Alagno: A Dream in Black and White

Their voices drift distantly in and out of my mind as I sit slumped in the back seat of our speeding rental car, head propped up by a board bag, trying not to vomit. My first TransWorld trip-I’m with a bunch of people I’ve never met, so just before a cross-country road trip through Europe with three of them, I decide to stay up all night at an Austrian discotheque. I’m all about making good first impressions.

My flawless impersonation of a brain-dead half-wit is enhanced by the fact that every time the car stops, we’re in a different country, with a different currency and exchange rate, and nobody has ever called me “Math Wizard.” When nothing on a foreign cash machine is written in English, it’s hard to tell if you’re withdrawing enough money to buy a small Pepsi, or a small house. This is an important difference when your paycheck barely rivals that of a part-time burger flipper at Mickey D’s.

Eventually my thirst and I quietly ooze back into the muck swamp of the luggage compartment, while my trip companion (the Mr. Miagi of international travel-Jeff Curtes) keeps our passenger Barrett Christy entertained, and jokes over walkie-talkies with Jake Blattner and Michele Taggart, who follow in a another car. Endless Curtes radio transmissions, like, “Barrett and I are up here smoking crack and driving blindfolded. How are you guys doing?” crackle, have me giggling deliriously all the way to the small Italian town of Alagna-our final destination and home to one of Europe’s lesser-known extreme gnar-gnar ski/snowboard mountains.

“Fifteen centimeters of snow fell last night. The winds are too high for the tram to open now, but with a little help from above, the weather will calm down so we can ski fresh powder this afternoon … amen.”

Antonio smirked from the back of the church. Years ago, the higher order of the church had tried to remove their priest from Alagna. “You can’t keep on like this,” they said, “being late for sermons, giving snow reports after morning mass.” The priest told his superiors that if they moved him, he’d quit the priesthood, for Alagna was the only place he would live. So they let him stay.

And so it should be, thought Antonio, as he sauntered quietly back out into the brisk morning air. Only the holy man knew his real name-the people of this tiny village simply called him Brutus. Brutus the Ninja-Killer. Not that he’d ever really killed anyone, but his father had been a great ninja-killer, and his father before him, so the title was in turn bestowed on him at birth. But, as the only son in his family, he had shamed their name by moving to this remote location in northern Italy. “Go south, Tony,” his ma had begged, “Take on the Mafia, eh? So they aren’t ninjas. Some of them know karate-whadda ya gonna do?”

Ninjas, as a rule, don’t much frequent the Italian Alps. Neither does the Italian Mafia, which was secretly the reason why Antonio had moved there in the first place, though he could never tell his ma that.

” … Josh Dirksen, Marcus Egge, Nicole Angelrath, Frank Screm, Mathieu Vanoorenberghe, and Vianney Tisseau,” I count, amused. “That brings the total of our crew to eleven … maybe I should name this story ‘Clusterf-k.'” Although we’re all smiling and having a good time, the lady taking our 86 cappuccino orders looks like she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In Alagna, a large crowd of foreign snowboarders clamoring for coffee is like a midget bearded lady trying to get lunch at a local diner when the circus rolls through town. People try not to look, but they can’t help noticing, and they aren’t quite sure how to react. Kind of like what happens in any small town, except for the fact that in Italy, our strangeness is viewed with mild curiosity-whereas all things different are run out of most small U.S. towns with a shotgun.

Also, like small towns elsewhere, not much appears to have changed since it was settled-in this case, back at the turn of the fifteenth century. Most of theuildings are very old, and a great many of their inhabitants have lived in them their entire lives. The few shops in town are only open on weekends and holidays-the rest of the time there are rarely enough tourists to support business. What people do show up in the winter come for the skiing, though at first glance it doesn’t appear people who live in the town even know what skiing is. Alagna’s home to one of the largest skiing complexes in the Alps, but there is no base lodge, no snowboard shops, no “scene,” no aprés-ski activities, no nightlife-nothing. Nothing but one mini-tram rising discreetly up from the middle of town over the first ridge of Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps. Yet, somehow, that is enough.

Something about the way they moved stopped him. “Americans,” he thought, spitting on the ground. “Great.” But there was something more. Something that compelled him to follow the mighty herd of snowboarders as they migrated north from the coffee house to the tram. In the back of the crowd, a few of them spoke quietly in French. “Ah, so they are not all American,” he thought. “Of course. Silly me.” Americans, and snowboarders for that matter, are a rather rare sight in Alagna.

Still, there was more to this group than that. Dressed in a one-piece suit, skis in hand, he slid unnoticed into their tram car, and out onto the mountain behind them. As he slyly followed their migration down a sunny powder field, the dawning realization of what the uneasy feeling in his chest was all about stopped him dead in his tracks. In the distance, a “dropping … three, two, one!” rang out, and as he followed the sound to its source, the mystery suddenly became crystal clear.

“My god!” he thought incredulously, as one by one, the strange snowboarders flew effortlessly off large, sharp rock clusters into the snow below. “They’re ninjas … they’re all f-king ninjas!”

Unfortunately, we’ve hit Alagna during early-season conditions, so what unfolds below us on our first tram ride is only potential-lines that could be ridden had there been more snow are mostly shrub and sharp, pointy rock. Of course, the terrain under the first tram is a Matchbox car compared to the gargantuan Godzilla size of the rest of the Monte Rosa ski complex we soon encounter.

Not only could a lifetime be spent exploring the endless riding possibilities of this place, one could spend a lifetime just trying to describe how massively overwhelming this place is. Alagna is located at the base of one of many valleys in Monte Rosa. From the top of the mountain’s peak, a series of small trams and Poma lifts makes it possible to ride not only Alagna’s valley, but also the two adjacent valleys. It’s even possible, with a guide and a hearty sense of adventure, to ride and hike the backcountry all the way into Zermatt, Switzerland. But riding inbounds can be sketchy without a local guide, as there is little to no avalanche control, hidden glacier crevasses lurking off piste, and very few marked runs. On the tram, our guide Roberto tells us a story about a man who got lost and fell a couple-hundred feet off a cliff band he couldn’t see: “He experienced minor trauma.” The place is insane.

“What a pathetic excuse for a ninja-killer you are, Antonio!” the man screamed silently. Nearly a week had passed since he’d first discovered the ninjas who’d dared to infiltrate his home, and in that time he’d managed to do everything possible except fulfill his destiny. His house-spotless; friends with whom he’d had no contact in years would soon be receiving letters in the mail; he’d even found a home for a stray cat. But did he kill any ninjas? No, they didn’t even know he was stalking them. His ma would die of shame. Lost in this sea of self-pity, he barely noticed the girl eating a panini alone in the bar next to him.

“You are from America?” says a man sitting at an adjacent table. I nod silently in answer to his question, and wait for him to continue. “Why is it that you are alone today? Have I not seen you before with many people?”

“They all went heli-boarding, and there wasn’t enough room for me on the helicopter,” I explain. “The truth is, though, I’m glad for the opportunity to be alone for a while. It’s hard to really know a place unless you experience it without any distractions.”

Smiling at my response, he falls quiet for a moment, then leans forward and asks in an alarmingly intense tone, “And how do you like my home, then?”

Silently, I gaze at him. How strange that this man could look through me and ask the one question I had so far been unable to find the answer to. Something about the seriousness of his inquiry moves me to respond as if he were an old friend, and trusted keeper of my most intimate thoughts. Slowly, I start to speak: about how, when my father was young, he skiied in lace-up boots because plastic-buckle ski boots hadn’t been invented yet. How when he went to Aspen during school holidays, it was a podunk nothing little ski town that just happend to be next to a really good mountain. How his friends bought land in Telluride before it even had a ski-area-they just thought it was a cool little hippie haven in Colorado.

His eyes look directly into mine, never wavering, as I try to match words to the thoughts in my head. “My whole life I’ve heard about surf trips to Indonesia, Costa Rica, the tip of Baja-when there was nothing there but sand and some local fishermen. I know my father’s tales of far-away, beautiful, amazing places like they were my own stories now. I see them in my mind like I was there.” So many memories-I fumble to make sense of them. I try to explain how it felt when I became old enough, and I started to travel to these places, to make the stories real. Only instead of finding deserted beaches with perfect breaks reserved solely for the few adventurous enough to make the journey to surf them, I found wall-to-wall high-rise hotels accessed by four-laned highways running between them and the airport down the road.

I try to describe the sadness I felt when I finally realized how lucky my dad was. The day of the funky backwoods little ski-towns has passed, giving way to mini-Disneylands where people can purchase their very own Mountain Experience, complete with pictures and souvenir T-shirts to show to the folks back at the office. “Anyone with enough money can book a guided tour to just about anywhere on the planet through the Internet now,” I lament. “Nothing’s sacred anymore, and I’ll never get to see the world as my father did, except through the pictures he’s painted for me in my imagination.”

He sighed as the girl paused and looked bleakly down at her hands. “Alagna … is like a story my dad once told me,” she said finally.

What is so terrible about ninjas if they keep company with creatures such as this? Once more he leaned forward, “So you understand then. Tell me please, how did you know to come here?”

“I didn’t. Someone heard Alagna was an incredible place to snowboard. I came along to write the story.”

“Story?”

“A story about our trip. I work for a snowboard magazine.”

He stared in disbelief. “You are going to tell the world about my Alagna?”

“I have to,” she insisted. “They paid for me to come here. It’s my job!”

He rose slowly from his chair. “This you would do? After this sad story you tell me, you would expose my home, invite culture rapists to come and destroy all I hold dear to my heart?”

She said nothing. There was nothing to say. In all his life, never had he felt such anger. But there was something else. Killing ninjas meant nothing to him now. Finally, his destiny in life had been revealed.

“Augh!” he screamed-a high, piercing wail from deep within his soul-and lunged toward her exposed neck. Her pleas for mercy only increased his determination to end the life of this snake in his Garden of Eden. And as her body convulsed once before crumpling lifeless to the floor, he laughed, walked slowl is it that you are alone today? Have I not seen you before with many people?”

“They all went heli-boarding, and there wasn’t enough room for me on the helicopter,” I explain. “The truth is, though, I’m glad for the opportunity to be alone for a while. It’s hard to really know a place unless you experience it without any distractions.”

Smiling at my response, he falls quiet for a moment, then leans forward and asks in an alarmingly intense tone, “And how do you like my home, then?”

Silently, I gaze at him. How strange that this man could look through me and ask the one question I had so far been unable to find the answer to. Something about the seriousness of his inquiry moves me to respond as if he were an old friend, and trusted keeper of my most intimate thoughts. Slowly, I start to speak: about how, when my father was young, he skiied in lace-up boots because plastic-buckle ski boots hadn’t been invented yet. How when he went to Aspen during school holidays, it was a podunk nothing little ski town that just happend to be next to a really good mountain. How his friends bought land in Telluride before it even had a ski-area-they just thought it was a cool little hippie haven in Colorado.

His eyes look directly into mine, never wavering, as I try to match words to the thoughts in my head. “My whole life I’ve heard about surf trips to Indonesia, Costa Rica, the tip of Baja-when there was nothing there but sand and some local fishermen. I know my father’s tales of far-away, beautiful, amazing places like they were my own stories now. I see them in my mind like I was there.” So many memories-I fumble to make sense of them. I try to explain how it felt when I became old enough, and I started to travel to these places, to make the stories real. Only instead of finding deserted beaches with perfect breaks reserved solely for the few adventurous enough to make the journey to surf them, I found wall-to-wall high-rise hotels accessed by four-laned highways running between them and the airport down the road.

I try to describe the sadness I felt when I finally realized how lucky my dad was. The day of the funky backwoods little ski-towns has passed, giving way to mini-Disneylands where people can purchase their very own Mountain Experience, complete with pictures and souvenir T-shirts to show to the folks back at the office. “Anyone with enough money can book a guided tour to just about anywhere on the planet through the Internet now,” I lament. “Nothing’s sacred anymore, and I’ll never get to see the world as my father did, except through the pictures he’s painted for me in my imagination.”

He sighed as the girl paused and looked bleakly down at her hands. “Alagna … is like a story my dad once told me,” she said finally.

What is so terrible about ninjas if they keep company with creatures such as this? Once more he leaned forward, “So you understand then. Tell me please, how did you know to come here?”

“I didn’t. Someone heard Alagna was an incredible place to snowboard. I came along to write the story.”

“Story?”

“A story about our trip. I work for a snowboard magazine.”

He stared in disbelief. “You are going to tell the world about my Alagna?”

“I have to,” she insisted. “They paid for me to come here. It’s my job!”

He rose slowly from his chair. “This you would do? After this sad story you tell me, you would expose my home, invite culture rapists to come and destroy all I hold dear to my heart?”

She said nothing. There was nothing to say. In all his life, never had he felt such anger. But there was something else. Killing ninjas meant nothing to him now. Finally, his destiny in life had been revealed.

“Augh!” he screamed-a high, piercing wail from deep within his soul-and lunged toward her exposed neck. Her pleas for mercy only increased his determination to end the life of this snake in his Garden of Eden. And as her body convulsed once before crumpling lifeless to the floor, he laughed, walked slowly out the door, and vanished into local mythology forever. Or so goes the tale told by the villagers, of the day Brutus the Ninja-Killer became Saint Brutus, Destroyer of Worthless Journalists.

The End.

Mandatory note: Snowboarding in Italy is not a luxury reserved solely for sponsored pros and editors with TransWorld credit cards. It’s actually pretty cheap, comparatively. Tram tickets at Monte Rosa range from 21 to 27 U.S. dollars. Hired guides are about 34 dollars a day, and the place we stayed at cost about seventeen U.S. dollars a night.

You can contact our friends Redo and Jo (the only snowboarders in Alagna) at: Phone: 39-330-603323, e-mail: redos@tin.it, or on the Web: www.radionostalgia.net/powder for further information.lowly out the door, and vanished into local mythology forever. Or so goes the tale told by the villagers, of the day Brutus the Ninja-Killer became Saint Brutus, Destroyer of Worthless Journalists.

The End.

Mandatory note: Snowboarding in Italy is not a luxury reserved solely for sponsored pros and editors with TransWorld credit cards. It’s actually pretty cheap, comparatively. Tram tickets at Monte Rosa range from 21 to 27 U.S. dollars. Hired guides are about 34 dollars a day, and the place we stayed at cost about seventeen U.S. dollars a night.

You can contact our friends Redo and Jo (the only snowboarders in Alagna) at: Phone: 39-330-603323, e-mail: redos@tin.it, or on the Web: www.radionostalgia.net/powder for further information.