This is my little ski area, Santa Fe Ski, where there are no condos or lift boys waiting to carry your skis from the car, where there are only two places to eat, a simple plain cafeteria and a mid-mountain cabin with chili burgers and beer, and if you are unfortunate enough to have to ski on holidays the twenty-odd miles of two-laner up the mountain from Santa Fe is jammed shoulder to shoulder. Weekdays, the place can seem almost empty.
This winter we have the best snow in the West outside of Wolf Creek in southern Colorado which benefits from its high pass. We also have the nicest people, the warmest sun, the stiffest winds, and the most amazing views over the Rio Grande Valley, all the way up to the Colorado border. Mountains sacred to the pueblo people jut out of the valley floor. Our highest peak, at 12,075, is the tent pole at the top of the pueblo world.
This is where I learned to ski, late in the day, having been defeated, earlier, by the ice and chill of the northeastern ski resorts and those dratted long skis, skittering over the frozen surfaces. Not for me, never for me, I thought, after college vacations in Vermont, wearing borrowed long johns and falling down all day long. I was often in the company of avid skiers who had grown up in New England and had little patience for their tumbling friend. Up at dawn and out till dark, they hardly bothered to stop to eat before piling into rattletrap cars for the dead of night drive back to Cambridge.
The last straw came during an Easter vacation at Stowe, where my father stayed at the hotel writing a speech and I shouldered those terrible skis and marched along the highway to the lifts. Never again, I swore.
Many years later, here in the Southwest, the big mountains to the northeast exerted an irresistible pull. A friend drove me up, that first time, and I stared amazed at the horde of brightly-colored skiers; the black suits of my earlier days in Vermont were gone, along with the long skis. I drank the mixture of coffee and hot chocolate that was destined to become my treat and began to speculate about trying again.
About that time, a dear friend, a painter in New York, challenged me to take what she called The Fun Pledge. For her, the pledge meant passionate dedication to ballroom dance. For me, ballroom dancing—and skiing.
I had the great good fortune to find two gifted instructors who, like many at the ski basin, had given up lucrative, “serious” jobs to teach people like me how to ski.
First, I had to conquer the chair lift that rose to mid-mountain, dangling thirty feet in the air, without a restraining bar. It banged hard into the backs of my knees until I learned just where to stand to catch it. At the top of the mountain, I fell ignominiously into the snow on dismounting until I learned the secret of leaning forward and pushing off.
Then began the slow, but rapturous ascent to a sense of achievement—never safety—that is for other sports. Along the way, there comes the moment, at the top of the slope, when I have to let go, give over, let gravity take me. There can be no holding back. The slope steepens, the skis come to life and begin to rush, heading precariously for the heavy dark trees on the far side of the trail, and then, as my feet and legs begin to work, executing a long, slow, almost leisurely turn.
“Raise your big toe!” my instructor shouts which, amazingly, does the trick on the turn.
There have been days of lowering overcast and shouting wind, days of nearly blinding, stinging snow, when we all gather for warmth and encouragement in the cabin with its boot-scarred floors and open fire.
There have been days of brilliant sun when it seems that the whole of the mountain is made, simply, for skiing.
There have been moments of being entirely alone on a slope, of pushing across a cat walk, moments too alone of lying crumpled at the edge of a trail too far. And always that time when knees and thighs begin to burn and it is clearly the moment to load up and drive home.
My ski basin is owned and has always been owned by one local family, now in its third generation. This is not a money-making operation; there are bad snow years when paying the staff must eat up nearly all their stored resources. But they won’t let go, nor will they go in for the gargantuan over-development at Taos, where the old mountain town is being replaced by towering condos and French restaurants. That is the way of nearly all the ski towns in the West, so expensive no one goes there but rich coastal people or Europeans.
We don’t boast those amenities; we don’t need to. We have wonderful snow, great views, fine grooming, good people.
What more does anyone need?