Earn Your Face

Mountain Passages: Bear self-analyzes via his grizzled visage. By Alan Stark

This is your face.

You have earned it.

Much of your mountain history is etched on your face. Other mountain people can look at your face and tell a good deal about you. Some flatlanders can understand your face, particularly those flatlanders who have lived out in the open, away from cities. But most flatlanders won’t understand your face. They’ll just think you have an attitude, or maybe not enough sense to get out of the weather.

The flatlanders could be right on both counts.

Let’s start with the early morning view of your face in the bathroom mirror; it can be a religious experience.

“Jesus Christ, that’s a frightening face,” you mumble to yourself.

Sometimes, the one nearest and dearest to you, who is also standing at the sink may comment.

“Nice face,” Blue Eyes says.

“It’s the best I can do at 7am.”

“Damned scary,”

“And I can’t comment on your face?”


The moment passes and you realize that this is the worst face moment for the entire day, unless of course, you walk into a pole on Main Street because you weren’t paying attention.

The steam from the shower softens some of the hard edges on your morning face. If you are male, the shaving routine gives you several moments to reconsider your

first impressions of the morning. Your second thoughts about your face are considerably more positive than your first. If you are female, there is the hair-drying and maybe a makeup routine that allows you a second opinion. In either case, reality is a little less glaring after some careful consideration, rationalization, and self-delusion.

So there is this mythical character who stares at himself in a pool of water and turns into a Republican or a heartless stone. I’m not suggesting that you spend so much time staring at your face that you’ll turn into a Republican, but I do want you to consider your face, component by component. Besides—you don’t have much chance of turning into a Republican, given your bank account balance.

The hairline is either about where it was when you were eighteen or it is not. Mine has gotten somewhat shallow above both temples, but in general, my hairline is about the same. The problem is that there is considerably less hair above the hairline than when I was essentially a hair machine at eighteen. Male patterned baldness is a totally different issue. My friend Yardman was probably born bald. He’s been hair-challenged since I met him in his early thirties. However, the lack of hair seems to have had no appreciable effect on him. He has a kid who has been a real trial but may turn into someone special. He runs a mountain not-for-profit that rebuilds trails on Fourteeners and he’s married to Povy the Shooter, who can make just about anything look interesting, if not beautiful. They live in a house in Golden that used to be a whorehouse, or so he claims, probably another lie like the lie he tells about having hair when he was twenty.

Unlike men, women tend to take hair seriously. I think of trying to describe women’s hair like walking into a frame shop with a print and looking at all the possible frames on the wall—and then standing there dumbfounded because there were too many choices. So I’ll break women’s hair down into good hair and bad hair—and that depends on the sort of day you are having. And that may depend on more variables than any male can ever process with his brain—ever. So I’ll stand on the comparison that hair frames the face but suggest that a mountain woman has earned her face and should show as much of it as possible—it helps tell us who you are.

The forehead, to be a great forehead, needs a couple of confounded wrinkles in it. You know what I mean—when your boss asks a question that indicates she has been off the planet for a significant period of time and you don’t really want to spoil the day by saying, “Are you kidding me?” But then again her question was so stupid and out of context that you need to make some gesture to indicate displeasure—obviously, that gesture is the wrinkled forehead. Those permanent lines indicate incredulity at ongoing stupidities and are usually well-earned. There are a good number of people in this world who are “managers” but are nonetheless just about useful as bowling ball handles. All sexes should take pride in their confounded wrinkles.

Eyebrows are an important indicator of mountainess. You need to have eyebrows to keep the sweat out of your eyes. There are eyebrows that go from the color of snow to the color of walnuts shells in late fall. There are eyebrows that turn up and turn down and unibrows that just ignore convention and worm above a nose. There black eyebrows on brown people who took the chance to come across the border for a better life. There are eyebrows like mine that look like jungles and cause barbers to whack at them as soon as I sit down in the chair.

“Mind if I trim the brows?”

“No, not at all”

“Whack. Whack. Whack. … Whew, that’s better.”

“Than what?” you ask.

“Than looking like a lower primate,” she answers.

Eyes sometimes tell the whole story in an instant. Just a second of eye contact between two human beings can have magical qualities. It’s like two Viet Nam vets whose eyes meet and they instantly say to each other, “Welcome home.” They just know at that moment of contact who the other person is, and it makes them smile to still be alive and able to send that message with their eyes. It’s seeing a set of eyes across the room, and feeling your mouth smile in recognition of someone you want to talk to.  It’s looking at this person you share your life with and knowing exactly what that person is thinking—mostly.

There are three general levels of eye contact, (1) full-on, (2) glancing, and (3) not-at-all.

Full-on eye contact is a tad aggressive and invasive. There are times when you can see all the way to my heart, in my eyes, if I hold your stare. There aren’t a lot of people in this world that I trust with that vision. Full-on eye contact is something to be used judiciously, for a good reason, and certainly not just to see if the other person will blink. That’s meaningless cow-person bullshit.

Glancing is the way most of us communicate with our eyes. We don’t invade another person’s privacy with a full-on stare, but we do make sure to make eye contact as we move about, and particularly when we are conversing. It is nothing more than a quick glance to make sure your words are being heard, and an acknowledgement with a quick meeting of eyes that their words are being heard.

No eye contact can mean a number of things starting with, “you are a complete waste of a human being,” and ending with, “you scare the shit out of me and the last thing in the world that I’m going to do is make eye contact.” But mostly no eye contact means that the person doesn’t give a shit, you don’t count, and they aren’t listening.

Ears are particular and maybe the most unattractive parts our faces. There are several curious phenomenon about my ears. I’ve noticed that my ears are the cause of a recurring speech pattern particularly in situations where there is a good deal of ambient noise. Life partners tend to describe this phenomenon as “selective hearing” or “programmed inattention” or “spouse listening.” The phenomenon manifests itself in a variety of phrases,



“I didn’t hear you.”

“No, I’m not ignoring you.”

The other really odd thing about my ears is counterintuitive. There is a hair challenged spot on the back of my head that will absolutely turn into fire if I neglect to slather it with sunscreen when spring skiing. But why is it that I can’t buy hair for the top of my head, hair seems to sprout from just about all over my ears? If I let it go, I could grow my own earmuffs.

As a mountain person, there is a good chance that you have sun, exposure, or wind damage to your ears and they look the worse for wear because of it. And maybe you don’t hear as well as you did before, because you spent unnumbered nights close to the stage dancing like the world was going to end in the morning.

The nose is a special indicator. It can have any shape from pug to full banana to “cute as a button,” but it needs to be a little rough looking. The surface of the nose isn’t exactly smooth like maybe it has been frostbitten at 12,000 feet in a windstorm or scorched on a bike ride out of Moab—little pieces of flaking skin are a good sign. A certain crustiness around the nostrils is normal from an ongoing sniffle from sleeping on the ground or in a really cold room with the dog, two joined-together down bags for a comforter, and one significant other who sleeps naked.

Cheeks start with being well-browned but capable of going pink for a variety of reasons, from embarrassment at being caught reading something serious, to forgetting the sunscreen, to tossing a line in a bar at someone interesting and having the object of interest explain to the surrounding mob that she/he may have just heard the lamest pickup line in the history of the world.

Along with cheeks that we need to discuss beards. There is always the suspicion that the beard is hiding something other than crumbs and dried soup from the last meal. Let’s start with a really scruffy looking untrimmed beard that looks pretty much like a gorilla’s armpit. The question needs to be posed, is this really ugly beard hiding something even more ugly, or is the owner of this beard such a lazy fuck that he doesn’t care? On the other extreme is a beard that is perfectly trimmed. At the very least this beard indicates that the owner has way too much time on his hands or spends way too much time in front of a mirror.

Before we get to the mouth, teeth, and chin, we need to discuss laugh lines between the cheeks and mouth. Laugh lines are a good thing, like waking up to a life partner who sleepily slips a hand across your stomach.

Laugh lines are earned from laughing so hard that tears come to your eyes and the back of your head hurts. They come from a friend who tells a great story, or a slapstick fall on the corduroy that ends in a face plant, or hitting the tongue of the river just right so the boat just slides perfectly into the wave train. There is no way to fake laugh lines, you have them or you don’t. And if you don’t have them—chances are you need to lighten up.

The mouth is almost as special a place as the eyes; it is where all the truth and lies come from, you just need to know the difference. There’s a good chance that if you have spent time in the mountains it’s fairly easy to tell truth from lies. The Mountain Gods teach you that truth just feels right, like an old polypro pullover. But sometimes a person can fool you about the truth, but if you are smart, that only happens once with that person. You can also lie to yourself with predictable results. It’s looking at a rolling, roiling, rampaging grey clouds of a storm front headed your way and telling yourself you are weatherproof. You know you are lying to yourself, and that in a couple minutes you are going to be cold, wet, and miserable.

“Having a good mouth” on you implies that you can hold your own in a shouting match with a drunk, yell loud enough to be heard down canyon, and quick enough that if someone says something profound, silly, tasteless, outrageous, or just plain fun, you can match them instantly. That’s a good mouth.

Teeth are sort of an odd measure of mountainess. In the first place, it is good to have them unless you really like soup. A number of us are not native to the mountains; we came here from other places and lives where straight teeth were some sort of measure of your dad’s financial status. So a good number of us have artificially straight teeth. But some of us have missing teeth due to mechanical mishaps or misunderstandings. The mountain life doesn’t pay enough to have them replaced so we look a little worn. Bruno the ER doc told me about the teeth to tattoo ratio that he used when evaluating a patient. He said that it’s a good bet that if the patient had more tattoos than teeth there was a fair to good chance that this person didn’t see docs very often, and only when they were seriously hurt.

The chin is what most of us have landed on at least once given a life in the mountains. I don’t have any scars on my chin, but I’ve entertained my dentist with the sound my jaw makes when moved from side to side. This is no doubt due to a face-first encounter with a third compression bump when I could have sworn I only saw two compression bumps as I came flying under the lift towers.

A good chin tucks into the hood of your parka without thinking just as it juts out when someone does or says something really obnoxious and it is always available as place to put your hand when you are leaning on a table and pondering.

I have reviewed the major components of your face and if you are a mountain person, chances are you have recognized parts of your face. There is only one thing you need to remember and then smile.

This is your face.

You have earned it.