I grew up skiing at Copper Mountain, a resort at the edge of I-70 just shy of Vail Pass. I skied there dozens of times every winter in college, and I could’ve recited the runs accessed by each lift from memory or told you exactly how to get from Super Bee to Spaulding Bowl and back again. I knew when, on any given lift, to look for the tree adorned with Mardi Gras beads and discarded bras—that ski area staple—and that I had precisely four-and-a-half minutes to choke down the disfigured peanut butter sandwich in my pocket before the American Flyer quad deposited me at the top of my favorite run.
I thought I knew Copper Mountain pretty well.
And I did, I guess. I knew it as well as you knew the kid who sat behind you in geometry junior year—familiar, this face you see for fifty minutes five days a week, but totally one-dimensional. You might occasionally borrow a pencil or ask how they got the answer to #6, and you might even genuinely like them, but you don’t know each other’s hopes and dreams and passions because it doesn’t really come up in that context.
One summer, as my childhood friends and I packed up the supplies for our Annual Girls Only No Boys Allowed Raft Trip on the Upper Colorado, somebody suggested mountain biking at Copper on our way to the river. This was a totally outlandish suggestion, as far as I was concerned, like running into a classmate in their skivvies at the beach: of course it makes sense that they exist in the summertime, too, but you’ve never imagined them with so much skin.
We rented bikes and took the lifts to the top, from whence we careened back down the mountain on trails hidden all winter by feet of snow. The runs I’d skied so many times looked different, shed of their cold-weather clothing, but not at all unpleasant. It had never occurred to me that there was more to this place than the way I saw it between December and March, that there were nearly 2,500 acres of unexplored terrain beneath the mountain’s annual 300” of snowfall. It had never occurred to me that Copper Mountain had layers.
Of course, the inverse is true; the places we like to play in the summertime endure in the colder months, too. It’s as if we lack object permanence: the trails we run all summer are inaccessible to us during hibernation season, just as our teachers and classmates cease to exist between the bell ringing Friday afternoon and when classes resume Monday morning.
At some point, when we know intimately every curve of the trail, the places we love best cease to be new to us. The kid who sat behind me in math class had only so many permutations of the same essential outfit, and I came to take comfort in the familiarity of his Grateful Dead t-shirt, from which he rarely deviated. But these people and places to which we’ve become accustomed can continue to be novel. It’s like running into someone you’ve never thought twice about in the same section of the used bookstore: Weird, but not bad-weird. The dancing bears are just one of many layers.
A few weeks ago, it snowed on the Front Range. Schools closed; buses were delayed. I got home from work one evening and Bix suggested we go for a night ski at North Table Mountain, whose trails we’ve run and biked and whose cliffs we’ve climbed and stood atop. I’d never been there at night, let alone on skis. It was predictably magical.
The next morning as I waited at the light rail station in Golden, I eavesdropped on some small talk two seats over.
“Table Mountain looks pretty with all that snow, doesn’t it?” one commuter asked another.
It did, especially in the early-morning alpenglow, and I was overcome suddenly by the intimate feeling of knowing someone’s secret.
Despite the slacker persona he worked so hard to maintain, my classmate was a straight-A student; he would’ve been mortified if I’d told anyone what I saw when we were erroneously handed one another’s report cards thanks to our alphabetical proximity. North Table, too, works hard to preserve its dry grassland character, what with the rattlesnakes and cacti and all, but it can double as a ski hill, in the right conditions. It’s rare that we’re given opportunities to get to know a person or place in a new way, so we have to seize upon these moments when they present themselves.
After all, the people and places we’ve connected with are the ones we feel loyalty to, the ones we defend from bullies. I’d certainly be sorry to hear about any number of places being turned into a Wal-Mart, but for North Table Mountain, I’m prepared to do some Serious Monkey Wrench Shit, should it ever find itself in the middle of a blueprint for a new subdivision. What can I say? We get each other.
I guess it’s pretty ironic that this piece of my environmental ethic was borne of a longtime relationship with a ski area, but I think it’s poignant, too, in a way. If Copper Mountain has as big and profound an impact on the Millennial psyche as it does on the White River National Forest, a generation of people—or even just a few of us—might be inspired to defend and preserve the places we love.