Words: Kurt Mullen
His face was as raw as paste. His black jacket and pants were rumpled, like he kept them in a sandwich bag overnight. There was a Grateful Dead sticker on the shovel of his ski, and I could tell his eyes had seen their share of sunrises. He’d skied more than 60 days at Alta that year, and I was surprised when he said he was not local.
When he told us he was from Virginia, he didn’t bother to explain. It was a riddle with no clues. With more than half the chair ride left, we could either ignore him or ask about it.
How do you get out here so much? Do you have a house in the area? Do you do business in Salt Lake?
He shook his head at the questions, turned and looked down the short row of us.
“I’m a storm chaser,” he said. “I chase storms.”
I’d never met anybody who’d given themselves a title. Not for a recreational sport like skiing, at least. Like with nicknames, it’s taboo, especially when friends catch wind. Also, I wondered if he was kidding.
“What do you mean you chase storms?” a friend asked.
“I watch for storms,” he said, “and when I see something, I fly out here.”
“You mean you watch for them…on the Internet?”
It was easy to place his voice. He was somewhere between a real hippie and Jeff Spicoli—perhaps a little too old for the full-on stoner drawl, but every casual word was steeped in the same tea. His eyes were a mix of confusion and a pale desire to please, like an adopted dog that never feels quite at home. Maybe he wasn’t used to people asking about the nuts and bolts of his life.
But after he told us he was a storm chaser, he wanted to draw the curtain back some more. He wanted us to know that the life of a storm chaser is not always glamorous. So no, he said, he didn’t have a place to stay out here. He described the musty motel he uses in Salt Lake, and didn’t put any varnish on it. When he pulled the curtain further, he told us that he lived back in Virginia with his mom on a farm she owned.
When I returned to Alta the following year, I see him before I take my first turn. He’s leaning his skis on a rack by the sun patio in front of the Goldminer’s Daughter.
“You’re from Virginia, right?” I ask. “You come out when there’s a storm.”
It’s early afternoon and the mountain is behind me. He’s bewildered by my insistence that we know each other. But powder is like alcohol in the way it gets us talking, and he realizes it could only be him I’m recalling. And I’m remembering him the way he wants to be remembered. He is a storm chaser, a chaser of storms. With this, his face goes easy. When his mouth opens, the words rise like a bird from an open window.
“I just love the powww,” he says.