Taos Ski Valley is known as an old-school, die-hard skiers’ mountain, tailored to family and friends that just love to ski. On Christmas Eve it is known for the Torch Light Parade down Snakedance and on New Years for the fireworks that light up the valley. But mostly, Taos is known for its family traditions that have remained unchanged for more than 50 years.
The beauty of tradition is that while places may evolve, just as many people grow out of them as into them, keeping their essence pulsating with life. The Taos I knew is in a double A-Frame cabin that was built the summer of 1961 by my visionary grandfather, James T. McGuckin. On a whim, he and my grandmother, Gay, visited the ski valley for the New Year. They were so taken by the “epic” skiing and the lively but cozy atmosphere, that two months later my grandfather rented a 1-acre parcel for $5,000. That summer, he built the two-story pine wood cabin modeled after a photo in Ski Magazine that was featuring new-age mountain homes.
During his many trips from his home in Albuquerque to Taos that spring, my grandfather developed a close friendship with Ernie Blake, founder of TSV. That Christmas, Ernie asked him to join five other homeowners on the Taos Board of Directors – and for the McGuckin’s to join the Blake’s for Christmas dinner.
The Blake’s have eaten Christmas turkey with us every year since. Now, after our 56th year, the two families spread over four generations, Taos has grown from a single Poma lift up Al’s Run to 12 quads, and Ernie is gone; but against all odds, the cabin hasn’t changed a bit.
The cabin smells like Christmas, even in March, decorated year-round with mistletoe and Nutcrackers, and I can still see myself as a little girl sitting in the chair next to the fire playing Mario Brothers on my game-boy. The air was always filled with the endless pinball chatter of the five McGuckin women, which, has become a forewarning for any man who has ever attempted to enter the clan. Only two were successful and both broke one of my grandfather’s ribs by colliding on the slopes with him on separate occasions.
Now, at 28 and having since replaced the game-boy with a Kindle, I’ve found my seat at the “big-kids table” with my mom, my sister, Emily, her husband Chris, my three aunts and my grandmother, drinking wine and reminiscing.
Reminiscing about the time my grandfather was run off the catwalk by an out of control skier, breaking his leg at the beginning of an epic powder day. When everyone else returned home at the end of the day, he sat with a cast and a bourbon in silence. On the door he had placed a sign: “Anyone who enters and speaks, mumbles, whispers about the conditions today DIES-DEAD. Signed, the disgruntled bastard.” The sign is still there, framed with an X-Ray of his leg.
Or the times when Emily and I were little and the ski patrol managed to put on Santa and elf suits and come by the house singing carols on Christmas Eve. I realize now that it was in exchange for a bottle of Whiskey.
Or when my aunt Amy lost her new pearl earring and initiated a full-cabin search party. Three days later, she developed a terrible ear-ache. With tweezers and a flashlight, my grandpa miraculously fixed her ear by simultaneously finding the earring.
My Taos isn’t about rope-drop fresh tracks, but my childhood and that of my future children. My Taos is about reading a “short” story that I wrote called Rudy Reindeer to everyone on Christmas Eve for an hour and a half, on film, and having all 13 people listen contently. It’s about the occasional find of 1960’s canned goods in the pantry or the original Barbie doll in the cupboards, half eaten by mice.
It’s about my dad and I singing Silent Night out of key and two-stepping to South by Southwest at the Saint Bernard. It’s about my mom’s green chili grits on Christmas morning and my grandmother’s green-chili stew for after skiing. It’s about Emily’s excitement to decorate the tree and telling me every year, “It’s my turn; you got to put the angel on last year.” It’s about my mom consoling me when Emily told me that Santa was just the ski patrol.
My Taos exists because a man somehow knew 56 years ago that of all places, Taos would never sell out.
I thought that like most traditions, ours began by luck and then eventually habit. I always thought that my grandfather accidentally fell into investing in Taos Ski Valley, that he had just stumbled on it and out of impulse, bought.
But, when I asked him if he knew what he was doing when he built that Double-A Frame cabin, he smiled contently and looked at me through his 83-year-old, always calculating, still vibrant brown eyes — and he said yes.