Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Tribute to My Second Home

Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

Two things immediately came to my mind as I read the name of that town in June of 2006, accompanied by the name, “Samuel Stapleton,” my new college roommate who didn’t have a Facebook page at the time so I assumed he was probably a weirdo.

1) “Where the fuck is that?” and 2) “Who the fuck could possibly live there?”

(Many of my readers – and by “readers” I mean family members and their peers – have complained about the language usage of recent posts. I promise I will work on that, but I’ve had this introduction in my head for weeks now, and for some reason I need the F-bombs for emphasis and self-satisfaction. I’m sorry).

Little did I know that that crazy-sounding town with an “o” after every consonant would become like a home away from home for me.

As you can probably tell, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection over the past several months, leading up to and following graduation. And what I’ve realized, among many other things, is just how important Oconomowoc has been to me.

As many college students are well aware of, your freshman roommate can make or break your first few weeks of school, perhaps even one’s whole first semester. Needless to say, the roommate-choosing gods were on my side when they selected Sam to sleep across from me in room 472A of Sellery Hall.

Sam and I instantly became best friends, doing virtually everything together, from lifting to eating to playing basketball at the SERF. Not only that, but his buddy, Martin, also from Oconomowoc, lived on our floor. Martin – a baseball aficionado even more than myself – and I also became instant friends, which made my transition to Madison infinitely easier, setting the tone for my subsequent four years there, I now realize.

I remember Sam and Martin inviting me to play volleyball during Welcome Week with them and some other Coonies (the Oconomowoc High School mascot) down the street at Witte Hall. Right then and there, almost upon arrival, I had a new circle of friends, several of whom I currently consider some of my best friends, like Conor Farley (my sophomore year roommate, whom I also spent all of sophomore spring break with, with just him and his family at Big Sky, Montana), Jake Silkey and Drew Olson (who wasn’t present at that particular volleyball game, but I still consider one of my better friends from the past four years). Much of the difficulties in transitioning from high school to college revolve around the friend-making process. And because of Sam and Marty, I never really had to exert much effort doing that. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Not only that, but Sam’s parents, “Papa Stapes” and “Megadoo,” according to Sam, became my pseudo-parents, telling me that anything I needed, not to hesitate to call. You can’t really imagine the kind of comfort that gives an 18-year-old kid 1,100 miles away from his real parents. For that, I am also extremely grateful, lucky and humbled.

I spent July 3 of this year in Oconomowoc skiing behind Conor’s boat and watching the fireworks at night. In between those events, we went to Bergie’s (another Coonie) house for a few adult beverages, where I was greeted by all the Coonies and several of their parents. It didn’t hit me until hours later what that truly meant to me.

As Conor drove us back to shore after the fireworks celebration, I sat at the front of the boat by myself, realizing what had just happened, not only that day, but the entire four years that had just flown by. I went to a party in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and was greeted by dozens of friends and parents who knew and recognized me. Yes, I now have dozens of friends from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. How many kids from the Boston suburbs can say that? I think it’s pretty cool.

Like I mentioned earlier, Oconomowoc has been my home away from home for four years, solely because of the selflessness of the people that live there, people who welcomed me to their state with open arms when I arrived not knowing what a brat (the sausage-like food, not the spoiled kid) or a cheese curd was. For that, I can never repay any of you.

Stapes, Marty, Drew, Conor, Bergie, Fron, Nate, Hydro, Stevo – I’m sure I’m missing some names, and for that I apologize – you guys have been like brothers to me for four years. Thanks for making me one of the guys. It has meant more to me than you guys realize. I didn’t wear purple and yellow in high school, but when I’m with you guys, I feel like I did. Real friends like that are hard to come by, but they’re impossible to ever forget.

Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Who the fuck could possibly live there?

I know dozens. It’s my home away from home. Thanks, fellas.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Chronicles of Chile

As I walked down what I believe was the second fairway at Belmont Country Club on Thursday, July 22 at 7:15am, my uncle turns to me and says, “Being a member of a private golf course is one of the greatest luxuries of life.”

“Yeah, no shit,” I thought to myself, “so is having a Lamborghini and a personal masseuse,” but I only chuckled instead.

“I’m serious,” he said.

“Yeah, I know,” I replied, the only thing I could muster out of my mouth in response to one of the most obvious statements ever uttered before 8am on a weekday.

Of course he was right; belonging to a private golf course is fantastically luxurious; it doesn’t get much better than that. Except perhaps belonging to a private ski club in the middle of the Andes Mountains. This came to my attention last week, as my experience at Portillo, Chile was comparable to being part of exactly that: a private ski club in the middle of the Andes Mountains.

Let’s start this story off properly: How the fuck did I end up skiing in Portillo, Chile in the middle of the summer? Good question.

After coming back from the Dominican Republic for Spring Break, my roommate Jordan and I started thinking about going on a sweet trip before starting work in August. At first Thailand was the destination of choice, but after some unstable social settings in Bangkok, Thailand was soon crossed off the list. The next best option, we decided, was South America. So I started frantically perusing Orbitz.com for flights to Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, you name it.

Rio would be fuckin’ sick,” we decided. “Let’s do it.”

Fast-forward to June. To make a long story less long Jordan found a super-cheap ticket to Costa Rica and decided to go on a gnarley surfing trip instead. I wasn’t mad at him for ditching me, but I don’t surf, so I wasn’t going.

“Fuck it,” I thought. “If he’s going surfing then I’m going skiing.”

Four weeks later I found myself ascending into the Andes.

I arrived in Santiago, Chile on Saturday morning, July 24 at 8am. While waiting in line to pay the country entrance fee (who knew?), I started talking with a 30-year-old French-Canadian guy from Montreal named Jean-Philippe (JP), whom I could tell was also going skiing. The conversation went something like this:

“Where are you going skiing?” I asked.

“Portillo,” he replied.

“Nice, me too. Are you on the 12:00 shuttle?”

“No I’m renting a car. Want to come with me?”

I could either wait four hours for my shuttle to come pick me up, or I could hop in the car with a complete stranger 5,200 miles away from home. Naturally, I chose the latter.

That decision turned out to be of the crucial variety. See, the road from Santiago to Portillo is a narrow, windy one as you get through the Andes foothills. When the weather is questionable, they close down the road from both directions (which connects Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina, for the record). And literally minutes after JP and I arrived in Portillo, it started snowing. Had I waited for my shuttle, the road would have been closed until Sunday morning. Snow was accumulating on my head as I sat in the hot tub before dinner. Tomorrow was going to be a good day.

Most people dream of winning the lottery or getting invited to the Playboy Mansion or going on a date with Jessica Alba. Skiers dream of a truckload of snow overnight and cloudless blue skies in the morning. That was Sunday.

We got about eight inches Saturday night and Sunday, the sky was a shade of blue I thought only existed in pictures. JP and I got face shots on the Condor and El Caracara lifts – four-person poma-like surface lifts that access steep, expert terrain – all day long. What was insane about Portillo, as I alluded to earlier, was that there were no more than 20 of us skiing the expert terrain all week. My group (to be explained later) and a telemark camp were some of the only ones shredding the steep stuff, which made it seem like a private resort. It was Brazilian family ski week (I felt right at home), so the Brazis bombarded the intermediate runs while a select few of us skied the steeps until we could barely walk up stairs at 3pm. Every day for seven days.

See, Gabe (a 22-year-old kid going to Northwestern med school in Chicago; small world, tell me about it) and I decided that Portillo is like a cruise ship with skiing. And Wednesday afternoon I opened Snow magazine and read the same description. At the Portillo Hotel (I stayed at the hostel-like Inca Lodge across the street, but the amenities were the same), you get four meals a day and access to the hot tub and gym at your pleasure. There’s a bar and a discothèque in hotel, too. You see the same people everywhere and there’s nowhere to go but the mountain or the hotel. Like I said, a cruise ship in the Andes.

Monday was a similar day. They opened Lake Run for the first time all year, so Gabe, JP and I skied that four times before lunch, making tracks each time while looking up at that same fantasy-like blue sky. Lake Run is a steep run that funnels into Inca Lake. It looks like you’re going to ski into the lake, before you have to traverse through a narrow path through a several-hundred foot cliff to get back to the lift. The traverse sucks, but the terrain is worth the trek back to civilization.

More on Portillo. You can stay in one of three lodging options. The mountain capacity is 400 people (thus the private feel). It’s a small mountain but for experts, the lines are virtually unlimited because of the expanse of the expert runs. Everything funnels back into the Hotel area, so walking is minimal from the lodge to the hotel to the lifts. It’s a very unique place, unlike any other ski resort I’ve ever seen.

For some dumbass reason, JP left Portillo on Tuesday to continue his Chilean ski tour, leaving Gabe and I to shread alone. Tuesday, the ski patrols opened Roca Jack – a very steep run accessed by a five-person surface lift – for the first time all year. So we made tracks all morning once again with the telemarkers and once again I couldn’t feel anything below the waist by lunch. Another incredible, cloudless powder day.

That eight inches Saturday night really could not have come at a more opportune time for me. Not only did it make the skiing that much better during an otherwise dry season, so I was told, but it allowed ski patrol to open several areas for the first time that winter. So we were literally getting first tracks of the season for four days on mornings of nothing but blue skies. I literally could not have come at a better time.

Wednesday, the patrol opened several areas to the skier’s right of Roca Jack, which you had to traverse along rock faces to access. Gabe and I made first tracks on Kilometro Lanzado and El Estadio all day long. Another epic day.

Though Gabe and I skied mostly by ourselves the rest of the week, we hung out with some pretty cool people. We mostly hung out with Felipe, a 20-year-old kid from Sao Paulo, Brazil and a 30-year old Argentinean lawyer named Victor. Victor told me that he was a tax attorney in Buenos Aires and that the nickname for that profession is “crow” in Spanish because they pick up all the pieces. I thought that was pretty funny. Anyway, Felipe is the man and I told his mom that I’m coming to visit them in the next 24 months, before Felipe moves to Washington D.C., or so he says. I’m serious; I’m going to visit them.

Thursday and Friday were excellent ski days. Gabe and I skied hard, but the weather wasn’t quite as nice as Sunday-Wednesday and the conditions were, well how skiing gets five days after the last snowfall. For purposes of this story, let’s fast-forward to Saturday.

For many years, it has been my dream to board a helicopter, get dropped off at the top of a mountain and ski down ridiculous terrain. To most, this is referred to as “heli-skiing.” Heli-skiing was available in Portillo. On Wednesday night, I decided I had to do it. Gabe concurred.

We signed up Wednesday night, but the weather didn’t cooperate Thursday or Friday. They only take people in the chopper if the weather is perfect. We were going back to Santiago on Saturday at noon, so Saturday morning was our last chance.

I woke up Saturday morning at 7:45am and rushed to the window of my jail cell-like (OK I like to embellish a little) room. Sun. My heart started racing. At that point I knew I’d be in a helicopter within a few hours.

We had a 9am avalanche briefing in the hotel. Our crew was myself, Gabe, a woman named Natalie whom I skied with on Friday while Gabe was still sleeping, our guide named Craig and of course our ex-Chilean military helicopter pilot named Victor. We were each given an avalanche beacon, which we practiced using before takeoff and macho man Derek was given the backpack with a shovel and probe. Yes, I was the caboose, in charge of saving people’s lives in case of an avalanche. No pressure or anything.

To be honest, the ride may have been cooler than the actual run itself. We were bobbing through the Andes and dropped off at 14,000 feet. The views were insane and the oxygen was scarce. After a few pictures we began our heli run, the culmination of my Chilean ski adventure. That’s where it got interesting.

Craig went down first, followed by Natalie, Gabe and then me, the avalanche life saver. We can only ski one at a time because of the chance that a slide does occur. Craig waves on Natalie and she goes: one, two, three, boom. Face plant. “Fuck!” she screams. Pretty sure Natalie blew her ACL on the fourth turn of the run.

Somehow she makes it down the first face but we still have 3,000 or so vertical feet left in the run and she’s toast. So Craig, Gabe and I stomp out a landing for the helicopter to come pick her up. About an hour after the incident occurred, Victor (the ex-military pilot, not the Argentinean “crow” lawyer) comes back for her, but the chopper can’t land in the unstable snow. So Victor hovers three inches from the surface and Craig basically throws Natalie into the chopper and they’re off. One of the more interesting scenes I’ve ever seen, as I’m half-peering up as the snow whips around in blizzard-like conditions caused by the helicopter.

So Gabe, Craig and I finish the run, carving new tracks with every turn we make. Craig fucked up using my Blackberry video camera so he only shot Gabe and missed me. The run wasn’t super challenging but the overall experience of heli-skiing was incredible.

Victor came to pick us up after our 4,000 vertical foot run. My shuttle was waiting for me at the hotel when I got back to the hotel. Goodbye, Portillo.

Now, Gabe studied abroad in Santiago in the fall of 2009, so he knows the city like a native. So I basically rode his coattails for the next 48 hours until my flight back to Boston (through Atlanta on Delta, in case you were wondering).

Santiago, in my opinion is relatively uninspiring. Granted, it was 40 degrees and raining and I was feeling a little under the weather, so perhaps my point of view is a bit unfairly biased. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the city, met some of Gabe’s Chilean friends and did a bit of site seeing Monday morning before my flight home. What a week. A trip I will surely never forget.

Closing Thoughts

As most of my Facebook friends are aware of, I was constantly posting pictures from Chile on Mark Zuckerberg’s life-changing site. To be honest, I was hesitant to do so; I didn’t want to be obnoxious or come off as bragging or boating about the time I was having, an opportunity that the vast majority of people will never experience in their lifetimes. I was given that opportunity by my family as a graduation present, a gift that I will be forever humbled and grateful for receiving.

But like I said, I was hesitant to post pictures and updates because I didn’t was to come off as bragging, as if I were saying “look what I get to do while you’re at home working.” I knew I was in an extremely fortunate position, but I posted those pictures for what I hoped to be inspiration and motivation for others. I was lucky enough to have the majority of my trip paid for by my selfless family, for the last time in my life. So for me, seeing the world is motivation to work hard, so that I can afford to continue doing it as I grow older. I hope this story and pictures have that effect on people, too.

I was especially concerned about my good friend named Ben, whom I thought of several times while on the chairlifts in Portillo. I knew Ben was struggling in the hospital as I was having, well to put it bluntly, the time of my life in Chile. For that, I felt extreme guilt and discomfort literally every day. But I posted pictures anyway, in hopes of lifting his spirits. Everything but boasting.

I spoke to Ben via Facebook chat on Sunday night when I was back in Santiago and explained to him how I was feeling. He told me that the pictures were in fact inspiration to him and that it indeed was motivating him to get better so that he can one day shred Chilean powder with me, he said. That’s all I needed to hear. Even if everyone else saw my postings as boasting, I was able to lift the spirits of a friend in the midst of a serious health quarrel.

So here’s to Ben. My Chilean adventure is dedicated to you, my friend. And one day let us shred pow together in Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Colorado, Utah, Vermont or wherever you choose, my man. The opportunities are endless; never forget that.

Wherever you choose.