Dale Johnson was born in the USA but has resided in New Zealand for over twenty years. He studied postmodern and postcolonial literature as well as clinical psychology. His two daughters carry two passports, vote in two countries and live in the southern hemisphere. He has been a ski coach, a cycling coach and a gas pump jockey.
I write so that others may find the courage to question the world in front of them, to feel its beauty and it injustices in equal parts, and to act on their convictions.
death of a ski season
It was 1979. I had just come home from Argentina. It was the first of two seasons of coaching young ski racers from the local population. Now I was embarking on a new season in Vail, Colorado. I was still a thousand miles away from my home in California. Things were a bit topsy turvy. I felt so unsettled that I had no choice but to write. I dreamed up a sci fi story about skiing in the future. Later it got published in a premier ski magazine in America.
All of it came true, with a single exception. At the end of the 90s no one was sliding down silicone slopes on the moon. But Third World medicine was flourishing, for example, with surgeries and procedures unthinkable in the rich First World. Later, even that wild guess turned into the medical tourism of today. Can’t get it fixed? Take your troubles to Bangkok, or Trujillo, or Hyderabad.
The most accurate foresight in my sci fi take on the world of alpine skiing, however, was that it would revert to its aristocratic base because only the rich could afford it anymore. Almost forty years later that has certainly become the common experience. Take a small family skiing for a weekend in Europe and your wallet might be three thousand pounds lighter.
Even New Zealand has felt the reversion.
Back in 87 Roberto and Jennifer were staunch. One day Roberto called together his staff. He cleared his throat, went from eye to eye with a most earnest look on his sunburnt face.
“Guys,” he said, “there’s an election coming up. A very important election. I want each and every one of you to vote. I want you to cast your vote for Labour. Any sane person will be doing that as a service to your country. If you don’t vote Labour and I find out about it I’ll shoot you. That is, after I fire you. Understood?”
Jennifer scowled and squinted at the ultra bright reflections outside.
“Do as he says!” she barked.
Then she broke into a huge grin. Her one-year-old had just corralled her Ugg boots and started to whimper. Number two was on its way. What was this couple doing, running a ski field and raising a family on the fumes of a diesel generator?
If ever there existed the shell of a ski field, a temporary imposition on an indifferent mountainside, this had to be it. You drove – you wrested your motor vehicle up its pot-holed, bare earth road – parked for the day and left for the night. This particular night I had been invited to share the starry heavens with a buried-in-snow caravan and the wild keas outside. A kea is a giant green parrot whose curved beak shreds plastic, glass and cardboard like a can opener. They stalk parking lots looking for trouble. If three or four gather atop raw earth or snow pack they look like Stonehenge unleashed. Anything can happen.
I said goodnight to the keas out in the lick of light from inside the caravan. They went to bed. I opened a book of James Joyce. Soon the time for dreaming was chased away by pelting drops of rain.
The door of the ski patrol hut banged open. I thrust my head into a gray, nebulous night. A trapezoid of blue vapor light flicked and extinguished just as suddenly across a patch of dirty snow. Jennifer and Roberto were out for the night. Not another soul moved. Not a sound existed.
Raindrops, wet and cold, pelted my bare face. Instead of glorious glimpses into the far reaches of the Milky Way galaxy overhead there was nothing but swirling emptiness.
The dank breath of fog slid down the mountainsides then gurgled and groped in the dark forming streams below the shack. Climate change had not yet been invented nor had global warming been imagined. People were taking notice nevertheless, that things were changing.
A blue and gray Ford tractor sat forlornly, smokestack quiet, engine covered by tarp, its rear end pointed uphill but refusing to rotate the 55-gallon barrel which transformed two soggy red ropes into an uphill tow for beginning skiers. The intermediate slopes looked like a torn rugby field, the maneuvers of players mourned by misty silence and a dirty shred of snow surface.
Ragged brown patches hung like jellyfish off sides of the service road and by noon the Shirtfront would wear a patchwork of weed and liquid earth. Two picnic tables perched amidst puddles outside the A-frame lodge. Three legs sat in water.
Down the mountain, across three stream fordings and into the next valley out in front of a deserted take-away, brows would pinch and lips purse. Down valley further gorse would paint the budding land bright ochre, wattle would yellow the banks of the river that carried suspended mud splashed down out of the high country. Way, way in the distance an arm of the sea began slowly to wave. The melted snows of winter were filling its belly.
The back of the ski season was truly broken. The huge red cross painted on the blank white door of Ski Patrol dissolved into the mists of coming summer. There could be no patching up of this accident.
Of course, the fiercely feathered kea is but a kid compared to the giant condor of the Andes. Once in a while I’d be out training my race kids in Argentina when all of a sudden they’d stop and point to the sky.
“Mira, Profe. Mira! Los condores!”
The kids would get so excited they could do nothing else. The winds would have come sailing up from Chile, from the Pacific, and the uplift would have gathered so much strength that giant condors would take to the air above the spine of the Andes. The four to five meter wing span cut awesome arcs in the sky with nary a flap of a wing.
Up against the deep blue skies of Cerro Catedral their silhouettes shouted both life and death.
Then the kids would take off chasing the giant black birds along the mountain tops, taking to the air themselves over cliffs and wind ridges and cornices in pursuit of a closeup view of these mythological creatures. Ranchers hated them. Condors, they said, plucked sheep and cattle off paddocks. But the winds had to be just right. A condor soars. A condor rides the air waves the way an aircraft carrier commands the seas around it.
The Labour Party won that year as a cold wind from the far north showered down a snowstorm of Thatcher/Reagan thinking. It was only fitting, according to Roberto, that the new Prime Minister should have the name of a ski boot. Lange and his administration, despite the best of intentions, miscalculated a few things and the economy tanked. The newly liberated dollar and newly formed share market wiped out a few billion dollars saved up for investment.
Black Monday began in Hong Kong and the prevailing winds funneled its economic chaos upon New Zealand’s reformation. That the death of a ski season had happened a month or two earlier was of no solace to Roberto and Jennifer. Had there been a link?
The next morning Jennifer’s warm, husky voice came on the radio via her telephone.
“Good morning. This is Jennifer at Clouds’ Rest Ski Field, with the ski report for Saturday. It is raining at present and we expect it to continue through the weekend. We will be closing facilities until further snow.”
“I just hope it rains everything off the mountain,” retorted Roberto. “I hate messing around. This bit by bit stuff is driving me insane. Might as well go grow kiwi fruit in the flatlands.”
Jennifer wondered what to do with eighty steak and kidney pies, one hundred and twenty beef pies and fifty apple pies for skiers who would stay away in droves. The night before, raging before national television cameras, a despondent ski crowd at Ohakune performed tribal dances and sacrificed maiden skis. A blaze of leaping flames was to appease angry snow gods.
Mt Hutt talked idly in newsprint about throwing up a new quadruple chairlift the following summer. Meanwhile, other Canterbury ski fields found themselves in the August obituary columns, victims of tussock and disinterest. Every ski shop in Auckland had its wares out on the sidewalks before the end of August. Storefronts became emblazoned with signs of SALE. Some said the winter of 87 was a farce, like the election, like the coup in Fiji. Some were convinced that the Southern Hemisphere had special access to the fires of Hell. El Niño was back in business upsetting the world the way it did in 83.
Like the tough ski boot that bore his name, Lange later kicked out his minister of finance after the progressive government went decidedly neoliberal. The share market took years to regain its balance.
Exactly 14 years to the day prior to jet planes destroying the Twin Towers in New York the tiny ski field reopened its slopes. Snow and cold temperatures had returned to bail out the suffering proprietors. They had one last gasp at greatness. They almost made up for the losses of the season that tried to die. South Island glaciers grieved with new retreats year after year in the new century.
Climate change was on its way.