Withnail and I

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Just like the ’80s cult film, our road trip through B.C.’s ski country took Murphy’s Law to new heights.


ILLUSTRATIONS BY Bintang Suhadiyono

Hmm…it looked bigger online,” my buddy Withnail sighed with a look of disappointment.

“I guess you hear that from a lot of girls,” I responded deadpan.

With no reaction to our conversation, the rental car agent looked at us skeptically when we announced our intention to live out of the van for two weeks on our long-planned road trip across B.C. ski country. Apparently two 40-something men don’t often rent the smallest van in the fleet with the intention of using it as a motorhome, but in the planning stages anyway, it made financial sense to us. By avoiding hotels, we would save money for essentials. Like beer. And if we rented the smallest van, we would save enough for luxuries. Like food.

Withnail and I loaded our new home on wheels in the pouring rain of Vancouver Island then climbed aboard to take stock. When lying down our feet touched the back window while our heads were in the front seats. It had indeed looked much bigger online.

But when there is powder in the forecast, unbridled optimism rules. We turned the ignition, all high fives and whoops. Fifty metres later, we discovered the wipers didn’t work. We crimped a frayed cable and set off again. At our first hill, we wheezed to a halt. Lacking power to U-turn, we reversed back down in a sad wobble and came to a stop under a streetlight.

Under the hood a hose flapped in the wind. “Turn back now,” the hose seemed to be saying. “Go home. Think of your wives and children.”

“Fuck you, hose!” yelled Withnail, jamming it onto a tube that appeared to correspond in size, then slammed down the hood. We turned the key again and whatever that hose was, it made all the difference. On our second attempt, we cruised up the hill and pointed the compass for the ferry docks in Nanaimo.

On board there was only one other vehicle, a logging company truck. We found the guys from the truck in the ferry’s café, very high. They recognized Withnail.

“We hate forestry engineers,” one hissed at us. Withnail is a forestry engineer. We moved to a distant table.

The loggers moved, too. “I’m going to kill that fucker,” the other one said. We moved again. It was like chess, but a lot scarier.

The loggers separated and caught us in a pincer movement. Just when it looked as if this were going to be the shortest road trip ever, a cleaning lady appeared, gazing at us, confused. The diversion worked like a scene from a Bond film. We ran like greyhounds down to our van and hid, shaking, until the ferry docked in Tsawwassen. As the bow doors opened, we wriggled into the front of our non-armoured vehicle and grinned at the loggers, who shouted oaths on seeing us.

We gave no statements to the police who had been waiting. Instead, we bravely sped into the night with Withnail groaning, “I feel inhuman.”

A forest service campground, complete with long-drop toilet, was our first stop. With yet another unwelcome surprise, Withnail spent the night projectile vomiting something he ate. I slept like a log.

Days without a shower: 1

Sunrise was sublime, or ghastly, depending on whether or not you slept the night. Since we were the first that day, we found first tracks all the way along the Crowsnest Pass. Withnail, who squeals in assorted high-pitched notes whenever he’s forced to move uphill on skins showed no signs of regret or shame. “See! It’s just like skiing,” he said smiling “but it’s better because we’re sitting in comfy seats by a heater.” Still, the man can ski and our destination, Whitewater, is a great place to do just that. So we did.

It’s a friendly place. In the café we met the ski school boss, a patrol guy and the bus driver, then loaded the lift and skinned off into the slackcountry. It was an inter-departmental meeting: “No school today.” “Gotta check the snowpack.” And who’s driving the bus? “No one, I guess.”

Locals told us they fear that developers are about to buy Whitewater and turn it into Disneyland and the corporate idea of a great ski hill. But it’s already a great hill. We spent a few days skiing dry, light Whitewater fluffy by day, and at night freezing in a Ymir car park.

Days without a shower: 4

Next stop: Revelstoke! But first, a slide blocked the road. We camped in a gas station. In the lee of the shop we lay in darkness, listening to the wind and the scratching of snow on our little motorhome’s windows. The shopkeeper glared at us. What did she have against two guys in a van? The speaker system clicked and whined. Christian rock started to pipe at high volume. Her glares became a leer as she watched us leave. Later, on our drive out of town, we noted with ironic fascination that the place had burned down.

Monty, our buddy in Revelstoke, had arranged for us to accompany him on the hill’s First Tracks program so we could load the lifts early and chase a local through the trees. Our group was Monty, us and two ex-U.S. national ski team vets. Every turn was overhead. It was, without exaggeration, epic.

The perfection of the day was dented, as was our chalet on wheels, when the brakes failed. We plowed into a massive snowbank and then crept to the garage in first gear. Withnail went to Monty’s house to “get some work done,” a poorly disguised euphemism for “have a beer.”

At five o’clock the garage was closing, but Withnail had the credit card. “Can’t talk, am handcuffed.” he texted. And buck naked, too, as I discovered when I arrived at the house. Monty was also handcuffed, but clothed, and lying on the floor next to Withnail. Like a trophy hunter posing for the camera, an RCMP officer stood by.

Funny story. Having forgotten his house keys again, Monty suggested Withnail  climb in through an unlatched window. The little girl who lived next door watched in fascination and then did what any concerned citizen might do: called the police. Who smashed down the door, rather than knock first, and ran in, guns drawn. Withnail emerged from the shower somewhat surprised to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun. That he did not instantly shit himself says more about him than I ever could. The two “suspects” spent the next half hour on the floor, Monty trying to point out to officers Buck and Benton the various photographs of himself and his wife. The scarlet tunics left without an apology and indeed looking disappointed. I laughed till it hurt.

It appeared that our welcome in Revelstoke had run out, so we packed up the house and headed east. Things, we thought, could only get better.

Then we hit a moose.

Days without a shower: 7

Another friend whom I shall call Martine worked on patrol at my new favourite Alberta ski area, that shall remain nameless. The thought of central heat and a hot shower was almost overwhelming as we headed to her house excitedly.

As it turned out, our visit coincided with an acid party. Martine answered the door naked. Several very high people sat on the sofa, which I lay down behind. The only sober member of the household was a huge, fluffy, smelly white dog that woke me by dry humping me in my sleeping bag. How, I wondered, do I get out from under this dog without causing a scene?

Since we had a relatively serious meeting the next day at the resort that would result in two lift passes, sleep was essential, so another patroller offered us the living room at his place. With a sad face, the dog watched us leave. I wonder if he still thinks of me.

We woke the next morning to an angry “Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?” It seemed our saviour from the night before had not told his landlady that he’d invited some new friends home and the poor woman woke up to find two unknown, rather unhygienic looking characters in her home. We tried to explain ourselves to the lady, who radiated only fury.

“Get the hell out of my house!” she yelled as she watched us pack.

No worries, we thought. We’d go to our meeting, collect our passes, go skiing.

Not to be. Instead, our script read: “After an interrupted sleep, the men are ushered in to meet the appropriate staff member, who turns out to be the same lady who had just ejected them from her house.” Crushed, we broke down and paid for lift passes instead.

Days without a shower: 10

The wind and snow at our final stop in the Okanagan were what Withnail dramatically but appropriated described as “biblical.”

Again, we had friends staying in town. O’Hara, Winston and Isabelle are real friends, who liked us, or said they did. Friends who rarely lost their keys or got ridiculously high. Friends with a nice hotel room. They did not own big horny dogs. The chances of this going well were good and we were thrilled at the thought of a shower.

Withnail is not slim, but in the hotel elevator, he was the skinny bitch. Oddly, everyone else appeared to be at least 200 pounds. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the overload alarm beeped loudly. Followed by the application of emergency brakes. Everyone froze.

Ninety minutes later, or 89 and a half minutes since the first panic attack, we were still in place. This of course all occurred pre-pandemic. You do not know the meaning of “confined space” until you’ve been stuck in a six-person elevator with seven other people, all but one of whom are morbidly obese, claustrophobic. And screaming. I began to regret not taking the stairs.

After what seemed an eternity, the elevator doors opened and we were released. We found our friends’ floor and passed out on it. The next morning, with the jarring knock and door opening by the chambermaid, we woke and left without showers.

“We don’t smell too bad,” said Withnail in a statement that was also a question, as we strolled across the village.

“You guys really stink,” confirmed our friend O’Hara. “How’s the road trip going?”

“Good,” muttered Withnail, looking down.

But one must give the man his due. Withnail can ski. And he did, all day, in massive bumps. He skis those things better than anyone I know. Said Withnail after more than one compliment on his style skiing bumps: “Looks good, feels good and chicks dig it.”

Another day at this place would be time well spent. But our quiet evening descended into a raucous stagger from bar to nightclub to front room, ending only when gravity took its inevitable course.

Days without a shower: 13

Even with a weapons-grade hangover, Withnail can ski. The following day, the massive figure and his strong legs disappeared over the horizon effortlessly—again and again. We didn’t so much ski together, as set off together. I was out of my league and recalled climbing together about a decade ago. While the rest of us were suffering High Altitude Cerebral Edemas, Withnail became possibly the first person ever to summit Denali 6190m, with a hangover. He may also be the only one who also brought along gin and cigarettes.

High notes are a good time to end, so while the van still worked we turned west and headed home. Curious new noises from under the hood were drowned out by the SCRRRREEEEEEEP of the wipers, one now bladeless.

The family waited ambivalently at the door to the kitchen, and dripping wet I hugged them. “I see your time away hasn’t made you any less annoying,” my loving and doting partner said. The kids recoiled. “Daddy, you smell funny.”

The van quietly rusted in the street. It’s downhill all the way to the rental place from here. 

from December/January 2021 issue

Ski Canada Staff
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