Settling into the rhythm of a ski town’s off season

Sometime in April, a curious phenomenon occurs in ski towns across the American West.

The lifts stop spinning, curbing the flow of tourists and money. Closing day marks the end of employment for hundreds of workers. Lifties, restaurant servers, bus drivers, and ski instructors pack up Outbacks and Tacomas and hit the road, off to the desert, to Mexico, to beach adventures. With a two-week break from school, local families leave to visit relatives or someplace warm. Do the restaurants and businesses all close down because the people leave or do people leave because everything is shut tight?

Overnight, ski town turns to ghost town.

Spring elsewhere means green grass and flowers, gentle showers, mild temperatures, and pleasant sunshine. Call it off-season or mud-season, but what constitutes spring in the mountains is an epic battle between summer and winter, each attempting to claw the months of April and May into its grasp. Spring in the mountains means snowstorms, dust storms, wind storms, and perpetually moody and capricious skies. Spring in the mountains does not come on as a slow advancement. It’s two steps forward and one step back. It happens in violent fits and starts with sunny warm days made for main street bench-sitting juxtaposed with a foot of wet snow. Dust storms from the Southwest make it snow red dirt (“snirt”) from the skies. Trails above the valley are still buried under too much snow for biking or hiking. It’s no wonder everyone leaves.

Everyone except me.

It takes a few days to settle into the rhythm of off season, but soon something magical happens. Without the distractions of powder days and boozy nights, I embrace simplicity. There are no obligations, no plans, no pressure, no fear of missing out, nowhere to be. The thing to do is just enjoy being here.

Ironically, the one time of the year when huge snowstorms are practically guaranteed is after the resort closes for the season. But whether the lifts are shuttling passengers is irrelevant. If there’s fresh snow to be skied, we just skin for it. After months of skier and snowcat compaction, the resort slopes have somewhat lower avalanche danger than a true backcountry snowpack. Plus, they’re right out my front door.

Spring storms must be skied early because by midday any fluff has turned to cement. Dawn patrol it is. Nature has quickly reclaimed what was tame just a few weeks earlier so we carry beacons, shovels, probes and follow backcountry protocol, which feels strange in terrain I have memorized. The old adage that you appreciate something more when you work for it applies. Runs that became routine months ago when a lift dropped me at the top are thrilling again when I earn my turns and don’t have to share the trail with hundreds of others. An impossibility during the busy season, I get first tracks on my favorite pistes. There’s an immense satisfaction of devoting an entire day to just two top-to-bottom runs without the aid of machines.

Spring doesn’t have the flashiness of fall or the crisp air and sparkling snow of winter or the drama of summer thunderstorms and rainbows. Spring beauty is subtle. It’s dirty and dreary, verging on lonely. But I love it because it’s mine.

Fuzzy buds appear on trees. The snowpack in shady areas of my favorite trail slowly disappears, shrinking by a little bit each time I run it. The full moon seems brighter. Mud clings to shoes and tires. Bunnies and robins hop down sidewalks and dart under bushes. Elk, looking scraggly after a long winter, come down to lower elevations to graze on tender, new shoots of grass. Menacing clouds race across the horizon. On the first really warm day, the river rises with snowmelt and by midday is brown and churning with branches. By dark it is barely a trickle again as the snow up high refreezes.

Walking down a deserted main street a few days ago, we saw some friends on the other side of the street. They waved and called out, “Look, people!,” joking that the four of us were like the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse. We met and hugged in the middle of the street because we could. We stood for a few minutes, taking in the soft, pink alpenglow that the sunset cast on the end of the box canyon, the very same alpenglow that happens every night and causes the on-season hoards to pull out their cell phone cameras. But on this April evening in the quiet solitude, it seemed even prettier than usual. Maybe it was because there was no one else around to see it.

*This essay appeared in Adventure Journal on 4/21/16

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