The Viking Odyssey of Art and Frank 4/22/02

By Frank W. Pierson

When you take on an extended trip in an old motor home at 77 and 74 instead of in your 20s, as Art and I did - but what the hell, do it while you can - itıs still tough to guess what surprises may be in store. But we codgers have been down the trail, so bring on the surprises...a few more little bumps along the way into the future. You may have heard much of this before from Art Lynn, my Viking adventure buddy from high school days, but if not, hereıs my supplementary take on our great ski odyssey of the recent past. On Christmas Day, 2001, we took off in Frankıs Cortez and Artıs Toyota truck for what unfolded into a 4000 mile round trip through Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, up into British Columbia, and back to the Viking hut on February 6. Along the way, we manipulated gravity‹or it manipulated us‹aboard our parabolics on 10 or so mountains. Not many for the time we took, but plenty to winnow observations from varied experience. Which triggers a first overall impression. When you read about a certain hot resort in a ski magazine, or telephone a particular mountain, or check it out on the Internet before you head out, what you get is a rundown or opinion, limited at best, to this or that particular mountain. Thereıs no comparative context, no references as to how this or that place measures up or down in the scale of things compared to other places. Well, Art and I were heading out on a survey of several regions all over the north. We were out to stack them up one against another, and come back with some idea about the overall whatıs up out there. Hereıs a bit of what we learned. Right off the bat, at Shasta, we got the first hint of a nemesis, an appreciation of nuances about snow to come. Shastası snow, on our day, was wet, heavy, no fun, and we quickly headed further north. By nuance, Iı'm alluding to the saying that Eskimos have over 20 words for snow to define varying characteristics, and we were to learn what the Eskimos had in mind when they came up with all those words. Most of them, it seems, are not too good for skiing. Immediate north meant Bend, Mt. Bachelor. Now the snow here was quite fine, light and fast and plenty of it, but what about the wind? As you all know, Art prefers to cruise. He loves to carve gorgeous arcs, hone technique. But what if you have no reference points, youıre carving those arcs down the middle of a wide groomed swath, trees way to the side lost in a galeing whiteout, and all you can see is your feet? Less fun than it might be. Meanwhile, Frank, who doesn't like to cruise, doesnıt care too much about technique beyond survival, is off in the trees, surrounded everywhere by reference points, merrily skiing up and down and around all those exhilarating Mt. Bachelor lower mountain knolls. And not much wind in the protective cover. Different takes from different experiences at the same time on the same mountain. A second nemeses surfaced in Bend, and it was to linger and extend and influence our trip all along the way the Cortez, with various mechanical warts, which blossomed and insisted on being promptly addressed no matter the place or the hour. Without taking space here to detail things, suffice it to say that during the trip I shelled out a bunch to deal with various issues as they surfaced, until, at the end, our baby was a happy camper at 20 below. Ready for next year, when I, for one, am really going to get serious about this sort of thing. Next stop, Bogus Basin, Boise, and back to the wet and nasty, plus an unruly crowd of dangerous weekend amateurs hot rodding through the slush. Art and I took one run and skedaddled. By now weıre beginning to get very, very persnickety about snow quality, and wish we had more Eskimo words to pass along to you about our thoughts on the subject. Sun Valley! Now here weıre in for something which lives up to its advertising at least in looks‹stunning! But again, at least for us, short of the mark for skiing. All they must have done when Averill Harriman had this mountain developed long ago so that his train could bring the wealthy, was to bulldoze great superhighways up and down and all around. No tree skiing. It even gives tree skiing a thumbs down in their brochure. Maybe if thereıd been a dump while we were there, our attitudes would have perked. But what we experienced was just hard, nearly icy stuff, and boring. I donıt even like the word, and rarely use it, but that was it here. Very beautifully boring, of course, with lots of sun and snow covered mountain surrounds, the villaged valley stretched below. What we sensed here is that the whole setup is skiing for the gentle man and his gentle lady, with maybe a little hanky-panky back in the lodge after dressing for cocktails and grouse. We had our cocktails back in the Cortez, and yes, youıre right, no hanky panky. Art resisted, saying my ski boots were just too much. But we did have grouse, or something like that, thanks to Art, who prepared illustrious and energy sustaining cuisine throughout our trip. Now for Shangri La. It really was out there to be found, and its name is Grand Targhee. To give just a hint, at our RV park down in the Teton Valley on our first morning, all we had to do to clear our windshields, was just pucker up and blow. Lauren Bacall could have done the whole thing in about two. The snow was of incredible quality, Eskimo word number 27. Cowboy rancher town Driggs, Idaho, is the jump-off for the mountain 12 miles up the winding road into Wyoming on the west end of the Tetons, where their peaks loom over you as you ski down through last nightıs fresh powder containing just three percent or less moisture. Sometimes, weıre told, the powder is for snorkeling, but we were happy at mid-shin to knee level. Seemingly, it snows all the time. During the several days we stayed, there was always a flake or a bucket of flakes wafting consistently measuring, we were told, twice as much as at famous and much more expensive Jackson Hole located just40 miles over the pass and around the mountain corner from Teton Valley. We liked Grand Targhee a lot, but eventually left, leaving it for another day or maybe year. Next year for me, for sure. Art and I have a college friend who, long ago, settled in West Yellowstone for the fly fishing and to nurture his investments, so we stopped there for an overnight quaff and visit. Imagine a fly fishing room with walls lined with classic rods still glistening from the Madison or Gallatin trout filled waters, drawers full of masterfully homemade flies, and artworks hanging tastefully to lead throughout the abode towards the next beer or glass of wine and pizza. Big log fireplace too. Next morning, at 6, about 30snowmobiles roared up the street past our Cortez towards Old Faithful, we suppose, so we got up and headed right past Big Sky for Bozeman and Bridger Bowl. Right past? Yep. We sniffed the snow at the base, and it didnıt pass. Word number about 13 or maybe 14, far short of the minimally acceptable 20.Bridger was OK, but not memorable. The notable thing in this town was the Cortez got fitted with heat pads and heat tape on its two dump tanks, plus about two inches or so of protective foaming. Bring on the cold. Fly fishing... I must backtrack here. Somewhere along the way after we left Yellowstone and weıd finished one of Artıs magnificent evening repasts in the Cortez and were just hanging out over wine and before Art got into one of his paperback novels, I put some question to him about fly fishing. It was just a so-so question, requiring no profound answer, and I donıt even remember what it was. But I must have ruptured a button, a gusher, an old fly-fishing faithful you can count on if you ever care to repeat it some lonely night in the hut just to spark things up. When I asked this question, at first Art just looked back at me, very quiet. Then this glow, this light, this restrained gleam, appeared. It seemed to grow in his eyes like two beacons possessed. Art stood up and started fly fishing, right there in the Cortez. And as he fished, he started explaining to me, oh wretched pilgrim, his every move, just how the fly would land and float with guile and beckon the big one in the deep hole to bite. Oh, yes, I could rapture in the telling of this tale, but know that it was Art who raptured. If you ever want to see Art get poetically animated, ask him to tell you about fly-fishing. It will be better if you do it in the Viking hut, where Art will have a lot more room to demonstrate than he did that night in the Cortez. Our next to last notable stop was Whitefish and its Big Mountain. Very nice, though cloud enshrouded, so that we were denied the awesome spectacle of nearby Glacier Park. However, on the way out, heading for Canada, I got carried away on a lonely road and it was the best lost weıve ever enjoyed. A wonderful valley enclave just asking to be moved into. Next time youıre up Whitefish way, ask how you canıt get there from there, and head out. You may never come back and just die with a smile on your face. When we pulled up to the Canadian border checkpoint, we were all alone. Nobody anywhere, except this one guy. I had gone the extra step of renewing my passport, but as things happened, he didnıt even ask for our driving licenses. Just asked us what we were up to spend money skiing, we said, and he waved us through. Fernie, British Columbia, Canada, very good stuff in just about every way you can list. When you come around the bend of the river and first see the Fernie city limits sign, youıre greeted by a full shot postcard view of winding mountain stream, partially iced and white and rocky, leading through a long pined valley surrounded and crowned by dramatically snow covered cliffs and mountains. The old town is charming and lively and walkable, and the surrounding newer section, the annex, is a spread of, for the most part, smallish, well-kept also snow covered wooden homes greeting you like Christmas Eve. The ski mountain, believe it or not, is just 10 minutes away above the valley floor, and itıs huge. Five major bowls, all filled with light fluffy and every variety of terrain you could want. If you canıt find a lot of something you like here, youıre in trouble and maybe should settle for golf. Another special thing about Fernie, unique in our experience so far, is they have RV electrical hookup spots right on the mountain, 100yards or so from the first lift. Twelve bucks U.S., or so, per day! Which brings up another winning point. That Canadian exchange rate is no joke. Itıs good for from 30-40% savings on every one of your American dollars. And, the Canadians are very friendly. A footnote about public radio, which was our connection to the world on this trip. In Canada, debates and talk show commentary about issues are ubiquitous and seem more vigorous and frankly unabashed than what weıre accustomed to in our tamer and more politically correct environment. They really get into things and donıt pull punches. Refreshing to hear some straight talk. Along with skiing and evolving the Cortez, we picked up some additional insights of note. One was, we got to asking people ³Well, howıs the quality of the snow?², and theyıd invariably respond, ³Well, we just got about afoot...² or ³Weıve got coverage...² or ³Yeah, itıs been great, thereıs a lot of it up there...² or something like that. Nothing and never about quality. Not many Eskimos around. One more thing about Artıs cooking. We never could have made it without Artıs arts. While I provided enthusiasm and cheers and some dishwashing, it was Art who fueled our successes. The Land, and God Bless California! Thereıs a whole additional chapter to this tale which we canıt take the space here to tell, but Art has suggested it is missing and should be, at least briefly, highlighted. First, you canıt believe how many mountains Idaho has! If anybody ever went out there into the backcountry to start counting, our guess is heıs still out there and we shouldnıt keep the stew warm waiting for his return. Second, all that white! We were in a continuous spread of white for two-thirds of our trip, 2500miles or so. Thatıs a lot of white, and consider, we were only on its edge since presumably it continues north to the pole. Whatıs out there? Well, aside from those particular ski bum hangouts we sought, much of the rest of it seems to be potasto farmers and ranchers and good folks like that hunkered in for the winter. And, Art notes, they canıt get out! Except for the occasional pickup run in to Albertson's or Wal-Mart, for restocking. We passed quite an uncountable number of stacked mailboxes by lonely gates by snowed in roads leading into the unknown and unseeable. What do those folks do out there? Well, we concluded not too many are skiers. But many do go for and on snowmobiles, an aspect of life in the north that seemingly sustains many until the Spring springs. Under all that snow, spreading hundreds of miles as flat or rolling country between all those mountains, is a lot of desolation. Vast and windy and very cold and very lonely. Not a great place to break down, which, fortunately, we didnıt do. Art notes with exhilaration his joy at seeing California again. After all that refresher course of motoring and skiing our way through the great American West, crossing the California border southward through big pines which have not been clear-cut...at least not recently...and through forests that still welcome with biodiversity. Down into the Sacramento Valley and its horizon to horizon spread of green‹even in mid-winter. The land of California, where you can both beach in February and ski in February. Art says while he likes Driggs and all the rest, and will want to revisit and extend such explorations, heıs not about to uproot from California. Frank understands, but is still mulling. Did we learn anything about skiing? I think so. Art perfected, and Frank took off here and there into the boonies. And we both had some worthy introductions to real powder, first at Grand Targhee and then Fernie. How would we rate places? You can check with Art, but I think weıre close to common ground in our judgements that this past season, at the times we were in each place, it would stack up with Targhee number one and Fernie a very close second and donıt be surprised Sugar Bowl an easy third. I would add, for I visited there shortly after our trip, Mammoth is still mammoth. Thereıs lots more to tell, but maybe we should save something for the cabin and around the fireplace the next time you see Art. Meanwhile, hej padej(sp?) to all you Vikings!