By Ben Olson
The alarm clock barely has a chance to make any noise on powder days. I’m usually up well before the buzzer, checking the Schweitzer Snow Report for an update on how stoked I should be for my first runs. Whether it’s a weekend or a quiet weekday, I’ll always make time to ski the good stuff when it graces us with its presence (that’s one of the many benefits of working for yourself).
Those are powder days, though. It’s a different story when we don’t see snow for a while.
On those days, after weeks of a piddling half-inch here and there, I’ll read the creative ways the Schweitzer snow reporters avoid saying the dreaded “R”-word, swat the alarm until it shuts up and snooze a few extra moments before getting out of bed. There’s no rush to the first chair on those days — the conditions are likely the same as they were the last time I went up.
Instead, I’ll trudge to work with headphones in my ears, playing songs that kick loose the barnacles in my brain from a fitful sleep, face the never-ending supply of emails waiting in my inbox and put my head down until my stomach growls, announcing lunchtime.
We don’t punch clocks or worry about being late to the office at the Reader, because there’s never an expectation to fill a seat a certain number of hours each week. Instead, I rely on the “cup method,” which means each of us has a cup to empty each week. Inside the cup, which is filled to the brim, are all the tasks it takes to complete a weekly newspaper. I don’t care if someone slowly sips until the cup is empty on deadline night or if they take two or three big gulps and downs it — if the work gets done and it’s up to our standards, that works for me. After all, it’s important for us to take mental health days, half-days and work remotely if we don’t feel like sitting in the office.
It’s for these reasons that I’ll often look outside my office window and see the sun shining on the Chair 4 runs at Schweitzer and say, “Well, that’s it for me today,” and walk home with a smile on my face because I’m heading up for one of those perfect afternoon meditations on Schweitzer.
There’s a cycle to the busy hours on the hill. Back in the day, I used to be able to show up at 8:15 a.m. on a weekday and be guaranteed one of the first few chairs, but lately it’s been harder to get an early spot in line. Last Wednesday, after a dump of eight inches over 48 hours that broke a long drought, I was dismayed to see a traffic jam and both upper parking lots full before it was even 8:20 a.m. People were certainly powder-hungry that day.
Then there’s the other side of that cycle. The early birds get in their runs, hooting and hollering their way down the mountain, then peter out and head back to their cars around 10:30 or 11 a.m. If you time it right, you can get a parking spot right near the top lot thanks to all the early birds departing.
That’s the time I often shoot for when the snow isn’t great, but it’s too nice of a day not to go skiing. I’ll pull up and rummage around in the back of the truck to see if there’s still a tallboy I can shove in my jacket and drink on the chairlift. I’ll swipe my goggles clean with a microfiber and adjust the bindings on my board — there’s no hurry, like on those powder mornings when you run out of the truck, huffing and puffing up Heart Attack Hill to the chair for an early position.
No, these quiet weekday afternoons are actually the closest I get to meditating in the wintertime. The mountain is just a different place after lunch. It’s quiet, more reserved. The lifties are hard at work crafting snow sculptures, nodding to you as you board the chair. Looking down a run as I strap on my bindings, I’ll see one or two skiers sending their small sprays of snow from the groomers, with corduroy still showing on the left and right edges. Looking further, the town I was born and raised in, the quiet lake and the snow-covered majesty of the Green Monarchs and Cabinet Mountains. Standing atop Schweitzer’s summit, you can see all the way to Canada on a good day.
I’ll wind my way down the mountain, checking on all my powder stashes to see if there’s anything left after days of no snow. More often than not, the most covert stashes still give you a few turns of glory, even if it takes some work to get there.
Sometimes I’ll just head off into the trees, find a sunny place to sit overlooking the valley below and hunker down on my board with a beer in my hand. The quiet of a mountaintop in winter is something that inspires awe. Occasionally you’ll hear someone huffing and grunting their way down a run a few hundred yards away, a few friends calling out to one another and the quiet noise that snow makes when skittering down a slope. Beneath it all is the low drone of the chairlifts working, ferrying us all up the mountain with ease. Sometimes a chipmunk or squirrel will emerge from a tree trunk and fritter around. One time, a pheasant burst from a clump of alders and was just as surprised to see me as I was to see it.
Everything happens at its own pace. I’ll ski down past the Outback Lodge — celebrating its 50th anniversary this season — scanning the firepit to see if I recognize any familiar faces. If I do, I might join them for a drink around the fire. If not, I’ll hop on Stella and work my way back to the front side, perhaps stopping once more to overlook the town I’ve known and loved for so many years.
The parking lot now has more gaps than cars. Families trudge down Heart Attack Hill, their kids sliding down on their butts and filling the quiet air with their mirth. Back at the truck, I’ll unstrap my helmet and goggles, take off the steaming balaclava and gloves, put the snowboard in the rack atop the truck and slowly make my way down the familiar switchbacks, my ears popping gently a few times until I pass the red barn and take the backway to town via Great Northern Road.
Once home, I’ll trudge my board and gear back into the house, let loose a great, big contented sigh as I unstrap my boots, climb out of the snowpants and inner layers, pencil another hash mark on the wall and hit the the shower, turned up as hot as it can go, reliving good runs from the day.
The apres ski feeling is the best you can get in winter, when your muscles are tired, your cheeks are slightly wind burned, and your soul feels full and rested. A beer and a slice of pizza never tastes as good as during these moments.
Those afternoon meditation days at Schweitzer often remind me that we’re not completely doomed here in Sandpoint. Yes, we’re growing by leaps and bounds. Homes cost two, three times more than they were just a few years ago, making it so simple folks like myself will likely never own their own place. Summers have turned into either a smoky mess or a chaotic tourist hell. The city government seems hellbent on changing everything in a town that seems to be just fine without all these grandiose plans.
But, for a few hours, none of that matters. All existence is wrapped up in a quiet moment on the mountain and a feeling that some things — no matter how bad we try to mess them up — will always be good.
Cheers to finding your own bliss. Sometimes it’s all we have.
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