Message in a Bottle

The closet was good. It was warm, cozy and private enough, and the price, at $150 bucks each month, was affordable. But it was only a temporary solution and within three weeks I had relocated to a converted living room on the north side of Interstate 70. The rent there was double, but I had enough room for a proper bed. The location was better, too: a fast walk to the bus, the grocery store and a bar that had live music on the weekends.

It was my second season in Vail. The town was small, and the lifts were slow and the crowds came at Christmas or not at all. There was no Epic Pass and we were just one mountain range too far to drive for the weekend warriors out of Denver. There were still local bars back then. The kind of places where three bucks would get you a shot and beer, and you’d know everyone in the joint — all laughing and drinking until it got late and the snowmelt started to trickle down from the roof and drip into buckets on the dance floor four stories below. 

The storms rolled in and we skied powder for days, skating out long traverses on ridges that crushed snowboarders, except for one crusty local who always rode with poles, pushing himself across the flats. He was there every day, chasing lines after midnight shifts cleaning the depths of the parking garage, the dust and dirt coating his surfer blonde hair each morning as we queued for first chair. 

We were always broke then, despite or perhaps because of the $3 shot special. We hatched schemes to enhance our income, making brown bag lunches for the crew in the rental shop (a sandwich and soda for five bucks), or tuning skis after hours for a ten spot, scalping tickets to shows and selling shots for a dollar to the spectators lining the fences at the World Alpine Championships. Tomba a revelation as he careened to the bottom of Giant Steps, each high-speed GS turn a punctuation to our own incompetence. 

A five-minute walk down the hill from the condo shared by five of us was the liquor store. While our tastes were modest our bank accounts were even more so, and nothing was ever bought at full price. The sale tags garnering particular interest during every visit. 

The deal that winter, because of a promotion or lack of interest among the more financially secure customers, or maybe just the need to clear out inventory, happened to be a $13.00 12-pack of Shiner Bock. The brand became our favorite, not due to taste – although its bouquet was distinctive – but because of the cheap(er) buzz it offered us for our drinking sessions around the rickety table in our kitchen, the empties lined up like soldiers across the windowsill. 

The season finished and I moved on, to a new house in a different location, with only one roommate and the key attribute of being at the bottom of the best backcountry skiing in the valley. As more years passed, my prospects improved and the bank account grew and eventually I moved on from there too, buying a home and marrying a wife, and then hit by the sudden realization that without really noticing it, I’d grown up and would never live in a closet again.

One day in a different town, with a career long removed from the dishwashing gigs and the nights tuning skis and the three-buck specials, I went looking for some beer. The price was the first thing that caught my eye, $15 all in, still cheap and still on sale. I bought the twelve-pack and, once home, opened a bottle. The flavor – and memories – exploded across my mind as soon as the bottle touched my lips: The faces of my roommates, the blonde girl in Minturn, the shows at the bar, on-mountain parties long since banned, mushroom tea, powder days and aprés ski sessions with friends I thought I’d know forever; the first tracks and the sunset runs, the bouncing dance floor and weekends over in Breck; the mountain cold and white in the morning sun, nights doing shots at the taco shop, free slices at happy hour and – most of all – the innocence that gently slipped away each year, the days evaporating as the storms rolled in and the seasons passed, each vanishing faster than the last.

Scientists will tell you that taste, like smell, is inexorably linked to memory. That flavors bypass the logic center of the brain and attach themselves to the primitive depths of our minds, a place where instincts and long forgotten emotions lurk. The thoughts, feelings, fears and joy of a season in Vail, secreted in a single bottle of Shiner Bock, waiting to be re-lived again, with the first sip from a cold brown bottle.

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