Corrugated roofs lined up below us like the rusted windrows of some ancient scrap metal harvest. The town hummed with Thursday morning activity. Carpenters in ladder-rack pickup trucks commingled with snow-tire bicycles ridden by bearded baby boomers. A Bernese-dog walker slipped on an ice patch, looking back at the sidewalk like a mother scolding a cheeky child. It was exactly as I remembered it. Crested Butte is the kind of place where nothing ever changes—a town built upon the bedrock notion that a good thing is rarely worth tampering with.
Such sentimentality is rare in the ski film business, which in a sense was the reason we had come to The Butte. I had been tasked with guiding The Big Picture crew—Chris Logan, Parker White and filmer-editor Sean Logan—around the backcountry drainages to the west of town. I had become familiar with the area during my years as an athlete with Level 1 Productions, the same outfit from which this crew had defected in this inaugural season of their web series. They are only the most recent seditionists on a growing list of skiers to shake the foundations of film-company power structure by pursuing independent projects.
Skiing politics were far from mind as we filled our six snowmobiles at the pumps outside the Gas Café. Inside we ordered Hurley breakfast sandwiches from a guy in a checkered cycling casquette. I knew him and his cap from visits long ago, but if he recognized me he gave no sign. For a moment, I experienced the passing feeling of a man who has returned home to find that he has not been missed—of one who has just discovered that the sovereign bond between person and place is a thing of the imagination.
I have never actually lived in Crested Butte, but as we made our way through the graveled corners that lead to the Irwin Lake-Kebler Pass Trailhead, I remembered how much of my own history had been written in these high alpine meadows that had once blossomed for silver miners’ eyes. How many long days and cold-finger sled rides had I spent in Irwin, chasing a dream that was the chase itself? As we pulled into the big lot lined with new snowmobiles and old trucks, I realized for the first time that this would be much more than a ski trip for Parker, Chris and Sean. It was a rite of passage.
Watch: The Big Picture – Zero/Done
Photographer Sammy Steen and I unloaded the snowmobiles from the two-place trailer and topped them off with two-stroke synthetic that we borrowed from Adam Delorme, who’d just pulled up next to us. The three of us had been asked to come along in the same way that Wes Anderson usually hires on a few of his buddies to write, act and generally bolster the illusion that he’s not running the whole show.
“Look at these pricks, parking like they own the place,” hissed a voice from across the lot as we buckled our boots. It was a scruffy local of the old-truck-new-sled variety, making no bones about the fact that we did not belong with our logo-wrapped snow machines and fancy ski gear. “Says the guy who lives in an Anal Expedition,” Sammy said under his breath, with reference to the Expedition brand pull-behind trailer next to which the man was standing. Back in Breckenridge, Tanner Rainville had schooled us in the endless appellative possibilities of putting the word “Anal” in front of the names of RVs and campers: Tornado, Warrior, Passport, Cougar, Jamboree, Searcher… You get the idea.
We strapped our skis to the sleds and took off at full throttle. The trail was smooth granular that gave a feeling of flying across a glassy lake on a Jet Ski. The screaming wind drowned out the motor for a few minutes until I spotted a pull-off in a bower of aspens for a quick break. Before long, we were back on our way, linking bar-wrenching turns in the blower snow and mounting the short hill climbs that gave way to open clearings below the pillowed escarpment known as Moonscape. Some of the aspens still had their leaves, which hung in tattered clumps like fruit after a frost.
Delorme earned his keep as self-described Sledneck Turbo by breaking trail through the fresh foot of snow. Sammy and I held back at first, well aware of the onus of the borrowed snowmobile. The guys at Tall T Productions had been generous enough to lend us the sleek machines with the proviso that we were liable for any damages incurred. It had seemed like a perfect arrangement, prima facie, but as I jumped on the Ski-Doo I remembered that borrowing a snowmobile is more dangerous than taking your best friend’s wife out for a dinner date. In both cases, the penalty for mere suspicion of foul play can far exceed that of the actual crime. A certain risk quotient never hurts though.
After a while, we emerged into the gully beneath Moonscape. “Damn,” said Parker as we hit the kill switches and drank in the view, which offered probably 100 mini-golf lines of every shape and size, “I might have to take back all that trash I’ve been talking about Colorado.”
It was true, Parker had never minced words when it came to his distaste for Colorado’s terrain, which he had written off as mostly groomers and low-angle pow turns. More recently, he had found equal cause to distrust the people of the Rocky Mountain State when a schizophrenic Breckenridge homeowner threatened his life in a dispute over a parking space.
Parker’s recantation was to be short-lived, at least as it related to Coloradans, because no sooner had he spoken the words, than someone was yelling down the gully at us, “Get out of here! This is our zone.” We had raised the ire of a local snowboard crew, so we did the only logical thing and rode right up the gut of the slide path through their midst. I saw one of them mouth the word “faggots” as we passed. We were getting ready to start up the bootpack when their spokesperson caught up to us.