A Matter of Choice

November 2006/March 2007

The meteorologists call it the “Pineapple Express.” Every now and then a great surge of warm, moist air comes barreling northeastward from the South Pacific and empties itself somewhere on the West coast of the United States. In early November 2006, it chose to hit us in the Pacific Northwest, resulting in record rainfall, hundred-year flooding, landslides, and the whole gamut of storm-related damage. Mount Rainier National Park, for example, received 18 inches of rain in 36 hours, causing the park to close its gates for the first time in 26 years. Elsewhere in Washington State, communities prepared for cresting rivers and a state-of-emergency was declared in eighteen counties.

Northwestern Oregon, where I live, was also affected though not nearly as heavily as Washington. The worst I saw around my home in Portland were lots of puddles and temporary lakes in parking lots where storm drains had backed up. Farther from home, however, the Pineapple Express caused significant damage to Oregon Highway 35, a route that winds around the southeast side of Mount Hood connecting the town of Hood River to the east with Sandy, Welches, and Government Camp to the west.

In particular, the White River, which normally flows underneath a bridge on the western side, hosted a massive million-cubic-yard flow of rocky debris—the runoff from a “glacial outburst” higher on the mountain. As a result, the bridge was completely covered and clogged with boulders such that the river decided to cut a new 20-foot deep, 50-foot wide channel to one side of it, directly across OR35. On the Eastern side, culverts for Newton Creek and Clark Creek both clogged, resulting in some creative re-routing of those flows as well. They cut incised ditches along the roadside for a ways, then cut across or through the road to the other side, finding new ways to meet their eventual destination in the east fork of the Hood River.

Normally such an incident on a small, two-lane, back-country highway wouldn’t be a huge concern. Hood River is generally reached from Portland via Interstate 84, while US26 to Government Camp (and on to Madras and Bend), was still clear. However, it just so happens that Oregon’s largest ski resort, Mount Hood Meadows, sits smack dab between the two damaged areas of OR35.

Early November is not a good time for a major ski area to be cut off from the world. Once the Pineapple Express moved on, snow started dumping on the mountains by the yard allowing other Northwest resorts to open the week before Thanksgiving. But not Meadows—though they still had power (thanks to overhead cable spanning the flooded canyon), their telecommunications lines were severed and the resort could only be reached via forest roads in small numbers following Oregon DOT pilot cars.

The timing was also ironic. Mount Hood Meadows offers discounted season passes when purchased before the season begins—discounted, obviously, because no one yet has any real idea what the season will look like. The cutoff date, November 5th, just so happened to fall on the day before the flood.

Needless to say, many early season pass holders suddenly became more anxious than usual during the advent of ski season. No one knew was going to happen. Was the resort going to open at all this year? Could the road be repaired before next summer? Were they just going to have to eat the $400 invested in their passes?

The question was certainly on my own mind. I had just learned to ski the previous year and found that I enjoyed the sport immensely. I had taken advantage of a very generous offer by Meadows for a $99 spring season pass in March that turned out to be a fabulous bargain: the resort was open up to the first weekend in June! I used my pass about a dozen times, a huge savings over the normal $52/day lift ticket. This season, knowing that I only had to make 7-8 trips to break even, I got my pass early.

With the highway torn apart, of course, I began to wonder whether there was going to be a season at all. Others were reminded of the winter of 2004-2005: it was so dry that the resort had closed in January after being open only about eight weeks. Truly, you never quite know how things are going to work out. One has to buy a season pass with such risks in mind.[*]

My wife gave me a good perspective on the whole matter, though. “It’s a long-term relationship,” she said, “some years will be good, other bad, but over time it will all balance out.” I had to agree. For the amount I saved with the spring pass, I would probably still come out ahead in the worst possible scenario. And as Mount Hood Meadows had been generous, I could afford to return the favor and be generous myself.

Of course, not everyone shared such sentiments—the spectrum of human consciousness is indeed vast. People are motivated and driven by different desires or ideals. On the lowest end we find those who seek simply to avoid pain and get by with as little effort as possible. At the opposite end are those who are motivated by high ideals and the love of Truth, above all. A little behind them are those who seek to serve, to make their lives something of value to their fellow human beings. And opposite them—at least somewhat above the bottom—are those who primarily seek self-gain, who expect their fellow beings to serve them.

This became very visible with the situation at Mount Hood Meadows. As part of the resort’s website, their Chief Operating Officer, Dave Riley, maintains a blog [no longer active as Dave moved to Colorado in 2008] through which he shares the ongoing operational concerns of the resort and solicits feedback from its patrons. Through this venue, he’s shared oft-unseen details about what it takes to operate such a facility, asked for opinions on pricing the hours of operation, and given status updates on major concerns like highway closures. Within a day or two of the damage to highway 35 he thus posted an assessment of the situation, what it meant to the resort, and when we might expect to get on the mountain to enjoy the rapidly accumulating powder.

Brave man! Many people were openly pissed off to the exteme. They had invested money in passes, cabin rentals, even airline tickets from out-of-state—were they, to put it mildly, screwed? Many others were, of course, very understanding that an act of Nature, well beyond the resort’s control, was the cause of the problem. Still, complaints came in that Meadows was responsible for not preventing the problem years earlier, that they should have invested more in road safety, that they should be ponying up millions to repair the road ASAP, and that they should also be refunding pass purchases (despite the season pass purchase agreement that clearly states “no refunds” for any reason whatsoever).

It went further. Some said they’d never come to Meadows again (an odd reaction for a season pass holder!). Others began to threaten legal action (over a mere $400, mind you, the sort of amounts that usually end up on daytime TV courtroom shows). And still others took the opportunity to whine about how they’d been treated by the Meadows staff—the lift operators especially—in years past.

Those complaints I found the most intriguing. In all my trips to Meadows in my first year of skiing, I generally encountered warm and friendly lift operators. I heard words of encouragement, saw plenty of smiles, and received numerous high-fives and knuckle-knocks while getting on the chairs. And this from people who, instead of enjoying the slopes themselves, spent their working days standing in sometimes bitterly cold blizzards watching other people having fun.

I figured that such folks certainly deserve a little sympathy and patience, especially on busy days. They also deserve a smile from me whenever possible. I, at least, should be having a good time! And I should, theoretically, have some extra joy to share with others. This is, in fact, what I’ve experienced, and from what I’ve heard it’s what many others experience as well.

But not universally. There are some, as comments on the blog revealed, who essentially treat lift operators as if they were servants or slaves. They make unreasonable demands and get upset if one or two chairs aren’t completely loaded, thereby delaying their “fun” by something like 15-30 seconds. (And this is for a resort where, on days when the lift lines are short or non-existent, you can pretty much spend half your time on the snow thanks to all the high-speed lifts.)

It’s an odd thing in human nature to be in a place that’s all about having fun and still finding some reason to be miserable. The only conclusion is that it’s all about what one personally brings to the scene. If you bring happiness, you can expect happiness, as many of us find with the lift operators. If you bring a hard edge, you can expect to receive the same in return.

It reminded me of a time when I was returning to Seattle from Providence, Rhode Island, with a connection in Chicago. Due to thunderstorms in the Midwest, our plane sat on the tarmac for two hours, waiting for clearance. The tower then told us to go back and park at the gate, though passengers had to stay on board. Then we went out to the runway again, only to wait another hour before being instructed to return again to the gate. At this point the airline decided to unload the passengers and find other connections.

Myself and two companions who also try to adhere to the principle of even-mindedness, knowing full well that we’d missed our original flight out of Chicago, were waiting patiently in line. The woman in front of us was not so patient. Fully testing the airline rep’s dedication to customer service, she demanded her way through to an alternate ticket and unrelentingly ordered that her luggage be removed from the plane immediately.

Ironically, no sooner was her luggage off than we were cleared for immediate take-off. We all reboarded as quickly as possible and were on our way. All except that one woman, of course, who got to enjoy the Providence airport a few hours more!

It’s a timeless spiritual teaching: the energy you put out is the energy that comes back to you. The yogis of the East call it karma; “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” is how St. Paul put it one of this letters. Whatever the source, whatever the tradition, the truth is the truth. What you experience in life—be it sorrow or happiness, rebuke or kindness and understanding, is but a reflection of what you yourself bring to a situation.

One’s experience of life need not be conditioned by any circumstance. Not by poverty, not by comfort, not by how others treat us, not by death or imprisonment, nor—believe it or not—by a delay in the opening of ski season! Whether one’s experience is happy, sad, fair, unjust, kind, or unkind, is simply a matter of choice. Challenging circumstances, in whatever form, are but opportunities to practice making the choice away from selfish expectations to that of expansive understanding. It is a sure path to a lasting peace within.

Thankfully, the positive support surrounding the repair of Highway 35 ultimately outweighed the problem-mongers (who, it should be noted, were demanding refunds due to highway closure before any other resort had even opened). A number of pass holders, still grateful for the generosity that Meadows has shown in the past (such as staying open into June of 2006), expressed their willingness to let go their entire season if needs be. But that wasn’t necessary. Other resorts from nearby Timberline to faraway Anthony Lakes (near Pendleton), Schweitzer (Idaho), and Alyeska (Alaska) graciously offered discounts or altogether free skiing to Meadows pass holders.

And in the end, Oregon DOT—toward whom some complaints were also directed—had OR35 open in a month. Meadows was able to open only a couple of weeks late. Those who chose to flow with the situation have since enjoyed a long season that should stretch well into April. Pity those who chose to storm away in misery and disgust.

[*] $400 for a season pass is ridiculously cheap compared to passes elsewhere in the Northwest and especially in the country—but that’s the deal. Pass prices go up to $550 after the early cutoff date, allowing one to essentially purchase $150 of insurance to make sure there will be a decent season. Either way, Meadows pass holders enjoy some of the lowest prices in the country.

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