One of the first ski lessons I taught at Mt. Bachelor this winter, in my return to teaching after many years away, was a group of four first-time beginners. They were Chinese grad students: a brother-sister duo, a cousin of theirs, and a friend. Three of them were attending Oregon State University, in Corvallis, the fourth was at OU, in Eugene. Three Beavers and one Duck. Yizi and Jining and I laughed briefly about that as Jilin and Xuanhan stumbled up, rental skis akimbo, struggling as first-timers often do, to walk in stiff plastic ski boots.
Yizi did the introductions. Tall and smiley, he said to pronounce his name “Easy.” Jining told me she and her brother were from Inner Mongolia – so they knew about winter. The hardest name to pronounce, by far, was Xuanhan, the sibs’ cousin. Her shy attempts to help me say it right were all sliding swishy breathy sounds. Would that Xuanhan’s skiing experience had been similarly fluid.
Ellen has said more than once that it is “brave” of me to go back to ski teaching. She’s proud of me, for getting out of the house, for bringing home a little bacon. But behind the words I sense incredulousness. I’m 65. I’ve got two artificial hips. I like my skiing – indeed, after all these years I may be clinically addicted to it – but since the two of us gave up the ski-school ski-bum life in 1980, in Telluride, I have spoiled myself as a strictly recreational skier. No uniform. No morning line-up. No ski school bureaucracy with its certification levels, its priority lists, its tautology and fealty to the PSIA manual, the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
It’s a job for young people. Ellen and I met, as twenty-something ski teachers, at Keystone in the early 1970s, when that Colorado area was still in thrall to its founder and ski school director, Max Dercum. Max’s enthusiasm extended to projecting Super 8 film on the wall at his Ski Tip Lodge – film he had shot in Austria of the latest instructional innovations from Professor Kruckenhauser – to which all staff were invited.
We worked for three winters in the California Sierra, at a brainy, tight-knit ski school in Bear Valley. Then we went back to Colorado, to Telluride, for four years’ work during that resort’s promising infancy. Promising was the operative term; hardly anyone in the skiing public had heard of the place in 1976.
It was hard to make a living at it. And with two children by then, we knew it was time to move on. Ellen got involved in Telluride’s film festivals, and I launched a career as a freelance writer, which advanced in part because editors at Powder and Outside could count on my writing convincingly (not to say authoritatively) about the mechanics, the feelings of sliding on snow.
That was 35 years ago. When we moved to Bend last year to be close to our first-born and her two kids, I needed a job and thought for the first time in ages about joining a ski school. I’m not the oldest. Ray is 70, I think. And there’s another guy I haven’t met who is 72. I am at the bottom of the priority list. Mt. Bachelor is one of eight resorts in the Powdr Corp. stable. The powers that be didn’t care – didn’t know and by rights needn’t care – about my ancient history. I was brought on board as a “non-cert(ified) new hire.” I battled through the on-line application, submitted to the drug test, attended orientation (where we learned that a lost child is never a “lost child” but always, euphemistically, a “huckleberry”), signed up to have my minimum-wage pay deposited directly into my checking account, was issued a locker and my orange-and-black uniform. Brave was maybe not the word.
My Chinese millennials were all four pursuing advanced degrees in computing or coding – eminently practical things for their futures back home. By contrast, skiing is impractical, of the moment, all slippery feet and gravity. We started out with one ski off and one ski on, scooting gently back and forth across the snow. Yizi and Jining got it right away. They had the kinesthetic sense, the ability to lift their eyes, balance and glide. Jilin was more tentative, watching his feet. And Xuanhan was really suffering. She took tiny, mincing steps, with no glide at all.
She told me her feet hurt, so we stopped and investigated. Her feet were not the problem; it was her calves. She was a big girl with large calves, and the boots were cutting painfully into her lower legs. It’s well known – it’s been known for decades – that a woman’s calf muscles are likely to sit lower on the leg than a man’s do. Many women-specific ski boots are designed to accommodate this physiology. Xuanhan’s unisex rentals did not.
I tried loosening the buckles on the cuffs to little effect then unbuckled them completely. She tried again, gamely, but finally, near tears, asked to sit out the rest of the lesson. Her friends spoke to her in Mandarin (or maybe it was Mongolian?), but she insisted, sitting at one of the children’s tables in the ski school yurt and working through layers of long johns and tight jeans to get the boots off. For such a big person her feet were tiny. Yizi promised to retrieve her street shoes from the rental shop and bring them to her after the lesson.
The rest of us went back to the business of controlling, of crafting a descent over snow. They were quick studies. After a couple of successful, slow-motion turns we rode the beginner chair lift. Yizi and Jining especially took those new tools, their gliding wedge turns, and ran with them. They learned that turning was the key to speed control. They steered their ski prows downriver left and right at will. On the flatter sections Jining in particular was able to let go, give herself over, comfortably, joyfully, to gravity, wind in her hair. “So happy!” she beamed at the bottom. “I am a skier!” I was almost as pleased as she was.
Back at the yurt Yizi handed Xuanhan her street shoes while I repeated an offer from the rental shop folks to comp her next time around. No, no, she said, perhaps out of cultural reticence. Or maybe she was saying there would be no next time.
In any case, her final words seemed a kind of Taoist koan. After thanking me for my efforts, she said, “Where we come from, my name means ‘snow.’”
We named the U-Haul truck Pinkham because the Believe-It-Or-Not graphic on the side was all about Mt. Washington in northeast New Hampshire and the ferocious winds at its summit. “Highest ever recorded wind speed: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.”
“Pinkham” comes from Pinkham Notch, the best-known trailhead for hiking Mt. Washington. It was also the finish line for the American Inferno, a famously terrifying, top-to-bottom ski race there in the leather-boot Thirties.
Ellen and I were terrified. It was early December, and the time had come to move everything from our under-contract Colorado house to our new home in Bend, Oregon. We hadn’t accumulated that much stuff, we said to each other, hopefully. Maybe we can get away with a 14-foot truck. The U-Haul place in Montrose had 14- and 17-footers. The agent then showed me a 20-footer and I took it, falling prey to a sudden vision of furniture triage on the driveway.
Good thing, because we packed Pinkham to the gills, with organizing and rope-tying help from a friend who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout. After three days, Boulder Rock was a nearly empty shell, walls bare, echoing concrete floors, largely devoid of our 15 years there. Ellen and I were both grateful for a non-stop, worker-bee haze that kept the swells of nostalgia from breaking into tears.
We didn’t get away until late on day three. Rolling north beneath the threat of rain, we made it only as far as Grand Junction, where we stopped for the night. It was important we cover some ground, any amount of ground, Ellen said. Strike out toward our new lives, even if it was just 75 miles.
The arrival of our stuff to Bend Corners 1,100 miles later transfigured a modest 1950s, one-bath bungalow in which we had struggled to feel at home. We sensed the change in spite of the stacks of packing boxes, the piles of rolled up rugs, the chaos in the garage. That first night we lit a fire in the fireplace. It started with kindling of split lodgepole pine from rounds I had cut earlier in the fall above Bend.
Nesting, for me, goes beyond a house to the landscape. I need to hover my mind’s eye above a place to see how the terrain works, what shapes the mountains and rivers take. The view I need is akin to – maybe even the result of – a well-known painting my uncle Hal Shelton did in the 1960s for Colorado Ski Country USA. In it he looks down and west across the entire mountainous half of the state from what would be – I don’t know – 60,000 feet up in a balloon. Not that anyone had ever done such a thing. But he imagined it, and painted it from that perspective, with all of the state’s 30-some ski areas showing as tiny white carvings into the forested Front Range, the Park Range, the Elk Range, and so on.
It really helped me this fall to get up high above Tumalo Creek, where I found the lodgepole, to look east over the Deschutes River Valley at the myriad volcanic buttes and cones and grown-over lava flows. Cascades volcanism is the force of record here. Some of the eruptions happened as recently as a few thousand years ago, after humans had migrated into the area. Chainsaw in hand, I marveled at the speed with which soils had o’er topped the eroding lava, and at the forests of big trees that sprang up out of that soil. I’m getting old in a place so geologically young.
Ellen nests differently. She had been more uncomfortable, more lost, in an unfinished remodel, with only a few dishes, a couch from Costco, and an Aero bed to sleep on. “I know it’s shallow,” she said, only half believing the critique, “but I need my stuff. I need it around me to feel we’ve really made the move.”
I added a stick to the fire. It was a piece of hardwood from Alabama. Our son-in-law Mike, whose family lives in Birmingham and Huntsville, had bequeathed his woodpile to us when he and Cecily moved from Colorado three years ago. He didn’t know for sure what kind of wood it was – pecan maybe, or some kind of elm? He got it from his father, who had driven out for a visit with a load of good ‘Bama hardwood as a housewarming gift.
I filled the last few cubic feet in Pinkham’s hold with firewood from Boulder Rock’s woodpile. That hardwood, driven from Alabama to Colorado to Oregon, had additional meaning. Mike’s mother died only a few days before our move, exiting finally, gracefully, from a decades-long death match with cancer.
As Ellen and I stared into the embers, we felt other presences. Out of the maze-like clutter she had already retrieved a few crucial items. One was my mother’s sculpture “Walking Figures.” Carved from a two-foot cube of walnut, a woman guides a just-learning-to-walk child with such warmth of action real children often walk up and hug it.
Also coming out of the boxes were a brace of table lamps with cut crystal bases, given to us by Ellen’s mother, a child of Polish immigrants who valued, keenly, the fine things she was able to afford. And the ingenious bag-drying rack my father made in his wood shop and gave to us years before it became de rigueur to wash and reuse Ziploc bags.
And the pillows Ellen had sewn from sections of worn oriental rugs my dad’s parents brought home from a train trip to Russia in the 1930s. A trip that, even though my father was just 13 at the time, later prevented him from getting a job at the State Department during the paranoid McCarthy years. “Material things,” Ellen again chided herself, chided our neediness. “But they are our heritage, our history, our family. It’s who we are.”
I placed a chunk of sweet-smelling juniper onto the fire. Cut on our Colorado property to make way for the house at Boulder Rock, the juniper flared and lit the living room at Bend Corners. The added light illuminated a painting by Uncle Hal that had survived the journey and that we’d leaned, temporarily, against the wall. It’s a large watercolor, a wedding present 40 years ago. Hal painted most of his landscapes in finely rendered acrylics. (He was also a mapmaker.) This one is much looser. It recreates a backlit mountain meadow with the sun just out of the frame behind a spruce tree and light shooting in all directions. The highlights are particularly blinding on stalks of late-season grasses, white-gold beyond the spruce shadow in which the viewer finds himself. Cozy for the first time in months, Ellen and I stared into the scene as if for the first time.
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.
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.”