With the news that Bike, Powder, and Surfer magazines are being shut down, as well as the print edition of Snowboarder, the last few days have seen an outpouring of sadness online, via text, and through phone calls and emails. Folks I haven’t talked to in decades have reached out, more than a few confessing to shedding a tear or two. These magazines are cultural icons and their passing leaves a hole that can’t be filled by reading a scroll on your phone.
It’s gotten me feeling a little nostalgic, as you might imagine. I guess what you should know is that in the early years, Surfer and Powder were owned by a company called For Better Living, Inc., which was a public company but was majority held by a guy named Bud Fabian, who’d made his fortune in building materials. Bud was at least in his early 70s when I got there in 1987, and he was at some remove from the business, as he entrusted it to Danna Lewis, our president. Danna said she suspected that Bud, who was a windsurfer, bought first Surfer and then Powder because they were way cooler to talk about at parties than concrete. Bud was amazing. I sat in on quite a few meetings with him, but the one I remember most, we were talking about ways to grow Powder. He looked at us and said something to the effect, “That’s great if you want to make me more money, but don’t ever change the core product to do that. Stay true to your customers and we’ll be just fine.” Dude, seriously? From Danna and Bud both, I learned that you don’t have to sell your soul, or commodify your customers, to make a decent living.
We had a lot of fun, it’s true. So many shenanigans. Riding a full suspension recumbent bike down the steps and crashing into pony walls. Finding Dave Moe, a.k.a. Captain Powder, in a heap of skis at the bottom of said steps, or hearing a shriek from someone who discovered him in his office in his birthday suit “because it was his birthday.” My favorite Moe story, likely apocryphal, was the time he put itching powder on the toilet paper in the women’s restroom. The women of the office, not taking kindly to it, stripped him and tied him to a tree in front of the building.
Yes, we played a lot. But we worked a lot, too, and I think I can speak for many of us when I say that those evenings spent working late on a deadline were magical. Stressful, yes, but at the same time we were in our own little bubble, a handful of people united in trying to create something special and in its own way important.
Bud, sadly, passed away, and the company passed to his son. A handful of us in management were hoping to buy Surfer Pubs and create an employee-owned and operated publishing house, but the son put the company out for public bidding and we stood no chance against the owner of Petersen Publishing, which was on a debt-fueled spending spree. Petersen was the highest bidder and they very quickly went to work, surveying the staff on whether the magazines should move to Colorado. They also told us they planned to shut down Bike and roll its circulation into the Petersen-owned Mountain Biking, which was the dumbest idea ever. Mountain Biking had high circulation and terrible editorial, and Bike had great edit but low circ. Publisher Brent Diamond and I shuttled back and forth between the Petersen offices in LA and ours in San Juan Capistrano, fighting to keep Bike alive. In the end, they agreed with us, but we’d won the battle and lost the war.
Things got weird around the office and on a Friday afternoon in August I decided that the writing on the wall was getting clearer. I spent the entire weekend in my office, cleaning out my personal effects and waxing nostalgic. I wandered through the common spaces and through the photo department, where we’d had so many epic discussions about what to run and how to run it. I sat in the warehouse and looked at the stacks of boxed magazines stretching to the ceiling and thought about how each represented optimism and hope. So much history in that building.
On Tuesday, there was a staff-wide meeting offsite, but Brent and I weren’t invited. Instead, we were called to the former president’s office, where we were told the magazines were moving to Colorado but we weren’t going with them. The HR people handed us our termination packets, I went down to my office and got my keys, and that was that. It was quick and clean and probably for the best. At least they didn’t feel the need to escort me from the building.
A couple weeks later, I did have a last request of the magazine, which was now being run by John Bresee: that I be allowed to write one last editor’s Intro, for the third issue of the year. John, who has since passed away, certainly didn’t have to say yes, but he did, and I was forever grateful for that. I wrote it in a couple hours on a Wednesday night, sniffling the whole time, and when I called Leslie Anthony to read it aloud to him on the phone I couldn’t even get through it for the tears. For almost 12 years, Powder and Bike had been my life; the days were still disorienting, and there was grief, too.
The intro I wrote, though, wasn’t maudlin or bittersweet. In it, I tried to channel the ethos of Powder founders Dave Moe, Jake Moe, and Bruce Bailey, who wrote in the first issue that “we begin a celebration…to us powder means freedom, with an emphasis, not on how you do it, just doing it more.”
Last weekend, after learning about the demise of Powder and it fellow titles, I dug into my hard drive and pulled out that intro (Powder 27.3, October 1998) to read it for the first time in 22 years. I don’t know if it’s apropos of the moment, but I’ll share it with you here in case it is:
Last spring, I visited Caltech in Pasadena, California, where a physicist named Ken Libbrecht was growing snow crystals in his lab. Most of Libbrecht’s work and energy is spent on large-scale stuff, like helping build machines that detect waves in the fabric of the space-time continuum, but tenure and curiosity and a few discretionary dollars in his budget allow him to pursue whatever catches his fancy. For the last year or so, that’s been snowflakes: snowflakes and snowflake development.
With help from grad students, Libbrecht built a diffusion chamber in which he could create ice crystals on the end of a wire charged with electrical current. When he runs voltage through the wire, water molecules attach themselves and form a tiny needle crystal. Then, by manipulating the wire, Libbrecht can alter how the molecules attach themselves to the needle—as arms, plates, whatever. The result is an amazing display of snowflake beauty, much of it rendered later on a video screen in stunning time-lapse photography that a snow geek can watch again and again. These moving images were one of Libbrecht’s goals, a way of bringing art to his science. But, aside from just being enchanted by aesthetics, Libbrecht the scientist wanted to discover and chart which weather conditions (humidity, temperature, etc.) cause which type of crystals to form. Essentially, he’s using his lab in an attempt to create a Rosetta stone that would allow you to decode the “history” of any given flake.
I spent hours with Libbrecht, and our conversation eventually turned to the math of snowflakes, to the equations that describe the physics of frozen water, and that’s when he lost me. Trying to get back on comprehensible ground, I asked him, “So, what are the unsolved mysteries of snowflakes? What’s left to be discovered?”
He laughed. No, he snorted.
“What’s left to be discovered?” Leaning forward over his cluttered desk, he paused for effect and arched an eyebrow. “Almost everything. What we know about snowflakes is a tiny fraction of what we don’t know.”
Months later, long after I’d forgotten most of what I heard, those words continue to echo in my head. I hear them when I’m looking at ski pictures, I hear them when I’m falling asleep at night, I hear them when I’m daydreaming at my desk.
“What we know about snowflakes is a tiny fraction of what we don’t know.” Of course.
So now I think about a snowstorm, about a raging maelstrom of a snowstorm, with big, fat flakes that scream horizontal on the wind, and I think about the equations, the swirling hurricane of numbers, that somehow might be able to describe the fury before me, and I think that even with the biggest computer in the world, even with the unified might of every brain in the universe, you could never truly capture or convey or explain the magic and mystery and majesty of the storm. It’s something that can only be experienced, experienced with your whole being. With your soul.
So it is with powder skiing, and with POWDER Magazine. After years of pursuing a deepening knowledge of skiing through the pages of POWDER, I think I finally understand this weird relationship between knowledge and ignorance and gut-level comprehension. This motion over snow, this paper and ink, are bound together inextricably, connected and made whole in ways that can’t be described by equations or even words, that can only be understood through the shared experience and collective spirit of lives spent on skis. In the end, you know it by doing it, and by doing it you know.
I have been honored and blessed to be a part of this magazine for 12 years, but the time has come for me to say goodbye. In leaving, I want to thank you for everything: the letters, the calls, buying the magazine, the whole enchilada. I wish for you nothing but the best, for the deepest, lightest snow, for friends that say, “No, you go first,” and for huge grins and goggles that don’t fog and a desire for freshies that never, ever wanes. Remember that POWDER means freedom, that it means getting away to a place where there are no lines, no ropes, no fences, just snow, and that it is, ultimately, an expression of thanks. Remember that, and keep the faith.
Photo of Mammoth Mountain, California, by David Reddick
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