Bridger Bowl, Bozeman, Montana

John Myers sort of stole my thunder. Now, before you get all upset with me, I’m not blaming a fellow scribe for pilfering a story idea. John came up with his storyline all on his own. Nothing nefarious. On that, I need to be clear. And damn, as I said in my post on Facebook, he did a marvelous job reporting the genesis and longevity of the Ski Hut’s annual trip to Bridger Bowl in Montana. Exceptional feature story, is what I’d say. But here’s the thing: I was thinking, while riding the chairlift at Bridger this year, my left knee bone on bone from 44 years of racing, moguls, too much Munger girth, and old age, my low back screaming from just below where I had a spinal fusion 30 years ago, Man I should write an essay about this trip. How family oriented, how friendly, how laid back, how multi generational the whole vibe is. I was pretty sure I’d sit down some morning after I returned from the fifteen hour car ride across Montana and North Dakota and Minnesota to tackle the story. Until.

Back home, catching up on my newspaper reading in my easy chair (after digging out from the big snows God “gifted” us while we were gone) I learned I was too late. “Damn it,” I muttered, loud enough for Rene’ to hear, “the DNT beat me to the punch.” My wife looked up from a stack of crossword puzzles (all clipped by yours truly from the same stack of newspapers I was wading through) and said, “Oh?” “John Myers wrote a nice article about the annual Ski Hut trip.” Not wanting to appear to be a whiner, I posted a link to the piece on FB and advised Rene’ that she “really needed to read it.” She did: she enjoyed it as much as I did. I also posted that I wouldn’t be writing anything about the trip because, well, because it had already been handled. But here’s the thing: after thinking it through, I figured maybe folks might appreciate an essay written by someone who’s been on 12 of the last 15 trips (that’s an estimate; don’t quote me on it). So here goes.

After a short stop in Williston, ND to see our son Dylan, his wife Shelly, and our two-year-old granddaughter, Saxon, we resume the long grind west in the Jeep. We left Duluth in sub-zero cold on Friday morning and arrive at the Comfort Inn in Bozeman, the hotel Wes Neustal and his son Scott (of Ski Hut fame) have reserved rooms for 150-200 Duluthians and their friends for over twenty years, late Sunday afternoon to the same Arctic freeze we left behind. Here’s the thing about the Comfort Inn. No, it’s not slopeside. It’s a half-hour drive to Bridger Bowl from the hotel. But it’s cheap (thanks to preferential rates Gene, the owner charges his friends from Minnesota), has a spectacular complimentary breakfast, is close to all of Bozeman’s shopping, eateries, and places of libation. Plus, it’s only an hour to Big Sky, if one is so inclined. But this is, in all respects, a family trip. That’s how Wes Neustal and his late wife Shirley conceived of the event; setting it during President’s Week so school-aged kids can join their parents and learn the joys of real mountain skiing. Scott and his wife, Kathleen, and the staffs of the Ski Hut and the Comfort Inn, have continued this tradition in spades.

We have four sons. One year, we convinced all four, (along with their wives and children) to make the trip. That was a highlight for Rene’ and I: having all four of our boys in the mountains, skiing as a family. This year, only Matt, our oldest, his wife Lisa (a non-skier but a trouper none-the-less) and their three kids; Adrien (6), Avery (3) and Ari (1) joined us. They got a late start thanks to the God-of-all-things in Minnesota: youth hockey. So Rene’ and I take to the hills at Bridger on Monday without them. It is, as I’ve said, below zero. But such weather can’t daunt rugged Duluthians, right?

-8F at Bridger but who cares?

Matt and Lisa and the kids arrive on Monday evening. My sister Ann, her husband Dave, and their two lively, lovely teenage daughters, Maddie and Em, have already skied a day by the time the rest of us arrive. The girls, who alternate between snowboarding and skiing, stick to skis in the high mountains. More control and with that, the possibility of outback treks to the very top of the mountain. The families take their time getting to the hill. But by noon, the main lodge at Bridger is full of Minnesotans recounting their downhill exploits, chattering away in faux Canadian to the amusement of the Montanans who’re also braving the cold.


Matt and Lisa’s boys take lessons, though Avery is a reluctant student and learns more from his Auntie Ann, his cousins Maddie and EM, and old Grandpa, than he does from the professionals. On the other hand, Adrien proves to be not only an adept student but a natural athlete. After one lesson, he’s ready for the blue runs: the steeper intermediate terrain. So I take him to the top of Pierre’s Knob.

Adrien on Pierre’s Knob

Avery on the main slope after lessons with Grandpa and Annie

Wednesday, we take a break from the cold and introduce Adrien to cross country skiing at the Cross Cut facility just up the road from Bridger. Again, he takes to it like a duck to water. We put in three plus miles on beautifully groomed trails and get in, as Rene’ likes to say, “our steps” for the day. Afterwards, we drive with Matt and the two boys to Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley, about an hour’s trip from Bozeman, to laze around in the naturally heated outdoor pools of the spa. We join a throng of other Duluthians-including my sister’s family and her friends-under an open blue sky. After a long soak we attempt a family picture outside the Chico Saloon. Avery is having none of it. “But Grandpa, I hate pictures,” he whines. Grandpa says: “Get in the picture or no skiing tomorrow for you.” So I guess what you see below is the Munger version of a compromise.

Avery’s attempt at “cooperation”


On the drive back to the Comfort Inn, as Matt’s Tahoe speeds along Highway 89, a memory-one that will never fade-is made. I’m looking at oodles of deer, some of which are standing on top of giant, round hay bales munching away. It’s an odd sight, to be sure, to see deer grazing ten feet above frozen ground. But that’s not the memory I’m talking about. A small stream, open due to the warm waters of the valley’s geothermal properties, follows the course of the highway. Or rather, the roadway follows the stream. In any event, out of the corner of my eye, I see something remarkable, astonishing, and, quite frankly, inexplicable. A deer has launched itself over that stream, soaring a full eight feet above water, attempting to leap from bank to bank. I see what I think is another deer trailing the lead animal. But then my brain recognizes the scene for what it is: prey and predator, a death struggle in mid-air. The second animal lashes out with its right paw. It’s then I note the long tail, the laid back ears, the feline face, the distinctive markings. “It’s a f_____ing cougar!” I blurt out, forgetting my two grandsons are with Rene’ in the back seat. I’ve never seen a mountain lion outside of a zoo. I’m beyond excited by the drama playing out in that stream bed as the Tahoe speeds past. I have no idea whether the deer made the leap or not. Matt’s attempt to stop the car and return to the scene is for naught.

It looked a lot like this…

My wife and I avoid injury. We eat well, drink a few adult beverages, laugh a lot, tell tall tales, and bond with family and friends on the hill, in the Bridger lodge, and during apres ski time; the Ski Hut hosting a banquet where “fabulous” prizes, including some Munger books, are awarded in a drawing. And then, it’s Saturday morning. We pack up the Grand Cherokee and head home.

As a teenager, I grew up traveling to the Rockies to ski. My mom and dad brought me with them on a number of trips sponsored by the Continental Ski Shop in Duluth to Colorado. Despite being an alpine racer, it was on those trips that I really learned the sport.

The author, Kirk Vesterstein, Dr. Mark Neustal, Scott “Potter” Neustal, and Scott Vesterstein at Snowmass, circa 1970.

Mark racing, circa 1972, Snowmass.

But the beauty, the joy, the family-oriented aspect of these Ski Hut sponsored trips, the brainchild of Wes Neustal-the 98 year old patriarch of this fine tradition-is that we all, related by blood or not, are family. It’s that simple. What a wonderful idea in this time of controversy, arguing, mean spiritedness, and discord.

So, with apologies to Mr. Myers, that’s my report from the road. Until our next visit to Bozeman…

Peace.

Mark

Ari Munger can’t wait until she joins us on skis!

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