Featured Image: Andrew Strain
Before dawn, snowcat drivers line the hills with corduroy. I’ve just arrived at the ski area, but they’ve been working all night, slowly grooming and manicuring the ski slope with the precision of jewelers. Though it’s still dark and cold, those twinkling lights on the mountainside are paving and shaping the way to gravity-fed happiness.
The sun crests over the mountains just before 8 o’clock in the morning, bringing a long shadow across the parking lot. I’ve been standing out here for an hour already, parking cars and taking slow bites from the cup of oatmeal in the pocket of my orange utility vest. It’s midseason on a Monday.
Everything is slower here. We still use those sticky wicket tickets with the metal wire that slides through a zipper pull. There’s no cell service, and the Wi-Fi is shoddy. The lodge was last remodeled in 1970. Slow-moving double chairs are the only way up, unless you want to hike.
A few more cars have rolled in and tire-tracked geometric patterns crisscross the snow-covered asphalt. As the sun rises higher, the snowcat drivers park their grumbling machines in the oversized garage, exchanging jangly rings of keys for skis, poles and boots. They make their way across the lot, pale-faced and grizzled, with long, dark beards but wedding day smiles. The ground glows blueish white from the emerging light. Having worked through the early morning, the drivers head toward the chairlift for first tracks.
Another car pulls in, and a smiling passenger with an unkempt Chris McCandless-like appearance rolls down his window, “You want some pancakes?” That’s an offer only a fool would refuse. Those cold, golden cakes leftover from someone else’s breakfast provide a tangible joy—I can feel my toes again.
I think of the lady who wears her hair in pigtails and flips them up and tucks them underneath the strap of her goggles so they explode upward like some kind of firework. She always gives us chocolate kisses.
Parents with little kids; stoners from the city; busloads of active military personnel stationed at a nearby base; folks from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska; a church group; and even a set of Amish brothers roll into the lot. There is a guy who tells me he drove two days straight to meet his friends for their annual ski trip. Hard to believe, but he sure looked tired while eating those ramen noodles for breakfast.
People travel here from far and wide to be in the shadow of the 14,000-foot peaks that surround this ski area. Yet it’s tucked away, just a sign on the highway to passersby—you’d miss it if you didn’t know where to turn. Most cars don’t slow down.
I heard about this place from a friend who had only been once. She said the lifts move slowly and there’s a downstairs cafeteria where people bring Crock-Pots to simmer chili while they’re out skiing. Everyone knows everyone around the bar in the afternoon. People here are present, attuned to the conditions on the hill, the way the clouds are moving overhead. Folks here come early on Saturdays for races, and they happily chat with strangers on the lifts. The locals recognize that just a few turns through the trees is bliss, and each one is different.
With the noontime sun shining high overhead, the cat drivers have had their fun and are long gone. Now they’re back at home sleeping until dusk, dreaming of tomorrow’s turns. Our crew shovels snow off the stairs, the base lodge porch and entranceways. We take out the trash, give out high-fives to guests and shovel some more. Kitchen staff feed the insatiable hungry masses. Patrollers answer the call. Lifties scan and scan and scan—beep!
Yet amongst the repetition, there’s beauty. Parking cars isn’t glamorous, but when they’re parked straight and tight in rows, it’s a damn good sight. So are those tire tracks intertwining in the snow like a kaleidoscope in the morning light.
On holidays the employees park higher up the highway by a few miles, at the top of the mountain pass, to leave room for guests in the lot. This means one of our parking crew has to be stationed up there to organize the cars of ski school instructors, cooks, administrative staff, ticket window attendants, rental shop techs and maintenance workers who show up before the rest of the mountain’s visitors. I like to volunteer to park those vehicles, not thinking about organizing rows of cars but about the sunrise I get to witness at 12,000 feet above sea level.
At 6 o’clock in the morning, the first hints of light grace the peaks in the distance, dancing grayish-pink hues across their snowcapped summits. Fleeting colors on far-off mountaintops melt away into the daylight like whipped cream into hot chocolate. Flashes from the season play back in my head like a film reel, blurring one memory into the next. Thoughts of fast turns in weightless snow consume my daydreams, ephemeral like the snow itself. Another car rolls into the lot and I usher it head-in against the snowbank. The pattern continues and my reverie dissolves.