Book review: Extreme downhill trajectory for the ski-bum life
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
In “In Search of Powder,” Jeremy Evans details the tragedies of a handful of skiers who have been killed, or nearly so, by their addiction to downhilling. There’s Shane McConkey, a second-generation extreme skier who perished in 2009 in Italy, when his parachute failed to deploy during a BASE jump. Evans devotes a long section to CR Johnson, a teenage phenom who collided with another skier in Utah, in 2005, and went into a 10-day coma from which he has not completely recovered.
Evans, however, is not so focused on individual episodes, but on a more sweeping disaster. His book is subtitled “America’s Disappearing Ski Bum,” and it is an out-and-out elegy that could more accurately have referred to “America’s Disappeared Ski Bum.” While a good number of diehard skiers have been killed by gravity, in one form or another, the entire culture of the ski bum has been obliterated by a collusion of forces, most of them related to money: rising housing prices in ski towns; corporate involvement in ski films, which turned ski bums into sponsored pros; the transfer of ski areas from passionate, risk-taking enthusiasts to bean-counters; the influx of cheap, immigrant labor.
The way Evans tells it, the bums never stood a chance. Following an era of glory – from the late ’60s through the ’70s, when, not coincidentally, the world outside of ski resorts was loosening up socially – the lifestyle began its quick fade. Trading a six-pack for lift access, parking the trailer at the bottom of the hill through the winter, throwing up a clapboard cabin on an empty lot for a few thousand dollars – it was all a brief moment in the sun, already disappearing when the masses began learning of this alternative way to exist.
Evans tells this story in scattershot fashion. “In Search of Powder” begins on a personal note. A former ski bum who thought he needed to approach life more seriously, Evans moved from the slopes of Lake Tahoe to the clogged highways of Portland and a job in journalism. A health scare convinced him to follow his passion, and he headed back to ski country.
That’s about all we hear about Evans’ journey, though his voice – admiring of the devout skier, disdainful of Big Skiing – is clear throughout. The focus moves to a series of stories of select skiers and ski towns. (Aspen gets several mentions, but not as much in-depth attention as Park City, Telluride or the apparent ski-bum central, Jackson.)
It’s a bumpy ride. Evans jumps around too much, brings in too many characters, wanders from his chapter theses. There is plenty of repetition, perhaps unavoidable, of the “this town ain’t what it used to be” variety. He basically skips over employee housing, which, while it hasn’t saved the ski bums, at least has arguably preserved ski towns. And surely there are still more than a few souls who rack up 100-plus days a year on the slopes, a privilege that costs them family life, retirement funds, social standing. It would have been nice to hear from some of them, rather than jump to the conclusion that every modern-day ski bum is spending potential slope time chasing sponsorship deals and doing press.
Evans is at his best when tracking the histories of individual ski towns, each of which sprung up out of different pasts, led by different personalities. Therein lies the kernel of another, hopefully more cohesive book. Call it, “In Search of Powder Towns.”
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