Winter: The State of Mind

Winter is more than December through March. An essay by John Kubiak (Volume 2, Issue 1).

By John Kubiak

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in Volume 2, Issue 1, in 1973.

Winter is more than December through March when the roads are slippery, or driveways are full of slush, and kids hope that the furnace will break at school.

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Winter is the state of mind that sends you into dusty basements in the middle of July to sit around reading old ski magazines, or to wax ski boots, or wear them. In July, winter is filing edges on skis that won’t see ice for seven months, or thinking about an old pair of Kneissls that lasted seven seasons and were finally demolished in a flat landing after a beautiful gelandespring off one of the nicest bumps ever on a spring day when the snow flashed like a million pieces of cut glass in the afternoon sun, and your face smelled sweetly of wind-dried sweat and felt the warmth of sunburn…

You pour another cup of coffee, look out an open window at still-green leaves and smell still-blooming flowers, and think about December because your soul knows it’s winter again.

Winter comes one morning when you go outside and notice a little more dew than before, and a breeze that smells a little sharper, and there’s the slightest hint of a chill in the air that will be searing by noon. You pick up the paper from the porch and go inside and notice all the ads for back-to-school clothes including “SUPER ACRYLIC AND NYLON SKI JACKETS” pictured with belts, hoods, zippers, and hooks in five colors for $17.95. You pour another cup of coffee, look out an open window at still-green leaves and smell still-blooming flowers, and think about December because your soul knows it’s winter again.

You know, as you stare some August morning out the kitchen window into January, that in three weeks you’ll be counting the berries on mountain ash trees. Lots of mountain ash berries mean lots of snow.

Winter afternoons in September you jog through the park, or skip rope, and do sit-ups, and maybe wear ankle weights around the house for two weeks until you get tired of that and spend your time wandering around sporting goods stores. You talk about last March, or ask about new boots; look at things newly-arrived and argue about things already-tried. Sometimes you buy a can of boot wax or something.

Finally, in the dead of winter, the October ski magazine comes out. It’s instantly bought, read 11 times, and dismissed as a lousy issue—not enough pictures. There are never enough pictures.

“But did you read about those new ‘Superepoxi-metal-wood-rubber dampered-snaky-stiff-fast-good in the deep stuff-good on the hardstuff’ skis that so-and-so is bring out? Man, I can’t wait to try a pair.”

The ski magazine has an article on conditioning which is catalyst for another week of training, but by then it’s October already and you’re much too psyched to concentrate on anything so dull as skipping rope.

I’ve got to get the SNOW man.

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Now it’s the middle of October and if you haven’t been able to get to a glacier or a permanent snowfield you’re unsatisfying yourself with rumors of three inches of snow 60 miles north of town.

“And did you know that the frost stayed until almost noon yesterday in the shady places?”

You raptly listen to a friend’s report that a 70-year-old guy who runs a gas station in Oregon says it’s going to snow like crazy.

“And he worked for the Forest Service for 38 years as a snow ranger, and always pegs the weather right on the nose.”

By the third week in October you’re driving around the country, carrying ski poles in the car, and a bottle of wine, a big chunk of cheese and a loaf of rye bread. You’re wearing a ski sweater and looking up at the mountains through nature-painted trees—yellow, orange, and brown. You drive up to the place where you usually ski and sit in the parking lot returning the lifeless stare of a ski lodge window. You get out of the car, walk over to a thermometer inscribed “Skiing Spoken Here” and look at the red arrow pointing to 67 degrees. You remember the winter six years ago when it never snowed, and everybody skied on rocks all winter, and grass grew between the moguls.

“OMIGOD, what if that happened again?”

So you walk up the mountain through a lot of brush, get sweaty and dusty; and your sweater gets dirty. You sit on a big, sun-warmed block of granite near the mountaintop, look out on a meadow full of huckleberry bushes, and slap the dust idly with a ski pole. You feel the wind in your hair, and gaze over endless forests trimmed with fall’s orange, gold, and yellow. In the far distance stand mountains high enough to already have white tops. You cut some cheese, and drink some wine, and sit there thinking about inaccessible Rockies, or Tetons, or Sawtooths, or Cascades, or Sierras. You watch big clouds roll by, feel the chill when they cover the sun, and know that it can’t be another winter like it was six years ago.

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Two weeks later it snows.

Ski areas open and all the hard core skiers are up there jumping over rocks and stumps, dodging brush, and skiing across streams. They tear up a lot of perfectly good equipment, ski lousy, and get angry because they can’t seem to do anything right.

“I know I was skiing better than this year. Why didn’t I just stay home and watch UCLA and Notre Dame?”

It snows all week. All the rocks get covered. The stumps get buried behind the streams bridged.

Powder snow that hisses under your skis, and smokes up behind you, hanging shiny in the sun. Powder snow that floats lazily up and gets in your eyes, covers your hat, falls down your neck, and is so cold that you’re warm all over. Powder snow that swallows you whole when you fall.

Saturday morning you show up again and see trees carved from frost, frost-covered lift towers, diamond snow crystals gilding sunlit meadows. You feel the air sculpture of wind around your head. You listen to ski boots clumping across concrete floors, or up rough wooden stairs. You hear school kids yelling, girls struggling with bindings, parents shouting at kids. You listen to snow squeaking underfoot. You smell wet wool, and hot chocolate, and greasy hamburgers, and leather. The chairlift creaks in the cold. Skis clack lazily together as you ride up. Cold nylon crackles when you move.

And under the lift there’s powder snow.

“POWDER, MAN, POWDER!!!”

Powder snow that hisses under your skis, and smokes up behind you, hanging shiny in the sun. Powder snow that floats lazily up and gets in your eyes, covers your hat, falls down your neck, and is so cold that you’re warm all over. Powder snow that swallows you whole when you fall. Powder that hides the guy you’re skiing with, except for maybe his head, or an arm. Powder so wonderful all you can do is scream, or sing, or just ski because there’s nothing you can say.

So you spend all day floating through turns that seem to take forever. You ski the regular runs, then the out-of-the-way runs, then in the trees, then down the back of the mountain because everything else is tracked up. Before the last run down you ski around to the west side of the mountain and watch a light-bulb colored sun set in a bleached-out yellow line under gray-black December clouds. You feel like you did last July on the first day of winter.

Then you come down, red-faced, frosty-haired, drunk with ecstasy, and try to tell somebody about it.

“…and, man, you wouldn’t believe how GREAT it was. And you should have seen Bruce fall in that tree well. And I skied off this 12-foot CLIFF and landed in powder up to my WAIST. And it came up in my EYES so I couldn’t SEE. And you know that place over on the back side by those meadows? Well, we skied there all afternoon and NEVER CROSSED A TRACK, MAN. And I never saw my tips ALL AFTERNOON. And you should have seen Kenny carving up the deep stuff over in the South Bowl. And we found this place that is SOOO STEEEP that you wouldn’t believe it. And it was so good that you’d just go OUT OF YOUR MIND. And why don’t you come with us tomorrow? And man you should’ve seen the sunset…”

And the guy looks at you and either grins and understands because he’s been there, or he just looks at you because he hasn’t.

Then you climb into a foggy-windowed car and fall asleep. The guy who has to drive home turns up the radio to keep him awake; and the car slips into place in a red and white-lighted snake that travels in 5:30 darkness past “Chains Required” and “Watch for Ice on Roadway” signs, and jackknifed semis, state police, and tow trucks, and gas stations barricaded behind gravelly snow banks. The roads are slippery, and the driveways are full of slush. Kids hope that the furnace will break at school, but it’s been winter for a long time.