At the base of beautiful Werner Mountain in Steamboat Springs, a fifty-something guy is about to try snowboarding for the first time. His mind was vaguely of the opinion that he had taken leave of his senses but the shit-eating grin on his face was a signal to his brain to get lost. He felt oh so cool in the uh, diverse ski outfit cobbled together from both his wife’s and his own limited winter wear. Still fit, he thought: I can do this…
And so I did. Our instructor at the Steamboat Springs ski complex at the base of the mountain was knowingly patient—knowing full well that many of his adult charges that day would spend a great deal of time on their backsides and that some of them would not come back. What first struck me as I grasped the four-foot plus board in my hands was how it reminded me of skateboarding. I—let me puff up my chest with historic pride—was among the first pioneer skateboarders in San Francisco in the mid nineteen sixties. We cut metal skates in half and nailed them onto two by fours and sped down gigantic hills without even having a notion of what safety gear might become years hence. The wipe-outs when they came were savage. I can recall a friend flying off his board at the bottom of hill that had all of a 60-degree angle to it. He was mightily cut up after he bounced off a few cars at the bottom of the hill. So what was there to be afraid of in regards to a little snowboarding? The class was just something to get through like boot camp, so I persevered.
The hardest part for me was learning how to drag the board with one foot while going towards the ski lift. It felt like I was pulling a giant dead fish. I was able to stay on the board on my very first run because it felt so much like skateboarding in a very general sort of way. After that I spent a lot of time dusting myself off as I tried to learn how to make turns and get up after falling. For some reason, I couldn’t get up off the ground in a face forward position, as my center of gravity seemed too far backwards. (Remember that your boots are locked onto the board, so that when you move, you have to move board and body simultaneously.) Once I learned how to get up facing backwards onto the slope, and then make a quick spin forwards, it was a piece of cake. I just had to make sure I didn’t plummet down the hill sideways or backwards.
The key to snowboarding is to learn how to walk the board by biting the edge into the snow. Once you learn the bite, then the rest falls into place. Even now, in my imagination, I can still feel the satisfying bite of the board as it cuts into the snow. What really surprised me was how addictive a good run was. I could barely wait to drag my aged carcass onto the ski lift for yet another swift run on the training slopes. By the end of the day, I was still at it. I am a relatively inexperienced skier and one of those people who the sport never really attracted, but this, this was different. The board seemed so right and friendly and I didn’t need all the paraphernalia that came with skis. You know, two skis, two ski poles—too much stuff for me. The young lady who fitted me for my board said it best: “I skied for ten years but once I took up snowboarding, I never went back to skiing. I could see why. There will of course be those who will love both, and some who will love one over the other but for me snowboarding was familiar, and those San Francisco days on two by fours and metal skates came roaring back through my memories as I sped down the slopes carving and spraying snow all the way down.
I was astonished at just how many people there were skiing mid-week at the summit of Werner Mountain but was told that the summer gets even busier down the mountain in Steamboat. The views from the top of the ski lift were just staggering. You can see eight different mountain ranges from the top and many of them harbor dormant volcanoes. Names like Buffalo Pass, Rawah Range, Never Summer Mountain and the Mummy Range are as diverse as the landscape. I am told that due to the ancient volcanism of the area that there are a number of hot springs in and out of town. Some are clothing optional after dark, a piece of data that did not escape my internal combustion monitor. The landscape is wild and has an untamed feel to it, even though it has essentially been domesticated in part as a human playground.
I took an early dining break at Ragnar’s restaurant, which has a 360-degree view of back country Colorado and a floorshow of skiers plunging down world class slopes and pipes. Mavericks, for example, is the largest superpipe in the Rocky Mountains; it is fifteen feet wide, 500 feet long and has a fifteen foot wall. One of the locals at a nearby table told me that the winter brings people to Steamboat Springs for the first time but that the summers are what keep them coming back. The term champagne powder was coined here in the 1950s by rancher Joe McElroy, and Steamboat Springs claims that it has produced more Winter Olympians than any other town in America.
Speaking of restaurants, the Cabin at the Steamboat Grand Resort where I stayed had some astonishingly good food for their evening fare. Breakfast and lunch are typical affairs there but the dinners are staggering. Wild game and fondue along with six or seven other courses, and the overall great ambience of the hotel put the place on my “gotta do this again list.” Another great spot in town is the Cottonwood Grill. Don’t let its name fool you. This isn’t grill food, this is superb neo-Asian cuisine and if you are lucky, the waitress will put her hand on you as she takes your order, a touch which surprised me with its friendly intimacy and made me feel right at home. The locals are friendly here. My cab driver was a blond from Poland, my waitress at the Cabin was from Bulgaria, my waiter at Ragnar’s was from Jamaica, and I met a ski instructress from Urugay. There is a big international crowd at Steamboat!
I didn’t just go snowboarding in Steamboat Springs, I also went snow mobiling along the Continental Divide. There are a number of good snowmobile companies in the area and all of them are big on safety. There is nothing quite like roaring along trails through Engleman Spruce and Long Pole Pine and then bursting out into the glory of the Continental Divide, confirming that such wild places are enhanced by smart development, giving us all the opportunity to enjoy the wilderness in comfort. This is Steamboat Springs—accessible wilderness, good hotels, hot tubs, and excellent food served by friendly people in a beautiful town—and that big grin just comes back on my face every time I think about it.
About Sean O’Reilly:
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.