When Ellen was teaching the Peanut group of tiny kids at Bear Valley years ago, her charges referred to moguls as “moag holes.” They were learning language at the same time they were learning to ski.
Most people have an ambivalent relationship with moag holes. Miss a turn, get back on your heels, and the hole will spit you out into a washboard traverse. Or worse. But knit a sine-wave line together in rhythm and control, and you will believe in the harmony of the spheres.
Telluride just placed four women in the top ten at the U.S. National Dual Moguls Finals in Stratton, Vt. Keaton McCargo, age 16, placed third. Sophia Schwartz, who grew up skiing in Telluride and Sun Valley, finished fourth. Lane Stoltzner, a graduate of the Telluride Mountain School, was seventh. And precocious 15-year-old Kealey Zaumseil came tenth.
With all the good bump hills across America, Telluride produced four of the top ten. That’s remarkable. But hardly surprising. Telluride is a bumper’s mountain, always has been. With its long, steep pitches, relatively narrow trails, and a continental snowpack that builds up in four-inch sips rather than four-foot Sierran gulps, the mogul you careen around at the top of Spiral Stairs on December 15 will be there for you, the old same shape, on March 30. Familiarity breeds bumpers.
This kind of familiarity is relatively new. Look at old ski movies and you’ll see that in skiing’s wonder years, from the 1930s through the 1960s, there weren’t very many moguls. There weren’t as many skiers, for one thing, and not nearly as many good skiers, to sculpt and re-sculpt the troughs. Lifts were slower (or nonexistent), so you didn’t get as many reps. Freestyle, as a word and as a way of approaching skiing, hadn’t been invented yet.
The go-go 70s changed everything. Faced with vast fields of pimpled snow, proto hotdoggers went crazy, relying on acid and athleticism to get them through. Then the technicians moved in. In a few cases, they were one and the same. John Clendenin made his name in stretch pants and big hair (also big air), winning early contests on reaction time and linked recoveries. Now in his 60s, he’s one of the leading swamis in the “Bumps for Boomers” movement. He’s a hero to those of a certain age who still want to ski moguls, but must now learn to ski them smooth and slow.
Lito Tejada-Flores is another one. He was the first person I saw do The Slow Dog Noodle. I doubt he could put his back down on the snow like that now, and get back up. But Lito is another advocate for, and lover of, the bumps – even late in life.
I think the first truly modern mogul skiing I witnessed was by gold medalist Edgar Grospiron, at the Albertville Olympics in 1992. He had big eyes painted on the knees of his ski pants, and those eyes, despite his legs’ sewing machine oscillations, stared Buddha-like at the straightest, fastest fall line.
Telluride’s stars have their distinctive styles. I remember watching Yukon come down Allais’s Alley, back when it was the Chair Six liftline, essentially not turning at all. He just skipped pile-to-pile down the soft tops of the bumps. He had the young back, and the elevator-shaft imagination, to pull it off. Now he weaves a circuitous jazz line – less percussive, easier on the joints, just as imaginative.
Hugh Sawyer taught a lot of Telluride’s first-generation bump kids how to be fast of hand and still of head.
Every-day skier John Roth is perhaps the quintessential Telluride bumper. He reminds me of a dancer in a Busby Berkeley musical, upright and deceptively quick in his unhurried descent of the white staircase.
The current bumper crop of hot-skiing kids owes a debt to all of them. Though I have to say what the team skiers are doing now on their micro-prepared courses, with shovel-shaved bumps and parabolic kickers, is like something from another planet. A planet where gravity can be manipulated with just the right piston action.
On any given day, moguls for me might be a bone-jarring riddle, or they could be a Slinky’s stairway to heaven. Dropping into chest-high bumps on the Plunge is a kind of inch-worm pilgrimage, extension and contraction on the tilt, like the Tibetan faithful prostrating themselves, folding up on the crests then extending into the troughs, one body length at a time along the path to Lhasa – the road (or in this case the snow) worn smooth by pilgrims that have gone before.
This is going to sound like one of the surreal storylines in a Firesign Theatre record, but I swear it’s true.
I bought a couple of LPs for the collection back about 1970. One of them was Ellington at Newport. But when I removed the cellophane wrapper and placed the needle on the vinyl, instead of Duke’s piano, I heard this, in the Gatling-gun voice of a late-night, L.A. television, used-car salesman: “Hiya, Friends. Ralph Spoilsport, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, the world’s largest new-used and used-new automobile dealership, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, here in the City of Emphysema.”
They are the opening lines of Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?, from 1969.
One of Firesign’s founding quartet, Peter Bergman, died last week, of complications of leukemia, at age 72. “Let’s just take a look at some of the extras on this fabulous car: sponge-coated edible steering column, two-way sneeze-through wind vents, chrome-studded fender dents – with doors to match!” In the second minute, our hero, who buys the car, switches a knob on the climate control and is transported instantly to ancient Egypt. In the company of W.C. Fields. Among others.
I have no idea how that record got into that album sleeve, but I consider it one of the great bits of luck in my life. Firesign Theatre, born of late-night improv on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, and manifest on a dozen comedy albums from the 60s on, became essential sonic liberal arts: an endless store of puns and one-liners, sly wise metaphysics and razor satire on politics and media in America in the second half of the 20th century.
This is really hard – trying to use the written word to convey a sense of what are densely packed radio plays. The New York Times called them “mind-boggling sound dramas” and “work of almost Joycean complexity.” On the page, you don’t get the giddy speed, or the glee in their voices.
Unlike television or movies, the images are conjured in one’s own mind. (Listening is best on the couch, in the dark. Ideally hearing it for the 50th time.) I can’t do the maze-like plots or the rapid banter justice, so I thought I’d pay tribute by recalling the endings of a few of the records. A random idea, but suitably Bergmanian.
How Can You Be in Two Places at Once winds down with our sodden hero randomly changing channels on the television (back when turning the knob made a click): an ad for Loosener’s Castor Oil Flakes; a Roman gladiator movie; a bad cop drama. And then, Ralph Spoilsport again. But this time he’s selling marijuana: “Our price to you, complete with sticks and stems, delivered by a brown-shoed square in the dead of night…only what the traffic will allow….”
And then, somehow, the voice goes all dreamy and stream-of-conscious, and we’re hearing a facsimile of the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses: “…yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The flip side of that record, The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, is a relatively straight (for Firesign Theatre), Depression-era, radio detective story involving time travel, parallel universes and a Peter Lorre sound-alike: “Rocky Rococo, at your cervix.”
The chaos of the final scene is interrupted by a broadcast message from the President of the United States. It’s FDR announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “Our rendezvous with destiny.” But this time he concludes with the news that Congress and the Chiefs of Staff have decided to “unconditionally surrender. And now, my wife and I would like to return with you for the thrilling conclusion of Private Nick Danger, Third Eye….”
Such is the power of radio.
In I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus (1971), our hero, a clown, travels to The Future Fair (“It’s just starting now.”) and not only breaks an amusement-park ride designed to look and sound like Richard Nixon, he also intentionally hacks into the park’s master computer, known as Doctor Memory, and shorts him out, too, with the question: “Do you remember the future, Doctor? Forget it.”
The record ends in a gypsy wagon, a much older traveling show, where everything we have just heard may have been foretold in the gypsy’s crystal ball. “Ah,” says a voice both soothing and deceptive, as the next customer approaches, “I see you are a sailor….”
When I think I want Peter Bergman to come back, to return and write more mysterious, imagination-sparking gems, I think of the ending to Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974). We’re listening to Happy Harry Cox, a desert-dwelling, alien-invasion, conspiracy-theory nutcase, recording “another in my series of mind-breaking records… Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong!” In the end, when Cox is the only human being left – everyone else on the planet having jumped into an irresistible hole in the earth discovered by a motorcycle “daredemon” patterned on Evel Knievel (“Hey, there’s a golden light down there! And breakfast!”) – aliens do, in fact, arrive to bring us “a golden age of universal understanding.” But they leave right away when they see that “there’s only one guy down there. Hello, Cox.”
“Seekers,” Cox tells us, his faithful listeners, after the aliens have flown off, “I guess this is the end. Or is it…? No. It’s the end.”
I don’t remember if we smoked any more of that cannabis on our trip around Catalina Island in wintertime 1967.
This lapse could be a result of the weed. Or it could be a slight slip in the continuum that is the past and the so-called present. Sometimes, memory has a mind of its own.
At any rate, after our first night anchored at White’s Landing, Jon Webb and I decided to take Ogress on a circumnavigation of the island. Maybe this had been the plan from the beginning. Again, I’m not clear about it. Maybe we used the marine radio to call home and discuss what were doing. I don’t remember that either. I will never forget that the radio was screwed into the bulkhead next to a brass plate my dad had affixed to each of his boats. In raised letters it said: “Oh, God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”
This was not something we had done much, this circumnavigation. I remember only one other time when I was younger and we had slower family boats. The Mister Robert’s was a 27-foot converted Navy whaleboat, a double-ender lifeboat in its previous incarnation – unsinkable, but with a hull speed of only about seven knots. Its successor in the 1960s, the Good Grief, was a slightly bigger surplus liberty launch (a WWII-era ship-to-shore taxi, essentially), with a hull speed in the same general range. My dad worked all week, so we were limited to Saturdays and Sundays on the boat, with an occasional head start on Friday evenings. Catalina is a big island, 21 miles long and nine miles wide at the widest. Getting around to the backside, the windward side, took too much time out of a typical weekend. It didn’t help that there were only two protected anchorages over there; the rest of the coast was rocky and windswept compared to the relative sanctuary, and the sand beaches, of the leeward side.
But the Ogress was a different beast. She had a Volvo inboard-outboard motor and a chined fiberglass hull that could get up and plane at 20 mph, or better if the sea was calm. She was only 17 feet long but was beam-y and had an efficient little cabin in the bow. Jon and I probably figured we could circle the island in three or four hours, where it would have been a long day, more likely a couple of days, in the Mister Robert’s.
I can picture us in the morning flying along in the glassy lee of the island heading for the West End. There might have been flying fish, foot-long silver slivers, fins beating furiously like ducks taking off from a pond, finding a moment of glide and then crash landing into the next swell.
Rounding the arrowhead West End, we’d have been heading momentarily for Hawaii, then, past the point, coasting with the wind and whitecaps behind us. I’m quite sure I would have steered us into the deep, protected slot that is Catalina Harbor. I loved Cat Harbor as a kid. It was the quietest anchorage anywhere on the island, cut to within a half mile of Isthmus Cove on the other side – the island’s pinched waist. There were remnant ball fields on this rare pitch of flat ground, left over from the decades when the Wrigley chewing-gum family owned the island and brought their team, the Cubs, cross-country out of the Midwest snow for spring training.
I also loved that there was a shipwreck at Cat Harbor. I want to say it was a Chinese junk, maybe used in a Hollywood movie. Its ruination was a mystery, but its barnacled timbers jutted up out of the shallows like a fantastic work of juvenile fiction.
I surely wanted to show Jon Webb the wonders of Little Harbor a few miles farther on, but I’m not sure we took the time. This is a pocket cove, barely protected from the prevailing weather and with a surge-y anchorage. But it has the only sand beach on the backside, and a seasonal spring. The Gabrielino Indians lived there at least part time for thousands of years.
My dad and I dove for abalone in Little Harbor in a ritual we couldn’t have known would end a decade or two later with the virtual disappearance from Southern California of the iridescent mollusks. We pried them from their rocks, sliced and pounded the muscle with a wooden mallet, then breaded the steaks and fried them in butter. A boy doesn’t know about the ambrosia of physical love, but those bites of abalone were as close as I’d come.
On a bluff above the beach, the Gabrielino left a midden of glittering, broken abalone shells that must have been 20 feet thick.
On board Ogress, Jon and I raced past Little Harbor, past these memories (they wouldn’t have meant much to Jon, had I tried to tell him) to a wilderness I’d barely seen and never steered around. For mile after mile there were no harbors, no beaches, no other boats, no civilization onshore. Only the roaring cliffs of the Palisades where veins of quartz, like lightning bolts injected into the rock, crashed directly into the surf. How close should we get to shore? Were there reefs? The water churned a strange milky turquoise color. The unfamiliar brought an unformed dread but also a kind of hyper focus.
At last we rounded Seal Rocks on the East End and turned for Avalon, the one hill town on the island – very Mediterranean – surrounding its crescent bay. We may have spent the night there. I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure we radioed home. I know we did that. Or rather, I did.
I don’t remember if it was my mother or my father I talked to. I was still their innocent son. But I was different. Within the year I would go away to college. I would discover the blues. I would get a girl pregnant. I would make other mistakes and register a few triumphs. I would smoke more marijuana.
Maybe it was the awkwardness of radio-speak: “Yes, Mom, we’re heading back in the morning. Over.” “We’re fine. Over.” “No, we won’t be able to see the coast. We’ll have to use the compass. Over.”
I’m pretty sure I realized, but I probably didn’t articulate even to myself, what an act of kindness that trip had been. Their letting me take the boat and go. To trust me like that, to give me that kind of responsibility. I thought the big deal was that they were letting me ditch school. But it was a great gift to a young man in his last year at home.
We interrupt this Catalina Island coming-of-age trilogy to comment on the recent spate of avalanche deaths.
I wrote the news story this week about 18-year-old Norwood student Garrett Carothers, and it broke my heart. “Dear, sweet Garrett,” read the caption on a Facebook photo. (more…)