Jay Meehan: Gondola nights
December 10, 2013
I’m only somewhat surprised that what began as a column-length memoir of cavorting at "the resort" during the early 1970s is now in its third installment with no end in sight. It is the 50th anniversary of what is now PCMR after all and the memory floodgates haven’t shown any inclination to reduce the flow.
Night-skiing on Payday had a different flavor, back then. The original Payday Lift had yet to be installed and skiers would access the top of the run by taking the Gondola to the Angle Station. From there, they would disembark, get back in their skis, and push off to a close-by rope tow that, in short order, would deposit them at the top of the Payday run.
At night, the Gondola had a certain cachet about it. It protected you from the elements, of course, but it also protected you from "prying eyes," as it were. It was one of those "what happens in the cabin, stays in the cabin" sort of things. In many ways, the ’60s were still hanging around, especially for many of the recently arrived.
It wasn’t just the Gondola, of course, that gave night skiing its magic back then. I actually got hooked back during my misspent youth in the panhandle of Idaho. Our junior high school ski club would jump on the bus in Kellogg and then drive through Wallace and Mullan on our way to the Lookout Pass ski area for a few hours on the somewhat well-lit slopes. Actually, the many shadows gave it an aura of film-noir.
"Roll Out the Barrel" and other such hits of the day would be blasting from wooden-pole mounted speakers as you felt your way down through the un-groomed snow with visions of hot chili dancing in your head. Back at the Park City Gondola, however, visions of a different sort were providing the attraction.
Having earlier lucked into a house just off the lower skiway where friends could keep their equipment, our digs soon became night-ski central. Not everyone had gear in those days, of course, and, for the most part, they would bring attitude in lieu of skill sets to the table. That never kept them off the slopes, however.
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As the revelry at the house would progress, you’d couldn’t help but notice a neophyte or two help themselves to the ski, pole, and boot cache before heading up toward the Gondola. Some would even return with both skis. We’d usually always find an assortment of errant boards up in the trees after returning from end-of-season Mexico trips.
Checking in with my workmates at the Rusty Nail Saloon also became part of the night-ski drill, of course. After completing a run but before heading back to the house party, I’d alert the bar help and the band, especially Red Mountain when they were playing, that there was an après, après gig going on down behind the Miner’s Hospital, which, although already a boarding house, had yet to become known as the "Palace Flophouse."
These weren’t actually nighttime gang-skis, although I do recall a few ‘dola cabins worth of party-folk heading up at the same time to make a few turns on Payday during that twilight time before darkness. After that, it seems like we would only take off in smaller groups, leaving the others at the house with a beverage-rich countertop and the likes of Otis Redding and Van Morrison on the 8-track player.
There were also times throughout the night-ski season when the arrival of a favorite band at the Rusty Nail would cause our moveable feast to mosey up to the Lodge and use it as our between-run campfire. With the gondola right at the bottom of the stairs, this setup was rather user friendly for the most part. Packing boots and dancing shoes up the hill, however, never really caught on.
There were a couple of "strip joints" in the neighborhood, the C’est Bon and the Ore Haus, but they didn’t lend themselves much to becoming night-ski hangouts either. For some reason, it was never easy to gather a quorum to bundle up for outdoor winter recreation when it was the removal of attire that was on everyone’s mind.
There were actually two gondolas, one from the base terminal to the angle station, the one they used for night skiing, and one from the "Angle" up to the top terminal. Being a detachable lift, as opposed to the chairlifts, which were fixed-grip back in those days, the cabins sang a song as they rolled and banged along the overhead superstructures. Over the years, the clanging became music to my ears.
Once the Payday Lift was installed, however, it took over the night-ski logistical chores of carrying skiers to the top of the run. And although it was probably a quicker conveyance than the gondola-rope tow set up, it somehow lacked the character or romance of the older transport. Those days and the crazy times that went with them would fade into the sunset, but not without an afterglow.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.