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Conjuring Kiki - Ski Mag

Conjuring Kiki

Adventure
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Road-tripping through skidom -- and back in time -- in search of the soul of skiing.

It was a warm spring day. I was on the road to Apex Mountain, British Columbia. There were boots and ski clothes in my trunk and a pair of newly tuned skis on the roof rack. I was on sabbatical, which meant that the college where I teach had given me time off for professional rejuvenation. So far, professional rejuvenation had meant lots of skiing.

This particular ski trip was a loop up from Idaho to Washington, across British Columbia, and down through Montana to Idaho again. My first stop had been at Denny Hegewald's doorstep. Denny was on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol with me in 1969. The first time I ever saw him I was at the bottom of Ridge Run on Baldy. He was at the top. He ran over me. He blew up so many times that year his nickname was Hand Grenade.

Now Denny has a restaurant in Spokane, a nice home, a beautiful wife, and a couple of ski racers for kids. He's still a great skier. And he hasn't run over me in years. Now when I show up, he lets me in and feeds me good wine. Then we indulge in shameless nostalgia.

This time, in honor of my trip to Canada, we got to talking about Kiki, the spectacular Canadian cocktail waitress at the Ore House in Sun Valley. The owner of the Ore House sold 75-cent pitchers of Coors to the ski patrol, and Kiki was making payments on a Porsche with the quarters left over from the wadded, beer-soaked dollar bills we gave her for each pitcher. Fifteen of us had insane crushes on her. We stayed that way for a couple of seasons, until liability concerns over our boot-only wax races down the stairs into the bar ended the beer subsidy. Kiki disappeared into more exclusive relationships.

"So where is she now?" Denny asked.

I shrugged. "Married, last I heard. Maybe back in Canada."

"She could have had me," said Denny.

"Many people could have had you. Lucky for you that you got married." He was lucky. Both of us have seen what happens to people who stay single for too many decades in ski resorts.

"Anyway," I said, "Kiki's daughter is probably taking a year off from college to cocktail at Apex. Probably looks just like she did. Smiles just like she did. I'll see her and not say anything. I'll just look at her like you look at those expired season passes you keep in your desk drawer and pull out now and then, just to feel tragic."

"I'll go with you," said Denny.

"You can't, " I said. "You're married."

"So are you," he said, pouring more wine. "Remember?"

I called Julie, the person I'm married to, from my room at my friend Gary Gierlich's Sheeprock Lodge, at the base of Apex Mountain. It was a slow week, and Gary had given me the honeymoon suite, all to myself.

"That's not fair," said Julie when I told her.

"Honeymoon suites are what you make them," I said, looking around the room at the giant down-covered lodgepole bed; the soft, hissing fire in the fireplace; the skier-flecked mountain outside my window. "Think of this one as a monk's cell. Think of me as a monk."

"I'll think of you skiing," she said, "while I'm at work. And who was that Canadian woman you used to talk about? Somebody named Kinky?"

Sometimes Julie misses the point of my sabbatical.

Gary used to be the mountain manager of Apex, and his design work there has made it into one of the best mountains in Canada. It's only 2,000 vertical feet, but you can ride its express quad all day, skiing 60 different trails, and never spend time on a cat track. Fifty-thousand-vert days just happen there. As do sunburned teeth. As do nonstop mogul runs where you end up very proud or very, very ashamed.

Apex is under new ownership, and the owners wanted a new mountain manager. So Gary has opened a 14-room lodge and restaurant at the base of the mountain. It's got ski lockers in an enclosed front porch and a boot-warming room downstairs. It's got a friendly bar and sturdy furniture and a big room where you c sit around the fireplace at the end of the day and point up the mountain to sites of topographical intensity. It's the perfect place for a honeymoon.

If you stay at Sheeprock Lodge, Gary will ski with you. He's a Canadian freestyle champion from a time before safety regulations, and although he doesn't stick double back flips anymore, he will kick your ass over every mogul on Apex. He also knows the tree routes that preserve Apex's powder from storm to storm. He also knows Roy Phillips, a 70-year-old retired Chevy dealer who skied with us for two days. Roy doesn't look 70. He looks lean and active and happy on skis. Roy is a bypass survivor, and now he does what he likes in life, and he likes speed. When Gary and I weren't skiing moguls or thinning trees the hard way, Roy led us all over Apex's groomed runs at NASCAR -- not NASTAR -- velocities.

Skiing with Roy, I had a junior moment. I cut it loose down from the top of The Chute, a tilty black diamond that had been groomed microflat the night before and dusted with an inch of frost. I was on Atomic 9.18's, skis I love dearly but which give "life on the edge" a whole new meaning above 65 miles per hour.

"Nice moves," said Roy, when he caught up with me. "Especially the ones where you saved your life."

British Columbia is large, and somewhere between Apex and Fernie, my next destination, I got between radio stations. Dr. Laura faded out completely. I made do with monklike meditations on my skiing life, which was more pleasant than listening to the stupid be abused by the self-righteous anyway.

Kiki hadn't been at Apex. I had checked. All the cocktail waitresses in Apex's bars looked 19. I recognized them, but none of them recognized me.

Not to worry. Get in a tuck at the top of a run like The Chute, and a little later you're in warp space, where what matters is what's a hundred feet down the slope because that's where your skis will be in less than a second. There's the weightlessness of steepening terrain. There's the banshee howl of the wind and the giddy feel of slalom skis doing downhill things and the sudden magnification of trees at the bottom, the sudden sharpening of the turn in front of them. There's the burning of calves and thighs, the sharp tang of cold, pressurized oxygen in your sinuses.

And that's all there is. It's enough. The only memories you need are in your muscles. The only age you are is the age when these things first came to your attention. I don't know how old Roy thinks he is when he treats all of Apex as a marathon super G, but it sure as hell isn't 70.

It was early evening when I pulled into my old friend Lee Mortimer's house in Fernie. Lee is a fly-fishing guide during Fernie's summers, but this was March, and he had reserved the house for his children and their friends. Twenty-somethings were in various stages of unpacking when I showed up at the door with my sleeping bag. Sure enough, one of them looked a lot like Kiki.

Lee was there, too, but he wasn't skiing, so for the next five days, during which Fernie got an inch of snow for every year of my life, I skied with Jason and Tim and Scooter and Whitney and Mark and Esther and Tyler. Since it was near Saint Patrick's Day, we looked for the wee green Extreme Caution -- Experts Only signs and skied whatever was below them. We spent time traversing out to chutes and rock routes and slopes so steep we set off little avalanches every time we came out of a turn. We skied powdered moguls and knee-deep crud and trees so thick we kept expecting to run into a gingerbread house in the middle of them.

I made a point of poaching a lot of lines. Jumping into somebody else's powder is the best way I know to tune up reflexes, keep from falling, and stay ahead of the screaming maniac who's trying to catch you. I had many junior moments.

After skiing, we went to the Grizzly Bar at the base of the mountain and drank pitchers of Kokanee, and Esther, who looked like Kiki, sat down right beside me, but by then I had realized she wasn't Kiki or even like her. Flesh and blood people can't compare to figures of nostalgia. Even Kiki wouldn't be Kiki, even if she were slinging beer in the Grizzly Bar. The only time Kiki was Kiki was in the shadows of any room where old Sun Valley ski patrollers got together.

Esther and I compared ambitions. She told me she wanted to go to grad school. I told her I had been to grad school and now just wanted another 20 or 30 million vertical.

On our last day at Fernie, we poached a tiny corner of an uncontrolled area that Fernie's ski patrollers had been saving for themselves (I know these things). We got caught. Some of us got our passes clipped. One of us, more crafty than the rest, hid in a tree well, peeking out at patrollers who looked as stern and angry about poaching as he had once looked. It was the best junior moment of all.

I called Julie to tell her I was coming home.

"Did you miss me?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "Very, very much."

"Did you find Kinky?"

"Kinky," I said, "is where the heart is. That's why I'm coming home."

So I got back on the road again, a rejuvenated professional. At least until next ski season. On my way through Montana, I drove over Lost Trail Pass just as its ski area was closing for the day. I drove into its parking lot, got out and watched the skiers coming off the hill. It had been a good powder day. The slopes were a jumble of crud, but here and there among the rocks and trees, you could see mad and joyous tracks. The sun was setting behind chrome-rimmed clouds, and now and then, behind the bright windshields of departing cars, I thought I caught glimpses of Kiki. I thought about calling up Hegewald and telling him that. Instead, what I did when I got home was call up Sheeprock Lodge to reserve the honeymoon suite for Julie and me. beside me, but by then I had realized she wasn't Kiki or even like her. Flesh and blood people can't compare to figures of nostalgia. Even Kiki wouldn't be Kiki, even if she were slinging beer in the Grizzly Bar. The only time Kiki was Kiki was in the shadows of any room where old Sun Valley ski patrollers got together.

Esther and I compared ambitions. She told me she wanted to go to grad school. I told her I had been to grad school and now just wanted another 20 or 30 million vertical.

On our last day at Fernie, we poached a tiny corner of an uncontrolled area that Fernie's ski patrollers had been saving for themselves (I know these things). We got caught. Some of us got our passes clipped. One of us, more crafty than the rest, hid in a tree well, peeking out at patrollers who looked as stern and angry about poaching as he had once looked. It was the best junior moment of all.

I called Julie to tell her I was coming home.

"Did you miss me?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "Very, very much."

"Did you find Kinky?"

"Kinky," I said, "is where the heart is. That's why I'm coming home."

So I got back on the road again, a rejuvenated professional. At least until next ski season. On my way through Montana, I drove over Lost Trail Pass just as its ski area was closing for the day. I drove into its parking lot, got out and watched the skiers coming off the hill. It had been a good powder day. The slopes were a jumble of crud, but here and there among the rocks and trees, you could see mad and joyous tracks. The sun was setting behind chrome-rimmed clouds, and now and then, behind the bright windshields of departing cars, I thought I caught glimpses of Kiki. I thought about calling up Hegewald and telling him that. Instead, what I did when I got home was call up Sheeprock Lodge to reserve the honeymoon suite for Julie and me.

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