A short ride to Carbondale
October 18, 2006
Aspen High School is as silent as a monastery. It’s shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday and, for most, one more hour of lecture and study awaits before the much-anticipated final bell sounds.There is activity, however, in the sterile, well-lit hallway adjacent to the gymnasium. One by one, the Skiers varsity soccer team emerges through a pair of folding doors, gym bags strung over their shoulders. After a momentary stop to pick up equipment, they cover their heads with sweatshirt hoods or beanies and step outside into the snow. An idling yellow bus and a 30-mile trip to Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale for the team’s final regular season contest awaits. “We’re lucky enough to get the Skiers bus today,” senior Matt Cooper says once aboard. “Usually we take this horrible little bus. [Head coach] Junior [Sutherland] gets the first five rows, and the team fights for the rest of the spots.”Players stash gear underneath seats and in overhead bins, and pull out magazines, books and headphones. They take their seats – upperclassmen toward the back and younger players scattered in front – according to a well-established hierarchy.After a brief roll call, the wheels are set in motion. The 60-mile roundtrip is the team’s second-shortest of the year, but many hours will elapse before the bus returns. By then, any remnants of the sun will be fleeting. The reality of a cold, wet night will emerge. “This is a five-hour day, but it’s an easy day,” Sutherland says. “Some people don’t really understand how big a commitment this is for all of us.”
Snow continues to fall on surrounding slopes that begin to disappear in the clouds. Condensation fogs the windows. Sutherland and assistant John Gillies stare out the windshield, eyes seemingly fixed on the long roads stretching beyond the glare of the headlights and lingering flurries. It’s a familiar sight.The weather reminds Sutherland of 1999. It was the Scot’s first season as head coach, and he had guided his Skiers to a berth in the 3A state semifinals. With success came a trip to Denver – and a fateful excursion through Vail Pass in a snowstorm. It’s a memory Sutherland remembers close to seven years later with shocking clarity.The bus never left first gear as it climbed through whiteout conditions. Traction was so bad that the back of the bus started to fishtail, Sutherland remembered.”We had to stop to put chains on the tires,” Gillies added. Six hours had elapsed by the time they arrived at their destination.Such is life for high school athletes on the Western Slope. Inclement weather is spontaneous and unavoidable. Long travel times come with the wide-open territory.Most players become accustomed to life on the road. After logging nearly 1,000 miles thus far this season, there’s no way around it. Long bus rides are a ritual, the norm, even for junior Tyler Moore, who spent last year playing for a traveling hockey team and crisscrossing the country in a plane.”A plane is definitely the way to go,” he joked. The mood on the bus to CRMS is calm. Senior captain Nicky Anastas retreats behind a large pair of silver headphones, listening to the soothing sounds of reggae as the bus weaves through Snowmass Canyon and into Basalt. Others thumb through books or talk with their neighbors about school, girls or the impending game. Defender Cooper jokes with his coaches, betting them he’ll use his speed to score a hat trick and that he’ll soon replace Stephen Buzbee – the team and league-leader with 26 goals – at forward. (Cooper did notch his first score of the season a little more than an hour later.) Time in this mobile locker room affords players the opportunity to unwind, to sleep, to trade food with Gillies. And, Cooper said, there’s always a lot of Tetris.
Longer trips include time for a few rounds of Texas Hold ‘Em. Just stay out of a hand with senior Ryder Fyrwald. “I quit playing poker. I was down $100 after the first season,” Cooper said. “Ryder wins every time.” Long rides can border on tedium, senior Bo Gallagher said. On more than one occasion, a motion-sick underclassman has lightened the mood – and the load in his stomach.”On our last trip to Paonia, some kid threw up,” Gallagher said. “It was quiet, then all of sudden a bunch of us went ‘What’s that smell?’ It was funny.”I like [riding the bus] better than going with my parents. It’s a much different atmosphere.” In these tight quarters, teammates learn a lot about one another. The bus is where Cooper first felt like part of the team.”I remember the first time I went and sat in the back and listened and hung out with the older players,” he said. “The bus is a good way for us to meet a lot of the younger guys, and for them to get integrated into the traditions and rituals. It’s a good way for them to understand what this team is all about.”Anastas, too, says time on the bus pays dividends on and off the field.”We’re becoming better friends. We wouldn’t have that same bond if we came in separate cars,” he said. “Even if some of the kids aren’t as talkative in school, here they’re a part of the conversation.”The Skier bus turns onto route 133 in Carbondale. Even on this day, with the team’s league and postseason status already assured, the anticipation grows with each passing mile.
“A game is a game to everybody,” Gallagher says. “We’re good about coming off the bus and being ready.”Gallagher proved correct soon thereafter. The Skiers scored four goals in the game’s first 40 minutes and went on to beat CRMS, 4-3. In nine games away from home this season, Aspen won seven and outscored opponents, 42-19.Most of the team’s players have signed waivers, so they head home separately. Only six take the return trip. Gillies rests his head on the first-aid bag and stretches out across two seats. One player claps his cleats together to shake off the mud as the soft melodies of the radio drift overhead. The numbers dwindle when Jose Mesa is dropped off in Basalt. Boris Joseph exits at Snowmass. If all goes according to plan, the Skiers’ next trip will be to Denver. They will find out what road they must travel when the 3A state tournament seedings are released Sunday.There is no doubt that Sutherland would brave another winter storm on Vail Pass for a shot at a state title. Or that the Skiers’ performance will not be hindered, despite the prospect of another long trip.Such is life on the Western Slope.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org