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Kickin' the Habit


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Phat Tat

Ski Bums



After four years of college, and a serious mental breakdown, I applied to 11 ski schools in the western United States for the 94-95 winter season. I received information by mail on the hiring clinics at all the big Colorado resorts, and a handful of other places like Mammoth and Big Sky. I picked Telluride, Colorado because it seemed, by far, the strangest.

I had managed to save about $150, and after I hocked my last few valuable items, I had a little over $350. I sent Telluride resort a cashier's check for $80 for the hiring clinic, and looked at the map to figure out how close I could get on a Greyhound bus. The bus line through southwest Colorado had a stop in Ouray, which was only 12 miles from Telluride. I figured 12 miles was no big deal, so I bought a one-way ticket from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Ouray, Colorado.

Assets: After the bus ticket, I had $125 dollars, a bag of clothes, a bag of ski equipment, two Tylenol with Codine, and almost 20 ham and turkey sandwiches that Gram packed into my little carry-on bag. Liabilities: With not a nickel more than $125, I was moving to a place I had never been, with no job, no place to stay, and where I knew no one. I could not ask anybody for more money, and I wouldn't out of the little pride that I had left. I said my good-byes, and had my beloved grandparents drop me off at the bus stop.

On the trip out, I had to change busses three times. Each bus stopped in every little podunk town along the way. On the longest leg (Chicago to Denver) I made a friend, and we took the Codine together. When other passengers got hungry, I started selling them sandwiches-high as a kite on Codine.

On the Denver to Grand Junction leg, I remember going through Summit County, Colorado, and passing Vail. I admired the ski town Christmas lights reflecting off the snow as we chugged through late that night.

On the last bus, the sun started coming up just out of Junction. I couldn't believe my eyes. The mountains were gone. All I could see was baron dessert-something I'd never seen before. I remember the horrific feeling that I'd make a huge mistake. What if Telluride was a tiny little ski area in the middle of nowhere?

Then the bus came out of the other side of Montrose. The San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado shot up into the sky like the Swiss Alps. I'd skied the Alps, and these mountains were no tough comparison.

Twenty minutes later, the bus tootled through a little town called Ridgeway. The bus driver and I were fascinated with giant herds of deer and elk on both sides of the road. I glanced briefly to the right side and saw a little road sign with an arrow that read "Telluride." For one hell-raising nanosecond, I thought about screaming to stop the bus. But I didn't.

The bus dropped me off in the amazing town of Ouray. The mountains were absolutely huge, and at 6:00 am, it was damn cold. I stood on a corner and hitchhiked for about ten minutes; but there was almost no traffic, and I was freezing my ass off. After 40 hours of nausea due to extreme nervousness, I figured it would be worth it to drop some of that $125 (plus $12 for sandwiches) on a little hot breakfast. I ate really slowly, and started talking to people to see who might be nice enough to drive me that 12 miles over to Telluride.

This little skinny guy piped up, "I'll drive you over there for forty bucks."

What is this, I thought, the land of the criminally insane? I was out to make friends, so I asked questions politely. Came to find out that Telluride was 12 miles as the crow flies, but that there's a 14,000 foot mountain between there and Ouray. The shortest way to Telluride by car was 65 miles.

I tried freeze-yer-ass-off hitchhiking again, but that didn't work. There seemed few alternatives, so I went back in the breakfast place and agreed. The ride over was beautiful, and the guy pointed out Sneffels-the snowcapped fourteener that wasn't on my Michigan road atlas.

An hour later, we pulled into Telluride. I asked the guy if he knew a cheap hotel. He told me there's no such thing in Telluride, but that the Oak Street Inn was the cheapest in town.

I checked into a European style room (with a common bathroom for each floor) at Oak Street for $40; I went from $127 to $87, and reality hit me like the brick I had just dropped in my shorts. The truth was, I was two nights and two bowls of rice away from being dead broke and out of the game.

I wouldn't start the ski instructor college until the next morning; so let's just say that I spent the entire day laying in the hotel room freaking out. I almost called my mom, but couldn't bring myself to do it.

I awoke the next day with only one thought-TIME TO MAKE MY NEW BEST FRIEND. I geared up, and headed over to the bottom of Coonskin lift where I would meet the Telluride Ski Instructors. About one hundred feet from the lift, a guy popped out of his house, all geared up and heading the same direction as me. The mountain was closed, so I knew where he was going. We introduced ourselves, and I decided "Rob" was my guy.

When we got to the lift, there were about 100 people who I liked to believe were all in the same boat I was. We were separated into groups by ski credentials.

I put on a good show for my clinician, ate the remainder of Gram's sandwiches for lunch and met some great guys-one who told me he was in a similar position 20 years ago, and that he would put me up if I could wait a few days. I tried to find Rob after we came off the mountain, but he wasn't around.

Around 6:00 p.m., I headed over to Eddie McStiff's for a $3.00 slice of pizza and a $3.00 beer. When I got back to the hotel, I ponied up another $40 for my room (leaving me with only $40.00). Then, because the mountain was opening soon, the front desk had to have a decision of whether or not I would be staying a third night. Lucky for me, I had a fresh beer buzz and was able to tell them yes without throwing up.

Late that night, I met some construction workers in the "TV room." They offered me some wine from three giant jugs. With my last $40 committed for the next day, I thought about the movie Animal House. I decided there was only one thing I could do. I got drunk fast-Telluride's altitude of 8750 gave me the tolerance of a high school freshman.

I got talking with these guys, and one said he really wanted to ski. I told him that I had an extra pair of skis and an extra pair of boots that I would sell him real cheap. He was interested; I was ecstatic. I showed him the gear, told him what it was really worth, and gave the guy a bargain at $225.00. Cha-ching!

I felt like a rich man. And the next morning, I ran into Rob again. He told me HE was out of money, but if I bought the food, I could stay for a while. Seemed like a beautiful symbiosis.

That afternoon, a Serbian guy named Neb moved into Rob's house as well. He had a van with over $100,000 of alcohol in it. When Rob and I got off the snow, I remember sitting in his hot tub, sipping Pear William (my favorite liqueur). I was entranced with the views of San Juans, and giggling about how nervous I had been the previous four days.

I started working on Tellluride's race department days later. Eight days after I moved in, Rob kicked me out because his girlfriend was coming in from California. The guy from my clinic, Ken, drove down to Rob's and picked me up with all my shit. He and his wife graciously gave me my own room with my own bathroom, took me out or cooked me dinner a humiliating number of times, and gave me free run of their house.

I stayed with Ken for almost five weeks, then rented a teeny little studio with another ski bum named Matt.

I made it.

Telluride was the most fun I've ever had in my life. I moved away almost two years later with a girlfriend, a U-Haul full of shit and a cat.