The road to Wisdom is narrow but well-paved two-lane highway, absent of commercial activity, graced with spectacular scenery. The route parallels a cold stream, borders pastureland, and in the distance rise the Bitterroot Mountains, jagged and uncompromising. Wisdom appears without much heraldry—no billboards, no suburbs, just a simple sign or two at the edges.
I stop at the gift shop.
“OK, miss, lay it on me.” say I to the bemused clerk. “What wisdom do you got? I’m open to anything.”
She laughs politely.
“You look like you’re heading to the ski hill,” she replies eventually.
Hard to argue with that. I confirm.
“Have a great time. Should warm up in the afternoon.”
She rings up the postcards and sends me on my way.
I leave Wisdom without any particular enlightenment. I consider that I might not be worthy. It’s quite possible that I lied to both the store clerk and myself.
I am not really open to anything.
Twenty miles later, my destination, called Lost Trail Powder Mountain, appears as expected. For a ski area in the middle of nowhere—and trust me, we’re in the middle of nowhere—its profile is awfully impressive. Eighteen hundred feet of vertical, distributed across three mountains.
No road sign announces the area. There are no condos, no restaurants, no town. Just a small parking lot next to a couple of wooden shacks, which is the base area.
When I claim my lift ticket, I expect my Massachusetts drivers license to raise an eyebrow or two. Nope. The woman is unfazed.
“Just last week we had a big group from Wisconsin,” she tells me. “Who would have thought?”
I had never heard of Lost Trail Powder Mountain until I researched the obscure, out-of-the-way ski resorts of Montana and Idaho. So here I am.
For the next five hours, I ski the heck out of the place. The runs are wide, the snow is deep, and a few dozen other hearty souls and I have it all to ourselves. Three out of the four chairlifts are spinning today, and I settle on the northernmost, which is the longest and covers the most diverse terrain. The ride to the top is agonizingly slow, because the chairlifts of Lost Trail Powder Mountain were installed during the Johnson/Humphrey administration (I’m exaggerating), but I try to curtail my east-coast push-push attitude and just enjoy the great views and the lovely day and the fact that I’m skiing, and not mired in the work-a-day world of professional publishing, as per my normal modus operandi.
So why, why oh why, am I thinking about an old nemesis, now deceased by at least 20 years, a surgeon and medical school dean named H. Reginald O’Callahan.
Which is not his real name. I cannot bring myself to type—let alone publish—the real name of this man, for various reasons that may or may not become apparent.
Search online for the real name, and you will discover that the late dean remains a figure of some import and renown. A scholarship is named after him. In his eulogy, he was lauded for his insights and his warmth and his dedication to students. Words of praise and supporting stories can be found from some of those students, as well.
But not from me.
H (as I shall call him, respect be damned) struck me as a man who was convinced of the great wisdom he possessed. Certainly he seemed to relish communicating that wisdom, whether you asked for it or not.
I did not follow the wisdom of H, and in our last conversation, he berated me quite severely for my rejection. Which was inappropriate behavior on his part. My home-state medical school for which he deaned rejected my application, which means we had no contract or agreement between us, formal or informal. Whatever actions I elected for myself, they were entirely my business.
I am here in Montana for a four-day vacation and respite. My plan, which I enact fairly easily, is to ski a different resort each day and sleep in a different town each night. Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula—winners all!
My first impression of Bozeman, Montana, courtesy of the window of my nighttime flight on United Airlines, is that it looks like a mini Las Vegas. Every gas station by a freeway exit has its own casino—which is not much of an exaggeration. The casino-cum-gas stations look exactly like regular gas stations but the floodlights are more intense, and include bright signs that flash the word “casino” right next to Exxon and Mobil and what have you.
I do not step foot into the Montana casinos.
Later, I trek into Bozeman proper. By all appearances it’s a liberal college town—and a bustling and booming one at that. It’s got theaters and bookstores and bagel shops and Montana State University. Downtown is lively and fun. I pass at least three marijuana dispensaries.
I think it’s possible to align one’s head in Montana, but not if you leave the task to chance. The state is as pulled in two directions as the rest of the country.
Yesterday I skied Big Sky, the largest and best known of the Montana ski areas, and priced accordingly. Most of the chairlifts there are the detachable high-speed variety, and some of them feature blue-tinted plexiglass bubbles for shielding the wind and heated leather seats for warming the touchas.
I ride up with two twenty-something girls, both decked in the red uniform of the resort. They sit on either side of me but talk to each other as if I’m not there.
“I get kicked off my parents’ health insurance next summer,” says one.
“It sucks getting old,” says the other.
I spot my opening.
“There’s only one old person on this chair,” I say. “And it’s not either of you two.”
They chuckle politely.
“Age is just a state of mind,” says one of them.
“Oh, now I’m really in trouble,” I say.
We reach the top quickly. Because it’s a high-speed chairlift, of course. End of the conversation.
Why do I like skiing? Reasons include the snow and the sky, the beauty of the mountains, the exhilaration of speed—well, of course. Let us also acknowledge the pattern, the regimentation, the rituals. Go up the mountain, come back down. Snap on your boots to start the day and take them off to end it. A beginning, a middle, an end.
There’s also history.
I started at age 6 or 7 or so, with my father and brother, doing the local hills around Minneapolis, and then the trips to Colorado with the doctors and their families.
I still remember riding on a chairlift next to S**** S*****, on whom I had a terrible crush, so terrible that I could barely talk to her, and here she was sitting next to me for several minutes of privacy. I still couldn’t think of much to say.
At the top of the gondola at Vail, my brother Danny gets out, looks around, and says “I’m not doing this any more.” He gets back in the gondola and takes it to the bottom, and that ended his skiing career. Upon which my mother said, “Well if he can quit, so can I.” And she stopped as well.
Thus it was my father and me for all those years, and I had ski trips with friends and with my wife—and they all quit too, eventually. I do ski with my son, now 16 years old. And I expect we’ll bring along the 4-year old in good time. But often….it’s just me on the slopes.
I researched the supplementary questions for admission to My Home State University Medical School. They’re online, available for all to see. I am pleased to report that the questions are reasonable, thoughtful, and appropriate. I can imagine the answers giving insight to a candidate’s ability and promise of being a physician.
When I applied, back in the 1980s, the questions were a bunch of crap.
Skiing the northernmost chairlift at Lost Trail, I want to return to the parking lot shacks for some lunch. I point my skis in the proper direction, and fairly soon…I am back at the foot of the same chairlift.
“How do I get back to the base area?” I ask the liftie.
A liftie is a ski-lift attendant.
“Ski to the top and take the rope tow!” he calls out, and then continues with other instructions that I can’t hear because the chairlift has scooped me up and whisked me away.
At the top of the mountain I do see and follow a simple wooden sign. The passage turns out to include two rope tows, both featuring rough, fast-moving ropes that grate on my gloves and seem to pull my right arm out of the shoulder.
At the lunch counter, I order a bratwurst and a Pepsi. I notice a handwritten message that defines the free lunches for the lifties. Cold lunches on Thursdays and Saturdays. Hot lunches on Fridays and Sundays.
“What do the lifties eat on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays?” I ask the woman at the cash register.
“Beats me. We’re closed those days.”
I actually knew that.
Later in the afternoon, for my last run, I follow a groomed flat path that leads to a wooded glade—and then stops. Ahead of me is a steep glen covered in trees and snow. I don’t know if this is a named run or not.
Years ago, I might have tried my luck with the tree skiing. But now, I turn around and hike uphill back to the groomed slopes.
I am an older guy. And I’m not an idiot.
The lifties here are also older guys. They sport beards and sullen expressions, and I imagine them living in camps by streams, prospecting for gold or trapping beavers for pelts.
Just now I asked for and received a phone conversation with an old friend, a high school classmate who went on to my state medical school, successfully, and has been a practicing physician all these years. I asked him for his memories about H. Reginald O’Callahan.
“He’s one of these guys who thinks they’re God,” he told me. “He was pleasant at first, but turned very ugly when I didn’t do what he told me to.
My friend then recounted the details of his run-in with the dean. The story echoed my own experience. My friend volunteered the word “bully” in his descriptions.
We talked for half an hour about all sorts of topics. Friendship—it’s great, it should be nourished and replenished, it should not be taken for granted.
End of the ski trip, middle of a Friday night, I am aboard an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800, a modern and pleasant aircraft, en route to Boston. As makes sense for air travel and not much else, my itinerary began by heading in the wrong direction for a couple hundred miles, due west from Missoula to Seattle, and then transferring to a flight across the entire northern tier of the country.
In Missoula I stopped at a taco place for a burrito, and at the Seattle airport I had some kung pao chicken at the food court. Aboard the airplane home, an hour or so after takeoff, the food hits me predictably, and I make my way to the lavatory. The flight attendants are in the aisle with the drinks cart, but eventually they maneuver back and forth to let me pass.
I sequester in this tiny compartment for a very long time. I am an old man. I am contemplating the absurdity of being in this particular state of biology aboard an airplane flying 30,000-odd feet above sea level. I am alone and isolated in a strange, potentially hostile Universe that nevertheless is sustaining me for the moment. I quite possibly am above Montana, and thus partaking in my last interaction with the state on this visit.
But not quite the last.
When I finally emerge, the flight attendants again move the drink cart to accommodate me, and I make my way back to the seat. The Alaska Airlines woman is chatty and friendly. She offers me my choice of beverage. I request some orange juice. Which I drink.
Sometimes, aboard an airplane, I imagine a soul or two on the ground, gazing up at contrails, wondering who is aboard, where they came from and where they’re going. Such is not happening at this moment, above sparsely populated country on a dark night. We are invisible except as a radar blip for air traffic control, and the squawky voice of the pilot.
Fortunately, I have my family waiting for me in the morning, when I get home.