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The White Room (a short story)



FRIDAY

After a short struggle I located Cliff at the airport. It was good to see him again. I had my bag packed and my skis on the rack of my Audi. Instead of going back to my house, we blew past the exit and cruised through Denver. We made a quick stop at a dispensary, then started climbing into the mountains. Five hours later we rolled into the town of Crested Butte. Matt had driven out from Arkansas the day before and we all converged on Kevin’s house. This was a reunion almost thirty years in the making.



We pulled into Kevin’s driveway, kid’s bikes and other toys were poking out from the snow in the yard.  A master bedroom had been added to the house, but it still lacked siding, leaving the insulation exposed.

Kevin came out to greet us wearing slippers, jeans and a tee shirt. He gave us each a hug. Nice addition Kev, that’s new since the last time I was here. Cliff said. Yeah I started it four years ago, maybe in another four I’ll finish it. Kevin’s just doing what he can to keep property values down so this place stays affordable, I explained. Kevin smiled, Yeah, that’s it. Come on in, you guys want a beer? Cliff asked, does whiskey count as beer?

We kicked the snow off our shoes and entered the house. His daughter was a talented artist, drawings of big-eyed anime figures covered the refrigerator, a sketch book was open on the counter with a handful of colored pencils next to it. Xbox controllers were tossed on the floor in front of the tv along with a pair of Spiderman pajama pants.

The toilet flushed loudly followed by the middle-aged man noises of a throat clearing, a loud fart and hands washing in the sink. The door opened and neither Cliff nor I were quite prepared for what emerged. My last image of Matt was a long, lanky dude with dark hair past his shoulders. He stood before us now with a shaved head and more bulk. In the nineties he looked like the strung out  guitarist for a grunge band, now he looked like the band’s security guard.

Jesus Christ!  Cliff blurted out, it’s Uncle Fester! No, I said, it’s the Kurgan from Highlander.  Matt laughed as he walked into the kitchen. He turned to me, nice beard, what’d you do, quit wrenching and become a fur trapper? We each got a drink and toasted to our long overdue reunion. Where’s Crissy and the kids? I asked. They went down to Denver to see some friends and go to MeowWolf, they’ll come back Sunday night.

I should have waved when we drove past them, Cliff said, I haven’t seen Crissy since that time you guys came out to Hawaii. That was a fun trip, so are you guys ready to hit the mountain or what? Kevin asked, did you see what's coming? Yeah, that storm looks huge. 

The storm was huge, it was another unprecedented weather event in a year  filled with unprecedented events. Hurricane whats-his-name had rolled into the gulf and become supercharged. It flooded New Orleans again and then pounded Texas with high winds and freezing rain. It only seemed to be gaining strength as it barrelled towards Colorado due to arrive late tomorrow

The trip kicked off with a nostalgia tour into town. We passed by the apartments where we lived and the restaurant where Cliff staged an accident so he could claim his blown knee as workers comp. We saw the bar where Kevin had first met his wife. I pointed out where I crashed my townie bike one Halloween when my cape got stuck in the wheel. Matt explained the tactical highlights of a massive 4th of July water balloon fight.

Our prime objective was the Handlebar Bike and Ski Shop. The owner Jeff gawked as three ghosts from the past walked in. I guess you remember these guys? Kevin said. Holy shit, was the response. 

Memories came back fast and intense. I remembered the time I accidentally ate one of Jeff’s pot cookies the day before I had to take a drug test for a job with the town. Failing that test led me to my Irwin Lodge job.

I can’t believe I’m willingly renting you gear. I’ve seen what you do to skis. Jeff said as he held up a pair of his nicest demos for Matt to check out. So are you guys ready for some mad pow? I’ve been watching the front that's coming, I think this could be a serious dump.

Cliff said, maybe we’ll have to come trade these in for those. He pointed behind the counter at a pair of super wide powder skis. If it’s deep enough you’ll have to fight for that pair, but I can find you some fat boards if these aren’t cutting it. Oh, Jeff, I can promise that my abilities will not be pushing the performance limits of these skis. Jeff  gave everyone a fist bump and a halfhearted promise to meet up at the bars that night.

We had a suite booked at the base area resort so we went there. We still called it the Grand Butte Hotel even though it was now a corporate chain. We dumped our stuff in the hotel room and went down to what used to be Rafters Grill for dinner.

  After the three of us left CB we did lose touch for a while. Marriages fell apart, careers changed, people scattered across time zones. Then around the time of Trump’s presidency we reconnected with a text thread. The thread was a source of connection and humor. We updated each other as covid swept the world.


We commented and shared memes as climate change gained momentum. We became war analysts as Russia slugged it out with Ukraine. We watched America tear itself apart.


So dinner that night wasn’t about filling years of lost time, we had just been texting each other the week before. The conversation flowed as easily as the alcohol. The pub hummed with the anticipation of a big snowstorm. Tourists and locals alike wondered if this could be one of the legendary storms. 

Matt took a sip and said to Kevin, remember when we skied the Anthracites? That was pretty deep. Kevin agreed, oh that was so blower. It was really cold and the snow was like sugar crystals. Cliff said, I remember skiing with both of you in Phoenix bowl when it snowed 22 inches in 24 hours. I said, one time I followed you guys and Dave down Banana Peel and it was like, hip deep. Matt started to chuckle, I saw Cliff tomahawk down Banana Peel, shit man, we spent 20 minutes looking for your ski. Cliff added, yeah then it was right underneath you. I think you just liked watching me suffer.

I asked, What’s the deepest day you’ve had? Kevin and Matt both looked at me, Kevin smiled, You mean like really deep? Matt said, at Wolf Creek it was up to my armpits. Kevin grinned, I can’t remember the deepest. I’ve caught lines on Third Bowl where I’m just carving into fluff and it’s rolling over top of me. I said, before I die I want to ski in some really deep powder.

The waiter came to our table, a ski bum in his mid-twenties. You guys need another round? Yes please, I said. Hey so how’s your season going? Got any deep days?

Oh man, it’s been a good season. I haven’t gotten anything too deep though. I had to work that last storm cycle, I heard it was good. But I’m happy. You know, some fun days with friends and no injuries, so I can’t complain. I’ll be right back with those drinks. 

He walked away and I said, See? And people complain about kids today. He had a good attitude, kids like that give me hope for the future. Cliff said, that kid just went in back to sniff glue and rub his nuts on your beer bottle. Then I like him even more, I said

Kevin said, I gotta see what that storm is doing, and he pulled out his phone. Up to that point in the night the phones had stayed out of sight, but when Kevin looked at his Matt took the opportunity to do the same.

Holy Shit! Matt said, Putin is dead. What the Fuck? Each of us quickly read our own news version of the story. Wow, they’re not even saying how he died. So will that end the war in Ukraine? Kevin wondered.

I don’t think everything ends with him, Matt said.

We finished that last round and headed up to the hotel room. We were shocked by the news, but stoked to ski in the morning. And we were all pretty tired.


SATURDAY MORNING

The next morning we started with a few laps on some steep groomers. Matt and Cliff  hadn’t skied in years, but it didn’t take long to dust off the cobwebs. Muscle memory kicked in and soon they were laying out smooth fast carves. As for snow, most of the rocks were covered, but it had been over a week since anything new had fallen. We worked our way around to the backside of the mountain. Kevin brought us to some of his favorite stashes on the mountain. This jogged Matt’s memory and soon he was rediscovering lines he had first done in his prime. We stopped at a spot hidden in the trees. Smoke and laughter soon filled the air as we shared more stories and legends. The day wasn’t about logging vert, it was about the four of us enjoying this place that we loved.

Cliff stepped back and pulled his phone out to take a picture. He was walking away from us and he stopped dead, looking at his phone.

Oh shit! Hey guys… he ran back holding out his phone. This is from forty minutes ago!

Matt had left his phone in the room, Kevin and I both turned ours off to save the battery. We quickly  turned them on to confirm that none of us had service.

That’s the same message they sent to Hawaii, and that was a false alarm. Yeah, but, that wasn’t the day after the leader of Russia died mysteriously. We’re still thirty minutes away from the base, but maybe we’ll get coverage on the ride up Paradise lift. We pulled on our gloves and quickly made our way towards the lift.

Skidding to a stop at the bottom of the Paradise lift, we still needed to go up and then down again to be at the base. The line which should have been full only had a dozen riders waiting for the lift. The chatter in the crowd was a jumble of theories and conjecture. People made nervous jokes to one another. A wooden sign had been set in front of the lift line, normally it said THIS LIFT CLOSES AT 3:30 but tape had been stretched across the time to say 12:30 in Sharpie.

 The two young lift ops were visibly shaken and scared, the only info they had been given was that the mountain was closing early for an emergency. There was still no service at the bottom of the lift so we got on the chair and started waving our phones in the air like divining rods looking for water. Halfway up  the lift my phone chimed and several messages came through starting with the warning, then texts from my wife. My heart stopped.

We each tried calling out but nothing went through. The only sound was the chair lift cable riding through the sheave wheels at the top of a tower, a gentle squeak as we rose steadily up the mountain. In the distance up ahead someone cried out in anguish. 

Kevin looked away from his phone, dropped his hands in his lap and said, I think this is real.

The chair lift reached the top. Cliff, Matt and I slid down the ramp and pulled  our pole straps onto our wrists. Kevin leaned over while sliding along and buckled his snowboard without ever stopping. 

On the side of the trail several people had stopped and were looking to the Eastern horizon. Curiosity got the better of us and we slid to a stop among them. The sky had some clear patches of blue but not enough to feel any warmth from the sun. I had my low light goggle lenses in and they cast a yellow hue instead of the bluish one I get on bright days. I lifted them from my eyes and gazed past Gothic mountain into the horizon. A brown haze formed a thin strip stretching away  to the north and south. As we watched it grow closer someone voiced the collective thought, what is that? Even standing five feet away I felt like Matt was speaking directly into my head when he said, birds.

It took another five minutes before they started passing over us and the sky seemed to darken. Standing on the mountain at 10,000 feet the birds weren’t far above us. I clearly saw Canadian geese, crows, herons and other birds, all the birds. I was following a bald eagle and watched as a  goose next to it stopped flying and dropped out of the sky. We saw a few other birds drop dead. One crashed into the trees below us, we could see a pine branch bounce and all the snow fell off as it hit.

Do you think they’re dying from exhaustion or something else?

Does it really matter?

Maybe they just cramped up. 

They’re not even flying in a vee.

I don’t hear them honking, don’t they usually honk?

I tried calling home again, still nothing. Another minute passed and the bird wave was down to a few stragglers. We finally made it to the front side and the ski patrol had roped off the maze to the Silver Queen chair, other patrollers were riding up the lift to close the mountain. We set our gear in the ski rack and headed for one of the large bars in the base area. The bar was crammed elbow to elbow and buzzing with crowd noise. All the tvs mounted to the walls had snow or a blue screen and NO SIGNAL FOUND. We used mosh pit tactics to maneuver our way into the middle. Two of the bartenders climbed up and stood on the bar. One took command with a voice like he was breaking up a bar fight.



OK! OK! everyone shut up and let me talk right now. I just gave this same message ten minutes ago and nothing has changed. If you heard me talk ten minutes ago, I have no new information. This is for people who just got here.

Someone started to ask a question and the other bartender pointed at him and yelled,  Shut the Fuck UP! We are NOT taking questions.

The room went quiet. The first bartender started again, at eleven o’ seven this morning we received the emergency warning on our phones and a similar message ran on all the tv’s for about ten minutes. We started checking through channels, a lot of the cable channels just went back to what they were playing. Then we found a live news broadcast from Seattle. The news channel said America was under a coordinated first strike attack from Russia and China. They said nuclear detonations had been confirmed in multiple cities including DC, New York, LA and…Denver. A gasp went through the crowd.

The bartender let this sink in for a moment, he then continued. The news people went on to say that the attack is ongoing, everyone should seek shelter, they’ll keep us updated uh..what else?.. He looked to his partner to see if he had missed anything, but he knew nothing could top the fact that Denver was gone. The other bartender said to him, the defense missiles, patriots and shit.

The first speaker turned back to the crowd, oh yeah, they said our missile defense countermeasures had been deployed. While he spoke he held up an index finger and made small circles in a whoop-dee-doo motion. So we might stop some of the nukes. The station played for about fifteen minutes and that’s really all they said, then it went off the air and one by one all the other channels went off. That was over an hour ago, oh yeah our internet cut out too. So as of right now, that’s all I know. I let my back of house staff go home. The kitchen is closed. Jesse here has offered to stay in the bar with me, but we really aren’t prepared to be your emergency center. If you can think of another place to go please go there. I want to help people who are just getting off the mountain but I don’t have any more information than what I just told you, please don’t ask us for more answers because we don’t have them.

The bartender swept his gaze across the crowd looking as many people in the eyes as he could. His bare honesty and frustration could not be denied and everyone seemed to accept it. The sounds of weeping could be heard, I wanted to think it was just from the few small children in the room but several adults also had tears in their eyes. They climbed down from the bar into a much more muted crowd. People started to file out the exits, many passed by the bartenders and solemnly thanked them.

 We headed back to the hotel and ate some of the food we had stocked in the mini fridge. We checked our phones less and less frequently as the futility began to settle in. 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

After showers and fresh outfits we decided to drive the three miles down the hill into town. Walking to the parking lot behind the hotel we saw a group of people and learned that the town shuttle bus had stopped coming. I stuffed three more dudes into my car for a short uncomfortable ride into town. Two were locals, and the other guy had become separated from his friends he was visiting with. We parked near the bus stop and the hitchhikers thanked me and wandered off. The sun was dropping behind the mountains, lighting up the sky with a vivid sunset.

In the four way stop a police suv sat with lights flashing. A policeman with a bull horn announced that an emergency shelter was being set up at the school. A line of cars was streaming into town, and they were all diverted towards the school. The parking lot was full and vehicles started to fill the soccer field. Parked  among the cars were two Copper Mountain parking lot shuttle buses and several Summit Stage buses. So people were running from Summit County, the ski towns closest to Denver.


On Elk Avenue, Crested Butte’s main drag, we found a weirdly normal scene. People walked the sidewalks, a few cars slowly drove past. Most businesses seemed to be open. We got to the Brick Oven Pizza. Two heat lamps were set up over a table that had been pushed close to the side walk. A neatly written cardboard sign read Scared? Confused? Hungry? Maybe you need a slice of pizza. Please take only one. Three boxes of slices sat on the table. Kevin grabbed a slice of pepperoni.

Someone yelled Kevin’s name and walked over. Kevin introduced his coworker to us and we immediately forgot his name. This is nuts huh? The guy said. Kevin caught him up on what we had witnessed. The guy asked, how’s Crissy? Kevin said, I don’t know she and the kids are in Denver. The guy didn’t know what to say. I felt bad for him, I felt bad for Kevin, I felt bad for all of us.

We heard music playing and followed it to The Talk of the Town. This was a bar that we had frequented in the nineties and all it had changed was the beer menu and maybe the felt on the pool tables. A big friendly bouncer greeted us at the door, he didn’t ask for ID but he said, no guns. I lifted my shirt to show my belt line and asked if this was a new problem. He said a few guys had tried to come in packing a little while ago and it wasn’t something he wanted to deal with. I said, strange days. He said, strange days indeed my friend. Then he let us in.

Three bartenders were working and all of them ignored me, so at least that part of society was still normal. Matt wedged himself up to the bar and he was too imposing to ignore.  He came back and handed each of us a can of  PBR and we spread out to mingle and gather intel. Kevin bumped into a few more people he knew. I sipped the beer and tried texting my family again, but the text failed.

    Despite the end of the world, the bar had a good vibe. People were starting to accept that maybe the phones and tv’s weren’t going to come back on. Anyone with information was eager to share it. I stepped into a circle around a refugee who had just made it to town. He was exhausted but also amped up on adrenaline, his eyes darted to each of our faces as he told his story.

He said he’d been at the top of Copper Mountain when several flashes brightened the sky. Then he heard the booms like distant thunder. He opened his phone and held it out for us to see. What I saw was a familiar image of jagged white mountains, but something was behind them. He zoomed the photo in for me and three dark mounds were visible behind the front range peaks. It looked as if new mountains were growing behind the white ones. The new mountains were dark with rounded tops.

I felt my heart break and the guy could see it in my face. His expression shifted as if we had changed places. At first I felt sorry for him and after he showed me the picture, now he felt sorry for me. I walked away from that group and climbed the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor of the bar. 

Upstairs Matt and Cliff were in a pool game with a couple still in their ski bibs. Cliff made jokes as the girl tried to line up a shot. She gave him an icey glare while she jabbed the stick and the cue ball missed its mark. They all broke out in laughter. Another roar of laughter erupted from a large group across the room. I smiled, the room felt warm, the beer tasted good.

I spotted Kevin talking to someone I vaguely recognized and walked over to join them. Tim, you remember Hapka right? We shook hands, a warm smile greeted me through a fu manchu. More memories clicked into place, a laugh escaped me. Oh shit, I said, we rode sleds to Aspen that time and you worked with Pete at the shop. The bigger guy pulled me into a bear hug. Hey I was just telling Kevin I pulled a bunch of elk steaks out of my freezer after I heard the news this morning. How’d you guys like to come over to my place for dinner? We can all fit in my truck.

Later, I was holding a Santana album cover letting my eyes drift across the black and white lines trying to count all the faces hidden in the drawing of a lion.  A stack of records had been selected that would last until dawn. I savored the smell of the vinyl and the feel of the pressed cardboard sleeve. On the record label there was no www. 

How did humans fuck up so bad? I asked the room. It was semi-rhetorical so I continued my monologue. Someone in the 70’s listened to this record and thought, ok, that’s nice but I want more. I want it, better, smaller, cheaper. We just couldn’t be happy with anything. Brighter lights, bigger cars, bigger houses, more food than we need.

Hapka’s wife Amy said, I think it was the lead in the water. The same thing happened to the Roman Empire, the rich people in the city all drank from lead pipes. She started to continue, but.

It made them psychopaths, Hapka talked over his wife, they had so much lead exposure it affected their brains.

Ok, thanks dear, but I can finish my own conspiracy theory. Amy yanked back the wheel of the story bus. She took a drink of wine from an enormous margarita glass and went on. It was the same thing with the baby boomers. In the nineteen forties baby bottles were made of leaded glass. There’s lead in the paint of their cribs and it’s in the gasoline, they breathe it all in, become psychos and boom! A boomer blows up the world. She ended with a sassy look, Hey I’m just sayin’.

Matt said, the military's got tired of throwing lead at each other, they wanted to try some other elements on the periodic table.

That’s the truth though, Hapka said, while holding a scotch and popping an olive in his mouth. Everything we’ve been through, everything we've built, and we ended it all by throwing shit at each other like those first two fucking monkeys.

Cliff said loudly, those two fucking monkeys! Kevin echoed, those two…fucking…monkeys. Glasses clinked around until each person had definitively toasted everyone to those two fucking monkeys. Outside, a rabbit  tripped the motion sensor and a flood light lit up the yard. Everyone looked to see large white flakes tumbling out of the sky so hard we could barely see through them.

SUNDAY MORNING

I felt my dog Rosie nudging me with her nose. That dog has an internal alarm clock and won’t relent until I feed her. I reached across the bed for my wife, I felt nothing. I opened my eyes, I was wrapped in a comforter  on the floor by the record collection. Matt was standing over me tapping  me in the ribs with his foot, my head hurt. Everyone else was up and buzzing around the house.

 After an extraordinary breakfast, Hapka was putting on his boots to get more firewood. Matt and I both went to help. Almost three feet of snow had fallen overnight. I grabbed a snow shovel and started clearing snow around the doorway. Matt walked a few feet to a tree and started to take a leak. Hapka walked towards the wood pile. We heard him say, huh, that's a messed up rabbit.

Matt was still peeing but he said, every species has their version of Cliff, even the rabbits.

Nah man, look at that thing, it looks like it’s dying. We all looked at the small animal. It still pushed with its hind legs, but the front legs looked paralyzed. The poor thing tried to scoot along, plowing its face through the snow. For a creature so fast and agile, it looked sad and suffering. Matt held his hand out and caught some fat white flakes, he looked up into the sky. Don’t catch any on your tongue today, this is all fallout.

We came back inside with armloads of wood and dropped them by the fireplace. Kevin started rinsing off a plate and opened the dishwasher. Amy was at the counter sipping coffee and said, oh honey you leave those dishes. I’m never doing another dish ever again. In fact I want to leave that pile of dishes as a monument… her voice cracked, she tried to finish her thought…to friends and good times… she broke down sobbing into the sleeve of her thick bathrobe. Hapka held her with tears in his eyes, all of us were teary.

We gathered our stuff, Amy gave us some water bottles, it seemed like a good idea. Hapka lifted some keys from the hook and handed them to Kevin. Why don’t you guys take my Jeep into town, I got my truck.

Kevin turned back, You sure you don’t want to come to town with us? It could get pretty crazy.

Hapka put his arm around his wife and said, well, Amy and I have decided we want to have a baby, so we're going to start trying today. Amy rolled her eyes. I started to laugh and cry as I hugged both of them goodbye.

  We walked around to the garage and opened it up. Cliff chuckled and said, post-apocalypse death wagon, check. Hapka’s Jeep was clearly a labor of love. It consisted of more aftermarket parts than actual Jeep. Kevin started the powerful engine with a rumble. Big, blocky tires and a modified suspension gave it a stance like a bulldog. Matt sat shotgun and scanned through AM and FM without so much as a change in tone. Then he swept his fingers over a variety of switches on the dash. Lights, yes, he flipped a switch. Lockers, oh yes please, he flipped two more. When the heater started to blow warm air onto the glass Kevin put it in gear and eased it into the deep snow. 

We came around the front of the house and Hapka was standing in the driveway in an American flag sweatshirt holding his AR-15. Kevin mashed the gas and spun the Jeep in donuts around our friend while he pumped devil horns with one hand and fired rounds into the air with the other. Between the gun, the Jeep and our laughter it's hard to say what was loudest. After a final loop we pulled out to onto the road.


The snow billowed over the hood while we made our way down a winding road and into the edge of town. A single snowmobile track led down the road so Kevin used it as a guide and kept up momentum. We were heading towards Elk Avenue when we saw the road ahead blocked. A van and a pick up truck had been parked nose to nose blocking the road. The snow was filling in the gaps making it look like a large snow drift.


Kevin turned the wheel in a tight circle and stepped into the throttle. We definitely went off the road and we definitely hit something, but the Jeep muscled through and we moved onto the next street. The next street was also blocked so Kevin turned the Jeep around and parked facing away from the blockade. He shut off the engine and we all hopped out. The first thing we heard was the techno music, then we heard the sleds. 

Matt led the way through the deep snow and we followed in his tracks. Once we were past the blockade we found a snowmobile track we could walk on much easier.  With the cross roads blocked, Elk and the two parallel roads on either side were mostly car free. The few parked cars that remained were just mounds in the snow. Instead the community had become pedestrian and snowmobile based. Sled tracks led to every building, the tracks compressed the snow and gave people on foot a path to walk. 

We said good morning to a group of people working at one house. They had climbed onto the roof and were shoveling snow away from the chimney pipe. Parked at the house I saw some personal sleds, but also sleds from the snowmobile rental company. We kept walking towards Elk Ave and the thumping techno music. 

Sopris and Maroon the two streets parallel to Elk looked like a community surviving a heavy winter storm. Elk looked like the Burning Man festival in winter. All the trash cans had been filled with wood and set ablaze. Unopened beers were stuck into the snow around the can. Four foamy beers were popped and we surrounded a fire can while we took in the scene. Elaborate sculptures had been moved out of a gallery and put on display along the sides of the road. The theater costume department had been ransacked and many of the dancers in front of the dj wore animal masks with renaissance tunics and cloaks.

A girl in a peasant dress and Ugg boots and a guy in a full length fur coat were crossing the road towards us, stumbling in the loose snow. From the far end of the road we heard a gunshot. The guy grabbed the girl's hand and hurried across the road as fast as they could. A roar came up the road echoing off the storefronts. Two sleds blasted up the street towards us one after the other at over a hundred miles an hour. The riders were hunched down in a racing stance and thick rooster tails of snow shot off the tracks behind them.


The staggering couple joined us at the fire barrel. Matt laughed, Fuck yeah, the Polaris smoked that Yamaha. Dude, that looks so fun, we should head down there. I want to do a drag race. The sleds had turned around and they each made their way slowly along the outer edges of the road. The Polaris came down our side and we all held out our gloved hands to high five him as he rode past.

I offered snowbank beers to the couple. I need coffee, she said. But he reached his hand out for a beer, thanks man. What was this place like last night? I asked. The guy looked at me, I noticed his pupils almost filled his eye sockets. Oh man, it was going off. And then they said the roads were closing, and it went like, imagine you just crank up a stereo all the way and jerk the knob off. The girl and Cliff both laughed. That’s what it was like huh? Kevin asked, grinning. The guy looked a little confused, sensing he might be missing something. Yeah? It was crazy. Matt leaned closer, wait, the road closed? Which road? The guy was smiling into the middle distance, but he turned to face Matt, uhh, all of them, I think? 

Cliff noticed the girl had put a cigarette into her mouth backwards and was trying to light the filter. He gently pointed it out to her and asked, hey whatever you guys are on, where did you get it? She smiled sweetly at him and batted her eyelashes. Then she pointed down the street.

We walked into the dispensary and were greeted by a friendly guy wearing horn rimmed glasses and rainbow overalls. Hi, my name's Sam with Freeworld Genetics, what can I do for you gentlemen today? What have you got? Matt asked. Sam casually leaned on the glass counter and started to explain. Well, due to the several medical clinics in town and the culture of this community, we actually have way more drugs than people willing to do them. It's killing me to think that so much of this stuff will just be wasted. 

Cliff was fumbling with a child proof jar of green buds on the counter, Sam took it and twisted it open for him in one smooth motion. Then he continued, my colleagues and I have been busy preparing different combinations to help people transition into whatever awaits us. A lot of people are asking for a way to just spiral into the void with increasingly powerful doses. This involves benzos and anti-psychotics moving on to dissasociatives and tranqs, ect. Is that something you might be interested in? Cliff looked up, holding the jar of weed under his nose. Do you have something that's like, the opposite of that?


We saw a flash in Sam's eyes and his mouth formed a wicked smile. Ooh yeah, do not go gently into the night, you guys want to burn like roman candles huh? Ok, well I have just the thing for you. He slipped behind the counter and came up with a ziploc sandwich bag full of assorted homemade tablets and pills. So for starters these have a fair amount of potassium iodine that can actually help with radiation sickness. But those are mixed with MDA, Owsley Acid, and good Malaysian Kratom, strong enough to keep you going, but weird enough to handle any situation. There's also amanita muscaria mixed with low dose iboga, pcp gummies, and ketamine kool-aid for when you get thirsty. He pulled out four bags. My advice is to eat something out of here every hour, or half hour and see if you can finish them all before the time is up. 

The four of us quickly exchanged glances. I said, Sam, you look like a guy we can trust, I think we'll go for it.

We kept heading down the main drag towards the four way where I had parked my wagon a lifetime ago. In the center of the street a bonfire was raging. People gathered in a ring around the fire. The sled racers were staging from two directions that met in the middle. Matt was craning his neck to check out the situation. Ok, it looks like the lines come together and you just race whoever you come up against. Two more sleds launched past us. The green one started hissing and blew past the orange one like it was parked. Oh damn! Matt exclaimed, Did you hear that turbo!?

We could see he was really getting excited and already scanning for any parked sleds he could commandeer. Then we heard a voice calling our names. Jeff was leaning out the window of his shop waving to get our attention. Come in, come in, he hurried us through the door then he looked around suspiciously and closed it behind us. His shop was a hub of activity,  a dozen men and women were setting up skis and prepping gear. The smell of hot ski wax filled the air. Jeff was an expert backcountry snowboarder, so it made sense that he was in the middle of some epic adventure. I noticed he was holding a walkie talkie.

Then he leaned in to share his secret. The Silver Queen is gonna run. Can you guys get up there? We nodded, he continued, the plan is to get some buses running and the road cleared, but that’s gonna take some time. Me and this crew are gonna tow up with sleds. He looked at Kevin and said, try to get up there before the buses. Jeff opened a box of energy bars and we stuffed them in our pockets. You guys need anything else? Whatever you need, grab it. Hopefully I’ll see you up there. I gotta run in back.

We thanked him and he disappeared to the back of the store. Matt moved on the glove rack, he dropped his wet gloves to the floor and started biting the tags off a new pair. Kevin selected a new pair of goggles. I glanced behind the counter and saw that the deep powder boards were gone. Then we left the shop and walked back into the storm.

Our return trip up Elk was even rowdier. The sleds were still racing, more people were cheering them on, more people were dancing and the crowd at the drug store had gotten bigger. The snow kept falling. Sled tracks now ran closer to the Jeep so we didn’t have to slog through the snow so much. Kevin fired it up while we cleared it off. Matt took the co-driver seat again, he pulled the sunvisor down and found a selection of CD’s. After a quick review he pulled out some ACDC  and pushed it into the slot as the Jeep lurched from its parking spot and started churning down the road.

 Kevin was getting the feel for the Jeep in the deep snow and we were all rocking to the heavy guitar riffs, nothing could stop us from getting up the hill.  Coming into the last four way in town Matt glanced  out the side window and yelled, Whoa! Whoa! Stop! Kevin down-shifted quickly, the engine whined and the Jeep shuddered to a stop. A massive white 4x4 van slid to a stop entering from our right. Both vehicles were still.  We looked up at the dudes driving the van, they looked at us. The passenger had both hands braced on the dash, the driver shot us a crazy grin. Then at the exact same time both he and Kevin realized that it was on. The van caught traction and passed in front of us with a roar. We could see it had chains on all the tires. Glaring at us from the side of the delivery van was a huge flaming skull with three burning red eyes. The second track on the disc started playing.

The van punched through a big drift and charged up the road. On the edge of town we rumbled past The Gas Cafe, we could see people inside waving. The clouds thinned to let just a little sunlight trickle through but the snow never let up. The wipers slapped back and forth moving snow on every wipe. We entered  the marshy wasteland outside of town. Matt motioned to me and pointed out the window at a big, extended cab pick-up that had gone off the road and down an embankment hours ago. The road signs were few and far between, but somehow the van always seemed to find the pavement. 

Approaching the hill we could see huge drifts had blown into the road cut. At least it would be easy to find the road with a mountain on one side and nothing on the other. The van’s  brake lights came on and it rolled to a stop then we saw the reverse lights flash as he put it in park. Both doors opened and guys in ski gear jumped out. The passenger went to the front of the van while the driver walked back to greet Kevin. Kevin rolled down the window and bumped fists. Dude! Nice driving. That van is a beast. 

Thanks man, she’s runnin’ hot though. I gotta clear my grill out so it doesn't blow on the final push up the hill. Kevin and Matt both got out of the Jeep. Matt started clearing snow out of the grill, Kevin and the other driver walked to the front of the van.

I found the water bottles on the floor, handed one to Cliff and opened one myself. I said, wouldn’t it be funny if Hawaii turned out to be one of the best places to survive? Like it wasn’t worth a nuke and everyone there was ok. But we convinced  you to come out here, instead? That would be funny.

Cliff leaned his head against the cold window glass and lamented,  I could have finally taken my rightful place as The Great King Cliffhamehameha. You guys have always conspired to keep me out of power. He glanced over at me, then noticed something and leaned in closer looking directly at me. Dude what’s on your face? I squeezed between the front seats to look in the mirror. It’s my frostbite scars, I said. Under both eyes I had thick pink bands that looked like Nike swooshes.

I told him, one cold night riding my sled up to Irwin I had a gap between my goggles and facewarmer. The skin that was exposed got all white for a few days, since then if it gets really cold the scars start to come back. It’s my indicator that I need to warm up. Cliff asked, are you cold now? A dark thought flashed into my mind. No, not at all. I wonder if this is how it starts? The parts of you that are already damaged are the first to be affected. Cliff said, I don’t think that’s it, my brain feels fine.

Both doors opened and Kevin and Matt both instinctively kicked their boots against the sides of the Jeep to knock off the snow before getting in. OK you guys ready? Kevin asked us. Actually I left my lighter at Jeff’s, can we go back for it? 

The van started climbing forward and we followed.  Looming ahead was the first large drift across the road. The driver held his arm out signaling Kevin to stop. The van drove up close to the drift, then the reverse lights came on and it backed up to get a run at it. The driver eased into the gas and the van built up speed. The flat nose of the van punched into the drift like a brick. Snow blew over the top and we heard the big V8 rage with effort. The van barely made it through and continued towards the next one. 

He tried the same technique but the drift was bigger and the road was steeper. The big van had reached its limits. We watched him rock the mighty beast forwards and back but it was truly stuck. That's when the back doors of the van opened and sixteen people climbed out. 

Give a group of desperate ski bums a problem to solve, pass a few joints among them and great things will happen. We backed the Jeep up a little ways and unreeled all the nylon strap out of the front bumper winch. Matt walked it up to the back bumper of the van and dropped the hook in the snow. Then with everyone pushing, the van crept backwards out of the drift. Matt retrieved the hook, with the strap running under the van and started climbing through the drift. The rest of us all attacked the drift like we were kids tearing down a snow fort. Guys and girls laughed as we fell backwards into the soft snow and made snow angels or rolled around packing it down. Matt looped the strap around a thick guard rail post and climbed back through the snow.

You think it will hold? Someone asked. Matt said, it will either hold or it will pull the post out and launch it through the windshield like a cannon. The driver looked at his friend and said, Rob, you wanted to try driving, right?

We looked back down the road and could see the flashing yellow lights of two large front-end loaders clearing the road behind us. They were past the Gas Cafe but still had a long way to go. The brave driver got back in the van, Kevin piloted the Jeep and Matt ran the remote control for the winch standing along side this engineering cluster fuck. The rest of us watched from the side.

The winch started to whine and pull in slack. The gnarly, protruding bumper of the Jeep eased into the rear bumper of the van. Matt kept applying pressure and we heard metal bending, the back doors appeared to suck in a little, like the van was holding it’s breath. There was a loud pop as the Jeep and the van jerked forward. Matt squatted down and looked at the point of contact. He cringed then stood up again, changing his expression to a smile, you’re good. Alright let’s do it.

With a precise combination of skill, horsepower and extreme violence, the vehicles smashed together and made it through the drift. The winch pulled the Jeep and the Jeep pushed the van in front of it. Someone said, I saw something like that once on pornhub, everyone laughed. Someone else said, I think I’m gonna miss pornhub more than anything, everyone laughed even harder. 

Matt and Cliff jumped into the open side door of the van. I coiled up the nylon webbing of the winch strap and dropped it on the floor as I climbed into the Jeep. We made it through the straightaway, then had to repeat the entire process again at the next corner. Spirits were still high, everyone enjoyed working as a team to achieve a common goal. It was nice to prove that people could still do that. By the time we reached the base area we could see the loaders at the first corner behind us. We all agreed that the machines were making good time because we had broken the trail for them.



SUNDAY AFTERNOON

The base area looked like the morning after Mardi Gras, plastic solo cups and beer cans littered the snow. A pile of ash and a charred picnic table still smoldered in the center of the pavilion. The ring of dry bricks around the fire hinted at how big it had once been. We saw pant legs and  snowboard boots sticking up from behind a low wall as if someone was kicked back with their feet up. Cliff walked over and checked, that guy is definitely dead, he said as he walked back.

The rumble of a crowd started getting closer, we rounded a corner, and there they were. We were greeted like outsiders from a distant village. The groups shared stories and the people of the mountain gave us bacon and baked goods. We combed our pockets for gifts we could share. A loud boom rang out from up on the mountain. The ski patrol was bombing the runs to trigger avalanches. I could only imagine the huge slides they were setting off today after fourteen hours of epic snowfall.

A cheer ran through the crowd and the Silver Queen bull wheel started to turn. All the chairs hung thick with snow. As each chair came through the terminal people attacked the chair with shovels and brooms, knocking as much snow as they could and then pushing the snow to the side. A snowcat worked around the terminal pushing away the snow as the lifties shoveled it out.

Cliff walked up with the most elaborate bloody mary I had ever seen. Are those shrimp? I want one. He slid the kabob out of his drink and I pulled off a jumbo shrimp. 

He said, all the chairs have to be cleaned off before anyone gets on, otherwise it might snap. I said, we should go get our stuff, Matt and Kevin already headed that way. Another boom rang out across the valley and we both looked up at the mountain.

A line had formed by the time we returned. The maze was full and beyond that it was a gathering mob. The team cleaning off chairs now looked to be twenty strong. The work looked very hard getting the snow off each chair and then also clearing it away as the next chair came in. The crowd was loud and laughing. Empty beer cans kept getting tossed out onto the snow. The first clean chair was spotted  coming down the line and the crowd erupted in a cheer. Followed by a chant praising Lifties! Lifties! Lifties!

The tired group of shovelers was focused and committed. It reminded me of our own crew working through the snow drifts. It was something we would all miss, the pride of accomplishment. The finality of seeing something through to the end. The first clean chair was only ten chairs away, and a countdown started. The shovelers kept swinging like they were building a railroad. I looked through the crowd and spotted several young kids following along with the counting.  I thought of my girls.

TWO! ONE! A lifty slapped the last chair one final time and they raised their arms in triumph. The first chair was away! And it was loaded with ski patrol, and the next chair and the next chair. But then the riff raff started loading. Snowballs were thrown from the maze up at the chairs. A snowboarder fumbled getting into position and knocked someone else over. That chair started rising with only two people on it and the crowd booed. Someone yelled, Keep it together people! Focus!


We worked our way closer and closer to the lift. For all the rowdiness at the outer edges of the mob, once we were into the maze, the lines zippered together with fluid efficiency. Another testament to people working together. I looked to my side and watched a boy about ten wack his poles on the tips of his skis like my girls would do waiting in the lift line. I wondered how much he knew about the situation.

Are you staying in the hotel? I asked him. We did for a few nights, but last night we got to stay in a Texan house.  My parents said the Texans wouldn’t mind if we stayed there. Was it nice? I asked him. He responded with an honest review. The hotel pool is more fun but the Texas house had a hot tub that lit up with different colors, and it wasn’t too hot, I don’t like when it's  really hot.

I looked up and saw his dad observing. The dad shot me a grin, happy to see his son engage with other adults. Nice job dad, I said and gave him a fist bump with gloved hands. The lift line kept moving and we got closer. None of the lifties were helping with the chairs, they were just hanging out by the control panel drinking from a case of beer and laughing. Music played from a boombox in the small booth. Kevin called to them, are you guys gonna get on the hill? A kid with a thin blond mustache said, yeah we’ll get up there, but this is pretty fun too.

The chair swung around behind us and we all sat down. We rose into the air. Cliff snapped, Kevin if your goddamn snowboard hits my skis one more time I swear to god  I’ll push you off this lift. I said, Cliff, maybe it’s time you learn to accept snowboarders as equals and realize they’re not going away. Matt said, I beg to differ.

I twisted around to look back down the mountain. I could see the two town buses had made it to the base. They couldn’t turn around yet, but one of the loaders kept working to clear more snow at the bus stop. Even with the buses unloaded the crowd was barely out of the maze. Standing in the crowd it seemed like a lot of people, but this was it. These were all the skiers in the valley. I turned back, snow already covered my ski pants, I brushed it off.

Matt asked, so what are you thinking Kevin? Kevin said, I was just wondering if the billionaires were right and New Zealand was the safe place to be when all this shit went down. Matt said, no I mean which run should we take? Kevin said, probably Crystal. We started hearing hoots of joy and watched the first group of skiers come down under the lift. A guy in the chair ahead of us yelled, yeah get some! 

They moved like ghosts shrouded in streamers of cold smoke, completely disappearing as snow billowed over their heads. We watched awestruck as they carved underneath us and kept going down the mountain. Dude. Holy shit. That looks fucking epic. Sick.

The upper terminal started to appear through the snow. Our chair got closer and closer, we got the sense that getting off the chair might be a challenge. If the lower terminal was cleared out just enough to be functional, the upper terminal wasn’t even that. Instead of getting off the chair and riding down a ramp, we got off the chair and scrambled up a hill of loose snow to try to clear the way for the next chair. Skis clanked together as we tried to skate and push with our poles. Kevin kicked  with his back foot, then he saw an out and cut to the side. We made it out of the way and got over to where other skiers were standing. Riders zipped up their jackets, buttoned cuffs and cleared snow out of goggles. Kevin slapped his board down trying to clear snow out of his back binding.

I got my gear in order and stood there waiting for the others. Suddenly a wave of nausea hit me so fast I barely had time to pull my face warmer down before violently emptying my stomach onto the snow between my feet. I heaved several times until all that was coming up was blood stained bile. I was wiping vomit from my beard with my sleeve when Matt skied up next to me. He put his arm on my shoulder, you ok? I grinned at him, my eyes were watery, I spit and said, boot and rally! Kevin sailed past us and dropped into the fall line.  We chased him onto the ski run, not following him, but just the cloud of powder that billowed up behind him obscuring his form. My legs were wobbly, I could feel the strain on my knees. I didn’t have wide powder skis, so I fought to keep control. Matt pulled alongside me and gave a loud primal growl of enthusiasm. I glanced over at his technique. He was keeping his speed up and not really turning, just leaning into a general direction.

Halfway down, Kevin laid out a carve like a big wave surfer and came to a stop. Matt and I stopped next to him. I doubled over gasping for breath. Kevin looked up the hill behind us, oh here he comes!


We looked up the hill to see Cliffy barreling towards us. I could see his fists leading the way like he was stepping into a street fight. He made a last minute mistake and thought he could spray snow onto us. Instead he caught an edge and spun around tumbling to a stop belly down in the fluff. Kevin and I busted out laughing, Matt shook his head. Cliff floundered and flopped until he got himself turned over. He lay on his back panting from the effort.

Matt said, good call on Crystal, everyone else went to the steeper stuff, this is perfect. Kevin said, there’s a really good windlip on the right down here. I usually speed check it, but not today. Today we go big or go home. How ya’ doing Cliffy? I literally feel like I’m dying. Pfffft, Cliff, you have said that on every mountain bike ride, every hike and every time we ski. Yeah, but this time I mean it.

Matt ordered Cliff to get up and stop being dramatic. Cliff stood up and brushed himself off. He spit a gob into the snow and we could all see it was a red splat on the pure white snow.

Let’s go! Kevin called as he hopped in place on his board, tugging his mitten over his jacket cuff. With another hop he started down the hill, aimed for a drift and did a clean 180 off of it. He moved across the mountain like a painter making brush strokes on a pure white canvas. He hit the natural kicker and grabbed the tail of his board, then landed perfectly and arced across the trail.

Cliff you go. Oh you guys want to watch the master at work huh? No, we want to watch you eat shit off this roller.

Cliff headed down the run with a wide stance and his hands out front. Kevin’s track made a perfect run-in to the jump. Cliff gained speed and launched into the air, he spread his legs and grabbed his crotch with one hand and raised the other to the sky. Matt followed, his skis crossing in the air to form a perfect X. I trailed behind and did the trick my girls had seen me do countless times. I pointed my skis up and grabbed both tips. I smiled as I thought about them hassling me to do something different.

After the jump we were feeling more confident and finding our balance. I dropped behind Matt and made powder eights off of his tracks. We encountered more skiers as we got closer to the base. Hoots and shouts of joy came from all directions. Skiers and boarders popped out of the trees or merged from other trails. It was a shared feeling of stoke. The snow was so exquisite and it took so much focus and effort to get through it that all other thoughts were pushed aside. Our senses were overloaded and there wasn’t enough bandwidth to consider anything more than two turns ahead.


Skiers and boarders all bombed the final pitch down to the chair. The straight line tracks in the snow looked like a scratching post. A dozen riders slid into the maze at the same time. We recognized a few faces from Jeff’s shop, including Jeff. I saw that no one was manning the lift. The precision engineered high speed detachable quad was functioning perfectly without any human intervention. The speed was set slightly slower than max to allow everyone a few extra seconds to get set up. To keep the line moving, Matt and Cliff loaded the chair ahead of us. Kevin and I rode up with Jeff and another local named Chris, who Kevin also knew. 

Jeff reached his hand up and said, coming down, as he lowered the safety bar. Each of us repositioned and got comfortable.

Jeff slapped me on the shoulder, wow! Tim! How on earth did you and Matt and Cliff show up here for the end of the world? Did you plan that? It’s true, we set all this up. Jeff said, I’m sorry you didn’t get to be with your families. I said, yeah. He quickly turned the conversation, I still think about you sometimes when I ride 401. Ha, I said, that day changed the course of my life.

Chris leaned forward, throwing us a puzzled look, ready for a story. Jeff obliged. Chairlift rides are a great place for stories.

It was me, Tim and Johnny shuttling up Gothic in my old Forerunner. I had a bag of homemade cookies, so naturally I offered them to my friends. We unload the bikes and ride to the top of the climb, then we’re sitting on the rocks at the top. I packed up a bowl and offered it to Tim. He says, Oh I can’t smoke that, I haven’t smoked in a month, I’ve got a drug test tomorrow.

I laughed and offered my impression of Jeff to bring the story home. You go, ohhh duude, that cookie was full of weed. And Johnny just starts laughing. So instead of being a mechanic for the Town of Mount Crested Butte the only job I could find was with the premier cat skiing lodge in Colorado.

Chris said, that’s how life is, you try to plan for stuff but sometimes you’re just along for the ride.

I caught a whiff of weed smoke drifting back from the chair ahead of us. Cliff twisted his body to look back at us, then he flipped us off and turned back. I sucked on a chunk of ice hanging from my mustache, then remembered the circumstances and spit it out.

Getting off the lift at the top was even worse than before. We stepped through loose deep snow as the chair lift banged into us, pushing us forward. As each chair went through the bull wheel and headed back down the hill it dragged across the top of a big drift knocking the top smooth. The  second run was even better than the first, our group merged with Jeff’s for a full-on party train. Kevin and Jeff started laying way back on their boards seeing who could hold a longer wheelie. One of Jeff’s friends, probably a pro skier, hopped 180 and started carving out powder turns riding switch. No one was holding anything back. All my muscles burned, I could feel my knees barely holding together. But I couldn’t let up. I didn’t want to stop and let the rolling circus pass me by. Chemicals kicked in and the pain faded away. My body pulled from untapped reserves of energy.

Getting to the bottom, we could see something was up. More people were gathered around the maze including several red jacketed ski patrollers. Then I noticed the lift wasn’t moving. I could see several chairs full of riders suspended in the air, casually swinging their legs. I pulled into the group and Chris said, the power went out. I looked into the base area buildings and didn’t see any lights inside. After a few minutes of hopeful wishing, we kicked off our gear and went onto the big deck. 

Oh this feels good, Cliff said,  unbuckling his ski boots kicking his feet up onto the table. I folded my arms on the table and laid my head down. I was starting to hear a slight gurgling sound each time I took a deep breath. We heard some yelling and the chairlift cable bobbed up and down after the first guy jumped off the chair lift. He was followed by anyone else in safe jumping distance. The jumpers pushed through neck deep snow under the lift to come join us at the bottom. Other riders kept trickling down the hill only to find the stopped lift.

The only sounds were scattered conversations and the falling snow. My head felt heavy resting on my arms. I closed my eyes, colors swirled and danced behind my eyelids. Cliff unzipped his pocket and pulled out an energy bar. The plastic wrapper crinkled loudly. Cliff struggled to open it and all I could hear was the crinkling of plastic. The noise kept going and going, finally I opened my eyes and looked at him. He held the empty wrapper close to my head and slowly rolled it in his hand, crinkling it. I smacked his arm away.

I tried to push him off the bench but he fought back, until he started laughing. I laughed too, then his laugh transitioned into a cough, then he braced himself with one hand and held his fist to his mouth. His cough became phlegmy and deep, I stopped laughing.

A loud barking sound echoed off the buildings and black smoke started puffing out of an exhaust pipe above the lift terminal. The diesel engine settled into a steady rhythm and the lift started moving again very slowly. We watched trying to judge if we could get another ride up. The ski patrollers pulled a rope across the maze and closed the lift.  Following protocol, they set an orange traffic cone on the last chair. When the cone made it back down they would know the lift was empty.

Matt said, I think today was the hardest I’ve ever worked for two runs. Good runs though, Kevin pointed out. More riders were coming down the hill every minute, the base area was starting to fill with people ready to party. We heard some yelling, a couple guys were clearing people away from the pavilion area where the bonfire had burned. A wooden chair was tossed off the fourth floor balcony of the hotel. It hit the ground and broke apart. Soon furniture was carpet bombing the common space under the hotel. A sliding glass door shattered and a large wooden dresser fell to the ground.

Well this is fun! Cliff said, watching the destruction. I said, I’ll go get our shoes from the locker. I stood up and almost blacked out from the head rush. I steadied myself against the table. My vision cleared and Matt was watching me. He stood up, I’ll come with you. We started walking through the snow in our ski boots. A big clock on the side of a building had stopped at 2:40. The heavy clouds and falling snow muted the sunset. Light just faded out of the sky like turning a dimmer switch.

We got to the base lodge where we had stashed our shoes. One door stood partially open with snow piled on either side. The other door had all the glass kicked out. We stepped through the metal frame, glass crunched in the snow at our feet. Battery operated Exit signs glowed at either end of the vast dark room. Our footsteps carried along the rows of metal lockers. We could hear voices and yelling from the floor above us. Matt said, I wonder if people are gonna start to lose it? I found the locker and retrieved our shoes. Something heavy crashed on another floor. I said, it feels like a zombie movie without the zombies. 

Returning to the group, we found Cliff dragging furniture to the pile. I held up his L.L. Bean boots and he sighed in ecstasy. The engine had stopped and the chairs hung motionless from the chairlift. Sleds zipped in and out bringing supplies and people to the apres ski party. A big gas grill was cooking burgers and brats for anyone who wanted them. Up on the slope a snowcat started pushing snow into a big ski jump. A sled pulled up close to the wood pile. The woman on back was holding a red plastic gas can in her lap. She got off and carried it to the pile, the smell of gas wafted through the air as she splashed it on the pile. Matt was standing next to me, he took a deep breath through his nose and said, smells like the start of every good party. 

Behind us the bar we had gone into yesterday came alive with a portable generator. A Grateful Dead song started playing and a string of Christmas lights lit up the railing on the deck. Candles and lanterns lit the interior. Half the crowd moved onto the deck, we stayed by the fire talking with some of the crew we had skied with. Eventually Kevin appeared with news. The Jeep is totally plowed in, but a bus is running. Cliff asked, should we just leave our skis here? I don’t think Jeff will be too mad. Kevin was taken aback, I’m not leaving my board, it’s still dumping, besides, we might ride some more. Kevin the eternal optimist, we couldn’t disagree with him. I dug a capsule out of my pocket and crushed it between my teeth.

The idling bus sat in a plowed area of the parking lot. I slid my skis into the ski rack on the side of the bus, then I followed the others up the steps into the front entrance. A very young girl sat in the driver's seat thumbing her phone. Her straight black hair framed both sides of her deathly pale face. Dark eyeliner and black lipstick complimented her black hoodie, and black pants so wide they concealed her shoes. Three chrome chains hung from her belt in a loop. Heavy melodic synth music played through the bus speakers.


Like someone trying  to speak a second language, I drew on my experience of conversing with a sullen teen girl. I considered the tone and words that might be appropriate and settled on, thanks for waiting for us. She glanced up from her phone, I braced for the hard punch of silence. Instead she asked, did you see anyone else coming? I sat down in the front row and said, no I think we’re it. My friends went further into the bus to sit with the other riders.

She closed the door, released the park brake and put it in drive. With a few jerky stops and starts the bus started rolling forward. She cut the wheels hard in the tight area that had been cleared and the rear of the bus scraped across a snow drift. She pulled a quick three point turn and we headed down the hill towards town. 

How do you like driving a bus? It’s cool, I’ve always wanted to be a bus driver. So I just walked up and asked if I could do it. I said, you’re doing a great job. That triggered the emotionless straight-lipped glare I had been expecting all along.

Weed smoke drifted up from the back of the bus and I scanned back through the rows of passengers. A few seats behind me were two women in their twenties. One held a wad of cheap, brown paper towels to her bloody nose while her friend tried to comfort her. The paper was soaked and dark red drips stained her ski jacket. I looked behind the driver’s seat and spotted a roll of white paper towels and glass cleaner. Can I take these towels? I asked the driver. Yeah, it’s not like I’m gonna clean the bus later, she quipped. I handed them back to the grateful women.

So how old are you? You could be one of the youngest bus drivers in history. She didn’t look back. I’m thirteen, I’m always going to be thirteen. 

I almost mentioned I have a thirteen year old daughter, but I didn’t. Instead I asked, is this what you expected would happen? She turned to look at me, again, void of emotion. Yeah, kinda. 

The bus pulled into the Gas Cafe, and looped around the covered area by the pumps. One of the yellow front end loaders was parked next to the piles of snow that ringed the new bus stop. We filed off the bus thanking the driver. I stood to the side as the passengers filed out. I saw the girl with the bloody nose walk by, she pulled the paper towel away to check and blood flowed out like an arterial wound. The cafe was lit with lantern light and a small gas generator ran outside. 

We started walking the few blocks to Kevin’s house through the darkened town. Wood smoke trickled from chimneys, generators hummed here and there, candlelight peaked out from the windows of houses. Snow was starting to block windows on the first story of homes. Sleds zipped up and down the streets and we passed a few other people walking on the sled tracks with us

We heard there’s an orgy house on Whiterock, Cliff said to me. That sounds fun, you guys going to check it out? I asked.  Oh hell yeah. 

Kevin got to his darkened house first and pulled out his keys. Aww shit, he said. A small glass window beside the door was smashed out, the door was unlocked. Kevin entered and called out, hello? This is my house! We listened and the place was quiet and cold. Kevin found a big flashlight and checked the rooms. I lit a few candles and we were able to see more clearly. Kevin noticed wet boot prints in the kitchen and followed them to the fridge. He opened the door and swept the flashlight around. Huh, he said, looks like they took my milk and eggs. Maybe they’re making a cake, Cliff said. Kevin started making a fire in the wood stove while we plundered his kitchen for snacks. I found a package of chocolate chips and ate them by the handful. My teeth were starting to hurt as I crunched down on the frozen chips.

Cliff rummaged through a closet and pulled out a thick wool jacket. Kevin I’m taking this. He slipped his hand into the pocket and found an orienteering compass on a lanyard. You can keep this though, he said as he handed it to Kevin. You sure Cliffy? you might need it to find your way. Cliff said, I've never been lost before, and I don't even have a moral compass.

Matt asked for some socks, Kevin pointed to his room. We warmed up for a while, then Cliff and Matt declared they were heading to the orgy house. Good idea, I said, you probably don’t want to be the last ones to show up, Kevin pulled a bottle from his liquor cabinet and poured a drink. I sat with him for a while after Cliff and Matt left. We were both quiet.

I stood up and told him I was going for a walk. I put on my stuff and went outside, I grabbed a snow shovel from the porch and started walking. It took two tries to find my car in the parking lot, but I found it and cleared enough snow to slip into the driver’s door. I started the reliable German engine and plugged in my phone. I scrolled through photos on my phone as the seat heater stole the chill away. Tears rolled down my face as I thought about the family I had lost. The salty tears stung as they flowed into the sores on my cheeks. My old frostbite sores were now red and irritated. I took a closer look in the rear view mirror, the skin was cracked and flaking.

I noticed a yellow strip of thin plastic sitting in the cup holder and picked it up. It was the bracelet I was given last weekend at my daughter’s roller derby bout that proved I was over twenty-one. A smile creased my cheeks and I remembered I could cheer for my kid while sipping a beer in a socially acceptable environment. I eased the seat back, the heater started blowing warm air onto my face. I leaned back and felt very comfortable, the seat heater pulled the aches from my tired muscles.

With my eyes closed I drifted back to the derby bout. The pride I felt hearing the stands cheer for Breakneck Betty, small but determined. I saw the star on her helmet when she was the jammer. I saw her spin and weave through the blockers. My favorite moves were when she would run on her toe stops or spin 180 and shoot through a gap. 

I coughed and tried to pull in a deep breath, my lungs felt weak. My head bobbed and fell. The bracelet slipped from my fingers. Again I returned to the bout. I heard skates on concrete, players yelling, fans cheering. Sometimes her skills and maneuvering could get her past the opposition. That’s when we cheered. But it often didn’t go that way. Many times the blockers stopped her. That’s when you see how tough a kid really is. With her teammates tied up she would be all alone pushing against three strong blockers. A wall of immovable objects. 

We’d still cheer, Don’t quit! Go Betty! But, the faces of the parents went from joy to concern. We could see the situation was hopeless and nothing would change until the time ran out. That’s when she wouldn’t back down. Up on her toe stops pushing with all her might, leaning into the unrelenting blockers. All her strength depleted, she just kept pushing, wouldn’t stop, never quitting...pushing…pushing…until the whistle blew.

I sat up and pushed the car door open, I let the fresh air fill my lungs with a deep breath. A splitting pain shot through my head. I could smell the exhaust wafting out of the car’s interior. Sitting in the car would be giving up, I had to keep pushing.




MONDAY MORNING

I woke to the sound of someone rushing to the bathroom and pouring a five gallon bucket of water into the bowl. Or, that’s what I tried to imagine as I squeezed the pillow against my ears. Sunlight filtered into the room through a thin gap at the top of the window. I glanced around the room. Matt lay on the other couch. His mouth hung open with a foamy trail of spit running out of it. Unblinking eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. I threw off my blanket and slowly crouched next to him, terror started to sweep over me, I watched waiting for his chest to rise or his eyes to blink. 

I reached my hand out to touch him, that’s when he snapped his head to the side and went AAH! My heart leapt, and I lurched backwards falling on the Xbox controller. Matt sat up laughing so hard tears rolled down his cheeks as he wiped away the wad of spit with the back of his hand. You mother fucker! I think I pissed myself. Oh dude, you should have seen your face, that was priceless. God damn man, that was messed up. I rubbed the small of my back where the hard plastic controller had dug into me. 

It was the spit wasn’t it? Matt asked, Well, yeah, plus you weren’t breathing and you didn’t blink for like two minutes. Remind me never to challenge you to a staring contest. He sat up without his shirt on. I did a double take, it looked like his neck had gotten thicker overnight. I put my hand on my own neck and it felt puffy and tender. Matt watched me and his smile withered, your neck looks all swollen, he said.

Kevin entered from down the hall, he flicked the light switch, nothing happened. Kevin’s hair was an amazing display of chaos, plastered flat on one side yet sticking straight out like a sea anemone in every other direction. He shivered and folded his arms tight. Good morning sunshine, I said to him. Why’s it so cold? Kevin asked, did you guys let the fire die? I looked at Matt and he looked at me, we both looked at the wood stove as Kevin opened it to find a thin layer of ash and coal inside. Kevin muttered disappointment in us as he loaded logs into it and blew on the coals.

Cliff finally came out of the bathroom, spraying air freshener as he backed out and shut the door. I’m sorry Kevin, I would just seal off this bathroom if I were you. He flicked the kitchen light switch, nothing happened. Cliff’s eyes had dark circles underneath and his skin looked sallow. I took a deep breath and confirmed the fluid sound had gotten worse, all of us were in pretty rough shape. I brought my hand up and gently touched one of the sores on my cheek, a scab cracked and fell off, I pulled my hand away and saw blood on my fingertip.

So how was the orgy house? I asked. Cliff pondered for a moment and then answered, it was everything you’d imagine a post-apocalyptic orgy house to be. Matt said, I think I met my soul mates there. Cliff asked, did you guys have your own two-man orgy here? Kevin chuckled as he watched the flames catch on the firewood. No, I looked through photo albums and tried to finish that bottle of Beam. Cliff picked up the bottle and sloshed the last third of liquor inside. Quitter, he said.

We got a couple of sleds, Matt said with a hint of pride. Really?! I walked over to the front door and peered outside. Two nice mountain sleds were parked in the front yard, already covered with a few inches of snow. Those look sweet, shit that RMK is like brand new!

Matt shrugged, they were just sitting there at the bank. I have a feeling there will be a lot more abandoned stuff this morning. People are starting to drop like flies. Cliff added, when I was at the bar a guy fell to the ground and had a seizure, then he just died. I helped drag him out and we tossed him on a pile of bodies in the alley. We were quiet for a moment.

Kevin clapped his hands loudly and exclaimed, Whoop! Sounds like we need to go ride some backcountry! I know I don’t want to die falling off a bar stool. Each of us broke into a smile. Matt said, I want to ski the Ruby Chute. I said, now we’re talkin’. 

We put together a small breakfast, no one was very hungry. Don’t forget your vitamins, Cliff said as he dug the baggie out of his pocket, he was down to the last six or eight pills. Matt said, those little blue ones are definitely speed. Trust me, don't take two in a row. Kevin asked, so you think we could get more sleds? Matt said, there’s a bunch parked downtown. Yeah but I don’t want to just take someone’s sled if they use it to get places. I said, well, we can just ask if people are done with two of them. I dunno, Matt shrugged, nobody came running after us when we started up these. I think you’ll be surprised when you see downtown. 

Elk avenue was a much different sight from the day before. The fire had burned out, the sled racing was done. There was no more music or dancing. We passed a few people walking and saw some others on sleds, but anyone who was out moved with purpose. A quiet had settled over the town. All the store fronts were dark. A wrecked sled was wrapped around a light pole, slowly disappearing under the snow. Someone had shoveled snow from the doorway to The Talk of the Town and several sleds were parked in front of that bar. But we continued up the street, riding double on the two sleds.

At the end of Elk Avenue, over twenty sleds were parked haphazardly filling the road and sidewalks. All the sleds had lots of snow on them. We parked ours and stood in front of a historic 1800’s saloon.  Matt walked up to the front door, he pulled hard and swept a pile of snow to the side with the big wooden door.

We stepped into the bar and a gust of wind blew snow and cold air in with us. Light came in through the big front  windows, but farther back the bar faded into darkness. Figures wrapped in blankets huddled in the booths or sat at the bar, some turned to watch us come in. The sound of classical piano music filled the room. A woman wrapped in a thick wool coat and hat sat at the dusty upright piano, her thin fingers danced across the keys. Near the piano a big pot-bellied stove struggled to knock down the chill, but the room was still cold. We could see our breath as we moved towards some empty stools at the bar.

The shelves behind the bar were mostly empty, the bottles that remained were fruit flavored versions of vodka. No one stood behind the bar, I took a seat next to a weathered old local in his sixties. He slowly looked over at us, then he reached for a bottle of gin in front of his bar mate and placed it in front of us. Cliff said thanks, and took a swig. The man was only a decade older than us but he was fading much faster. 

The man looked at me with sad, glassy eyes and the smell of his breath hit me. It was a smell reserved for hospital rooms and hospice care. He should be connected to an oxygen hose and a fading heartbeat monitor. Instead we sat together at a polished wooden bar. A harsh racking cough broke out from a few seats away. The dying man took my hand in his weak grip. The bones of his fingers seemed to float disconnected beneath the wrinkled skin. I held his hand and he stared into my eyes. 

He opened his mouth, again the smell was overwhelming. I saw dried flakes of skin on his lips as he struggled to make a sound. The first attempt came like a whisper, then like a radio station coming through static he formed a word, go. I leaned closer, his mouth formed a withered smile and he said it again, go. He let go of me and struggled to raise his bony finger towards the bright light of the front windows. Go.

I stood with renewed determination. I put my hand on the man’s shoulder, he looked at me and nodded. Kevin and Matt were standing a few feet away talking quietly. They saw me stand and motioned for the door. The four of us headed back out into the light. I took another look at the figures huddled under blankets in the nearest booth and realized they had already slipped away, sitting with friends, in a place they felt comfortable. But we didn’t belong here.

Back outside we quickly chose two more sleds based on the amount of gas in the tanks and returned to Kevin’s house. Kevin had two backcountry packs so he and Matt attached their boards to the packs, while Cliff and I used straps to secure our skis to the sleds. My feet were painfully swollen as I squeezed them into my ski boots, a new symptom of the illness. Kevin filled his wood stove until the door would barely shut, then he turned the vent down to keep the fire going as long as possible. He swept his gaze around the room pausing on the drawings, photos on the wall and the Spiderman pajamas. Then we all quietly walked out into the snow and started the sleds.

Our procession  made a slow final pass up Elk Ave. Someone at The Talk waved as we rode past and I waved back. We were the four riders of the apocalypse on a one-way trip out of town. My teeth were grinding and my heart raced like a hummingbird, that last pill must have been a speed tablet. We veered off the main drag and the powder sleds each made fresh tracks through the deep snow as we passed the last house and started up a winding canyon road.


Rounding a corner we found the carcass of a burned out Sprinter van. We poured on the throttle as the climb leveled out and the valley opened. Our next challenge was to shoot underneath the Seven Sisters avalanche paths. We raced under the first six to find the last one had already slid that morning. Crossing the slide path was tricky as the heavy blocks of snow bounced and tossed the sleds. Cliff’s skis came loose and had to be secured. 

The sleds worked hard breaking trail up to Irwin Lake, but finally the dark fortresses of rock came into view and we could look up at the three peaks of Ruby, Owen and Purple.  Kevin was leading when he pulled to a stop and turned off his engine. We all pulled close and did the same. I stepped off the sled to tighten the straps on my skis and sunk in up to my waist. I was focused on the task when Kevin asked, you ever seen anything like that? Cliff said, whoa. 


I looked up, behind us was a sky of grey clouds with white snowflakes filling the air. I turned to look forwards and immediately became frightened by the sight. Rolling across the mountain range ahead of us was a dark, black storm cloud with a curtain of darkness falling beneath it. What the hell is that? Thunder cracked from inside the maelstrom. The cloud billowed and grew as it moved onto Purple peak like a massive ship hitting a rock. Dude, I don’t like that. 

We could now see precipitation falling onto the white snow and it was staining it black. Matt is that snow? Matt said, My guess is that it’s ash. The thunder boomed three more times in quick succession and we could see flashes of lightning up in the cloud bank. The ominous storm was clearly heading for us filling the valley. Cliff asked, am I the only one who thinks we should stay out of that? Let’s head to the lodge, I said and pointed across the lake. I reached down and grabbed the pull handle to start the sled. I gave it a hard yank and the engine roared to life. From where we were I couldn’t see the green metal roof of the large building, but I knew it was up there.

Climbing the switchback road was difficult and the sleds got stuck a few times. The storm caught us as we neared the top. The wind howled and whipped at us, and sure enough, black snowflakes fell to the ground peppering over the white. A metal gate blocked the entrance to the parking area, but snow had drifted high enough that only the last foot of metal was exposed. Matt hit it first, leaning back on the track and gunning the throttle. The skis of the sled clanged off the metal then the rubber paddle track launched him over the top of the gate. 

I followed then Kevin, as each of us went over our sleds kicked more snow away from the gate. So when Cliff tried his sled crashed hard into the gate and the track dug down into a big hole leaving him totally stuck. He abandoned the sled and hurried along our tracks through the deep snow over to the building. Snow drifts covered most of the first story and the windows and doors were boarded over with plywood. I made a loop around the building searching for a way in. By the time I made a full circle, I could see Matt had packed down the snow and created a runway up to one of the plywood sheets. He turned his sled around and lined it up. 

He held down a button and the engine idled low as the machine went into reverse. He goosed the gas and it lurched backwards. Then he knelt on the seat, aimed carefully, and rammed the rear bumper of the sled through the center of the plywood. Plastic trim flew off the sled and the aluminum bumper caved in. He took it out of reverse, pulled forward and left a large hole in the plywood and the window behind it. Wind swirled around us kicking up the black snow as we tore away enough of the plywood to fit through. We crawled through the hole and dropped to the floor in the kitchen of the lodge.

It was pitch dark inside, immediately one of us knocked over a metal rack of shelves. Which way? Straight. CRASH, No, not over there, to the right. It stinks like mold. Fuuuh,  that’s more than mold. Kevin held up his phone flashlight and shined it on me fruitlessly poking my phone with my gloves on. We panned the lights around the abandoned commercial kitchen. The grill still had a layer of dirty grease across the top. Some equipment had been removed, other than that it looked like they shut the burners off and walked out years ago. Don’t go in there, Kevin said, lighting up the door to the walk-in freezer. I said, Chad and Ray the cooks, had an ongoing mouse catching competition in here. They showed me two mice caught in the same trap, and another time they had a mouse with one trap snapped over it’s leg and tail and another trap snapped over it’s head. I can relate to that mouse, Cliff quipped.

 Over here, Kevin said as he pushed open the door and entered the bar. I swept my light over the old pool table, two cardboard boxes of pint glasses sat on top of it. The bar is still in nice shape, Kevin said, wiping his cuff across the varnished wood. Under the dust the wood still shined. The taps and drink nozzle were gone, all the shelves behind the bar were empty. A dusty mirror reflected ghostly faces as we walked past. Stepping out of the bar the sound of our footsteps changed and we could tell we were in the large open center of the building. The wind hammered against the outside and we could hear a loose board somewhere banging. I heard fabric tearing and a lighter flicking. Then a flame rose up illuminating Matt and Cliff working together, Matt lifted a second flame and both of them approached holding pint glasses with burning pieces of rag stuffed into them.

I moved towards the center of the great room. The lower floor had two dining areas and the rest was set up for lounging. Oh yes! I exclaimed, it’s still here. The light from my phone reflected off a large copper chimney hood that hung from cables over a circular fireplace ten feet around. We can have a fire! I saw the two torches working against one wall of the rectangular building. That’s not it, Matt hissed loudly. I heard Cliff say, here this one, followed by something heavy hitting the floor. Just hold the light still, I’ve got it. I heard a door open, then Matt started kicking away the plywood on the doorway. A few solid kicks and the board fell away to nothing. The door used to open onto a deck, but the deck had been torn down. He shut the door and light came through the glass upper half, beating back the darkness. 

I could make out the second floor landing ringed with all the guest bedrooms above us. I saw the corner where a big screen satellite tv and leather couch once sat. I remembered watching live coverage of the Columbine shooting from that couch.  You gotta see this! Cliff called, he was standing looking out the window. We joined him and were met with a bewildering sight. The black ash was swirling and blowing across the snowy landscape. Drifts of ash were forming in piles or leaving long streaks of black lines in natural patterns.

As the storm raged outside we started a fire with a few pieces of broken chair and other debris we found. Kevin reached into his backpack and pulled out some beers. Matt had water and some snacks he poached from Kevin’s pantry. This place was pretty awesome, Matt said. Riding up here at night and seeing a bunch of sleds parked out front. Then walking into a rowdy bar. 

Cliff turned to me, so you were up here for Y2K? That must have been fun. Yeah it was a wild New Years for sure. We did the countdown for midnight and everyone cheered. Then this dude, I don’t know what he was thinking. You remember those bells they had on the wall? They had like, this strip of bells that hung on the wall by the bar, and if you wanted to buy a round for the house you ring the bells. Well, it hit midnight and everyone cheers, and this dude starts ringing the bells and the place goes ball-is-tic. He is the life of the party with people cheering for him and hugging him, only he doesn’t understand what he just did. The bartender pulls him aside and explains it. The guy’s like, huh? I just wanted to ring the bells. So the bartender let him slip out the back and disappear into the night.

Come up here, get loaded at high altitude and then ride a sled back to town, Matt was shaking his head, I know I should have died a few of those nights. But we didn't! I said loudly, holding up my beer in a toast. My voice echoed in the big empty room. Matt said, we made a livin’ outta not dyin’. Hell yeah man. I had a close call right out there one time, I pointed in the direction of the old snowcat repair shop. I almost ran myself over with a snowcat. 

Cliff said, I think now they call that ‘getting Hawkeyed.’ I chuckled, yeah, but I was doing it before it was cool. The cat launched forward into the side of the shop, both tracks were spinning in the snow, no one inside it. I would have been so screwed if one of those tracks caught me. Was that your biggest close call? Kevin asked. I smirked, pffft, that wasn’t even my only runaway vehicle incident. And when that happened I knew the park brakes didn’t work, so I was aware of some danger. The scary ones are when you think you’ve got things under control, but you really don’t. I was working on this skidder, a big forestry machine and I was trying to get this big pin out of it. The pin was, (I held the beer can and added a few inches) it was a little bigger than a soda can. Kevin interrupted, you mean a pop can? I gave him a steely glare, Look mister, I will say soda until the day I die.

Anyway, I launched that solid steel pin right past my head. I jumped back, trying to understand where it went. Then bang! Clang! It bounces off the roof of the shop and drops down next to me. Cliff was confused, was it like an explosion? How did you shoot a can-shaped cannonball at yourself? No, I tried to explain. It was seized in place so I applied tremendous force to it. I didn’t properly understand the potential energy I had built up, then I gave it one whack with a hammer and pewwww.  It went kinetic, Matt said, don’t mess with physics, that shit’ll get ya. Kevin said, better to be lucky than good.

How about you Kev? You’ve spent your life livin’ on the edge, What’s your closest close call or near death experience? Kevin finished his beer and shook the last drops to the floor. See, for me those are two different times. My close call was out in Utah, I was backcountry with some guys I knew out there. We went one at a time dropping into this big bowl, they both made it down, then I went. I made one big cut across the top and the whole thing ripped right at my board. From me down, the face of the mountain just started cracking and flowed down into the trees. One of the other guys held onto a tree and it piled up to his waist. I remember seeing it shake the trees in a wave, like a tsunami.

That is gnarly dude. Yeah, he gave a half laugh, I couldn’t even ride down. It ripped to the ground and I was just standing there on dirt. So I took off my board and had to walk down. Kevin’s story gave us chills and we sat with it for a moment. Then I asked, so if that was a close call, when were you near death? Kevin gazed into the small fire and said, when we dug Rich out of the snow. Cliff was stunned, wait! you were with Rich when he died? How did I forget that? Oh man.

Kevin said, yeah, it was the same thing, he went third. We found him and dug him out in like two minutes. TJ was there and he was giving him CPR. TJ was like a robot, he just clicked into his Woofer training and didn’t hesitate for a second. But...I just watched the color fade out of him, there was nothing we could do. The fire cracked and popped. And you’ve never stopped riding backcountry, I said. Kevin said, nope, but I stopped going third. 

Kevin sat with the memory for a moment, then he looked up. Matt, how ‘bout you? Kevin smiled, I feel like that time in Phoenix bowl has gotta be top ten at least. No, I bet his story involves a Ducati. I said.  Matt cleared his throat and spit. Yes, Kevin that was top ten, and no, I am always in complete control when I am on my moto. Said every motorcycle rider on his way through a windshield, Cliff added from the shadows.

I’m gonna take a pass on this one. Matt said, I don’t want to talk about it. What?! I exclaimed, are you kidding? That’s bullshit. Matt looked at me in the firelight.  Look man, my life hasn’t been all sausages and rainbows. I’ve been through some dark times, and all of it has gotten me to here, right now. And I’m where I’m supposed to be, but I don’t want to talk about that right now.

I felt like an asshole, sorry man. Forget it, Matt said, then he turned to the figure at the very edge of the firelight. I want to hear Cliffy’s. Cliff shot back, Tim can tell you, he’s the one who caused it when I met him in Boulder for some fun “mountain biking.”  Oh, Please! I said in mild outrage. Look, one, no one has ever died going off a three foot drop at Valmont and two, I really thought you could handle that.

Uh huh, Cliff said shaking his head at me. Then he began the real story. Mine was when I was fifteen. I was really into ninja weapons, you know, like throwing stars and nun chucks. Oh my god, I said, were you the kid who goes to the head shop in a mall that has like skull daggers and the brass knuckle knives? I love that store, Matt said. Did you have a bo staff? Kevin asked. Yes, I had a bo staff, Cliff answered. Holy shit this story just gets better, please, please let it involve a katana sword.

No it wasn’t any actual weapon, I thought I could invent a new one. So I drilled through a baseball and attached it to six feet of really stretchy bungee cord. The first time I tried to whip it around, it came back and wrapped around my neck and then hit me in the head and knocked me unconscious.

The laughter started to build inside me. I felt like the cartoon character who eats something hot and steam starts shooting out their ears. We were all quiet for a beat, then Matt asked, like a tether ball? The dam burst and we busted out laughing. The laughter felt so good, I could feel tears streaming out of my eyes. Cliff kept a straight face and calmly waited for us to get control. So many things make sense to me right now. Did you die? Have you been dead this whole time? 

I did not die, he started up again. My brother found me and unwound the cord, he swears I wasn’t out for very long, but sometimes I wonder how long it really was. I just remember waking up on the ground with a big knot on my head. 

Cliff you are truly an anomaly. Thank you Matt, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

It’s definitely winding down. The four of us stood shoulder to shoulder looking out at the bizarro landscape. The ash had clumped together forming alien black smears on the high alpine meadow. It looks like oil sludge or something. Yeah that’s kinda spooky. I absently stroked my beard and heard an odd crackling sound. I rubbed my chin some more and the odd sound continued with each stroke. I gently pulled my hand away and a handful of curly blond-grey hairs fell to the floor. Oh, no way! I said, check this out. I rubbed hard on one cheek and all the hair fell away leaving smooth skin. The others looked on in fascination and disgust. That is nasty. In a matter of seconds I went from a thick beard to no facial hair as a pile littered the floor at my feet. Oh wait, I tucked my face down and rubbed hard at both eyebrows, erasing them in a shower of fine hairs.

 I looked up and stared wild-eyed at my friends. Ohh, dude! That’s fucked up! Jesus man, you look like the things in I am Legend. Or a naked mole rat. My face felt tingly and cold. I snugged my beanie down over my smooth brow.

I took another glance out the window, the sun peeked out through holes in the clouds. Looks like it’s now or never. I opened the door and scooped up a handful of snow. I brought it over and dropped it on our small fire in the big fireplace. The fire hissed and steamed. I took a long look around the lodge and said, I can still picture this place busy with skiers and guides. Everyone stomping around in ski boots slipping on these wet wooden floors. In the morning employees would hang out waiting to see if any clients were too hung over to ski. If a paying customer missed the cat we could jump in their seat for a run. That's funny, Cliff noted, like you had an incentive to keep flat-landers in the bar late.

We walked back out through the hole in the kitchen and were blinded by the glaring brightness. Kevin cupped a hand over his eyes and looked at the sky, brief patches of blue flashed and vanished in the tumbling cloud banks. I can’t tell if this is the edge of the storm or just the eye.

Either way, I’m going. Matt said. He walked towards the three parked sleds. Kevin I’m gonna take your sled, someone broke the bumper on mine. He turned the key and the engine popped and backfired, then it ran for a few seconds and died. He started it again and revved the engine, smoke billowed out around him, hanging in the still, cold air. While the sled warmed up Matt walked through the snow over to where we stood.

You’re really heading to the Ruby Chute? I asked. I kinda want to do it too, but I also really want to watch you. Matt said, I’ll make it worth watching. I clapped him on the shoulder, I’m sure you will. Matt looked at me, the gravity of the situation hung in the air like the smoke from the sled. He said, you know, I’m glad we did this trip. I said, me too. Better late than never.

Matt turned his attention to Cliff. Cliff, we’ve had some pretty good times. Cliff said, remember that first apartment we had? Of course, by the dog pound. Yeah, remember that time you got food poisoning? Matt groaned, oh yeah, from that seafood bisque. He laughed, I was so sick from that, and you hung out with me the whole time. 

Cliff looked guilty. Well, I actually pulled that soup container out of the fridge to get something behind it, and I forgot to put it back in. A mix of emotions flashed across Matt’s face, settling on confusion. How long did you leave it out? Overnight and most of the next day. Matt accepted the news with a stern look and a nod. I see.

Matt knelt and bucked his ski boots, then he hefted the backpack and skis onto his back. He shrugged and bounced, letting the weight settle onto his shoulders. A bead of blood slowly trickled out of one nostril. I said to him, we’ll watch you from the ridge, you should be able to see us. My voice cracked, I pointed towards the gate. I’m gonna start digging out the other sled. I walked through the parking lot, trying not to look back at our friend. Cliff soon joined me and we got to work pulling the stuck sled away from the gate. I glanced up and saw Kevin and Matt casually talking. All I could hear was the idling two cylinder engine.

Ready on three, one, two threee. Cliff and I both pulled up on the sled in a coordinated effort.  The rear lifted two inches out of the snow, I kicked snow into the gap we had created. I heard the other sled rev up and Matt drove over to us. He yelled out over the sound of the sled. When I get where I'm going, I’ll save you guys a seat. Cliff called out, see you soon! I yelled, do it! Matt gave us his sinister smile, the one we had seen countless times before. It always flashes before he tries something crazy or stupid.

The sled roared and Matt set it into a tight powder turn with one ski high in the air. He arced around the parking lot and down the hill out of sight. We listened to the sound of the sled as it got farther away. With Kevin’s help we pulled the stuck sled free and gathered our stuff. Then I led us up the old road that the snowcats would take loaded with skiers. The weather held and we continued to get glimpses of the sun as we climbed higher up the mountain. The ridge was loaded with thick drifting snow, but the sleds were powerful and built for this type of terrain. Soon we reached a spot where we could look straight across the basin at Ruby Peak.


The mountain stood like a dark stone pyramid. Straight down the front of it was a white ribbon of snow. The couloir was at most fifteen feet wide with steep rock walls on both sides. We positioned the sleds so we could sit comfortably and watch our friend’s final adventure.

I watched a crew ski it from here one time. I explained, this is where the photographer was set up. It was a few of our ski guides and I’m not sure who else, maybe some pros or something. 

Kevin said, that’s a burly chute. I agreed. Cliff surveyed the line and asked, is that a cliff towards the bottom? It’s a waterfall, people ski down to that point, and rappel over the waterfall. 

Cliff said, ahh, and Matt doesn’t have any rope. Yeah, and the chute dog-legs to the right after the waterfall so you need to be in control at that point.

A gust of wind carried the sound of an angry engine. We watched a small black dot emerge from the treeline and work it’s way onto the base of the mountain. I hope he remembers some of the lines to reach to saddle. I guess we’ll see. We passed a water bottle and watched the black dot climb higher and higher. He made a few approaches that didn’t work out and he looped back to try a different angle. Matt had been an expert sledneck on his heavy, less powerful sled with a 141 inch track. Now he attacked the mountain with less weight, almost twice the horsepower and  174 inches of track with deep paddles for gripping the snow. He made his way into the saddle.

Did you ever hike to that lake up there Kevin? He shook his head, Cliff said, I did one time with Olivia, it’s really pretty, no fish in it though. Yeah, it's nice up there in summer.

We lost sight of Matt for a bit, the last challenge before him was a steep face of clean white snow. If he could get up that, he would only have a hike over some rocks to reach the chute.

There he goes! Kevin pointed. We watched the dot race into the start of the climb silently. Seconds later the sound of the high revving engine reached us. We watched him get higher and higher until his momentum started to slow. He turned the sled and headed back down leaving a huge inverted U on the side of the mountain.

Looks like he dropped the back pack so he can make a good run in, Kevin observed. Watch it avalanche on him, Cliff joked, that would be funny if he got buried with his legs stuck in the snow and we just watched him from over here. Matt went  three more times, each attempt followed the same path up the right side of the snow field. And each time the apex of the turn reached higher and higher. We watched, and he didn’t go a fifth time.

Oh shit, he’s getting his pack on, Kevin speculated. Oh! I burst out when the great idea hit me. Phone! We can zoom in the camera! We pulled out our phones, Cliff’s was dead. Kevin and I focused our cameras at the bottom of the high marks and then zoomed the image in. Suddenly Matt appeared hauling ass up the side of the mountain at wide open throttle. The figure was distinct enough that we could tell he had skis on his backpack. Then the banshee wail of the engine reached us. The tracks Matt had laid down on previous runs had established the perfect launching pad to rocket up the mountain. He broke from the last track and started cutting into fresh powder, then he hit something. We all went ohh! when we saw the little figure get bounced. I could picture Matt laid out on the seat with his legs dangling behind him.

But he never let off, the figure climbed higher and higher getting closer to the first exposed rocks at the top. He reached the highest point he could and turned the sled, then he hopped off and dropped into the snow. The sled pointed down the hill and coasted until loose snow piled up in front of it and it stopped. That was a pretty nice dismount, Kevin said, we agreed. I bet he’s mad the sled didn’t ghost ride to the bottom and smash into a rock, Cliff said. We put our phones away, knowing he had some hiking ahead of him

I was sledding with Matt right over there, I pointed up the basin. He got stuck way up on the hill like that and he started pulling it out. But, it got away from him and it started rolling sideways down the hill. Me and someone else were watching, maybe Jacob? And the sled rolls and rolls and he says, well at least the hood didn’t open. Right then the hood opened, each time it rolled over more stuff was breaking off of it, parts flying. Matt is stuck up there on the mountain watching this happen below him.

Cliff joined in, I remember once he was riding around the field down there and he just vanished. We rode over and he was ten feet down from us standing in a stream with his sled sitting in the mud. That fuckin’ guy.


A lonesome wolf howl floated across the basin. We looked over and Matt stood atop a small rock spire with his arms outstretched. The three of us stood up on the seats of the sleds and waved our arms howling to him. He climbed down from the rock, we pulled our phones out again and zoomed in on him. We could see him standing at the top of the chute getting stuff together. Then he just went.
We watched breathless as the small figure dropped in at the top of the white ribbon. He didn't attempt to turn or check his speed at all. He shot down the narrow strip of snow like a bullet down a rifle barrel. In seconds he closed the gap to the waterfall and lifted into the air. I gasped, as soon as his skis touched back down on the snow he slammed into a wall of rocks and stopped dead. A second later we heard a snippet of Matt's final war cry hanging in the wind.

Loose snow sluffed down the chute and onto the smooth white blanket below it, the only sign that something had happened. Finally Cliff spoke, I think Matt would be pretty happy with that level of carnage. God damn, he was flying, I said. That’s Matt, Kevin said softly, taking control and doing it his way. He’s got a kickass tombstone, Cliff said, and we all took another long look at Ruby Peak.

Now what? Cliff asked. Kevin pointed with his mitten, we go higher. I felt numb, I could barely process that we had lost Matt forever, and my head was swimming in a psychedelic haze. I couldn’t even mourn him if I tried. 

Instead, we set ourselves onto another task. Is that life? Always doing something? And death is not doing anything? Nothing, never, nowhere? I sat on the sled, but I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I waved them about as if it was the first time I had ever used them. Kevin noticed my state. You doing ok over there? I laughed out loud and mumbled something. Oh, shit, Tim’s tweaking out, Cliff said with a chuckle. 



Kevin walked over to me and started my sled. Hey, mellow out man, you got this. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m ok, I said, nodding furiously. The overwhelming wave passed through me and I was able to focus again. I’ll lead, Kevin yelled over the engine, remember to stop at the top. One, two, three we started heading further up the mountain. The sun broke through the clouds and I stared awestruck at the patch of blue sky. It was like viewing a window into the past. I looked down in front of me and saw gloved hands on the handlebars of a powerful, complicated machine. I hoped the hands knew what they were doing.

Sparkling whisps of snow landed gently on my clean shaven face, I embraced the soft touch of delicate icy crystals. Then I got too close behind Cliff just as he pushed the throttle hard on his sled and blew a powerful roost of packed snow right into my face. It was like looking in the discharge chute of a snow blower. The snow fell down the neck of my coat and against my skin. A thought filled my head, Matt doesn’t feel cold anymore.

We kept going up until there was no more. We reached the top of Scarps Ridge and the earth fell away before us in steep cliffs. The wind formed huge cornices of snow that hung out into space. We turned off the sleds, there was only wind and the sound of icy drips sizzling on hot exhaust pipes.

I looked down the ridge and memories came back, this was the highest point the snowcats would carry skiers to. I said, everyone would get out of the cats here. The clients would be gasping for breath, they just came from sea level and now they’re at twelve thousand feet. One of the bartenders, this guy Brad, would always walk out on the ridge like this and smoke a cigarette. I started laughing and tears filled my eyes. I always thought that was so funny, people are bent over, winded and he’s enjoying Marlboro country like a fuckin’ boss.

Cliff said, he’s lucky he didn’t walk off the edge. I said, there were bamboo poles marking the edge of the dirt, past the poles was just snow and air.

Kevin gazed quietly out at the mountains, then I saw him nod to himself and climb off the sled. He shucked the back pack off and removed his board from the straps. He sat in the snow and started to buckle himself in. Cliff and I watched silently. Kevin stood up and clapped his mittens together three times. He said, alright boys, it’s been nice knowing ya’. Then he did the side to side hop good snowboarders can do bouncing from tip to tail. The snow on the cornice was windpacked chalk and he built up speed as he got closer to the edge. Ten feet from the lip a whole section broke away and he dropped out of sight. Cliff and I both scrambled over and dropped flat to our stomachs .


We looked over the edge and Kevin had dropped a solid fifty feet, he stuck the landing and was now laying out a fast carve under the cliffs. He cut back and a wave of powder flew up and billowed over him. He charged across the mountain like something I had only seen in ski movies. Then the whole face of the mountain fractured into expanding lines of cracks. Directly below us we saw the crown of the avalanche break twelve feet deep and peel away. The slab broke into refrigerator sized cubes and started flowing down towards Kevin. Kevin saw the small leading cracks break all around him and he pointed his board straight down the fall line. He gained speed as the snow rippled and churned under him. He never looked back at the monster following close behind. Cliff gasped. Watching from above we could see all the factors at play. Kevin was fast, but the wall of snow was closing in and he was running out of time. 


The massive slide caught him just as he reached the stand of aspen trees at the bottom. The crushing slide blew into the trees snapping them like twigs. And it didn’t stop. The crack at the top kept running along under the cliffs. Tons and tons of more snow was dragged into the flowing river of destruction. Down the ridge a small cloud hung in the air, and when the mountain broke away under it the vacuum it created pulled the cloud out of the sky and into the fray.

As the roar of the slide died away a great cloud of snow rose up over the aspen trees, we could still hear trees snapping as the snow slowed its momentum.

Cliff and I laid in the snow looking over the edge of the cornice.  The sunlight brightened and dimmed as clouds flowed across the sky. I couldn’t even tell Kevin was sick, I said as I kept  looking down at the path of destruction left by the avalanche. He was probably fine, Cliff said, but he’s always been a follower.

 I stood up and got a massive head rush, I swayed towards the edge then steadied myself. My vision cleared, whoa. Cliff watched me and said, if you just fall down that will be the least impressive death I’ve witnessed in the past hour.

I’m not there yet, I mumbled.



Cliff got up and walked over to sit on one of the sleds. I walked down the slope a little towards a large patch of ash. Stepping into it I made white snow footprints in the dark grey ash. I reached down and scooped up a handful of the dark mixture of ash and snow. I held it up and breathed deep through my nose. I could smell a harsh acrid stink, like burned plastic. I started to cry.

Hey man, you’ll get to see everyone soon, Cliff said. I shuddered and tried to take a breath. What if I don’t believe that? 

Then you’ll dissolve into base elements and become part of this mountain, after some time the sun will supernova and you’ll become part of the universe. That’s still pretty cool.

 I slowly walked back to him and sat down heavily on a sled. How are you feeling? I feel like total shit. Yeah man, me too, this sucks. 

I pulled my baggie out of my ski pants pocket, a plastic wrapper came out with it, I fumbled trying to catch it, but the wind blew it away. Cliff slowly shook his head and looked at me with disdain. Seriously, littering? I’m sorry. I shook the remaining tablets into my palm. How many do you have left? Oh I finished those this morning. Cliff I think you have a drug problem. Do you want to split these? No, I’m good. My body is a temple. I popped the last few pills into my mouth and took a swig of water. He started digging inside his jacket and pulled out a cigar tube with a label from the dispensary on it. He said, I’ve been saving this for a special occasion, he uncapped the tube and slid out perfectly rolled blunt.

As he searched his pockets for a lighter he said, I always wanted my remains to be scattered in the mountains, I just assumed it would be after I was cremated. I smiled and said, maybe we can be ghosts, you already kinda look like Casper. He laughed, oh yeah, I wish I could be an Obi Wan ghost and just drop in for a conversation and give people bad advice. You could be like a Patrick Swayze ghost! He laughed, oh yeah, I wanna get me some Whoopi Goldberg pottery sex.

Cliff found his lighter and held the flame to the blunt. He puffed on it until a great cloud of smoke floated around him. Then he pulled a big hit into his lungs and held it. He gave me a silly smile and made a rolling wave motion with his hand. Then his eyes bulged and he coughed violently, I flinched when droplets of blood speckled across my face. Cliff got a panicked look started coughing again. He frantically held the blunt out to me urging me to take it from him. Then he doubled over and coughed harder and started to retch. A stream of blood spewed out of his mouth and onto the snow. He gasped for breath and hit himself with his fist in his chest then leaned forward again. He vomited out blood and pieces of internal organ, then a bulging piece of flesh started to slide out of his mouth. 

I was terrified to see it coming out of him, yet it was even worse when it stopped. He made a gulping sound and tried desperately to suck in air through his nose. His face started turning blue. Then he grabbed the bloody organ with both hands and began yanking it out of his mouth. I heard a wet tearing sound as he jerked and pulled it free. It fell into the snow between us. My adrenaline spiked, I couldn’t believe what I had seen. Cliff drew in quick ragged breaths and his cheeks returned to normal color. Bright red blood ringed his mouth and ran down the front of his jacket. The copper stink of blood hung thick around us. His breathing slowed but each breath was phlegmy and wet. As soon as he gained his composure he hit my hand and motioned for the joint. 

Stunned, I handed it to him, I forgot I was holding it. He held it to his bloody lips, took a puff, and let the smoke roll out his nose. He looked over at me and I watched in fascinated horror as his left eyeball slowly filled with blood. He opened his mouth to speak and only made a hollow croaking sound that surprised both of us. I said, that was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. 


He took another hit and smiled wide, his body shuddered and I realized he was soundlessly laughing. I gave a small chuckle, man, that was seriously messed up. I can’t believe I get to experience you as a mute, those guys would be so jealous. Cliff frowned and flipped me off. He gestured towards me with a “call me” sign. I handed him my phone, the battery life was a red sliver. He texted 

Oh I bet, yeah it looked perfectly normal, I looked down and rolled the red mass over with the toe of my ski boot. Looking at it closer was repulsive and didn’t help explain what it was. It must be your stomach lining or something. 

I laughed a snort, yeah maybe. Or maybe it’s your soul? 

I looked at his blood red eye again, can you still see with both eyes? He nodded and gave me a questioning look? Then he turned the phone on selfie camera and saw himself. 

Then he held the phone up to get us both in frame, I made a silly face and devil horns for the last photo.

He splashed some water on his hand and tried to wipe the blood off his face. Huh, I said, your last words are Whoopi Goldberg pottery sex. That’s right up there with, I regret that I have but one life to give for my country. 


He texted some more and held up the phone 

We sat and listened to the wind. Then a sharp pain shot through my chest, I groaned and clenched my fists. With my eyes shut tight I saw starbursts of color exploding and swirling. Cliff still puffed on the blunt, it was only burned down halfway. Then he coughed again and a bubble of bloody phlegm formed at his mouth, he wiped it away. 


He gestured to my skis.

  I pinched my fingers together, I was losing feeling in my hands. I looked at him and said, yeah? He nodded. He tried to stand then fell against the sled. I held his arm as he made his way to a bare patch of rock and sat down. We clasped hands. Then I let him go and set out my gear. I tapped the snow off my boots and clicked into my skis. He gave me a final wave with the joint still smoking in his hand then he turned away from me.


 

I pushed off and headed down the hill. The snow was fast and light. I gathered speed as I dropped deeper and deeper into the powder. It started at my knees, then my hips, within a few more turns I was plowing through chest deep champagne powder. All my senses dulled, the sparkling white flakes blew all around me. I could see white in every direction it flowed under me around me and over my head. I lost touch with the ground beneath me and floated into the soft white nothing.


                                                                            THE END

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