I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where one just had to breathe to stay hydrated. When I moved to the Southwest for the winter, my hands immediately turned to piles of ash.
Cheap hotel room lotions, expensive Kiehl’s hand-specific salves, unsalted butter--nothing could consistently keep my hands from looking like a mosaic of dying skin.
Then, recently, I pulled into the Alta parking lot and met Jack. He sat on the hatch of his Saab/home parked next to us wearing a stained Carhartt vest, a navy blue beanie, and round eyeglasses. He was unmistakable. When he shook my hand, he apologized. He had just put on “Bag Balm.” I didn’t know what that was, or care why his hands were greasy and sticky--I was just happy to meet the young legend.
Later, over a peanut butter and jelly lunch on the Goldminers Daughter deck, Jack offered me some Bag Balm. He told me it was once used to heal cow udders. Hey, what’s good enough for bovine nipples is good enough for me! I applied it and couldn’t believe how sticky and greasy it made my hands. It was odd. That feeling lingered for about 20 minutes. That night, despite hiking and skiing and hot-tubbing and cooking the rest of the day, I couldn’t believe how normal (non-dying) my hands still looked. I bought a can immediately.
This the legend: In 1899, the Northeast Kingdom was awash with rumors of a magic ointment that could cure the most dry and cracked cow udders amid the harshest of New England winters. John L. Norris was intrigued. He rode his horse 30 miles to see it for himself. A year later, he had it packaged in a green tin and marketed to Vermont farmers. The recipe remains unchanged. Old timers talk about how the balm saved everyone’s hide in the winter of ’33, when temperatures hit 50-below. According to the Bag Balm web site, World War II soldiers used it to keep their rifles in shape, and it was applied the to feet of rescue dogs during the search after 9/11.
For skiers like me and Jack, much like it is for farmers, it is now essential for winter.