Heavy weather didn’t wash away the colors of skiers skimming trails in the Methow Valley. Occasional wet snow couldn’t dampen the teals and fuschias and yellows of modern outerwear. Petite teardrop packs rode neatly on people’s backs if they carried anything at all. Space age skis with optimized length and shape for easier turning painted the ground with a vibrant color palette.
And there I was, in my red and black, 23-year old North Face shell, everything else black, carrying a black and green, 20-year old Arcteryx pack. I wore my old Karhu half-metal edge, long, pointed skis. It’s not that I don’t own more modern gear. That gear hung neatly in closets, or slept quietly in a drawer.
Why would I reach for old gear when I have new? It’s not stubborn thriftiness, because I already wrote the check to replace my well-worn gear.
And it’s not misplaced attachment to glory days of yore. A long-ago manager taught me how that looks with tales of his youthful exploits as a Yosemite Valley climber. As a new climber, I was very impressed with his conquering El Capitan, but after a few stories, I realized the throwback climber’s clothing and old stories he wore like a badge of honor were all that he had to offer. I wanted to keep living, have new stories to tell.
No, the reason I keep my old gear has to do with memory and familiarity. That pack has traveled to New Zealand twice, Tonga, the Arctic, Costa Rica, Canada, Hawaii a couple times, the Southwest, and the Midwest. It has ridden in airplanes, cars, and carts; hiked, scrambled, skied, and climbed.
Those skis took me on my first trip to Methow Valley 22 years ago, traveling hut to hut in the Rendezvous area, and many other places. The goretex shell- well, that’s been everywhere including the tops of volcanoes.
In a time when powerful people want to turn the world upside down, we’re weathering one piece of bad news after another, and nothing seems steady or logical, we turn to the familiar. My outdoor gear is my memento, my keepsake of a life lived as fully as I could considering I’m not a natural athlete, but naturally work too much.
The fabric of old jackets and packs holds our shape and memories, and worn though it is, provides a reminder that life can make sense, and can bring adventure and joy. Times like these, you are afraid there will be no new memories to be had. You’re hunkered down wondering if you have to protect your finances to avoid future government catastrophe and worrying if you’ll make it through that ultrasound finding or weather your estranged brother’s death if the next stroke is fatal.
The memory of standing on a volcano, tired but triumphant, gazing at a sea of peaks, reminds you that there is a world, and that the ageless mountains will someday shrug off all of humanity in one big heave. It makes the day-to-day anxieties small in relation to the planet. The looming monsters shrink to ants.
But romanticism aside, using old gear has its costs in a way that cradling a family memento does not.
My trusty Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent, the one edition that never had a long enough fly, just can’t keep out the rain anymore. I brought my new Mountainsmith tent on a Montana trip last year just in case.
No waterproofer will revive a goretex membrane that, upon examination under microscope, probably doesn’t exist anymore. I have a newer jacket that traveled to the Arctic with me, because that’s not a place that tolerates bad gear.
And when you beat the camber out of skis, they ride flat and slow on the snow, making you work even on the downhill.
So maybe the trick is to keep making new memories with new gear, and memorialize the old in decorations like the ski fence I drove by on my way here.
There is much to love about the new. The Methow Valley Ski Trails Association has worked hard to remain relevant and to engage new audiences. They offer trails for kids, with illustrated StorySki boards about polar bear polka parties, and sassy animals tempting them to learn about nature and practice ski techniques. I endured my first years of skiing on hand-me-down wooden skis in woolen army surplus knickers and layers of old logging jackets. These kids wear light, warm gear and knitted hats with goat horns, and play all the way down the trail. No grim determination needed here.
There are trails for dogs, and the dogs are good dogs. These aren’t the predatory pooches hopping on your skis and nipping at your calves as you careen downhill. They run with their owners and only approach if invited- and I do invite them, because I love dogs.
There are trails for fat bikes, with beefy snow tires. Trails for skate skiers and snowmobiles. Easy, medium, and hard trails. Trails that the neighbors decorate with crazy pink flamingos.
This weekend is a new start on an old, dead tradition. Friends and I used to ski the Methow Valley every year on the holiday weekend because I share a birthday with dead presidents. Those friends are gone, or quit skiing, or became overwhelmed by life. Heck with that, I figure. I still ski. I still share a birthday with dead presidents who got us government workers a Monday off.
I skied unapologetically in my old gear, and didn’t bother to cover up the scrape on my chin where that argument with a stick ended with a win for the stick. The freedom that comes with not being beautiful is exhilarating, and a stick scab from a speedy maneuver into the woods is a hero’s badge. The memory of flight comes from poling hard downhill to gain speed when the snow is good and the glide wax is fresh.
But next year, maybe next year if I make it through and the country still stands, I’ll bring my new gear, that light gear in brighter colors, and make new memories on the pyre of old traditions and lost ways.