The next morning, I wake up to find the Saab lost in a massive snowdrift. All that fresh snow on Mammoth is tempting, but we have to be in Utah the next day so I can compete at the U.S. Freeskiing Nationals at Snowbird. We dig the sucka out and point it east.
Somewhere in Nevada, we pull into a small-town Chinese restaurant where the ceiling drips water into an army of buckets. Half the fluorescent lights are blown out. There is no heat, and the owners are wearing winter jackets. Nevertheless, Jeff and I score some surprisingly good moo-shu.
The qualifying round at Snowbird is strong, littered with pro skiers whose names I recognize. Though I've only skied two days this season prior to the competition and am feeling a little green, I surprise myself and ski a halfway rowdy line full of air and fast turns. It's a good enough run to propel me into the main event with my ski heroes.
Before the semifinal round, however, psychology gets the better of me. Suddenly, the food in my stomach is pulling misty flips as my mind does a strung-out, Red Bull¿driven Irish jig. I think about air. I think about prize money. I think about the tonal similarities between "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row." Gee, I think, my legs feel like crap...
"Three, two, one...Stephan Drake on course," yells Jack, the starter, who has the biggest damn beard you've ever seen. I drop a 10-foot air out of the start gate and rocket into an open patch of crud. Three fast GS turns, and I mach into the trees and out on a rocky traverse. I can feel my skis getting munched by the 70 percent-rock¿30 percent-snow concoction. It doesn't matter: The skis were free. Thank you, Salomon. Charged with adrenaline, I enter the steep lower section of the course, hit an unskied patch of powder, and drop toward a wavelike lip, where I nail a hard turn off the bank. Before I know it, I'm launching my final air: 20 feet into the last section of the course.
Then, suddenly, it's over. I double heel-eject into a laid-out front summersault, drilling myself into the snow. I stand up, snowy, listening to the crowd roar through my helmet.
The next day, wishing I could afford a masseuse, I reassume my role as spectator and watch Gordy Peifer flash Upper Baldy to win the comp. That night, the after-party takes us to Club 90 in downtown Salt Lake City. Eighty skiers are wedged into a redneck bar, listening to a band play AC/DC and Village People covers. The vodka tonics are free, but they contain about half a thumbnail's worth of vodka each.
My stomach is churning with tonic when I find myself surrounded by a group of hucksters loudly proclaiming that big air thrown in competition should score higher than it currently does. I put forth my thesis: The future of freeskiing is stylish skiing, not hospital air. "That's where the great idiosyncratic art lies," I offer. Instantly, they close in on me, rabidly arguing for the crowd-pleasing appeal of the mondo huck.
Seconds later, announcers begin ceremonies for an underground prize called the Sickbird Award, which celebrates the skier who goes biggest and takes the most chances. This kind of behavior, if executed incorrectly, is heavily frowned upon by judges. The award goes to a guy from Sweden, a nation whose skiers are renowned for pulling dubious stunts.
After the party, Jeff and I discuss the state of our road-trip and determine that our traveling styles really aren't meshing. "There's no bad blood here," I point out, "just bad smells." Jeff concurs. We decide to split up. Jeff makes off with the car. I bid him Godspeed and pray that he will make it to Vermont without getting pulled over. I get a ride to Colorado and a plane ticket to the East Coast for the X Games.
In frigid Vermont, I find corporate sponsorship taken to grotesque levels. Sure, I've been trumpeting brand names all along, but I ultimately consider myself a subsistence sponsoree¿an innnocent bottom dweller. The Mountain Dew commercialism of the X Games, in contrast, exists on an entirely different level. The "extreme" attitude it promotes doesn't describe the athletes involved as well as it does some marketer's imagination.
The U.S. Marines recruit at the X Games, evidently hoping to lure droves of caffeine-swigging, BASE-jumping snowboarders to their squads. I find this funny: On the cultural spectrum, the unconventional individuality that marks the so-called X sports is about as far from Semper Fi as you can get. As Terje Haakonsen, perhaps the best snowboarder in the sport's history, has said, "My greatest achievement (was) giving up Coca-Cola at the age of 13."
At the skiers' big-air practice round, a stiff wind blows over the kicker. It's strong enough to change the jumpers' trajectory and throw them off balance. Shane Anderson goes huge, gets tossed backward by the wind, and ends up falling 30 feet out of the sky. His butt meets the hard, Eastern snowpack in unceremonious fashion. Then, a familiar scene: toboggan and ski patrollers huddled around a still body. The competition is postponed and moved to a smaller jump.
Despite the wind and cold, the crowds at the X Games are amazing. Announcer Glen Plake points out that the crowd is as large as those found at European World Cup races. The Easterners are obviously psyched to get a glimpse of these sports, which are normally centered in the bigger mountains of the West. Little kids are awed by the rare appearance of their superstars: "Hey, there's Jonny Moseley! J.P. Auclair, Shane McConkey! Wow!" I'm heartened by the number of people watching the ski events, but at the snowmobile races I see twice as many.
A few days later, Jeff and I make our (amicably separate) way back to Vail for the U.S. Freeskiing Open. Hosted by Freeze Magazine, pioneer of the exploding terrain-park scene, the Open is basically a three-day jib session with a lengthy skiercross thrown in. During the opening-day open-format halfpipe event, I watch, amazed, as athletes meld skiing with skate-boarding. This is the Open's third year in existence, but it still feels revolutionary.
At a press party that evening, I am invited to tag along for a "night rail session." Skiers and photographers stealthily exit the banquet room and hop into cars. We reconvene at a bus stop across the valley, where a long, smooth handrail flanks a pedestrian walkway. A jump is built. One after the other, Philou, Auclair, and Skogen Sprang hurl themselves up onto the rail and get their skis sliding down its metal length. At first, I cringe at the sight and sound of their skis grinding on the rail, dropping off, and landing on concrete, churning sparks into the night (it's okay; their skis are free, too). This isn't skiing, I think. Then Johnny Decesare, avant-garde jib filmmaker, says, "Can you think of a better way to spend a Friday night?" I can't come up with anything. He's right, this is cool stuff.
The session goes on toward midnight as the athletes insist on sliding the entire rail. Many attempts and French curses are flung into the frigid night air. Don't be fooled by freeskiing's widespread facial scruff and ultra-laid-back attitude. These guys are stubbornly persistent in their quest to nail the trick.
Perhaps the greatest trick of the month is performed by Jeff, who returns the car to Saab in perfect shape. The trip ends, but at its closure I find myself, someone who started out with mixed feelings about competition, masochistically addicted to it. I return home, and like a mosquito chasing a bug zapper I sign up for big-mountain competitions in Colorado, California, and Canada. To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, What else would I rather do with my one precious life?