Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The other day I went up to Highlands to spin a lap in the Bowl by myself. I was feeling super-cranky and just wanted some alone time.
So naturally the only other guy in line decides to jump on the lift with me. He’s got shaggy graying hair and is wearing a visor and mirrored aviator shades with just enough stubble and sunburn to suggest he’s a ski bum who has likely been baking in this proverbial oven for a very long time.
“So what do you do in town?” is the first thing he asks, even before, “Do you want the bar down?”
I never really know how to answer that question. I mean, on the one hand I do a lot of things, but on the other I don’t do much of anything at all.
“I’m a freelance journalist,” I say, which is sort of true.
“I am too! I just don’t get paid for it. I like writing letters to the editor,” he says. He talks with a Southern California accent, a little bit slow with elongated vowels, like an aging Spicoli on skis.
He goes on telling me about different letters he’s written in response to different news events that have happened recently. “This town used to have a sense of humor, but it’s really lost it,” he says. “I’m like, trying to be funny, or like, sarcastic, you know? But people don’t get it.”
Even though someone who sits around writing letters to the editor all day is probably something I should avoid, I take the bait. “Maybe you know my column?”
“Oh my God, man! I totally dig you! Right on!” We fist bump. “You’re like a total goddess!”
Even though my enthusiasm flag is at half-mast, we go on talking for a while. “You heading all the way up?” he asks.
I hesitate and then say, “Yeah.”
On the way up Loge he says, “Wow, you’re a lot mellower in person than I expected you would be.”
“People always say that,” I say. It always plays out like that movie from the early ’90s “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” where the guy falls in love with Jeanne Garafolo’s character on the radio and Uma Thurman’s physicality in real life. That’s me – I’m so not Uma.
“Besides, I’m just in a bad mood today,” I say, feeling I owe the guy further explanation so I don’t come off as a total bitch. “I just wanted to spin a lap and just kind of process my thoughts.”
He looks at me through his aviator glasses, shakes his longish graying locks like he just got out of the ocean and says, “Tell it to the Bowl.”
Despite my resistance, I can’t help but chuckle. “Yeah, tell it to the Bowl,” I repeat. “Thing is, it’ll probably listen.”
It’s moments like these that make me fall in love with Aspen all over again. Maybe down below there are fleets of luxury SUVs and designer boutiques and multimillion-dollar homes and years of unpaid taxes to catch up on, but up here on this cloudless day it’s just me and this freakshow dude with nothing to do but ride a chair lift under an electric blue sky surrounded by a sea of rocky snow-covered peaks, anthropomorphizing a mountain.
“It does kind of look like a giant ear,” he says.
We go off on that tangent for a while, describing the way the ear lays and where the ear hairs would be and really get into it.
He continues to keep me entertained on the hike up, telling me all kinds of outrageous stories about all the lives he’s led even though he grew up right here and graduated from Aspen High School. There was sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, money, and dalliances with fame. I tell him no, I didn’t realize Brett Michaels has diabetes and yes, I liked Def Leppard in junior high even though I wasn’t into heavy metal.
He fills my head with great one-liners I commit to memory to use as quotes later, stuff like, “Some days you’re the bug and other days you’re the windshield.” We talk about how people in this town are stupid ambitious when it comes to athletic prowess, though he later mentions casually that he finished top 10 in Battle of the Bowl on Sunday.
On the way down, the conditions are worse than I’d hoped. Even though it had dumped just two days before, the Bowl was beat to hell, and it was one of those days when going down felt like as much work as going up. I refrained from making any negative comments, just in case my new friend was one of those guys that thinks every day of skiing is the best day of skiing – a quality I certainly admire but don’t seem to possess.
“OK, I’m gonna show you this secret spot,” he says. “But don’t tell anyone.”
“Dude, we’re in the middle of the Bowl. I doubt there are many secrets left around here.”
He directs me where to go, and to my surprise I’m able to pull off four, five, maybe even six turns in untracked snow that is reasonably light, through a line that’s open enough to where I can ride it fluidly.
“That was sick! I can’t believe how sick that was! How is that even possible?” I say, now having achieved the amnesia I was seeking before. For the life of me I can’t remember what was bothering me so much.
“Now you say so,” he says. “But before you didn’t believe me, did you?”
And just like that, he skis off.
For a moment, I seriously consider if any of this is actually real or just a figment of my imagination. And that’s when I realize that even on days when it feels like the magic is gone, this valley is, and will always be, something magical.
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High Points: “Now I don’t want to be an apologist for the Aspen Skiing Company, but to me $199 to ski the crown jewel of American skiing during the height of what is traditionally the busiest time of year is a total bargain.”