A ski bum’s pilgrimage
WORDS: Porter Fox
Migrations usually head west, toward the sunset, away from the known, and into the wild. I was 21 when I left the East Coast for Wyoming. My father stood in his driveway and handed me an entire roasted turkey wrapped in tinfoil the first day of the drive.
“You’re gonna get hungry,” he said
“I’ll be back,” I told him.
“No you won’t.”
He was right. My friend Mark Kozak graduated from college the year before and was waiting for me in South Bend, Indiana. He had driven from Maine; I was leaving from Rhode Island where I’d worked as a boat hand for the summer. I was driving a GMC Blazer with a CB antenna taped to the rear spoiler. I don’t remember what was inside, but it filled every space in the car.
I started on Route 138 and took it to the 95 South. It was fall, cool, dim September sun reflecting off the pavement. The leaves hadn’t changed but they were starting to show some color. A few yellow school buses rolled in the right lane. I passed New London and Stamford and after a while merged onto 80 West.
There’s an aesthetic in the East that folks who grew up there get accustomed to. Clapboard houses, white steeples, highway SKI AREA signs, nameless creeks. These things became scarce the farther I drove into Pennsylvania. I passed Berwick and Milton, cruised through the dense woodland south of the Allegheny National Forest. There was no construction and traffic was light. This was the road away from home and college and family, out West to a great mystery that was so captivating my friends and I had been planning the trip for two years.
There were no cell phones then, so Mark and I had gotten CB radios installed to talk to each other. I jawed with a couple of truckers, trying the thing out. They didn’t want much to do with me but would call out “bears” and the mile marker where they were parked. I listened to Pearl Jam, The Smiths, and Big Head Todd on a portable CD player I’d hardwired to the stereo. I was scared somewhere inside, but the only feeling I remember was complete and total freedom. No more classes, no more teachers, no more requirements. On the boat, I’d been working for one of the greediest, overbearing bosses I’d ever known. The feeling of leaving him in the dust only added to the thrill.
I passed into Ohio and truckers talked on the radio—McDonald’s, Travel Plazas, great fields and forests and rivers with no names. Who knew so many people traveled the big highways in the middle of the day, that there were mountains in Pennsylvania, that you could camp right off the soft shoulder in big green pastures crisscrossed with dirt roads?
I met Mark in South Bend later that day. His 1982 VW Rabbit was overloaded with stuff. He had two windsurfers—one was mine—on top of his car, two pairs of skis, bedding, ski clothes, some books, and a backpack. He said a bird got sucked into his air intake on the New York Thruway and he got stuck on a one-lane bridge. The bird clogged the carburetor and sucked the oil out of the engine. A guy with van from Missouri linked to his bumper with tire chains and drove him across the bridge, where he got a tow from AAA. “We’re brothers of the road and we have to look out for each other,” the man said when Mark tried to pay him.
The tow truck driver pulled the bird out of his carburetor and told him he’d have more power on the way to Wyoming if he didn’t use the air filter. The trick worked well and somewhere near the Ohio border he got pulled over by a cop. This from Mark:
“The officer comes over and tells me to get out of the car and come back to his car. I get in the passenger seat and he shows me his radar gun and it doesn’t look good. He asks me where I’m going and when I tell him that I’m moving to Wyoming and he gets excited. He asks if I have a place to live out there, and I say no (even though I did). He asks if I have a job, and I say no. And he says, “well you probably can’t afford one of these,” as he waves the ticket book in the air. And I say no. Then he tells me how cool it is that I’m on this adventure and wouldn’t it be funny if he just left the patrol car here and jumped in with me car and went to Wyoming too. I said ‘Ok, but we should probably take your car.’”
We found a KOA campsite a few hours later that night, pulled over, and turned off the cars. I couldn’t find the tent so we just slept in our sleeping bags under a tarp. We woke early and drove straight to a gas station for coffee and some kind of breakfast sandwich the next day. My eyes burned with fatigue and my back was getting sore, but the kick from the caffeine and the feeling of moving west were so exciting that I sang along with a country tune on the radio and gazed at the golden light falling over the cornfields of what I figured must have been western Indiana
We tested out the CBs that day, created handles to call each other by, tried to get the Rabbit to do a steady 60 mph. We branched off on highway 90 and followed the southern arc of Lake Michigan, past the smog-covered factories of Gary, Indiana, then the skyscrapers of Chicago. Just past the city we stopped in a pullout to make turkey sandwiches for lunch.
We made it to Minnesota that afternoon but the winds were so strong the Rabbit’s top speed dropped to 45mph. Mark floored the accelerator and tried to make it go faster, but the VW was topped out. I told him to draft a few feet off my bumper and we got it up to 55 mph. When a tractor-trailer would drive by I’d sneak in behind it and both of us would get sucked up in the slipstream. We drove like that for six hours or so—at 65-70 mph—so close on their bumper they couldn’t see us. When Mark would fall too far behind, I’d slow down to 45mph, wait for him, then catch another truck racing by.
We got across Minnesota and half of South Dakota like that. We were so tired by the time we stopped we forwent the tent again and slept in a field on the side of the highway. We ate more turkey sandwiches for dinner and Pop Tarts for breakfast. We passed signs for Wall Drug and Corn Palace and took a detour into Badlands National Park—where we raced along the one-way park roads before merged back onto the highway headed for Rapid City.
Through a terrible lapse in navigation skills, we stayed on Route 90 and ended up crossing the Big Horn Mountains near Sheridan, Wyoming. The mountains were the first snowy peaks we’d seen the whole trip. We figured we must be almost there. How many giant mountain ranges could there be out West? Outside of Sheridan, we rolled through cattle country with the windows down. The smell of cows and sage and fresh air was so strong it was hard to concentrate on the road.
It was late afternoon when we started the climb over the Big Horns on Route 14. The sun was golden yellow then orange as it started to fall. No wind, blue sky overhead. The old Rabbit barely made 15mph up the pass. Even my Blazer was overheating, and I had to turn the heat on high and stop a few times.
By the time we got to Thermopolis it was 7 p.m. The Rabbit’s lights had gone out, except for one headlight on high beams. Mark said he had to stop, that he couldn’t drive anymore. He told me to go on, but we talked about it some more—after the last of the turkey—and he decided he could tail my bumper again and drive by my lights.
For the next four hours we drove in tandem, through Shoshoni and Crowheart, past a dude ranch I’d visited as a kid with my grandparents. By 10 p.m. we spotted a dull glow between the mountains, the flat of the valley bottom and whipsaw silhouette of the Tetons lining the western edge. We drove down Togwotee Pass and through Grand Teton National Park, straight to the Rancher Bar in downtown Jackson Hole.
There were cowboys playing billiards inside and cold Budweiser on tap. We drank one down, practically in silence, then tried to figure out how to find our friends. Three of them had arrived a week before, and they’d already found a house. We had no phone number or address, so we got in the cars and went to find them.
The moon was out now and lit up the elk horn arches over the town square. We drove a lazy circle through East Jackson, looking in driveways for a familiar car. We ended up on Pearl Street and followed it to a lumberyard and a cul-de-sac at the end. There were a few townhouses behind it, and halfway around we spotted our friend’s car and pulled over. We gathered a few bags, locked the cars, and knocked on the front door of the house where we’d spend the greatest year of our lives.
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