That 4th Street summer block party Ellen and I were invited to? We had no idea the surprise we were in for.
We don’t even live on 4th Street, but Ryan and Heather, young teachers from across the alley who were handing out printed invitations (“bring a chair and something to grill”) said we were welcome.
Drifting on the street, beverage in hand but knowing no one, I was rescued by a round, smiling woman who introduced herself. She was just starting to show with her second child. She said her name was Wintress. I had to ask for clarification, and she said yes, Wintress. “My parents love winter.”
She’d grown up in the Bay Area. She and her husband were buying the house on the corner, the one with the overflowing vegetable garden. (Later, she would lead a tour of her tomatoes and leeks, berries and squashes. “I’ve had to relearn how to grow everything,” she said, “with the short growing season here.”) She was open and earthy.
Then she started down the road to astonishing coincidence. “Peter Shelton. There used to be a Peter Shelton living across the street. I liked to tease him about being married, a long time ago, to my favorite auntie.”
I told her I’d heard from someone else – I couldn’t remember who – about a second Peter Shelton in Bend. Only natural, I ventured, in a town this big for two people to share a name. I guess.
Wintress enjoyed pestering this other Peter Shelton about their nonexistent connection. “He had been married, but not to my auntie.”
Off to the side, Wintress’ husband kept an eye on their toddler, who careened repeatedly over the curb perilously close to the condiments and buns.
“My auntie was just here in Bend this spring helping us buy this house. She’s a realtor, in California. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago she told me the story of her marriage to Peter Shelton. It was in the 60s.” Long before Wintress was born.
Ellen, my wife of 40 years, mingled nearby, chatting with yet more friendly neighbors – another teacher couple as it happened.
“I was married, briefly, in the 60s,” I volunteered, a sense of inevitability, like gravity, drawing me on. “In southern California. I was really young, a month shy of 20 when we married. It only lasted about a year, two by the time the divorce was final. She kept pet chuckwallas.”
“Maureen.” I don’t remember which of us said it. Didn’t matter, the link was forged, a wave of associations flooding in. What were the chances? Wintress’ “favorite auntie,” Maureen Carpenter, had married in the distant past this guy, Peter Shelton, the stranger standing before her, who just moved to a house three doors away across the alley and happened to be invited to the annual 4th Street block party.
It’s hard to say for whom the shock was greater. I had the 45-year-old memories, some sharp and sweet, some understandably (or subconsciously) vague. I hadn’t seen or heard from Maureen since the afternoon we said goodbye on the steps of the Alameda County courthouse. In our hand-written settlement, I got the VW bus and half the record albums. She got most of the wedding presents and the record player. And the other half of our record collection. And the chuckwallas. For her part, Wintress had an ongoing, apparently close relationship with her auntie and had somewhat recently been told the story of her youthful falling into and out of love. Who knows what Maureen shared with her?
Dear Ellen, for all her elegance and sophistication has remained jealous of Maureen since I first told her the history. “She whose name must not be uttered,” she jokes, not joking. I understand. She’s seen the dewy wedding photos, heard the stories. Ellen is close to my mom, who did not approve of my first marriage, though she didn’t put up any real barriers at the time. She did tell me it was a bad idea. You’re in thrall to the sex, she said. It’s your first. A mother knows these things. She’s shared her witchy wisdom, conspiratorially, with Ellen, in the decades since.
At the block party, when I introduced them and told Ellen Wintress’ astonishing news, the two of them linked arms immediately, like sisters with important things to talk about.
I have been curious about Maureen. Of course, I have. It was the first. And it was the last time I flopped down on my back and sobbed uncontrollably. Did she ever remarry? Wintress told me she hadn’t. Kids? Nope. I stared at Wintress looking for a resemblance. At the time of our breakup, I wanted to cut ties completely. I was the one who had been hurt, my trust betrayed. At least that was my side. Some months or years later Maureen came to my mom and asked if they could be friends; she was still fond of the family. My mother told her no.
After we split up, I finished college and moved to New York City. Then to the mountains of Colorado, where Ellen and I met and began our long and happy union. She’d been married once before, too. Early on we went together to a jewelry store that bought gold and sold our old wedding rings.
Still, time doesn’t erase your first love. I flew out to southern California for my 40th high school reunion a few years back half-hoping that Maureen would be there. She wasn’t.
When we left the block party after dark to walk home, I bagged up two folding camp chairs, thinking they were the ones we had brought. One of them was ours. The other one sat in our yard for a while before we noticed the faint black lettering on the back. LOVERING. Wintress’ last name. She had our chair on her front porch.
I’m new to Bend. By definition that means I’m a kook on the single track, a neophyte on the most obvious of tourist hiking trails.
It’s not easy being new, especially in a place as tuned into its athletic tantra as Bend is. You’re bound to appear gauche in your enthusiasm for Mt. Bachelor’s stately hemlock forests, guaranteed to sound naïve gushing about the single-track flow in Phil’s Canyon.
But that’s how you learn. That’s how you get, eventually, to make a landscape your own.
I started out with the tree in the back yard. It’s a statuesque, full-figured juniper. I assume it’s a juniper. It has the vertical, scaly red bark and blue “berries” typical of the junipers we knew back in Colorado. But this one is much bigger (50 feet tall at least) – a Rocky Mountain juniper on steroids. It’s probably a different subspecies. Or maybe it’s the Northwest water.
The branches are perfectly spaced for climbing, the interior of the tree a rustling aroma-therapy (spiced cedar tea?) world of its own. Near the top I swayed in the wind as the tree swayed, “bending and swirling,” John Muir wrote, of a climb up a sugar pine in his beloved Sierra, “so noble an exhilaration of motion.”
I had hoped to get a glimpse of the four nearby volcanoes from up there, but other big trees in the neighborhood blocked my view of the Bachelor and the Three Sisters. (I’ve wondered: who is pursuing whom? Is it the eager bachelor forever unable to close the distance to the haughty sisters? Or is it the sisters who are, Jane Austin-like, frozen in their desire for the timber-camp bachelor?)
My first hike was up the well-traveled North Fork trail past Tumalo Falls. Yes, it was obvious, and busy, but not so busy as I feared. In fact, the farther up I went, the closer to my turnaround at Happy Valley, the quieter it all became. Except for the rush of water pouring like silver Slinkys down a giant flight of stairs. Cold, clear water from the basement springs of Broken Top (a fifth volcano worn to remnant shards by successive ice ages). To a parched Coloradoan, this was an unprecedented lushness.
It took me almost four hours to do the eight miles up and back (though I may have dozed a bit in the soft duff beside the creek following a snack stop). When I returned, my son-in-law, Adam, challenged me to guess what the mountain bike record is for the North Fork climb. The correct answer was 21 minutes, held by his buddy Chris Shepard. Staggeringly fast. Then Adam went out and bettered Shepard’s time to 20 minutes and change.
Adam and our daughter, Cloe, are both serious bikists. They met on bikes in New Hampshire, while Cloe was in med school and Adam worked carpentry for Close Enough Construction and raced the NORBA pro circuit. They moved to Bend two years ago with our first two grandchildren. They’re blissed out.
I’m a rider of a different sort. We came here to be with the kids, but also for the sweet single track and the swoopy lines on Bachelor Butte. On skis, I try to be the proverbial silent Indian slinking through the woods without snapping a twig. My mountain biking is mostly about exploration, also known as getting lost. One ride early in our residency here: Deschutes River Trail to the Meadows picnic area to COD (I walked the technical parts) to Marvin’s Gardens, the ultimate beginner’s trail. Along the way I stared for minutes at bone-white monster logs in the river that had wedged together and become earth-building islands of green growing things. Rolling down Marvin’s Gardens I yielded to the carve-y turns in the Ponderosa shade. The flow plucked my mind out and left only the giddy, banking movement. I hadn’t planned any of it, except for the start above the river. The rest just materialized, one unexpected puzzle piece after the other.
None of it would be considered adventurous by my kids or by many Bend locals. Old hat that. But it was all new to me, staking a claim.
Lying on the living room floor the other night, listening to “Dead Air,” the all-Grateful Dead show on Eugene public radio, I was swept away by a live version of the 1977 release “Looks Like Rain.” It was simply the most beautiful Dead song I had ever heard, lovely and sad and hopeful all at the same time.
And mysterious. What did lyricist John Perry Barlow mean by “I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name”? And with her side of the bed empty, how can Bob Weir sing “But it’s alright ‘cause I love you, and that’s not going to change”?
The summer of 1970, the summer following the breakup of my first love, I worked collecting money at a City of Newport Beach parking lot. The fellow I teamed with, another college junior, killed himself at the end of August. His family found him lying in bed with a plastic bag over his head and the Dead’s “Dark Star” from 1969 repeating over and over on the record player.
This fellow, whose name I have buried in memory somewhere, played guitar on our breaks. We’d walk out on the sand, maybe sneak a hit off a joint, watch the waves and talk. He was tall and smart and a good listener, too. I liked him a lot.
I went to his funeral and stood in the back. A minister in robes intoned, “I didn’t know Steve . . .” (I’ll call him Steve.) I was incensed. I almost shouted: “No? Then why are you speaking? What is this charade? Steve didn’t believe in this shit!”
I didn’t, of course, because I was raised to be polite. And, I had to admit after my rage subsided, that I didn’t really know Steve either, apparently. He’d never given me any reason to think he was considering killing himself. So I went to the record store and bought Live/Dead, the album with “Dark Star” on it. It’s 23 minutes and 18 seconds long. Takes up all of side two. A couple of the other song titles on the double album caught my eye: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”
“Dark Star” was brooding, ethereal, strung out on Jerry Garcia’s meandering guitar improvisations. But I didn’t hear death there. The cover art featured a bare-breasted woman with a scepter rising out of a coffin. But all Grateful Dead iconography played on that theme: life, death, dancing skeletons, the very-alive sensuality of the music.
I didn’t hear any clues in the Robert Hunter lyrics either, although they were dark. “Reason tatters / the forces tear loose / from the axis.” Maybe I should have been suspicious of the chorus: “Shall we go, / you and I / While we can? / Through / the transitive nightfall / of diamonds.”
I might have recognized T.S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) in that line. I didn’t at the time, though if I had, I’m not sure I would have learned anything about my friend’s decision to off himself.
Maybe it wasn’t premeditated. Maybe he was experimenting, searching the psychedelic. Robert Hunter told an interviewer years later that he had no idea what the “transitive nightfall of diamonds” meant. “It sounded good at the time. It brings up something you can see.”
Then again, maybe Steve was deeply unhappy and hiding it. I knew him only a few weeks.
In my living room the other night, I thought of a line from Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir, The Boy Detective. He was making the point to a class he was teaching that life is not orderly, as literature (or a song) strives to be. “No one,” he wrote, “has clarity, shape, and a theme.”
I’ve remarked on the majesty of the hemlocks here in central Oregon. Skiing through stands of them on Mount Bachelor is like gliding through a dimly lit cathedral with great, dark-barked columns holding up the roof.
Last week on the hike to Green Lakes I walked through yet another sturdy hemlock forest. They are not the tallest trees in the Pacific Northwest. Not the skyscraper giants, the cedars and firs and redwoods that once covered the west coast all the way to middle California. Still, these are magnificent trees, big enough and old enough to demand their own space and to create such deep shade that few seedlings of any species dare grow in their shadows. On a hot day, that shade feels fifteen degrees cooler than the world outside.
These big trees jogged memories of a woman I knew decades ago in New York. I was there on a yearlong lark, a post-graduate adventure to see what The Big Apple was all about. I bussed tables and eventually landed a gig in the biography library in the Time & Life building. The girl at the next desk could swivel around during slow times and chat. Mostly about the West. She wanted to know about the West.
She was newly married. She had black hair and alabaster skin. She had never been out of the boroughs of New York. She took the subway from her street corner in Brooklyn, walked from the train directly into the elevators in the basement of Rockefeller Center and up to our office on, I want to say, the 42nd floor. The only time she was outside under the sky was on the half-block between the subway stairs and her apartment building.
Much of the time we were not very busy. J. Edgar Hoover died the summer I worked there, creating a flurry of demand for the files on the former FBI director, commie hater, and closet homo. That was exciting. And then I got to move all his files down to the “morgue.” But a typical day in the office included lots of time to talk. A sweet, confiding girl, she told me her husband had likewise never been west of the Hudson. But he very much wanted to go.
What was it like? she asked, once she knew that I had grown up in California. She was particularly worried about the trees. Her husband had fixated on Oregon, and she had heard the trees were really big in Oregon. It was as if she were trying to picture, to work her way through, a fairytale forest, grim and overarching. As if she herself were Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. But not those two precisely. They were blithe; they were clueless going in.
“How tall are they?” she asked. “What does it sound like?” Her husband had this powerful notion. He was determined to move to Oregon. And, of course, he wanted her to go with him. She was terrified.
“I don’t know,” she said, leaning in, opening a crack to the possibility that she might not be able to follow her man. “I don’t know if I can deal with the trees.”
What were the chances we’d run into Kelby on the Deschutes River Trail?
Bend is a big town. Eighty thousand plus. Big anyway compared to where we come from on the western slope of Colorado. There, the biggest town by far (we call it a city) is Grand Junction, currently an oil-and-gas boomtown on the Colorado River, bisected by Interstate 70, population 60,000.
I only know a handful of people in Bend. And yet here we were, my brother Tom and I, on this mountain bike trail running into Kelby, my grandkids’ baby sitter. She lit up in recognition and delivered hugs all around. Well into our conversation, the river burbling at our backs, Tom asked, half kidding but also genuinely curious: “Where is the dark side to Bend?”
It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Bend seems to a newcomer like a bright and happy place. A place comfortable in its own skin. A place with a built-in openness, a friendliness not exactly universal in other places we’ve lived.
At first I was reminded of “The Truman Show,” the scary-perfect Florida town that turned out to be an elaborate set in the 1998 Jim Carey vehicle. And Bend is indeed beautiful, flush with water, lush for the high desert, manicured, proud. But beauty and pride of place do not guarantee a good attitude.
We lived for the last 38 years within the physical and intellectual sphere of Telluride, a place as gorgeous as any on the continent. But something about that mountain valley encourages a cloistered vibe, a kind of protective defensiveness. Not surly exactly, but not exactly welcoming either.
I wonder about history. Both places were founded on extractive industries. Telluride’s miners started digging a full quarter century before Bend’s lumbermen unsheathed their saws. Bend is a very young community, incorporated in 1905. The timber heyday lasted only a few decades before the big trees became scarce and economics and environmental consciousness changed. But unlike a lot of other Oregon timber towns, Bend made a successful, a very successful, transition to recreation tourism, helped along by the launch in 1958 of the ski area at Mount Bachelor, and more recently by the proliferation of craft breweries.
Telluride faced the same prospects when the last mine closed in 1978. But its isolation (six hours from Denver; an hour and a half from the nearest airport) and the limits of its steep, awkwardly laid out ski mountain slowed its growth.
More significantly perhaps, Telluride’s box canyon denizens weren’t at all sure they wanted the scene a destination ski area would bring. The chant in the ‘70s was “Not another Aspen!” These new Telluriders were bi-coastal sophisticates, utopians, trust funders, mountain athletes, PhD snow shovelers and short-order cooks, and they did their best – continue to do their best – to slow anything that smells of a headlong, or insufficiently examined, advance.
I gather that was not the case in Bend. The city has grown exponentially since I first skied here in the mid-1980s, when the population hovered around 17,000. Some of the new developments have been higher-quality than others. Sprawl is, and traffic has grown proportionately. But city planners seem to have stayed a step ahead of the growth. Dozens of roundabouts (rather than stop lights) move cars, and bicycles, with remarkable efficiency. They (the city, county and ODOT) built an elevated “parkway,” a pseudo freeway with a 45-mph speed limit, to move traffic across town. There are bike lanes on almost every street, with cyclists of every stripe using them. And the network of public-lands trails is rumored to be somewhere north of 500 miles long, and counting.
Topography plays a part. Telluride’s tiny canyon is guaranteed to dial up the claustrophobia, and the home prices. Not to say the insular smugness. Bend sits at the low-angle intersection of the forested eastern Cascades and the sage of the Great Basin. The self-congratulatory air here is largely a “Lucky us!” reflex. There is room, generous room, in every direction. Room for a rather large, economically diverse population to build, to spread out on the trails, float the river, disappear from one another in the ponderosas, and . . . be nice.
I’ll never forget the phone call we got from our son-in-law Adam hours after he arrived in Bend two years ago. He had driven out alone from Boston ahead of the rest of his little family, with a pickup load, to their rental house. Adam is a born and bred New Englander. Not taciturn in the clichéd (“Can’t get there from here.”) way, but private in the sense that holding something in reserve is often the best policy. Adam told us on the phone that he couldn’t get over how happy people in Bend seemed to be.
“Everybody’s smiling,” he said in amazement.
We’d seen the bumper stickers around town: “Be Nice You’re In Bend.” But sometimes it takes someone else to point out the obvious.
Ellen and I had been here for only a couple of months, enjoying what did in fact seem to be a preternatural geniality on the part of many Bend, Oregon locals, when my brother came to visit. He and I were going somewhere in his rental car, backing out of the driveway. Tom stopped mid-turn, aware that another car was approaching from up the hill. “He’s stopping!” Tom exclaimed, incredulous, eyes on his mirror. “He’s waiting! I could live to be a hundred and never see such a thing in Southern California!”
Boggled, Tom drove on, and I recalled a number of instances in our short time here where niceness prevailed.
There were the gas station attendants. Oregon remains the only state I know of where you don’t pump your own gas. Instead, you pull in, roll down the window and tell the man, or the woman, to fill ‘er up. If they’re not too busy they like to talk, commenting on our Colorado plates (now switched over to the Oregon evergreen tree), happy to give directions or advice, and nearly always ending the conversation, “Welcome to Central Oregon.”
Another time I was up in the branches of our sickly, curbside ash tree trying to prune out the dead stuff when a man we know only slightly came by on his bike and offered to loan me his extendable limb saw. He dropped it off that afternoon. And, if that weren’t enough, he invited us up to his place for a barbecue the next night.
We got another invite, out of the blue, from a young couple across the alley. Once a summer the denizens of 4th Street close off the street and celebrate potluck with their immediate neighbors. Sweet chicken smoke. Coolers full of beers. Kids with water balloons – shrieks of laughter, but never so wild as to get the adults wet. We met and had meaningful chats with almost everyone on the block. One reveler even drew up a schematic for us newer arrivals, with names and abodes, to show who lived where.
More? The mother of two across the street, the one we’ve seen tending her sidewalk garden of aspens and wildflowers, knocked on our door with a bag of peaches from her back yard tree. “Welcome to Bend,” she said.
Our bank, Umpqua Bank, actually strives to be “the friendliest bank in the world.” They refer to Oregonians as “folks,” call their banks “stores.” The tellers are almost disconcertingly cheerful. When I drop off a mortgage payment they ply me with little bags of their signature roasted coffee beans. Lesser occasions warrant a chocolate mint.
At Phil’s Trailhead, where a spider web of mountain bike single track fans out west of town, there’s a sign for what can only be called niceness etiquette. It reads in part: “Look, Listen, Smile . . . Have fun, and keep your eyes and ears open. Smile and say hello! You are in one of the best mountain bike areas in the nation.” In one of the few incidences of trail rudeness, or near rudeness, we’ve heard about, a friend had to wait to pass a slower rider who stubbornly refused to pull over. When he was finally able to squeeze past, he warned the obdurate one as he went by: “Watch those elbows, Buttercup!”
Joan Didion opens her famous essay on her New York years with this: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” She arrived in the city at age 20, from Sacramento, intending to stay six months and left eight years later. We came to western Colorado in our twenties expecting what? We didn’t know, beyond a new ski area and jobs with a new ski school. Now, 38 years later, I agree with Didion that seeing beginnings is easier than puzzling through endings, their tangles of reasons and meaning. (more…)
Ellen and I just returned from a month in Bend, Oregon, a month spent tearing the insides out of a downtown 1950s bungalow, and sleeping in the guest room at daughter Cloe’s place. She and her husband, Adam, and the two grandkids are the big reasons we’re moving to Bend. They’re all for it. They’re cheerleading the transition and helping to facilitate it, not least with Adam’s skill as a builder.
Yesterday an old friend asked how it felt to be back home, and the question stopped me. Cue Firesign Theatre’s faux-vaudevillian tune: “Oh, how can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywheeeere at all?” Wasn’t there a Superman episode in which the Man of Steel desperately needs to be in two places at the same time, and he somehow pulls off the trick of self-division, but his superpowers are compromised? I think he tried to bust through a wall and hurt his shoulder.
Can a person have more than one home? Western Colorado has been our home for 38 years. Ellen and I, with Cloe in the oven, moved to Telluride in July 1976, just in time for the state’s centennial and the country’s bicentennial celebrations. We have moved twice since, to Ridgway in 1981 and then, in 1999, to this house, redundantly named Boulder Rock, as is the family custom, in a nearly empty valley south of Montrose. The San Juans are practically part of our DNA.
We didn’t consciously think of Boulder Rock as the last house we would ever live in, but we put everything we had into it. The design grew out of an intense, detailed, almost psychiatric collaboration, and the construction crew yielded at least two fond friendships. The house is unique, organic to its hill, personal to the point of eccentricity. The kitchen/dining area was designed around a table made for us, out of Oregon maple, as it happens, by my Uncle R.C. The fireplace we patterned after kitchen hearths we’d seen in France. Every one of the 33 windows and doors frames a view, either close in or grand, that was considered, imagined, with Ansel Adams-like focus. Ellen has said many times to me, whether I deserved the credit or not, “Thank you for building me my dream house.”
On our first night back from Oregon I lay in bed listening to the silence, one of Boulder Rock’s sensual luxuries. Toward morning coyotes yipped somewhere in the mile-wide dish of sage and hay. Bend is not nearly so quiet. It is a small city of 80,000, the biggest town in central Oregon, at the timbered edge of the desert and the Cascade Range. A handful of trains and their signature whistles rumble through every day, though the city’s history as a sawmill town – giant smokestacks on either side of the river – is mostly past. Now the vibe is closer to hipster Brooklyn with a lot of Northwest grunge thrown in. Crunchy hipsters, as it were, really nice folks for the most part, and commensurately happy. Lot of happy people in Bend. It is, of course, chockablock with breweries, coffee roasters, kayakers, mountain bikers, retirees, and kids going to Central Oregon Community College or the local branch of Oregon State University. Our aging hippie realtor described several properties in the neighborhoods we favored as “within walking distance of the Ten Barrel.”
Hipsters share the meandering Deschutes River, dammed into a series of “mirror ponds” through town, with a full compliment of carpenters and cooks, plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, clerks, entrepreneurs, artists and ski instructors who have worked Bend’s growth surge over the last few decades. It reminds me a bit of Boulder: smaller, with a river running through it, a little less self-important, and without a Denver next door. Portland is four hours away over the range.
Sometimes I think this move is the stuff of madness. We’re too old to take on such a complete relocation, pulled up at the roots. Are we running away from something? Something unnamed and, apparently, unexamined? Is this some sort of delayed mid-life crisis? (I just read, and felt an uncomfortable identification with, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “The Crack-Up,” in which he describes with a kind of romantic horror his own breakdown, at age 40, laying bare the “finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”)
But then I think, no, this is a forward progression. New momentum. Change is good, an essential preventative against the hardening of the soul’s arteries. We’re going to be close to family, three generations together, even if that comes at a cost of friends and familiar patterns. Energetic, bike-able, one-story Bend, we are convinced, will be a great place for the “fourth quarter.”
It doesn’t quite feel like home, yet. After a month, with that house stripped to the studs and this one rather urgently on the market, it’s no wonder we feel a near-constant frisson. No, it’s worse than that; it’s like having bees live in your head. We’re calling the new place Bend Corners. Maybe, as a Paonia friend suggested, it should be Bent Corners?
My circadian clock is still on Oregon time. I can’t go to sleep until an hour after I should, but I wake up, as always, at first light. I lie in bed thinking about the roof framing in the new place and where the wood stove and its double-wall pipe will go. The 2×6 rafters and 1×10 sheathing they used in 1950, the year after I was born, is beautiful lumber, probably milled right in Bend, the kind of straight, clear heart boards you don’t see at Home Depot.
I can’t lie still for long, however, because of the bluebirds. They’re up at first light, too. And they start in right away banging against the bedroom windows. This is no gentle rapping. (Both Hitchcock and Poe have come up in conversation.) Angry birds, a nesting pair, hurl themselves one after the other against the glass – so hard you would think they’d knock themselves out.
Google tells us they are attacking their own reflections – stubbornly, pointlessly, thinking them to be rivals for the territory they’ve chosen.
The last time Zjak and I skied together, he stood very tall on his feet, chest and chin up, the way I remembered from our years together at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra.
His form was upright, but with a pronounced bend at the ankles, noticeable even in ski boots. This, too, I remembered. It’s one of the things that made Zjako’s beautiful on-snow line drawing possible. You see, the ankle flex (cue the song “Dem Bones”) connects to knee bones being positioned over the front of the binding, which leads to hip bones well forward over the feet (as opposed to in the back seat), which leads to a skier’s weight falling naturally in the middle of the skis. And that is the magic, dear friends, the simple key to going where vision and character want to go.
Simple to know. Not so simple to execute.
This was three years ago now. Maybe four; time slips around. John (Jock, Zjak, Zjako) Selfridge and his wife Marty were visiting Colorado from Carpinteria, on the California coast. Zjak was sick then. He’d been sick with an aggressive form of prostate cancer for many years. He’d been in and out of clinical trials, on experimental drug regimes, dosed with hope one season and deposited, spent, to his bed the next.
But there was no question during that visit that we’d go skiing. It was the thing that bonded us. Marty and Ellen are skiers, too. Accomplished, elegant skiers. But Zjak and I recognized each other as fellow addicts. Couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop. We needed to be out there on mountainsides, moving through the air and over the snow as serenely as possible. Sculpting space on the tilt.
Zjako was a master of the aesthetic line, the secret line. He didn’t care how he looked, whether his jacket was zipped up, which pocket held his cigarettes, which his Coors Light, which the matches and the marijuana. He had to rebuckle his boots and find his goggles, which were there on his head the whole time. It could try Patience herself waiting for Zjak to be ready, finally. But when he was he shoved off with a savant’s sense for where to find the softest snow, the quietest, most yielding snow.
Zjak trusted that exploration would lead to reward, even if that meant climbing over logs or squeezing through prickly spruce branches. There was redemption in as few as two or three turns of pristine powder.
He was James Dean handsome. But he was shy, reserved, and mistrusted (or didn’t believe in) his good looks. There was something wounded in there. I never knew what, though there were hints about family, parents, strained step-family relations? I don’t know. In any case, he refused – wasn’t cut out – to go into the family business, which was big-time farming in the Central Valley near Fresno.
Zjako covered over this disappointment (disappointment he had caused? or felt in himself?) with athleticism and irony. We referred to each other as “fellow kids,” after a line from the LP “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” circa 1968, by the Los Angeles comedy group Firesign Theatre. We – all four of us – practically memorized whole albums, they were so word-wise and funny.
(Clueless Principal Poop speaks at high school graduation: “Fellow kids. In addressing for the assembly this morning . . .” In the back of the gym, scofflaws yell out: “Eat it! Eat it raw!” “Rah, rah, rah!” Poop chants without missing a beat, “That’s the spirits we have here at More Science High!”)
Fellow kids. Dear friends. Sometimes we spoke in what amounted to a kind of code. Everything reminded us of a line from Firesign Theatre. Our children, Ellen’s and mine and Zjak and Marty’s boy, Sam, didn’t always know what the adults were talking about, but, eyes rolling, did know from whence the cryptic lines came.
(Nick Danger pulling in, tires screeching to a stop at a filling station: “Say, Pops, where am I?!” “You can’t get there from here.”)
(Catherwood the butler: “May I take your hat and goat, sir? . . . You may sit here in the waiting room, or wait here in the sitting room.”)
(“He’s no fun, he fell right over!”)
That last one was especially apropos on the few times when Zjako tipped over on skis. As the years went by, his balance, and his strength, slowly ebbed.
The addiction to skiing meant that Zjak and I never grew up completely. Lucky for us, we married women who had. Strong, loyal women, who understood and were willing to put up with us, with all that time on the slopes as we indulged our obsession.
In Bear Valley in the early 1970s Ellen and I taught skiing, Zjako worked as a lift mechanic. He had an engineer’s ability to see how things were put together, and he liked climbing up lift towers in his ski boots. Marty cooked at the Tamarack Lodge. She flowed around a kitchen, still does, with a seeming effortlessness.
Ellen and I followed a muse to Telluride. Zjak and Marty moved back to the coast. She taught elementary school. His last job, before he had to stop working, was in a lab near Santa Barbara, messing around with silicone. Marty wrote in December about how hard it was watching Zjak “fade.” That was the word she used. He died in January.
The last time we visited out there, Zjak was walking with a cane and had to rest frequently. But he never once complained. About fate, or having to give up skiing, or having to lie down after a short walk on the beach. He was still movie star handsome: the strong, silent type.
Except when he was giggling. (From an alternative history lesson on Firesign Theatre’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” album: “And so, I betook me to the Hashfire Inn, all lusting for life and liberty. The real George Washington brought the hemp, and I the evening papers. We quickly proceeded to get Sam Adams and young Tom Jefferson goodly stretched by the hemp. What a fetid fervor of freedom! I say, let’s have a revolution!”)
On that last beach walk, despite the fact he could barely ambulate more than a few yards without stopping, Zjako found a stretch of sand cliff: vertical, soft-sand walls three feet high chewed into the beach by a previous high tide. He motioned to me to follow and together we pounced barefoot on the lip and rode the cascade to the bottom. Zjak stayed perfectly upright, riding the incline on the soles of his feet as if surfing childhood itself.
My new skis are German-made Völkls, the Völkl Code Speedwall S. I leaned them against a wall downstairs and admired their sleek shape, felt their supple flex – every time I walked by, day or night – before I took them out for a ride.
The S stands for slalom, I’m pretty sure. They are built like a slalom racing ski – without actually being a race ski – sandwiching stiff titanium top and bottom sheets around a laminated wood core. They are small-waisted, just 74 mm underfoot, and curvy. (Back in the 1990s when I was part of the annual equipment test at SKI magazine, someone correctly described the then-new “shaped” skis as having a figure like Betty Boop.)
The Speedwall in the name refers to the skis’ sidewalls, which can be be waxed. In fact, the factory supplies a little tube of fast fairy dust with an applicator lid. Just rub on and polish.
Why wax the sidewalls? Part of the Code. You wax the sidewalls because these babies beg to be tilted up on their sides – way up – so far up on edge the resulting grooves in the snow are etched by both the base and the sidewall. You wax your ski bases, so why not . . .
My regular five-year-old skis carve pretty well. They were once described, in a gear review, as “double-wide giant slalom skis.” They are curvy, too, compared to old-fashioned “straight” skis. But they are much fatter than the Codes. Their built-in turn is more like a high-speed bend in the road than a mountain hairpin. A gifted skier can carve them down almost any hill, but I have to apply the brakes when it gets steep. I reach a point where I can’t handle the speed, or the g-forces, in a long-radius, pure-carved turn. So on the old skis I’m on-carve and off, scrubbing speed, on-carve and off. Carve and skid, where the skidding can feel like compromise.
With the Codes, and their tighter natural turn shape, I learned right away I could carve more terrain more of the time. This is huge. I struggle to relay just how huge. Carving is not like run-of-the-mill steering, not like the skiing we used to do. There is no play, no skidding, no brushing sideways at all in a turn. The feeling is pure precision joined with perfect stability, because the ski is in fact slicing a trench in the snow, building a tiny curved wall against which you, the driver, lean. Insouciant. Invincible.
Think of a bobsled run with its banked vertical walls along which the sleds ride. It’s as if an alternate gravity were pinning them to the wall. Carving skiing is like that. Except you don’t have to ride down a refrigerated track, you gouge your own little wall with each turn, anywhere you want, anywhere you’re confident enough to stand firm against that knifing edge.
The Codes drew such round-y perfect lines in the snow, I could ski entire runs, top to bottom, without once throwing my skis sideways. Not until reaching the lift line again. It felt like what an engraver must feel, working soft silver. Ted Ligety, the American master of giant slalom, can do this. So can Mikaela Shriffrin, the slalom prodigy from Vail whose gorgeous technique and precocious sense of touch have made her, at 18, the world’s best slalom racer. Carving has been the Holy Grail of efficient, ecstatic skiing, especially for ski racers, forever. Sixty-four-year-old guys who started late and have never raced aren’t supposed to be able to do this. To feel this controlled freedom, this giddy, pressed-against-the-wall line drawing. And yet now . . .
The Code. Maybe it’s Code for cheating? Na. I don’t believe there is such a thing as cheating in skiing. In the early 1970s, when I was trying out for the ski school at Keystone, my Uncle Hal took me into his garage and showed me his Dynastar MV2s. He called them his cheaters, said they knew how to turn and somehow transferred that gift, deserved or not, to him. They were beautiful, white metal, with a small red logo near the tip. I bought a used pair in Denver and aced my apprentice clinic.
Those skis were primitive approximations, many design generations ago, of the surgical tools available today. I couldn’t have carved a turn on them to save my life.
The Codes are white, a beautiful pearlescent white, with a small red Völkl chevron. If Albert Einstein had skied, he’d have understood the Code. Riding them I can bend space-time.
My atoms get excited just thinking about it.