When I graduated from Yale in June of 1972, I had little idea of who I was and no idea whatsoever how I was supposed to spend the remainder of my time on earth.
My degree was in Philosophy, where I sought to untie the knottiest problems. This no doubt enriched my life in many ways, but it was not what I would describe as a fast track to related employment. As trained philosophers should, I took dispassionate stock of my situation.
What could I actually do? Hints were dropped that given my talent for argument I would make a good lawyer, which meant three more years of intense schooling. I had barely made it through the previous four, with a rollercoaster record of Honors and Incompletes. (Yale did not hew to grading conventions.) I was something of a disciplinary problem.
Much to the chagrin of the Master of my residential college, Beekman Cannon, I not only knocked off 19 papers in the last two weeks of my senior year, completing 6 courses in the process, I also aced my oral exam on Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. At the graduation ceremony Beekman’s voice quavered between puzzlement and rage as he coldly recited my academic laurels. When he handed over my diploma he held it in his grasp for an extra beat, trying to comprehend how a hellion like Hogen could have gamed the system. “There must be some mistake,” he muttered, loud enough to be heard in the first row.
I was too green to do any philosophizing, too impatient to teach and too anxious to dive into the unknown world outside academia. So what could I do? Ski, that’s what.
Jackson on Mach One in Breckenridge, circa 1975. Note the 200cm Olin Mark II’s. Loved that ski.
During spring break my senior year I took a trip to Colorado with the express purpose of scouting my landing area. To swiftly summarize, Vail felt like someone’s idea of a town rather than a real town; Aspen was filled with hustlers, glitz and everything I was trying to escape; but Breckenridge was unalloyed anarchy.
I didn’t tell you I wrote a 77-page treatise my freshman year on the history of anarchist thought. I’d also been part of a Libertarian discussion group made up of New York area history and economic professors. I’d been searching for the intellectual foundations of a free society in the stuffy corridors of libraries and here was the real thing, a town seemingly without social stratification of any kind.
It wasn’t just that none of the streets were paved, nor were there any traffic lights or a leash law. A town that was once left off official maps seemed to exist outside of time as well as space. The denizens of The Gold Pan were all oddballs and misfits, as though they’d been summoned from Celestial Central Casting to populate a frontier saloon. When my roommates were busted for very successfully resisting arrest, they were sentenced only to five weekends in jail. Some hours after being released my roommates were down at The Gold Pan dancing their boots off on the pool table, just above the swirling dervish of the silver-haired DA whose tall, square frame occupied a lot of dance floor acreage.
I’d found home. Not just a home, the home. For those of a transcendental mindset, what could be more idyllic than a town disconnected from time? In a community bonded by its belief in liberty without restraint, what could be more fitting than a reckless sport devoted to self-expression? It was in this fertile freestyle soil that I landed later that summer of ’72.
With my race training (such as it was) and quick feet, mogul skiing came naturally to me. Fast mogul skiing automatically entails air and every launch is an opportunity to throw down: mule kick, spread eagle, twister, iron cross, back scratcher ending with a hung-out-to-dry chopper, that was an effing run.
Going upside down was different from upright aerials. I did my first gainer on 210cm Olin Mark II’s and was as amazed as anyone who observed my awkward lurch towards the ozone that I landed on my feet. What… a… rush.
I was aiming for lyrical grace. Oh well, it was only my third attempt and at least I landed it.
Permit me to set the scene, as context is everything. The Olympia Beer Freestyle Team – Chris Curtis, Mike King and Scotty Magrino – was in town to shoot scenes for an upcoming movie. A kicker was built on the top of Tiger where the landing would be steep and safe-ish. The whole damn town showed up, not just to watch the shenanigans, but to participate.
Crazy John Mueller, who went on to set a world speed record, started his rotation too late and sailed down the hill in a supine arch, arms flung wide as if in supplication to the divine, and held that prayerful pose to the end.
The true spirit of the moment was embodied in a local dipsomaniac named Bennie, whose third-hand skis sported Besser plate bindings that would release if you sneezed. Bennie would pole hard out of the start, his long, unkempt, silver beard bobbing up and down, then toss his poles aside just before the kicker, just as the pros had done. His back flip was steady as Gibraltar, keeping fine form as he slowly rotated in a graceful arc. Problem was, his skis were also on a graceful arc, one of their own, about two feet below him and no longer on his feet.
Every time Bennie attempted this summersault, the outcome was identical: the moment he hit the lip of the kicker, both skis would eject in perfect tandem, leaving Bennie to execute his flawless flip sans skis. He always landed squarely on both feet for an instant before being flung violently downhill in the classic starfish pattern.
What I learned from freestyle is that there’s more than one way to turn a ski and it wouldn’t hurt to learn them all. I also became addicted to air, long air, high air, air with flair. Every pimple of a bump looked like a kicker to me.
You take to the air long enough, you get used to it up there. Later in life, you’ll never be in a position you haven’t been in before, which may be the difference between a hairball recovery and a coma.
Despite my willingness to take idiotic risks, I never became a brilliant freestyle competitor. But both my skiing ability and my understanding of technique were nurtured and informed by my efforts to excel at moguls, aerials, and yes, even ballet, at which I stank. Besides, my angels had other ideas for me, about which I knew nothing at the time.
I thought I went to Breckenridge, at least in part, because I wanted to be a freestyle skier. The real reason, of course, is choosing Breckenridge was the only way I would meet my very own personal angel, the one who has stood by my side, raised two beautiful boys and kept me safe for the past forty years.
Jackson and Stephanie, July 21, 1979
A meadow outside Breckenridge, Colorado.