PHOTO: Ryan Krueger
PHOTO: Ryan Krueger

I Was A Middle-Aged Liftie

Finding Zen as a liftie at a small ski hill

PHOTO: Ryan Krueger

After eight days impersonating a waiter, I was fired, but luckily they didn't press charges.

This was in Maine, over at Big Corporate. Mind, I got no ax to grind and no problem with anybody that works for Big Corporate; some lovely folks there.

People just trying to make turns, or make a living, or make a truck payment, or make insurance premiums: Everyone's gotta eat.

But Big Corporate has its problems. Draconian controls imposed by distant owners crush morale. And for all its touted size, a morass of flat spots, switchbacks, and cat tracks conspire to inhibit flow.

There was another smaller, funkier, indie mountain nearby called Mount Abram. I had already been over there once. Asked for a bartending gig. They scoffed. The office lady told me—in an eastern Mass. accent that no amount of time in the Pine Tree State could hope to begin to alter—that the people currently holding those jobs had been there 15, 20 yeehhs. She twisted her lips while raising her eyebrows and shrugging, as if to say: Life is full of injustices, but what, really, can one do? "We are hiring lifties, though," she added.

Now I scoffed.

I'm a bartender.

I poured my first drink professionally in a Hyannis bar frequented by latter-day Kennedys, yachties up to and including an America's Cup winner, and many aspirants to the breezy easy seaside life of lawn parties and club functions.

My next gig was in Dublin where they take the state of their Guinness pint real personal.

But the best was Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

I remember my first night. I had to start at the door. The owner handed me some small bills. He was tall, Texas-confident, and well dressed. He exuded what the writer Tom Wolfe calls "that most coveted of male attributes, Irish machismo."

"Rob. Big Rob. Where you from, Mass? That's cool. Awright, I gotta pay this band 300 bucks, so get me $300 at the door." He walked away.

"Hey, wait. How much do I charge?"

He kept walking. "Charge the first guy 300 bucks. Charge the first three $100 each, I don't care."

But that was decades ago. Now I'm this barely employed writer living in a cabin in Maine. Heat—still on. Food—dwindling. So even though it felt like a pride-swallowing step back, I decided to tend bar again only to get rejected at Abram.

That left Big Corporate.

People drive an hour and more to work for Big Corporate. In a Maine town where as recently as the 1990s there were eight working mills within city limits—employing hundreds of people at good wages—and now there were zero, jobs were scarce.

I applied for bartender. They offered server.

Was server the same as waiter?

I tried. I even bought new clothes.

On the eighth day, they fired me after a lunch rush where—excluding the scatological—everything that could go wrong, did.

So, hat in hand, I went crawling back to Abram.

The head of lifts who interviewed me—in a company office that contained about as many dogs as people (always a good sign)—told me that, in his experience, which stretched into decades and included time in Colorado and Alaska before Maine, that a ski area thrived when it had two kinds of people—the ambitious and the lazy.

"Too many ambitious people and they fight. Too many lazy people and nothing gets done."

I nodded. My kind of place.

"You get a pass but I can only pay minimum wage. Free coffee and hot chocolate."

I nodded again.

The next day I punched in as a 45-year-old liftie.

And you know what? It's grand.

The head of ski patrol is a cool chick, you can see across 70-plus miles of Maine summits from the peak, fixed doubles mean less people down the hill, and throwback equipment always earns a knowing smile in the maze.

Mount Abram is an anomaly. A medium-sized, shining white jewel of a mountain dropped improbably into a residential neighborhood where you can charge your electric car. A solar grid powers snowmaking.

Many places have dedicated locals. Not many have locals with skis on their shoulders hoofing it back to their house, sans motorized transport, when the lifts close.

There are several mettle-testing jumps with one right near the base area, so everyone can see you. There are steeps—the run under the lift features a five-foot mandatory air with the narrowest, sketchiest, iciest, rock- and stump-lined approach imaginable—and there are trees. Boundary-to-boundary skiing and the sign at the bottom says, "Trees are neither open nor closed."

Very Zen.

And they got a bar. And even if I can't work at it, for my shift drink I get a PBR draft for a buck.

I'm home.

Rob Conery has coaxed a few duct-taped battle wagons into ski area parking lots. His latest book, Shot Monkey: The Early Years, is available at SurfacePopperBooks.com.

This story originally appeared in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.