Monday, March 24, 2008

The Assurance Experience Brings

When we started in at Jackson Ski Touring a number of years ago, we were all intimidated because they made such a deal about being The Big Time. We were convinced that they were indeed all that, and that our own little cow town operation was just a clown college by comparison.

After eight seasons I can tell you that Jackson Ski Touring is just a clown college with a bigger budget, better advertising and a fantastic case of narcissistic myopia. Those are big words, and I understand some may find such complicated language offensive, but that was just one of the lessons learned in Jackson. We encountered a lot of pride in social position, power, wealth and upbringing, but surprising insecurity when it came to vocabulary. Who would have guessed?

The skiing is very good there. With their sole focus on Nordic the product can be the best available anywhere. On the other hand, Nordic being Nordic, resources are always tight. God help you if you show up on a big race weekend and you're not a racer. You're lucky if much of anything other than the race course is groomed, even in the best snow year in decades. What is groomed for you common people may still not be groomed very well. So on that day, Big Time means a big time Nordic race, which is somewhere well below a regional renaissance fair on the scale of real Big Time. The rest of you who believed the advertising of plush trails and steaming cocoa will find the trails rough and something else brown and steaming awaiting you.

A little humility would go a long way. Good luck there.

To be fair, a top-notch Nordic network requires a fair amount of real estate. Privately owned areas tend to have for-profit corporations holding the purse strings and share their acreage with downhill skiing and other attractions, all of which get to feed at the trough well before the cross-country skiers do. Blame yourselves for that, cross-country skiers, because your frugality, not to say maddening cheapness, is legendary. This also pinches the pockets of a white-hat non-profit association trying to hold together an unruly coalition of private land holders and government agencies like the US Forest Circus. So it ain't easy catering to your cheap asses.

This brings up another point. Downhill skiing into the 1960s carried an aura of jet set affluence. Even when ski areas particularly in the United States turned themselves into family attractions, the simple cost of gear and lift tickets made it something not everyone could afford to do.

In the 1970s when cross-country skiing suddenly surged in popularity, part of what propelled it was its low cost. Here was skiing for everyone, for the working class, for anyone with the gumption to snap into the skis and learn, and a few dollars for gear. It was a passport to unlimited winter fun on pennies a day.

All that is true. This makes the amount of northeastern preppy snobbery that oozes around some of these touring centers so surprising and annoying. A whole lot of people need to get over themselves. Many of them are the ones in perfect turtlenecks and V-necked sweaters who grudgingly come down from the Olympian heights of their favorite downhill-ski mountains to mingle with the rabble in the sunny end of winter. But they're around to some degree any time. And trust me, you want to smack 'em.

I also get to deal with certain members of the Jackson staff who will come in dripping with sarcastic comments about their boss one day and stab me in the back to gain his favor on another. I start to think I'm in the government of some superpower during the Cold War rather than selling toys to fun-loving recreational athletes.

Many time-honored traditions of the ski area, Nordic or downhill, can't survive in the modern economy. Take the Wax Grunt, for instance. Traditionally, people who never wax their own skis could show up at a ski area, hand their planks to the Wax Grunt, who would lather them up for a couple of bucks and send the happy skier out the door. The skier was oblivious to the fact that one quick and crappy wax job every year or two really does nothing for their bases. The Wax Grunt would go back to whatever other grunt duties occupied him until the next needy skier pulled in with some crusty, abused bases and an inaccurate notion of their proper care and feeding.

Wax Grunt economics are based on quick turnaround. Good waxing takes longer than someone slapping crap on a cold wet base in ten minutes can really devote. The instawax is dying a slow death. I wish I could speed it on its way to oblivion. I'm doing my best to jab lances into its scarred white blubber.

Ah yes...blubber. Don't get me started about the excess avoirdupois lugged around by certain luminaries of the sport well past their prime. To be fair yet again, because I have trouble being any other way, many top-notch bicycle mechanics have such lousy personal habits that they probably couldn't survive a long, hard bike ride. Many technical experts and coaches learned so much about good performance because they themselves were never able to produce one. In studying their own failures they became adept at advising those with the real talent on their way to the top echelons in whatever activity they pursued. The thing about teachers being those who can't perform has some merit.

We're all burnt out at the end of a long season. I would say it had been a strenuous one, but since many on the staff at Jackson Ski Touring think the retail crew is a bunch pampered slackers, I will lay no claim to have worked hard. In fact, one weird thing about this long, incredibly snowy season is that customer volume has not been that huge. I look forward to seeing regional and national industry figures to find out if the volume was dispersed over a large number of available outlets or if everyone noted the same curious shrinkage.

Hard to say right now what next year holds. I am truly ready for anything up to and slightly beyond the bounds of reason. Not to say I would comply with unreasonable demands, just that not much would surprise me from the administration of clown college.

No comments: