When my friend Albie was skiing everyday, he’d have told you life ruled. It ruled so much that when he illegally skied a closed run at Big Sky Resort and ski patrol revoked his beloved ski pass, he thought it was funny. When he gave up that free and easy life of a skier to become a helicopter pilot, he’d have said everything was peachy then too. After all, he was still able to walk back then. When Lou Gehrig’s Disease started to wreck his body, I imagine it would have been harder to say life was good.
When Albie Bullock was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s, or rather Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), I really didn’t know what it was until I watched what it did to him. What I learned is that ALS is a heartless, son-of-a-bitch of illnesses that devastates all the things a man would associate with the good life. Over the course of a few years, it begins to shut down a man’s body, taking away use of his hands, arms, and legs, until one day, breathing and swallowing become too difficult. It’s like the opposite of Alzheimer’s. It takes the body and leaves the mind; its victims coherently and helplessly watch themselves fall apart. Science knows no cure, and for the most part, does not know the cause either. The only truth about ALS is that once it takes hold, there is no escaping its destruction. It’s like being struck by a fatal, stray bullet.
Without warning, one day Albie’s hands started to lose their strength. He couldn’t grip his chef knife anymore, let alone a helicopter cyclic. He had to quit working. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. When he could no longer lift his arms or stand on his own feet, the tormenting story of ALS began to unfold.
But this is not Albie’s story. His story, and the years I’d shared with him, is a story about powder snow.
When Albie lived at the base of Big Sky Resort, he biked to work, even in winter. He scoffed at his neighbors who drove the same distance he biked, but he wasn’t self-righteous about it. Rather, he saw it as a violation of the greater good. Driving contributed to global warming. Global warming threatened snowfall. “Why,” he’d ask me with great anguish, “do these people want to take away my powder?”
Albie saw the world differently.
“37 more sleeps!” He’d holler randomly in the restaurant where we both worked. The next day he’d yell, “36 sleeps!” He seemed like a madman, running around a kitchen, slapping the grill with a spatula, hollering these numeric phrases. “35 sleeps!” It was fall then, ski season was coming, and Albie was counting down to opening day. Most people counted days. But since Albie’s other job was working the graveyard shift, making snow for the ski slopes, his days weren’t defined by the traditional sunrise and sunset. Then, his calendar was counted by how many times he’d sleep. And when no more sleeps were to be counted, Albie would rise, put on ski boots, and ride his first chair lift of the season.
He may have been a skier above all things, but this man always prided himself on his sled-riding prowess, his ability to plunge, head-first, down the steepest of slopes. His sled was not a pricey snowmobile or big toboggan. He’d tell you it was a Ziffy Whomper, a half-body sized sliver of plastic that streaked as fast as rocks skipping over a pond.
On one of his prouder moments, Albie illegally sledded Big Sky Resort’s double black diamond—Big Rock Tongue—a run that most skiers fear. Albie center-punched it, goggles first, arms and legs his only rudder and only brake. That time, he boasted, he didn’t get busted.
Albie talked about sledding and winter with such thrill and excitement, you’d think his heart could make it snow.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Albie was in town for a party. He sat in the middle of a crowd of friends while we told stories and joked. Suddenly, he spoke up, and things got serious.
“I’m selling my skis,” he said. His voice was growing more horse, so we leaned in closer to hear. “All six pairs.”
From a wheelchair, he had no use for them anymore. We were all skiers, and the thought of giving up our favorite toys prompted a moment of silence. It became more clear that this disease was taking everything.
“That sucks,” someone said.
Then Albie raised his head. “At least I am alive,” he said. He could still count his sleeps. He would still rise the next day. Life was good, simply, because life was there.
On that day when Albie skied under the closure rope and doomed his ski pass, he claimed it was an accident. This particular black diamond run—The Wave Wall—was closed specifically to preserve the powder for a media shoot by Warren Miller. Locals were already in an uproar. No local from any ski hill approves of being locked out of his favorite run, particularly for lavish film crews and their pampered movie-star skiers. To ski this run would be revolt. A violator would be standing up for locals, reclaiming their mountain, and flipping the bird to any media company who gets between a man and his snow. Albie would have never admitted to that motive. It was an accident. He swore by it, even though he struggled to suppress a smile when he said it. I couldn’t help but hear his words echo, “why do they want to take away my powder?”
Ski patrol didn’t care about any of that. They revoked his skiing privileges immediately.
Big Sky locals were proud. In fact, they were so proud, a sticker campaign followed that stated, “Free Albie.” It was a demand his many friends were making, slapping the sticker resort-wide as a renegade petition to have his ski pass reinstated. We wanted to ski with our friend again. He could have been called a hero, standing up for all skiers. Or maybe, he just wanted the powder.