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The Shivers Before The Flakes

In that shoulder season between summer and winter when tourists go home, the locals turn to snow dances and being spooked.
posted: 10/22/2002

To hell with druids and Jack-O'-Lanterns. This Halloween, it's time to burn for Ullr, god of snow.

Late in the afternoon last Halloween, my dog and I were walking each other near the Telluride cemetery. Druid holidays and graveyards don't normally spook me, but as dusk purpled the mountain sky, a couple I didn't know waved me toward their driveway and the night took a twist. "We just hit an elk," the girl said. My expression must have betrayed what I was thinking (why the hell are you telling me this?), because she immediately explained, "It helps to talk about it. Come see our truck...."

They led me around to a big dent on the passenger side. "Look," the woman whispered, pointing, "this is part of the elk." I followed her finger to raspberry-like bits of raw meat hanging in the doorjamb. I muttered some lame consolation, that it must be difficult for a driver to spot a seven-foot-tall, 1,200-pound animal, and walked away as quickly as possible.

As the dog and I navigated a shadowy alley, we overheard a radio broadcast of "All Along the Watchtower." It was the Jimi Hendrix version, the one that never fails to raise goose bumps with its cry of "the wind began to howl." Moments later, a strong breeze coursed through town. It didn't quite howl, but it did blow wind chimes sideways, making enough noise to set aggressive dogs barking. Passive dogs like my Bezo, a beta-male if ever there was one, simply spiked their hackles.

Hunter S. Thompson was not directly referring to Halloween in a ski town when he wrote his classic line: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." But it's instructive to note that Thompson lives in Aspen and seems to enjoy strange behaviors. Like Halloween in the mountains, for example.

When October segues into November, ski towns seem to make a cosmic shift from summer to winter. Resort PR departments would have you believe that strolling-down-historic-Main-Street-with-an-ice-cream-cone season turns immediately into ski season, but it's not true. Tourists would see for themselves if tourists ever ventured to altitude at Halloween, when the flower boxes affixed to faux-Austrian chalets brim with dead, brown vegetation, when barren, snowless landscapes shriek with icy gusts that have been turning miners into ax murderers for generations.

But tourists and their life-giving dollars ignore ski towns at Halloween, leaving us locals to our own, weird devices. Sure, we smash pumpkins and buy bulk bags of Butterfingers like our comrades at lower elevations do. Mostly, though, we spend Halloweens doing everything in our power to whip Indian Summer into wintry blizzards.

Of course, like all humans throughout recorded history, we have zero idea whatsoever how to manipulate weather. Not that we don't try. Sometimes we gather near the town's impound yard to build a bonfire. Wild-eyed believers surround the ritualistic pyre, tossing in beater skis and praying to Ullr, the Norse god of snow. Don't ask us why a Norse god would reward us for burning the tools of snow play. Ski bums seldom think logically around Halloween, especially if they're inhaling vaporized fiberglass and god-knows-what other chemicals.

It's rooted in desperation.Whereas the spring off-season entails trucking down to Moab and savoring the lengthening days by mountain biking, rafting, and climbing, the autumnal off-season means ski-fitness classes. Never been to one? Well, let's just say a ski-fitness class is scarier than a Druid Halloween, in which Saman, the lord of the dead, calls forth hosts of evil spirits. Imagine rhythm-impaired guys who've never aerobicized, prancing up and down plastic steps in a mirror-walled room, moving to the beat of "Rhythm is a Dancer" or some other drum-machine dreck that got rejected from A Night at the Roxbury soundtrack. The scene could only be more horrifying if the men were wearing leg warmers. And in Telluride at Halloween, no one can hear you scream.

Ski towns in October exhibit an unsettling tolerance for cross-dressing because Western resorts, many of which evolved from mining towns, have always suffered male-to-female ratios as disparate as 10 to one. Halloween gives menfolk an excuse to construct curves out of foam and Kleenex, and other menfolk the joy of looking beyond five o'clock shadows at said curves.

No, science has never established a link between guys-in-skirts and measurable precipitation. But that hasn't stopped the widespread stuffing of bros into bras. In Telluride, in fact, locals still revere the "Epoxy Sisters," two guys who spent Halloweens in the '80s dressing up like the opposite gender and hosting a kicking costume party.

These days, temporary transvestites choose from a wide selection of Halloween shindigs, wing-dings, and bacchanals. Mountain communities seem to realize that their locals are desperate for powder and haven't made any money for a month or so; they simply may go criminally insane unless they're given an outlet to get squiffy with drink, get jiggy with music, and get creative with papier-mà¢ché costumes.

As a result, Halloween bashes and monster mashes proliferate at altitude. KOTO, the radio station in Telluride, throws an annual party that's gotten so big it now requires a block-long tent that's heated by generators. Last Halloween's party offered revelers the rump-shaking grooves of Liza, formerly of Zuba. I knew the tent would witness as much funk as a 99 percent Caucasian population could ever muster. But for reasons involving steep cover charges and deadline exhaustion, I didn't plan to attend.

Instead, my wife, M'Lissa, and I went to dinner at a friend's house. We were quietly mowing down pasta when the conversation turned to the weather. Specifically, the utter and complete lack of snowfall. Something had to be done, we reasoned. Cloud seeding and Ute Indian snow dances were mentioned, then ruled out due to the difficulty of securing a plane or snow dance lessons at nine o'clock on a Saturday night. It was time to call on Lint Man. Lint Man, as you might guess, is the super hero that governs your dryer's lint trap. His territory might be smaller than the 75 percent of the globe governed by Aqua Man, but he takes his responsibilities just as seriously. Because Lint Man doesn't believe in superhero clichés such as secret identities, I'm free to tell you that Lint Man's civilian alter ego is me. By donning the raiment of Lint Man and raising the roof at a Halloween party, perhaps I could help convince Ullr that summer had been over for 40 days now, and it was time to snow, dammit, snow!

M'Lissa and I bolted home. While she dressed up as some inexplicably purple cat, I gathered Lint Man's uniform: a pair of fuzzy tennis shoes, a cape with a giant "L" made from a gray moving-van blanket, a gray fleece lining from an old ski jacket, gray fleece long underwear, and a gray ski hat festooned with the Crested Butte logo. If Lint Man couldn't coax a low-pressure system from the atmosphere, this ski gear could go months without realizing its true purpose.

We flew to the party. Actually, we rode our townie bikes, since Lint Man's cape flies about as well as ostrich wings. I don't remember much of what happened after that. But three weeks later, Ullr dumped two feet of fresh on Telluride.

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