I quit my dream job because of a dream.
I was staying at the Hotel Lenado in Aspen, escorted by my lovely bride Stephanie, over a March weekend in 1987. The occasion was the men’s FIS downhill, which happened to tuck neatly into the calendar just before the annual SIA show in Las Vegas. My wingmen that weekend were Scooter Libby, George Benkendorf – a retired airline pilot and gifted sybarite – and my dear friend and incorrigible reprobate Mike Wood, aka Stinky.
When I awoke Sunday morning, a feature-length, noir mystery was still mostly intact deep inside my tequila-marinated brain. Smuggled Egyptian relics, the scent of long, expensive hair, tall shadows cast on turreted walls; from these pieces I could reconstruct the narrative, or at least all I needed to put something whole back together again.
I didn’t plan to quit just then. That match was struck about a week later at the end of the ski show, when the French placeholder then supervising North America informed me that Salomon’s American HQ was moving back to New England. Without further discussion of my merits or my future, I was told to get with the program or get lost. I chose the latter.
One of the central tenets of my belief system is that if you jump far enough, your angels will always catch you. The problem with this guiding principle is that angels aren’t necessarily waiting around to net you every time you decide to race off the edge of a precipice. I didn’t know how far I would have to fall before I could knit the net into which I would eventually land.
Turns out, if your ambition is to be a writer, and your inspiration is a dream that according to accepted wisdom lasted at best a few seconds, you’re going to fall a long, long way.
My fall was broken a bit by traveling the country teaching five different courses in the Skiing Mechanics and Managers Workshop curriculum. I prattled on about how skis are made, how to buy them, how to sell them and how to reduce your liability exposure for selling or renting them. The income was minor, but the gig helped me maintain some profile in our little industry.
Among the strands I was then trying to weave into a viable support system was my role as Equipment Editor for Snow Country Magazine, the brainchild of New York Times Magazine Group publisher Jay Fitzgerald, that was brought to life by its visionary editor, John Fry. Once the magazine had established a toehold in the already well-served arena of ski-centric publications, Fry asked me to recruit a team of local all-stars and deliver a package of comprehensive coverage of all Alpine gear, following a rigorous methodology I adapted from some of my field work at Salomon.
Armored by my belief that my methods for identifying the best models in any given category were similar to what any conscientious manufacturer would do to winnow through a field of prototypes, I didn’t just pick preferred skis; I ranked them in their order of finish. To insure the integrity of the results despite the small sample size – six men, six women in each genre – the testers I selected were athletes at the top of their game.
To test race skis, we had the likes of Tamara McKinney, Bob Ormsby, Harald Harb, Bill Hudson, Hansi Standteiner, Barry Thys, Pam Fletcher, Kate McBride and Kristi Brown. For all-mountain skis we had talents like Robbie Huntoon, Stu Campbell, Eric DesLauriers, Kim Reichhelm, Tina Vindum, Kristin Lignell, Susan Chappell and Astrid Walti. For bumps (and other duties) we deployed Cameron Boyle, Scott Kauf, Wayne Wong, Patti Sherman-Kauf and Kim Vandeweghe.
Most ski tests, then and now, are over and done within four to five days. The Snow Country Magazine ski test ran for four solid weeks, followed by two weeks of boots. Alpine Meadows, California, could not have been more a gracious host, granting us room to corral our skis by the lift along with early access to the mountain when possible.
Because spring snow degrades quickly, I never wanted to interrupt a morning test session to take the obligatory photos required to decorate the reviews. So photo days with the legendary Larry Prosor – his work with Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs is forever poster-worthy – were like a vacation within a vacation. Everyone could wear his or her familiar, sponsors’ gear, relax and go for it. You see some of the results decorating this Revelation.
By the mid-1990’s, what began as a ragtag little ski test had helped fuel Snow Country’s ascendance to the highest circulation among the world’s ski publications. I wrote hundreds of ski reviews for Snow Country each year, and dozens of boot appraisals. (I once referred to a particular boot as having “a cuff large enough for condors to nest in,” earning that brand’s opprobrium that, in conjunction with a couple of unfavorable ski reviews, flared into quite the contretemps. But I digress.)
On top of the pile of reviews composed annually for Snow Country, I cooked up an entirely separate batch for London Daily Mail Ski magazine. My work was also translated for French and Italian titles, making me the world’s most widely read ski writer during this epoch.
My Neverland life with Snow Country couldn’t go on forever. John Fry retired, new editors came and went, the magazine was sold, re-branded and soon thereafter, folded. By then, I’d long since ceased to be the Equipment Editor but occasionally I’d be tossed the odd assignment on the resort beat. I was in Aspen – as the Great Circle of Life would have it – on a five-day binge that devoured a $2,000 expense budget, ostensibly researching a feature article about the underbelly of Aspen as revealed in the course of a quest to find Hunter S. Thompson, the most famous recluse in Woody Creek. I never got as far as meeting Thompson, but I made lasting friends by exploring those who orbited closely around him. As my blurry week in Aspen drew to a close, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about the last four and half days of skiing by day and a dedicated, truly herculean pursuit of pleasure by night.
I do remember on my last day taking a lovely run with Molly Ivins, the stunning storyteller who left us far too early, and a very late evening in a cigar room with Keith Hernandez, who was charm incarnate. The rest of the week proved harder to reconstruct than the dream that had instigated this voyage roughly a decade earlier.
I was wringing out the last drops of my expense budget at a swanky watering hole when I was called to the phone. Some editor I’d never heard of told me that the magazine was closing that very day, not for the weekend, but forever. Despite a chemical stew in my bloodstream that would cripple a rhino – I was researching Hunter Thompson, after all – I kept my composure as I mentioned the bills I’d scattered around town from the Hotel Jerome to private, underground clubs that should probably not have let me in.
Not to worry, I was told, I would be paid a handsome kill fee for the unwritten article and my expenses – egregious though they were – would be reimbursed in full. I had just pulled off one of the most elaborate coups in the annals of freelance journalism, in the process setting a new high bar in mankind’s glorious history of hedonistic abandon.
Whoever closed up shop at Snow Country kept their word. I never had to write an article that would have consisted largely of evasions, euphemisms and unnamed sources. There would be no record of my week in Aspen other than an expense report that was but a pimple on a pile of debt.
The next day I was at the Las Vegas ski show, to begin working with Head. I had concluded my tenure as a ski journalist with a lavish display of self-indulgence and been well paid for services never rendered. This is no mean achievement, something on the order of the self-employed writer’s Medal of Honor.
Little wonder my latest venture, Realskiers.com, recently received the Stump-Bertoni Award for Excellence. I’ve earned it.