Snowboarding in the Middle Ages

By BOB WIRE

I used to ski a little, back in the olden days when skis were long and skinny and fluorescent ski garb was all the rage. The lift lines in those days looked like a Grateful-Dead-at-the-Fillmore poster in search of a blacklight.

It was the early ‘80s. Some crazed genius had modified a car stereo that you could wear on your chest and listen to a cassette of this trashy new singer called Madonna while you skied. My friends and I hit all the great ski hills in the Northwest, from Targhee to Park City, from Big Mountain to Bridger Bowl.

My favorite trip was when we went to Whistler, B.C. for an expensive weekend meant to impress our girlfriends. The only thing that actually impressed them was our iconoclastic decision to smuggle a baggie of pot INTO British Columbia.

Whistler is adjacent to a second, more proletariat-friendly resort called Blackcomb Mountain. Blackcomb was quite impressive: stunning views of the Canadian Rockies and one mile of vertical drop. I wasn’t what you’d call “skilled” or even “mildly competent.” I remember making it from top to bottom in just under three days.

I’ve surfed, water-skied and skateboarded at various times in my youth. None of those forms of transportation has you moving forward with your feet parallel to each other. That was always my problem with skiing—it just felt unnatural. It wasn’t my way to face a challenge full-on, I preferred to sidle up to it.

So when snowboarding began to emerge after I’d abandoned my skiing career, I always thought, now that’s the way to get down a mountain. Maybe I’ll try it someday.

Funny how your kids can make someday be today. Rusty came and woke me up early one morning, and yelled into my face that he’d just won a pair of lift tickets to Discovery Ski Area by answering a trivia question on the radio. I can’t even remember the question, but I figured it must’ve had something to do with the Nintendo Corporation.

He’d been after me for several years to take him snowboarding, and I had dodged that particular bullet thus far, hoping I could put it off until he was 16, when he could drive there himself and leave me out of it. It’s not that I have a fear of speed or danger, but after rediscovering skateboarding recently, I have found that gravity’s pull has somehow increased mightily since I was a thin young buck. When I fall off the skateboard now (or a barstool), I hit the ground with 190 pounds of dense, earth-shuddering impact. My old bones rattle and shift, and my stringy muscles yank at tendons and ligaments in such a way that I walk funny for two days afterwards.

But Rusty would not be denied, and the day before the Super Bowl the whole Wire clan filled our thermoses, piled into the 4Runner, and hit the road for Discovery. On the drive up my thoughts drifted to concern about the Super Bowl being shown on cable TV, which I’m not sure is available in the hospital.

I signed up both kids for a half-day class. Speaker was more interested in skiing, so after we rented the gear, she and Rusty parted ways. I had found a used snowboard on craigslist the day before, and the boots were a perfect fit. I figured $50 was a pretty good deal, and the Fisher-Price snowboard looked solid enough.

Barb, ever the shrewd one, elected to be the “lodge parent,” and stationed herself at the big picture window overlooking the bunny hill with a steaming mug of tea and a paperback novel. There are worse ways to spend a winter afternoon, and she thoroughly enjoyed herself. Plus, I don’t think she could hear any of the cussing and sobbing through that double-pane glass.

While Rusty and his class were becoming acquainted with their snowboards, I walked a couple hundred yards up the hill past them and stepped into the bindings. I pulled my new goggles down over my eyes, yanked my gloves tight, and leaned downhill just enough to start the thing moving. That right there was my first mistake.

I’d spent several minutes just standing and watching other boarders, studying their body movements. My plan was to try and emulate those movements, hoping by body would naturally figure it out and I’d get the knack. This method has worked for me before, with things like fly fishing and sex. So I knew the thing was to keep the uphill edge into the snow. And it certainly didn’t hurt that I’d eavesdropped on Rusty’s class for twenty minutes, as the instructor taught them to turn by pushing outward with the back foot.

So I was able to slide down the hill without too much trouble, but I could only turn right. I mean, if I stood up straight, the board would make a long, gradual drift to the left. Close enough, I figured, I’m ready for the chair lift.

Walking around with a five-foot slab of fiberglass attached sideways to one foot is no mean feat (pun intended), and I fell down several times just waiting in line at the lift. Once I finally got situated in a chair, I just relaxed and caught my breath for the short ride to the top. Of course I crashed getting off, and dragged myself out of the way of the other boarders coming up behind me. I felt like a gut-shot infantryman looking for a fox hole. “Go on without me!” I shouted, waving Rusty ahead. “Save yourself!”

Bob Wire catches some air. Really.

Good thing I’m wearing my OSHA-approved safety cowboyhat!

He looked at me with saurian eyes and said, “Get up, Dad, you’re embarrassing me,” and pushed away on his board to join his class. As he moved off, his long red hair flying in the chilly breeze, he looked a lot like Shaun White, the Flying Tomato.

I felt more like the Flying Potato as I managed to haul my carcass off the ground and snap into the bindings. I felt I was ready for my first full run down the bunny hill. Well, it was either that, or a long and shameful ride in the plastic Ski Patrol sled.

Things started out fine. I would make a long, oblique line to the left, then carve a sharp right turn and cut across the slope, curling uphill at the end and coming to a stop. Then I’d do it again. I quickly became overconfident, though, and let my speed get away from me. It was a rush, flying down the hill, feeling my nose hairs freeze as the mountain air invigorated me, making my spirits soar. Then I caught an edge and it was all over.

My back side was facing downhill, and when the edge under my heels caught, I was slammed to the ground with a speed and force that gave me absolutely no warning. I landed on my ass, and the whiplash of my spine snapped my head into the snow so hard that I was knocked silly. This was beyond seeing stars or even blacking out. It was more of a hallucinatory reaction, and it lingered on for two days afterwards.

I lay on the snow, motionless, seeing snatches of different dreams I’d had over the previous month or so. Very vivid images, just moving by in a slide show. Then Rusty was there, asking if I was all right. “Yeah, sure,” I said, struggling to get up. One of his instructors came over, asked the same thing. I told him I was fine, and I slowly worked my way back to the lodge.

Too bad I hadn’t brought my iPod so I could listen to “Dazed and Confused” for the rest of the day, if only to have the appropriate soundtrack. I felt like someone had turned my mind into a jigsaw puzzle and put back all the pieces in the wrong order.

Barb had been watching me from her window table, and said I reminded her of a pachinko ball, bouncing my way down the hill. But she didn’t see the last fall, and it’s probably a good thing. I mean, I whacked my head so hard I was afraid I might geet the urge to apply for a job as a school administrator.

I had her look at my pupils to make sure they were the same size. She said I was talking funny, speaking in a low monotone. Perfect, I thought. I’m ready for a career on NPR. I scarfed down an under-cooked hamburger, hoping the protein would get the gears spinning properly in my head. Speaker wanted to accompany one of her friends on the Gold Bug run, and Barb said she could.

“But only if your father goes too,” she said, looking at me. I swallowed a bite of raw meat with a gulp, and said sure, I was ready. “Gold Bond. Yeah. Let’s go.” I was lying, of course, but didn’t want to pull the rug out from under Speaker, who, as it turns out, was a pretty good little skier. So Rusty and I accompanied the two girls up the Gold Bug lift, which made my dented head spin in whole new ways. I was sure I had at least a mild concussion. Five more of these, I thought, and there goes my dream of playing in the NFL.

We got off the lift, and the girls immediately skied away, leaving Rusty and me to look down the mountain, trembling with fear and possibly the onset of an e.coli infection from the undercooked burger. He was taking longer to master the snowboard than Speaker was the skis, so we both struggled quite a bit. There was a lot of crying, tantrum throwing, blowing snot bubbles, and whining about wanting to go home. And Rusty wasn’t very happy either.

But we made it to the bottom, approximately six hours and two hundred crashes later, both of us exhausted, bruised, and emotionally bankrupt. We parked our boards in the rack and trudged upstairs to join Barb.

As luck would have it, I ran into my friend Tom, who bought me a pint of Cold Smoke. That took a lot of the sting out of my day. An accomplished skier who was picking up the sport again after a 20-year layoff, he’d spent the day on the back side of the mountain, hurtling down the black diamond runs and fulfilling his need for speed. We swapped a few stories from our early days of skiing, but I was still batting away false déjà vu’s, memories that never happened, and other mental butterflies.

Rusty and I both realized that we left the bunny hill too soon, and we made a pact on the way home. We decided that we’ll stick to the bunny hill until we become bored with it, then we’ll inch our way up the mountain to the more challenging runs. No need to rush things.

I also told him that next time, we both will be wearing helmets, to protect us from certain dain bramage.

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   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Bob Wire is medicated and ready to rock.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.