Burnt Mtn. elegy
As I age, I strive to assimilate a geriatric perspective on life in preparation for the inevitable transformation to “old fart” status. The debate about developing new ski terrain on Burnt Mountain has caused me to wonder how I might explain it all to my grandchildren.”You mean, Grandpa, that there were no roads or ski runs here?”The question would be posed on the Buttermilk-to-Burnt Mountain gondola. The young boy would be looking down from the swaying compartment onto the ski area below where elk once wintered and in spring gave birth to their young.”That’s right, Forrest. (My grandson’s full name would be something like Forrest Glen Meadowmuffin Andersen) When I first skied here, this was all wild and undeveloped. Not even the Sugar Bowl Resort & Spa had been built, or the Highlands-to-Tiehack tram, or the Sundeck-to-Ashcroft subway. The forest down there was old growth … moss-covered and silent.””Grandpa, why did they kill all the elk?””Well, Forrest, they didn’t kill them. It was a passive thing where the elk were gradually moved out by development. People didn’t think a few more ski runs would make any difference. They thought the elk would adapt.”There are still a few elk left,” I would explain. “They just don’t call it a herd anymore. Now you’re lucky if you see one. Once this was all a roadless area.”Roadlessness is not a concept the young boy immediately grasps, now that roads go everywhere. Following the relentless exploitation of the national forests under the National Security Resource Recovery and Corporate Greed Act, only a few tracts of public land remain roadless.From the Sonoran desert to the high alpine life zones, roads were cut for oil and gas drilling, for mining exploration, for harvesting timber, for diverting water, for constructing alpine slides, four-wheeler parks and other resource sacrifice zones.”Years ago, Forrest, I used to ski across Burnt Mountain and not see another human being. Believe it or not, you could get lost down there.””Why did you want to ski where nobody else skied, Grandpa?””Oh …” and this is where the pondering comes, the old brain cells struggling to construct a reasonable answer to a long forgotten question. “Hmmmm. I guess it was like skiing through the garden of a giant and feeling small among the huge trees.”With the words comes a memory of breaking trail in deep, light snow among enormous tree trunks, of stopping in the deepest part of the forest to listen for the chatter of squirrels, of watching snow filtering gently through glistening in shafts of sunlight, of feeling the cold bite of pre-global warming winter.”Why did you want to feel small, Grandpa?””Because … sometimes we need to feel small in order to achieve perspective.”The boy looks at me quizzically, then studies the patchwork of timber and ski runs as we move along on the cable toward the top of Burnt Mountain where the Crown Royal Restaurant gleams in glass and steel. “I don’t want to be small,” he says. “I want to be big.””And you will be. But with every big tree that’s cut, and with every wild place that’s ruined, the world gets smaller. The world was bigger once, big enough for herds of elk and deer, big enough for bears and mountain lions, big enough for peace and quiet, big enough to get lost in, big enough to make us feel humble.”There is a pause as he studies me. “Grandpa, what is humble?””It’s something that a lot of people have forgotten.”Paul Andersen is reminiscing in advance, just in case. His column runs on Mondays.
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