Peter Shelton

Take Your Medicine

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 24, 2020

Pull into a spot near the trailhead. Get skis and poles out of the back and stand them up against the car, bases facing away from the sun, which feels warm already at 9 a.m. on March 21, Coronavirus Day 58.

Open passenger door to get skate boots. Oh, wait. Stretch calves first. Heel on the ground, ball of the foot up against tire, hands on roof rack, stretching, stretching.

Stork-balance on one leg. Remove cotton sock. Pull wool ski sock over instep. Lose balance. Catch self (since hands are occupied) with head and elbow leaning against inside of door. Finish unfurling sock. Slide foot into snug, familiar plastic shell. Ah, the connector, the link between me, the ski, and the snow.

The title of this essay was going to be “Routine in a Time of Cholera.” Cholera being a metaphor for our current plague. The reference is to “Love in a Time of Cholera,” everyone’s second-choice novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez after his classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” a title we literally do not want to see happen.

Routines. Mark Twain said, “My habits protect me; they might assassinate you.” He was referring to his cigar smoking and whiskey drinking. My habits, the ones I’m focusing on today, all have to do with the need to ski.

Walk out to a patch of level snow near the Meissner Hut, which is locked because…of course. But the Virginia Meissner Nordic Club groomers have kept grooming, every night, across a web of old logging roads, laying down smooth lanes for skate and classic skiing, and snowshoeing, and walkers with dogs. Bless their snowcat-driving hearts. Even as Mt. Bachelor farther up the hill has “suspended” operations.

Settle water bottle in carrier around waist. Fit gloved hands into pole straps. Cinch the Velcro. Click toes into bindings. Stand up straight. Shoulder blades down. Eyes up. Go.

These days, especially as the lockdown takes its toll, ski ritual provides a needed reassurance, if only temporarily. The world is still spinning beneath the clouds. Gravity still works – both uphill (pant, pant) and downhill (Whoa! Acceleration!). Rituals order time, settle the mind. This makes me think of Hemingway’s Nick Adams, a young man who comes home to Michigan from the trenches of World War I. We learn, reading between the lines, that he is shell-shocked, early 20th century speak for PTSD. His mind is opaque to us, as if still in the fog of war. But the rituals, the deeply understood routines of camping, wrap him in a vital calm. Minutiae save him: setting up camp, gathering wood, building a fire, eating a can of beans, rolling out his blanket, rigging his fly rod, tying on a fly. As the story ends (as I remember it), Nick is standing in the river watching overlapping circles on the glossy surface as trout by the score rise to an evening hatch.

“Exercise is medicine, and movement is life.” My dear Ellen found that quote serendipitously while searching for a Gerry Lopez video to send a friend. Lopez is Bend’s resident surfing legend, now snowboarder, yogi, and philosopher of calm. In the film, he was quoting a Waikiki friend, John Zapotocky, but he owns the mantra himself, too. Ellen thought I’d like it. I do. Exercise is medicine, and movement is life.

I think of little else on the skate out Paintbrush trail, all the way to the Cinder Pit, five miles out. The morning snow is fast. As are my skis, which I waxed last night, scraped and polished to a black base sheen. Forest ecosystems fly by. Ponderosa (the big ones left standing by the loggers) with their brown-sugar bark and cathedral-column spacing. Darker, denser Grand fir, with their billions of blue-green needles right down to snow level. Lodgepole pine, slim and straight, perfect for tipi poles. Pockets of old-growth hemlock, the deepest darkest shadows of all.

The road ends at the Pit, a scarred lava-rock hillside. Smiling fellow skier, practicing safe social distancing, points out the cowbell hanging on a young ponderosa. Aim ski pole tip. Jangle the tin bell. Hup! Hup! Turn and start back.

The shade. The sun. The crunchy underfoot. The silken. The ski’s easy glide when hips stay over feet. The uphill search for efficiency, for flow. All of the aerobic machinery working to not work too hard. Trying to keep from tipping into anaerobic purgatory.

Some skiers never need to stop. Their technique and/or fitness is that solid. When I have to, it can seem like a failure. But no. Step off to the side. Reach back for the water bottle. Let the arms hang. Tune into the silence. Which is so vast it has volume, filling space, both uncaring and vastly comforting at the same time.

Back in the parking lot I’m sitting in my front seat scribbling notes. Three people – they sound like old friends – chat nearby. They’re appropriately spaced, cooling down from their ski. One says, “Everything’s bizarre. There’s no irony anymore. You can’t make light of anything.” Another chimes in, “My friend heard about this person in the supermarket who started coughing, and two guys in hazmat suits rushed in and grabbed her…!” The third has a more heartening tale: “Did you hear about the dolphins returning to the canals in Venice? The earth is bouncing back!”

Then, unaware that I was in my car with the window down, one of them coughs, several times, in my direction. “Oh my god,” she says. “I didn’t see you there! It’s just an allergy, I swear!”

A Rock with Wings

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 16, 2020

I rode on four commercial airliners last week. Back when I made the reservations COVID-19 was barely a news blip. As the virus – and the viral news – spread, I considered canceling. But no, the big Wall Street meltdown and Trump’s declaration of a national emergency were still not visible on the horizon (though they were only a couple of days away), and I really wanted to see my daughter Cecily, in Colorado.

It had been too long. Grandson Boden, who is nine, was eager to show me his 180s off the freestyle jumps. Son-in-law Mike was newly home from six weeks of fighting fire in Australia, and I wanted to give him a hug, too.

On my outbound flights – Redmond to Phoenix to Durango – I was the only passenger wiping down his armrests and tray table. No big shift of consciousness had yet arrived in Durango, either, everyone still in a place of not quite knowing. People were self-conscious about shaking hands, but they did it anyway, furtively, or with smiles and sudden apologies. Cecily and I ran into an old teacher friend on a walk along the river trail. She joined us for a bit and on parting gave us big hugs, saying, “I think hugs are better for the immune system.” Cecily made Boden wash his hands after every session on the climbing wall.

I expected these things, hoped for them, hoped others were taking the pandemic seriously as I looked out my right-side window on the flight from Phoenix to Durango. The sun was setting behind me, on the other side of the plane, and there seemed to be a lot of haze/smog/murk in the air; I was disappointed I couldn’t make out identifiable landmarks below. Maybe I spotted a section of the Mogollon Rim – yellow sandstone cliffs highlighted by the low sun.

I thought I might see the White Mountains and the Sunrise Ski Area, owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I’d skied there once, ages ago, on soft snow in stands of old-growth ponderosa. An Apache ski patroller we met declined when I offered my hand, explaining that he and many natives considered this unthinking white-man behavior. He understood where I was coming from, but said Apaches see physical contact with strangers as an invasion of their space.

The Whites remained hidden but then I did see snow on forested high ground and guessed we were passing over the Chuska Mountains, a landscape I knew primarily from Tony Hillerman novels. One of Hillerman’s two Diné detectives, Jim Chee, travels up into the Chuskas to gather firewood, and to learn a healing ceremony from his mother’s brother, his little father.

With the Chuskas receding I wondered if our flight path might take us over Shiprock, that dramatic, 27 million-year-old volcanic remnant sailing across the Four Corners desert floor.

And there it was! Just below us, glowing golden in the last rays of the day. Just as dramatic was the inky black shadow cast by what pioneer Americans thought of as an enormous clipper ship. I estimated it at three miles long, the top edge of the shadow drawing two elongate sails on the landscape.

I couldn’t help but think of my Uncle John, a geologist and pilot whose photograph of Shiprock – etched sharp in arrestingly clear 1950s air – was featured in my Geology 101 textbook. It’s an iconic image in our family and one of a score of John’s aerial photographs hailed as unreproducible – that is because pollution from jet exhaust, and myriad other sources, has rendered the views of these places permanently compromised.

My airplane had descended so that Shiprock’s 7,000-foot crest seemed clear and close enough to touch. It looked less like a ship than like the Diné description, “rock with wings,” referring to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.

And then, as we drew away and my neck twisted as far as it would go to see out the porthole, a miracle occurred. In the final 60 seconds of direct sunlight, a ray found its way between the rock wings to spotlight a much smaller formation, a mini Shiprock a mile or more away in the center of the black shadow. This couldn’t have happened on many other nights – maybe not on any other night of the year – for the sun and the gap in the wings and the distant rock to line up just so.

For that minute it shone like a glowing coal, piñon most likely, in a campfire long after the others have gone to sleep, and the weight of the world, my viral worries, vanished.

Flying By

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on February 12, 2020

I can see time flying.

7:14 a.m. February 12. How much of the ski season is past already? How much is left?

Coffee on the couch. Reading a short story in The New Yorker about Khmer immigrants in California, survivors of Pol Pot’s camps. Listening, absently, to the clicking of studded tires on snowless pavement out front.

7:15 a.m. A pinkish dawn on the upper branches of the spruce across the street. And there is the moon. Waning, two or three days past full, moving down and west behind those high spruce branches.

There used to be a second spruce, taller even and bigger around than this one, growing near the sidewalk in this neighbor’s yard. Closer to where I sit on the couch. Able to catch the first sun rays even earlier. This tree blew down in a terrific windstorm a couple of Februarys ago not long after Ellen and I moved here. I’d been astonished to learn from the neighbor, Anna, that her spruce were planted (they are not native to the east side of the Cascades) after her house was built, in the nineteen teens. So these trees were just 90-some years old and already four feet across the base and 100 feet tall. In Colorado, where Ellen and I raised our girls, spruce this big were extremely rare, and would have been growing for 400 years probably. It is that much wetter here in Oregon. That and the well-drained volcanic soil, I guess.

Anyway, that morning five years ago as I was eating breakfast my eyes ran back and forth from my cereal bowl to the trees across the street, which were swaying violently in the wind. I thought of John Muir who wrote with rapture about climbing a 100-foot spruce in a Sierra windstorm, how the tree and he, clinging to its topmost branches, traveled back and forth in big arcs, around and around through space, how thrilling it was and how contrary to the staid notion that trees, rooted as they are, don’t go anywhere during their often long lives.

Anna’s spruce was tracing big parabolas in the sky as I loaded skis and drove to the mountain. Some time mid-morning Ellen called with a subsiding panic in her voice.

“Anna’s tree blew down! The big one on the corner. I heard the crash. Maybe I felt it too. Shake the house. The house is fine. But it came pretty close. It’s so huge!”

Her heart was still racing. The spruce came down on a diagonal across the street and sheared some branches off an old mountain ash in our front yard, missing our place by a scant 20 feet. When I got home the massive trunk filled the view from west to east. Power lines were down, still live. A rental car parked on the street near the upturned root ball was engulfed in greenery, spared miraculously by thick lower branches, like Doric columns supporting the now horizontal trunk; otherwise the car would have been crushed.

Anna has planted a new baby evergreen, a pine, in the spruce’s place. It’s already 15 feet tall. The old spruce behind it towers over the immediate neighborhood, first to catch the morning sun. Anna’s house, a lovely, gabled Craftsman, built at the height of the logging boom, when mills on the Deschutes River produced more pine lumber than anywhere else in America, waits below for the sunlight to reach it. Our smaller, hip-roofed house, built three decades later, in 1950, as the ponderosa were logged out and the mills began to close, will feel the light a few minutes later still.

Meanwhile the moon, this morning’s moon, is moving so fast I can see it fly by. There isn’t a breath of wind. So the still, upturned branches of Anna’s spruce are a perfect marker of the moon’s progress. I take a sip of coffee and a bright white edge slips behind the needles. Another sip and more of the fulsome curve is gone, the day racing into being.

Future Perfect

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Ski evolution by pshelton on January 10, 2020

Mt. Bachelor January 9, 2020

I don’t believe perfect exists. I have about as much success wrapping my brain around the concept of perfect as I do grasping the notion of infinity, say.

Perfection is a human construct, something theoretical, ideal; it doesn’t exist in nature. What I do think exist are perfect evanescent moments, perfectly carved turns, perfect hours on the mountain – philosophically impossible, maybe, but nevertheless flawless exceptions that prove the rule.

Today was one of those days. The objective markers tell some of the story. Four inches of new snow overnight, delivered with little wind, groomed judiciously on the main boulevards. And that snow was very low density, extremely low for the Oregon Cascades, maybe six or seven percent water, I’m guessing, where typical “Cascades Cream” is more like 10-12 percent, and the driest Colorado snow (also rare) comes in at about four percent water. The point being, this was dandelion fluff, light whipped cream atop a smooth ice-creamy under layer, snow so insubstantial that skis, boots, shins experienced only a feathery resistance. Temperature: high teens, not even a hint of warming or melting snow. Sky like a gin-clear lake, shrinking the distance to Broken Top and South Sister, all of the mountains, like Bachelor, almost completely white: rimed white trees, lava flows, summit snowfields, the whole white-washed world under a cerulean blue with a low January sun making shadows of every twig, every wind ripple, every curving, new-moon ski track. By mid-morning Carnival run was a virtual Jackson Pollack of overlain scythings, if, instead of endless layers of dripped paint Jackson Pollack had been into gouging perfectly round lines.

There’s that word perfect again. Our old friend and fellow ski schooler, Dick Dorworth, wrote a wonderful short story called “The Perfect Turn,” about an aging ski instructor thinking back on his quest for the perfect turn. It’s one of the best pieces of ski fiction out there. And it cuts very close to Dick’s own (and mine, and many skiers’) pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, on skis. A perfect turn will be different for everyone, but it will feel the same to each of us.

In my case, the turn will be etched into the snow the way a silversmith carves an image in soft metal. The two curved blades on my feet will slice parallel arcs through the snow without throwing any spray, without going sideways at all. Railroad tracks, some people call them. This perfect turn will not live in isolation, of course; it will be part of a continuum. It will have its beginning in the perfect end of the previous turn – the weightless, perfectly positioned setup (“the love spot,” in the perfectly apt phrase of guru John Clendenin), and it will likewise extend into the perfect beginning of the next turn. It’s a continuous flow. Where does the petal’s edge stop and the next thing, the not rose petal, begin?

This turn feels as if it takes no muscle power to complete. My center of mass, my hips, my head, are so placed inside the arc I have but to stand against the snow, easy as leaning against a lamppost. The snow is turning me.

Stringing a couple of these perfect semi-circles together, sine waves, sends me into raptures. It can’t be maintained for an entire run, or a whole day, or lord knows a whole mountain. But these peeks inside the monastery, these glimpses of mathematical, musical even (music of the spheres!) symmetries are enough.

Spoiler alert: Dorworth’s hero had to cross over from one reality into another in order to achieve his perfect turn. Today felt a little bit like stealing fire from the gods. Perfect turns (or close approximations) and the godlike feeling of drawing continuous lines, strings of crescent moons across the volcano’s furrows… Well, it doesn’t get much closer to heaven than that.

There’s No Place Like Home

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on January 4, 2020

Mt. Bachelor January 4, 2020

When I walked into the West Village Lodge, done for the day, I stopped a couple of paces inside the doors and clicked my boots together to remove at least some of the fine powder snow caught in the buckles and packed onto boot soles after the short, powdery trek from the ski rack.

As is my habit, I rocked back on my heels to click the toes together, then tilted onto my toes to click the heels. Mid-ritual, one of the volunteer host guys behind the desk called out, “You gotta click your heels!” I was too slow-witted, too besotted by the spectacular morning to grasp his deeper meaning, and so replied, dumbly, “I do both.”

Sitting back, enjoying a coffee, it came to me that he was referring to ruby slippers and “The Wizard of Oz.” So, on my way back out, I stopped, caught his eye, and clicked my heels together. Without further prompting the two of us quoted, simultaneously, “There’s no place like home.”

That’s what it felt like out there on the mountain today after weeks of a meager snowpack and day-after-day no new snow. A series of small storms to start 2020 and the six inches of blown-cold, mid-density snow that came in last night changed everything. It was like coming home.

Adding to the euphoria was the fact that I finally felt better, after two weeks with a tenacious cold. The virus and the un-Oregon like weather kept me on the couch through the holidays.

I’m a terrible sickie. I feel so sorry for myself. Nothing will ever be good again. My brain will never again find pleasure in the moment. This clogged-ears, snot-stuffed headache is one and the same with lurking depression. Life has no meaning. It’s not snowing. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. I’m not skiing. Woe is me.

So, the contrast from the low-so-low to the high-so-high, was even greater than it might have been had I been in the pink of health.

It was one of those days when everything worked: The boots fit like a glove, the skis felt light and floaty and practically friction free, a serendipitous match of wax to snow temperature and texture. It felt, in fact, like those things attached at the ends of my legs had disappeared. Disappeared into pure action. Eyes see a line – slice between those two mini treetops, bank right through that gravy-boat hollow… The brain judges what might be needed to achieve the line and signals the muscles, the soles of the feet, the balancing hands, the centering hips. And then somehow, alchemy: muscle memory, imagination, faith. The skis bend and arc; the snow pushes back sweetly, like cake flour. And the eyes are out front again, scouting next curves. While inside, in the same way that a whole person, body and brain, merges with campfire flames, or a special piece of music, the only thing to do is melt.

You can go home again. I’d been wandering in the wilderness, but today I rediscovered that seat of ecstatic movement, drawing lines down a mountain of rock transformed, made accessible, cathartic, made sexy by a blanket of new snow.

Clarity

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on September 9, 2019

The water underneath the paddleboard was so clear I couldn’t tell how deep it was. Were those lava boulders close enough to snag my fiberglass fin, stop the board dead, and send me flailing off the bow? Was that sandy bottom five feet down? Ten? Twenty? I learned after a while, paddling along the eastern shore of Crescent Lake – water surface like old, rippled window glass – that sunlight refracting off that sand bottom made a golden chain-link pattern. And the deeper the water, the bigger the shimmying links.

It was so clear Crescent Lake leapt immediately onto my clear-water Top Ten list. Heading that list has to be the appropriately named Clear Lake, on the McKenzie River just west of the Cascade Divide. That one is spooky clear. You can see the bottom 60 feet down, clear as gin. It’s disorienting, as if there is nothing of substance floating you; I have to put the paddle blade in the water, like a third leg, for balance.

There’s a 3,000-year-old forest still standing on the bottom there, preserved these millennia following the sudden volcanic flow that dammed the river and created the lake. The last time I paddled Clear Lake scuba divers were making a movie (maybe it was an ad crew up from Portland?) weaving among the submerged fir trunks in the 42-degree spring water. At one point a diver surfaced and moaned to his support boat, “I can’t feel my feet!”

Hydrologists call these clear lakes oligotrophic. Lakes with higher concentrations of chlorophyll and phosphorus, higher levels of biological productivity, are mesoeutrophic. And lakes with the most plant and animal life, including algae blooms, are eutrophic or hypereutrophic. My most frequent destinations, Lava and Little Lava Lakes, high in the shadow of Mt. Bachelor, have trended from oligotrophic to mesoeutrophic. There’s a ton of life: marshes rich with insect life, bird life, emergent macrophytes like water lilies and bulrushes. And there have been thick algae blooms that restricted visibility at times to a Secchi disk depth of just 4-5 feet. (Named in 1865 for Angelo Secchi, who lowered an 8-inch diameter white disk into lake water until it disappeared from view.)

Lake Tahoe was once considered the clearest lake in the world with a Secchi disk depth of over 100 feet. When Mark Twain visited in the 1880s, estimates pegged it at 120 feet. Now visibility is down to half that, thanks to pollution from shoreline development and the misguided introduction, in the 1960s, of a voracious shrimp.

As a kid snorkeling in the clear green waters off Catalina Island, I never thought about these things. Of course not. The world was what it was, what it always had been and, presumably, always would be. Dad and I anchored the boat fore and aft close in to Hen Rock. With little turbidity – and on the lee side of the island, there wasn’t much swell – I could lean over the rail and dangle a baited hook right on the noses of calico bass 20 feet down. Out on the point I swam through kelp forests as clear as an aquarium. Abalone and starfish clung to the rock. Lobsters waved their feelers from hidey-holes.

We didn’t have onboard tanks for wastewater then. Nobody did. I thought it was funny, at age 11, to pump the contents of the head through the seacock valve straight into those emerald waters and watch the button-back perch nibble at it. We also dumped our garbage in the middle of the Catalina Channel, on the Sunday afternoon trip home, riding a following sea. Gulls wheeled and dove for scraps.

What were we thinking?! Clearly, we weren’t. But then, in the early 1960s, few were. In the Navy during the war Dad had sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii, through the Coral Sea to the Philippines, on to occupied Japan, and back. The ocean was just too vast, too devouring to be affected by our puny insults. The Northwest forests would go on delivering board feet forever. The air, the infinite, perpetual air… And so on.

That kind of clarity is much harder to come by these days. We know now about microplastics and plummeting fish stocks and bleached corals. We know we are changing the climate, fouling the nest. The 60s seem like ancient history.

Moral clarity, too, seems muddied to the point of hypereutrophia, as if by a massive algae bloom. Religion isn’t helping. Societal norms are daily blown out of the water. Leaders punt. Journalism founders.

You pay attention. You march. You vote. And still you get a malignant narcissist in the White House who uses “alternative” facts and the fog of chaos to… to what? To whose benefit? Toward what end?

You go to the supermarket, you inevitably buy plastic. You drive your car, you take your hot showers. You try to live lightly. You search the Web for wise voices, hopeful direction. Some days it’s impossible to see anything through the murk.

On Crescent Lake I was drawn onward, happily lost in the purity of the board’s movement across the water, the sudden trout darting below me for a deeper blue. I’d paddled about five miles when the light morning breeze turned quickly from riffles to whitecaps. I wasn’t going to make it all the way around. I’d have to head back directly north, with the wind off my port quarter, along the lake’s centerline.

The wind chop soon brought me to my knees. And directly the chop grew into serious waves, with sets that broke overtop the deck. I shortened my paddle and dug in, riding the bigger swells, angling into the troughs where possible and trying to keep the nose from pearling when the board cut back on its own, shoved into the hollows.

This was more adventure than I would normally choose. The kind of adventure Yvon Chouinard has defined as requiring the uncontrollable – being lost, or in real, unexpected danger. I ping-ponged between two mental states. In one, I was the intrepid Polynesian voyager, navigating by feel, confident in an island destination. In the other, I couldn’t not remember that Chouinard’s friend Doug Tompkins (The North Face founder) had been blown out of his kayak on a Patagonian lake by a sudden williwaw and died hours later of hypothermia.

By the time I made it, finally, to the boat ramp I was exhausted and exhilarated, mind wiped clean by a different kind of clarity – the binary option to keep going, stay upright, and survive. Or… not.

Hi Coos (after Robear)

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on July 12, 2019

SPARKS LAKE (7/12/19)

I

Behind me

sheets flapping on a clothesline

Great blue heron.

II

Butterflies over the water

hundreds, thousands

like high-beam snowflakes.

III

Stand on liquid

green glass

trout see no reason to flee.

Montana

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on April 4, 2019

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.” -Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

It may seem odd to start a story about Montana with a quote from Twain. But there it was scribbled on a yellow legal pad I grabbed to begin writing this piece. I had copied it from somewhere, months ago, because it spoke to my obsession as a skier reading snow. Now it added one more to a string of coincidences that has me wondering about chance and meaning in the world. (more…)

June-uary

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on January 31, 2019

It happens most Januarys: a stretch of high-pressure weather with little or no new snow and warm temps more typical of springtime. In the Sierras we used to call it the January Thaw. Sharpen those edges, boys and girls! In Colorado, every dry spell, no matter its duration, leads to fearful whispers of “drought!” The only time in my five years in Central Oregon that June-uary didn’t happen was the “Snowmageddon” winter of 2016-17, when roofs were collapsing all around Bend and I myself shoveled (I actually did the math) 11 tons of snow off our roof.

Yesterday, January 28, on Mt. Bachelor I searched and searched for soft snow. I used all my powers of exploration and positive (not to say magical) thinking, but came up nearly empty. Bachy’s Fuji-like, volcanic cone had almost completely seized up following a nasty week of wind, rain, and rime ice that had signaled an end to the blissful cold-and-quiet snows of December.

It was a real corker of a storm cycle. Wind gusts reached over 100 mph. Trees blew down all over the place. Some big ponderosas fell across the Cascade Lakes Highway. Others tipped over onto the powerline that serves Mt. Bachelor from Sunriver. Then came the wet, and more wind, and a couple of balmy days when all the snow that had been hanging for months, up in the branches of the hemlock trees, came crashing down in great glittering chunks of compressed glass-clear ice.

Somewhere in there was a bout of new snow, which covered up the (now frozen) rain crust. But this layer was itself glazed over by some combination of “mixed precipitation” and the kind of inside-the-cloud riming that turns timberline trees into gargoyles and your goggles into frosted shower doors.

A couple of days ago a tiny salting of fine-grained snow, less than an inch, swirled around the upper mountain and settled into certain gullies. This was the snow I was searching for off the Summit chair yesterday. I tell anybody who will listen about Bachy’s near miraculous ability to cache soft snow somewhere on its 360-degree compass. But this day, it mostly wasn’t there. I went left, I went right. I skied the east side, Cow’s Face and down the big, naked halfpipes to the top of Cloudchaser. I tried the curves of some of my favorite snow-catching features down in the Bowl. I went over the Backside, down the twisting wave shapes of Larry Valley. Each route coughed up a handful of sweet turns: patches of drifted crystals; sections of wind buff that skied like squeaky Styrofoam but also didn’t last more than a few turns; and even, down low in Larry’s, some premature (or incompletely formed) corn snow on sunny aspects that had not frozen overnight.

The rest was garbage. Well, not garbage, of course, but extremely-difficult-to-remain-graceful-on carpets of loud, lumpy ice, textures the locals animate with descriptors like: “chicken heads,” “coral reefs,” and “sastrugi” – which sounds like something good to eat but isn’t. Sastrugi looks like the spitting ocean-foam in Japanese wood-block prints, frozen solid.

Rattled, I retreated to the machine-groomed slopes below treeline, groomers that were skiing pretty well, hard and smooth, if not exactly forgiving. But I’m a soft-snow guy. I decided to call it a day. This ride up the chair would be my last.

Then I saw her.

Just four or five turns before she disappeared, me riding inexorably up, she vanishing into the terrain below. What turns! I remember a white helmet. And what looked like slightly older Atomic slalom skis, with race-ready tip deflectors. And the turns were perfect, effortless sets of parentheses: )) then (( then )) again. Both skis carving. Sweet angles. Completely at ease on the bulletproof snow.

Who was she? I had to see her again. Sometimes there is a course set on Lower Leeway. Maybe I’d catch up to her there. It couldn’t be Bend’s own Lauren Ross. She was in Europe racing the World Cup circuit. And besides, Lauren’s a downhiller, not a slalom skier. Could it be her friend Resi Stiegler, of Jackson Hole, a stalwart of the U.S. Team who took over Lauren’s girls’ camp when Lauren was hurt a couple of years ago? But what would Resi Stiegler be doing, alone, on Mt. Bachelor in January?

I would never find out. There was no practice course on Leeway, no sign of my mystery racer. The low January sun had dipped behind Mt. Bachelor’s blue-white shoulder, and my racer girl had vanished into the unnaturally warm air.

The Heart of Saturday Night

Posted in Personal History by pshelton on May 8, 2018

Hunder really wanted a ski day on Mt. Bachelor that would supersede his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day fifty-some years ago. He was a student at the University of Oregon then. Made the three-hour drive over the Cascade crest only to find that a not-uncommon sequence of rain followed by cold temperatures had turned the snow to blue linoleum. His edges skittered and skipped. His fillings rattled. He never went back.

He wasn’t Hunder then. Neither was I Sven. He was Mike and I was Peter, and, although we grew up a mere six miles apart, on the southern California coast, we had not yet met and become friends.

Ellen and I moved to Bend, Oregon, from Colorado four winters ago. I’ve regaled Hunder almost weekly since with tales of Mt. Bachelor’s better snow angels: powder so soft it’s called Cascade Cream, playful terrain features the volcanologists term “furrows,” ribs and gullies that remind me of open-ocean swells, waves frozen white and tilted toward the lakes below. The high-quality skiing is a big reason we made the move. As recently as November of last year, Hunder said he was hoping to make it out finally, Colorado to Oregon, this winter. Not to erase the old bad memory – he was too good a storyteller for that – but to add to the thread. Hunder and Sven adding story, making new memories on the slopes together.

We met in Telluride in 1976, both of us Californians, both new to Colorado. I hired him to teach kids in what was then a very new ski school in a fledgling ski town 65 miles from the nearest stoplight. He took to the task with gusto, a big man with a blond crew cut, six-two or three, well over 200 pounds, but possessed of quick feet and an irrepressible delight. Aptitude that was itself childlike.

One of my first Telluride memories is of dropping Mike off after work and him rhapsodizing about the dinner he was about to whip up. Bacon blue-cheese burgers. Ellen and I had not eaten meat for the better part of two years, but the way Mike enthused about it, the bacon sizzling, the bite of the blue cheese – his mouth pinched in stifled laughter, eyes wide as saucers, a big ruddy-cheeked leprechaun – well, that was the end of our experiment in vegetarianism.

My Ellen and Mike’s wife, Megan, were preggers together. Our first daughters were born a week apart. Mike and Megan and baby Caitlin lived above town, in the ex-silver mining hamlet of Ophir. Their cabin that first winter was heated solely with wood, and it was so cold I remember the sheet-metal woodstove glowing red and dancing, actually vibrating, on its hearth. Mike and Sharky, another ski instructor, put together The Ophir Band: two guitars, the mayor of Ophir on drums, Megan on sax, everybody singing harmony. My favorite song was their cover of Tom Waits’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

 

Well you gassed her up

Behind the wheel

With your arm around your sweet one

In your Oldsmobile

Barrelin’ down the boulevard

Looking for the heart of Saturday night.

 

But that was part of the problem – the heart of Mike’s Saturday nights. We didn’t know how bad the drug thing was at first. We knew he liked to smoke dope. On slow afternoons, with no ski lessons to teach, he and I might share a joint and ski the velvety spring corn. But Mike was doing much heavier shit than that. Megan found him almost dead in the bathroom of a Telluride dive bar one night during an Ophir Band gig. He’d shot up a speedball, a scary mix of cocaine and heroin, and was unconscious on the stall floor. A year or so later, Megan insisted the family move to San Francisco, where she was from. If Mike wanted to get his act together and join them there he was welcome, but she’d had it.

And he tried, back in California. Lord, he tried. He adored his family; they had added a son by then, and would have one more. But it wasn’t long before Megan found needles taped to the inside of the toilet tank and she kicked him out for good. He worked jobs driving truck and baggage-handling for Amtrak. But he got fired from that one when he was caught rifling people’s luggage for cash and stuff to fence.

Decades later, clean and sober and remarried, he moved back to Colorado, not far from where Ellen and I had settled, an hour down the road from Telluride. He and Patty bought an old farmhouse in Paonia, on the North Fork of the Gunnison, surrounded by cherry trees. We started skiing together again, and he decided I was Sven. “Sven! Powderhorn tomorrow? The Weather Service is saying five to seven overnight!” He signed his e-mails Hunder.

On chairlift rides, I heard more of the backstory. He grew up a broad-shouldered, albeit fair-skinned, surfer in 1950s Laguna Beach. His dad, Bill Gwinn, was a radio and TV personality, a game show host (What’s the Name of that Song?), a piano-man singer of American standards, and an alcoholic. A charming alcoholic who could hold a room spellbound and leave everyone laughing.

Mike apparently inherited all of the above. His early life sounded like a kind of fantasy paradise. He surfed Brooks Street on single-fin longboards. While still in high school he dated Candy Calhoun, one of two blonde, beautiful Calhoun girls, daughters of blonde, beautiful Marge Calhoun, the first-ever women’s world champion surfer. He met Timothy Leary at a party in Laguna Canyon. He formed, with two surfing buddies, the “acid-folk” trio Gabriel Gladstar, which toured California and the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years in a converted school bus. They tried more than once to enter Canada at Vancouver but were turned back. Vietnam was raging, and “We were not welcome,” Mike said. Their sound reminds me now of spacey Seals and Crofts, with Pentangle-like interwoven guitars. Very sweet. “Sail Away,” with Mike singing lead, can still bring Ellen to tears.

The Gladstar “family” expanded and contracted, hippie-commune-school-bus style. Mike fathered a son. The band recorded an album. But when offered a record deal by Ahmet Ertegun, whose acts included The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles, they turned it down. They wanted to be free, and Ertegun had insisted on axing their flute player. “The Beatles were going independent then,” Mike told me. “What we didn’t get at the time was that the Beatles were already huge when they went off on their own.”

When we met in Telluride, Mike was already a pretty good skier. Hollywood paid Bill Gwinn well, and the family had spent a fair bit of time at June Mountain, next door to Mammoth, in the southern Sierra. In Telluride in the late 70s, he and I shared a then-heretical preference for short skis. We liked their quickness in the trees and the way they slipped through the troughs between bumps. Our free skiing was just a little freer, a little more fun – so we thought – than the traditionalists on their 205s. When he came back to Colorado some 25 years later, we took up where we left off, working the tools, figuring it out, getting better. All skis were shorter by then, wider, curvier, more talented. Mike was even bigger as a middle-aged athlete, but with those 170s on his feet, he quick-stepped through Powderhorn’s aspen glades like he was finding trim on the nose, hanging five.

Patty didn’t ski. Her passion is cat rescue and adoption. (Mike built her an indoor/outdoor “Cathmandu.”) She never warmed to me. She didn’t hide her suspicion that our ski outings might be leading Mike to imbibe again. The two of them had met at AA in southern California. She was fierce about no relapses, and Mike made it clear to his old friends that he owed his life to her. We honored her hopes and his wishes and never smoked in his presence. Instead we listened on chairlift rides – captive audiences – as he told stories. About his hair-brained year in Costa Rica dredging a jungle waterfall for gold. (“One leg half way into my swim trunks, and there’s a tarantula as big as my fist!”) Or the time near Bellingham in the Gladstar bus they were so hungry they made seaweed and mollusk stew.

And the jokes. He always had two or three in his back pocket. Most were goofy puns, but some he spun out as shaggy dog stories. You’ve probably heard the one (I hadn’t at the time and practically fell off the chairlift laughing) about the widower who was about to turn 90. And his friends thought it would be neat to give him a thrill for his birthday. So they hired a prostitute to go to the old man’s apartment. When he answered the door, she said, “Hi! I’m here to offer you super sex!” And the old guy thought for a second and said, “I’ll take the soup.”

In Paonia, already in his sixties, Hunder put together a new band, Mike Gwinn and Northfork Flyers, with horns and base and drums – a jazz-fusion big band. With Mike as arranger, lead singer, guitar, and chief songwriter. “Jazz Standards Man” rhymes Lady Gaga and Indian raga. “Social Network Blues” bemoans screen-time loneliness. The upbeat “Still Goin’ 70 in a 55” is clearly autobiographical: “Tried to throw my life away/But I’m still alive/Pray I’m sober on the day I die/Still goin’ 70 in a 55.” He took up fishing again, spin casting, like the fishing he’d done with his dad on the east slope of the Sierra. He was writing up the Gladstar bus stories, memoir style.

The Northfork Flyers didn’t play crunchy rock ‘n’ roll, though they could have; Mike had a gift for it. I guessed Patty would have frowned on it. Too redolent of the bad old years, as if the music itself could be a gateway drug. I did attend an Arts Guild house concert/lecture in Ridgway – just Mike and his bass player – that was all about the relationship between jazz and its rougher blues roots. They put together a fantastic primer. Everything from call-and-response to Coltrane, Monk to Mose Allison. “He was probably bipolar,” Gwinn said of Monk. “A genius madman. If you get a chance, see Straight, No Chaser. There’s a scene where Monk is walking in circles, backwards, at an airport. Monk couldn’t handle airports.” At one point Mike stopped and said to the audience, “The saddest blues song of all [pause for a liquid, improvised lick on the guitar] is the one that starts out, ‘I didn’t wake up this mornin’…’”

Like most people, I never thought about him not waking up. He had been living with Hep C for decades. Figured he got it sharing needles. But he had been dealing with it, successfully, we thought. Then one day in December my phone rang.

“Sven!”

“Hunder!”

“Howz the skiin’? It’s nineteen degrees here and not a flake in sight! WTF! Powderhorn’s opening is in doubt.”

“Slow start here, too,” I said. “But we are skiing. The carving’s pretty good on Bachy’s groomers.”

“Sven, I’ve got a favor to ask…”

They’d found a mass on his liver. “Big as a baseball.” Test results weren’t back yet, but there was the obvious fear that this was liver cancer. “Plus they’ve spotted some possibly worrying nodules on my lungs.” He wasn’t sure he was getting either the timely communication or the best treatment advice in Grand Junction. In fact, he was frustrated as hell with his docs’ opacity. Would I ask Dr. Cloe (our Cloe, born the week after Caitlin) what she thinks he should do?

He traveled for some second opinions, got some answers, and decided he was getting good care in GJ. He got on an experimental chemo regime, paid for by the drug maker. It was taking a lot out of him, but he remained hopeful.

He died on Saturday, March 10, 2018. He was 75. Our Powderhorn ski buddy, Jack, called me that morning. It was a gut punch, but not a total surprise. Mike had gone quieter since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which we obsessed about (“Ester Ledecká!”) as he watched from his bed at home. And I’d seen a revealing video on Facebook of a gig at Louie’s Pizza in Paonia that Mike had put together around the time of his birthday in February. Three of his kids had flown out from the Bay Area to play with their dad and the Flyers. Mike’s voice was weak, and he looked gaunt underneath his pork pie hat.

Jack said that he had been on hospice for just a couple of days. “He had a morphine drip, but you know how stubborn Mike was. He’d only give himself one trigger out of the four allowed. Kudos, you know. He’d faltered a time or two, but he was diligent about his sobriety the last 14 years.” The decline happened so fast, Jack said, “You could almost feel his spirit backing up into the shadows.”

I went up to the mountain the next day. Mt. Bachelor was not showing off her best soaring-volcano, ocean-swell features. But the summit was open, and there were strips of wind-burnished Styrofoam snow on the open slopes of Serengeti Plains. The strips were just wide enough to fit an arc, silent and yielding between fields of hard rime ice. I tried to channel Hunder when he had it going on: that big body rock steady above quick, almost dainty foot movements, finger pickin’ guitar chords, eyes sparkling like he – we, all of us – were getting away with something. Something fine.

 

Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?

Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin

Is it the barmaid smilin’ from the corner of her eye

Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

 

Makes it kind of quiver down in the core

‘Cause you’re dreamin’ of them Saturdays that came before

And now you’re stumblin’

Stumblin’ into the heart of Saturday night