Her name is Phoenix, as in the city, as stated on the tag on her shirt. Within five minutes we learn all sorts of details about each other. She asks for and receives my demographics of age, height, weight, home address, and skiing ability—which is advanced intermediate. I also volunteer the reason why I’m renting—United Airlines lost my ski bag—and she sympathizes.
I learn that Phoenix has lived her entire life in nearby Fairfield, Idaho, a farming town that we agree is in the middle of nowhere. She appears to be about 24 years old, and she is in fact the manager of the rental shop. She supervises someone even younger.
“What are you doing here?” she asks me.
“Well, I’m on my way to Sun Valley.”
She smiles, even seems relieved. She tells me that she visited Sun Valley once, and enjoyed it.
I am at Soldier Mountain, a small and remote ski hill that is a 90 minute drive west of the airport in Boise, Idaho, where I had landed the night before. The base facilities consist of one lodge about the size of a suburban tract house. The ticket office, cafeteria, bar, and rental shop all fit into their little corners, with a few middle-school lunchroom tables in the open space in the middle. Today is a federal holiday (for Martin Luther King) and the lodge is bustling with moms and kids and teenagers. Later, I count 100 vehicles in the parking lot. Someone’s dog is running up and down the aisles, unleashed.
A big-city guy who isn’t me might try to ply Phoenix with tales of derring-do at Sun Valley, not to mention Aspen or Vail or St. Moritz or Chamonix, and then attempt to whisk her away to the steep slopes or the bright lights. Or even just buy her a drink at the bar across the room. But I just collect my rental skis and head onto the mountain.
“Have a great time!” she says.
I do have a great time. Snow fell over the weekend, and today the sky is blue. Groomed slopes run between patches of ungroomed powder, and I quickly discover (or really, reaffirm) that I need to stick to the grooming. The hill’s two chairlifts are both slower than an amusement park boat ride, but with better scenery. From the top of the mountain you can see all the way back to Fairfield, and to the snow-covered farm fields beyond it. Do they grow potatoes here? It’s Idaho, but I shouldn’t make assumptions.
“It’s a fun place,” says the woman who runs the cafeteria. She looks about 70, and I’m guessing that, like Phoenix, has lived in Fairfield all her life.
I had made her happy by ordering the street tacos, which she enjoys preparing. They prove very tasty.
“There used to be a town of Soldier,” she says in response to my query, “but it blew away with all these other little towns when the railroad set up Fairfield. The ski area is still here, though.”
I almost buy a tee shirt. Or a hat or a bumper sticker or something. I want to support Soldier Mountain. But I don’t buy anything, because I really am trying to cut back on souvenirs that I don’t need. So I leave empty handed, save for a few photos on my cell phone.
Circa 1969, a group of Minnesota doctors and their wives check into a ski lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho. My parents are among them. The desk clerk informs the assembled that their reservation was lost or screwed up in some fashion, and the group’s leader—whom I imagine is some high-strung New York transplant—gives the desk clerk a piece of his mind. The desk clerk shuffles a few papers and consults with a colleague or two, and then says, “We can give you the Harriman House, if you like.”
“Is that any good?” huffs the New Yorker.
“We think so. The Kennedys like it when they stay here.”
My father liked to tell that story, and I’ve remembered it for all these years. The Harriman House proved to be the height of luxury. Private suites for all couples, a hot tub, Lord knows what else.
Fast forward to the present, and I finally make it to Sun Valley, as highly-regarded and elegant as ever.
Times have changed, though.
I am here for the day with a quartet of college friends, including two medical doctors, both women. We are staying in various lodges and condominiums around the valley, as opposed to anything remotely approaching the Harriman House. Which apparently is still a thing. I told my father’s story to a local, who shook his head wistfully.
The college friends are Professor Plum and his wife, Miss Peacock (matching monochromatic ski jumpers,) Fred from Scooby-Doo (rockin’ that neckerchief,) and from Doctor Who, yes, it’s plucky Donna Noble. It so happens that my Donna is an Asian-American and not British, her husband is Jewish and not black, and she’s an endocrinologist and not a touch typist. But once I deem her as Donna it’s impossible to think of her otherwise.
“Who the hell is Doctor Who?” she asks me.
“You don’t know?” I run through the details.
“Whatever,” says Donna. “I see you haven’t changed at all.”
Everyone agrees that we’ll stick together for the whole day. Which of course doesn’t happen, and in fact lasts about two rides on the gondola. Plum and Peacock, both expert skiers, schuss far ahead and we soon lose sight of each other. Then Fred announces that his right foot is bothering him and he needs “some adjustment”, and he departs to points unknown. So it’s just me and Donna.
She volunteers to critique my ski technique and offer pointers.
“Point your body downhill. Your poles go in front of you, not behind!”
She skis ahead, then watches me come down. I skid some of the turns instead of carve them.
“Geez, you ski like a 60-year-old.”
Sun Valley is huge, spacious, modern, and in need of more snow. Management has done an excellent job of maneuvering the snow makers and grooming equipment to open perhaps one third of the runs, but spread apart so it feels like you’re skiing the whole mountain.
I am a skier because of my father, David, who diligently tried to pass on his enthusiasm to his family, successfully in my case. He took the boys for lessons, we went on family ski trips to Colorado. I asked my elders if they knew how David acquired his interest in the sport. None had a direct answer, but many shared some good stories.
David’s younger brother Sam (who of course is my Uncle Sam, not to be confused with the mascot) told me of a trip they took in 1950 to Telemark Ski Area in Wisconsin, which in those days would have been at least a three-hour drive from their home in Minneapolis. David was 16 years old, and he hung with a crowd of like-minded friends from high school. His father Reuben let David take the car so long as he took Sam with him. Sam was 11 years old. Geez.
“They treated me like one of the gang,” Sam told me.
Sam also recounted a long road trip to Yellowstone National Park three years later. One of the kids got sick and spent time in the local hospital. But they all had a great time.
Children that young cavorting around the country?
“When I was six years old,” said Sam. “I took the streetcar downtown to the dentist’s office, and then back home, all by myself.”
At the end of the day, we catch up with Fred in the ski lodge. He is at the bar. His right foot is in a walking cast and is elevated on a tiny stool. He’s trading jokes with a blonde who appears two-thirds our age. She’s dressed in pink-and-white ski garb with a fake fur fringe around the hood.
“What happened to you?” asks Donna, pointing to the foot.
“Who knows, who cares?” says Fred. “How about some sangria? Drink some so I’ll have an excuse to buy another pitcher.”
“You must be Joe,” says the blonde. “Fred says you’re a real smart ass.”
“You know what a smart ass is?” asks Fred.
Fred is goading me. I know this routine. It’s from our days in the dormitory.
“A smart ass is someone who sits on a barrel of ice cream and tells you what flavor it is.”
Fred and the blonde laugh.
“And a dumb ass?” I go on. “That’s someone who sits on a barrel of ice cream and can’t tell you what flavor it is.”
I drink half a glass of sangria. Then I say good-bye. I am staying just the one day in Sun Valley, because it’s expensive and because I have other places to visit. I hug them all, even the blonde, whom I learn is named Bambi. What kind of a grown woman goes around with the name Bambi?
Tamarack resort is the abandoned set of The Prisoner taken over by stoners. Its centerpiece is a modern, gleaming village of paved walkways among condos with first-floor restaurants and real-estate offices. The location is near a lake and far off the rural two-lane highway, and thus reminiscent of gleaming-and-sinister science fiction habitats. The stoners are everywhere—selling tickets, running the chairlifts, teaching the ski school—with the exception of the real-estate offices, which are staffed by realtors.
Snow is falling heavily, and I can barely see two feet in front of me. I stick to the easiest runs, which I navigate well enough. The setting is stunning and the skiing could be fantastic, so I try to decide if I like the resort or not.
What’s wrong with the place? Well, there’s no official space for a day visitor to change into ski gear, which I do in the car. The restaurants are open, but eerily quiet and unwelcoming. I warm up in a coffee stand that has too long a wait—surprisingly, since the whole resort seems extremely empty—so I don’t get any coffee.
Tamarack proclaims itself as a four-season resort, and I think management is mostly interested in golf. I’m guessing the stoners are here only for the ski season, and then the golf crowd takes over. I think the ambience makes a lot more sense for golfers. Even the signs that mark the trails look like signs for a golf course. Please don’t ask me to explain the difference.
At the end of the day, with snow falling as hard as ever, I ski over to the car, decant my feet out of the ski boots, and make my exit. I feel grateful that I am leaving—meaning, that Tamarack is not truly like the science fiction TV show, from which characters could find no escape. Tamarack is not evil after all. Just frickin’ weird.
Last ski day of the trip is at Brundage Mountain. I’m guessing that like Soldier and Tamarack and every other Idaho skiing venue not named Sun Valley, the resort of Brundage Mountain is unknown to nearly everyone outside of the Gem State and its neighbors. I had never heard of the place until spotting it on a road map.
Turns out that Brundage checks many of the boxes for what a skier—or at least, me—wants in a resort. Excellent snow, high-speed chairlifts, wide and interesting runs, a significant vertical drop (1,900 feet), and a simple cafeteria where the prices are, if not cheap, at least not jaw-dropping ridiculous. Nearby is the charming town of McCall, where I spent the night and enjoyed a pizza. We are about 120 miles north of Boise, which means we are surrounded by wilderness. And it’s gorgeous wilderness.
I enjoy the day at Brundage. I make jokes with the lift attendants, I trade a story or two with the other skiers, and I have a hamburger and tater tots for lunch.
“Do you know,” I ask the cafeteria girl, “that I’ve been in Idaho all week, and this is the first time I’ve had potatoes?
“Do tater tots count as potatoes?” she asks me.
I convince her that tater tots count. I learn she is from Peru, and I mention that potatoes originated in that part of the world. She says she knew that.
Then I mention that my wife has been to Peru, up by Iquitos, on three occasions. Unlike the potato references, this impresses her.
For some reason, workers from the southern hemisphere (South America, Australia, New Zealand) are common at U.S. ski resorts. Presumably they’re fans of snow sports who need jobs for the summer? I should find out.
End of the trip, I am driving south on U.S. 95 toward the Interstate and Boise, where I will catch my evening flight to Seattle, and then the red-eye home. But I have one stop to make. It’s a stop I’ve been imagining since I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old, when I started collecting baseball cards.
Harmon Killebrew, the homerun-hitting hero of the Minnesota Twins, was born in Payette, Idaho. So claimed the back of his baseball card, and if I remember right, so did Harmon himself in an interview or two. It always seemed both strange and appropriate that Harmon should come from a small town in Idaho, a state at the time I had never visited and seemingly never would.
Harmon had charm and modesty that shone through to us fans. He was on television a lot, making uncomfortable small talk with the local announcers, sounding a lot like your gym teacher or the guy at the gas station if they were ever in that position. We all knew that Harmon was a great homerun hitter, but not the greatest, either of all time or the era. Just like the Twins of those years were a great team, but not the greatest, a claim that seemed awarded to the Orioles of Baltimore. No matter, we rooted for Harmon and his team, because they were ours. That was all that mattered.
So I drove around Payette, making a stop for a photo or two. It’s otherwise an ordinary small town in Idaho, as you might expect it to be. Their politics, judging by bumper stickers and other signs, is a tad on the conservative side. Can’t imagine living there.
But it’s heartening, at least a little, that we have something in common.
I can’t pinpoint the date, but sometime in the late 1960s, the foursome of my father, his youngest brother Ted, and my brother Danny and I embarked together on a ski trip to Winter Park, Colorado. This was the first trip to the Rockies for Danny and myself. Teddy, with his father and Sam, owned and operated a one-engine, four-passenger Bonanza, in which he flew us from Eden Prairie to Denver. I don’t know how or why, but that plane landed at Stapleton Airport, which was Denver’s bustling commercial airport of the time.
I remember other little details, which are like still photographs instead of video clips, nevermind a full movie.
–On the flight west, Danny threw up in my father’s ski hat.
–Danny and I were in ski lessons in the mornings, then got to ski with the two adults in the afternoon. I hated lessons but grudgingly recognized their benefit.
–Last run of the trip, my ski flies off the binding and slides into the woods. David and Teddy search for it, with no luck. I like to imagine it’s still there, a tree growing through it.
–Before the flight home, I bought French fries to eat in the plane. They were delicious but extremely greasy, and they kept getting lodged in my throat. While strapped in that tight little seat I stretched and gagged and tried all sorts of maneuvers to dislodge the stuck fry—and eventually I succeeded. Then I vowed to eat more carefully. And after another fry or two went down, another would get stuck, and I had to repeat the exercise.
Here in 2024, I am the lone survivor of that trip to Winter Park. I’m now about the age that my grandparents were at that time. I also, as this report should attest, still doing the downhill skiing thing—still riding the chairlifts and making the turns and joking with the lifties. For the immediate future, at least, I plan to continue.
“If you’re alive, go live!” said Valerie Harper.
“Things are not what they a-pear to be,” said my father when he sliced open a pear.
“We’re not raising lawns, we’re raising boys!” said Harmon Killebrew in his acceptance speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was quoting his father, who was responding to his mother’s complaint about messed up grass.
“Now can we go home?” asked my brother Danny, when he was very young, and we were on a camping trip.
“DAD!” yells my son Nathen from downstairs. He wants something. I’ll go see what.