The original ski-dad shows how it’s done

 

“It’s like I’m the dog,” says Dad in the back seat. “I never know what we’re going to do until we do it.” My sister is at the wheel and I’m riding shotgun as we pull off I-80 east outside Elko so the Flying J truck stop can refuel us with gas and also salty cashews. At age 83 Dad has lost his hearing to the extent, say the doctors, a 747 can rev for take-off next to him and one ear would not even know; the other might have a hint. So it’s a surprise, our stop, since Dad missed the discussion leading up to it. But he is game for whatever adventure the Flying J flings at us.

 

“You girls get whatever you like,” he says and rolls down the window to test the temperature of the Elko air. I flash on our childhood fox terrier, Molly, who on the road loved to sniff strange climes from the car. “This is your trip.”

Our trip is a ski weekend in Sun Valley. It’s a weekend worth the 13-hour drive to Reno and across the vast, flat stretch of Nevada north to Twin Falls and north some more into that part of Idaho where the Smokey Mountains promise snow. Worth it for the ski fever burning me up with yearning and the gotta-get-out-of-Dodge feeling seizing Camille. Dad is along, for there is no way in hell a car is headed to Sun Valley without him in it, as the dog or not. A lifelong skier, he has been making the trip at least once a year since high school in ’41, and the resort dubbed “an American Shangri-La” after its discovery by a scouting Austrian count in 1935, thrills him each and every time.

And, really, how could it not? With 2,054 skiable acres offering a descent of 3,400 vertical feet of fun, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain – beloved as “Baldy” – has 13 high-speed lifts, 65 varied runs and a handful of on-mountain ski lodges made warm and sumptuous by oriental carpets on the floors, snazzy granite in the bathrooms and massive rock hearths kept blazing all day. In a sport known for its cold and discomfort and crowds and, yes, expense, Sun Valley’s efforts to eliminate all trace of…well, suffering, result in a rare ski experience of remarkable beauty and comfort.

We feel completely Thelma and Louise, my sister and I. The freedom of the road and the whizzing-by vistas empty of all but the occasional grazing cows, wind-whipped tumbleweeds and lonely-looking homesteads with names like Rancho Costa Plenty soothe our city-singed nerves. We talk nonstop and laugh, and Dad in the back nods off often. On the outskirts of Jackpot, Nevada’s last stop for gamblers enamored of burgs built exclusively of neon, I twist in my seat to see if he’s breathing and regard the deep-blue shiner under his left eye, the small scabby gash on his nose. Last month’s ski accident.

“Now, I don’t want you girls to push me,” he had said at lunch hours earlier when we stopped at a casino café in Winnemucca. Our perky server Angie, who was, she claimed, age 91 and bent nearly double from osteoporosis, scribbled his BLT order onto her pad with a gnarled-knuckled hand and zinged me a wicked wink. I swear that wink said, Go ahead. Push old Pops all you want – he can take it. We’re tougher than you think.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” said Camille as slot machines pinged and dinged in the background. “Everyone at their own speed.”

“I’m afraid I could be finished,” he said, suddenly glum. “My balance is shot and when the light gets flat I can’t see a goddamn thing. If I let myself get tired….” Well, it will be a Dad on the ski slope crashed, we knew. Not once in at least 70 years has the Ski Patrol had to haul Dad off the mountain in an emergency sled, and to have that humiliation visit him now, with us, simply was not the hope Camille and I had for the weekend. We would not insist he ski with us. As always.

So now as we zoom through Ketchum, the Idaho town that’s both home to Sun Valley and renown for its famous former resident, Ernest Hemingway – he now buried in its cemetery – I worry, what if…. Dad? Finished?

All my life, never a ski season did pass that our dad of derring-do didn’t base his entire self-perception (it seemed) on the state of his skiing. From “the steep” he reached via helicopter in the Canadian Bugaboos to “the deep” of the powder in Utah, from the Sierra’s spring slush to the wide open bowls of Colorado, no snow or slope was beyond his ability or out of the bounds of his ardor. I cannot even imagine it, our all-terrain Dad slow-poking down the bunny hill or, worse, rotting in the day lodge where non-skiers and the injured sit around waiting – and waiting – for their friends or family to come in.

And yet: After a couple more miles we motor up to the door of the Sun Valley Lodge and two young doormen in uniform unload our skis and bags, bags that in the swank of the surroundings look especially old and sad and as down at the heels as we now feel. Compared with the hunky, handsome doormen Dad appears particularly wobbly and gray – almost Angie-like in posture – but he strides into the lobby like he’s Averell Harriman himself and charms the check-in girl with his signature suavity. Mr. Harriman, the Union Pacific Railroad chairman who in 1935 purchased the 4,300 acres of Smokey Mountain marvel that was to become the resort, at the time said “When you get to Sun Valley, your eyes should pop open.” Mine certainly do at the lodge’s enduring allure. No wonder Hollywood legends like Clark Gable and Errol Flynn made the place their winter favorite. No wonder alpine Olympians like Picabo Street and Cristin Cooper did, too. The lodge is so old-school beautiful with its glass-enclosed pool, ice-rink view and wood-beam, flower-frilled rooms that of course Hemingway in the fall of ’39 chose to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls in suite 206. The place reeks of history, elegance, class. Never mind how hard times have rooms, including lift ticket, going for $100 a night per person; this means riff-raff now slump in the lobby in rude attitudes, their feet on the furniture, their cell phones in use. We are riff-raff, too, alas. But at least we have Dad, who knows well enough that when staying in the Sun Valley Lodge, one does not après-ski wander the halls on the way to the pool (heated to 103 degrees) without first donning the white spa robe and slippers supplied. This we do straightaway to revive from our drive. And as the cocktail server circles the pool in which hotel guests bob (or is it imbibe?) their way to a Sun Valley high, I notice Dad soaks with an air of tense apprehension.

“Are you okay, Dad?” asks Camille. He paddles due north away from her voice, not hearing.

“Dad?” now louder. “DAD!”

He paddles back, not hearing.

“Listen,” he says, “tomorrow I want you girls to leave me at the base of Warm Springs. I’m going to take it easy. I’m just not sure about my shoulder.” He wings his right arm this way and that, testing, splashing. The same ski fall that blackened his eye and gouged his nose with his glasses also did a thing to his shoulder. And now the bitch of it will nix him from riding the gondola to Baldy’s 9,150-foot elevation where the upper runs and chutes and bowls offer skiing supreme in a sprawl of challenging terrain that not that many years ago Dad would never have found too much for him.

When he rises from the pool, pale and dripping, Dad’s spindly chicken legs look like they couldn’t handle even the gentle, smooth slope of lower Warm Springs. And when he stumbles over a poolside chaise to retrieve his robe and nearly mows over a trio of spa-robed people dipping their toes in the pool, I wonder if he has any business on skis at all. My heart so sinks me in the water I hardly can rise myself, but still: There is something fierce in Dad’s refusal to believe he’s 83, something hell-bent on sharing the Sun Valley experience with Camille and me like he’s the same skier he was back in the day he’d hike a whole mountain, skis on his shoulder, because, really, what did it matter that they hardly had yet invented the chairlift?

What I mean is here he is next morning, knocking on the door of our room before breakfast, before coffee, and standing there in parka and pants and helmet with goggles, standing there in ski boots, if you can believe. We cannot.

“I’m ready,” slurs a still-sleeping Camille from somewhere deep, deep within the strange luxury and unaccustomed comfort of the lodge’s sheets, sheets whose thread count surely is in the tens of thousands. “I’ll only be a sec.”

“Don’t hurry,” says Dad and clomps awkwardly in. I hold the door open dressed in shower cap and towel. “When you’re ready you girls can get the bus to River Run. I’ll see you for lunch.”

“Dad,” I say, “the lifts don’t open for a few hours. You’ve got your boots on?”

“I don’t want to push it and try to keep up with you girls,” he says. “I’m concerned…”

“About your shoulder?”

About his shoulder, his balance, his eyesight, his hearing, his strength, his speed and, not least, his very essence as a skier. Should bad falls or, worse, bad form on even Baldy’s beginner runs cut into his confidence or take him off the hill for good, what then? For a brave millisecond I go there, to the fright-filled place I don’t normally dare: No Sun Valley with Dad? Ever again?

No more lunches at Ketchum’s Cristina’s, where the homemade soups and thick Idaho fries are killer delicious? No more dinners of fresh-caught fish from famous Silver Creek River savored at the homey Ketchum Grill? And – too, too tragic! – no more après-ski evenings watching the people and loving the mood, the food and the music of the legendary local restaurant, The Pioneer? These are a few of Dad’s Sun Valley favorites, pleasures he will share with my sister and me this weekend. So though he is in his element, and (honestly!) in his boots well before breakfast, eager and energetic, I ache to protect my dad from cruel reality, to blurt through tears I think he’s the best skier in the world, the best Dad, and that every year, always, there will be for us, Sun Valley.

Instead I send him off with a scolding. “Dad,” I say, my tone snippy, “Please don’t run to try and get the bus, and please will you watch the ice on the stairs, and please please if you…”

“Now, I want you girls to dress extra warmly,” he interrupts, entirely missing the gist of my admonishment. “It might be cold up there.” He starts to clomp awkwardly out.

“Have a wonderful morning, Dad,” I say and intercept him long enough to peck his cheek with a subzero kiss, icy with the worry we are sending him off to an uncertain fate at Warm Springs. “We’ll ski together after lunch.” He lurches a little after a few clompy steps down the hall, and coming upon the maids’ cart catches the buckle of his stiff, bulky boot. It is a maneuver that nearly topples him. Suddenly, I feel naked in my helplessness before time, horribly vulnerable to what? I don’t know.

Maybe it’s the shower cap and towel.

“You girls be sure you have your mittens,” he calls back after righting himself and clomping on. My sister and I are in our 50s and yet Dad still refers to our ski gloves as mittens, same as when we were six and he sent us off to ski school so he and Mom, giddy, could flee (fairly screaming) to the slopes sans kids.

“It’s okay, Dad,” calls Camille, now roused from her swoon. “We’ve got our mittens.”

*  *  *

From the top of Baldy the Pioneer Mountains to the east and the Sawtooths to the north envelop us in jagged peaks of thrilling skiing promise. Snow! The gondola has dropped Camille and me sky-high and below, the Seattle Ridge runs unfurl in a fun I can’t wait to have embrace us. Said by Sun Valley hype to be greatest single ski mountain in the world for its absence of wind, substantial vertical drop and abundance of varied terrain, Baldy beckons and baby, ain’t nobody going to take exception to that. We’re off. My sister and I? Well, we ski and ski and ski still more until…well, until our legs can’t take it. Or maybe it’s until one chair ride up the Blue Grouse run Camille asks, “Do you think we should check on Dad?”

We race a winding way down to Warm Springs, unsure of what we’ll find and there he is, kicking back on the sun-soaked terrace of the day lodge, his cup of tea hot, his mood, inscrutable.

“How did it go, Dad?” I tense for his answer, for if he says not bad or okay or pretty well, it means his skiing was awful.

“How is it?” he says, leaping up in greeting and suddenly as animated as Molly might have been to see us after a morning’s separation. “Did you girls find Limelight? Was it great? How is the snow?” We had, indeed, found his favorite black diamond, hence most difficult run, and Dad’s happy, eager expression tells me he wants to hang on our every word – if only he could. I hope our excitement alone tells well our Limelight tale. Somehow.

“No, you,” says Camille, exaggerating her mouth and pointing at Dad. “How did it go for you?”

He looks off toward the band, now warming up to serenade sunning skiers with peppy retro renditions of Loggins and Messina.

“I’m giving it time to soften up,” he says, sobering. He does not meet our eyes. “Maybe after lunch.”

Later in the gondola Camille and I go over how bad it is that Dad is thinking he might be finished. And how we will handle it if the afternoon goes like the morning and he sits it out on the terrace, not even trying out his chicken legs, letting his black eye and bum shoulder and balance on the skids hold him back from being so much of who he is. A skier. What will we do with him? What will he do with himself? What if. What then.

After lunch, however, the Sun Valley slopes seduce us into our own love affair with brilliant Idaho sun, fantastic, well-groomed snow, and run after run – after run – of simply sensational skiing. The afternoon passes in a bliss as big as the burn in our thighs. Then, too soon, a few late afternoon clouds gather to flatten the light and tell us it’s time to go in. It’s our last run down when I develop a foreboding ugh in my gut that when we catch up with Dad, it will be back at the lodge. He’ll be working the crossword between cat naps, his shoulder on ice or his strained knee bandaged. Or worse.

Over. It will be over and the spell of Sun Valley with its special tradition of showing Dad to his best advantage – he is, after all, one of its longest-running and most ardent acts – will be poof! broken. And the magic of this day, this place, will be gone for Camille and me as skiers, daughters, who, because of Dad alone, in our lives always remember our mittens.

We schuss down Flying Squirrel, down and down. We arrive at the Warm Springs base and, as expected, don’t see Dad.

“He probably got an early bus back to the lodge,” says Camille.

“Or he could be still on the hill,” I offer, hopeful. I imagine him on the hill, weighting and unweighting his skis with excellent technique; turning left, turning right with his athletic grace intact and his famous rhythm, undiminished. I imagine his thrill and his pride and his smile when he sums up his run for us later. “It was great!” he’ll say, his passion for the umpteen millionth descent of his skiing career as fresh and fierce as it was for his first as a child in the ’30s.

“Well, I don’t know,” says Camille.

We both without thinking look to the mountain, and not on lower but upper Warm Springs, steep and moguled, there is, by God, a dot of red on the move. Dad. It’s not his ruby parka but rather his form that positively i.d.s him for us – that particular Dad-stance and telling Dad-style Camille and I have known all our lives. The dot is moving – it’s moving fast! – and as it descends something dying in me somersaults into joy. Dad? Finished? The dot grows larger, and as it comes closer and closer and Dad himself into focus, I can see that who he is in shoes, or even barefoot by the pool, is not at all who he is on skis. His stance solid, his posture tall, with turns that neither wobble nor fall, Dad skis his way to us free of any giveaway age and as strong and fluid as any Sun Valley punk parading his arrogant youth.

“Dad!” I fairly yelp when he swishes to a stop and flips up his goggles to greet us. “You look great! You were amazing! You’re the best…the best….” My voice gets strangled by emotion.

“Are you proud of your old Dad?” His breath comes hard and his cheeks look rouged, but his smile, just as I imagined, is huge.

“YES,” gush my sister and I together, at once.

“You know, you just might be the best skier in the whole world!” I manage to squeak through my shyness; it’s a mouse-peep I eke through my tears.

“Horseshit,” says Dad, somehow having heard. He laughs. “I’m just the best skier in Sun Valley.”

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