Disturbing the Piste

An old cop car chases storms and ski dreams down the great American highway

This article originally published in the September 2007 (36.1) issue of POWDER.

Before I hand over the keys, there are a few things we need to cover. First of all, the name of the game around here is speed. And in order to play, you gotta have some balls—which isn’t to be confused for being a dick. But the meek need not apply. If you’re gonna drive me, you gotta go after that F-350 on the pass, and not flinch at the sight of a pig, nor wilt in the face of snow, rain, or wind. You better believe I can handle it. So if you’re not man enough to give the pedal some lead, step aside, Jack. Go find a nice Geo.

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The next thing is somewhat of an extension to the first: Put some dirt on your upper lip there. That’s right. A mustache. Gott have one. And I’m talkin’ straight pushbroom. No pretending with handlebars or a goatee—week excuses for not having the cajones to grow the most authoritative and powerful form of facial hair. No hairy lip, no ride, capiche?

Number three: Somewhere down the road is a ski area. Get there as fast as you can. America’s got hundreds of ’em, and they’re a damn sight better than most other things. Ain’t no sense idling away in this cancerous sprawl of traffic and dust. Let’s go find ourselves some mountains and snow, and get tested by something neither you nor any asshole politician can build. Pay no attention to traffic laws and speed limits, ’cause I got that covered. I was a police car in my former life, Southern Idaho to be exact, before these guys at POWDER bought me for the sweetheart price of $2,500 and christened me “Joaquin.” Since then, I’ve been all over the country, puttin’ the fear of man into all those tin cans. You hear that roar under the hood? Feel the surge of powder long after 75 mph? That’s a solid V8, bud, and it’ll give you a freedom you haven’t felt since running win sprints naked. I’m standard police issue, a Ford Crown Vic, pride of ’97. Even my seats were built for a cop’s fat ass. So they’re ultra cushy, with plenty of support and extra-wide girth. Yeah, the tires are bald and the brakes are shot. The emergency brake died years ago, and the wipers won’t shut off till you kill the engine, usually on the fly, s’cause powder days don’t wait. If lacking any of those “safety” items discourages you, please see rule number one.

Let’s proceed.

Disturbing the piste 2

LOCATION: Mammoth Mountain, California
ODOMETER: 350 miles
SNOWFALL: 36 inches
CITING OFFICER: Hansen

It’s more than a week into February, and winter is just starting in many places across the country, especially at Mammoth. The year has been grim at best (in late January, June Mountain, 20 miles down the road, closed for the season due to a lack of snow). The forecast calls for four to six feet. It is the first storm of many Joaquin and I would encounter. In fact, there isn’t a place we go—for the next 3,500 miles—that doesn’t get plastered during our stay. As we spin into the parking lot, over a half a foot is already on the ground. Snow is blowing sideways into my ear and down my crack as I boot up. The upper mountain is closed due to high winds. But Chair 15 is chugging right along with no lift line. Beneath the chair is creamy windbuff, and I lap it repeatedly.

The storm rages into the night. The upper mountain is still closed in the morning. Around 2 p.m. I manage to get in line just before they open Chair 22, a triple chair that rises 1,400 feet to the top of steep chutes and trees. As my lift mates and I drift over three feet of untouched snow, we talk about the decision ahead—to go this way or that, and what if it’s better over there? It doesn’t matter when we get to the top. Cackling like hyenas, we pole for the steepest section. That’s always a good choice.

When I first started this thing, I mean, when I became Joaquin a few years ago, there wasn’t much to me besides four wheels and an engine. I’d lost my red-and-blues, my shotgun rack, C.B. dock—stripped bare and left to rot in a Reno plumber’s carport (great ’stache on the plumber, by the way, all big and bushy). I’d been discarded like a day-old maple bar, and I was sure my next life would be spent as a taxi, ushering pretend cowboys and low-rent hookers among the even lower-rent casinos. Then, unexpectedly, these skiers picked me up. Next thing I know I’m doing 90, chasing not a speeding perp but a huge snowstorm in the Sierras.

The pimpin’, ironically, started with five bullet hole magnets. Then an American flag. Then a Shane McConkey Huck Doll. Ever since, the various drivers—13 in all, along with countless passengers—have added their own little touches. I’m covered with stickers from Sunday River, Maine, in the East, to Mount Baker and Whistler in the West, north and south across the Rockies, and the flatlands of the Midwest. At first, I didn’t know why they kept adding to my personality. Then it hit me: The stickers, huck dolls, and Polaroid photos stuck to the interior roof were telling a story of where they’d been and, of course, what they were after.

Disturbing the piste 3

Which leads us to my next stipulation: Give me a piece of yourself (save the puke for the gutter, tough guy), and I’ll repay you in powder days. Example: Someone installed a library of classic travel literature in the rear window. A hunter’s cap from Michigan asks that we “GET ADDICTED TO U.P. WOLVES: SMOKE A PACK A DAY.” There’s a plastic skull glued to the steering wheel. The signatures of the drivers, snow totals, and mileage milestones. The girls: “Cary got me wet at Bachelor,” “Yogachik,” “Jackson’s Hole Lotta Woman,” not to mention what a black light would find in the trunk. Steve Casimiro recorded the first speed record while crossing Nevada at 120 mph. A year later, John Stifter and Greg Tufflemire busted it open in Iowa when they hit 125. Not bad for civilians. Later, David Reddick and Matt Sterbenz proudly noted their “slow speed record,” notching a sustained 5 mph for 10 clicks heading north from Steamboat Springs in a blizzard. Porter Fox bolted Budweiser skis across the front hood in Jackson. During a six-hour garage session in Vail, I got a ski rack and neon-blue ground effects, along with interior movie lights. Everywhere in between there was skiing. Lots of it.

“THEY LOOK LIKE KIDS WHO’D JUST HAD THE CURTAINS PULLED BACK ON WHAT IT MEANS TO DREAM.”

Jackalope antlers adorned the grill until they were pilfered after I passed out in a Motel 6 parking lot in Wisconsin. The antlers were replaced by the top of a kid’s BMX trophy, and now a plastic action woman sits straddled, unrestrained, across the biker’s lap. Even crossing over western Montana, a one-day 700-mile blitz where I was certain the ski rack would get ripped off by the wind, the biker and his lady held strong. What didn’t hold was my rear right window, which Derek Taylor busted out in Salt Lake City after he locked the keys in. Back in the service, replacement glass would’ve been complements of you, the American taxpayer. But here in my new life, it’s cardboard and duct tape. And I was off again.

Disturbing the piste 4

LOCATION: Litchfield, California
ODOMETER: 700 miles
SNOWFALL: Zero

Highway 395: Road to Nowheresville. This ribbon of asphalt—starting a few hundred miles south of Mammoth and heading north on the leeward side of the Sierras and Cascades up to the Canadian border, and passing within striking distance of the best skiing on the West Coast—is certainly one of the loneliest in America. A few hours north of Reno—and Squaw Valley, where the local pros were more interested in “training for AK” at their home resort than exploring the open road—is a town called Litchfield. There’s a general store, a school and, down the road a ways, a prison. The dogs are as mangy and sad as anywhere north of Mexico. Heard’s Market, built almost 90 years ago, has the refreshments. Everett Heard, a lumbering, slow-moving man in his 70s, runs the place. He sells bibles on the magazine rack, next to assorted galoshes and jerky. His business card says: “With God, All Things Are Possible.” I’m pretty sure the same is true for decommissioned cop cars.

On the porch, Hannah and Tiffany, ages 12 and 13 and full of jitters, are sipping Cokes. They can’t take their eyes off Joaquin. Hannah, embarrassed and shy, just moved there from Palm Springs with her family. And Tiffany, wearing thick glasses and a nervous smile that reveals a few gapped teeth, hasn’t been anywhere. They don’t believe Joaquin’s story at first—that he’d been back and forth across the country just to help some people ski. The sport, they say looking at their shoes, looks scary. I sit down on the porch and explain that it just takes practice. Tiffany plops down so close I can smell her bubblegum. They continue to check out Joaquin’s stickers, the skis, the paint, the names. They look like kids who’d just had the curtains pulled back on what it means to dream. Before saying goodbye, they snap a few photos. It’s a good day in Litchfield.


The road can be awfully long sometimes.
Especially on those deserted stretches between the hills—miles of nothin’ that serve to remind you how big this country really is. Feels like you got no home and nobody, right? Well, partner, hear this: Those wide-open spaces are only gettin’ smaller by the hour. And just as bad, the towns dottin’ our highways are lookin’ so similar to one another—the Wal-Marts, Taco Bells, and Pizza Huts—that you can’t tell ’em apart. It might be good for a drive-thru burger, but I’m tired of that same old shit.

So crank up the tunes and appreciate those out-of-the-way stretches. There’s richness in these little slices of Americana, and you’ll find it if you canvas the local eateries to chat up some of the people who live there. Maybe ask about the weather. But keep your wits about ya, and if you’re ever in southern Oregon and run into a guy named Daryl, gun it for the next town.

Disturbing the piste 5

LOCATION: Lakeview, Oregon
ODOMETER: 841 miles
SNOWFALL: Zero

Daryl is missing his top row of front teeth, so he speaks in a lisp. He wears a dirty orange Stihl hat and a thick blue flannel worn fuzzy from years of abuse. Placing a pack of Marlboro Reds on the counter, he orders a coffee from the waitress, Mary, whom he knows by first name. But I’m sure everyone in Lakeview does. It’s a slow night at Jerry’s Diner, it being Valentine’s Day, so Mary skips out for one of Daryl’s smokes. I’m eating warmed-up blackberry pie and vanilla ice cream. Daryl saw Joaquin parked out front. He swivels his chair beneath his huge 250-pound hulk and nods in my direction.

“How far you goin’?” he asks.
“North,” I say, “maybe to Canada.”

The words spark his memory, and I get some conversation. He says he used to drive an old RV to Alaska to work the pipeline each summer. Made ninety grand in three months. Now he builds fences in Lakeview. And no one, he promises as he points a knobby old finger at me, stretches tighter fence. The inspector told him so. We go from Alaska to the Yukon, where Daryl says you can buy a tin pan for fifteen bucks and make a hundred times that in one little scoop of gold from the river. Then he’s in Southern California, where he worked at a shipyard. Made about forty grand that time. Which reminds him of something else. He stands up and lumbers over to my booth. His blue eyes are cloudy and lazy. He leans on the booth opposite me, and I’m expecting him to slide in across the table. Daryl then says he’s got four guns in his pickup truck. One of them, a 1911 pistol, can hammer a nail at 50 yards. He looks out the window—where my photographer’s flash is making his head twitch, like people do when lightning strikes—and he starts to tell me about Vietnam. He says the “niggers” in his platoon—the word slices the air like a knife—used to smuggle drug money back to the States. “You know where they hid it?” he asks. “Where no one would look?” He pauses, waiting for me to answer, but I just shake my head. “In body bags.”

Rule number six: Whip donuts. Often and with ferocity. There are subtle yet important steps to whippin’ the proper shitty. First, find an open lot with at least three inches of snow and ice but not more than 12. Second, lower your shades and check the ’stache in the mirror. Third, apply steady and mounting pressure to the gas—30 mph’ll do the trick. Fourth, ease the steering wheel one way or the other—one-handed, of course—thus initiating the necessary momentum. Step five, crank on the wheel the other direction while simultaneously givin’ ’er lead. Hence, the satisfying whip of the perfect donut. As if ski area parking lots were built for anything else.

 

LOCATION: Mount Bachelor to Government Camp, Oregon
ODOMETER: 1,067 to 1,292 miles
SNOWFALL: 8 inches, mostly sideways
WIND SPEED: 130mph

The warning is stern. “Don’t go to Bachelor today,” they said. “You won’t like it.” I could take the advice and sit on my ass in Bend, or go see for myself. Plus, weather is forecast—not predicted—for a reason. You never know till you go.

The resort issues exactly 17 tickets that day, mine included. A weekday, of course, but still. The report posts rain and snow and wind. In the parking lot, after getting my ticket and a plastic bag from the dashing Cary, I pop the trunk and quickly wish I hadn’t. The wind jostles Joaquin with such strength that I’m expecting him to flip clean over. That, or the trunk lid rips off its hinges, flies through the air, and decapitates some poor kid who skis in any and all kinds of conditions because he lives in Portland and is forced to grade weather in terms of bad, worse and worst.

I take a couple of gratuitous laps, whip my obligatory donuts in the parking lot, and get the hell out of there. The worst comes later, while crossing over Mount Hood. Gusts are clocked at 130 mph, and the road is cluttered with shredded tree branches. Being too cheap to replace Joaquin’s old wipers and headlights, I’m forced to drive by brail on his similarly old, ineffective radials. My vision is limited to a clear spot in the windshield the width of a hamburger patty. In order to stay in my lane, I lean over the steering wheel and line up the BMX trophy with the road shoulder. It nearly ends when two 18-wheelers pass me at once. Blinding spray and fog and monstrous wheels are about to steal my final seconds. Joaquin’s right tires slip off the road. Branches and mud churn violently in the wheel wells. Somehow I’m able to correct, and Joaquin is true once again. I find Government Camp and the Huckleberry Inn. I’ve never been so relieved to come in from the storm.

Even when you’re tired, you gotta find fresh snow—my next requirement. Aside from rules one and two, this is the most important—the reason you let grease and melted snow drip into your mouth and ears while puttin’ on my chains. I’ve seen it in your eyes, that crazy happy look that says there’s nothin’ quite like the freedom of a powder day. What else is there, you might ask. Big house, fancy car, career? Those things’ll float you for a while—help you win respect from old people at weddings and maybe score at your reunion—but the next thing you know your memory bank is owned by the emptiness of material wealth. Soon enough, you’ll be one of those hapless fools paying someone else to put chains on your own tires.

Disturbing the piste 6

LOCATION: Mount Baker, Washington
ODOMETER: 1,675 miles
SNOWFALL: 4 feet

Baker is bluebird the day I arrive. My first experience at this land of so-called epic dumps is skiing moguls—a vexing situation. I’m a mere 50 miles from Canada, which has been getting hammered all year, yet all of America sits in front of me. The Rockies are finally getting their due. All up and down the interior West, cold smoke is being measured in feet, and more is on the way. Friends are calling from Bozeman, Jackson, Salt Lake, Steamboat, and Silverton with the same simple message: Get here fast. I can’t stay at Baker if it’s not going to snow. Before hitting the Tap Room, I go to Joaquin for consultation. A few minutes later, I’m awakened by the sound of someone trying to open the rear right door. But it’s just a young guy rubbing stickers onto Joaquin’s side panel. He’s got a slick smile, like he’s admiring his tracks down a line everyone can see. The look in his eyes says something big is about to happen.

As soon as I lay my head back down, strong winds buffet Joaquin. The temperature drops. Ominous gray clouds fill the sky. A few snowflakes come to rest on the windshield, then a few more, and a few more. Turns out that I’m just in time for one of those epic dumps. Over the next two days, Baker gets buried with four feet. I’m right where I need to be.

Lastly, you gotta keep this motor runnin’. I’ve always wanted to go to Canada, so let’s go see what bug crawled up a customs agent’s ass before hittin’ Red Mountain. Or we could keep it Stateside, and head to Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho. Maybe along the way we’ll meet a fat fella at a gas station who’ll say I’m “badass” while snappin’ digi photos for his buddies who are all “ski hounds.” And since we’re along the Continental Divide, we might as well follow the blizzards down to Bridger Bowl. Jackson Hole’s not much farther along. Guess we should go see how they’re fairin’ without the Red Box. Course, from Wyoming you can damn near hear the church bells ringin’ in the temples of the Wasatch, and that there’s tough to resist. Or maybe, just like all those pros back at Squaw, maybe this whole time I’ve been “trainin’ for AK.” I hear there’s lots of open road ’tween here and there.