Unmade Memories, 5280, June 2020

CovidClosingDayThis essay was published as part of a feature package entitled "Colorado In The Time of COVID-19."

On March 14, about a month before the Steamboat ski area was scheduled to close for the season, resort officials announced they were ceasing operations, effective the next morning. The shutdown wasn’t a surprise. Social distancing efforts had been underway for a day or two, and in fact, I had gone backcountry skiing that morning because I was leery about sharing the gondola with potential COVID-19 carriers. Shuttering the resort struck me as the right thing to do, but the news also filled me with longing.

Normally, the ski season ends with the ritual of Closing Day. It’s a mashup of silly stunts, beer salutes, and live bands playing to sun-hungry snow riders who bare too much skin and wear too little sunscreen.

Pond-skimming is de rigueur. Laughably impractical vehicles, like snowblades and monoboards, get dragged out for clownish effect. And if you’re not in costume, you are a buzzkill. My Closing Day standby is a fuchsia-and-yellow striped trench coat and an electric pink wig, but I’ve also been known to wear fake black hair with an off- shoulder shirt of red sequins. The Best One Piece Award goes—in perpetuity—to my friend, Steve, who always sports an ’80s masterpiece of neon colorblocking.

“None of that would happen on any day but Closing Day,” Steve said recently. He’s right: Closing Day suspends every- day expectations. It’s when we let our alter egos out of their cages, dress them in garish colors, and free them to do things we’d never approve of on any other Sunday. That makes it the ski-town version of Mardi Gras. And like New Orleans’ signature street bash, Closing Day is about boozing and regalia and gorging on pleasures before the fast; after all, our Lent is the snowless summer. But it’s about even more than that.

Across the Centennial State, at more than a dozen ski resorts big and small, Closing Day is when we pay collective tribute to the season’s greatest days. My friend, Jacqueline, likes to cruise around the mountain savoring last runs: her last line down North St. Pats, her last plunge down the Chutes. I like to stand on Sunshine Peak and gaze out at the whitewashed vastness that surrounds Steamboat. I revisit the hallowed places where powder cascaded over my head and I felt kissed by God.

And I bid farewell to the resort’s quirky wintertime community. Some years, I join in the long-standing tradition of hiking up to the radio tower on Mt. Werner to pass a bottle with familiar faces. A few are people who I know well enough to text on a powder morning: “You headed up?” Others I just recognize by their ski clothes, though after months of seeing these resort regulars on the runs, they feel like friends. There’s Bearded Dude, who tucks his dreadlocks into a crazy top hat. Cheery Guy, always in his green Marmot jacket. And Unsmiling Skier with the graying mullet, whom
I often notice as he’s bombing down Surprise. I don’t know how they identify me, but we are nonetheless members of the same tribe—and Closing Day lets me high-five those characters before we all go gloveless for the summer.

Closing Day can even be a time to say more final goodbyes. Two years ago, friends of mine mourned the loss of Chris “Johnsie” Johns, a ripping skier, bike-shop owner, and golden-hearted guy who gifted bikes to underprivileged kids at Christmastime. The 51-year-old had died unexpectedly from epilepsy in early March 2018, but his bud- dies scattered his ashes from the tower on Closing Day then skied down by headlamp after dark.

Personally, I prefer to log my final run
at dusk, on one of the west-facing pistes where I can free-fall into a pink and orange sky. But this year’s sundowner didn’t feel the same. A few days after the resort shut down but before stay-at-home orders would’ve made me think better of it, I skinned up to the summit and found it silent, as it always is after the lifts quit spinning. Yet something was missing.

“There was no closure to it,” Jacqueline says, describing her own abridged ski sea- son. Over the following week, some locals staged their own Closing Day celebrations on the ski area, hiking grills up onto the runs and cracking cold ones. The parties clearly contradicted the spirit of the closure (beer-fueled close-talking hardly qualifies as social distancing), but I guess while ski bums might not require fancy furniture or cars or homes, they did feel they needed a proper season finale.

It might seem frivolous to insist on such moments, particularly when Coloradans are losing their lives and livelihoods to the new coronavirus. “What did I miss? A hang- over?” Jacqueline jokes about being denied our Closing Day. But we also missed the rite of passage that helps us close the door on one season and venture into the next. This need to honor occasions—to timestamp our lives—is not reserved
for Colorado’s skiers, of course. There’s a broader assortment of mileposts that mark life’s chapters, and COVID-19 hijacked those, too.

Children observed birthdays without playmates to help blow out candles. High schoolers grieved over the prom photos that were never taken. College grads lost their opportunities to launch flocks of mortarboards into the air. New restrictions at hospitals prevented us from bearing witness at our families’ births and deaths. Some of these events may seem expendable—after all, those co-eds still graduated—but as moments of collective caring, they matter. Without them, we feel walled off from our communities, regardless of whether we find our kinship among ski bums or blood relatives. And we mourn the memories that we never got to make.

Here in Colorado, Closing Day is just one such memory. Fortunately, winter
will return, and I suspect that this season’s cliffhanger ending will only spike our anticipation for the beginning of the next one. Opening Day 2020 will offer much more than the opportunity to skid down sheer ice. It’ll give us the chance to gather. And if we didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to be able to convene with friends—even those whose real names we don’t know— we certainly do now.