The VHS Prophet, by Liam Downey

The VHS Prophet, by Liam Downey

So often we hear the term “teen angst” used as a kind of catch-all for the condition of the pubescent child, rife with implications of ill adjustment and social ineptitude that adults so indiscriminately project upon children. I can say confidently that I never suffered from whatever maladies are symptomatic of that fickle affliction, if only because, and I mumble this in the confession booth tones of a born loser, I rarely thought about much other than skiing. From the age of 4 until about, well, until still (I’m a few months shy of 31 if you must know), I have seldom passed five minutes without doing some aimless woolgathering on the subject, be it dreamy powder-slashing, mogul-hopping, or even just imagining myself jumping off of random shit that I happen to be driving by on the side of the road.

It stands to reason then, that the best days of my life have been spent skiing, since I’ve spent most of my time out of ski boots thinking about getting back into them. Indeed, if I could narrow down the ten best days of my life so far, nine of them took place on snow. Which brings us, albeit circuitously, to the tenth day, a day that is—by virtue of being not only the sole day of the Big Ten that bears mentioning but also probably the only imperishable day I can recall during which not one bit of actual skiing was done—perhaps the superlative day of my life. At the very least, it is the day that altered my path more than any other in that irrevocable way that mystics, astrologists and transcendental maharishi call fate.

On the morning of the day in question, which belongs to a month I can no longer place in the early winter of ’98, my friend Derek Klick had apprised me during a playground game of knockout that he had something to show me during advisory. No sooner had this message been relayed than it was forgotten, as I was in the throes of a spirited, shin- splinting dash between the baseline and the three point arc at the time. At 13 I was a full head taller than any of the other boys in my class, though I never showed much promise when it came to the lesser winter sports.

01 1998 - JP Auclair skis the Back Bowls in Vail Colorado with Poor Boyz Productions.

JP Auclair in Vail, CO, 1998. Photo by Flip McCririck.

It was only an hour later when Derek appeared outside my advisory, encouraging me with a series of surreptitious hand signals that if there was ever a time to play truant, that time was now. I followed him begrudgingly in my best impression of a 13-year-old who would rather be skiing—a categorically gloomy creature, given to sighs and a brand of disaffection that is easily misconstrued as the “angst” I mentioned at the beginning of this story. Before long, we came to an empty music room where (and I will pause for the reader to locate a pair of glasses with rose-colored lenses through which the rest of this meta-narrative should be read) my life was about to be changed forever.

At this point, Derek produced a VHS tape from the front pocket of his hoodie, which he put hurriedly into the TV/ VCR. For a second, the sound of George Baker’s Little Green Bag blared dissonantly into the dark room like a credits-roll call to arms for empty music stands and unmanned pianos. The tape had not been rewound but instead of a full restart, he backed it up for just a couple of seconds, bringing the heads to a stop with a squeal of rollers and capstan.

There was a skier on the screen—a longhaired French Canadian fellow in an Acapulco shirt with a pair of yellow skis that seemed to have raised tips on both ends like a snowboard. When the music started, so did the tricks. Wild, beautiful, stylized tricks the likes of which I’d never seen. They were so strange, the tricks he did on those yellow skis, so like the remotest renderings of my own mind that to see them in sequence, unobscured by the sepia blur of the imagination was serendipity itself. I watched entranced, like a person in a dream who need not look for meaning in the images that pass before the mind’s eye but only feel them, buoyed up for all eternity in the universe of things.

That skier was JP Auclair. On September 29, 2014, he passed on from this world to parts unknown, merging with the starry firmament from which his art was wrought. I cannot say exactly what it is about JP’s closing segment in that movie, Poor Boyz Productions’ Degenerates, that has always stuck with me. Long after I had seen the rest of the film I returned to that one part, which seems to flash in semaphoric projections through the attics of my life, a call to action that still infuses my veins with divine ichor at the mere thought of a backflip mute-grab.


JP Auclair with Glen Plake. Photo by Chris O’Connell.

What JP Auclair had set in motion was a movement much larger than itself. His life stands as a monument to all the joy that a person can experience on a pair of skis—testament to the way that our sport has and will be reinvented, time and time again. It was the very spirit of skiing that Auclair embodied, and even after I came to know him as a friend and humble ambassador for the freeskiing community, I could never separate the man from the god that danced across that TV screen like an idea come to life.

Many people wander the earth forever in search of a piece of sanctified ground like the one I happened upon in an empty music room that day. We do not choose our path in life and I am sure that it doesn’t choose us, yet I think we ought to take our truths where we can get them, be it in VHS or Betamax, or even DVD form. I know only that whatever happened in that long ago is a thing that has never left me, and never will. If all of experience can be boiled down to one salient day, and I think it can, then my one day is not a day, but a lifetime. I’d like to thank JP for that.

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