Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Talking about the Weather


In the late 1950s, a guy named Bob Brooks occupied the ticket booth at Dollar Mountain. Dollar was the bunny hill, so Bob got used to giving out advice with his tickets. Little kids would hold up broken bindings to the ticket window for Bob to diagnose. He would tell people which bowl to ski according to their self-assessed abilities, and when they asked when it would snow, he would tell them, "Soon."

Not much of Bob's advice was helpful. It's hard to fix a binding from inside a ticket booth, and beginning skiers usually have no idea how well they ski, particularly if they're surrounded by other beginning skiers. The weather was anyone's guess.

Finally, in the middle of a low-snow year, Bob lost patience and put a cartoon on his window. It showed a weatherman, obviously hung over, staring bleary-eyed into the camera and saying, "If you want to know what the weather is, look out the goddamn window."

Bob's cartoon would not be allowed to grace Sun Valley's ticket booths these days. But Union Pacific still owned the resort then, and there was an easy if occasionally profane informality to the relations between guests and employees. Inadequate snow was a chronic condition for Sun Valley in the '50s, but prices were low enough and there was enough après-ski adventure to ensure that the Los Angeles ski train was overloaded with more than just viruses when it showed up at the Ketchum station every winter.

Bob Brooks has come to mind during Sun Valley's latest winter of discontent. Bob didn't suffer fools gladly, but he was cheerful about things he couldn't do anything about. He didn't worry about snow, or if people could afford the $6 for a Sun Valley lift ticket, or even if a kid's binding was fixable. He knew he couldn't control these things and was happier for it.

Now it's 2010, and Bob has for some time been in a world where the snow falls soft and deep, the bindings never break, nobody asks stupid questions and even the bunny hill is filled with Olympians.

But the Wood River Valley is still full of things beyond anyone's control. Among them are not enough snow, a world financial system that's making like a house of cards and a couple of new wars that have been bloodier and more expensive than their architects had planned. Sun Valley is still owned by a geriatric corporation whose main business isn't skiing, though it has lost the Pullman-car culture that once made its guests and employees so loyal. Money is still tight, and viruses still make the rounds when people from Los Angeles show up.


But the stakes are higher.

When Union Pacific served Ketchum, it was easy enough to put some extra cars on the train if a marketing campaign succeeded. Now it requires a new airport in a world where nonskiing Chinese will be the only people who can afford jet fuel.

Entry-level skiing, the Gold Mine notwithstanding, requires time and money that most people with kids don't have.

The people who brought about the current financial crisis ride nervously up Sun Valley lifts next to locals who can't sell their houses for anything near what they paid for them.

Hitting a rock with a $1,200 pair of skis hurts, no matter how much money you have. Wounded veterans remind us of the fact that Sun Valley was a Naval hospital during a war that wasn't a choice.

Local-option taxes, established so Ketchum could be less funky and more fun, are being collected in smaller and smaller amounts from a dark and sterile downtown.

The howls of anger in the comment section of the Mountain Express' Web site indicate that a lot of people, unlike Bob Brooks, are still stuck on their emotional bunny hills. They haven't come to terms with not being able to control their world. They think the weather and everything else will behave if people will simply do as they say.

Remembering Bob Brooks, I've realized that the movers and shakers to whom he sold tickets are all dead now. So I've changed his cartoon's advice to reflect one more thing we can't control: "If you want to know what the world is like, look out your window. It's mostly beautiful and plenty temporary out there. You're only here for a short time. If you don't like the way things are, wait a little while."

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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.