Winter Companions: Skiing and Friendship

By Jules Older

Old friends, old friends,
Sat on their park bench like bookends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

Chairlifts, not park benches; waiting for snow, not sun — but Paul Simon got it right. Winter companions is what we are.

The glue that binds us is snow. We met on snow, had adventures and thrills, shared secrets and gossip, all on snow. All on skis.

Joined by our shared love of mountains in winter, we've helped each other through personal troubles and hard times as well as steep slopes and sweet turns. Family struggles, injury, sickness, divorce, even the death of a beloved spouse, we’re there for each other. James Taylor sang it…

Winter, spring summer or fall

All you have to do is call

And I’ll be there

You've got a friend

And now we've again met, this time on the deep snow of Big Sky Resort, in southwest Montana. I've United in from San Francisco. Mel’s just beat a storm hitting New Hampshire. Jean and Jonathan separately drove the winding road from Bozeman. We’re re-uning after … let’s see. Jean and I skied together just a month ago at Whitefish. Jonathan and I cross-country skied 15 years ago in British Columbia. Mel — last time I skied with Mel was 22 years ago at Okemo, Vermont. Easy to remember — I still have the bruises.

And now we all meet again, deep in the heart of Montana.

Our timing is perfect. At Big Sky, we’re skiing deep snow under bluebird skies.

But Jonathan and I spend our day down the road from the resort on the forested cross-country ski trails of Lone Mountain Ranch. As we skied past Douglas fir, past heart-grabbing mountain views, past whitetail deer poking their black noses into the snow, we spoke of the death of his adored wife, Mari, and how, a year-and-a-half later, he was still deep in mourning.

Then, we spoke of friendship and snow. “Thinking back over the past five or so decades,” Jonathan said, “I fell in love with cross-country skiing for the exercise endorphins, beautiful surroundings, everything from technique improvement to animal tracks – kind of a cumulative euphoria.”

He paused, and we took in the view of Lone Mountain through the conifers. “With the passing years,” he continued,“those things don’t matter any less — but sharing places with people matters vastly more.”

We silently savored the moment, the winter scene, the pleasure of warmth in the cold. Then pushed on and skied down for lighter talk over a house-smoked turkey lunch at Lone Mountain’s Horn & Cantle restaurant.

Early next morning, Jean and I were buckling our ski boots for a fast, multi-peak tour of Big Sky. On the Ramcharger chairlift, I confessed how our first meeting had bonded me to her.

On a day of howling winds, limited visibility and breakable crust beneath our skis, we were touring Jean’s home hill, Bridger Bowl. Our guide had only one goal — to demonstrate how much faster a skier he was than me.

He proved his point — within ten minutes, he’d left me, lost and flailing, in the gray cloud. I had no idea where to go.

Then, out of the mist, Jean re-appeared, cheerful and smiling. “Follow me,” she said. I did, and whenever we’re on snow together, I've kept right on following her.

Jean and her husband and kids are outdoor adventurers. They've skied with wolves and bear and moose. They ski cross-country, back-country and lift-served. They epitomize the rugged Montana life.

But when she spoke of friendship and skiing, Jean revealed the soul of a poet. She said: “There are those halcyon days surrounding winter solstice when, skiing with grizzled friends, I urge the sun to never set. I will this moment to last forever, a ski run of amaranthine loveliness.”

I said, “Whoa! I'm with you, Poetry Girl. But I have no idea what amaranthine means.”

“I thought you were a word-guy, Jules. It means unfading.”

“Then, I'm with you, all the amaranthine way.”

Among the three of us, Mel is the most accomplished journalist — he’s the longtime editor of Yankee magazine — and the least accomplished skier. Like me, he’s okay, happiest on blue runs, pretty much useless on moguls and ultra-steeps.

For Mel, skiing not only brings friends together, it lets him share winter adventures with his far-flung adult sons. Because family is his first priority, Mel and I could only spend an hour or so together. Over hot chocolate, we met in the wood-paneled lobby of Big Sky’s Huntley Lodge.

Within minutes, we were cracking up over the last time we skied together, at Okemo. We weren't actually skiing — we were trying to learn to snowboard. “Trying” is the operative word; he was bad, and I was far, far worse. By day’s end, my body was a study in black and blue.

Mel’s wife watched me flounder. Unsuccessfully suppressing a smile, she said, “Jules, I believe you are good at many things.”

“Thank you,” I panted, trying to get up from my fortieth fall.

“But snowboarding isn't one of them. I suggest you give it up right now.”

And I did.

Like Jonathan, Mel lost his wife some time ago. And while skiing still brings him together with old friends, his main focus is staying close to his sons. “When they were kids, it was winter that defined our sports lives. We skied as a family all over New England and Quebec. It was more than the thrill of downhill, it was the exploration: the forests at Jay Peak, the French world at Tremblant, the snowfields of Sugarloaf.”

“And you're still skiing together.”

“Yep. We try and predict the impossible — where the snow will fall. This year we got it right.”

Mel and I hugged, then I walked him outside into gently falling snow. And the Paul Simon song came back with new meaning.

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy

In our case, thanks to skiing, that park bench feels but a distant cloud. For us, snow is still the sharing bond.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again


Jules Older’s ebook, DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love. is available on all platforms, including theYourLifeIsATrip.com Trip Shoppowered by Amazon.

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