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stories >> 1998 - 01 - 18

Ruins of Pompeii

      Since in ancient times Üllr taught the Norse how to ski he now is revered as the God of Ski -- sort of like the God of Fight, I suppose. On this trip, Üllr opened his big eyes and smiled down on us. The weather was perfect for skiing. It dumped for three of the six days we were in Park City, and the temperature didn't nudge above freezing until the day we left. That means: no slush, no sludge, just deep sweet powder for skiing, and then a nice ice free ride back to the airport with Üllr giving us a big wink and waving us goodbye. You bet I'm going back to Park City.

      The plane out of Austin last Sunday was inhumanly early: 6:00 or 6:20 or something. I rolled out of bed at 4:30 to get a last minute shower and rub the three hours of sleep out of my eyes. By 4:55, I was starting to get humming and I call up Jason. He answers, and I holler into the phone, "YOU SOUND LIKE ONE SKIING MOTHERFUCKER!!!" Jason laughs, tells me that the cab has just arrived, and that he'll be right over. Elizabeth and Jason show up three minutes later, and we're screaming our way to airport.
      Once at the airport, I feed my hyperactivity with some grande cappa-mocha-frappe-rino-chino thing from Starbuck's. I notice that people are strangely friendly this early on Sunday morning. I think it's that at 6:00 am, you haven't had enough of "a day" yet to have a "good day" or a "bad day." Giving folks a big smile and cracking a few goofy jokes seems to give them a push in the "good day" direction, and everyone's real happy to respond in kind. I get back to the terminal to Liz and Jason, who are giving me sideways looks and wondering if they really want to spend the next week of their lives so close to a psycho caffeine freak.
      On the plane, and I find out the woman next to me is a nurse who's been three weeks married. We joke for the entire 1/2 hour flight from Austin to Houston. She asks me if I'm married, and I smile and tell her "Not yet" as I wiggle my ringless fingers at her. She's off to Boston or some other place along the east coast -- who knows -- and we say goodbye at Houston. I settle in for a three hour wait as Liz and Jason catch up on their sleep.
      I love Houston Intercontinental. It's reasonably laid out so you're not trucking all over the airport for your connection, you don't spend a long time taxiing around on the ground, and you don't have to worry about wind shears or big hair. Careful readers will note that all of these evils are manifest in DFW. But what I love best about IAH is the huge bank of monitors that list the departures and arrivals. They're stacked up into a three by five grid, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. They alternate the colors between cities so that they're easier to read, and you can lean your head right against them if you don't mind annoying everyone else trying to read them. So of course I'm leaning my head against these things, and I'm gasping at the places scrolling along beneath me. From IAH, you can go to Tegucigalpa or Paris or San Francisco or take Continental flight #1 to Guam. In my mind I can see the globe composed of tiny lines of light, all radiating out of Houston and myself and pulsing like living capillaries. I feel like if I just turn a little bit one way or another, I'll be off to San Salvador or Mazatlan instead of Utah. It's a place of unlimited potential, and just thinking about it gets me rolling every time.
      Three hours and a lot of "I'm trying to read that monitor" talk later, and we're back on the plane finally heading into Salt Lake. I talk nonsense to the girl next to me for an hour or two until she falls asleep, and then we're landing. The old man's waiting for us, he's rented an Isuzu Rodeo, and in record time we've stowed our bags into the back of our car and blasting down I-80 heading to Park City. We get there, rent skis at some place that was impossible to find, freight up at the grocery store, and stumble back into our strange little condo. The old man's feeling feverish, so for the first night I wrap up in an extra blanket and sleep on the couch. I listen to the hiss of the gas fireplace, look out the window at the first big snowfall they've had since April of '97, and I whisper a quick thanks to Üllr. I fall asleep dreaming of thigh deep powder.

      The next four days are a blur of snow. All I want to do is ski. We're not as young as we used to be, so we generally make it out to the slopes an hour or two after the lifts open. The only major skiing traffic we see is from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm on Monday morning. Other than this strangely congested time, we have enough room to stretch out and try out our new tricks without worrying about running into anybody.
      By now, I've honed my ski day timing into a smooth machine. Ski for an hour, eat the first power bar (or Stoker or Balance or even chocolate bar... power bars freeze though, so smash them into pieces the night before so that you can eat it a bite at a time while you stash the rest of it in some inner pocket to keep it edible). The important thing here is to start eating before you get hungry. If you're hungry, you're already done. At about 12:30 or 1:00 or 1:30, take a 1/2 hour break and eat your second or third power bar. Refill your water bottle if you can. At 2:30 or 3:00, take another 1/2 hour break, eat some more, and then close the lifts down.
      Last year I was in the worst ski shape of my life and I vowed then that I would never ski in such a pitiful condition again. This year, all of those Julie led torture sessions around town lake paid off beautifully, and my legs don't even notice the slopes. Liz tells me she's irritated with me since last year she could always count on me taking a rest stop. My legs feel so great that I start trying to ski the runs without stopping, just to feel my thighs burn. I hurt plenty of other places: low back, triceps, big toes, right Achilles, right knee... but the quads are laughing off even the deep powder. Maybe I'll stick with this running thing after all.
      We ski most of our time at Deer Valley. We tackle the burliest sounding black on the mountain: Ruins of Pompeii. I only ski it once, and it's the first run that's scared the pants off of me in three or four years. When I ski to the top, I have to work up my courage a few minutes. It's sick, scary steep -- it looks straight down, but I'm guessing 60 degrees -- and the snow is old, deep powder. I start picturing my shattered body groaning at the bottom of the run. But I try to ignore it, gulp a few more breaths, and then turn and ski down it. It takes me fifteen minutes, and I wasn't fast, or pretty, or even competent, but I kept my skis on my feet and myself out of the snow and I made it to the bottom. Jason skis it down behind me. We gape out how stupid and stoked we are. ROP just stares down at us, and you can feel that he's feeling a little cheated that we didn't crack something on him. We're so tired now we can barely stand, so we leave Ruins of Pompeii and wobble down the blue run to take a rest at the lift. I was disappointed to find out later that there's an even cooler sounding run in Utah: Solitude has a double black called "Here Be Dragons." Yark. I'll have to tackle it next year.
      At the end of the day, we drag back to the faithful if fickle Rodeo (the insides of the windows keep icing up) to load our skis up. I've heard that the Suburban is the state vehicle of Texas; if so, then Utah's is the darn Rodeo. And in particular, the green Rodeo. The first time I look for the truck in a parking lot, I try four different vehicles before I find the right one. I solve the problem the next day by leaving the ski racks sticking straight up, so that even our green Rodeo stands out in the parking lot crowd. After loading skis, we eat a huge dinner somewhere, go back to the condo to drink a glass of whiskey and watch the USA movie of the night, and fall asleep on the couch.

      Friday morning, and my dad is catching a plane out to San Jose to meet up with my mom and spend a week in Monterey. So I ride into SLC with him, drop him off at the airport, and turn the vehicle back down I-80 for the quick run back to Park City. Strangely enough, I did the same thing last time I was here for my old boss Gordo. That time, as I was humming through the pass with the perfect sunshine of a spring morning, that old Super Tramp song came on the radio:

      Early morning yesterday
      I was up before the dawn
      And I really have enjoyed my stay
      But I must be moving on

      And I think that's the first time my adult wanderlust was really stirred. This time, it's a dismal winter morning now, but the air is a crisp 30 degrees, I've got the vent blowing full bore and freezing my earlobes, and the crazy monk chant and drums of Enigma's "Sadness" are booming through the car. I pass a sign that just says, "I-80: Cheyenne" and I think, "Y'know... I don't think I've ever been to Cheyenne." I look down and I'm doing 80.
      Oh yeah. Liz and Jason. Shoot.
      So back to Park City, with Enigma still echoing in my head. The Mowers have been up for a while, and we all decide on a non-skiing day. Lo and behold, it happens to be the first full day of the Sundance Film Festival, so we decide to see a movie. Liz says she's heard that this year there are going to be a lot of comedies on the bill. We're all thinking, great, we can catch some weird film like "Clerks" before anyone else sees it. We drive over to the closest venue, I buy some tickets for a movie starting in fifteen minutes which I'm assured is "real good," and in we plop joking and making noise.
      Well, it's not "Clerks," it's "Moment of Impact." And it's not a comedy. I should have run for cover when the Australian woman announces before the movie that it's "brave, intelligent, and emotional" ("just like me" I crack to Liz as the lights are going down). All joking aside, it's a documentary a woman did about how her father got hit by a car and is now almost completely paralyzed and how her embittered mother has to take care of him. And it's mostly in Russian. And in a grainy, bluish, black and white. And it's really, really long. After 117 traumatic minutes, we stumble outside, wondering what the heck we have gotten into. We decide to go downtown and drown our sorrows in pizza.
      But once downtown, we have to deal with the actual Sundancers themselves. The local paper describes them as "people with foreign accents who don't say 'Thank you' when you hold open the door for them, wear impractical shoes that slip all over the snow, and should all take a class called 'How to wear black and still stand out in a crowd.'" It's depressingly accurate. The only thing they left out is "cell phone." I'm starting to think that there's a new hip species of human born with a cell phone growing from their head, chatting vehemently while staring off into space and bumping into people around them. While Liz and Jason go off to find cowboy hats, I start playing a new game I call "Stare at a Sundancer until he gets uncomfortable and goes away." It's surprisingly enjoyable and easy to play. It slightly assuages my feeling that I'm just not hip enough to be running around with all these Tarentino-a-likes (yeah, Aj, I know this pretty much blows apart my New Year's Resolution).
      So we get out of town and back to the condo and try to un-hip ourselves as best we can. Jason and I decide that "Guy Night" is the right answer. We drink beer and watch guy type TV: Home Improvement, The Godfather, and Beavis and Butthead. Our third pizza of the day arrives during Smokey and The Bandit. But Reynolds is living large in his bell bottoms and Turquoise, and if I close my eyes and I can imagine it's 1977 again and my first grade teacher is telling me that her CB handle is "Tootsie Roll." As the Bandit goes roaring off to Boston to get some clam chowder, we turn in for bed, and for the first time, it's not snowing outside.

      Saturday is our last day, and our flight's not until 3:30. We kill time by lingering over our bagels at Einsteins, shopping around the Eddie Bauer, and checking out Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake. Wandering around the Square are gangs of Mormon tour guides, ready to tell you everything about the area and to put the Mormon soft sell on you (after 20 minutes, they'll ask if you'd perhaps like a free book of Mormon and maybe talk to some Mormons in your area). Apparently the Mormons, like PC Order, have decided that young, attractive women are the best proselytizers of the One True Religion, and all of the tour guides are so beautiful that a man like myself starts thinking that maybe there's something to this Mormonism and polygamy after all. Clever Mormons. It's only as we're leaving the square that I notice the husky older fellows, with the tell tale vacant stares and nearly invisible ear phones that denote the hired muscle, who wander around less obtrusively in the role of Mormon Secret Service, making sure that everything is working out all right. Clever Mormons.
      We evade the gentle clutches of the Mormons, eat one last huge lunch, and head off to the airport. It was great skiing, and I keep looking at the Wasatch fading in the rear view. Right as we turn a bend in the highway, I'm sure I catch one last glimpse of Üllr, laughing at the Sundancers and getting ready to bless the mountains with another batch of sweet snow. I think about the powder rustling around my legs and I've got that big stupid grin on my face. I'm can't wait to get home to Austin... but I silently promise Üllr that I'll be coming back.


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