Bum's Rush

In the gentrifying mountain village of Telluride, a band of local adventure addicts is preaching the gospel of neo-hippie purity in an upstart 'zine called Mountainfreak. Can these goddess-worshipping ski bums stay true to their vert' and manage to run a business at the same time?




Once upon a time in Nelson, British Columbia, Bjorn Enga and Andrew Mitchell, two boyhood friends and ski bums who had hooked up again after abandoning fitful college careers, published the "first ever issue" of SkiFreak Radical magazine. It was the winter of 1993­1994. Printed on tree-free paper, SkiFreak Radical was eight pages of chaotic, crowded type and muddy black-and-white photographs. It was free. On the cover was a photograph of a very long-haired young man wearing only a ski cap, ski boots, and a decidedly immodest fanny pack. He stood in calf-deep snow, shouldering skis and holding a snowboard, and he seemed to be screaming happily at the top of his lungs. The magazine included several drawings of similarly ecstatic people, a couple of poems, a brief article on Valdez in winter, and a few classified ads. "Wanted immediately," read one, "new knee. Call Eddy."

The hoped-for audience was something Bjorn and Andrew dubbed the SkiFreak Network: hard-core gravity-sport dogs and self-described "dirtbags" who, to gain access to The Man's slopes, spent endless hours scrounging and scrambling and scamming, living overcrowded and grungy in overpriced housing. They weren't outlaws; they just didn't quite Þt in, these rockin' daddies from Nelson, B.C., who brushed the back trails, striking fear in the wallets of ski-industry marketers busily producing brochures of jolly families on ski slopes, businessmen who wished Bjorn and Andrew and their ilk would just Go. Away. Yesterday.

Though SkiFreak Radical spruced itself up over the course of its 12-issue, three-and-a-half-year run—the last issue, which appeared in July 1997, was 46 full-color pages with a smattering of corporate ads for the likes of Salomon—the magazine did not become noticeably tamer. It ran articles and fiction and drawings in which illegal substances and a defiant stance were major players. Its advice columnist, Gnarly—as in Just Ask Gnarly—was an attractive, athletic woman given to wearing retro sunglasses, a black bra, and a girdle with garters that held up patterned white stockings. Gnarly's range of knowledge was wide, her candor admirable. One reader asked if her nickname was due to her toes becoming gnarled up from injuries after "gruesome" mountain-bike rides. "Only one thing makes my toes gnarl," she answered, "and it ain't singletrack."

Sometimes when the kids get together and put out their own darn magazine, they style.

One day in the summer of 1996, Bjorn got a phone call from someone named Hilary White, of Telluride, Colorado. She told them that she had spent the winter working on a ski film in British Columbia, had picked up a copy of SkiFreak Radical in a coffee shop, and wanted to talk.

"She said she had fallen in love with the magazine," Bjorn told me over the phone. "She was hype to start an American version. A sister publication. Some kind of affiliation, anyway. We were busy; she was vague."

Bjorn is a jovial, energetic guy who these days owns a production company called Radical Films, which has released two mountain bike videos, Kranked I and Kranked II. Kranked III is in the works.

"So Hilary calls. We're expanding the mag every issue and working our butts off, and here comes this...idea...that, well, seemed a lot like what we were doing already," Bjorn continued. "We had lots of readers in the States. We were a little 'Uhhh...' She was on the same wavelength but...we tried to say politely we weren't interested, without shining her on. But it was like she had already made up her mind. It was like, 'This is such a good idea, how can you not go with it?'"


 




The woman on the phone was soon to be the founder of Telluride's own quarterly "freak" publication: Mountainfreak.

"I talked to them and told them my idea," Hilary told me, "and they just went, 'Uh, I don't know.' I'm sure they were thinking, 'Who is this person, and is she stealing our idea?' I wasn't out to hurt anyone."

Hilary and I were sitting at an outside table of a tiny Mexican kitchen in Telluride. It was a warm, sunny day. We were both wearing sunglasses. If I were better looking, we'd have been lay-ins for a fizzy-water ad shoot. Hilary stabbed her burrito and waved her hand as if to shoo any lingering molecules of the Canadians' toxic failure of vision.

Hilary White, 32, is fine-boned, tall, slender, athletic, with admirably white teeth. She has an unsettlingly vertical forehead and billows of dark, dramatic hair: a crunchy combination of Katharine Hepburn and Amelia Earhart. The daughter of a successful stockbroker, she exudes the lanky, confident grace of privilege, with a Gypsy-like edge. She grew up in a well-manicured Seattle neighborhood and graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in media-sociology in 1989. After a brief turn as a mortgage officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, she turned her back on "panty hose and nine-to-five and all that" and, like tens of thousands before her, fetched up in the Rockies. She stayed with friends in Jackson, Wyoming, who told her of "this funky place, Telluride." Once there, she decided to settle. Last year, due to indifferent conditions, she skied only "60 or 70" times, down from her usual 100 or so.

At the time she contacted SkiFreak Radical, she was engaged in typical Telluride underclass work: jobs like housecleaning and house-sitting and devoting some hours to working for a local film festival and bartending at catered affairs.

"I was having sleepless nights," Hilary recalled. "Was I wasting my education? What was I doing with my life? I couldn't get their magazine out of my mind. Why not tap all the creative energy around here? Get all these talented people who are washing dishes, operating lifts, driving shuttle buses, to communicate. Get photos from guys who are good but can't break into Powder, get art from people whose stuff you see around town, writers, poets. So I called those guys up in Nelson."

But after this fleeting telephone call, Bjorn and the boys soon forgot about Hilary-from-Telluride. "We went back to work," Bjorn said, "putting out the magazine." Then one day, in January 1996, here's this magazine in the mail. Hilary's magazine.

"We went, 'What the fuck!' Big as life was her magazine title: Mountainfreak. Sound a little like SkiFreak Radical? I mean, what if you were busting butt putting out a magazine called Outside and some dude goes and starts a similar magazine—really similar—and calls it Outsider?"

I said I'd be bummed. I asked Bjorn if he would accept one man's apology for his country's inherently bossy and acquisitive nature, its centuries-long history of appropriation and exploitation of its kind and worthy northern neighbors.

"You're on," he said with a laugh."We eventually cooled off. 'It's a free world,' that sort of thing. We realized that maybe we were taking ourselves too seriously."

As it happened, Mountainfreak's birth, in January 1996, nearly coincided with the demise of its Canadian predecessor. By SkiFreak Radical's 12th and final issue, in the summer of 1997, the publication had a print run of 10,000 copies, avid readers on both sides of the border, and a staff of five, but "we were really burned out," Bjorn recalled. "As sort of a joke in number three, we had written an ad asking for someone who has skills in desktop publishing and is willing to work when it's dumping. Well, after a while it wasn't a joke. We weren't making any real money, and it was consuming our lives. Plus I had picked up a really bad habit: workaholism. We packed it in."

Did the founding of Mountainfreak contribute to the original's demise?

"No. Not at all," Bjorn said. "They've found their own flavor. And I don't know how long we'd have lasted—or if we had lasted, how we would have changed. Everything changes: Apple computer company, the Catholic Church—they started out as a bunch of freaky cultists, now they own the Vatican.SkiFreak Radical was then. We're on our new trip. We totally support her."


 
   
 
 
I am still young enough at heart to have been intrigued rather than alarmed at Ski-Freak Radical's I-flat-out-do-not-care 'tude toward much of the world, even a bit excited by it. Was the Bjorn-and-Andrew take on the world an entirely-new species of anti-establishmentarianism, one whose shout could be heard over the clamor of a greedy and prideless new world that finds no problem buying and selling Rolling Stones songs to market office equipment?

SkiFreak Radical's hypercharged scream seemed so much more fun than my own ponderous brand of youthful revolt—and after all, sixties mellowness got American society nowhere. Maybe anarchy will. But since the magazine was dead, I went to Telluride to investigate how the bastard child of SkiFreak Radical was faring.

To its credit, Mountainfreak acknowledged its inspirational forerunner in its inaugural issue: "Our Brethren from the Great White North inspired us to take the concept of free-form mountain-inspired creation to the next level."

Like its sire, Mountainfreak is printed on a combination of treeless and recycled paper. Like its sire, it enthusiastically promotes the societal benefits of nonsmokable hemp. A large majority of its ads have come from the hemp industry, whose touted products include paper, work gloves, shoes, skirts, shirts, pants, body-care items, incense, backpacks, and a "nutty hempseed" snack.

Like its sire, it makes fun of more traditional magazine mastheads and disclaimers. In place of SkiFreak Radical job titles like Chief Freak, Insanity Control, and Digital File Guru, Mountainfreak listed Hilary as Bread and Butter and others as Alphabet Soup, Salad, and on down to the seemingly dismissive Kitchen Help. (Later issues would show a different masthead lineup: Heart, Soul, Taste, Vision, etc.) A disclaimer in the magazine read, in part: "Readers of Mountainfreak should understand that wearing hemp, sniffing your socks, grooving, hitchhiking, climbing, as well as many other activities covered in this rag, are potentially injurious or deadly, and we at Mountainfreak won't bail you out if you find yourself in over your head. Take responsibility. It's your life."

Mountainfreak's first issue was a mix of travelogue, gossip column, and poetry. The contents included a column called Kind (the good stuff) vs Schwagg (the bad stuff) that broke down into predictable irreverence: They liked bartering, organic farming, ganja farmers, and love. They didn't like profit-mongering, chemical pesticides, the tobacco industry, and hatred. Like a story from SkiFreak Radical's third issue, Mountain-freak's first travelogue was about the Chamonix valley. (SkiFreak Radical had called it "Scamonix.")

But there was a distinct change of tone. Mountainfreak was decidedly softer, more ethereal, more what we might once have described as feminine. Its first issue copied the naked skier cover of SkiFreak Radical, but the model was hardly in the reader's face, and instead stood, his ski gear strategically arranged, gazing toward a glowingly inspirational mountainscape.

Most telling was the new magazine's mission statement, which moved from the Dirtbag X-treme Hotel to Abstract Acres. The new freaks sensed a "collective consciousness...a surge...an energy filling this...magical place which we call home." The editors wanted to "broaden the breadth of this shared Groove.... The sleepy behemoths surrounding the valleys we live in have endowed us all with a certain power, a creative spark.... Now it can ignite in these pages."

The liveliest feature of mountainfreak—and a spiritual cousin to Just Ask Gnarly—was The Continuing Adventures of the Silver Couch Surfer, penned by "Louie Liftline." Surfer was the comically subversive tale of a group of ski bums (the Slackers) visited by a mysterious stranger who skis magically and imparts mystical knowledge. It referred to ski patrollers as "redcoats" and had the Slackers work "shining the shitcans of their oppressors" as the "THC that coursed their veins worked like Barge's cement."

Mountainfreak's first two issues were the product of Hilary White, editor Matthew Lewis, and a supporting cast of several. Lewis, a casual acquaintance of Hilary's from Telluride, isa ruggedly handsome, outspoken, and somewhat volatile sub-30-year-old from the Washington, D.C., area. In Telluride he had written and edited the now-defunct Telluride Times-Journal, from which he was fired in June 1995. ("The owner asked me to train my soon-to-be-boss. Right!") By the third issue, in the summer of 1996, Mark Steele, another Telluride refugee from the greater, straighter outside world (he was working at Telluride's newspaper, the Daily Planet) had signed on as art director.

For the first three issues, the division of labor broke down roughly this way: Hilary ran the business side of things; Matthew assembled the editorial content and wrote a lot of it—including the Silver Couch Surfer column—while Mark handled graphics and art. They begged, borrowed, and rented equipment and office space and laid out the pages over a short series of giddy all-night sessions. When the magazine returned from the printer, Hilary would load up her Toyota 4-Runner and head out to ski shops, bike shops, coffeehouses, and health-food stores in ski towns from Taos to Jackson—any place that might be amenable to Mountainfreak. Additionally, the crew would hand over bundles of each issue to friends to carry to distant parts of the country and world—as far away as Australia and South Asia.

Those early days were exhilarating. "We wanted to help people remember where they are when they play," Hilary says.

"It was heady stuff," Mark remembers. "It was a brand-new message."

Each of the first three issues cost about $5,000 to produce. Ad revenue, according to Hilary, covered about 80 percent of that. The rest came from a local arts council grant and from Hilary. Her family had given her a certain amount of money, and she had recently tried her hand at investing. The earnings—especially a serendipitous investment in a snowboard manufacturer—were enough to allow her to buy a cabin a half-hour drive from Telluride and to invest a small amount in Mountainfreak.

Hilary was naive about the economics of publishing. "I thought magazines just came out and began making money," she says. But by the fall of 1996, their principal was exhausted, and Mountainfreak, after three issues and a final print run of around 7,000, was dead.

"It's a cliché," Mark says, "but everything tasted like ashes."

The staff fell back on their prior jobs; Hilary went back to cleaning houses and began working as a projectionist at the local cinema. "It wasn't like I was giving up," she says. "But I was out of money. I needed a boost from someone, but I didn't know who."


   


Telluride attracts the Hilary Whites and Mark Steeles of the world for many of the same reasons that Aspen and Vail and Steamboat and Tahoe and Santa Cruz and the North Shore of Oahu—in their recreational frontier periods—attracted people before it. An overwhelming natural beauty, a this-isn't-home exoticism, a chance to ski or surf or climb or whatever in the big leagues, and perhaps most important, a chance to do these things in a congenial social setting and in relative comfort. It is a chance to make a living while dreaming full-bore.

Telluride—elevation 8,750 feet, 300 days of sun a year, surrounded by the ferociously dramatic San Juan Mountains—is a lovely place. (One guy in a restaurant told me that Telluride makes Aspen look like something out of The Blair Witch Project.) Twenty blocks long and five blocks wide, it is fastened to the mumpy floor of a deep gouge whose walls are so abrupt—like the fuselage of a paper airplane—that the sun falls to the bottom in shards. Telluride was a mining village in the late 1800s. Now most of the town's 1,200 full-time residents (not including the Hollywood types who flock here each winter) earn their paychecks from tourist-related businesses.

The skiing is immediate and world-class; one lift and one gondola terminate three blocks south of Colorado Avenue, which everyone calls Main. The backcountry skiing is even better. During the spring, summer, and fall, young and healthy women blade along the town's paved trails, pushing before them expensive, large-wheeled contraptions in which sit small, towheaded children. Here and there a jogger. Above, the odd paraglider. On the sidewalk benches, sitters, coffee-sippers. Birds call. The occasional whine of a table saw, bam of a hammer. Soft, earnest strains of a guitar-and-banjo duo practicing for future gigs in one of the abundant and tastefully designed nonfranchise eateries.

This is not to say, however, that Telluride is Edenic. It counts itself as having more worries than you've had hot meals: the looming expansion, à la Vail, of its ski area; subdivisions and developments, both accomplished and planned, besieging the town like so many outlying armies; a mind-boggling shortage of affordable housing; the displacement of the middle-class many by the unfathomably wealthy few; the daily bumper-to-bumper flow of tradesmen in and out of town, to and from less heavenly places like Placerville, Ridgway, Norwood, Ouray, and Montrose—effectively worker dormitories for Telluride.

Further, Telluride has, to the consternation of many of its residents, turned itself into an exhausting yearlong carnival. It is home to an independent film festival, a mountain-film festival, a plain-old-film film festival, a bluegrass festival, a blues festival, a chamber music festival, a jazz festival, and a playwriting festival. The Joffrey Ballet is scheduled to drop by this year for a few weekends. Things have gotten so darn festive in Telluride that locals have created the Nothing Festival, which the Daily Planet calls "a time of respite that locals cherish."

Telluride at times feels like a confused, though not especially imaginative, mess. It touts its small-town charm; it brags on its big-city performing arts. It prides itself on its isolation; it assures potential visitors of its accessibility. It promotes its splendid slopes; it promotes a multitude of nongravity winter attractions. It wants to be a jock; it wants to be an artist. It is tolerant; it wants its local characters to behave themselves. It needs more infrastructure; it lauds stasis. It will not fawn; it needs to be loved.

This multipolarity ironically engenders monochronism. It is as if all the ingredients of the Telluride stew—bluegrass and blues, mellowness and orneriness, ballet and snowboarding, urbanism and rurality, normality and freakishness—cancel one another out. It has become a cowboy-hatted, dreadlocked emcee-in-a-tuxedo entertaining an endless parade of random, yearning exotics.

In other words, a perfect place to try to bring a magazine such as Mountainfreak to life—for a second time.






No one seems quite sure of the exact date, but sometime in the late autumn of 1996, Hilary White got a phone call from a subscriber wondering why he had not received a fourth issue of Mountainfreak.

"The magazine's history," Hilary told him, "and so are we."

The caller was 48-year-old Mark Biedron, a man who lives in New Jersey but spends as much of his free time as possible in the mountains of the West, including those surrounding Telluride. And Biedron has an enviable amount of free time, thanks to the sale of his family's paint company.

"I've skied since I was six," Biedron told me. "Mountains speak to me. This is what I felt Mountainfreak was trying to portray—the spiritual, as opposed to the mercantile, financial, side of things. I was overwhelmed by the magazine's idealism. There was about it a sense of best of the sixties, one of the century's most special, hopeful, original times. So I asked Hilary, 'What would it take to get Mountainfreak rolling again?'"

In short order, Biedron and Hilary formed a limited liability corporation, and Biedron loaned the LLC money on extremely generous terms. Mountainfreak was back in business. "Our investor said, 'Let's make this a kick-ass mag,'" Mark Steele remembered. "I said, 'I'm in.' I left the Daily Planet and came on here full-time." Other former staffers followed suit.

Issue four appeared the spring of 1998, roughly 18 months after issue three. It was 66 pages, printed in full color on slick paper (50 percent recycled). The masthead included a photo editor as well as circulation and advertising positions, and it had a new entry: Mark Biedron, whose title was "Faith."

The Silver Couch Surfer was still around (it would disappear after the next issue), but the Slackers had become thoughtful. Drug references were minimal, replaced by See-Spot-Run philosophical musings: "There's really no such thing as owning anything but your soul." There were articles on herbal remedies, worm-driven compost acceleration, mountain-town art councils. There were news briefs about cyanide mining and off-road vehicles. There were vegetarian recipes, a photo section, a horoscope ("Your connection to the cosmos"), and more poetry: "God is here / God is now / It is time / For Nature's Law... Circle to Infinity / Open our Heart."

And so it has gone, through the most recent Mountainfreak, number 12, Spring 2000: a curiously well-worn path of articles about adventures (hiking in Kauai), alternative housing, Appalachian mountaintop mining, organic farming, sustainable farming, and cultural awareness: "[I looked at my Rice Dream's] cardboard and plastic hull.... With sudden reflection, a tear trickles down my cheek as I realize Babylon itself is churning in my gut."



   
Today, you can find Mountainfreak's redecorated garage headquarters down the alley from one of Telluride's many thoughtfully painted houses, this one a tidy, powder lavender.

The office, one large ground-floor room, has a bathroom with shower, a kitchenette, and a loft reached by a nearly vertical stair-ladder. It is a carpeted, well-lighted place. It has a sign on the mudroom door reminding people to "Looz da Shooz."

Lise Waring, a tall, lithe, bright-faced 33-year-old and a former ranked professional volleyball player, is the magazine's managing editor. She is sorting through the day's mail. When asked, she cheerfully defines a freak as someone who lives an alternative lifestyle "compared to her college friends," who is "environmentally active" and "accepting," and who will forgo some conventional comforts "for a better quality of life."

Suzanne Cheavens, a senior editor, is a round-faced, brisk, but engaging mother of two who describes herself, at 42, as the "elder statesperson" of the office. She is making a preliminary attempt at straightening up her desk, the centerpiece of which is a 32-high stack of books, including titles such as the Humanure Handbook, The Goddess's Guide to Love, and Survival Skills of the North American Indians. Suzanne defines a freak as "the part of you that colors outside the lines, that doesn't do what others say you should, the part unfettered by the world's expectations."

Brett Schreckengost, the new art and photography editor, sticks his head in. He is a low-waisted, flappy, blond 28-year-old who would look at home in any surf shop in the world. He's trying to get his shit together to leave for Nepal for a few weeks to work on a paragliding movie. (Though most of the small office staff keep regular hours, trips "out"—especially after an issue has closed—are not rare.) Brett, who is between homes because his landlord just jacked his rent up unspeakably high, is showering these days in the Mountainfreak ofÞce and couch-surfing with friends or sleeping in the back of his pickup. "I'll find a place when I get back," he says. "It's cool. I'm used to small places. My first apartment here was so small I could sit on the couch, flip an omelet, flush the toilet, and channel surf without moving." He promises to get back to me on the definition of freak "when things calm down."

Hilary arrives. Her friend's car, which she has borrowed because her 4-Runner broke down, wouldn't start, and she had to hitchhike into town.

The crew gathers for a planning meeting for the next issue, whose theme is Air and whose planned print run is 25,000. It looks as if there will be a travelogue about searching for UFOs in Ecuador, pieces on hammock tents and urban sprawl, recipes, possible photos of windmills, people blowing bubbles, clouds. Two ideas are rejected: An article on wind chimes is out because they are sources of noise pollution and intrusions on personal space, and one on airline food—yuck!—because airline food is laden with chemicals and bad for you and anyway it doesn't taste good.

Later, I mention to Suzanne that the New York Times recently ran an article on Wicca, just a few months after Mountainfreak ran its own article on the subject. She nods, unsurprised. "We're cutting-edge," she says. "We have our ears to the ground."



 
   
I'd been in Telluride for almost four days, and my notes read: Bryan is getting grumpy. If reading old issues of SkiFreak Radical and the first few of Mountainfreak is like drunk dirty dancing with the prettiest wildgirl at the rockabilly ball, reading Mountainfreak today is like running into the craziest S.O.B. in the dorm and discovering he has been ordained a Presbyterian minister.

One might be forgiven if one raised an eyebrow at the coincidence of Mark Biedron's generosity—described in the pages of the resurrected magazine as "the warm wind from the East"—and Mountainfreak's shift toward tamer, softer content. But according to all concerned, the coincidence was just that.

"I have never, ever, interfered or tried to push my weight around or said 'do this' or 'don't do that,'" Mark Biedron told me. "I believe in their vision. This is the kids' voice, not mine."

Hilary and Mark agree, adamantly, with Biedron's declaration of noninvolvement. "We changed after issue three. Absolutely," Hilary acknowledged one evening in a Telluride bistro. "For those first couple of issues, I didn't care whom we offended. We were local, with local ads. I took responsibility for our outrageousness. Now I am we. We are a tribe. We did a lot of soul-searching about number four. I had become offended by 'I fired up the bong, skied 9,000 feet of 50 percent vertical, came back, fired up the bong, and hit the Cuervo.' If people want to take drugs for spiritual enlightenment, then go ahead. We aren't going to encourage drug use. Like every issue says, 'Take responsibility for your own actions.'"

I suggested that for something put out by self-styled freaks—whom I had always thought of as people standing proudly, even deÞantly, outside of society—the magazine was starting to look downright mainstream.

Hilary actually sneered at me.

"Putting out a controversial magazine is so...so exactly what we aren't about—falling into a negative publicity trip. We are not out to be offensive. We are not Ski-Freak Radical."

The conversation had not been going swimmingly, and I'll take part of the blame for the chilly turn. I had been trying to find cracks in Hilary's guilelessness. OK, I'd been baiting her. Though I admired the youthful efforts and idealism of the Mountainfreak folks, I was growing weary of what I saw as a vague "celebration" of the earth to no purpose. When I got to Telluride, I had hoped to find people as angry and ill-informed and passionate as I had been when I was a soi-disant freak, back during a time of bloody, frightening confrontation. Instead I felt I was finding a vaguely disheartening temperance, a kind of anger lite, a bumper-sticker spirituality. So I began pointing out some contradictions I'd noticed.

Me: You wrote about mobile homes harming the planet.

Hilary: They do.

Me: Maybe there are reasons—like money—why people don't buy expensive land in the San Juans, as you did, and take years creating a home that's one with nature.

Hilary: It wasn't that expensive.

Me: Was.

Hilary: Wasn't.

We marched on. I asked for her definition of a freak. "A fresh-thinking, open-minded individual who uses inspiration from the natural world to guide his life," she replied.

I said, unable to stop myself, that her definition seemed a bit all-inclusive and a little shy of rigorous.

"That's the point!" she said with exasperation. "It could be a ski bum here, or a Wall Street broker with deep-powder photos on his office wall.

"With Mark Biedron, we were given, miraculously, a second chance," she continued. "And I realized that, if we did things right, we could become more than a local magazine. We could become a national voice for freaks. Everyone has a little freak in them."


   
   
Matthew Lewis's name disappeared from Mountainfreak's masthead after the fourth issue, his departure the result of a falling-out with Hilary. He is still in the Telluride area, working construction. He feels, he says, that Hilary's national aspirations for the magazine are wrongheaded.

"Originally we were talking to us," he told me. "The Rocky Mountain West underclass. Bums. Scrapers-by. Freaks. Tapping the energy, crude and raw as it may have been.

"Look, I'm not part of the magazine. It's theirs. Hilary's. I still sell them the occasional story, but what bothers me is I don't think it's written for scramblers anymore, for those who came to the mountains to avoid 401(k)s and the daily New York Times. It was about 'you can break out,' not 'you can build your own straw-bale-and-windfall house.'"

He acknowledges that he feels betrayed: "Take me with a grain of salt. I'm bitter." The Hilary-Matthew feud is complicated. He feels that Hilary and Biedron were involved in a palace coup that left him powerless; Hilary feels Matthew was unreliable and unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices for the magazine.

If we leave aside this wrangling as little more than a garden-variety spat between friends, as we should, and if we dismiss undue pressure from financial backers as a reason that Mountainfreak changed, then what are we left with—little more than a portrait of philosophical evolution?

People age. People change. Happens all the time. Mutability is not a four-letter word. And most magazines—at least the ones worth reading—start out with a crazy dream. And many people—at least the ones worth knowing—think of themselves as unique, as freaky. And lots of people who once thought of themselves as unique and having crazy dreams get older and grumpier and find it easy to mock those who come after them.

In order to change the world, Mountainfreak had to come down to earth and take care of some decidedly unfreaky business. Nothing wrong with that.

On the day I left Telluride, I had a conversation with Mark Steele, the art director who came aboard for the third issue. He is a very intense 1991 graduate of Wesleyan University, a former rugby team captain and high school student body president. His Telluride job history ranges from all-night furniture moving and designing a tracking system for a human resources consulting firm to working on the Daily Planet.

We sat at an espresso bar in the back of a bookstore. When I asked him his definition of a freak, he nodded. "I know what you're thinking. That we don't seem freaky. But we are, in the sense that we aren't a magazine for tourists. What they call a destination, our readers call home."

We talked about a lot of things, including the difficulty of being ecologically correct—should the magazine go to subscribers in a polyethylene bags or brown-paper covers? We discussed his upcoming marriage to a Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner, and the superiority of rugby over football.

"What is a freak?" he said, returning to my question. "A freak chooses a lifestyle that is not the easiest. A freak accepts challenges to do what he wants to do—a dedicated medical student, a struggling writer. Freaks must be willing to overcome obstacles. Everyone in Telluride is a freak. To live here, ski all the time, or whatever, we have to accept all kinds of challenges: insane rent, $8 breakfasts!"

As I stood to leave, I asked Mark about Mountainfreak's weird newsstand price: $4.20.

He broke into a rare smile. "It began as a wink to other freaks," he says. "'420' is cop talk for a marijuana violation, or it may be 20 after four in the afternoon, time for puffing happy hour. I don't know."

I thought that was the coolest thing I had heard about Mountainfreak, and told him so.

"Yeah. But we have to raise the price this issue or next. It's history."   

Frequent contributor Bryan Di Salvatore's most recent book is A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward.


 
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