Screen Time

These are some strange times we live in. Despite only being a quarter of the way through 2020, this is likely to be the statement of the year. COVID-19 as we have all learned is a highly contagious virus that has all but brought the world to a standstill. Health experts say that one of the best courses of action to combat the rapid spread of the virus is to stay home. For active types such as myself this has been a serious shift in mindset and calendar. Like most I enjoy a lazy Sunday hunkered down with an endless pot of coffee and a book, but any more than that (perhaps due to the quantity of coffee consumed) and I start to get antsy.  

Thankfully we live in a technological age that is well suited for the requirements of the social distancing lifestyle. Personally, I’ve found all this technology to be a double edge sword. Sure, I would much rather be shut in these days trying to decide between Tiger King or Ozark (both, you’re right) then back in the ‘80s when we were beholden to the TVguide and sitcom re-runs. But I can only take so much glow of the electronic devices. Like right now, as I write this I have my desktop, a laptop, and my phone right next to me in the same room as the Roku enabled TV – not currently on.  

Honestly there isn’t that much difference staring at a screen for 40 hours a week at the office versus the same thing at home. Well, the cloths and office furniture are more comfortable, and the coffee is way better. The biggest difference though is the beloved weekend. What is normally a spring calendar full of races, travel, and outdoor adventures has been wiped clean and replaced with more home projects, more movie streaming, and…why not? another beer, please. I fully realize this is a pretty privileged and trivial problem in the larger context of the world right now, but it is a pretty dramatic departure from the norm and for me personally one that’s been messing with my head. 

The issue really is that the stay-at-home order has caused a consolidation of outdoor activity. Combined with temptations of warmer weather and the local trails and rivers have begun looking like ant farms. Really the opposite of what we’re hoping to achieve and not my favorite conditions for enjoying solitude. So this last Sunday with an increasing urge to get out and low motivation to navigate the masses, Dana and I decided to take our quarantine on the road. I know what you’re thinking – but Neil, they say you should stay in place. True, however my parameters for this drive were to stay relatively local and not require interaction with people or essential services (see gas stations and diners).  

Glowing laptop in hand I looked east of town, scrolling along the map line delineating Blacks Creek Road. To date, neither Dana or I had spent any time in this area and I knew it only as a popular moto/atv destination in the Danskin mountains. Moving farther along the map, I saw the road winding its way out to the South Fork of the Boise River. Normally a popular fishing destination, I knew that the river would be closed through April affording us an opportunity to check out the canyon without constantly dodging RVs and boat trailers. The drive seemed to fit the bill – new location, interesting scenery, close to town. 

Camera and snacks packed, we hopped in the truck and headed east along the highway for 15 minutes to the Blacks Creek Road exist. Off the highway our eyes began scanning the landscape taking in the new scenery – rolling hills of high sage, a few farms and ranches, and the occasional candidate site for a meth lab. Pavement gave way to hard packed dirt as we drove higher into the hills. We passed by several trailheads full of trailers, bikes, and UTVs enjoying the sunshine and dry trail conditions of this popular off-road area. In the distance the snow-capped summits of the distant Soldier and Smoky mountains peaked out between the light green hills. Around one last bend and we began a steep climb to the high volcanic bluffs above the South Fork. 

Once on the plateau the real treat began as the road wound its way along the rim providing equally spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and bluffs with the deep basalt canyon below. We made multiple stops to check out hundred-foot waterfalls, a safer option than rubber necking around steep one lane switchbacks. Around one bend we passed by a working ranch complete with irrigated pasture, wondering how many years of hard work went into scratching out adequate pastures from the basalt and sage filled landscape. Watching the road disappear around another bend I asked Dana- keep going? Looking over I could see the eager curiosity in her eyes wanting to know just as much as I did what lay ahead. Sure! was the reply and onward we went. 

As we climbed over a small pass, the basalt canyons gave way to a high valley and signs of civilization. We passed several private lanes and seasonal cabins, coming to the crossroad hamlet of Praire, which consisted of a stop sign, a general store/gas station, and adjoining “motor-court”. Our wandering itch scratched and our bellies reminding us that we were coming up on supper time, we decided this little outpost was a good turning point. The sign indicated we were about equal distance from an out and back to a loop through Mountain Home. Despite the seeming remoteness of our current location we were less than 50 miles from home in either direction. We opted for the out and back as there were several spots we wanted to stop at and see from a different point of view. Swapping driver and passenger seats we made our way back from whence we came.  

Descending off the plateau and past the trailheads we recounted our favorite spots and the disbelief that a place so wide open was so close to home. Equally impressive was the fact that neither of us had explored the area before. Usually time behind the wheel is a utilitarian endeavor intended for the purpose of reaching a destination, be it a camping trip or running race. However, with the severity of the current state and the need hunker down many of our usual activities were off the table, leading to a massive increase in screen time. Though the Sunday drive was for the most part us isolating inside spending yet more time sitting on our butts, I’ll take this kind of screen time any day. 

High-fives for Blue Skies

For a skier there may not be a greater feeling than carving through deep, untracked powder (well, that and taking your ski boots off). Like the perfect wave or the pull of a giant chrome steelie, powder is the skier’s drug of choice. Unlike other ski areas in the west, the storm-sun cycle is pretty rare and the best snow storms are often followed by more storms or cold stormy weather. There are some that say a day on the slopes is better than a day at the office and generally I would agree with that statement. The last few seasons though I’ve also had a lot of days where I found myself standing on the ridge wishing my goggles had windshield wipers and questioning the lifties decision to continue to run the chair turned tilt awhirl. It is in those moments that my mind wanders nostalgic to those spring days where chair rides are for soaking up goggle tans and rather than how best to shield yourself from sideways graupel. That is why for me almost as glorious as a deep powder day is a warm blue-bird spring ski day. 

Like powder skiing, I first experienced the glory of spring skiing while living in Lake Tahoe. Many a spring days did I spend with friends cruising the sun softened slopes, hero snow as they say, capped off with a beer (or two) sitting around the grill and telling stories in the Kirkwood parking lot. Almost like a victory lap at the racetrack, there is a relaxed satisfaction that comes with spring skiing. The energy and stoke that is spent all season getting after storm days and untracked lines gives way to cruising laps and enjoying the scenery. And in a town like Tahoe or (insert most Colorado resorts) those victory spring laps can stretch for a month or more.

For the past several years, the kind folks at Inland Northwest Toyota Dealers have offered free ski days at several resorts, including one of my favorites Brundage Mountain. I was already excited at the prospects of ditching the office for the slopes when I checked the weather forecast on Monday. Doth my eyes deceive me? Friday’s forecast called for clear skies, sun, and mid 40 degrees up on the mountain. Normally I wouldn’t condone such mild weather at the end of February, but I welcomed a brief reprieve from windy days and low visibility. I told Dana with metered excitement as I knew that anything outside of an hour forecast is subject to pure falsehood and disappointment. I rechecked the forecast constantly throughout the week and each day offered the same prediction – sunny high in the mid-40s. We decided to take extra precautions not to jinx what was lining up to be a great day. I left my cloudy lenses in my goggles, we left food shopping to the last minute, packed extra layers, and left the grill to the very last thing I packed in the truck. My hopes were riding high and I wanted to make sure they didn’t come tumbling down.

Friday morning as we drove up to the mountain low clouds laid along the valley floor with frost covered trees lining the road, not signs we were hoping to see. But as we drove through town I could see the mountain rising above the cover, keeping my hopes alive. To my surprise as we pulled into the parking lot there were very few cars. Did I have the wrong day? Did Toyota change its mind? Are we the only ones who like spring skiing? Locating the Toyota crew, I rolled down the window to greet the rep and was surprised to find the temperatures to be surprisingly warm for ten in the morning. I (somewhat) jokingly offered up a toy-Yoda in return for a second free ticket. They accepted and what was already lining up to be a good day got even better. Sun, warmth, free skiing, and empty slopes equaled answered prayers. 

Getting ready we shed layers and switched goggle lens excited at the prospect of riding the chair without having to huddle down into our jackets. With so few people on the mountain, the lifties seemed share in our spring skiing attitude leaving us to figure out the loading line on our own. Buckled down and strapped in Jake, Dana, and I headed down for our first of many relaxed wide-open runs. We stuck to the south facing slopes in the morning where the sun had softened up the snow to an enjoyable condition. We stopped frequently to enjoy the views, chat, and snap a few photos. The lack of crowds meant quick turn arounds and lots of laps. 

After about two hours it was time for lunch. On a good snow day lunch usually looks like a Formula 1 pit stop – restroom, quick drink, granola bar, and back out on the slopes. On this day though the lunch break was half the reason we were there. With the tailgate down and brats on the grill we soaked up the noon-time sun. The Tennessee muscle relaxer was uncorked, and we decided that after lunch it might be best to ride the long slow triple chair for a little siesta. Overhead a few clouds threatened to roll in, but they’d be hard pressed to ruin our mood.  

Bellies full and libations finished we headed back out for a few more hours before our legs tapped out. The clouds seemed to have gotten the hint that this day was for the sun and they obliged to roll along. After another hour or so, satisfied that we squeezed the most out of our free day of skiing we decided to call it a day. Back at the trucks we happily shed boots and unnecessary jackets. After a few last high-fives we parted ways and headed back home, our faces a little burned and our smiles a little bigger. Now, I’m certainly not ready to call this ski season done. Heck its only the beginning of March after all and I wouldn’t mind a few more storms. That said, the days are getting longer, and I wouldn’t mind a few more victory laps to wrap up another great ski season. 


Snow is in the Eye of the Beholder

Here in Idaho, we rang in the New Year with a series of snow storms that brought 40+ inches to some areas in the mountains and even blanketed the ground here in town. As weather is often low hanging fruit for small talk, I was asked multiple times what I thought of the snow. “It’s awesome!” I’d say like a wide-eyed child getting his first peak of presents under the Christmas tree. Most often the questioner would respond with a look of confusion and disgust, sorry they had even brought it up. I quickly remember that not all have been enlightened by the joys of fresh snow and that my coveted flakey precipitation is not welcomed by all. 

It is not as if I don’t understand the costs that come with winter weather. Growing up in Northwest New Jersey, snow storms were a mixed blessing. Winter systems meant the potential for canceled school and the chance for full days of hot laps on the sled hill. Before we were allowed to hit the hill though, there was another slope that had to be taken care of – the driveway. Our driveway was not a nice paved cul-de-sac square that took ten passes with the shovel. Rather this gravel drive curved uphill 120 yards from road to garage. In what seemed like hours by 10-year old standards, my brother and I would dutifully assist my father in clearing the driveway shovel load by shovel load. Chores done we’d return to the house for a quick pick me up of hot chocolate and then it was off to the sled races until the light got too low.

As is the case in other aspects of life something happens as we get older and we lose our childhood zest for falling flakes. It is as if we forget what it is like to have fun. Sure there are the down sides to snow – cleaning off cars, shoveling, sketchy road conditions, and extra layers of clothes. Yet there is a segment of the populous that not only accepts these realities, they wait for it year after year with bated breath. Stand at the base of any ski hill the morning after a big snow storm and you’d think world peace was achieved as complete strangers nod to each other with ear to ear smiles as hoots and hollers echo down the slopes. Show me a skier (or snowboarder) on a powder day and I’ll show you the fountain of youth.

I recently found myself in such a scenario after several systems brought much needed feet(s) to the mountains. As we drove closer and closer to the resort, the snow piled higher and higher. Parking the truck we joined our fellow visitors in the transition to ski mode, donning boots, extra layers, helmets and goggles. As we stood waiting for the shuttle, you could feel the anticipatory energy buzzing. With every second that ticketed by heads would turn wondering when the shuttle bus would arrive and whether the walk would really be that far. Not soon after we were boarded and talk switched to the days plans for where to go first. Unloading at the main base area we quickly grabbed tickets, buckled down the boots and headed to the lift. As we caught the first chair I thought I might need a seat belt to keep me from bouncing out I was so excited. My head darted left and right like a kid in toy store “I want to ski that line, and that one, AND THAT ONE!” I laughed and told Dana “Okay, I need to calm down, otherwise I’m going to hurt myself on this first run.” The snow whipped as we unloaded the chair, gathering our friends we skied down into the shelter of some trees. What laid before us was run upon run of deep beautiful snow. We shot each other a quick grin before bounding into the blowing snow. Almost instantly I was transported back in time, the snow and wind biting my grinning face as I picked up speed through the soft powdery snow. Almost uncontrollably I let out a “Yeeeeeeeeeoooooot!” as I carved a hard turn, my skis pulling me down the mountain like dogs after a squirrel. Stopping to catch my breath (and control) I turn to find my friends sliding up next to me, the looks on their faces in as much disbelieve as mine. Is it really this good? Yup, like the first spoonful of your favorite ice cream.   

Monday morning my walk into the office was a little bit slower, my quads still sore from a day of powder filled runs. As I fire up the computer and take a long sip from the coffee mug, I catch snippets of background conversations. As expected most revolve around morning commutes, weekends spent shoveling, and generally hunkering down in the house to avoid the winter weather. Through the morning fog one of my co-workers walking up to my cubical comes in to focus. “Man, how about that snow? What a headache that was!” I raise my head slowly from my coffee, a cheshire grin crosses my face while replays of the previous day’s laps swirl through my head. I know the response my co-worker is expecting, but I can’t oblige and simply reply “Yeh, it was awesome”.

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