by Debbie Vance
David Rothman joins us today with a few words of wisdom re: skiing, poetry, and life. All of which—might I add—he seems to have mastered on some intrinsic level. I have met few people for whom life is so full of intention. Rothman unites poetry, prose, and skiing with unparalleled gusto and, frankly, gets me amped to skip out on city-life this weekend and go hit the slopes. St. Mary’s Glacier is about to get busy…
Rothman’s latest book, Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns, releases November 5th and is available here for pre-order. #livingthelife
Lance Waring says your forthcoming book, Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns, “exposes a soul skier’s raison d’etre.” How would you define a “soul skier”?
A soul skier is someone who skis by himself. No, wait a minute, that’s a “sole skier.” I always get that confused. In any event, I suppose a soul skier is a member of a certain tribe of people for whom, as Otto Schniebs famously said (giving my book its title), skiing is more than merely a sport; it’s a way of life. Skiing is an environment sport—you have to go where it is, and that means that, as with fishing, mountaineering, sailing, rock climbing and so on, there comes a point where you have to decide how important it is to you. At that point…if you make the move, or if you’ve even ever made the move at some point in the past and that lives on in you….you’re a soul skier, someone for whom love of the mountain life is not an activity you consume, but instead a part of who you are.
What is your raison d’etre as a skier? In a short-form poem? Haiku? Photograph?
My raison d’etre as a skier? Um….do you have any easier questions? Like my favorite color? Though, come to think of it, I’m not sure about that either. Some days it’s blue, but some days it’s green. Depends on the shade. But—just yesterday, October 18, 2013, I climbed and skied St. Mary’s Glacier, above Idaho Springs here in Colorado, not far to the north of I-70. St. Mary’s isn’t a glacier, just a permanent snowfield (though it’s melting out more and more each summer, as I discuss in the book). We’ve had good early snow this year, enough to make for good skiing—well, sort of good skiing—for several weeks already. Yesterday it was about 25 degrees in the morning and the wind—which howls off the continental divide and fills in an east-facing gully, creating the snowfield in the lee—was roaring in the wake of the latest little storm, which had dropped about 6″ the day before. So at about 11 am, there I was, in a very, very stout gale of 50+ mph, in an inside-the-ping-pong ball whiteout, solo (that’s the “sole skier” thing…) at about 11,500′ with icicles growing on my eyelashes, preparing to ski a boulder strewn strip of ice partially covered with wind-hammered fluff….and loving every second of it. I felt as alive as I can imagine feeling, utterly connected to the planet, playing in one of its beautiful eddies, grateful with every cell of my body to be there (and to have a good sense of not only how to survive, but also how to enjoy it). And some of the turns were excellent—fresh snow to the knees. That anecdote epitomizes several parts of my raison d’etre as a skier: to be in the world in a particular way, listening to it, walking upon it, interacting with it in as graceful a way as I can, feeling its sublime power and beauty through this strange activity of climbing up and sliding down. To be part of a community that values this is as good a way of life as I know. Here are some pictures from that jaunt…
And a Haiku:
Holy crap, it’s cold.
Eyebrow ice makes vision tough,
But the turns were sweet.
In your introduction to the book, you say, “I wrote [Living the Life] because I wanted to help give American skiing a written language as soulful as that of fishing, surfing, mountaineering, sailing and other environment sports.” With your collective essays in mind, what elements or characteristics define the soulful written language of skiing? How do you see mountain culture growing and changing with this new language?
There is now some damned good ski writing out there, but until the last decade or so, much of it focused on gear, competition, travel, instruction, history, or only the greatest athletes. While all of this is useful and can be quite compelling (I read it…), I think that the soulful language of skiing, as in the other environment sports, speaks to, for, and about skiing in ways that address the ordinary lives of ordinary people. The writers I admire look carefully at aspects of the sport that are both smaller, such as the funky clothes worn by skiers in ski towns, or what it’s like to hang around a resort in the off-season, and also at the larger things, such as what it means to know mountain friends who have died, or to recover over the years from a major injury, or figure out how to pay the rent (well that’s small if you can do it, but large if you can’t). Beyond that, I think the strongest writers about such soulful subjects love language itself as much as their subject and want to make beautiful and powerful sentences and paragraphs. How will that change mountain culture? Only the shadow knows…impossible to see the future is….
How do you view the connection between poetry and skiing? How does the one affect the other?
Almost no one has attempted both serious poetry and serious ski writing. At one point I realized that these are two of my deepest passions and so decided to bring them together. This has taken quite some time—it’s the project of many decades. So, in addition to the three “Interludes” in my book, which I hope make readers smile if not laugh out loud, there are a number of essays adapted from a book of poems titled Go Big that is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2015. The two books go together and have the same underlying impulse—to connect words and mountain life in the richest way I can, across many genres and occasions. I’m obsessed with this because in my own view skiing is inherently poetic. Or maybe it’s because I’m just obsessive. At any rate, to quote a dead, famous, philosopher, both activities strike me as purposeful purposelessness: beautiful, life-affirming, joyous, intense activities undertaken simply for their own inherent qualities…at least at first. Then, if one follows each out and transforms it into a way of life, each becomes something that magically conveys new meaning to everything it touches. Our careful attention can transform it into the meaning we seek. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything more like poetry than sport. For example, both require lots of practice. One difference is that while some athletes can be corrupted by money, we don’t have enough data about poets in this regard to reach any conclusions, although they have nonetheless been known to use performance-enhancing drugs.
In one of your essays, “The Year of the Thunderbolt,” you write, “Our encounters with [the outdoors] can be a communion with the sources of creation, part of life rather than an escape from it…Odd how the wilderness and the city, whether of man or of God, give each other meaning.”
Skiing is a transcendent experience for you. Can you expand on that? What makes it a communal encounter, and why ought the outdoors, skiing, mountains, etc. be pursued as a means of deepening life?
Skiing is a transcendent experience for me…sometimes…well, much of the time…but it can also be ridiculously funny, sad, frustrating, painful, and so on, just like life in all its particulars. I suppose the reason so many people are drawn to the mountains, or the ocean, or the forests or deserts to live the kinds of lives we do is that they all involve balance, or at least a balancing act, where we are reminded both of our mortality but thereby also of our vitality. I want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean it’s all revelations and angels. I’ve been reminded of this, for example, when I’ve wrestled a small child into seven layers of ski clothes only to have him then turn to me and say “Dad…I have to pee.” Or when someone I deeply loved died a very untimely death in the mountains. Or when I went for what I thought would be a fun little ski and wound up floundering in cold mud or going home with a blown ligament. But, in the end, this is exactly the kind of thing that helps us to understand how and why mountain life deepens life itself. Skiing isn’t separate from all the joy, pain, triumph, loss, anger, comedy and other aspects of our lives—it’s not as though all of that stops when we climb a hill or put on a helmet. The trick is to realize that we can bring all of this together, which seems absurdly obvious, but which remains something mostly unattempted yet in prose or rime.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would you say? To skiers? To mountain-lovers?
I once heard Bruce Colon, a great ski coach who led the alpine race program at Crested Butte Academy when I was Headmaster, sum it all up in three brief sentences: “Be on time. Do your best. No excuses.” Hard to beat that. But I’d add, for writers…pants first, then shoes. Then, once you’re dressed, find your passion and practice, practice, practice. Never underestimate the power of craft and patience. Most people who want to live as writers—just like most people who want to live in the mountains—have to make sacrifices to do so. Make the sacrifice with eyes open, and keep working. To both skiers and writers I’d quote Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”: This is “your one wild and precious life.” Live it.
You heard it folks. Live it. See you at St. Mary’s Glacier. (Keep an eye out for a pair of red skis sticking out of the gulley…it might be me.)
Tags: David Rothman, Living the Life, poetry, skiing