November, 1981. I was a drop-out, floundering, working my ass off, getting nowhere. On a whim a few weeks earlier, I'd picked up the phone and called the ski school director in Vail, Colo.
"Are you certified?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I can put you to work, but not 'til mid-December.
"Great! I'll be there."
I had assumed the few bucks I'd saved would last until my first paycheck landed.
A friendly, dread-locked, trust-funder ski-bum I met within minutes of rolling into town invited me to stay in his den of iniquity, a place packed with roommates and other freeloaders. "Stay as long as you want," he said.
That first night in Vail was a sleepless Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, there in a crowded condo where the party never ended and my "room" was a couch in the middle of it all. The next morning...
"You gotta go. Change of plans. Parents are coming in for the weekend."
A drafty, Victorian flophouse in Minturn, circa 1880s, provided shelter the next several nights, but not much warmth. In those days, Minturn was the anti-Vail, the low-low rent district on the other side of the mountain and the tracks, still little more than the way station it had been for 100 years. The building was three stories, white, tall, skinny and uninsulated, a long, single-paned window looking out from each room. It housed railroad workers on overnighters as they passed through. Rooms were small and bare, plank floors and walls, with a shared bath down the hall. Ten bucks a night, BYO bedding. I threw my sleeping bag on the cot. Shivering by night, searching for better digs by day but with no money to offer, my bitty coffers dwindled.
That first night out of the flophouse, I hung out in my car till fingers and toes screamed from the cold, then stole into the lobby of the Holiday Inn. I'd grown up in the relative balm of the Pacific Northwest. The Rockies presented a level of cold I'd not experienced. Two hours, maybe three, there in a cushy chair by the fireplace, I checked my watch regularly and looked around, pretending to wait for someone. The desk clerk ignored me for awhile, but his looks grew more frequent, longer with each glance, until I was sure he was onto me. So I cruised downtown to the bus depot, parked my frozen fanny on a hard wood bench, read the paper, dozed. Buses pulled in and out, but I had no place to go. The sun rose. That's when I met Gerry.
"You can stay with us," he said. "Buy groceries when you get paid. Pay a little rent if you can. You'll have to sleep on the sofa, but I'm sure Ed won't mind. Nice guy. We rent a room from him. Ed works graveyard at Safeway. We never see him."
Gerry's wife Sue was an engineer with a real job working for a small company in Avon or Eagle, one of those once tiny mountain towns west along the Interstate. Gerry was an instructor like me, tickled that we would be colleagues. Their plan was to enjoy the ski bum life for a few years before returning home to Pennsylvania, where they'd start a business and raise a family. The next morning, warm and well-rested, it seemed a good time to introduce myself at the ski school office, fill out paperwork, pick up my uniform and stash my gear, though I wasn't scheduled to start work for another week.
Alone in the locker room, I was hanging my parka and pants when a young man burst through the heavy, gray doors.
"You're Toni, right?"
"You're certified? I mean, have you taught before?"
"I have a group of 12 level never-evers and no instructor. Can you take them? Now?"
Late Christmas Eve, and the village stores were closed. Lights twinkled and snow drifted upon us in fat, soft flakes as we strolled the streets of Vail, peering into shop windows, ogling stoles and coats made from the hides and furs of dead animals.
"You could buy a BMW for that!" I said.
"You could buy a house for that!" Sue said.
We sang carols with revised lyrics. Later on, we'll perspire, as we sweat, by the fire...
No gifts, no pressure, no family obligations, we shared a walk, a meal, laughter, and friendship.
It was a wonderful Christmas.
May your holidays be so charmed this year. Peace!