“Real fun” was the theme of my time in Breckenridge. Our hostel group spent Thursday, January 14th at Beaver Creek—the resort we’d all voted on the night before. Just like the previous day, Mountain Man took off with the others and Sandra and I did our own thing for the day.

That evening, our hostel group attended the nightly merriments of Ullr Fest. This is Breckenridge’s homage to the ancient Norse god, Ullr (pronounced OO-lur). Although what exactly Ullr represents is uncertain, the people of Breckenridge allege that he is “the Norwegian snow god,” who, according to legend, “was so well skilled in the use of the bow and could go so fast on his skis that in these arts no one could best him.” Breck’s adaptation of the legend posits that if you celebrate Ullr, he will bring you pow as soft as butter.

Breck’s festival started on January 13th in 2016 and ended on the 16th. We didn’t go out on the 13th, so we missed the crowning of the Ullr King and Queen, but on the 14th, we got to experience what is perhaps the most iconic, rowdiest part of the celebration: the bonfire.

The bonfire is a massive assemblage of tourists, transients, and permanent residents in the gondola parking lot for the resort (at least, that’s where it was in 2016). These people bring things that they don’t need or want anymore—and those more in-line with tradition bring their Christmas trees—and pile them up in the middle of the lot. The whole thing is set aflame and fenced off, and people come in droves to surround the blaze, all dressed in Viking attire—horned helmets, furs, shields, armor, fur and leather bikinis, pretty much anything remotely Viking-like—all dancing, shouting, hooting and hollering. Most are good and smashed at that point. There is music, purportedly provided by a local DJ, but I don’t remember seeing any such person; I remember the music, pulsing up into the night, and I remember the drunk dancers, but the area gets so crowded that it’s impossible to see anything but helmet horns and fire.

One of my drunken photos from Ullr Fest 2016

I was definitely “good and smashed” by the time we were at the bonfire. We had walked there from the hostel, and on the way back, we stopped to pick up our New-Zealander buddy from his shift at an old bar on the outskirts of town. I walked with Sandra on the way back. Mountain Man walked between the New-Zealander and an American dude with his arms wrapped around their shoulders.

Ullr Fest was the most memorable experience I’d had thus far on the Colorado trip. Seeing so many strangers dancing, laughing, being goofy and awesome together was reviving, comforting. The ski-bum community could be welcoming, I realized. My “personal ski bum” had only revealed to me a narrow, judgmental vein, in which, or so it seemed, very few ski bums actually resided. I began to conspire that Mountain Man just might be the worst representative of the ski-bum culture a noobie could’ve stumbled upon, and I had worshipped him as if he were Ullr himself.

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Among the transients at the hostel when Mountain Man and I arrived was a woman, who I’ll call Sandra. Sandra was the owner of the red Honda CR-V that Mountain Man almost destroyed. She was from Georgia and had traveled to Colorado alone, spending nights in the back of her Honda to avoid lodging fees. She was in her late twenties. She had an ebullient laugh and kind eyes that told me she had nothing to hide and no reason to judge. I liked that. We hit it off right away.

Side note: The entire time I was writing this, all I could do was think of this freakin' song...

January 13th was our first day at the Breck resort. As we rode the Breck gondola up the mountain, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with our hostel-mates, Mountain Man looked me in the eye and announced that he was going to ski with the Japanese dude and the New Zealander and would rather that I not join them. It was embarrassing, and I froze up. I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I didn’t have to because Sandra spoke up. She said she’d ski with me.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sandra and I were at roughly the same level of experience with skiing. Once we got bored of the groomers, we started challenging ourselves with steep, mogully runs. I showed her what I’d learned at Vail about maneuvering moguls, and we tried to perfect this technique, but our virgin leg muscles got tired after about the third mogul-ridden trail and we both fell most of the way down. Falling then became the focus of each descent, and we laughed our heads off and goofed around until it was time to meet the boys for beers at the lodge that evening.

Skiing with Sandra was a stark contrast to skiing with Mountain Man. Mountain Man always laughed at me, but nothing that I thought was funny was ever funny to him. Sandra and I naturally found humor in the same things. Mountain Man mocked me when I fell. Sandra and I laughed whenever one of us took a tumble, but only if the one falling laughed first. We never left each other behind; if one of us had to use the restroom or get something from the lodge, the other would follow so as not to lose track of each other. Spending the day with Sandra revealed to me that it’d been a while since I’d had real fun.

Me and Sandra having fun

Sandra also helped me realize that I’d been treating skiing like a pissing contest. She told me that she’d only really been skiing for five years—since she met her fiancé, who was a pro freeskier. Five years—hell, I’d only been at it for a few months and I was at her level; I was going too fast, I realized. Instead of trying to “catch up” to her partner’s level (as I was doing with Mountain Man), Sandra was learning at her own pace, gradually collecting ski-bum traits as she went, but only adopting them once she’d practiced and perfected them. Sandra was happy and had a healthy relationship with her fiancé (as it should be, of course).

I don't think Sandra would’ve publicly (and kindly) assured me that she’d ski with me at Breck (after my own boyfriend publicly assured me that he wouldn’t) if she hadn’t suspected that something was “off” between Mountain Man and I. Many people had told me that Mountain Man was no good for me, but Sandra showed me. I don't think I'd have seen it so soon if she hadn't. Thanks to Sandra, I became aware of the level of toxicity in my relationship with Mountain Man. For the first time, I began to feel a shift in my feelings towards him—away from idolization, and towards resentment.

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Right after nightfall on January 12th, 2016, Mountain Man’s Toyota bumped over the chunky, driver-plowed alleyway towards the warehouse, which was illuminated by a motion-sensor floodlight. I grimaced as we wobbled our way towards the back of a red Honda CR-V, and when we got close enough that I could read the numbers on its Georgia license plate, we started to slip in the slush. I squeezed my eyes closed and braced for impact as Mountain Man slammed on the brakes, but when we slid to a halt, there was no tremendous boom or crash, and when I opened my eyes, the CR-V was still intact. I risked a glance at Mountain Man, expecting a rumpled or flustered demeanor, but he was peering up at the warehouse beyond the CR-V with a big, stupid grin on his face. “We’re here,” he said.

“Here” was one of Breck’s best-kept secrets. “Here” was a warehouse-turned-hostel for broke ski bums and mountainfolk, all under the management and ownership of a man who we’ll call Ray, for privacy.

In Mountain Man’s life, Ray was legendary. Mountain Man had told me stories about the guy well before we planned the trip to Colorado. I’d heard that he could roll a spliff while driving his standard-transmission truck: one hand on the gearshift, massive thighs gripping the wheel and doing the steering, the other hand expertly poking the tobacco-weed mixture down into a cleanly-rolled cigarette tube. When he wasn’t driving, Ray was purportedly so good at rolling joints that they looked like dispensary-quality pre-rolls. Mountain Man had been one of the few people in the world to earn Ray’s respect, according to Mountain Man, and that, purportedly, is why Ray shared his rolling method with him. Ray was notoriously a “fun” guy, but had a temper, and his mood could flip in an instant. I was warned to tread lightly.

When we stepped into the hostel, Mountain Man and Ray embraced each other like long-lost brothers. Mountain Man introduced me, and Ray introduced both of us to the current hostel residents: two ladies, a dude from New Zealand, a Japanese dude, and two American dudes. I mingled with the other residents, albeit timidly, while Mountain Man and Ray shot the shit and caught up.

Ray and Mountain Man, about to embrace

Once we’d all put some food in our bellies, Ray rolled us a fatty and we passed it around the dining table, introducing ourselves and being friendly and such. Mountain Man and I retired early, and it was hard to go to sleep on account of the bizarre sleeping arrangements: all residents slept in the same room, on one of the bunks, which seemed to have been constructed by an inexperienced builder, without plans, and without a right angle tool. Mountain Man and I took a bottom bunk that was shaped like a trapezoid. There was no door to the sleeping room, so we could hear our fellow skiers out in the living room having a grand old time until the wee hours of January 13th. There was one bathroom, and it got pretty grimy pretty fast. But despite the messy vibes, it was homey at Ray’s place, and I grew to understand why some skiers stayed for the whole season.

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