old numbers on them, some welded and patched over. If you study the chipped-up parts of the chairs, you can see how many different paint jobs the Griz has been through.

The breakdowns always seemed to happen in the afternoon, often on the last run of the day. We’d be stuck up there for forty-five minutes sometimes, our legs aching under the weight of our boards. In a few instances, ski patrol had to come and evacuate everyone. They throw a belay rope up and then you make a special kind of knot around the cable. Another skier once gave me a snapshot of myself in mid-air, being lowered down by patrollers. The senior officers of the Duct Tape Army say you should expect at least one rope evacuation per season.

Sometimes they used the auxiliary motor during a breakdown. This small diesel engine caused the chair to creep forward at a fraction of its normal speed. It belched out fumes that followed the line of the chairs. If you were near the bottom, you spent hours breathing in the smoke of burning petroleum—the burning bones of dinosaurs, the burning blood of poor Americans and poorer Arabs.

We filled out a suggestion card urging Snowbowl to make a Ken-Burns-style documentary on the history of the Griz Chair, where each tower came from and how they were pieced together into the monstrosity that we risked our lives on day in and day out.

Your Snow and Your Fate

As the winter goes by in Missoula, you start to take things for granted. You forget why you moved there. Temperature inversion in the valley makes the weather gloomy and the people depressed. The base starts to thaw. Money gets tight; you work more and ride less. The President seems to be on the front page everyday. Another pre-emptive invasion. Another cloudy threat somewhere in the world, sometime in the future. The trees grow thicker. It gets harder and harder to see the spaces in between.

If you’re lucky it coincides with the end of the season. Paul and I went off to California to spend the summer surfing. We promised ourselves that we wouldn’t be back. We were both fed up with food service. The Oil Wars raged on. The Missoula liberals spoke zealously of impeaching Bush, as if they had elected him in the first place.

Every winter I spent at the Bowl was supposed to be my last. That President believed in regeneration through violence. I suppose I’ve always believed in regeneration through distance. If you go far enough away, you become something different. Maybe you’ll like that new thing a little better. Maybe not. I don’t claim this always works, but it’s much less bloody and no less effective than the President’s method. I headed to California for keeps. I got another discharge from the Duct Tape Army. I retired from food service for the third or fourth time. Goodbye, I said, I leave you to your snow and to your fate.

Men with Mustaches

By Thanksgiving, I was back. We rode the day after. Two old Missoula friends, Brad and Steve, had gotten jobs as lifties up at the Bowl.

During a snowless warm spell, we all grew mustaches for fun. We kept them once the powder returned. On their day off, Brad and Steve took a favorite mogul run right underneath the Lavelle Chair. Paul and I followed them just for kicks. About four poles from the bottom, we noticed the lift chair come to a halt—nothing unusual. We didn’t stop until we heard the woman’s screams. Almost directly above us, a small child dangled from the arms of his mother. Brad, Steve, Paul, and I all gathered at the spot where the boy was most likely to land. The mom screamed. The lower lift shack was just barely within earshot. The lifty manning it was, like his supervisors and co-workers, stoned out of his gourd. He sent somebody post-holing uphill with the belay rope—a moot point as there’s no way the mom could have gotten it over the cable, or wrapped it around her son, even if she could’ve somehow held on to his Gore-Tex sleeves that long.

We hoped to break the kid’s fall a little bit. Maybe he would only crack a few major bones but not die. Finally, Steve shouted to the mom: “How long can you hold him?”

“I can’t hold on much longer.” She called back. Steve popped out of his skis, chucked his gloves, and climbed up the lift tower’s ladder. He got to the top and reached out as far as he could, holding onto the ladder with one hand and one foot.

“Move the chair up about five feet!” he shouted down to the stoned lift-operator. The old chair crept forward as the child slipped from the mother’s grasp. Steve was able to grab the collar of the boy’s jacket as the mother’s grip gave. Dong! went the boy’s snowboard against the cold steel of the tower. Steve held on for just a fraction of a second longer. His two arms made a strong, straight line between the top rung of the ladder and collar of the boy’s jacket. By the time he let go, the little snowboard was just inches out of the reach of the three of us on the ground.

The child’s heart beat so hard we felt it through all his winter clothes. “You see, son,” Paul told him. “You don’t have to be afraid of men with mustaches anymore. They are your friends.”

We led him down to the bottom of the hill where he could wait for his mother. Nobody cared that she didn’t say much to Steve or anybody. She was just happy to see her child in one piece. What did set us off was how the Snowbowl management reacted, or didn’t react. Granted, I’ve never worked in the ski industry, but it seems to me that what Steve did was their equivalent of jumping on a live grenade. We figured he was in for congratulations, a raise, an envelope full of cash, something. All the teenage shredders shouted: “Steve’s our hero!” and “Mustache men action-figures!” Days went by and nothing happened. The owners never even acknowledged that Steve had saved them from a lawsuit or insurance incident. They never said thanks or good job. The shredders found new heroes soon enough. We shaved off our mustaches.

A Superb Job

Shortly thereafter, cable news bombarded us with images of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured. The Worst President Ever blamed the enlisted men involved. Apparently, those eighteen-year-old kids brought with them black masks, dog-leashes, and a sadistic understanding of the Arab male psyche. The public bought it.

I was going way too fast. It was the last run of the day. The lodge was within sight. I had five days of food service ahead of me. A lot of trees and no spaces. Democrats vainly called for Rumsfeld’s resignation over Abu Ghraib. The President claimed that the Secretary of Defense was doing, “a superb job.”

My last turn felt sketchy. I remember thinking that my edge had barely set. Ice, perhaps. Then I remember a dark room with black walls, black ceilings, and black floors. There were no windows and no doors. Even the seams between the floors, walls, and ceilings faded. A cloud of red and yellow stars seeped in and spread all throughout the room. I watched them for a minute or two.

A ski patroller stood over me snapping his fingers. I didn’t know where I was or the day of the week. All I remembered was my name.

It takes over seven hundred pounds of pressure to break the scapula, which I had done. It doesn’t take nearly that much to break the clavicle, which I’d shattered into dozens of pieces. I reached over and touched the place on my shoulder where the biggest chunk of my collarbone stuck up through the skin.

That cloud of yellow and red stars moved in again. One fact remained lucid: I had no medical insurance. My COBRA plan from Peace Corps had lapsed two weeks earlier, and my restaurant job offered no coverage. The ski patroller began radioing for an air ambulance and I made him stop. I’d hitch a ride down the hill to the emergency room.

That sort of thing was bound to happen sooner or later. If you were riding at the Bowl and working in the food service industry, the lifestyle would catch up with you. In the history classes of the future, students will wonder why our generation failed to consider basic health care a human right. In those days, politicians on both sides barely bothered to bring it up.

All the money in my world disappeared in that millisecond-long transition between my heel-side and my toe-side edge. Luckily, I didn’t have a family to drag with me into bankruptcy. Even the highest-ranking officers in the Duct-Tape Army were still just second-class citizens in the Worst President’s America. In between the trees, amongst the waiters and the bums, was a place where I could hide for a while, but not for long. Sometimes, that still feels like the more civilized country.

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TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.

14 responses to “In Between Trees”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    “That President believed in regeneration through violence. I suppose I’ve always believed in regeneration through distance. If you go far enough away, you become something different.”

    Lovely, harrowing stuff, T. So much here. The era, the snowboarding, the broken bones. I was in Ashland, Oregon during this time, yelling at the radio a lot.

    Art

  2. Art Edwards says:

    “That President believed in regeneration through violence. I suppose I’ve always believed in regeneration through distance. If you go far enough away, you become something different.”

    Wise words, T.

    And lovely, harrowing stuff. So much here. The era, the snowboarding, saving the child, the broken bones. I was in Ashland, Oregon during this time, yelling at the radio a lot.

    Art

  3. Quenby Moone says:

    This is a beautiful piece, full of the contrasts and counterpoints and sardonic edges that really make me engaged. I love the balance of the boarding-because-what-else-you-gonna-do? life versus the reality of Iraq; the Worst President Ever versus your lack of resources and your friend, the hero, getting the shaft. It equals a great snapshot of a surreal time.

    If I could, I’d even grow a mustache!

    • Wow, Quenby. Thanks very much for reading. I’m really flattered by your kind words.

      I see this among my students now, this tension between withdrawal and engagement, between sticking your head in the sand or letting your anger beat harder than your heart. I’ve come to believe that the real political dichotomy–for young America, at least–is not right vs. left, but apathy vs. partisanship.

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Nice to read something with a snowboarding flavor on TNB. I’ve sometimes said that learning how to snowboard (in 1997) launched the second part of my life. It was that important. It found me desperate to relocate to Colorado (which I did in 1998), and eventually to find that being Coloradan became almost instantly as important a part of my being as being Nigerian, or being a writer. My children are all pretty much Nigerian-Coloradan, and we get them on skis right away at 3 years old, so we can eliminate the child care expense while the rest of us ride. Then we mix in snowboarding at about 7 or so, once they’ve learned how to carve properly on skis. I live for snowboarding in the trees, and the kids always want to follow, so that lesson of “look between the rees, not at them” is basically an extension of Kindergarden.

    For the most part we get the Colorado “5 mountains” pass, so A Basin is the grungiest resort for us, but I’m definitely an afficionado of the “pure soul” school of the sport, so your Montana Snowbowl sounds nothing short of iconic.

    Just as snowboarding has shaped my family from a recreational perspective, it’s also shaped large tracts of my political perspective, to connect to your leitmotif. Snowboarding directly and indirectly moved me politically to the left. Not only living near Boulder, which is of course very left-leaning, but also I think the aspects of “soul” that inhabit the sport have a strong, progressive flavor, and I’ve found myself under that influence.

    So I can’t help but ask: what was it you hit when you wrecked your shoulder? Did you catch an ice patch and careen into a tree? Sounds brutal, whatever it was. Hope you’re well over the injury.

    TNB ski/snowboard trip one of these days? C’mon! Which one of you sedentary writerly types can lay down a nice carve line? 🙂

  5. Thanks for reading, Uche! So glad it struck a chord. I was also a late bloomer, to sports in general, and I’ve often thought that boarding and surfing saved me from a life of full-time sarcasm and smart-ass-hood.

    Montana Snowbowl is definitely an enigma. I don’t think it’s ever been financially solvent. My understanding is that a consortium of local doctors and lawyers rescued the place from bankruptcy and now keep it open mainly so they can ski.

    Yeah, that injury was purely the fault of speed and ice. I hit an icy patch and basically mouse-trapped right over the nose of the board. In my snowboarding days, I had two different accidents in which a helmet certainly saved my life (the second one broke my helmet to pieces, but I was able to get up and ride down the mountain). Both were due to bad luck and ice, nothing fancy or risky. Make sure your kids wear helmets!

    Count me in on the TNB ski trip! We’ll charge the whole thing to the company credit card…

  6. Katie Arnoldi says:

    I love this Tyler. I have so many friends in the duct tape army. Your essay makes me homesick for restless carefree days. Thanks for this.

  7. Oh, man, this made me feel 19 again Tyler. For at least nine minutes. Thank you.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    Tyler, I let this get past me when it appeared.

    I think it’s a great piece. I’m fond of weaving stories together but your weaving is masterful.

    You tend to write longer pieces than most, and they all have a lot of heft to them. Have you thought about collecting them and seeing about getting them published?

    • Thanks for reading, Don!

      That’s very flattering, about the collecting and whatnot.

      I’ve been focused on trying to get another novel together for a while now–so I haven’t thought much about compiling essays. But I like working on them; it definitely flexes a different muscle.

      My sense is that essay collections (as opposed to book-length nonfiction) are a tough racket…one that trades heavily on a high concept or a big name.

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