The Portillo of Thursday and the Portillo of Friday were two entirely different resorts. On Thursday, a gray pall of depressing clouds clung tight to the Chilean Andes, making the traditional description "pea soup" an overstatement, as pea soup contains some semblance of color. Friday,however, dawned brilliantly clear, and Portillo got its groove on. Arrayed beside a deep blue lake framed by 19,000-foot peaks, Portillo on a sunny day is a big bowl of beauty and light. Austrian downhillers celebrated by sporting banana-hammock Speedos around the Hotel Portillo pool. Wiser visitors made their way to a combination race/wine-tasting below the El Plateau lift.
I'm not quite sure what the connection was between bashing gates and smashed grapes-or even if the race was sponsored by the vineyard that was giving out free wine-because, as I just mentioned, the vineyard was giving out free wine. I drained a glass and a half of cabernet before struggling into my bib, carving my fat skis through the course fast enough to win a NASTAR-like medal, then returning to the wine-tasting, where patrons basked in the sun like mildly buzzed house cats.
In today's era of rampant solarphobia, some people would find Portillo's unabashed sun worship as distasteful as a wet cough in a SARS outbreak. North American anti-sun propagandists have us convinced that our noses will fall off the day we forget sunscreen; that small children and the elderly can actually burst into flames. The shrieks of "melanoma!" ring so loud in our ears we forget how nice it is to ski in the sun: caressing soft, sparkling, easily distinguished moguls while beams of light tease the melanin out of warm, grateful skin.
Don't get me wrong. I don't like scorching my scalp to the point I'm shaking flakes of dead skin out of my beanie. But in my family, tanning was always accepted, and I still heartily endorse it. My mom used to surround herself with panels of aluminum foil-covered cardboard while sunbathing on the patio. We kids were given bottles of baby oil before setting off for the community pool. Suffice it to say, I'm not going to run indoors and hide when I hear some quack of a psychology professor at Miami University (Ohio) proclaim: "There's a parallel between cigarette smoking and sun tanning." Yeah, they can both cause cancer. Tell us something we don't know. I'll take dark skin and pink lungs over pink skin and dark lungs any day. You don't have to be a skier to believe Jonny Moseley looks healthier and more vibrant than Keith Richards.
I got burned, figuratively, when I read the Alberta Cancer Board's alarmist conclusions about skiers' sunscreen use. A few years ago, the board surveyed 1,300 skiers at a major Alberta resort, and found to its horror that only 19 percent wore a hat with a front brim! The other 81 percent were apparently suicidal. The report added that 90 percent of skiers carried sunscreen, but only 65 percent used it. The board thus recommended erecting new signs around the resort. Yeah, that's what ski areas need, more warning signs. In this case, signs "advising skiers to apply sunscreen, to use sufficient amounts, and to reapply regularly." Oh, and the name of the resort? Sunshine Village.
If that ski area were founded today, I bet the marketing department would name it "Skin-cancer-free Village." Ultraviolet radiation-on which plants and most other animals still seem to thrive-is now considered a dire threat to skierkind. Hence, the hideous spectacle of zinc oxide. You've seen these people, their entire faces painted a ghostly white for what must be their once-a-year release outdoors. To me, zinc oxide oozes cowardice. It says: "I've bathed my head in reflective chemicals, for I desperately fear our planet's source of heat and light."
You don't see the Lange girl or Alberto Tomba covered in glorified white paint, do you? God, no. There's a reason why our sport is considered sexy; why Dr. Ruth raves that skiing is romantic; whyy an Arizona State University study titled "You Are What You Play" discovered that women found skiers the sexiest men in recreational sports: The reason is bronzed skin! Blather all you want about the sensuous swerving of skiers' hips and our canoodling of undulating fall lines-a skier without a tan can talk to the hand. Absent that healthy glow-plus eyes and teeth that appear correspondingly brighter-skiers are no sexier than bowlers. And let's face it, bowlers have cooler shirts and shoes.
Even those prudes at the Alberta Cancer Board admit that 74 percent of respondents to their study thought "people look healthier with a tan." More than half agreed with the statements: "I feel healthier with a tan" and "my friends think a suntan is a good thing." I sure think so, and have since ninth grade, when Greg Nichols, a spring-break ski buddy, informed me that the best way, bar none, to fight acne was to ride chairlifts with your face angled to the sun. Coasting slowly up fixed-grip doubles, Greg would beseech the solar powers that be to sizzle our pimples off, yelling, "Mend 'em! Mend 'em!" It worked. And it was infinitely more fun than hitting a dermatologist's office and loading up on prescription-strength Clearasil.
Maybe I'll need to visit a dermatologist later in life to atone for my sunscreen neglect. Maybe I'll pay for skiing till February every season before applying any sun protection whatsoever. Maybe the scientists are right, and the thinning ozone is going to leave us all with the complexion of overcooked bacon. Maybe. In the meantime, I'm waiting for an Alberto Tomba or some other famous skier with a halfway Latin complexion to develop a bad carcinoma or melanoma. Until that unlikely event, the poster boy for skin cancer remains Arizona senator John McCain. Which I find interesting, because anthropology tells us that folks with reddish skin and Irish surnames are not, in fact, native to Arizona-or to mountains, for that matter.
Go ahead and slather on the sunscreen (especially you freckled and pasty people). Just remember the words of New Wave singer Joe Jackson: "Everything gives you cancer, there's no cure, there's no answer." Jackson, a Brit with skin the hue of cottage cheese, thus squashed the hopes of clean-living folks who obey surgeon general's warnings and spend their time on earth utterly blanched by fear. One way or the other the Grim Reaper is going to catch up to us. Personally, I'd rather have him sink his sickle into my sun-leathered flesh on some mountain than find me cowering indoors inside translucent (but healthy!) skin. No matter what we do, we're toast. And that's okay. As someone who happily drank up the wine and sunshine at Portillo that glorious Friday, I'll testify that getting toasted isn't so bad.