Saturday, December 29, 2007
It was no small miracle – a block of 4 glorious days off – like a rare solar eclipse. I had juggled bus shifts and cranked out 2 holiday issues of the paper and had somehow managed to shuffle it all into a cumulative mini-vacation in prime holiday time. Despite the magnificent snow base and the calling of the wild nordic, I opted to brave the blue and fly during peak travel. Never having lived in a tourist resort town where holidays are double shift work days, my family just didn't grasp the idea of working during clan traditional gatherings.
“But I don't understand,” my mother demanded, “ how can they make you work on Christmas?” To spend the holidays alone, working and without a full 15 course Italian feast was considered sacrilege and sad. They don't realize that the entire town is in the same work mode. I booked a last minute flight home for the Christmas Eve festivities, and decided to just show up unannounced. I love surprises. I had exactly two days flying and two days to visit. I was cutting it close, knowing the winter weather often doesn't cooperate with travel plans. However, the American Airline's jets were flying direct to Dallas now and I felt confident that there was less weather congestion in that southern city to disrupt flight plans. I prayed to the Snow Gods to reverse my previous chants for big dumpage just long enough for my flight to get out.
At the Gunny airport, no one is more jovial than holiday flyers anticipating their homecoming. That is until the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we're sorry but the flight has been delayed due to weather in Dallas.” Dallas had weather? Gunnison valley skies were bluebird. The Denver United flight had left. Even Chicago was clear. But Dallas, the southern hub, had had a front move in. Who knew Dallas could sport winds that would ground planes? Meanwhile, the herd had been moved upstairs to ready for boarding, which wouldn't happen for another 2 hours. The Gunnison airport expansion must have been designed by those same German engineers at the Frankfort airport because there were no bathrooms, no water and no snacks unless you were willing to leave the secure area and reenter – undressing, liquids in baggies, boots off and emptying luggage contents into plastic bins.
In Dallas the gusts subsided long enough to start the flights rolling again. Engines revved up, we jumped the hyper-space from the snow packed runway into the altitude with ease – a far different experience than take off in the turbo-props where you have to chant to get the plane off the ground.
Enroute to my brother’s house via limo, the full moon reflecting brightly off the gulf waters of Tampa Bay, over the causeway to the white sands of Clearwater Beach, I was delivered to the doorstep at midnight. Like a credit card ad, the looks on their faces when they opened the door was... priceless. In a cooking frenzy that had started a week ago, the menu for 45 was extensive. All the traditional aromas of holiday with the whole family filled the house and happily flooded the soul. We order late night Chinese food, open a good wine and commenced to giggling and toasting, all the weariness of travel and work overload forgotten... for a couple of days anyway. Early Christmas morning I’d be back on the plane returning home in time for more bus shifts, newspaper deadlines and all the Buttian family annual potluck parties for the working.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Photo Above: Lipstick contemplates the bus steps
Below: Supervisors actually laughing
I rush into the house for the abbreviated dinner break. Depending on how difficult the night has been, I either grab a sandwich... or a spoon and a large jar of Nutella to bury my flustered state. Driving in circles strapped into a seat for hours on end where the scenery remains the same is tedious, fatiguing and demands forced focus – but as the faces change it can, at times, also be fulfilling and superbly entertaining.
The Elite Fleet of Fairy Godmothers is highly trained to transport skiers, kids, tourists, the lost and the drunk up and down steep, curving icy roads in ground blizzards with negative wind chill factor while answering passengers' questions, pointing out restaurants and landmarks, and alerting the other on-duty bus navigators to potential hazards via radio. Extreme Multitasking.
Some riders get on the bus reeking of cigarettes or other herbaceous smoke, permeating the air with the fragrance of french fries or indiscreetly emitting noxious digestive airs; others choke the enclosed space with body douses of perfume so thick that half the bus goes into asthmatic shock. The driver's prayer is that the collective breath alcohol content is high enough to kill the germs of the guy directly behind the seat coughing over your shoulder.
Next to safety issues, every drivers' nightmare is the lowlander who gets on the bus having imbibed 4 white Russians chased by 3 Jim Beams and several beers only to lose it all half way around Rozman's curve... covering the closest 15 passengers with projectile biohazard that will turn the bravest of the brave green and begin a chain reaction, at which point the vehicle has to be exchanged for a less foul one.
This brings us to the dreaded of all holidays, New Year's Eve... amateur night. Although it falls far behind in its ranking compared to Butte Bash stupidity, it's the one holiday that even reasonable, well behaved adults will engage in the insanity of excess and do silly things they wouldn't normally ever do. Some of the antics are amusing, some downright annoying and some, unfortunately, quite perilous.
As I rounded the corner of Second Street onto Whiterock a few minutes into the new year, pouting about having missed auld lang syne with my buddies, there blocking the road in perfect line formation was about 20 people cheek to cheek in Crested Butte formal attire... tux trousers dropped, evening gowns and tutus hoisted, derrieres aimed. You could say it was a full moon orchestrated thoughtfully by my best friend. The fully packed bus roared hysterically. It made my night that an entire party thought to include me in the festivities.
The longer the years of servitude, the more oddities witnessed. Tuck's been on board since 1980. He could write a book of his favorites, which would include the New Year's he had finished his shift, well after midnight, parked the bus at the garage and with the interior lights still off, went to plug in the engine heater. Back then, after the shift, drivers were required to clean the bus so upon re-boarding and turning on the lights for the task, he discovered a couple in the back seat oblivious to their surrounds but determined to rock their own little new year's microcosm. They were given a courtesy trip back to the 4-way.
Another year, a group of young teen boys got on the bus and pelted Tuck in the back of his head with a snow ball. The perpetrator was promptly tossed out the door to his friends' disapproval... and the heckling continued all the way up the mountain. When they debarked, the jeering jerks were given a hefty dose of mace by an 80-year old lady who had had quite enough. The next day the boy's father apologized.
Then there was the tourist in the back of the bus who kept screaming for cowboy music... so the driver put in a tape with 20 minutes of real cows getting branded. Driver Lipstick (aka Michele) said the funniest thing she saw was when the town used sawhorses to cordon off the dangerous roof slide area at the Old Town Hall stop, “All these people were trying to climb into the corral, on top of the snow pile from the roof.” There can definitely be a herd mentality. Another driver remembered two guys giving a local Broncos' fan grief about the team. Just as the taunting grew heated, that same roof slid down to bury the two... first down for Broncos.
Crested Butte is not a prudish town and when it comes to partying and drinking, our locals are the champs. Unfortunately, those visitors not acclimated to our altitude get slammed much faster – even the experienced swiller can go numb in half their normal intake. So it was last year at Butte Bash – where large groups of youth are encouraged to drink heartily and party even harder until the bars close since the buses would be running until 2 a.m. just for them – I caught sight of a reveler staggering disoriented down the center of Gothic Road.
Dressed in black, blending into the night, I almost ran him over. It was only his erratic weaving across the road that alerted me to his presence. Even as quickly as the cops got there, the boy had disappeared into the night. He was later hit by a car, having crossed through snow fields and come out down by the cow camp curve. The accident actually saved his life because he would have frozen to death. The mother called to thank the guy that hit him. He spent the better part of his weeks' long hospital stay treated for frostbite and hypothermia, along with his other injuries. It is the ultimate driver's terror... to have anyone injured for any reason.
Bus drivers have their parties and respites as well. Several of us remember one particular New Year's party, back in the wilder days of the early 80s, when Mountain Express rented out the notorious Sunshine's Bathhouse... the local's spa where bathing suits were optional and mostly nonexistent. Since we were driving until midnight, the merrymaking began then. The white stuff was dumping heavily... people were running outside and jumping into the snow and then back into the hot tub. Half the town showed up to join in.
It's Friday night dinner break... after downing a home brewed espresso, I grab another can of Red Bull and rush back to rendezvous with my bus and carry on circling the town, a keen eye out for errant vehicles, straying dogs and the lost souls of the night. I'm not scheduled to work this New Year's... but I have extra jars of Nutella in the cupboard and a case of Red Bull in the refrig... I may just sign up for the fun of it. Happy New Year, and please… ride the bus!
“For auld lang syne, we'll take a cup 'o kindness yet, for auld lang syne...”
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Photos: Mark Reaman
It arrived lightening fast two days after it was ordered online. It was so sleek I figured it had to have launched itself here in that kind of record arrival time during the height of holiday shipping. After justifying the purchase by logically concluding it would be far safer than trying to navigate snow and ice packed streets on foot or a studded-tire bike, I ordered a bonafide, Colorado handcrafted maple and ash, double-seater spark... a kick sled. I had wanted one since I was a little girl, along with a red velvet coat and matching muff, bells and a pony to pull it... but there weren't many places for all that in the Bronx.
It was like Christmas morning tearing into the fortified packing and although it took longer to unwrap than to put together, there it sat in all its glory in my living room... screaming for personalization. I dived into the costume closet looking for ornamentation – a bag of gold Mardi Gras beads, silk poinsettias and of course, a swaggle of jingle bells on festive red rope. But that wasn't enough. It needed more seasonal bling – lights – reminiscent of those over-the-top yards swathed in enough piggy-backed multicolored blinking strings to keep electric meters spinning at warp speed and illuminate the darkest of winter nights.
I attached a couple of glow globes that, at the flick of a button, could either flash rapidly or slowly melt into trippy changing hues. Perfect. Ready for the maiden voyage, after squeezing through the living room dock and down the narrow hall, it was full speed ahead outside into the new snow and glazed streets. It came with instruction on how to kick, turn, steer and stop however it's a far different experience doing it than reading about it.
Regardless of how fluid it looks when the experienced glide across tundra landscapes on the modified folding chair sitting atop elongated ice skate blades, it's not a pretty sight when you first get started and it isn't an easy ride. In fact, it's a downright workout. I was out of breath in the distance of one block of kicking. With no traction, my boot would slip on the slick ice making the propelling kick even more work. The dream about effortless ballet-like shussing through crystaline moonlight outings and daytime jaunts through sunlit alleys with hair and scarf ribboning behind in the wind all melted away in laborious panting just trying to get around the block. Nevertheless, it was such a beautiful snow night that I zigzagged across town for a few hours.
The day after the evening's sled workout, I discovered muscles in places I never knew existed and walking was awkward at best. I bought a pair of Yak Trax – rubber webs wound with thin metal wire which attach to the bottom of shoes for traction, giving the kick real meaning and thrust. Ignoring the formerly anonymous screaming muscles, I got back on the rungs and plunged through the newly plowed streets. Snow plastered my hair to my face and stuck between teeth... because laughing and grinning was very much a part of the glide, which came much more easily now. Snow fell incessantly burying houses, cars and immobilizing the mechanical but infusing the air with white muffled anticipation.
Like a one-sled parade down the main drag, I slid along out-pacing wobbly bicycles and fallen pedestrians on the ice pack – until a police cruiser pulled me over...
"You can't ride that on Elk Avenue," he quipped.
"What? The Sled?" I asked exasperated, confused and out of breath.
"No sleds or skis on Elk," he rolled away smiling, "thanks for cooperating."
Down the street, the wobbly townie biker had slammed into the 12 foot snowbank, unable to stop on the snow packed glass surface.
I turned my sturdy and stable sled onto the unplowed side streets, kicking and screaming to the grocery store...but the excitement in the streets was contagious. Spontaneous snowball fights broke out everywhere pelting shrieking snow warriors. The ski slopes would be crazy in the morning. At the store, people were stocking up for the long haul. As I packed the goods into the sled bag, one admirer stopped to comment, “That looks like fun.”
“I couldn't afford a Subaru, “ I joked.
Nodding his head in acknowledgment he eyed the sled and said,
“Yeah, but now you have to save up for a dog.”
Dawne Belloise’s new ride is environmentally responsible and responsibly handmade by Mountain Boy Sled Works in Silverton, Colorado. Mountain Boy Sled works hard to minimize the impact of all of their operations on the environment, including using only recycled cardboard packaging, choosing only fast-growing, common, sustainable hardwoods such as birch, willow and maple and ensuring that every part of the wood is used. Smaller pieces are turned into kicksled slats or Christmas ornaments. To order visit mountainboysleds.com.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I arrived back in Crested Butte from Italy after 36 sleepless hours of flights, layovers and airports, thankful to hit the sweet tarmac of Gunnison Airport. Travel, especially by air, is usually not the enjoyable journey it once was and Crested Butte is readying itself to receive the hordes of justifiably irritated vacationers dropped at our doorstep after having to deal with long lines, delayed flights, nasty ticket agents, indifferent attendants, whining sugar-buzzed kids, lost luggage and skis. Is it any wonder they board the bus with jaws snapping like annoyed crocodiles?
Once they've been ushered in by Alpine Express to the threshold of We're Glad You're Here Land, things get much better for the traveler as they ease their road weariness with the recommended vodka and chocolate followed hopefully by gallons of rehydration before hitting the slopes.
One of the worse scenarios for airport anxiety and time warp jet lag started when I discovered the redeemed air mileage from my credit card, supposedly blackout free and airline unlimited, had a catch – I had to use the required, less than knowledgeable booking agent the company employed. The travel genius, having the planning efficiency of a slug, routed my return flight through Frankfurt, Germany instead of the direct flight from Rome to Denver, assuring me that it was then nonstop on to Denver. She didn't tell me about the 7-hour layover at Frankfurt or the plane change in Washington DC through customs... which wasn't even on the ticket. The overnight on DIA's floor would have been unnecessary with a direct flight from Rome however the Washington flight arrived after midnight, a full 7 hours before the Mountain Mangler left for Gunnison.
Frankfurt Airport makes the legends of German engineering superiority fall into the laughable rumor category. All the wings are separated by non secure hubs and an occasional booth selling small bottles of water for $7.50 American dollars – which means if you have to get from A to D, there are 4 full security checkpoints – shoes off and half undressed, computers and cells phones out, liquids and gels into plastic baggies and the mandatory hand held electronic body scanner after already walking through the beeping metal detector. If you bought water in between wings logically thinking you were through security, they made you throw it out.
“But I just bought this bottle at that cart there in B Wing,” I pleaded with the security officer.
“Sorry, no water allowed through security,” the fraulein commanded. I raise my bottle in mock toast to a Japanese girl who had also decided that water cost too much to recycle back to the vendor from security trash and together we down the contents. Each time thinking I was through security, I bought another water only to have to drink it all in front of the airport gestapo. Somehow, in their minimalist ingenuity, the Germans neglected to install bathrooms between these wings.
Finally at the destination gate, a large unattended industrial room of glass and vents, there isn't a soul in the site – no signage or ticket assistants, flight information, arrival or departure boards, airlines serviced – no information of any nature was to be found. No plugs for phones or computers, let alone an internet connection, I find a soda machine in a corner plugged into a single socket – I hook up for the long 7 hour layover only to be visited by a security guard about half an hour later, “You must leave the area at once so we can perform a security check of this wing,” he demands. Escorted down the blocks-long corridor back outside of the checkpoint, I must dismantle myself again, empty my water bottle and get through the entire security gate process before re-entry into the wing to board a flight hours later and gladly bolt out of Germany.
Here in Crested Butte we're about to enter the vortex of high travel season, which fortunately won't be as difficult for our visitors… unless they’re coming from Germany. However, when dealing with the newly arrived tourists, imagine what travel horrors they might have encountered and remember to be gentle – try to exercise a bit of patience, if not amusement – just smile and point the way to the bars... and if you're feeling exceptionally warm and fuzzy tell them you're glad they're here.
Note: The Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce in their excitement to create a one-phrase tourist marketing trick, inadvertently became the brunt of jokes with their, "We're Glad You're Here" slogan.