The Magic of Opening Day

Outdoor Prolink editorial intern Julia is a Jersey/Pennsylvania native who semi-accidentally worked in Glacier National Park, Montana for the summer after college. She now lives in the adventureland of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where she works at the daily newspaper’s copy desk at night and during the day likes to ski, snowshoe, hike, bike, play volleyball, hammock, draw nature, teach toddlers skiing, and nap. Her 5-year plan includes international backpacking, the PCT and a puppy.

“You’ve been punked!” scoffed the text, snarky in its confidence. “Steamboat never opens early…” “They have lease guidelines with the forest service to be open an exact number in any given season,” explained another. “It hasn’t happened in all the years I’ve been here.” The next reply in the group message glowed into existence. A screenshot of a press release, its headline trilling in all caps, bold and triumphant: “STEAMBOAT OPENS EARLY.”

I heard a small shriek and realized it came from me.

An early opening renewed a sense of adventure in me after an awkward autumn period too chilly to comfortably sleep in a hammock but not yet smelling of winter. It means a joyful buzz throughout the valley, everyone feeling a little bit special for being here for this.

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Early opening day. My arms hadn’t felt this much exertion since summer — muscles shaking, fingers aching more each millisecond, mental strength waning fast. Finally, the opening of my boots gave way just enough for my feet to slide into them. Whew. Clunking down from the parking lot, I imagined myself as a huge toddler.

The scene at the base was surreal. “Welcome to Opening Day!” hooted a canvas sign, underlining the slope’s bright white ending at the brick ground of the base area. The labyrinth before the doors of gondola building, usually packed with people and anticipation, were deserted. It wouldn’t open until the next week, when snowmakers and hopefully Mother Nature thicken the upper mountain’s snowpack. The magic carpet — usually swarming with jabbering two-footers encased in puffy gear and ski school-issued vests with handles protruding from the backs so their instructors can easily pick them up and carry them like suitcases, colorful pipe cleaners twisted to their helmets like antennas so their instructors can tell them apart — was deathly quiet. A ridiculous sense of melancholy came over me. I missed those puffy little guys.

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To the other side of Gondola Square, by the outdoor bar and all-day firepits, Christy Express Lift had people pouring from every crevice. Funny. Christy is usually the lift for babies and beginners. Today, though, as the only lift open, the babies and beginners were surrounded by veteran skiers and lifelong riders. The lifties all wore this year’s employee beanie, gray, red and white — the badge of working for the resort that, as more seasonals arrive for winter, will soon be bobbing around all over town.

In the midst of chatter and slowly sliding forward, a flashback of the last time I was in this lift line played through my mind. Almost a year ago, a few days after I’d arrived in this town, I struggled to hang onto my poles and not drift backwards down the barely-there incline of Christy. “Maybe we should just try this tomorrow,” I’d suggested to my roommate/unofficial teacher, Lindy, who had skied just a few days in her life, but exponentially more than my abysmal, why-did-I-just-move-to-a-ski-town? non-experience. My voice had sounded grandmotherly, even to me.

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Lindy made a disappointed-mom, frog-face at me. “No girl,” she said flatly. “We’re doing this.” She was unbelievably patient with how cautious and slow I was all day. If she was bored by the flat green runs I barely handled, she didn’t let it show. She was upbeat and pushed us both. In the same line now, I felt a grin on my face. It’s mind-blowing how much can happen in a year. If you’d told me last November that I’d still be here, a local now, thrilled rather than terrified at the idea of zooming down these runs and through these trees, playing in snow all winter and mountains all summer, and writing and drawing about adventures this place holds — I would have hoped for that to be the truth, but probably not believed it would come true.

IMG_0889The chair lift bumped up against the line of us. Rising into the air, I twisted around and admired the Yampa Valley, white speckled brown under the huge sky and everything glimmering in the sun. Skiing sounded like scraping stubborn ice off my windshield and was dotted by stampedes of kids and vacationers careening around, having forgotten everything since last season. Alternating between the two open runs, I skied at what felt like a glacial pace to best dodge them. I wasn’t devastated when we decided to turn in. But consciously concentrating on what was important — the fact ski season has started — was thrilling, gleeful and felt like home.

Happy winter, everyone!

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