My father never liked mountains, and snow, he once said, was way beyond his capacity of comprehension. Often in winter, I remember the old man at play on a warm coastal plain -- in Florida, where we vacationed when I was a boy, or hunting ducks and geese at Holly Beach in the southwestern heel of Louisiana, my home state -- and it is very much like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
In the most vivid picture, he is rubbing perfumed oil on my mother's shoulders, which are as white and freckled as the underside of a banana peel. We are happily situated at the end of a small, weathered pier extending into an emerald sound crowded with dinghies and speedboats. Except for the gulls crossing the wide sky, this picture embraces nothing taller than motel and filling station signs. And only my father's belly, hanging over the elastic waistband of his swim trunks, bears the dull, white complexion of snow.
I summoned this picture from memory one day last winter after leaving Reno, Nev., and heading 58 miles southwest to Lake Tahoe and the Heavenly Valley ski resort, where I was to fulfill a most difficult obligation, one that sickened me of both belly and heart.
The truth is, I never wanted to learn how to ski, and felt much fear just thinking about the prospect. But some time back, I'd decided that skiing down a mountainside would do me good. It would give me an understanding of a breed of people different from my own. And it would finally set me right with all the really cute boys and really cute girls of the world.
Where I come from, only really cute boys and really cute girls ski. The rest of us buy bags of fried pork skins and quarts of good brew and head south for the coast, to shanty towns like Holly Beach, where local boys wear their best and bloodiest camouflage overalls to mass on Sunday morning and everyone drives a pickup.
Way down in Louisiana, the only time you saw snow and mountains was on the exotic travel posters in the bathrooms at Bee's Lounge, or when the housewives started passing around the View-Master at their Tupperware parties. Really cute boys I knew wintered in Colorado and came home wearing turtleneck sweaters that said: How's Your Aspen? They wore little leather blinders on the sides of their Ski Cloud sunglasses and fancy-colored nylon cords that let their shades hang down like those of a half-blind school marm. Their girlfriends wore the tightest nylon stretch pants you could ever imagine, with little stirrups down by the ankles, and weird, horsey-looking boots you used to see on majorettes.
How was I to figure these people? And how was I to figure South Lake Tahoe, that long, running stretch of tin blisters on the lower lip of "the fairest picture the whole earth" ever afforded Mark Twain, who was known to write lovingly of the place but who never knew the beauty of hitting a royal flush on the video poker machines at the High Sierra Casino. I wish Twain could have seen the ponies doing the "Bustin' Out" floor show at Harrah's in Reno. The dancers were rather fair and hypnotic and titillating. You paid $8 for two bloodies and a front-row seat and forgot after 10 minutes of Fred-and-Ginger routines that these people were not wearing shirts.
My first day in Tahoe, I took two bubble baths and blew off an instructional ski class I was scheduled to attend. I phoned and complained to the concierge that my knees, long ago trashed playing football, needed to adjust to the altitude. I lied and said the cold weather made my ankles groan and creak like the chains of an old porch swing, and ordered extra bath towels.
I decided to spend the day soaking out the pain and watching teen-age slasher movies on cablevision. I was perfectly content, having traveled such a great distance to a big, blue-bottomed lake bordered at all points by mountains, to spend the afternoon in a tub as big as the Indian Hills Country Club swimming pool.
From my window, you could see the largest alpine lake on the North American continent -- one large enough, I read in a travel brochure, to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 14 inches. You could drop a white dinner plate 120 feet below the surface and still see it. And every 24 hours, somebody figured, 1.4 million tons of water evaporates from the lake's surface. That's enough to supply the daily needs of 3.5 million people.
More than 10 years ago, one naturalist took a good, hard look at the bustling commercial strip along the lake's southern shore and wrote, "It is all an obscene abomination, perhaps the most appalling assault on God-given natural beauty anywhere on the American continent."
You have to figure this high-minded fellow had a problem with all the wedding shacks and casinos and no-tell motels -- no telling how 500,000 tourists fit into the 10,000 available hotel rooms every Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekend. But since then, fights to limit the growth have been largely successful. Three years ago, in fact, the League to Save Lake Tahoe helped stop two casinos from being built, including one that had already laid its foundation.
Even more obscene in the eyes of the prairielander is the cluster of ski resorts carved into the rim of evergreen mountains. There are 10 cross-country ski centers and 18 alpine ski resorts in the Tahoe area. Heavenly Valley, with more than 20 square miles of ski terrain, is the largest resort in the country and offers nine mountain peaks and 26 lifts, runs up to several miles long and has a 3,600-foot vertical jump.
I couldn't sleep that first night, so I took another bath, my third in less than 12 hours, then laid out my clothes for the next day. I had a pair of straight-leg jeans, a western-style flannel shirt, a bomber jacket and my favorite hunting boots. For some reason, I thought you wore any kind of boots when you went skiing, and just heel-thrust those babies onto the wooden boards that took you screaming downhill. I'd paid $18 for my boots back when I worked cleaning floors and cutting grass at a natural-gas compressor station outside my hometown. And I'd always been enormously proud of my boots. They had steel toes and a curious network of little scratches from where I'd once popped myself with a Weedeater.
"Why are you dressed that way?" a woman asked me at 9:30 in the morning, my second day in town. We were standing in the ski rental line at Heavenly.
"What do you mean?" I said.
She gave me a quick once-over and said, "Where are your warmies? You'll get cold without any warmies."
I figured I looked perfectly redneck, and was, for the first time in a long time, terribly self-conscious of my appearance. Three really cute boys with really cute tans came sauntering by, talking about rear-entry boots. Then somebody asked where I'd come from. I think I said, "Over there," and pointed in the direction of Caesars, where I might have been playing baccarat and drinking complimentary firewater. Or taking another bath. Or just waiting for my flight back home three days from this one.
Of the 10 maniacs enrolled in my class, six were honeymooners from Texas. The pair from "Sanantone" talked about the $2.99 luncheon buffet at the High Sierra, how durn good the lasagna plate was. They had at least 15 years on the kids from Houston who kept kissing when they thought I wasn't looking. The couple from Galveston appeared to be absolutely outdone with each other. They murdered the poor snow with their poles and spoke only to B.J., our really cute instructor, who was forced to listen to things like, "What da you mean plow? Tell her to plow. I'm not gonna plow until she says she didn't mean it."
One guy in the class was an absolute moron. He had a piece of dried spaghetti in his beard. I guess he felt sorry for me. Before the lesson on how to walk up a hill sideways, he pulled me aside and said not to worry.
"What do you mean?" I said. "I ain't scared."
He told me I wasn't really dressed right and let me borrow a pair of fingerless gloves. He'd kept the extras clipped to his bib overalls, which looked like pretty standard warmies. He had a creamy daub of Noxema on the tip of his nose. When B.J. had us maneuver down a very short, very tame incline, he rushed up tight on my tail and hollered, "Relax, man, relax."
Once, during a five-minute break, I watched all the maniacs riding the chairlift to the top of the mountain, and all those freaks taking the tram. I remembered the summer my father took the family to Chattanooga, Tenn., and told me why he hated high places. I was 14 and it was the first time I'd ever seen mountainous terrain, anything more profound than the red clay hills in north Louisiana. "I hate high places because I hate mountains," he said. "You know what I'm trying to say?"
I told this to the moron with the fettuccine in his beard, and he giggled and said, "Precious. Absolutely precious."
B.J. said she drove a semi for a trucking company in the off-season, and you wouldn't believe her life, it was like a movie. She laughed thinking about her days on the slopes, and laughed when she said men had a more difficult time snow-plowing than women. Women, she let me know, had hips that complied without popping out of joint. After I learned that the quickest way to stop was by falling down, I fell down a lot. I fell down so hard and so often that the moron started calling me "Faller." At first I thought he was calling me "Feller" and I didn't much mind. Then I listened closely. "Everybody look out," he said. "Here comes Faller."
It hurt me so deeply that I gave his gloves back and told him he looked silly with that Noxema on his nose. And he had a voice like mayonnaise. I wanted to jump this guy, not off a mountain. I wanted a plate of lasagna and a girl to kiss. I wanted a bath and a bad movie and a pocketful of coins to dunk into eternity. There was a taste on my tongue of pork and brewsky, of salt and suds. And it was the saddest thing I ever knew.
My humiliation turned to anger and I became dangerous. By the end of the day, I had made about 26 people cry, most of them maniac kids who got in the way. I rammed them with authority and apologized every time. "Oops, didn't see you," I said.
All day, I flew down that very short, very tame incline with meanness in my heart. And I loved everybody and hated everybody at the same time. Action and passion, life and death. It was all out there, out on the slopes of Lake Tahoe, where I swore on some old memory of home that I would never in my life go skiing again or climb up a mountain without planting the flag and claiming it for all America.