March 17, 2005

Magic Aura Defines Magic Aura Defines Western Heroes

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There is a special magic to our Old West.

It’s the attitude. We’ve been going downhill, says the owner of the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, ever since “we abolished public hangings.”

It’s the lunacy. Over the past ten days, Robert Sorlie and his eight mush dogs traveled 1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome to win the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Such madness shames the pampered lamebrains of the NCAA basketball tournament.

It’s the music. As the young Clint Eastwood said in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “Every gun makes its own tune.” With Johnny Cash on the radio, it’s always easy to float back to that lonely bar in Oklahoma, sipping whiskey as the sun goes down.

So it is with two great American heroes — Hunter S. Thompson and Bode Miller. Thompson blew his brains out in Colorado this past month — 44 years after Ernest Hemingway did the same in Ketchum, Idaho.

Thompson, of course, was a wanton gun-nut. In 1969, he was commissioned by Playboy to write a piece about Jean-Claude Killy, the celebrated French skier who was the best in the world in his day.

Thompson produced “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” a contemptuous piece about Killy’s pursuit of fame and money. To Thompson, Killy was nothing more than a “witless greedhead.”

Playboy wouldn’t publish Thompson but the article found a home in the edgy Scanlan’s Monthly. Despite his contempt for Killy, Thompson’s article helped create the persona of the downhill ski racer — raw, uncensored, inspiring — as something truly belonging to the Old West.

It does not take much to see the parallels between downhill skiing and the life of a gun fighter. The event is like a pistol-duel, with the racer well aware his survival chances hedge around 50 percent. Both shooters are willing to die if only to insure the death of their opponent. And every time, only one is left standing.

In 1984, a Southern California stoner named Bill Johnson out-drew his competitors to steal Olympic gold in the downhill. In 2001, an aging Johnson nearly killed himself at the U.S. Alpine Championships and is now penniless from the medical bills. Johnson — a loner, a fighter, an outcast — is a tribute to the Old West.

In 1994, Tommy Moe won two medals at the Games in Lillehammer. Moe had earlier been booted off the U.S. team for drinking and smoking weed. A year after his Olympic glory, he careened down the same Norwegian slope where he had won gold. This time, however, he tore his ACL and essentially ended his career. Locals still refer to the fateful slope as “Tommy Moe Channel” – kind of like Donner Pass or the Canyon Diablo. Now, Moe spends his time kayaking in Alaska, unable to escape the Old West way of life.

With Thompson gone and Johnson and Moe settling down, the fastest gun in the west is now Bode Miller.

Bode Miller is the best skier in the world. This last, great American gunslinger struck gold last week in Eastern Switzerland. A lonesome pioneer in a territory as unfamiliar as 19th century Navajo burial grounds, Bode made history by becoming the first American since 1983 to win the overall World Cup Title.

Clad in a dark blue, spider-webbed racing suit, Bode outgunned Austrian Benjamin Raich in the giant slalom to win the most illustrious crown in skiing. The World Cup — a vicious shootout between the world’s most merciless gunmen — left Bode as the last man standing. Bode literally is trailer trash. He grew up in rural New Hampshire in a mobile home without running water or electricity. When he was two or so, horrified visitors would find Bode swimming recklessly in roaring rapids. He was raised on slopes that alternately tutored and mocked him, instilling in the budding revolutionary a mentality few conventional skiers abide by: win at all costs. Today, that same utter disregard for life is the hallmark of his wild skiing style.

So he does not forget where he came from, Bode still uses a RV to get from tournament to tournament. European fans and media — having dubbed Bode a “hippie” and a “cowboy” — eagerly anticipate the arrival of his traveling van, a bizarre unification of Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s bus and Wild Bill Hickock’s steed, Buckshot. Bode, an eccentric and seemingly indestructible iconoclast, has made a hobby of transforming every norm the ski world holds dear.

In true Eastwood form, Bode doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. At races, he infuriates his coaches by refusing to race conservatively — instead of collecting points by placing in multiple events, Bode fires himself out of the gates seeking the only metal he cares for: gold.

What sets Bode apart is his indefinable aura of invincibility. After a death-defying fall at over 60 mph during the Salt Lake City Olympics, Bode roared back from a 15-second deficit to snag the silver medal. At the world championships in Bormio, Bode wiped out and lost a ski — but still finished the race.

Many times he just doesn’t make it. During his current World Cup run, Bode found his name in the “Did Not Finish” category 11 times — the most by the eventual champion.

Whatever Bode is, he is certainly not a “witless greedhead.” He says he might skip the Turin Olympics if he thinks it will make him famous like Michael Jackson or Britney Spears. The consummate desperado, he says he’d rather have a job that pays him enough to get by.

Like Bode, guys like Thompson, Sorlie, Moe and Johnson have made some money in their careers. Yet, it’s easy to see that cash was never what motivated them. At the end of the day, these fearless gunslingers just wanted to ride into the sunset.

Kyle Sheahen is a former Sun Assistant Sports Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Thursday this semester.

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