An Evening Walk At Snowbowl

San Francisco Mountains

We had just spotted the tree — an ancient gnarled limber pine triumphantly reaching for the heavens through golden evening light — when a voice from behind disturbed our wonder. “Hey, stop!” A young man in blue jeans and grey fleece jacket staggered up the dirt road, gasping. Thinking he was in need of first-aid, I switched into medic mode. Having patrolled these very ski slopes in years past, I felt naked without a radio to call in the 10-50 — radio code for an accident needing attention. Just then I noticed that the youth had his own radio, and he appeared not in physical distress, but rather in a fit of frustrated anger. “You can’t be here,” he sputtered. “This is a closed area. I need your names and information.” His skin was flushed pink. Pure unbridled agitation radiated in palpable waves from his excited voice. He was in a tizzy.

My wife and I attempted to soothe his distress by explaining that, in any case, we were headed away from his apparent closure, en route to potential record limber pines, which we intended to measure for a national database. For a moment, it seemed this information helped alleviate his crisis, but as we struck off to continue our evening walk, his alarm switch flipped. “No!” he barked in a cry of panic and utter desperation, “you’re coming with me!” I honestly thought the boy was going to burst if we didn’t in some way help. So we walked with earnest Ian Smith, his nametag proudly pinned to his Snowbowl-issue security jacket, and we talked him down.

Yet, we were unwilling to offer every detail of personal information he requested, including social security numbers. You could see his blood pressure rise. He called his boss, Terry. “I’ve got a couple trespassers resisting escort,” he chimed to the great OZ, hidden away somewhere on the far end of that little black cell phone. The situation was quickly devolving into the absurd, so I asked for a word with boss-man Terry before my wife, arthritic ankle and all, and I were swept into a hovering spacecraft never to be seen again. Such a scenario seemed probable given the surreal events that were unfolding. After introducing myself over the phone, I leaned toward the receiver expecting a measured, consolatory tone. What spewed forth on the other end were thinly veiled threats straight out of the good-cop interrogation handbook. “You give him all your information to complete the card or we call the sheriff and they’ll charge you with class-III felony trespass. It’s really out of our hands.” “Of course it is, Terry,” I said, “you’re just a pawn.” I couldn’t resist the quip. I don’t think he got it.

So, we finished our altered evening stroll accompanied by a gradually calming Ian, our enthusiastic escort, gaining a glimpse into the convoluted circumstances that landed him here on security detail at the Snowbowl. We learned of his brief internship at a Tucson brokerage, cut short by slow economic times, and his forced transition to snowboard instructor in the White Mountains, where, he explained, he was swindled into sixteen days of free work during his first season, fourteen days his second. Curiously, Ian did not recognize the injustice of that indentured servitude, trained as he was in economics to willfully plug-in as a cog of the profit machine. “It’s the way you have to run a business,” he opined. Now, with an unplanned child of his own to care for, he was grateful to work the front lines for Arizona Snowbowl limited partnership LLC. “They found out that I was an Eagle Scout and I’d work my tail off, so here I am.” Like a foot soldier conducting house raids in Baghdad, his genuine naivety was both charming and unsettling.

As we approached an assemblage of metal buildings at the fringe of forest (“The Shop,” it’s called at Snowbowl), a circle of a dozen laughing men dressed in grease-stained work clothes traded stories at the end of a long day. I half expected to recognize a familiar face in the crowd. I didn’t, but no matter; open, friendly faces greeted us as Ian herded us out of the woods. They immediately appreciated our predicament, silly as it was, and offered us both a beer. The voice of J.R., area manager, crackled over the radio just then with frightening timing, “Ian, there’s a fire truck coming up the road, do you know about that?” The distraction allowed us a moment to crack a PBR with newfound friends while Ian juggled priorities.

I thought we might be free of our detention, but Ian quickly put out the emerging fire truck peril and got back on task, hiking with us to our car, where he could learn more, scribe additional information on his folded white form, get us in the data base. As we approached our battered decades-old Honda Civic, we confided, “I guess that rope right there is where we crossed the boundary.” Indeed, it was the ski area’s lease boundary, delineating that portion of public land that they have been granted to act as stewards. In years past, I had strung more of that rope than I cared to remember, which is likely why I gave little thought to stepping over it as my wife and I picked through logs and ferns, buzzing with anticipation to reach the record trees.

We paused on our way down the mountain, a safe distance from our little ski hill’s security zone, of course, and sat on a log to ponder what had just transpired. Is this what life has come to in Flagstaff, a place we glowingly refer to as a “mountain town,” whose one real mountain is now cordoned into a security zone? I remember a time, not too long ago, when I cherished Snowbowl — a place I learned to ski on a Hart Prairie handle tow, ditched school to spend my meager teenage wages, happily, on a lift ticket to ride the Poma to the top of today’s Blackjack Run over and over, a place where I skied for class credit in college, and later traversed every nook of the area in a red jacket, occasionally sledding patrons down the mountain with twisted knees, dislocated shoulders, broken femurs. I took visiting friends up the mountain with pride, eagerly showing off my, our, wonderfully quaint diamond-in-the-rough ski area. That time has passed.

We decided, sitting on that log, that time marches on to the pendulum swing of events and attitudes, and that presently the pendulum has swung in a disconcerting arc. But comeuppance is being meted nonetheless. For what is the cost to Ian, to Terry, J.R., Mr. Borowski, of the daily edginess they must now feel, of the hostility they have brought, continue to bring, to themselves in their quest of the holy dollar, or millions of dollars. It must be a hollow existence indeed. Too bad we can’t go back to the good ol’ days, they might think. But I guess for, some, the good ol’ days just weren’t good enough.

We don’t now a damned thing about Tyler Williams, except that this is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.