Peter Shelton

Lessons Learned

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Ski teaching by pshelton on February 6, 2015

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.’”

Becoming Home

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Road Trips West by pshelton on January 13, 2015

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.

Block Party Surprise

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on October 30, 2014

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; we live on 5th, new arrivals to the neighborhood. But Ryan and Heather, school 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.”) She was open and earthy.

Then she started down the road to astonishing coincidence. “Peter Shelton. Hmmm. 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,” Wintress said, “but not to my auntie.”

Off to the side, her husband, Chris, 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 bridge was completed, a wave of associations flooding in as if through the Golden Gate. What were the chances? Wintress’s “favorite auntie,” Maureen Carpenter, had married in the distant past this guy, Peter Shelton, the stranger standing before her, who had 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, in Berkeley, 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. I wondered what Maureen had 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 really joking. I understand. She’s seen the dewy wedding photos at my mother’s house, she’s 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. Mom 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’s astonishing news, the two of them linked arms and pivoted, 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 on a bed 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 of the story. 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. She favored the total break, too.

After Maureen and I 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 – in Berkeley, as it happened – 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’s last name. She had our chair on her front porch.

Dark Star

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on September 16, 2014

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.”

New York Story

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on September 12, 2014

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.”

Be Nice

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on September 4, 2014

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!”

‘Goodbye to All That’

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on May 30, 2014

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…)

The Territory Ahead

Posted in Personal History, Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on May 16, 2014

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.

Fellow Kids

Posted in Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on February 3, 2014

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.

Code White

Posted in Personal History, Ski evolution by pshelton on December 15, 2013

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.