When Time Stands Still

Mountain Life

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I believe it was William Faulkner who wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” Something like that. Or maybe I’m remembering a quote by someone else from an English class back there somewhere. Anyway, more colloquially and less elegantly, one might say, Memory plays tricks on the mind. And belief will trump the truth every time.

Take my memory of skiing at Mt. Baldy in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I was 8. It was 1957, I think. It could have been a year or two or three either way. In any case, I was a little kid, and skiing was this tremendously exotic thing.

We could see Baldy from the coastal hills around Newport Beach when winter rains swept the air clear of smog. (Actually, what we saw was and still is called Mount San Antonio on the map. SoCal’s memory of the Spanish land grants had dimmed almost completely by the late Fifties.) Baldy’s timberline dome hovered in the inland distance like an island white with sea-bird guano. Except that it was snow coating the 10,000-foot summit.

We went with a friend of my parents named Hans Lorenz. He was a famous skier, in our family lore anyway, a dashing and reckless (some said) Austrian who would famously break both legs jumping a cornice in the Alps when he was in his 80s. And then, healing, continue to ski at home in Sun Valley well into his 90s.

So, Hans was somewhere in his early-50s, I guess, when he took us to Mt. Baldy for the day. My dad remembers that Hans Lorenz always drove Cadillacs. I seem to recall shivering with my mother in the back seat of some little roadster, perhaps a convertible, as Hans careened down the mountain road back to the beach. My dad says the one thing he remembers for sure about that day was seeing the huge, silver belly of an airplane descending over the mountains toward LAX. It was a Boeing 707, one of the first of the jet airliners, and “the biggest damn airplane we’d ever seen.”

I remember riding a rope-tow and racing back to the bottom over and over again, like a starving person, as if skiing were food that might at any moment be taken away from me. I remember the lift operator calling me “Tiger.”

I remember playing in the snow with my sister, who wasn’t skiing because she wanted to be a ballerina. She did in time become a professional ballet dancer, but that day both our hands froze into black leather claws from building a snowman behind the rental shop. Or, now I’m thinking, maybe that was on some other trip to the snow.

For sure I remember watching Hans Lorenz ski from the chairlift. We were riding the lift down to the parking lot, the bottom of the hill being the gnarliest stump and rock and powder-filled part of the mountain. I’m not even sure it was open. But there was Hans, in his white sports-car cap, powering into the afternoon sun through deep snow in the gully below us-as if it were nothing, as if weaving graceful esses on skis was as easy as breathing.

Over time that image of Hans expanded in memory to something resembling myth. I’m sure I have added other impressions to it, other skiing moments, some vicarious and some my own, to help clarify what I couldn’t know then, didn’t understand until many years later. Back then, Hans’ powder skiing appeared as a miracle. And that’s the way it still feels in recollection.

Now Hans was dead and I was going back to Mt. Baldy for the first time in 43 (plus or minus) years. My dad told me about the memorial service. He said someone there had called Hans “Iron Knees.”

I flew in low over the mountains to LAX aboard-what was it?-probably a Boeing 737. A Colorado ski buddy flew in with me. I was wearing my wool sports-car cap in Hans’ honor. A big storm had just blown through, blanketing the mountains and cleansing the air in the basin. But would it illuminate the space between memory and knowing? And did I want it to?

Mt. Baldy ski area was new in 1952. In 1957, Chair 1 was rebuilt to its current configuration. It has wooden seats, erector-set towerss and moves at a pace conducive to conversation. Inside the day lodge Jimmy and I found brittle black-and-white photographs of James Arness (Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke”) and Jane Mansfield: “Jane Mansfield, while still a starlet, tries her luck on skis at Mt. Baldy. What a view!” Down the wall there was Emile Allais, the great French racer, wearing an ascot: “Ski School Director, 1952-54.”

And then Jimmy found a shot of early California skiers gathered by the fire with whiskey glasses in their hands. One of them was his former father-in-law, a Pasadena skier Jimmy had grown to love, idolized even, on ski trips to Alta, before the divorce. I watched the memories turn in my friend’s eyes. He hadn’t been expecting this.

My rope-tow was gone, but in its place we found unexpected steep terrain, lots of it, custom made, it seemed, for good skiers. The shapes rolled over and dove for the canyons below, every aspect dotted with august sugar pines and tamaracks, all generously spaced as if set there by a knowing hand. The five-foot storm that pummeled the area just days before had morphed beyond powder into a windblown skin like soft sheets pulled tight over every fold in the landscape.

We raced again and again through untracked trees. We giggled. We stuttered our surprise, our delight fringing disbelief. At one point, gazing out over re-emergent smog, Jimmy said, “Big town down there.” Seventeen million people. More or less. And maybe 100, we guessed, skiing this day. It was as if somebody in that big town-Rod Serling, say-had written us into a time warp. Or a miracle.

Down we plunged in the last light through Morgan’s Grove, snow the color of red amber, and swooped into Sugarpine Gully-Hans Lorenz’s gully. Hans was there, I know he was, tipping his cap, tilting his long boards in sweet rhythm beneath the chairs floating overhead.