Destinations: Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths, Part 2 - Ski Mag

Destinations: Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths, Part 2

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The set of papers I'm grading is on Walker Percy's

Loss of the Creature,

an essay that shows how our expectations can alienate us from our experience. Percy says most of us spend our lives confined in "preformed symbolic complexes" that forever keep us from touching the world. When you're skiing, for example, you have expectations that may consistently place you on a smooth run, slaloming through lift towers on super-sidecuts. Skiing involves last night's grooming and snowmaking, the people watching you from the lift, the feel of an engineered turn, and the price of a lift ticket. Would it be skiing if the snow was wind-blown and rocky, the lift nonexistent, your skis cable-mounted Hexcels, your ticket paid for by a hike of several thousand vertical feet?

My writing students deal with these ideas as if they are handling snakes. Walker Percy doesn't talk about skiing. He does talk about college. It's easy to see how college imprisons them in other people's expectations¿to get A's, to go to class, to turn in papers.

"Next paper," I say, "eliminate all the metaphors from your text. Just write what's real and true." It's a cruel assignment given the metaphorical nature of language and the fact that more philosophers than Feyerabend insist the real is ultimately unknowable, but they write the assignment in their notebooks anyway.

That afternoon, my writing students begin to link telemark turns. Really. Truly. "That's good," I say. "Those turns were definitely not metaphors."

At the end of the day, I ski the wind-laden slope above the lodge, trying to avoid setting off an avalanche that will crush the Suburban. The real snow settles with a real whump! at the end of every real turn.

Tim's biology class has found, in a hilltop cairn 10 miles up the valley, a hive of hibernating ladybugs. The class had climbed up a windblown ridge in bad weather to take ladybug temperatures. Ladybugs, they discover, still move about when their internal temperatures register below freezing. Tim hypothesizes that the bugs manufacture their own antifreeze, possibly glycerol, which can be identified by its sweet taste. Several students chew up several ladybugs in an attempt to verify this hypothesis. Results are inconclusive. Warm-climate bugs¿spiders or cockroaches¿need to be sampled for comparison. No one volunteers to complete the experiment.

The first and last day of skating. We've received permission from the Forest Service to shovel off the ice on Little Redfish Lake so we can play hockey. The entire group starts up the short road from Highway 75, carrying snow shovels, scoops, skates, torches, and pitchforks.

But since I checked the lake in December, it has snowed three feet. The weight of the snow has pushed the ice underwater, and two feet of wet slush sits on our rink.

"El Niño," explains Tim.

Fortunately, we have enough daylight left to go skiing.

Beau Weber, a senior, turns in his nonmetaphorical paper. Excerpts:

I have spent an hour and a half climbing the steep slope of Galena to reach its peak. I have, as many backcountry skiers say, "earned my turns."

But I haven't earned anything. One cannot earn a mountain. If one believes that a mountain or a day of skiing can be earned, he has not only commodified time and energy, but also the turns which will be made on the slope.

Making a commodity of experience fools people into thinking they have gained something that will sustain them when they return to offices and cities.

But I do not mean to place myself on a moral high ground. I'm standing here thinking how cool it is that I'm about to ski powder which nobody else has skied. I focus only on the physical surface of the mountain because I am afraid of what lies below the surface of both the snow and my own skull.

Perhaps thought is inevitably entwined with metaphor, and only during absence of thought do we approach true experience.

The metaphor I scribble on Beau's papers an A.

El Niño is good to us, mostly. We never see 40 below. It does rain. We do spend more than one wet morning inside with hot chocolate, and we have one really warm day in late January when the mosquitoes come out. But the wet and settling snowpack sets up like concrete. Powder comes in on top of it. For at least three weeks, we're in the middle of half a million acres of untracked soft stuff on a solid base, there for just the hike out the door.

Sophomore Jeri Ruby has worked overtime in a nursing home to earn the $750 surcharge the Sawtooth field expedition requires. She showed up with low-top cross-country shoes and narrow skis and had to be escorted down the first slope she got on¿via the traverse-and-kick-turn method. But in two weeks, with randonnée boots and an old pair of Silvretta-mounted Dura-Fibers, she's on Galena Summit, on a run we call Wildman, linking turns in deep powder.

I change my estimation of how long it takes people to learn to ski. Tim and I have put our students out on slopes that are too steep, with patched-together equipment, and they've done fine. Sara Marchese, another of my writing students, having become expert in a couple of weeks, has shown us how close to vertical a learning curve can get. I'm convinced that if people don't know how hard it is to learn to ski, they'll learn faster.

"The secret is mileage," I tell my writing class. "Do anything three or four hours a day for a month, and you'll get good at it. That's why you're skiing so well. That's also why we're writing 60 pages for this course."

They growl at me. But there's a clear connection between learning to write and learning to ski. Josh Sears, who is learning to ski by heading straight down the steepest slope he can find until he hits warp speed and blows up, writes the following for an assignment focusing on gender:

A year ago, my mother told me that she didn't think that I had any respect for women. I was disturbed for a second, but only for a second. I quickly thought to myself, "What the hell does she know?"

The hot tub has become a habit for some people. We've dumped so many chemicals in it that it glows fluorescent green in the moonlight. We're also keeping it at 107 degrees Fahrenheit, which keeps people from staying in it all night. I've given a deadly serious lecture about the dangers of hot tubs and alcohol.

But our pleas for moderation in all things except skiing and studying have been respected. The lodge has been mostly quiet, as somebody is always studying or writing. The only really tacky music on the stereo has belonged to Tim or me, at least since I hid the Nine Inch Nails CD under the couch cushions.

The food has been great. We've had wine with dinner. We've circled the stove on snowy mornings and discussed good books. We've skied daily, regardless of conditions. The biology class, studying tracks, came upon a real live mountain lion. The washer and dryer haven't completely broken down. We've seen elk, deer, snowshoe rabbits, coyotes, bald eagles, foxes, and ospreys. For those of us afraid of hot-tub chemicals, we've located a hot spring downriver. We've had live bluegrass performances by a local band.

We brought a VCR, but it hasn't seen much use since we showed The Shining. Instead, we've begun impromptu readings of stories, journals, and favorite works after the evening class. Elsje has read us Plato's parable of the cave, and we've spent time discussing whether our time in Sawtooth Valley has allowed us to escape the metaphor Plato says we're all imprisoned in. One thing is certain: Our prison is a lot more comfortable than Plato's.

Fiction or not, time passes. A minute, an hour, a day¿then a month. We will leave Sawtooth Valley on Valentine's Day. Most of us are heading off into preformed symbolic complexes involving hearts, flowers, and dinner. The computers have been in use around the clock. The printer is churning out pages of text. Valentine's Day is also the day final projects are due.

P.E. 150, Final Exam: Idaho Highway 75 goes over Galena Summit at 8,701 feet, and if you park at the top of Galena, you can follow a ridge south to Bromaghin Peak, which is at the head of Owl Creek, which leads back to the highway. It's a 15-mile tour with a 2,000-foot loss of altitude. But be careful of giant cornices and moving snow. Stay off slopes 40 degrees and steeper¿you'll speed up if you fall. Never mind the 40-mile-per-hour wind you'll be leaning into. Never mind that the views are straight down. Never mind that nobody's been there yet this year¿it's their loss. Save some energy for the five-mile trek out the creek canyon. Look out for ego snow¿it will make you careless. Remember to find both truth and beauty.

You've got eight hours of daylight; bring ski equipment, a shovel, an avalanche transceiver, lunch, and a blue book (optional). I'll be waiting with the Suburban at the mouth of Owl Creek.

Actually, I go along with them. It's too grand a tour to miss.

On the morning of Valentine's Day, just before we load up for the trip back to campus, a few of us steal enough time to go across the river to a long powder slope. It's a 50-minute climb to the top, but nobody's complaining. I watch Sara Marchese weave in and out of Doug firs at speed. She's told us she wants to be a backcountry guide. Tim follows her down. He's transferred the skills of a lifetime of skating to skis, and he looks like he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the possibility of humanpowered flight. Jeri Ruby and Beau Weber are burning hard-earned vertical like there's no tomorrow.

It will be two weeks before we assemble again at a president's dinner at Albertson College. At that meeting, when the president of the college asks Sara what she learned in the Sawtooths, she'll say, "I didn't know the world could really be that way. That good."

Go back to Part 1 of Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths.'s Day is also the day final projects are due.

P.E. 150, Final Exam: Idaho Highway 75 goes over Galena Summit at 8,701 feet, and if you park at the top of Galena, you can follow a ridge south to Bromaghin Peak, which is at the head of Owl Creek, which leads back to the highway. It's a 15-mile tour with a 2,000-foot loss of altitude. But be careful of giant cornices and moving snow. Stay off slopes 40 degrees and steeper¿you'll speed up if you fall. Never mind the 40-mile-per-hour wind you'll be leaning into. Never mind that the views are straight down. Never mind that nobody's been there yet this year¿it's their loss. Save some energy for the five-mile trek out the creek canyon. Look out for ego snow¿it will make you careless. Remember to find both truth and beauty.

You've got eight hours of daylight; bring ski equipment, a shovel, an avalanche transceiver, lunch, and a blue book (optional). I'll be waiting with the Suburban at the mouth of Owl Creek.

Actually, I go along with them. It's too grand a tour to miss.

On the morning of Valentine's Day, just before we load up for the trip back to campus, a few of us steal enough time to go across the river to a long powder slope. It's a 50-minute climb to the top, but nobody's complaining. I watch Sara Marchese weave in and out of Doug firs at speed. She's told us she wants to be a backcountry guide. Tim follows her down. He's transferred the skills of a lifetime of skating to skis, and he looks like he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the possibility of humanpowered flight. Jeri Ruby and Beau Weber are burning hard-earned vertical like there's no tomorrow.

It will be two weeks before we assemble again at a president's dinner at Albertson College. At that meeting, when the president of the college asks Sara what she learned in the Sawtooths, she'll say, "I didn't know the world could really be that way. That good."

Go back to Part 1 of Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths.

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