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Destinations: Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths


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It’s 4 a.m. and I should be sleeping, but I’m in a backcountry ski lodge with 12 other people and at least three of them are snoring. The couch I will sleep on for the next 30 days wasn’t designed for sleep, or even comfort. I’m thinking about a set of papers I have to grade. I’m thinking about the backcountry beginners who will be skiing the hill above the lodge tomorrow. I’m worrying about avalanches and people running into trees and the literature class that I’ll be teaching in front of the woodstove as soon as it gets light.

I’m also worrying about one of the writers we’re studying, Paul Feyerabend, who says truth in literature or in science or even in skiing depends entirely on who is seeing it. Such relativism is easy enough to believe in the virtual reality of the classroom, safely insulated from tree wells and wind-loaded 50-degree slopes. But by six, when I get up and start the coffee, I’ve concluded that Feyerabend was never a backcountry skier.

Along with Professor Tim Otter, biology Ph.D. and hockey player, I’m leading the Albertson College 1998 Sawtooth Valley Field Experience.

Albertson is a high-quality, high-intensity liberal arts college in Caldwell, Idaho. Its campus has the distinction of being about as far from mountains as you can get in Idaho. The good news is that you can’t get very far from mountains in Idaho.

We’ve rented Beckwith’s Lodge in Sawtooth Valley, a big two-story log cabin that sleeps 15, from January 15 to February 14. Thirty days. We’ve got 11 students with us, and the school’s new Suburban¿the one with leather and the paint job with no scratches in it. The students have been told that anyone who harms the Suburban will forfeit a firstborn child. It’s sitting outside the lodge, frosty and glistening¿with a big crack in the windshield from a rock kicked up by a passing snowplow. I was driving.

So far nobody’s mentioned it, probably because I’m also going to be signing grade sheets at the end of the winter term.

Here’s the curriculum: Bio./Eng. 205. Uncharted Territories (3 credits). It’s a team-taught literature class, but it’s literature designed for scary discussions around the woodstove on cold snowy nights. One of the books we’re reading is Perfume, Patrick Süskind’s novel about a psychopath who is ruled by his sense of smell and who murders young virgins for their scent. Another is Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist On Mars, essays about the entirely different universes lived in by people who have brain dysfunctions. We’ve already read Peter Høeg’s Borderliners, about a school where students cause total chaos by changing the clocks that schedule classes. The novel exposes linear time as a fiction, a false metaphor. Having read it, most of the students have left their watches home, leaving the burden of figuring out what time it is to Tim and me.

Eng. 301. Advanced Writing (3 credits). My writing students will complete 55 pages of writing in the six-week winter term. They’ve already done four five-page essays while on campus, and they hate me for it. When you’re not skiing, I’ve told them, you’ll be writing.

Bio. 128. Biology of Extreme Environments (3 credits). Tim’s biology students will study soil temperatures, hot-spring life, the winter river bottom, and the elk, deer, coyotes, and bunnies running around the hills above the lodge. And ladybugs. We cannot forget the ladybugs.

P.E. 150. Backcountry Skiing and Ice Skating (1 credit). It will be the hardest one-credit course they will ever love. Everybody has to take the lit class; everybody has to take P.E.

This really is college, they’ve been warned. We are seeking truth and beauty, relative or not. Half the students take my writing class, and half take Tim’s biology class. We’ve got four old Macintoshes and a laser printer up on the second floor of the lodge, and we’ve set up a 24-hour sign-up sheet for the computers. In our classroom, the stents have hung underwear on the stuffed elk head above the couch and stuck a cigarette between its lips. They’ve also discovered the hot tub.

From Fact Sheet #3, which was sent to all interested students during fall semester:

Weather: It can rain in Sawtooth Valley in January. It’s more likely to snow, and it’s more likely than that to have sunny, short days and long, cold nights. Plan on the temperature getting down to minus 40 (Fahrenheit or centigrade, take your pick) at least once during our stay. Dress warm.

If there’s no snow, plan on playing a lot of hockey. If there’s so much snow we can’t shovel a rink, plan on doing lots of skiing. If it’s raining, we’ll break out the 55-gallon drum of hot-chocolate powder we’re going to buy at Costco and listen to the instructors’ vast collection of Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Butterfly, and Velvet Underground tapes.

The first day of skiing. We’ve asked Sean Petersen, who is an experienced mountain guide and Culinary Institute of America¿trained chef, to give a week’s worth of cooking and telemark lessons. While Tim organizes rooms and food storage, Sean and I take the group up the 600-vertical-foot hill behind the lodge. It’s a safe slope, except at the very bottom, where we have to switchback up a steep ridge to avoid a big hanging windslab that sits right above the lodge’s parking lot. We’ve practiced with our avalanche transceivers, but we don’t want to use them for real.

At the switchbacks, things begin to go wrong. Two students have brought snowboards, and their snowshoes aren’t climbing well on the ridge’s windpack. Other equipment problems, mostly involving climbing skins that won’t stick or low-cut cross-country shoes, have people struggling to push themselves upright with ski poles that have sunk to their grips in drifts.

Eventually we assemble at the top of the hill, where we get a 360-degree view of high, snow-shrouded peaks. The sky is half full of big, puffy clouds. We’re in bright sunshine. We’re sweating. The powder that fell during the night is getting a bit heavy.

“I thought you said it was going to be 40 below,” says Elsje Loyd, one of the snowboarders. She’s realizing how much work snowboarding can be when you don’t have a ski lift.

“El Niño,” I explain.

Sean gives a short lecture on the theory of telemarking, and then everybody heads down into a beautiful little tree-shaded bowl where the powder is still fluff. Gender differences appear immediately. The men head straight down the hill, make telemarklike motions, and fall. The women, far more cautious, traverse the slope, get a turn started, make telemarklike motions, and fall. Elsje, an experienced snowboarder, carves beautiful turns down the length of the bowl¿until she collapses from exhaustion.

We have our work cut out for us. Sean and I ski down through the divots into an area of scattered, half-buried bodies. It looks like a civil-defense drill.

“Is it time to go back?” I ask. The vote is for one more run. It’s a very good sign. And this time, even though there are just as many falls, people begin to make a few turns.

It has become clear that we need to take a hard look at everybody’s equipment. A large number of aunts and uncles have contributed skis and boots to the expedition, and from the looks of the lodge foyer, we’re equipped for state-of-the-art backcountry skiing, circa 1970. I start calling around to locate heavier boots, wider skis, and cable bindings. I had discussed these things in preliminary meetings, but now my words have survival value. I’m able to locate enough skis and boots to get us through the month if we swap between the people who want to ski and the people who have papers to write.

We’re better prepared when it comes to food. Sean is training seven teams of two as one-dish experts. Each team will cook and do the dishes one night a week. Our weekly dinner menu: Monday, Thai Veggie Pasta; Tuesday, Pasta al Pesto and Tuna Salad; Wednesday, Fowl Burgers; Thursday, Sausage Polenta; Friday, Arroz con Pollo; Saturday, Thai Curry; Sunday, Veggie Lasagna.

By a consensus estimate of our cooking abilities, Tim and I are designated one-dish experts for Fowl Burgers.

Go to Part 2 of Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths.esday, Fowl Burgers; Thursday, Sausage Polenta; Friday, Arroz con Pollo; Saturday, Thai Curry; Sunday, Veggie Lasagna.

By a consensus estimate of our cooking abilities, Tim and I are designated one-dish experts for Fowl Burgers.

Go to Part 2 of Searching for Truth and Beauty in the Sawtooths.