Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Humble Rebuttal

Will be featured in JH Snowboarder Magazine Winter 2010-11

In its “2010 Resort Awards”, Skiing Magazine bestowed Jackson Hole with the dubious accolade “Most Condescending Locals.” At the time, I had just hung up my rubber boots as a charter fisherman, and was headed West to trade Atlantic for Tetons.

Discovering the article aboard a one-way flight destined for Jackson consumed me with dread. Though considering myself prepared for a new social sphere, the prospect of having to infiltrate a machismo-ridden community was none-the-less daunting.

I was privy to Jackson’s reputation as a hard-charging hub before setting course for “The Last of the Old West.” Yet seeing this claim to infamy in print now amplified its implications. “Condescending locals” spawned images of rabid, full-face-helmet-clad psychopaths dominating a bootpack, leaving the weak reeling in their wake. This brash cadre crawled across my mind’s eye: hucking unthinkable cliffs, devouring chest deep powder, mercilessly ravishing the mountain.

The more my imagination brewed however, the more my intimidation gave way to intrigue. Soon the constructs for a social experiment emerged: objectively observe the Jackson local in light of Skiing Magazine’s unflattering characterization. My maiden voyage into Jackson offered unbiased criteria to glean the underlying traits of snowriding’s most revered.

These are my findings. This is my rebuttal to Skiing Magazine.
The Jackson local forgoes much to live and ride in the Tetons. Sacrifice defines their existence. Although all ski towns demand a certain flexibility of its residents, the Bikram Yoga required by Jackson contorts the local’s life beyond most. The theme trickles down the community’s ranks and into every facet.

Living at the Hostel X my first month in town revealed this trend to me. The boot-brown building stands conspicuously amidst the polished hotels and restaurants of contemporary Teton Village. A ski bum haven of sorts, the hostel offers affordable lodging for the young penny-pinching winter enthusiast. Beyond a place to lay my head, the hostel provided a natural habitat to observe a breed of the Jackson local.

The hostel’s young workforce wore genuine, living-the-dream smiles. Their every conversation dripped with the stoke of the coming season. Acquainting myself with these folks over the weeks of my stay, I found their circumstances to be a lesson in sacrifice.

Highly educated, these college graduates postponed promising careers to clean bed sheets. They shared stuffy rooms, earned modest wages, and survived on diets of pasta and PBR. They did all this for the sake of one overriding pursuit: to ride hard.

I soon discovered that this trend of professional humility holds true for much of Jackson’s workforce: ex-corporate juggernauts manage restaurants, Five Star chefs flip burgers, high school educators teach preschool. The case is not that these professions are less admirable. The humility lies in the motivation behind doing them. Most take up employment for the turns they allow, not the careers they garner.

Jackson’s locals are inspired and motivated, but afforded little fodder to actualize their professional agendas. With Jackson’s economy sustained primarily by seasonal tourism, conventional careers are scarce. Few venture to this obscure American niche seeking nine-to-five employment. The locals are more inclined towards monitoring rising inches of snow over falling figures of Wall Street stock.

Inevitably, professional sacrifices weighs unfavorably in the local’s frugal budget. The precarious financial scheme is exacerbated by one of the most exorbitantly priced passes in North America. Even with this season’s 25% discount, Jackson pass ranks amongst the highest in the West.

The costly pass beckons a perennial question: drop nearly $2000 dollars for it, or gain it by working for the resort. Proponents of the former argue that resort employees ultimately pay in powder. Work schedules, no matter the setting, do not accommodate for epic storms. A line cook at a mid-mountain restaurant can be left glistening behind a fryolator while the day of days rages on just out the window. So many conclude it’s better to be poor in the wallet, than poor powder turns.

Another toll is demanded on the body. Testing their abilities in arguably the steepest, most technical terrain in the lower 48, locals contend with a staggering injury rate. Compounded by Jackson’s envelope-pushing ideals, this rate increases exponentially over the season. Knees blow out. Bones break. Muscles tear. While injury is an inherent risk of the spot, Jackson’s gauntlet of no-fall zones, avalanche-prone faces, and boney backcountry make it all the more apparent.
When the tram docks for the day, Jackson locals belly up to the bar and toast the day with raised PBRs. Scanning the goggle-tanned faces, men view an unfortunate reality: Jackson women are beautiful and athletic, but also markedly few.

The girl-to-guy ratio rivals most technical schools. Air thick with testosterone, a bar becomes a case study in natural selection: too many predators, not enough prey. Excluding some fortuitous run-in with a gaper, most men find themselves married to the mountain, getting their rocks off charging aggressive lines.

And that is what it ultimately comes down to: RIDING HARD. Money, career, health, relationships- all come secondary to this objective. Devotion to the sport, to the life, ascends to a priority beyond all other worldly endeavors. These mountains are sewn with endless adventure. Jackson locals dedicate their lives to harvesting that potential. They humbly forfeit everything for moments of descent that can only be found in the Tetons.

So if the Jackson local is in fact condescending, well they’ve earned the right to be.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Last of the Old Salts (Published in N Magazine August 2010, pg 68)

*Photography by Joshua Blake (
*View published version with full photography at page 68
Nantucket’s cobblestone streets harken to the island’s early days, a time marked by isolation and hardship, but also prolific fishing. Much has changed since those rough-hewn stones were first set. Today’s racing yachts and pleasure cruisers are a far cry from Ishmael's harbor. Yet, there are a select few who carry on Nantucket’s fabled fishing trade.

Tracking these men down can be daunting. They operate outside Nantucket’s celebrated social circuit, shoving off under dawn’s foggy shroud, and return silhouetted by the setting sun. Out of cell phone range, they answer the call of screeching gulls and static VHF radio chatter. Their pursuit of fish, day after day, does more than bring the ocean’s bounty to our dinner table. In the face of changing times, these fishermen preserve Nantucket’s historic identity. Their tales can be exhilarating, even frightening, but they are every bit Nantucket.
65-year-old lobsterman Chuck Butler is the archetypal old salt on Nantucket. How he ended up behind the helm of a lobster boat is a story as rich as the waters he has fished for the last 40 years. Butler grew up the son of a college professor, hundreds of miles from either coast in the Oklahoma panhandle. When his father welcomed a Native American to stay with them, Butler’s family of eight was driven by a strong anti-Indian contingent there out of Oklahoma, and they relocated to the Olympic Peninsula. Living in the lush rain forests of western Washington State, Butler became enamored with the surrounding waters. He spent his days tooling around Puget Sound trolling for salmon in a little “putt-putt”and, when the wind and weather cooperated, he sailed homemade skiffs.

Education drew Butler away from the water. After completing his undergraduate studies, he pursued a masters degree in physiological psychology at Northwestern University. His love for the water haunted his years in Chicago, and he obsessed over ocean racing. Butler found a way back to the sea by writing for a sailing magazine that had a branch in the Windy City. The publication sent him to all the major races in the southern Atlantic racing circuit. Consumed by the sailing culture, Butler soon landed a job delivering sailboats to islands all over the Atlantic. These were his formative years as a young mariner, running boats on an unforgiving open ocean, testing the limits of his skill and courage.

In the early 70’s, after years delivering boats, Butler came to Nantucket to dive on the ship wreck Andrea Doria. When his diving companions continued on to the Gulf of Mexico, Butler decided to stay. He harvested scallops using his diving gear, and worked odd jobs to get by. One such job was restoring a neglected lobster boat that had a habit of sinking every winter
Butler raised the Pamela D from the murky depths of the harbor, reconditioned it to shipshape and was encouraged to fish from it for fun. One fall, Pamela D’s owner gave him five lobster traps to try his hand.

“She told me there were a bunch of big four-foot Anderson half-rounds behind her house," he remembers. "She showed me how to rig ‘em and where the buoy lines were, so the next year I threw in some lobster traps and caught lobsters.”

Butler lobstered on the weekends, and gave away most of his catch to friends. Recognizing his uncanny knack for catching lobsters, Butler’s brother Michael recommended that he start selling his catch. And so it was that Chuck Butler, the "Nantucket Lobsterman," came to be.

Forty years and four custom-built boats later, at the age of 65, Butler still pulls pots four days a week, four months each year. If you’ve enjoyed a lobster dinner on Nantucket in the last four decades, there's a good chance it came off the decks of Butler’s 36-foot diesel trawler Merlin.

Few appreciate the utter danger faced by those engaged in the rugged profession of lobstering. When prompted, Butler quietly recounts his near-death experiences on the job. One such brush with death occurred on a chilly day in November.

While setting pots offshore with a greenhorn mate, Butler became ensnarled in the bight of the lines connecting the traps as they shot off the open transom of the boat. Ripped overboard, he plunged into the frigid Atlantic. Retelling the event, Butler’s casual composure falters just once. “The only thought that was in my brain for a long time was that my sister Sharon had died of ALS about two months before, and this was going to crush my mom.” Going under, his lungs seized up and he passed out. Death was imminent.

Miraculously, Butler came to and cut himself free from the web of lines. But his ordeal was not yet over. Though the air trapped in his lungs prevented him from sinking, he found himself pinned by the boat's hull below the surface. At the helm, the frantic young mate hastily jockeyed the boat, giving him "a couple little whacks" with the blender-like prop. Hearing the distinct thud of the boat being put in reverse, Butler knew another pass by the prop would “chop [him] to pieces.” He managed to push off the keel, away from the boat, and kick to the surface.

Climbing aboard, Butler found his mate in a state of shock. “He was in such a panic and so hysterical that I made him just calm down and relax," Butler remembers. “We hauled like another two trawls, even though I was like hypothermic, to get him out of his panic mode. Then we steamed in. That was one of the more exciting things to happen.”

Minutes after facing death and despite battling the onset of hypothermia, Butler hauled another forty traps for the sake of his rattled mate. Butler’s harrowing story compels a blunt but unavoidable question: "Why do it?" Why did this man with a distinguished education choose one of the most difficult and dangerous occupations on earth? Butler’s answer is simple, and genuine.
“I don’t care if I’m busting my tail on a grinder, I’m a lot happier on the water than when I’m not.”

Butler connects to the historic fraternity of Nantucket mariners who were seduced by life on the water. It is not the income the job provides that drives these fishermen, but the experience. “I’ve made it to 65 without ever having a job in my life”, Butler muses. “I just go for boat rides. And I still just get a gas being out there. You see tuna out there, and whales, and sea turtles. There are all kinds of gannets diving on things and buoys bouncing around the boat. You see all kinds of strange things out there.”

Butler has also seen the island evolve from a tight-knit fishing community to the bustling vacation destination it is today. Though the drive down to the dock may be a little more congested, life on the ocean hasn’t changed much, and neither has Butler’s love for being "out there." The old salt climbs aboard the Merlin each day with the same fervor as the young man who delivered boats on the high seas, with the same excitement as the boy who tooled around Puget Sound in his little boat, trolling for salmon.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Not Just a Ski: A Tribute to Shane McConkey and his K2 Pontoons

Published in MOUNTAIN GAZETTE, September 2010, pg 19.

Reprinted on K2 Website:

Mom used to say, “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have.” The philosophy stemmed from her childhood as one of eight, and was made legendary by my uncles who dominated an inner-city hockey league wearing a pair of grandma’s old figure skates- toe picks and all!

So it was for me growing up, skiing New Hampshire’s White Mountains in archaic, orthopedic gray boots, and wax-less, secondhand rentals. Though I must have been a pitiful sight, gear never equated for much in my adolescent love for skiing.

Only when moving to Jackson Hole did equipment become a matter of research, debate, and utter importance. The resort transforms into a ski showcase on snow days. With the howitzer blasts echoing off the Tetons like an epic heart beat, Jackson’s devoted scuttle around the base with long, fat powder skis in tow.

A deep sense of inadequacy festered within me during my first delayed opening, powder mornings. Totting around my dainty 167 K2 relics produced the same self-loathing as a freshman hitting the showers with the varsity squad. I kept my eyes downcast, and my loins guarded.

See a ski is not just a ski in Jackson. It is a portal to your innermost intentions with the sport; a sort of standard you wave that defines you as either a “gaper” or a “powderhound.”

Much is assumed from the centimeters of a ski. Someone with two fat powder skis slung over a shoulder projects a serious mystique even before clipping in. Throw an Avalung across their chest, and a shovel on their back and you’ve got a hard-charging Jacksonite.

The mentality reeks of local machismo bullshit, but it’s nearly impossible not to subscribe to in time.

Retiring my outdated east skis, I purchased Shane McConkey’s signature powder skis, The K2 Pontoons. Few have influenced skiing more profoundly than Shane McConkey. At a time when many face-shot-seeking skiers scoffed at the idea of fat skis, McConkey was floating on Alaskan spines on a pair of water skis.

The Pontoons were the catalyst to today’s ski technology. Their head-turning girth, and extreme rockered tip, smacks of McConkey’s style. With a tapered, tear drop design, the Pontoon’s rear tips sink, and enable their 160 cm shovel to conquer any depth of snow. More importantly, The Pontoons became an indelible footprint of skiing’s beloved fallen son.

I just hoped I could do them justice.

As fate would have it, Jackson entered into one of the worst snow draughts just after the acquisition. For weeks, the two powder planks stood before my bed, taunting me. It took every shred of patience I could muster not to rip groomers on them. It’s gutta be right, I pleaded with myself.

In the meantime, the skis became props in the more intimate moments of my life. Once while romancing one of Jackson’s fairer sex, I pulled the McConkey fatties into the sultry mix. Clenching them like Poseidon does his trident, I channeled the spirit of “Saucer Boy”, and achieved a menage a trois only possible in a ski town.

The day finally came mid-January. “24 inches over night, and still dumping,” the morning report read. I sped to Village in an overcaffeinated trance, constantly shooting glances at the Pontoons sprawled across the trunk as I imagine a father does driving his newborn home for the first time.

The hours of delayed opening crawled by painfully. Consumed by the stoke of a powder day, I fidgeted through the morning like an addict through detox. Finally amidst a hail of snowballs, and punctuated by a ferocious roar of cheers, the gondola began to spin. I shoved my fatties into separate slots at the gondola door, grabbed a window seat, and waited with Christmas-morning anticipation.

A lot of skiers talk about floating. Yet no matter how much you hear about it, no matter how many ski movies you watch, nothing can provide even the slightest inkling of the sensation. It is like trying to describe a color.

Descending from the gondola, I veered skier’s left into a deep trough where the snow lay untouched. Those first weightless turns instantaneously reconfigured my life’s priorities. It was like the moment when the Wizard of Oz turns to color. The sensation was so enthralling, so utterly enjoyable, that it beckoned a sense of guilt. I knew that moment that I would give up anything for this. Nothing before (or thereafter) delivered the equivalent ecstasy of floating on snow.

The Pontoons led me into the trees where virgin powder awaited. In the quiet seclusion of Moran Forest, turns were effortless and sublime. Not wanting to eat up the powder too quickly, I forced myself to stop mid-run. Big falling flakes intensified the scene’s silence, and I passed into a fantasy world where I expected a fawn to creep out from behind the line of conifers. Allowing my imagination to further ferment, I decided that the day deserved an apparition more epic than a fawn. Perhaps a majestic centaur trotting out with a gorgeous nude blond riding him bear back would be more appropriate. Yes, far more appropriate.

Stumbling back to my car at the end of the day, absolutely delirious, I cradled the Pontoons lovingly. For a person not easily seduced by materialism, it is striking to admit that the Pontoons changed my life. Over the season they turned the dials of my perspective, and refined the scope of my daily objectives in the mountains. Though the experience can likely be had on a myriad of powder skis, the Pontoons were my vehicle to enlightenment, and thus ascended as the skiing’s preeminent tool in my mind.

Today, the Pontoons stand in my bedroom waiting for the snow to fall again. I often gaze at them, appreciating them on the same level as I do fine art. They remind me that just as a writer lives on in his words, and a painter in his portraits, McConkey lives on in these skis. I vow to summon that truth, and pay rightful tribute to him each time I clip in.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Smashed on the Bonita Bar

A gray mist lingers over the harbor. It matches my state perfectly. The two cups of instant coffee I downed heading out the door have done little to rouse me from sleep. A glance in the rear view mirror reveals pillow indentations only now beginning to fade. I force myself out from the driver’s seat, and lazily let the weight of the truck’s door shut itself. Slinging two splintered oars over one shoulder, I saunter down the dirt road to the dock. Caught in the moot transition from night to morning, the scene is unwelcoming. I drag my dingy into the water. Once the little row boat is freed from the shallows, I jump in. Morning dew seeps through the seat of my pants as I sit on the bench. Rowing out to my boat, I watch the distant silhouette of an osprey’s nest fade in and out of focus through the mist.
The routine of setting up the boat carries me through the morning. After wiping the dew from the decks and seats, I rig six rods with leaders, and lures. Three fly rods, two nine weights and a ten, are set up with Creese flies. I check my oil and gas, turn the batteries on, and fire up the 200 horse power, two stroke Yamaha. As the boat gyrates alive, I slide across the bow on my belly, and unhook the boat from the mooring. A slight breeze pushes the boat away from the barnacle coated mooring buoy.
Some minutes later I meet my charter at the dock. After some small talk, we shove off. Pushing down the trottle, the din of the engine gives me a break from conversation, and I consider today's fishing options. This time of year, on this tide, I know exactly where I am going: The Bonita Bar.
The Bonita Bar is a shoal off the west end of Nantucket Island. It is created by shallows that stem from Nantucket’s western most point, Smith Point and another from Tuckernuck Island’s eastern shore, known as Whale Shoal. The two sand bars stretch out into the open Atlantic and connect a mile off, creating an enormous underwater horse shoe of sand. On an Eastern flowing tide, or incoming tide, the Bonita Bar is battered by current, creating an upwelling. Current churns up the nutrients held in sandy ocean floor, raising it to a higher water collum. This nutrient rich water attracts hordes of baitfish, mainly Sand eels. In late August, migrating Bonita Tuna feed on these enormous bait-balls of sandeels.
In the early days, few Nantucketers knew of the Bonita Bar in August. Only knowledgeable Captain’s patrolled the bar, cashing in on a plethora of small tuna. Unfortunately, the secret got out over the last seven years. Now on calm days, when the wind blows slow or with the tide, the Bonita Bar is a parking lot of up to fifty anchored boats. Most of these boats are owned by weekend warriors who often anchor less than a casting distance away from the next boat. On windy days, however, when the wind goes against the current, waves regulate the fishing pressure on the bar.
Reaching the Bonita Bar requires venturing through a breaker zone that can be riddled with swells up to 20 feet high. The enormous Atlantic funnels into Nantucket’s Madaket Harbor through a small opening between Smith Point and Tuckernuck’s Whale Shoal. Within this area, series of dangerously shallow sand bars turn massive swells into crashing waves. The water moves fast, and aggressively. Three years ago, a ten foot rouge wave crashed head-on into my boat while going through the openning. It shattered a half inch thick plexiglass windshield, put three feet of water in the boat, and sent the Captain I worked with at the time to the hospital. Every couple years a boat capsizes in the openning.
Passing through the fog, I can only hear the waves. They sound big. An offshore storm earlier in the week put the ocean into a rage. I turn up the radio and listen to the chatter of other captains. Two boats made it out already. I decide to go for it. Once the boat leaves Madaket Harbor and enters the breaker zone, it is committed. Turning around in the openning leaves the boat vulnerable to being hit broadside and capsized.
Entering the openning, I realize it is much bigger than I anticipated. Nervous to the point of nausea, I navigate through the onslaught of towering waves. Each is a juggernaut. My mouth dries instantly. In this mine field of moving water there is only time to act once. The sets lack cadence. Heaving to, bow to the waves, I read each swell and make swift decisions. Looking up at an encroaching wall of water and seeing the slightest bit of light pass through its thinning crest, I throw the throttle down and charge up its face before it crashes. Passing over the top, I ease the throttle, and the boat falls off the back of the wave. The hull slams violently in the wave’s trough, sending a salty spray over the boat. Mist clings heavily on my eye lashes and scruff. The next wave stays thick, deep blue, and slow. We rise over it like giant flotsam.
The thickening fog exacerbates the situation. The stangnant mass of gray humidy clouds my sun glasses and forces me to futily wipe them with my shirt sleeve ever twenty seconds. Frustrated, I give up and toss the glasses onto the brim of my ball cap. My eyes now throb in the day’s dull gray light. They dart from the angry ocean, down to my GPS, and back again. Condensation distorts the small indigo screen of the GPS. I wipe it with my pruned fingers and find my bearing.
Through the fog, I can just spot the outer limit of the breaker zone. I need to start steering port. Making that move requires a series of slight adjustments. Steer left, but keep the boat in a position to take a wave head-on. After a few of these small moves, I see an opportunity to gain some ground. In the long trough of two lazy waves, I pull down hard on the wheel’s suicide knob and slam the throttle. Running diagonal down the tube, I watch the wave build to my starboard. As the boat begins to rise with the wave, I whip the suicide knob around, and heave to. Through the instruments I feel the prop dig deep into the climbing water as the bow clears the swell. Landing, I crush the throttle into the panel and cruise to the relative refuge of deep water. Here in the depths, the swells pass like sleeping giants. Only when they hit the shallows is their wrath provoked. Dropping into neutral, I silence the engine and natural noise returns.
“Alright guys, ready to fish?”
While some may argue that nothing is worth running that risky gambit, the fanatic fisherman contends otherwise. For just past the crown of the breaker zone exists some of the most exciting salt water fishing on the Atlantic. The water sizzles as enormous bait balls frantically break the surface. Big squaking Gulls and Arctic Turns fill the sky with commotion, diving into the water to snag sandeels. Seven to ten feet down, schools of Bonita Tuna work as a team rounding up the bait.
Bonita, meaning 'beautiful' in spanish, is a loose term for small tuna. These tuna are Atlantic Bonita, a trully magnificent fish. Its body possesses the same streamlined design as larger tuna. Each fin slides into a perfect slot, making them completely hydrodynamic. Its rumored they can swim up to 30 miles an hour. When hooked, a bonita rips line from a reel mercilously. I've seen the knuckles of flyroders bloodied from some of these runs.
After getting my clients casting, I prop my weight on the gunnel and look back at the breaker zone. The waves chase eachother to the shoreline. In the moment, I could not judge how big the swells actually where. From this vantage point, I estimate their height to be as high as boat's highest antenna, about fifteen feet. Any one of those waves could have toppled the boat- not to mention, the fatal certainty if the engine had died. It forces me to consider the nature of this occupation, and its inherent risk. Just as this thought washes over my concious, a reel screams in agony, and the boat erupts in jubulation. I am quickly reminded why I do it.

An Addict's Defense:

Exploring the Enduring Lure of Jackson Hole

The last tram left the dock amidst a hail of snow balls, concluding another season in Jackson Hole. Cast in its shadow below, a shuffling sea of tired bodies and wind burnt faces rejoiced with raised beers. 49 inches of snow over the season's final week revived the local spirit, reminding all of the pure ecstasy of powder skiing. As a transplant from Boston, the scene's elation reverberated within every fiber that moved me to Jackson in the first place.

Years before, Jackson existed only in the worn out Warren Miller and TGR videos that littered the shelves of my den growing up. Scenes of Doug Coombs charging magnificent lines in Jackson's steep, shark-tooth terrain were beyond the skiing I knew. He was Superman. Jackson was Krypton. This comic book world west of me sat in the refrigerator of my mind like a delicious piece of cake beckoning to be eaten. When I finally cut into that cake, Jackson blew away my fantasies with a POW! POW!

Little needs to be said about Jackson's prestige as a ski destination. Its merits have been stated and restated since its opening in 1966. Steep terrain, deep powder, and boundless back country access propel Jackson as America's ski Mecca.

"Mecca" is an appropriate descriptor. Like a holy land, Jackson became a place of pilgrimage for skiers in search of snow riding enlightenment. Consequently, it spawned a community of riders that reflect the burly profile of the Tetons. Most likely, the waiter pouring your water in a Jackson restaurant, or the "lifty" bumping your chair in the Village is a hard charging mad man, prioritizing his life in measures of vertical feet, snow fall, and weather systems.

Spotting those who went pro with this life choice becomes easy. They wear it on their goggle-tanned faces. Their mouths are full of Chicklet-like teeth, shaved down to equal size by years of jaw clenching doses of adrenaline. They are dialed into a different rhythm of living- one in which true existence is attained only in the moments of descent.

Some criticize these so called ski bums. Criticize them not. Blame the drug, not the user. Hackneyed but true, skiing powder is a powerful drug with levels of potency. Skiing powder in Jackson is the high of all highs. The magical sensation of that first deep turn seeps into psyche and changes everything. All facets of life begin to relate to that turn: what you eat; when you sleep; where you work. Even a man’s attraction to women changes. There is nothing sexier than a woman with two, big, fat powder skis slung over her shoulder in the tram line. Throw a shovel on her back, and an Avalung across her breast, and I'm in love.

While happiness is this life’s central pursuit, it must not be confused with hedonism. Jackson transforms the desire to ski into an imperative. One's well being, both mental and physical, becomes hinged upon getting out there. I dare say it borders on a moral obligation. There is something good and pure about those moments in the mountains. Nothing matters but the present, and that present is free of human flaw.

Some may deem this as the delusional commentary of a skier obsessed. While that may be true in part, I contend that for a society so easily consumed by the trivialities of Hollywood gossip or the depraved indulgences of drugs and alcohol, it is essential to celebrate the places that bring us back to simply living. Jackson offers rare moments of quiet, when the mental baggage is checked and the voice within takes a breath.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The last leg (Part I)

Salta was as far north as I was to get in Argentina. That's why I was there: to cast the invisible line of my journey to Argentina's northern banks, some hours short of Bolivia. Two weeks remaining and with my overall objectives met, I became a true tumbleweed in the Northern territories of Argentina and Chile. Aimless, the oars slipped from my hands and I turned my trip over to the tides of fate. Fate seems to bloom in the midst of random decisions, so I embarked on the 22 hour bus ride from Mendoza to Salta on a whim.

Aboard the bus, tortured by blaring 80's Latin pop and the unremitting whistle of overhead airconditoning, I befriended two birds from Australia and England sitting across the aisle, Lucy and Elle. When landing in Salta the next afternoon, we checked into the same hostel and we're lucky to share a three bed room. As hostels go, three person rooms are a rarity. Staying in one, especially with mildly familiar folks, is a backpacker's night at the Ritz.

Normally, I book a bed in the ten or twelve person rooms, as required by my peso to peso budget. While the exact arrangement may vary, these cramped rooms are what you imagine of early submarine layouts. A slender corridor cluttered by disemboweled packs divides sets of bunk beds lining each wall. The normal sleeping protocol is foot to head with your neighbor. Anyone, backpacker or not, can picture the conditions of such overpopulated sleeping quarters. Beyond the obvious annoyances of snoring and gas, there is the more subtle difficulty of finding one's breathing rhythm. The night's silence is sewn with the room's combined whisper of oxygen being turned into carbon dioxide. Settling into one's own presleep meditation is continually compromised by the room's irregular breath. Exhaustion overcomes all, however, and drags a backpacker to the depths of unconscious.

In truth, the nights in these rooms are not bad compared to the mornings. Waking, the skin glistens greasy with a film of humidity. The air is thick with a rhechid stench so potent it crawls deep into the nostrils, onto the tongue, then drips down the throat triggering the gag reflex. It is a smell not easily shaken from the senses: body odor, filthy clothes, gas, all marinating in a asphyxiating stew of carbon rich air. Needless to say, when you're up, you're up.

Lucy and Elle motivated me to be a tourist in Salta. We visited a museum where an exhumed child mummy was on display. Inca culture ritualistically sacrificed beautiful children from the community's wealthy class in an effort to please the gods and hopefully be blessed with good harvests. The chosen one would be chauffeured throughout the village where she would be adored by the masses. She was then led in a caravan up into the mountains, a journey which could take months. When they neared the summit, the Inca elders would get the child drunk and unconscious. She was then buried alive on the summit. While the scene was morbid, I couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of how horrid that hangover must have been. Waking up from her first big night out, head splitting, wondering if she did something embarrassing; only to open her eyes and find she's been buried alive.

After the museum, with appetites ablaze from viewing the well preserved corpse, we had lunch at an outdoor cafe. The scene was very much like that of Mendoza: smartly dressed waiters, European-like diners , umbrella shaded tables. Yet the conspicuous face of Salta's impoverished set it apart. The poor stumbled from table to table, a sign often strung around their necks. Most suffered sever handicaps, laboring over each step, backs painfully bent. A women with black teeth, shaking anxiously from some addiction, came over and handed us a pamphlet about mother's with AIDS. We each handed over some spare pesos.

Beholding Salta's poor made me realize that I have never meditated on poverty enough to come to personal terms with it. With the reaches of poverty so far extended, where do I start to address the situation? Do I give money to each person who needs it? Do I work through some broader organization who knows how to allocate money better and meet the need more effectively? Just as these thoughts swam in my mind, a scene unfolded before me that began to address these troubles.

A young boy had come up to a man asking for money. Children are put on the streets by their parents very early, often wielding stickers or playing cards to sell. The man pulled out a chair for the boy, split his pizza with him, and had the waiter bring the boy a coke. The boy sat in the metal seat, his feet dangling below. He cautiously and neatly placed his wallet and cards on the table. With visible satisfaction he sipped the coke patiently from its old fashion glass bottle. The man sat there, his seat angled just away from the table allowing him to cast one leg over the other, engaging the boy in conversation. While the scene did not answer all my questions, it made me realize that on the most basic level poverty must be met human to human. While I cannot give to each who ask and need, I can treat them with the dignity that all humans fundamentally deserve.

MOM & DAD: Im leaving Punta del Diablo tommorow for Montevideo. Then following day I will get back to Buenos Aires. Three days three then home. My flight lands in Boston April 2nd around 1030 think (but I will solidify these specifics when I get a phone to call you from). All is well! Cant wait to see you! Love Robbie

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Swish This

I came to Mendoza to drink. Not to drink in the over-indulgent collegiate sense which I am accustomed; but to sniff, swish and sip like a cultured connoisseur. My glass was to be raised not in toast, but in observation of consistency and character. What better setting to train my tongue to the delectable subtleties of the world´s best wines than Mendoza´s annual harvest festival?

The city was done up like a child on Easter Sunday: clean, neat, and seemingly more innocent and wholesome than normal. While Mendoza´s festive atmosphere catered to its international guests, I learned over the week that the festival was a local celebration. Tourists there to soak up the ultimate Mendoza experience, like myself, were only spectators to the festivals true significance.

My stay there began as intended. Chris, Megan and I, along with a Brit, an Israeli, and two nineteen year old Dutch girls, rented bikes and did a self guided wine tour in the town of Maipu. After a quick breeze through a wine museum where we enjoyed the heavy handed pours of our disenchanted and most likely alcoholic tour guide, we peddled to a small, family owned vineyard called CarniaE. Owned by a French couple and named after the constellation hovering above Mendoza, CarinaE produced around 70,000 bottles of wine per year. The French owners bought and refurbished the vineyard quiet recently. Prior to that, it existed as a plot of rampant weeds and shambled equipment. Despite years of inactivity and neglect, the vineyard´s soil required it to be organized just as the original winemakers had. Malbec grapes in one designated area, Cabernet Sauvignon in another. This enduring control of nature intrigued me. After the tour, we sat under the extended reach of a tree at a long picnic table and tasted wines.

I held each sip in my mouth, aerating it, and mentally narrowing the focus of my pallet like adjusting the knobs of a microscope. Each wine danced a different jig over my taste buds. I struggled to compartmentalize the experience from each. The French owner, a stout women, teeth ink stained from testing the product, offered a pour of their best wine. I shelled out the ten pesos for a taste of the high end, seeing this as an optimal opportunity to mentally distinguish to good from the great.

Muddy red, the malbec´s full body denied the slightest knife of light to cut through it. Burying my nose in the glass, a spicy assault gripped the inner nerves of my nostrils. I delectably drew a sip from the glass, its tannins pulled at the soft spots beneath my ears. A flavor parade marched over my senses- too quick to register. Sucking air through my lips, creating the belly of a star fish below my nose, I lit the wine´s short fuse. Quickly, new tastes exploded from the sip. The wine´s blooming character mesmerised my mouth with its Pollock-like complexity. I began to imagine the barrel this sip patiently sat in; buried deep in the cellar´s dankest corner, wearing a growing blanket of dust. The old French winemaker hobbles down the alley of horizontal barrels to the dim, back corner. He drags out a little stool, and blows the faint dust from the glass left from his last visit. He squats on the miniature stool, his knees bent beyond ninety degrees like a shoeshine. Twisting the tap with the greatest of care, he draws out the slightest of samples like a humming bird. His fingers pinch the glass´s stem, dirt has collected under his nails. He silently goes through his rituals. Smell. Swift. Smell. Sip. Wait. Swallow. He looks up to the barrel, the date scrawled across the top in white chalk, and engages his creation. ¨Not yet¨, he whispers.

I swallowed the image with the sip and smiled. Chris then raised his hand, and stole the women´s attention from me: ¨Do you have any chips?¨

Our final stop was at the Trapiche vineyard. Enormous and industrial, this particular Trapiche winery produced seven million bottles of reserve wines. Chris and some other members of my company were not keen on paying the twenty pesos for a tour and decided to skip out. This did not make much sense to me. We were at the Eiffel Tower of wine regions, and they weren´t going to the top.

Passing through the automated sliding doors, I was embraced by the buildings icey airconditioning. Dehydrated and mildly intoxicated, the cool was sobering. Everything was stainless steel and mechanical within. Trapiche´s process for mass production seemed to rob the human aspect of wine making that I came to love at the first, family owned vineyard. Tasting its wines I did not imagine a sweet, little old man in a tattered cap; but a drone dressed in a blue surgical suite equipped with booties and a hair net, pouring wine samples into graduated cylinders and testing their Ph levels. Observing this juxtaposition between the two vineyards taught me which winemakers I prefer.