To be a skier is to be ever hopeful, waiting on the uncertain miracle maker that is the weather. A skier could hang all of life up in the name of being free for the moment that winter storm hits.
And David Rothman’s book of essays about skiing has plenty of those days in it. Days when perfect conditions set in, when the rumored miracles were right, when the previously impassable chutes opened up.
But mostly, it’s about everything else that happens around those days — the hundreds of days a year that aren’t perfect, bluebird powder days, and the people that live them out.
Athleticism is not the point — and that’s the beauty of it. The former NCAA ski racer, poet and writing teacher looked at ski literature and how it figures in comparison to the literature for sports like baseball and surfing and thought, you know, skiing deserves to be canonized that way. And as we know, baseball stories are mostly not really about baseball, just like surfing stories are not really about surfing. They’re about capturing a lifestyle, a sense of place, a unique set of characters.
And that was what Rothman set out to record in the essays he’s now compiled into Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns, published by the Golden-based Conundrum Press on Nov. 5.
“The best writing in these traditions about surfing and fishing and mountaineering and sailing is deeply imbued with all sorts of different kinds of human purpose, and it’s not just about going someplace and doing a sport,” Rothman tells me over a plate of hash browns, eggs and bacon at the Village Coffee House in downtown Boulder. He’s so frequently there the waitress no longer asks for his order and instead simply delivers it to the table. He’s like a stray dog there, he says, he just keeps showing up and they just keep feeding him.
It’s also the kind of place he seems to seek out, a place where locals come — the quirky Boulder locals, the guys dressed on a frigid day for working outdoors in the cold. This is not the home of Patagucci and Whole Paycheck. It’s the backdrop for characters who understand, like Rothman, that life has much more to it than fresh tracks and big cliffs with pillowtop landings.
And that’s the life that fills the pages of Living the Life.
“I really wanted to write a book about the way we live when we live in the mountains together in this way,” Rothman says. “I didn’t want it to be, here is my memoir as a skier, that’s really not my goal … although, of course, it’s my life that’s in there. But there are hundreds of other people that are in there, too, and it’s really, I hope, for all those people and the way they live. There are so many aspects of that life that people simply don’t write about, it’s like this huge world that gets obscured because people want to write about hucking off a huge cornice instead of what kinds of cars people drive and their body language and what kind of shoes they wear and what it’s like when you’re living in a town so small that people stop you in the grocery story because they hear you had a hemorrhoid.” He laughs. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.”
“I really want people to feel that it’s a book that speaks, I hope, a little bit for them, not just to them. I don’t want to tell you my story, I want people to read this book and feel, yeah, that’s the way we live. That’s a piece of it, anyways,” he continues. “If you get to really know the people in the ski world, they’re people who ski, they’re not skiers who happen to be people. I suppose that’s the key of the book. I’m interested in the people. Of course it’s the skiing that threw us all together.”
“It’s about the place itself and the people themselves and the spiritual aspect of it, the historical aspect of it, the aesthetic aspect of it, the human, emotional aspect of it — that’s what I wanted, all of it, as much as possible, in the book,” he says. “So I don’t look away from anything.”
Indeed, among the opening essays are pieces that recall big turns, sunny days and tough calls. He briefly recounts a now roped-off chute at Snowbird in Utah that the locals, when Rothman was among them, called “SFB” — “Shit for brains,” which is what you’d have to be to huck it — and the cover image of Living the Life is of Rothman dropping it. But he begins with a story about an old friend, University of Utah professor Brooke Hopkins, a longtime skiing companion, who became a quadriplegic unable to breathe without life support after a severe bike accident. Hopkins came to his wife, Peggy Battin, a leading philosopher on the right to choose the time and manner of your own death, to assist him at that time and in that manner.
“It’s all in there,” Rothman says, gesturing to the copy of Living the Life on the table. “I’m not going to not put that in. It’s part of life, it’s what happens.”
So Living the Life is not about skiing down big lines and off cliffs, but about the unmarked runs only repeat season pass-holders know about or the days we trudge uphill through crap conditions eager for any few turns that can be snuck into May in southern Colorado — Rothman makes a point of skiing every month of the year. His stories are not about heli-skiing, but hut trips. Not the athletes he knew from his time in the NCAA, or the aspiring Olympians he taught at the school in Crested Butte. But people like a high school dropout who went on to craft methods for standardizing and evaluating education and then, naturally, to be the clown in the Crested Butte Fourth of July parade, and the guy who inspired Rothman’s telemark instructor, Wyn Cooper, to write the words Sheryl Crow later crooned: “All I want to do is have a little fun before I die.” It’s the wisdom of having skied at least once a month for who knows how many years and accumulating backcountry skiers’ advice — not the advice that comes from an Avy One class, but the knowledge of having skied those Colorado seasons countless times, enough to know how to expect the snow to set up, settle in and wear out. It’s not about competition, it’s about community.
Rothman grew up on the East Coast, picked Harvard over Dartmouth for college because he knew he’d actually get to ski in the carnivals there, and skied East Coast NCAA Division 1 as an alpine ski racer.
“When people are surprised to learn that Harvard has a Division I ski team, I tell them you know, the caboose is a very important part of the train, and we were the caboose,” he says. “But we had a good time, a very good time, and there were some very good skiers, actually. … So I got to race and have a good time, and I’m still deep friends with many of those people, and I had a wonderful, wonderful time and learned a lot about life. Made great friends, learned a lot about life, developed as a human being — what else can you ask for? That’s what it’s supposed to be for. I mean only one guy wins every race. What does that mean for all the rest of the other 110 guys?” The lessons from that experience come back to the same point he has taken from life, and from writing — that only a very few people go on to become Olympians. On average, one boy and one girl from each birth year, he and one girl from each birth year, he says.
“Even if you were in the NCAAs you usually don’t wind up going to the Olympics. Almost nobody does. Those people are so, so, so rare,” he says. “And then, you know, you go to the Olympics and you finish 18th, that means you’re 18th in the world — that’s incredible. I mean ski racing is the biggest sport in Norway and in Austria, and it’s huge, there’s 20 major nations, it represents a billion people, you’re 18th, that’s incredible and guess what? What are you going to do with that? You’re going to enjoy your life.”
And then, at one point, he knew it was time to accept his career was with his other love, not skiing, but literature — his “great passion.” A master’s at the University of Utah (hurrah for skiing at Alta) and then a Ph.D. at New York University. It’s been a winding road to where he is now, teaching writing at the University of Colorado, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver and the Western State Colorado University low residency MFA program. Along the way, there were stops teaching English in China and in a drug rehabilitation center for adolescents, mapping the curriculum for a college prep private school in Crested Butte with an emphasis on mountain sports, founding the Crested Butte Music Festival (he’s a classically trained bassoonist and jazz pianist, and played piano at ski resorts to earn a living through graduate school). And always skiing — leaving New York City behind for a day to ski New Jersey on those miracle powder days, to ski even when the skiing was not great and in places where it took 32 laps to rack up 20,000 vertical feet.
At one point, he thought, “why not bring the two together?” And he started to write about skiing. Essays he’s written have been published in regional magazines and skiing magazines.
“I kept writing these pieces and thinking, this will make a great, well, I hope it will make a great book,” he says — and Conundrum Press bought it.
Rothman says his essays are part of a sea change in writing about skiing, that editors at a few magazines are driving an aesthetic change for ski writing as a whole. Perhaps the market is primed for literature about skiing that is more akin to literature about mountaineering or life in the wilderness. Rothman’s Living the Life hovered on Amazon’s top 10 ski books list for a month after it was released.
“There’s a bunch of funny stories in there, everybody knows everybody else, it’s these funny little towns, and really that’s the fabric of our lives when we’re living like that. It’s not just a sport, you have to go to the place where it’s done and that means you all have to live together,” he says. From that perspective, an essay about skiing can encompass everything from architecture to politics to the weather to personalities. There’s humor, and sadness. Joy, then, and death. Death from accidents, from alcohol, from skiing.
“I wanted to honor all of it, not just fairly typical and obvious and visible reasons that people live in these towns but rather, the whole life, since that’s what we’re living anyways,” he says.
The essays and occasional poems — Rothman has published a handful of books about poetry, too — contain a sense of place almost impossible to even brush up against unless you live there. His prose takes on the feeling of a poem, sometimes conversational, sometimes loose in a way that leaves you feeling that you caught the meaning even if you couldn’t recount the specific details of events that led to this thought-puzzle; chronologies get blurry for the sake of the story.
And again, it’s not about the well-sculpted experience of an ideal day skiing, but the occasionally harsh realities of life in the mountains.
“I have so many good stories I haven’t told yet, so many — because once you begin to feel that idiom, you realize you could write about having lunch with a friend and talking,” he says. “You get this feeling that, when you hit the right idiom, you could write about a spoon, you know, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s a matter of how you can grasp its meaningfulness.”
Honing that idiom, as he says, took commitment, practice and patience — the same challenges that face any writing task.
“It’s not something that happens easily, it’s not something that happens simply because you want it to. You have to be patient and work hard at it over time,” Rothman says. “So what does it take, it’s a hard question to answer. A lot of hard work and a little luck and a lot of commitment.”
What the idiom reveals is that all of life comes into view, eventually, from the perspective of skiing. Take a hut trip — he’s written essays about those. Anything can happen on a hut trip — he’s seen engagements, he’s heard of deaths. People get thrown out for behaving badly. People make friendships for life.
“It’s about what happens when people go off into a hut for a week, you know, get flown into a backcountry hut. I mean, tennis players don’t do this. They don’t say, we’re going into the wilderness where there’s going to be an outhouse and we’re going to be 60 miles from the nearest road and it’s going to be 10 below zero and we’re all going to live together and play tennis. That’s not the way it goes,” Rothman says. “But it creates a different social dynamic, so it’s not just about skiing, it’s about how do people interact in this situation, which can get pretty intense.”
For today, though, the interaction he’s focused on as he bundles up to adjourn his morning session at the Village Coffee House starts in the forlorn faces of students whose essays still need to be graded.
As the waitress comes by to clear the plates, she observes, “He loves to make a statement and always leaves one solitary piece of tomato.”
“I don’t know why,” he says, and laughs. “It might be a question.”
“Yes, I think it is,” she replies as she carries the near empty plates away.
Maybe we’ll catch some turns, he offers in parting, though he’s likely understating the canyon between his skill set as a skier and where most of the rest of us spend our turns. At this point, though, he’s the antithesis of the guys who sit down over lunch, pausing the interminable accumulation of footage on their GoPros and comparing stats from apps on their phones. Even if he were to slow down a bit so the conversation can continue on the lift line or the blissfully sun-soaked patio of a spring ski day, that would be worth it.
“Once you hit 40, the number of back flips in your life decreases, but that doesn’t mean you’re done,” he says emphatically. “I mean there’s so much more, like teaching your kids to ski, helping other people to become good skiers, just going and living in the mountains. … I admire the athleticism, but once again I’m more interested in life. After you’ve seen 10,000 guys huck huge, there’s a lot more to life than that.”