Road Trip: Taos visit brings back memories of tofu, brown rice and deep powder.
By BOB BERWYN
When I moved to Taos for a three-season stint back in the early 1980s, I was on a quest.
I had just spent a couple of years living at a lighthouse near San Francisco running a youth hostel. It was a great gig, but far from the mountains — too far. As I plotted my escape from the Bay Area, I scoured all the ski literature I could find and narrowed my choices down to Jackson Hole and Taos. I was looking for steep and deep. I was looking for a place with some ski culture. I wanted to be surrounded by people for whom skiing was more than just a diversion or holiday pastime.
I road-tripped to northern New Mexico in my $600 beater van, a puke-green 1975 Ford Econoline that just kept on rolling through the golden aspens of late summer, delivering me safely to the ski valley parking lot just as the summer musicians were packing up their tubas and cellos. Nobody bothered me there, and I blissfully hiked for days in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area to get in shape for the season.
I lived on brown rice and tofu from the co-op, supplementing that basic diet with raspberries and mushrooms from the hillsides and home-brewed tea made from wild herbs; osha, gentian, barberry and more. I was cleansing my body. I did yoga and meditated daily to try and cleanse my mind and soul. The hippie vibe down in town was to my liking most of the time, although I was little skeptical when the owner of well-known hotel asked me about my horoscope early in a job interview.
A few days into my stay, I wandered into a tiny bookshop up at the base of the ski area. The name of the place escapes me now, but I remember the tall guy in glasses who looked me up and down and handed me a book called Serving Humanity.
“You need to read this,” he said, shrugging off the fact that I didn’t have any money to pay for it. The book I still have, and the New Age message has stayed with me too: Live right and dedicate your life to making the world a better place. I read the book by candlelight in the van as the nights grew longer and colder.
Eventually, the first snow of the new season fell. First it sifted fine like flour, barely dusting the dark-green evergreens. Later it came in a cold wet wave, draping the peaks with so much snow that I couldn’t leave the parking lot until the plows made their first appearance of the autumn.
Parts of the book that made perfect sense. To me, it meant I should use my own passion for skiing to teach and turn others on to this amazing sport, hoping to give them the same happiness and fulfillment I experience through skiing myself. I ended up on the ski school staff at Angel Fire, a much smaller ski area just on the other side of the peaks. But I skied at Taos on all my days off, and I well-remember my first-ever run. I rode up Chair 1, skated across to Chair 2 and suddenly found myself on the High Traverse, looking down Spitfire.
“There’s gotta be something easier here,” I though to myself, traversing farther until I was standing at the top of Stauffenberg. My knees began to quiver a bit. Sure, there was soft, fresh snow. But damn, it was steep. And the rocks on either side of the run looked mean and jagged. I traversed a bit farther and sensed that it wasn’t going to get any easier. I was committed and feeling very small up there on that big mountain.
“This is what you came here for, right?” I said out loud to no one in particular.
There wasn’t anyone around to hear me, anyway, or anyone to see me flail, so I made a kick-turn at the mouth of the chute to cut the steep angle. Then I tried an awkward hop turn, planting both poles in an effort to prevent my upper body from pitching down what felt like a vertical wall. I wrenched my skis around, ending up in the back seat, ready to smear my hip against the snow.
Somehow, I stayed on my feet and decided to try another hop turn before my knees started shaking again. The rest of that run is a blur in my memory, but I will never forget those first shaky jump turns, and the realization that, even though I’d been skiing for 20 years at that point, I still had a lot to learn.
What a place to do it. Taos has it all. Moguls, chutes, cornices, open snowfields, tight trees … I came into my own as a skier during those three seasons, developing my alpine skills and later learning to telemark with quirky and quaint gear: double-cambered 215 centimeter skis, low-cut leather boots and wire-bail bindings that weren’t even as sturdy as today’s track-skiing X-C systems.
I also remember my last run from that era in my life. It was the final day of the season. The NCAA Final Four had just concluded and Taos was closing with style, about a foot of fresh powder atop a solid spring base. I headed up West Basin Ridge just before a patrolman stretched a rope across the slope (back in the day when you still had to sign out before they would let you go) and headed all the way out to Thunderbird.
Don’t look back
Even late in the afternoon, there were only a couple of tracks on the slope. Taos has always managed its mountain with an emphasis on quality over quantity, sometimes closing trails before the end of the day just so they don’’t get completely skied out. I took a deep breath, looked out toward the desert highlands and mesas and plunged into the steep pitch, gaining speed but maintaining a steady rhythm with each turn. It was pure bliss. Steady, sure-footed and graceful (I think) I linked turns all the way to run-out.
I never even glanced up at my tracks.
I harvested wisdom in Taos. I found love and learned how to make it grow. I gained confidence on the mountain that I was able use it every place I skied after that, even the backcountry. I learned about myself and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my life when I left. What more can you ask from a stop along the sojourn of life?
No need to look back when there are no regrets. And I had none.
“I’ll be back someday,” I thought to myself as I rumbled out of town on a warm spring day. Bright-pink apricot trees bloomed along the road in Arroyo Seco, and a row of mountain bluebirds perched along the fence, singing goodbye.
I moved to California. Worked for the Mono Lake Committee, serving the environment. Opened a youth hostel near Mammoth Lakes, part of the nonprofit Hostelling International chain, serving travelers from around the world. Got married, had a son, tried to build the best family I could. Became a journalist; tried to save the Earth.
Lost my way for a while, then tried to find the path of no regrets again.
It’s supposed to get easier, isn’t it?
Fast-forward 20 years. I’m rolling down the highway again, this time in a relatively late-model Subaru Outback, with an amazing woman beside me and a pair fat tele boards tucked in a ski bag in the cargo hold. As we fly across the Rio Grande gorge, the lyrics to Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Wasted on the Way keep going through my head:
And there’s so much time to make up
Everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving
Underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away …
I am older now.
I don’t know that I have more than what I wanted. Heck, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted back then. And who doesn’t sometimes wish that they had started long before they did? At 50, those lyrics take on some poignancy, and I feel like I want to make every run, every turn and every decision in life count.
No regrets, right?
And there’s so much love to make up
Everywhere you turn
Love we have wasted on the way …
Some things haven’t changed, like the ragged skyline of the Sangre de Cristos jutting up into a lipstick-colored sunset. The windy road up from Arroyo Seco to Taos Ski Valley still hides black ice in the shady corners under the giant cottonwoods. And my passion for sliding down snow-covered mountains burns as strong as it ever has.
Anyway, I’m not here to relive past glory or wallow in memories. I’m here to ski. And the first few days of this short visit to Taos have been stellar. A warm-up day to get reacquainted with the mountain. A storm day with plenty of down time for romance, games and good food.
And now, a crystalline bluebird day with more than a foot of fresh powder atop a bomber base.
OK, so some of the snow is a bit windblown and dense in places, but ski patrol is working hard to get the Ridge open, and after a few runs with Leigh, I head for the top of the mountain.
Cut, carved and packed by skiers, the snow on Al’s Run is buttery and fast, and Rhoda’s Glade, somewhat sheltered from the previous day’s ferocious winds, harbors a stash of silky snow that skiffs away in smoky clouds beneath my edges. Finally I venture into the tight trees in Blitz and West Blitz, finding lines that I haven’t skied in more than 20 years.
It all comes back in flash, not as a conscious memory, but more deeply ingrained in my skiing brain; little slots between landmark trees that open into new fall lines, roll-overs and drop-offs with soft powdery landings … who says you can’t go home?
Even better, I get a chance to hook up with fellow snowblogger Carson Bennett at lunch. We decide to make the most of the conditions and explore as much of the hiking terrain above the lifts as we can cover in an afternoon. Together with Ryder Kenney, we hike up to Highline Ridge and over to Juarez, where the snow is firm when we drop off the cornice, then softens to creamy powder and even a few patches of chunky avalanche debris lower down the face.
We scream down the backside of the mountain through some chowder that skis sweet and easy, then load back up for another Ridge Run. This time, Ryder leads the way out West Basin Ridge to Zdarsky, named after an old-school Austrian ski teacher who is considered one of the fathers of modern Alpine technique. Here the snow was less affected by the windstorm, hallelujah-deep, and the terrain is simply stunning, a maze of twisted pines, giant rock outcrops and twisting avalanche run-outs. Ryder blasts down the fall line while I fumble around with my camera, trying to capture a bit of the magic.
Even though it’s getting late, we make it back to the top of Chair 2 for an encore run in the same area. Again, we hike the Ridge through the frosted forest, the late-afternoon desert light so clear and bright that it shines right through my skin and bones and X-rays my soul.
I remember the feeling, the reason I keep climbing peaks and sliding down them and it all seems very simple and pure: This is who I am, this is how I live, this is what makes me whole.