I rented a perfectly good truck. It took Enterprise half an hour to “find” a four-wheel drive quad-cab full-size truck, but they did. I plan for this. You can book your ride months – or years – in advance, but nine times out of ten the newly minted college grad behind the counter trying to upsell you into a luxury SUV will inform you that the vehicle you reserved is not available. It’s a lie.
Whether you know it or not, all airport car rental agencies are interconnected. Every major airport in America with a rental hub has a master data base, and they’re hip to reserving multiple vehicles on the same dates, under the same name and credit card, from different companies. I know this because I’m guilty of circumventing the “under 25-year-old driver” rental fee when we need three trucks, have only two coaches, and need to rely on one of our student athletes to pilot the third rig.
We travel big. Our team requires three full size trucks to fit 3 coaches, 12 athletes, and 66 pieces of luggage. Morten, our voluntold assistant full-time coach routinely abandons everything in his real-world life at the drop of a hat to go ski racing with the Seawolves, but occasionally he’s held prisoner in the office.
This leaves Anna and I to rent three trucks between the two of us. After losing the coin toss – every time – I rent two trucks from two “unaffiliated” rental companies. And they know…. But I also know. And I know that I don’t have to pay for a luxury SUV because National, Avis, Budget, SIxt, and every other shady airport rental agency has a line on a full-size quad-cab four-wheel drive truck somewhere on premise. And, they can get it for me. The power of persistence.
Enterprise is our primary go-to because of the corporate agreement with UAA. The agreement is good. We can graffiti the truck, drive it off a cliff, submerse it in a lake, shove it in a snow bank, blow out the rear window, or back it into a utility pole at an unreasonable rate of speed, and the truck is fully covered under the…agreement. Only two* of these things have actually happened.
For this year’s three-week college mega tour, Morten successfully traded the office for a monster road trip. Problem solved. Each of us rented a truck from Enterprise and had to explain in no uncertain terms that we absolutely needed the full-size truck we reserved months in advance. The questioning continued. We would not need the road-side assistance, XM satellite radio, pre-paid fuel, GPS service, or chauffeur. With no available trucks, the 22-year-old behind the counter, not yet old enough to rent a car from his own employer, acquiesced and radioed for a supervisor.
“Welcome to Denver!” The car boss approached with a sure strut, grey Men’s Warehouse suit, and no tie. His smile evaporated upon the realization that we weren’t leaving unless he provided three trucks. It took 30 minutes of negotiation, but after passing on several two-wheel drive trucks with summer tires we finally rolled off the lot. Anna picked up a Ford F150. Solid rig. Morten had a Nissan Titan – a bit suspect – and I found myself in a Dodge Ram Big Horn. We filled the payloads to capacity, packed the team inside, and made north for Laramie, WY, our overnight respite en route to Salt Lake City.
My Ram Big Horn was a nice truck. Only 10,000 miles on the odometer, state of the art sound system, seat and steering wheel heater. I had no sooner connected to the Bluetooth when my phone rang with an unknown Denver number. Enterprise. It was the Car Boss. Apparently, there was a recall on my truck’s tailgate latch and I needed to bring it back. I laughed. Tailgate latches are irrelevant on our trips. The tailgates stay down to expand the cargo space an extra two feet for ski bags and wax benches. “Not a problem for us,” I say. “Latches? We don’t need no stinkin’ latches…”
Car Boss was unimpressed with my poor cinematic play on “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” He wanted his truck back. This is where I thought I had the upper hand, being behind the wheel of said truck…but no. I pretended to lose service and dropped the call, but the people who Car Boss work for really wanted their vehicle back, and my phone kept ringing. They finally tracked me down in Laramie. Just after 10 pm my phone lit up with a local 307 Laramie number and I sheepishly answered. Bagged. It was Car Boss. He was in the lobby with another set of truck keys. Enterprise 1. Sparky 0.
I was forced to exchange my 2022 Dodge Ram 1500 with seat and steering wheel heaters for a 2009 stock Ram 1500 with no seat or steering wheel heat and 30,000 miles. How does a 14-year-old rental truck only have 30,000 miles, I thought. Pulling onto I-80 West the next morning I found out.
This truck was deeply flawed. It pulled hard to the right when you fed the carburetor and the four-wheel drive was sketchier on ice than Bambi. At least my steering wheel didn’t need a heater. The sweat from under my white knuckles kept it plenty warm. Once I understood the basic misalignment, the steering was manageable. We made it all the way to Utah without incident. I thought about trading it in at the Salt Lake City airport, but after 551 miles I second guessed myself out of the hassle. Was it really that bad? Like that acute pain in your chest…do I really need to go to the doctor?
I took two aspirin and kept driving the beater Dodge. We finished up the Utah races with some good results. Ella Bromeé qualified herself into the NCAA championships with a 5th place and a 6th place in Slalom. Alyssa Hill had an 11th, and Ainsley a 15th. Leon was top 15 twice with an 11th and a 13th while the rest of the guys pushed their way up the ranking with some solid performances. Four days flew by and I forgot about the shortcomings of my forced trade-in. We reloaded 66 bags into our three truck beds and set course for I-15 into Montana. The weather was tolerable until the Idaho state line.
Blowing snow began to stick to the asphalt 75 miles outside of Pocatello, and tractor-trailers displaced several inches of wet heavy slush across our windshields. We pressed on. I habitually engaged my four-wheel drive on the fly with my right hand, and before I could return my grip to the steering wheel our truck attempted to swap ends. I quickly disengaged the four-by and regained control. The weight in the back would have to be enough to keep us straight in rear wheel drive. But enough about my truck.
My phone rang as I pulled into the Chevron station just north of Idaho State University. It was Morten. His truck was making odd grinding sounds and producing a rancid burning rubber smell. They had pulled off the highway to investigate. Hunter Eid, our lead mechanic, quickly discovered the root of the problem. Blown front differential. The four-wheel drive was smoked, literally. It was drivable, but now truck number two was somewhat incapacitated.
Regrouping at a truck stop off I-15, we decided to limp along at the posted speed limit and make our way into Bozeman. Blowing snow, black ice, and below zero Fahrenheit temps added layers of challenge to an already precarious journey. The best thing about road tripping with the ski team is the banter amongst the kids. Time passes quicker. The NCAA Western Region Championships were coming up, and we were hosting. All the teams would soon be in Anchorage by the end of February. Word on the street was that everyone needed to find a date to the RMISA banquet…from another team. Some sort of new rule from what I could gather.
Cross pollination in ski racing is unequalled by any other sport. Most of these kids have known each other since they were in grade school or maybe before. They’ve spent their entire lives competing against one another. Training at home or traveling to far-away places, these athletes share a bond rooted in the camaraderie of speed, suffering, success, and sacrifice. To get to this level in any sport requires something extra, far more important than natural ability. It requires teamwork.
In this case, our team had some pretty strong opinions. And they had their work cut out for them. There were far more names cast into the discard pile than the revisit pile. Ideas were lobbied and strategies discussed, but after seven hours of discordant ribbing I heard no concrete plan of attack. I guess I’ll have to wait and see who shows up as guests at the Seawolf table next Tuesday night.
With MSU’s race series a bust, we escaped Montana’s Big Sky and made for Colorado’s Front Range. Morten was able to exchange his busted truck for a working one at the Bozeman airport, and I decided the Devil I knew was better than the Devil I didn’t. High winds plagued our passage south. I-90 East was closed just outside of Billings and DOT warnings forced us to change route through West Yellowstone and Jackson, WY. It would tag an extra two hours on our 12-hour odyssey, but it beat the prospect of adding a seedy interstate hotel and extra travel day.
Threading Teton Pass into Jackson was the scenic highlight of our drive. A mecca for backcountry skiing, high angle canyon walls illustrated by rows of vertically snaking curves are the only trace of morning revelry…perfectly visible in the shadows cast from a fast-moving afternoon sun. Skiing. Fourteen hours behind the wheel and I got to thinking what this whole experience is about. What really matters. The elation of gliding downhill through nature. That feeling you had as a kid on a pair of sticks. A new place. The thrill of stepping into your bindings and chasing new snow into unfamiliar terrain. The adventure.
The CU and DU invites went well for the ladies, but our guys were still missing that top gear you need when going up against a bigger bully. Close to cracking the top 15, but frustratingly shy by the tiniest of margins. Ashleigh had a sixth and a seventh at the Giant Slalom’s in Eldora. Ainsley was very close to a podium and ended 4th at the Slalom’s in Loveland. Leon skied into the 8th spot, closer to an NCAA championship berth, but went out on the second day. We’ll need to have an exceptional week of racing at home.
Ski racing is many things. Results, or lack thereof. The energy you put in, the opportunities you harvest, the ability you build on, and the chances you take. Every day brings new variables, and you spend your time combating the elements to compete against your peers. But there are Yukon sunrises that last all day. Long days in a truck weaving through jackknifed semis across interstates of black ice. Cancelled races and powder days. Rental homes with no running water. Winning, whatever you decide that word to mean. Losing, easier to define as long as it doesn’t define you. Moments of wonder and frustration equal in their mystery and magnificence.
But in the end, it’s the adventure. And adventure is best when shared. Passing through these moments in time with friends, acquaintances, adversaries, and enemies. If I’ve learned anything about adventure, it’s that often times it turns enemies from adversaries and acquaintances into friends. The ultimate result. The lasting statistic that matters most. It happens on road trips, in cramped truck cabs, rolling B-net, beating the field or getting beat by it. I love every second of it. And I wouldn’t want to be on this adventure with any other team. Go Seawolves.