Friendship and Adventure in the American West
By Nick Underwood
In Middlebury, Vermont there’s a small room tucked away in the bowels of a large concrete edifice where we meet to make music. I think a prison-obsessed architect must have designed the building. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo about liberal arts colleges being bastions of freedom. It’s funny though; I feel freer in the tiny locked-away room than I do just about everywhere else, except perhaps the top of a deserted mountain. Tonight as usual, I’m waiting for Eliot.
“Is he ever going to get here?” I groan, banging my forehead wearily against the snare drum in front of me. Listless, my gaze wanders around the concrete walled room littered with useless cymbals, amps, and microphones. Everything worthless until the big man arrives; music, unlike solitaire, is a pursuit most fine when enjoyed with others. The sound of a lone drum beating begs for accompaniment. Ten minutes turns to twenty, and already I’ve been waiting half an hour for the lazy no-good bastard. No one makes me wait this long.
Just as I fling on my coat, a dark-mulleted ruffian smirks through the doorway. I turn, accusingly.
“Where have you been, man? I’ve been wasting my time here the whole f*cking night!”
“Oh, sorry about that, I just had to talk to my Mom on the phone. I’m only five minutes late, anyway,” Eliot grins. What a crock.
“One of these days you’re actually going to get here on time,” I scowl.
“F*ck you, dude,” he replies, cheerfully. Profanity is our preferred manner of affection. I toss my coat back down and resume my perch behind the battered drum kit, torn between resentment and fondness as his large, grin-plastered form sets down his amp and opens his black guitar case. Perpetually late, when he’s not a no-show, Eliot inevitably denies or diminishes his culpability. And always my irritation quickly burns itself out into resignation, and hence into affection. The cheeky, bushy-eye-browed bugger is impossible to stay mad at. I can’t help but admire his laissez-faire attitude towards timetables, even while I wait, and seethe. Some people seem to exist outside of the prison of agendas and responsibilities, in an untracked land where a man is his own law.
Eliot plugs in his guitar, and electric crackling power flows in. He doesn’t touch the metal strings yet, but the silence grows heavier, pregnant with the anticipation of decadent chords.
“Which one should we try?” he queries.
“How about ’To the Dogs or Whoever’?” I propose, already knowing his answer. He loves the music of Josh Ritter, the Western sage, as much as I do.
Eliot’s smile is his only response. Four wooden clicks, and wild golden music echoes about the small room. We settle into a familiar rhythm, the tune warm and comforting like a wooden doorknob worn with use. As the moments go by, the mind forgets the syncopation of the snare and the hard vibrating strings but the hands go on. The hands know better than the head; the best music always springs from unconsciousness. We play with abandon, losing ourselves in the oh-so-simple oh-so-sweet melody, transported into some other strata, consorting with cowboys and withered medicine men in a realm of muddied higher understanding. For as long as the foot pounds the bass and the youthful chords burst forth we are elemental joy and recklessness incarnate. Cymbals crash and limbs fly and we exist apart from the rest, lost in the frenzy.
Josh Ritter’s music holds a special place in our hearts. Last year, on a Wednesday, Eliot and I gaped in shock at a poster advertising a solo acoustic set in Troy, New York. On the Thursday we whipped through the back road blacktop of upstate New York, rushing to watch the folk-music master. We chugged Twisted Tea in the car, and entered the small, intimate venue with anticipation and alcohol coursing through our veins. I am unashamed to say that I shed tears of joy on that reverent evening. The Moscow, Idaho raised Ritter made me understand, only for a moment, an eastern boy, what the West is. In his music I knew the exultation and desolation of open spaces, and heard the howling of wolves on the lonely railroad-scarred plains.
Eliot channeling Josh Ritter
The western flavor of Ritter’s music is as familiar to Eliot as it is romantic to me. For Eliot, born and raised in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, elk-splattered plains and cowboy-booted folk singers aren’t foreign; they’re nostalgic. Nevertheless, the spirit of western folk music has a similar hold on both our hearts.
Back in the tucked-away corner of the prison-like building, the last reverberations of our homage die away, but our grins remain firmly plastered for some time. And in the little contented silence an idea is born, and somehow we both know: time to go west. Our musical fantasy can’t be sustained; even if we played until our fingers bled we wouldn’t find ourselves any closer to the world we’re singing about. Once the notion of seeking adventure in Jackson Hole is aired, it spirals inevitably towards reality. And so it’s decided, in brotherhood Eliot and I will journey to Jackson Hole seeking adventure. Soon, the brotherhood grows, the trip drawing bold young men like conquistadors to El Dorado: magnetic, irresistible. Tickets are bought, a few roughshod plans are laid, and before we know it, the time has come.
On March 20th, a Friday, the grey Toyota Prius drives east over Middlebury Gap, packed to bursting with overexcited college students and gear. Our bags are filled with an assortment of skis, sunscreen, and jorts; tools any real adventurer recognizes as absolutely essential. I sit shotgun while Eliot drives us through the darkening night towards Boston, our portal to the West. Huge snowflakes fall in the space illuminated by the headlights, the streaks of white making it look like we’re jumping into hyperspace Star Wars style.
In the backseat, crushed between the car door and piles of ski bags, a cheeky-looking guy named Kowalski is perched on the lap of another bloke, Jack Steele, who looks vaguely like a contented panda, despite the 175 pound ball of energy sitting uncomfortably on top of him. Jack, a 5’10 Montana-bred adventurer with curling dark hair, wears a Sugarbush t-shirt that says, “Looking for a threesome?” on the back, and sunglasses with croakies. He’s a ladies man without trying to be, and socially adept in nearly any social situation. If there’s a gravitational center to our group of wild spirits, it’s Jack. He’s my closest friend on the Jackson Hole trip, largely due to our mutual 5-month long adventure to New Zealand.
Bouncing around excitedly, innocent of the fact that he’s making Jack’s legs go numb, is Kowalski. The stocky man has the energy of a racehorse, and a mullet that would make any 80’s rocker jealous. As we near Boston, no one is surprised when he pulls out a flask of vodka and insists we imbibe.
We park on Boylston Street in downtown Boston at 10PM with time to kill; our flight will leave around 6AM, and it’s been unanimously decided there will be no sleep tonight. Instead, we spend the night roaming the streets and exploring the city’s nightlife, spouting lines from Good Will Hunting (You like apples?) and throwing snowballs. Kowalski meets complete strangers and immediately proceeds to give them his perfected two-minute business pitch. Jack, Eliot, and I have heard the pitch what feels like hundreds of times, and we harass Kowalski by chiming in with some of the more memorable stock phrases, shouting “Cash-flow positive” at inopportune moments.
The next club has a third story bowling alley, and we furtively poach an unfinished game. Somehow, the drunker we get, and the more ridiculous our trick shots get, the better we bowl. As we leave, my heart stops for a few seconds when I see a uniformed bouncer gesturing animatedly to Jack and Eliot. When I get nearer, I realize he’s not upbraiding us for our pilfering of the abandoned bowling lane. The man speaks with a thick Middle Eastern accent and stands very close.
“Boys, boys, boys, where are your ladies? Where are the beautiful women for you handsome men? You deserve many beautiful, naked women!”
He turns to me, and touches my face with his fingers. I only flinch a little bit, and I can see Jack struggling to hold back his laughter.
“And you! You handsome, beautiful man! You deserve a minimum of ten beautiful, naked women! Yes!”
I grin and thank the promoter as we leave. It’s hard to tell whether the he’s drunk or just unused to the customs of Western society. Either way it’s a memorable interaction, and I take it as a good omen for the journey to come.
At 3AM we eat greasy hash browns and soggy eggs at an all-night diner where they charge two dollars more inside than what’s advertised on the menus outside. Everyone in the diner talks in broad South Boston accents and the women look a little haggard in their overly thick makeup. In our booth we hatch plans to sue the diner for false advertising. Eliot, who is planning to go to law school, will lead the prosecution and win the jury over with his dramatic denunciation of the injustice of paying eight dollars for six dollars of eggs. We’ll use our payout from the lawsuit to establish a community of friends where we’ll pool our resources together, which Kowalski insists must be in Vancouver. Since he’s the businessman extraordinaire, we acquiesce, especially because of the Canadian city’s proximity to “Sick mountains, dude!” Our plates scraped clean of the last bits of over-priced bacon, we drive to the airport and make it onto the plane through the blinding glare of fluorescent lights and unctuous airline employees. Jack passes out first in his typical slack-jawed sleeping position, and the rest of us quickly follow suit. I dream of mountains and wide-open skies.
We arrive in Salt Lake in a haze of sleep deprivation, the flame of excitement still flickering within us. The others look just how I feel, heavy lidded eyes, blank stare of exhaustion wrote large on their faces. Life doesn’t feel quite real again until we break free from the airport’s sliding doors into the sunshine. The warm, dry 70-degree air feels revitalizing after the stale air of the plane and the snowy Boston night.
Soon we’re barreling along the blacktop northeast towards Jackson Hole, the Tetons, and adventure. Sandstone formations, small towns, and oil refineries flash by the windows. The sight I find most remarkable isn’t tiny Evanston, Wyoming, or the huge mining operations and signs of resource exploitation we pass, nor the lonesome creaking houses. What’s most amazing here is the emptiness, the space that stretches farther than the eye can see, an unbroken desolation of sand, rocks, and scrub. As we whiz past at over 80 mph, I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to traverse these lands with no map, life and family loaded up and rolled slowly into the unknown. The others soon tire of hearing me exclaim “Can you imagine what it’d be like to drive a wagon across that!?” and tell me to shut up.
Though the drive feels interminable after the long, sleepless night, we finally arrive in Jackson Hole just as the sun is setting. From Eliot’s house, where we plan to stay for the week, the jagged rise of the Tetons less than a mile away is backlit by an orange sky streaked with purple. Bill and Mary Neal, Eliot’s parents, tell us that skiing conditions are marginal, with all the snow on the lower elevation slopes already melted. Refusing to be discouraged, we turn in for the night planning to rise early and ski before conditions deteriorate further.
In the morning, we drive up Teton Pass to find the slushy conditions more than made up for by the warm air and sunny skies. Unused to the altitude, all of us are huffing and puffing as we skin up the steep slope. On top, we can see the mountains stretching interminably away under the sky, a Western hue of blue marked by a complete absence of any clouds. I refuse to wear sunscreen out of principle, despite the fact I will look like a lobster by the end of the day. Kowalski, giving 110% as usual, skis the first run of the day fully nude, which in these spring conditions means the risk of some seriously uncomfortable abrasions if he falls. He pulls off the stunt with aplomb, and the morning of skiing passes by in a flash. We ski to the base of the pass to meet Eliot’s father for a ride back to the house.
First day of skiing in the sun, (l-r) Eliot, the author, Jack, Kowalski, Dylan
I’m struck by how similar Bill Neal is to his son. When he picks us up at the bottom of the pass, it takes us ten minutes to drive a couple hundred feet. Our laid-back, smiling driver can’t escape the crowded parking lot until he’s spoken with all the people he knows, which seems to be every woman there. Like Eliot, his manner with the female sex is to gently make fun of them. And just as with the son, it works: one can see that they all adore him. The elder Neal seems permeated with the relaxed atmosphere of Jackson Hole. He appears the very picture of contentment; especially that afternoon when we float the Snake River. Bill, topped by a dapper tweed cap, captains our vessel with sure strokes of the oars, piloting us near all the best fishing holes with ease. Not the greatest fly fishermen, we fail to catch anything despite his sage navigation and advice. Still though, floating on the water in the sun and breeze is a great way to spend our afternoon.
Jack enjoys the ride while our trusty captain Bill Neal steers us down the Snake River
After our float, at around dusk, the whole house gathers for some post-dinner music. Eliot plays one of his father’s acoustic guitars while I tap on a battered old snare drum. Jack joins in on a ¾ size fiddle designed for a child that looks comically small. Bill Neal sits with his legs crossed, peacefully strumming a mandolin. Playing music with new partners is like riding a new bike; a little uncomfortable at first, until you find the rhythm. Before long we are all jamming together, and of course we play some Josh Ritter. There are few better ways to pass the time than enjoying music with great company, and this evening proves no exception.
Music in Jackson Hole with (L-R) Jack, Eliot, and the author
On Tuesday we opt for regeneration, seeking the secret hot springs whispered of by locals. To reach the geothermal pool we speed south along the twisting Snake River. Dry, yellowed grass waves along the sunny banks, hinting at the parched fiery summer sure to erupt in the months to come. Jackson averages over 450 inches per year of the white gold, but is on pace to receive a paltry 320 this winter. In a town where tourism is king, this figure portends not only a threat to the region’s economy, but also a real danger to its survival. Knowledge of wildfires’ potential devastation looms over the western U.S. and the words “up in smoke” echo menacingly through nervous conversation in the mountain town.
Today though, we’re fortunate that the river trickles rather than roars, since the pool we seek only appears during low water. Five heads rock in unison to Dire Straight’s “Money For Nothing” as the white Chevy Tahoe rolls into the gravel parking lot. Doors burst open and the sound of rushing water fills the space vacated by the legendary 80’s tune. Shoes and shirts fly off and we run down a narrow dirt path heading upstream. At least every five strides I curse as my foot comes down on a pointy rock. During the summers of my youth I avoided shoes like the plague, with my blackened feet able to withstand spikes of grass and spears of gravel alike. Those days are long gone though, and today I dance tenderly along the ground, yelping along looking ridiculous.
To the Native Americans who used the sites for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, hot springs were sacred sites revered for their healing powers. Tribes often fought fierce battles to protect the surrounding hunting grounds, and concealed the springs from settlers as long as possible. Our own irreverent manner of entrance provides some clue as to why they wished to hide these quiet sanctified places. Kowalski yells as he crashes towards the pool with a 30-rack of Busch on his shoulder. To us it’s merely an exotic hot tub, and if the Holy Spirit does reside here, he’s welcome to share a cold beer and some laughs.
(L-R) The author, Eliot, Kowalski, Luna, Dylan, Jack happy at the hot springs
The spring lies directly adjacent to the river, with a beefed up wall of rocks separating the frigid Snake from the bubbling, sulphurous water. We splash in quickly, eager to trade the cold air for the scorching water. Our enjoyment of the spring is more acute given our knowledge of its transitory nature. The next solid rain will be enough to send the river surging over the pitiful wall and bury the warm waters in the icy current. In the moment the spring envelops us though, it seems an infinite and complete source of comfort. Amid the whirlwind of skiing and exploring and trying to cram as much fun as possible into this week, this moment of stillness is pure bliss. Without moments of reflection, it’s easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are to have these beautiful places and treasured friendships. We take the afternoon to relax and regroup.
The next morning, adventure’s siren call pulls us back to the mountains. The sun is shining somewhere far above and away, but for us it no longer exists. We spill out of the warmth of the car into 25mph winds, and without goggles must blink rapidly to see through the snow. The world is white. Winter, which seemed a shivering memory yesterday, has descended upon us. The light, fresh powder is a welcome change, but the new snowfall raises the risk of avalanches, making many slopes dangerous to ski on.
One foot after the other, I kick my boots into the snow, making sure each step is secure before fully weighting the leg. My skis, strapped to my backpack, sway high above my head like the antennae of some giant prehistoric insect. Boot packing is an arduous task, required on slopes too steep to use skins. Somehow, though brutally repetitive and exhausting, the task is equally satisfying in its simplicity. No zigzagging up the hill, no messing about with finicky technology; one simply picks their line, and kicks their way up the mountainside step-by step. I emphatically prefer this old-school style of ascension. Conquering a mountain with one’s own strength and stamina seems far preferable to buzzing effortlessly up a high-speed chair. Something about feeling your lungs heave and muscles shake with exhaustion as the air grows thinner makes standing at the peak that much sweeter.
I prefer to lead, and set my own steady pace up the hill. Soon I am a hundred feet or so above the others. Though I can see vague shapes through the tumbling flakes if I strain my eyes downward, and hear occasional voices carried by the wind, I feel alone. I find that moments of isolation and solitary focus are just as essential to my happiness and sanity as the times spent with friends and family. It’s the lonely instants when I feel closest to the mountain, the most intimate with raw, primeval nature. With the wind-whipped snow swirling past and the cold peak invisible high above, I imagine for a moment I am on Everest. I muse on how a climber in the Himalaya must feel, their goal too monumental, the cruel summit too unattainable to gaze upon. Instead, confine yourself to the task at hand; the next step, one more breath, and with desperate iron will hold onto the belief that thousands of tiny victories will equate to one titanic triumph. All the while knowing that one mistake or bit of bad luck can mean the loss of everything.
I pause to wait for the others. Kowalski is animated as usual on the ascent, despite seeming to be slightly off his game today. He’s managed to forget his large backpack this morning, and been forced to switchback up the slope on skins while we take the direct line. Now I learn he’s lost a glove as well, a mistake that could have proved costly had he not packed a spare pair. Despite the wind stealing his glove, and his alternate manner of grunting up the hill, Kowalski seems unfazed. It seems nothing can dampen his exuberance.
An hour later, we stand on the summit of Glory Peak, just over 10,000 feet above sea level. The snow is still blowing sideways, though some of it must be hitting the ground, as over 4 inches has fallen during our climb. Quickly, we prepare for the descent, throwing on extra layers and tightening our boots, eager to escape the exposed ridge. Jack whips out his GoPro to capture the moment, or, as we like to call it, “GTS” (Get the shot, bro!”)
“Where are we?” he demands, shouting to be heard above the howl of the wind. I can feel my face getting numb.
“Jackson! We’re in J-hole! America, yeah, we’re in America!” Kowalski crows, hamming it up for the camera.
Seeing Jack wield the GoPro takes me back, away from this frigid, exhilarating ridge to another mountain, a greener time.
Nine months ago he and I rumbled into the New Zealand sky, dust rising in great clouds behind our rusty maroon minivan as we swung around precipitous corners. Higher and higher we rose into the crisp mountain air, the long narrow floor of the north island’s Cardrona valley unfurling before us. Far below lay soft green squares speckled with tiny white dots: sheep grazing and sleeping and shitting unaware or unconcerned with the magnitude of the landscape and their relative puniness. The world grew small beneath us though the opposing mountains sneered down at us still. Jack, piloting our trusty steed up the hill, leaned out the window, one hand on the wheel and the other on his GoPro.
“Gettin’ the shot, bro!” he crowed. If the mountains could swell at his compliment, they would, standing on tiptoes begging for a little more attention. When Jack smiles, the recipient cannot help but smile back and be the best of themselves at that moment. Many times during that drive we broke into hysterical fits of laughter, not laughing at anything particularly funny but rather feeding on each other’s energy in an endless cycle, electricity on a closed loop.
At the time I met Jack as an awkward and quiet college freshman, I misunderstood him to be one of those sorts of people who favors many shallow relationships over a few deep friendships. I believed there to be two sorts of people in the world and thought that Jack belonged to the first group, the extroverts. Extroverts, I believed, gave small pieces of themselves to others, but lacked real depth in their interactions. This I saw as a sort of social sluttiness. To bare one’s whole soul to complete strangers was an act that I considered almost immoral. I belonged to the group I labeled introverts, cautious souls reluctant to open up but who in time would nurture fuller and deeper relationships. Eventually, a series of moments alerted me to the fact that Jack was, in fact, an introvert, weird and quirky in a wonderful way. Gradually I came to the realization that my categories were horseshit. Jack naturally belonged to both groups, easily able to engage in pleasant and meaningless small talk but also possessed of idiosyncrasies that he only showed to those he trusted.
One of the breakthrough moments in our friendship occurred in a hotel room in West Yellowstone while we lay drifting off to sleep after an exhausting day of skiing. In one of those peculiar silences that occurs when people lying awake in close proximity believe the other to be asleep, a lamp fell suddenly with a loud crash. I lay shocked by the sudden noise for a moment wondering whether Jack was awake and whether he would say something. Several moments later, Jack whispered into the potent silence. “Demons,” he said, and we burst into hysterical laughter. I consider that to be the moment I met the real Jack Steele.
The author and Jack Steele (l-r) in New Zealand wearing jorts
Today, high on the snowy ridge above Jackson, the adventures in Yellowstone and New Zealand seem vague and distant fairytales. I wonder whether Jackson will be the same, whether all adventures that are vivid and thrilling in the moment are doomed to become blurry memories. I comfort myself, though, with the existence of the sacred friendships.
The sting of wind-whipped snowflakes shakes me from my reverie. Two sharp clicks as I step into my bindings, and it’s time to drop in. Gravity takes hold as we plunge off the back of the ridge into the trees and the unknown.
When you’re having fun in the mountains, it’s easy to forget that you are in a dangerous environment. Sometimes we love nature so much that we forget it doesn’t give two shits about us. The veneer of beauty lying on the surface belies the harshness hidden beneath. When prudence is lost in the midst of excitement and camaraderie, accidents inevitably happen.
We stick to the trees, avoiding open faces where the risk of avalanches is higher. As we speed through the large pines, hollering as we go, conditions are strange and variable. In some spots there is enough powder that we float freely, effortlessly on top. Then suddenly, our skis scrape the uneven, icy bumps hidden below, throwing us off balance. To ski these conditions well requires a fine balance of confidence and caution. Unfortunately, one member of our band has decidedly more confidence than caution.
Our hoots and hollers sound approval as Kowalski rips a series of powder-blasting turns through a stand of ponderosa pines. Suddenly, his skis catch an edge on an icy bump, and he’s sliding without control down the mountainside. The cheers don’t even have time to die in our throats by the time he smacks, with sickening force, into a large tree. My stomach drops as we all rush over to his prone, groaning form.
Kowalski insists of course that he’s completely fine, but he is unable to put any weight on his left leg, and we can see he is shaking. His silence alone is telling, given his normal enthusiastic chatter. We all know it’s up to us to get him down the mountain; in the backcountry skiers are responsible for their own safety and well-being. If he’s unable to ski down, we will be in a tight spot.
Luckily, we’re only a few hundred feet above the highway, and Kowalski is able to slowly make his way down the mountain on one ski. Jack supports him from the downhill side to prevent him falling on his injured leg again. It’s a huge relief when we finally reach the car, the snow still falling heavily. We can all tell that it has taken a herculean effort for Kowalski to hold it together and make it down the hill, the strain apparent in his pain-drawn face. It breaks my heart to see happy-go-lucky Kowalski physically broken, like seeing a wild, free spirited animal tamed. Later, when Eliot’s father, an orthopedic surgeon, tells Kowalski his tibia is broken, he’s relieved that at least his knee is intact. He’s told he will be on crutches for six weeks.
The next day, I see Kowalski taking a couple of wobbly steps. Logical or not, conducive to his health or not, I can’t help but admire his indomitable spirit. That night, we head to the Virginian for karaoke, clad in bright shirts and tight-fitting jorts. Kowalski crutches fearlessly into the bar past sour-looking locals nursing PBR’s and booted cowboys playing pool. A few ugly-looking fellows from Idaho go out of their way to try and start a fight, issuing a number of unrepeatable homophobic slurs, in particular protesting the length or lack thereof of our jorts. A line from Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” springs to my mind: “The world is full of bastards…” He was right about that. Instead of resorting to violence, we opt to fight out battles on the karaoke stage. I can say with assurance that Jackson Hole has never seen a more spirited or fearless rendition of Tinder’s “Lips of an Angel” than the one we gave that night. Crutches became props for air guitar solos, and though I think it likely that everyone in the bar but us saw as utter fools, even they had to respect how little we cared for their opinions and how much we cared for each other.
The next morning we drive back to Salt Lake, beginning our trip eastwards and homewards. During the long travel I reflect on my gratitude for the journey that is concluding. I’m not a religious person by any means, but I do feel that if any experience is transcendent, it is a day spent in the mountains or an evening playing music with people you love. I muse happily on a great week that flashed by doing just those things.
In the outrageous and offensive film “Team America: World Police”, there is one moment that strikes me as particularly poignant. In the scene, Lisa is torn between her love for Gary and her reluctance to risk the pain of losing him.
“Lisa: Promise me you’ll never die.
Gary: You know I can’t promise that.
Lisa: If you did that, I would make love to you right now.
Gary (slowly, with great sincerity): I promise that I will never die.”
The lesson that we can take away from this isn’t just that we will say anything to get in someone’s pants (though that is certainly valid). Though Gary’s promise is quite humorous, it’s also completely wrong. Every adventure, including our lives, must come to an end sooner or later. Jackson Hole is now a mere memory, and it’s impossible to relive the same adventure twice. What we can bring forward, to the present and to every future moment of our lives is the attitude we adopted there: an attitude of embracing the unknown, rolling with the punches, seeking out fulfillment actively, and loyal friendship as an ideal.