Food Feature: Huckin' it
Catching phat air snowboarding the smooth slopes of Aspen
Dude! Three words: backside face shots, exclaims Kevin, adeptly describing his experience snowboarding the deep unadulterated powder of backcountry runs. I find myself huddled in the parking lot of Snowmass Mountain with several Jeff Spicoli-type lift operators and instructors including one named Crash whose moto-style outerwear reminds me of a reincarnated Evil Knevil. Kevin, the winter manager at the Permaculture Institute (where vegetables are grown throughout the year in high-elevation greenhouses), has promised to be an informal instructor for my first-ever snowboarding.
But with terms like "ollies," "method grabs" and "360s," my introduction to snowboarding is more a linguistic crash course in a distinctly male subculture than an athletic undertaking. This is a sport where "gonzo" is not a Muppet but rather an adjective meaning "hard-core" or "extremely difficult," and "Dude" has multiple meanings, depending on specific voice inflections. Used affectionately it is "Dude," a loud, quick, excited greeting; or "Dooode," a lengthy guttural exasperation. Of course there is also the ubiquitous, breathy "Dude," used in extreme awe of a greater power or a beautiful "Shred Betty," a female snowboarder (often confused as one in the same).
With no shortage of year-round outdoor activities ranging from snowboarding to biking to kayaking, my travels to the Roaring Fork Valley, 220 miles southwest of Denver, are always adventuresome. The valley is a microcosm of heaven with the confluence of the Frying Pan and the Roaring Fork rivers embraced by the Elk Mountain Range.
At almost 13,000 feet, Mount Sopris reigns over a collection of small towns: Carbondale, El Jebel, Basalt and Aspen, which populate the area with sports enthusiast locals and visitors. The area is home to four mountain parks: Buttermilk, Snowmass, Ajax and Aspen Highlands. Buttermilk Mountain is the best destination for beginners, offering a three-day class called Beginner's Magic. The instruction includes a group lesson (for up to 4 people), lift ticket and rental equipment from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $249. Snowmass is designed specifically for expert snowboarders with newly constructed competition-grade half pipes. Aspen and Aspen Highlands also feature expert terrain, but Aspen does not allow snowboards.
Close friends who live in Colorado convinced me that traditional skiing is passe, a sport reserved only for "sweater-neck geeks," their affectionate term for Aspen visitors who, with an eternal preppy sense of fashion, display sweaters knotted tightly around their necks.
Ironically we are equally as image conscious. Our day begins by piling on a complex layering system of wool, polypro and Gore-Tex, which I top off with my favorite Day-Glo orange pompom hat carefully selected from the dollar bin at the thrift store to match my snowboard. Collected in his fleece headband, Kevin's dreads cascade in a massive bunch on top of his head, giving his tall, lanky stature a distinctly pineapple-like appearance. Driving to the ski area we listen to Paul's Boutique, which plays consistently on loop in Kevin's remodeled Land Cruiser. The Beastie Boys are known definitively as motivational speakers for those about to "huck it" or "go big" — action terms describing one's ability to rocket off the ground, "catching phat air" in the process.
We arrive at Buttermilk Mountain where Kevin's friend the lift operator hooks us up with a few early morning runs, saving us the full-day ticket price of $65 (our half-day ticket costs a whopping $45). As we ascend the lift, the sunflower graphic on my hand-me-down snowboard smiles back at me, dangling in mid-air. The ski lift deposits me at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, and I successfully slide off the ramp and sail to the top of the run. It is the first run of the day on a brilliant Colorado morning and I am poised for descent with the regal Mount Sopris standing statuesque in the distance.
After learning the initial braking system of digging my edges perpendicular to the mountain, my next task is to link turns and control the speed and direction of my board. My practice turns progress from slow, wide swaths to efficient, narrow darts and by the end of the day I have graduated from the bunny slopes and can confidently execute graceful, carving turns on the mountain's steepest terrain.
On our last run Kevin finds a small lip on the side of the slope. I watch closely as he turns effortlessly in the air and safely lands facing me. He has pulled a "180" and yells for me to try the jump. Determined, I shoot directly for the lip, gathering enough speed to propel my body upward. Surprised by my dismount, my knees quickly buckle and I end up on my ass laughing. I may not have mastered the jump but, having successfully completed my first day snowboarding, I try the name on for size: Betty ... "Shred Betty."
The late-afternoon munchies soon set in, bringing us into Aspen and my favorite haunt, Explore Bistro, a clandestine vegetarian restaurant housed on the top floor of a well-stocked bookstore. Aspen is inviting with its delicately restored Victorian village softly lit with lantern-like lights illuminating the town in early winter darkness. We stroll through town past exclusive shops lining the walks until we find ourselves standing outside the Chanel boutique. The clear winter sky and my ostentatious pompom hat are reflected back by the storefront window. Here decadence is a way of life, be it snowboarders content to work seasonally for maximum playtime or Aspen villagers content with their multimillion-dollar second homes and couture shops on every corner.
Beckoned home by the idea of stoking the wood stove and hitting the sauna, we drive back to the Permaculture Institute in the small town of Basalt, 25 miles away. After listening to "Hey Ladies" for the third time, I decidedly take action, eject the tape and throw it out the window. In complete disbelief, Kevin slams the brakes, stares at me and says, "Dude!"