Monday, March 29, 2010

Bluebird Skiing and Stars & Stripes

Alpine Meadows is our weekend Mecca. We spend considerable time and money to get there for two days of “bluebird” skiing, accurately forecasted by Michelle’s bluebird sightings at breakfast time each morning.

An unpretentious mountain, people come from near and far – The Bay or France, for instance – to ski, nothing more. With a deliberate lack of fussy to-do, of shopping or ritzy restaurants, its raison d’être, its no-frills vision is clear. “Skeezy” snowboarders, skiing purists, and families of four are all waiting to mount the main lift, called Summit, to take advantage of the bounty from the previous night’s blizzard: powder. A lift attendant, using her pink, plastic toy wands, directs the medley of enthusiasts to the “chair” when their turn is up, and a mother assures her daughter, who is concerned about the upcoming seating arrangement on the five-person chair, that is doesn’t matter who sits where.

Atop Alpine, on top of the world, the sun and relatively warm weather are somewhat negated by the blasts of 45mph wind. But we tuck our heads, dismount from our skis, and hike up further to the out-of-bounds terrain – away from the crowds, the “pizza-french fries” novices, the week’s residual stresses, and perhaps life itself, which we’ve seemingly ascended above in euphoric states and high altitudes. Back on our skis, we traverse a looming cornice, careful to avoid what the ski patrol (wearing his distinguishable red jacket and his mountain-man mustache) calls a “snow creep,” which is the petrifying, 20-foot deep hollow that has formed between the ridge and the gargantuan snowdrift that sits next to it. It’s beneath the surface, but it’s top-of-mind as I stand, ungrounded, on the snowdrift; that is until I neglect it to fully absorb the view of untracked wilderness to my right and bluer-than-blue Lake Tahoe to my left.

We take the plunge, a leap of faith. We plunge down the cornice through blissful puffs of white powder, softening moguls, funnily named gullies, and patches of pine tree obstacles, which are a lot more fun to navigate than city traffic and daunting chore lists. But the traffic and chores are so far from the threshold of the mind because these gratifying days at Alpine leave you giddy and carefree, with a “raccoon face” (the result of wearing goggles combined with sun and wind burn) that beams uncontrollably.

What makes the Alpine Meadows experience even more savory is its après-ski gathering on the large, inviting deck at the bottom of the lift. (Okay, maybe there is a little more to Alpine than the skiing, but why not loosen your ski boots and bask in all of the day’s glory on the deck, in the sun, margarita in-hand, with your friends who recap the highlights?) Making the excitement on the deck even more palpable is the young, cavalier gentleman who seems to be somewhat of an American hero. He stands atop the cliffs that are within view of the people on the deck (and we are within his earshot), and he is wearing an American flag tee shirt and carrying a pole bearing the Stars and Stripes. “That can’t be safe, skiing with that pole,” I say, and a gentleman at the table next to me simply replies, “Darwinism”. The hero waves the flag proudly and then, having heard our yells of approval and cheer, takes the plunge over the jagged rocks. He does not land the jump smoothly and is roughed up just a bit, but he is back on his feet a second later, waving that flag even higher.

Long live the hero! Long live America!
Long live Alpine Meadows!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tides of Change

December brought an end to a year that both topped the charts and sunk to new lows, and it also brought some new beginnings. Most importantly, I became an auntie on New Years Eve, just a couple of hours before 2010. My sister and her husband welcomed Finn Patrick McCormick to this wide world, and the $3,000+ tax break that came with their little bundle of wonderment. (I, meanwhile, was popping bottles of champagne with friends in Nevada City, California - at a cozy cottage and at a saloon called Chief Crazy Horse -celebrating Finn's arrival from a distance as best I could).

And speaking of new beginnings and the wide world, I started my role as Assistant Country Manager at Geographic Expeditions in mid-December, wrapping up my last shifts as a barista in the mornings and training at GeoEx in the afternoons. In contrast to last December, when I was gearing up to embark on a journey of several months around South America, this December saw me getting established again in San Francisco (though I use the word "established" quite loosely since it seems paradoxical to describe a wanderlustful drifter like myself doing anything along the lines of settling down).

In a fantastical world, my being an Assistant Country Manager means leading trips around the world to the "beguiling destinations" that GeoEx visits, when in fact it means being a sort of glorified receptionist. Yes, answering phones and running the mail is not what I had pictured for myself either, but it's, as they say, a foot in the door. I fill catalog and itinerary requests with a smile, and I drive to the post office in the 1987 Dodge Caravan with its interior that smells strangely of Play-Doh and its bumper sticker that reads, "My other car is a pair of boots".

I can't say I'm not a little soured by the fact that I could have done this job when I was 16, but the perks of working at GeoEx make the whole experience pretty darn sweet. The office, a former hospital building, resides in the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio, a national park that served as an army post for 218 years. On nicer days I take twenty minutes to bike to work, coasting past fragrant eucalyptus trees and boasting palm trees and sometimes seeing blue herons perched in the tall grass along our driveway. Inside the office there are large, vivid prints of photos taken in all corners of the world, and plants, worn travel books, and ornate tapestries cover the shelves. Friday afternoons typically feature Planet Earth screenings or slideshows of employees' recent trips, and hopefully I'll have the chance to schedule a familiarization, "FAM," trip in the near future.

And so, while my current gig at GeoEx may be just a stepping stone, it is a nice, sizeable stone, and even though I'm performing elementary tasks like taking the mail to the post office, I can relish the views of the Golden Gate Bridge (and, on some mornings, the sound of the fog horns that are audible from my desk) while doing them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mojo Come and Gone?

Remy, the French-American, only-child owner of Mojo Bicycle Cafe, hired me as a barista despite my not having had any experience, and let me tell you, my two months as a barista was an experience.

As the new guy I, naturally, was gifted with the most sought-after shift - the one starting at 6:15 in the morning. Waking up at 5:15 and biking to work (a mere four-minute commute) in the dark five days a week went against my grain but taught me that I could get by, even if painfully, on just a few hours of sleep if need be. And the real beauty of the early-bird shift?: being finished at 12:30 each day.

Not only did I learn my limits of sleep and my appreciation for being a free bird in the afternoons; I also learned during my tenure at Mojo that:
1. consistently pouring the perfect shot of espresso is not an easy feat; in fact, it is an art form that is pretty exacting. The shot should be "tamped," for instance, with thirty pounds of pressure, and a good one-ounce shot should pour for no longer than thirty seconds.
2. the only difference between a cappucino and a latte is the consistency of the milk. Who'd a thunk it?
2. people love to feel like they're king of the castle, and making them feel this way is as easy as, "Good morning, Susie Q. Would you like your ususal decaf soy latte?"
3. baristas are not tipped the way bartenders are. What's with the double standard, folks?
4. opening a coffee shop with only a handful of pennies in your register (because your co-worker who closed shop the night before accidentally pocketed the keys to the cash boxes) is pretty trying, but yours truly managed to pull it off.
5. opening a coffee shop with your coworker named Jesus, who's almost always hungover (and who spends a good part of the shift getting sick in the bathroom), is pretty trying, but yours truly managed to pull it off.
6. being a barista is a lot of fun. I relished getting espresso grounds all over my clothes; listening to my eclectic Pandora station throughout my shift; getting hopped up on caffeinated beverages; being a part of the SF bike culture (and getting free tune-ups by great mechanics); and eating free pesto-mozzerella sandwiches and other free, tasty things at the end of each shift. And did I mention being finished by 12:30 each day?

So why did I give up my lush barista lifestyle? Well, once again a little (or big?) fortuity was at play, and Alice Howell, my good friend - or should I say, "guardian angel"?, got me moving in the right direction by getting me a job at a high-end, adventure travel company. If it weren't for that, my complacency may have led me to be a lifelong barista; I was a little apprehensive about losing my Mojo, but I said good riddance to predawn hours and micro-management and hello to Geographic Expeditions.