Snowboarding in the Northwest

The Hard Way

Snowboarding in the Northwest

Where to Ride

Snow Business

Snow Job

Gearing Up

Malcom Smith

"The mountains are beautiful."

I don't remember who said that to me first, but I do remember what I said in response: "You've gotta be fucking kidding me."

I mean, come on. The best thing about Seattle isn't in Seattle? It's just something that can be seen from Seattle?

Stand on a street corner in Manhattan—any corner—and ask people what they love about New York City and no one is going say, "New Jersey." Ask people in Chicago what they love about that city—my hometown—and no one is going to look to the south and sigh, "Gary, Indiana." They'll tell you about something—a bar, a museum, a theater—within the city limits, if not a block or two from where you're standing, something you can get to on foot or on the subway.

But when I moved to Seattle, a city I never expected to live in, and asked people what they liked about this place, all I got was the mountains. Over and over again—the mountains are beautiful, the mountains are beautiful, the mountains are beautiful.

"The mountains are hundreds of miles away," I finally barked at someone. "I don't own a car, I don't have a driver's license, I don't hike, I don't ski. The mountains are pretty much irrelevant."

When it comes to children, all the clichés apply. Your sex life does go into the shitter for the first couple of years. They really do grow up so fast. There actually isn't anything you wouldn't do for your child (including the occasional double negative). It's surprising that anyone gets paid to write about having kids—hasn't it all been said already? Hasn't every last observation been made? And made again?

So forgive me for this: Having kids changes you—I know, I know. Blah blah blah, Erma Bombeck. Tell us something we don't know, Paul Reiser.

But at the outset I was determined that having a kid wouldn't change me. I refused to see starting a family as a negation of the person I was or the life I was living prior to having a kid. A lot of new parents, particularly gay ones, act like it is, or like it has to be that way—much to the annoyance of their childless friends. "This is the best thing I've ever done," smug new parents blandly state. "I look back on my life before and can't imagine what I was thinking. This is important."

Then last year, sometime in early December, I came home to find a pile of bags from Snowboard Connection spread around the living room. And there was a new snowboard—a new, adult-sized snowboard—standing in the corner with Terry and DJ's snowboards.

"I signed you up for a snowboarding class," Terry told me with a not-up-for-discussion look on his face. "You're going to learn to snowboard. DJ wants us to do it as a family."

The culture of snowboarding? The crazed suburban white kid thing? The baggy pants? The pot smoke wafting from chairlifts? The iPods? The word "dude"?

Not. My. Scene.

Terry and DJ had been snowboarding together since DJ was 6 and Terry lied about DJ's age to get him into a snowboarding class. "He rides a skateboard on concrete," Terry said at the time. "It's ridiculous that they're trying to protect him from riding a snowboard on snow."

But I never had any desire to learn to snowboard. Eh, mountains—who needs 'em?

So I wasn't thrilled about the expensive clown pants Terry handed me to try on. Still, what could I do? The money had been spent. My snowboard was paid for, the classes were paid for—to say nothing of the jacket, goggles, gloves, and boots. Considering how unlikely it was that I would pick up this "sport," it all seemed like a colossal waste of money. And I didn't see why I had to learn how to do it. Couldn't snowboarding be something that Terry and DJ did together? What was wrong with the way things were? Since DJ learned to board we had been going to ski resorts as a family. They would drop me at a bar somewhere at the bottom of the mountain, and then head up. I would sit, read, and drink beer and they would snowboard. These were perfect vacations, so far as I was concerned. Why mess that up?

But DJ wanted me to change. He wanted me to go snowboarding with him, Terry explained, just like he wanted me to sit and watch cartoons with him on Saturday morning, not sit next to him and read the New York Times while he watched cartoons. And, yes, the board and the gear were expensive, Terry graciously admitted. But while money had been spent, the only way to find out if the money had been wasted was for me to take the fucking class. If I couldn't do it, then the money was wasted and I could get angry.

The first half of my first class at Snoqualmie Pass was awful. Terry and DJ took off on their boards, abandoning me at the ski school with a small crowd of Asian tourists and American 'tweens. I passed the time until the class started by sending furious text messages to friends. ("Up in mountains, preparing to fall down hills with idiots," one read.) A not-that-cute instructor—why couldn't I have been in the class taught by the identical male twins?—started walking us through the basics. How to stand, how to turn, how to fall. Standing? Couldn't do it. Turning? Couldn't do it. But falling? That I could do—over and over and over again. My ass hadn't taken a pounding like that since... well, I'd rather not say.

Then something clicked. Halfway through that first lesson, I could suddenly stand. I stopped falling. I could turn—only to the left, but if I went up the bunny lift I could ride all the way back down on my snowboard—without grace, and without any right turns, but without falling. Terry and DJ found me, and we rode down together a few times. The last time I rode down I was able to look up, and what do you know... the mountains are beautiful.

I grew up in Chicago, a flat place, and always thought I'd wind up in New York City, another flat place. Before moving to Seattle, I lived in two flat European cities—London and Berlin—where, as a starving artist/expat, I didn't have time for mountains.

So when I arrived in Seattle to "work" at The Stranger (I've placed "work" in quotes because none of us were getting paid at the time), the city's proximity to mountains was not a selling point. Access to the "great outdoors" wasn't something I looked for in an urban environment; I was more interested in the great indoors. I was an urbanite—I cared about bars, restaurants, mass transit, and apartments. I didn't give a flying fuck about mountains. In fact, as a lifelong bicyclist, I had always regarded hills—any incline at all—as the enemy.

But my first serious snowboarding trip changed me forever.

After forcing me to learn at the Summit at Snoqualmie, Terry dragged my ass up into the Canadian Rockies. Snoqualmie is nice, a great place to learn to snowboard (did I mention those identical male twin instructors?), but the runs are short and, if I may paraphrase, an interstate runs through it. Wherever you are at the Summit you can always hear and usually see cars and trucks roaring by on I-90. The aptly named Panorama, outside of Fairmont, British Columbia, provides endless, uninterrupted views and a choice of runs that can take 45 minutes or more to complete. Not only is Panorama staggeringly beautiful, but the place is big enough that you often have a trail or a slope all to yourself.

That's when I became an addict, up in the Rockies, cruising along a high mountain trail in total silence with my boyfriend and kid, the sun setting behind dozens of distant peaks. The subtle interplay of incline, gravity, snow, and my board felt absolutely exquisite. My snowboard, strapped to my feet, felt like a part of my body, more like wings than legs, and I felt a rush unlike anything I'd ever experienced without the aid of drugs.

Maybe you get the same feeling on a pair skis. I skied once, in Illinois, in eighth grade, and all I remember was how hard it was to keep my skis from crossing over each other, falling off my feet, and hurtling down the hill. Terry skied all through his childhood, but he strapped on a snowboard once and never went back. They say that snowboarding is easier to pick up but harder to master than skiing. I don't doubt it; any physical skill that I can acquire in a day can't be that hard.

But I don't think skiing would provide the same out-of-body experience that snowboarding does, or the same intimate connection to the mountain. A skier slices across the face of a mountain, cutting through the snow, crouching low through turns. A snowboarder presses into the mountain, carving his way through the snow, leaning into turns.

You push the mountain, the mountain pushes back, and you're moved.

I'm up in the mountains as often as possible these days, and sometimes when I'm cruising along on my snowboard I wonder what the fuck I was thinking all those years. Every time I snowboard now I think, "Shit, I cheated myself out of 10 or 15 years of this. Why didn't I head up to Snoqualmie Pass the first time someone got that glassy look in their eye and said, 'Oh, the mountains are beautiful.'"

And they are—stunningly beautiful. There's something transcendentally, mind-bendingly consciousness altering about streaking along a trail across the top of a mountain, other peaks in the distance, the air freezing but your body warm thanks to your exertions. Snowboarding is a drug, and I'm addicted.

My family has season passes at Snoqualmie Pass, and we head up there most weekends and some evenings. And, yes, I know now that the mountains aren't hundreds of miles away. Snoqualmie Pass is just 43 miles away, less than an hour's drive from downtown Seattle. We're spending DJ's winter school break at a hilarious time-share condo in the Canadian Rockies that Terry's parents purchased in the 1970s; you half expect to see Suzie Chapstick lounging by the fire in the clubhouse. We're going to Mt. Baker this weekend; we went to Stevens Pass last weekend, and Crystal Mountain the weekend before that. We want to get down to Mt. Hood and up to Whistler this year. We now call snow "powder."

I've even gone native: I wear the pants. I find myself using the word "dude" in casual conversation. I think the mountains are the best part of living out here. I own an iPod.

Still, I'm pretty sure I'm the only guy on the mountain listening to Gypsy while he boards.

I was recently offered a job.

Well, not offered the job, not technically. But a professional headhunter contacted me on behalf of the owners of a certain national magazine. It's a magazine you've heard of but probably haven't read in years, if you ever read it at all. And my name was at the top of their list of possible new editors. If I was interested, they wanted to fly me out right away for an interview.

This magazine's offices are in New York and taking the job would mean leaving Seattle and moving all my crap across the country—the boyfriend, the kid, the couches, the stations of the cross. But as I stood in my kitchen, looking out the window, talking on the phone with the headhunter, I heard myself tell her that I would think about it but that it was unlikely. My boyfriend loves Seattle, and he wouldn't want to move. My kid loves his school and his friends, and he wouldn't want to move.

"What about you?" she asked. "Would you want to move?"

"I love New York," I said. "I've always wanted to live in New York."

"So you wouldn't miss Seattle?"

"No," I said, "I wouldn't miss Seattle, but..."

"But what?"

"I'd miss the mountains," I said. "The mountains are beautiful."