FLAGSTAFF "Ride Naked’’ isn’t just a catchy slogan on the T-shirts sold here at the Arizona Snowbowl. For skiers, au naturel adventure is a rite of spring, when locals go bare for the last run of the season.
The more modest might wear furry bikinis, or maybe a smoking jacket and a Viking helmet. Others, such as Bob Hart, keep their adornments to a minimum: ‘‘Sunglasses,’’ he says.
This is the same city that hosts bed races downtown each fall and sends the winner to the nationals in Hawaii, drops a 6-foot lighted pine cone at midnight on New Year’s Eve and gets favorable reviews as a ‘‘Hippy Haven’’ on www.hippy.com.
Flagstaff’s downtown — with its gritty, cozy brick storefronts — looks as if it were lifted from the set of ‘‘Northern Exposure,’’ the hit 1990s TV show about eccentric characters who live and work in a mountain town. You almost expect a moose to come ambling down the street. Nor would this be an unlikely place to hear meditations from a thoughtful DJ or reverent tales of American Indian legends.
Yet despite all its funkaliciousness, Flagstaff didn’t make Skiing magazine’s most recent ‘‘Top 10 Ski Towns’’ list. One likely reason: Extreme drought conditions have made for low snow. Back in the ’70s, Hart remembers, he rode the Snowbowl chairlifts through tunnels of towering snow. But for 10 of the past 11 years, the snowfall has been below average, says Dave Smith, the Snowbowl’s sales and marketing director. Last season, the Snowbowl opened in January, a month later than usual, and closed in March.
But when the flakes do fall — and they do, eventually — the Snowbowl is a fabled resort, local skiers say.
‘‘The beauty of the Snowbowl is that when it snows, it has some of the best snow,’’ Hart says. ‘‘And you’ll find all the desirable terrain that you can find in the big areas — just not as much. The mountain can be your own during the week, if you time it right.’’
Timing is especially important for destination skiers; to play it safe, book a trip between mid-January and mid-March.
But snow or no, Flagstaff is a fun winter town, inhabited by 60,000 people, many in fleece pullovers, jeans and knit hats who have a deep reverence for nature and the creative spirit. It’s a piney haven for artists, natural healers, outdoor rec lovers and permanently undecided majors. The guy with the shaved head and double-pierced left ear, hanging out at the organic coffee shop with his dog? Don’t be surprised if he can converse intelligently about Kafka, theoretical physics and global warming. Flagstaff might have a rep as a slacker town, but these are civic-minded slackers. Most weekends, it’s not hard to find some sort of political protest.
Right now, those protests are aimed at the Snowbowl and its plan to bring in snowmaking machines. The machines, which will use reclaimed water supplied by the city, will guarantee predictable powder. And that will guarantee predictable revenue, which will allow the Snowbowl to upgrade and expand, Smith says.
Over the next five years, the Snowbowl plans to add trails and lifts, a new lodge and a snow play/tubing area. The goal is to install the snowmaking machines next summer and open the 2005-06 season over the Thanksgiving weekend.
‘‘A lot of people get turned off by how (little) snow (the Snowbowl) gets. They get discouraged, and they don’t want to buy season passes,’’ says Shawn Hess, part owner of Altitudes Bar & Grill, a downtown hangout for skiers where the booth tables are covered with laminated ski-trail maps. ‘‘Snowmaking machines would assure good snow, and that would bring back Flagstaff as a ski town.’’
But the issue is a powder keg. The 777-acre Snowbowl operates on the San Francisco Peaks via a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Thirteen American Indian tribes across the Southwest consider the peaks sacred ground. And to disturb the peaks is to disturb their way of life.
‘‘We have certain deities that live on the San Francisco Peaks, we have traditional herbs that we gather — medicines that we have gathered since time immemorial — and we have certain ceremonies that are connected to the San Francisco Peaks,’’ says Klee Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and a volunteer with Save the Peaks, an organization that opposes the Snowbowl’s expansion. ‘‘In order for our religious practices to be effective, this mountain must be protected and respected.’’
On winter nights, when the mountains have emptied of skiers and snowboarders, the warm glow of pubs and restaurants in downtown Flagstaff beckons bundled-up refugees from the evening chill. If you missed your chance to twist a knee on the slopes, there’s always the chance you can still injure yourself dancing atop the bar at the San Felipe Cantina. The San Felipe and neighboring Maloney’s draw a closing-time college crowd — the people most likely to find love at last call.
Mostly, though, the night life is casual; some even joke that if you’ve washed your hair, you’ve overdone it. Earlyevening imbibers head to the Pay ’n Take, a locals’ meeting ground that’s part bar, part convenience store. And it’s never hard to find live music in Flagstaff, be it an Irish band at Collins Irish Pub or a ska festival at the Orpheum.
During the day, locals and visitors pass time at cafes and breweries or poke around art galleries, tourist shops and apothecaries that advertise herbal remedies and ear coning, an ancient healing practice said to cleanse the ears. The peaks and surrounding area are a playground for rafters, rock climbers, hikers and mountain bikers. Flagstaff resident Tammy Gales-Barber says her brother’s goal was to ski and golf in one day. And he accomplished it: Skiing in Flagstaff, teeing off in Sedona.
Because it’s close to Sedona and the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff gets a lot of tourist traffic, beyond the Phoenix residents who head north on Interstate 17 to trade sun for snow.
‘‘Five million people go to the Grand Canyon each year, and almost all of them come through Flagstaff,’’ says Hart, who works at Aspen Sports. ‘‘You’ll hear the whole gamut of languages when you go out for breakfast at one of the cafes. You get to meet a lot of folks.
‘‘If you’re out having a beer, the guy next to you will ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and he’ll buy you a beer, or you’ll buy him a beer because you’re the local and he doesn’t have any money. You can make a friend pretty quickly here.’’
But if making a friend is easy, keeping one isn’t. ‘‘People stay one or two years, then move on,’’ says Altitudes’ Hess, who moved here from upstate New York two years ago. ‘‘I’ve gone through two cycles of friends in two years.’’
Hart notes an old saying about Flagstaff: It’s easy to come back, but it’s hard to stay. ‘‘The quality of life is high, but the quantity is low as in material things,’’ he says. ‘‘We all have three or four jobs.’’
Consider that your warning: Flagstaff is not Aspen. So don’t show up at the Snowbowl driving a Lexus SUV, or you’ll be derided for making a desperate attempt at rugged individualism. And leave the designer ski wear at home. ‘‘You’ll be laughed at for paying so much for some ridiculous fashion statement,’’ Hart says. ‘‘Here, everything is functional.’’
Nor will you see many celebrities on the slopes, though pro golfer Phil Mickelson did once break a leg here. You might spot Jerry Nunn, a local legend — the 82-year-old woman hasn’t missed a ski season since moving to Flagstaff in the 1980s. Not even after a show-off snowboarder clipped her a few years back and sent her to the hospital.
‘‘I wasn’t wearing a helmet, so you could see I had gray hair,’’ she says. ‘‘Did they stop and say, ‘Listen, you sweet little old lady, are you OK?’ No, they were gone.’’
Nunn and her husband, Jimmie, operate the Arizona Ski Museum on their property. Among the memorabilia: The December 1959 issue of Skiing magazine, featuring a pretty, vivacious Nunn — the country’s first woman snow ranger — on the cover. Last year, she was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame for her work in avalanche safety and for opening doors for women in the ski industry. Nunn has skied at resorts worldwide but likes the Snowbowl the best. ‘‘This is home,’’ she says.
Everybody knows everybody at the Snowbowl, and if they don’t know you, they’ll still make you feel welcome. You might never discover the caves around the mountain where the locals do stunts and party, but you’ll at least get invited for a beer on the Agassiz Lodge deck, where local musicians play.
‘‘The best bar in town is at the Agassiz Lodge,’’ says local waitress Ardith McKeown. ‘‘It’s dedicated to the cause. It’s the skier’s life up there.’’
Up there, at 11,500 feet, are blue skies, views of the Grand Canyon and 30-degree weather. ‘‘You can go up there and get a suntan,’’ Hess says. And for one notorious spring day each year, nobody has to worry about tan lines.
Location: 7 miles north of Flagstaff, off U.S. 180
Base elevation: 9,200 feet
Summit elevation: 11,500 feet on the Agassiz lift
Vertical drop: 2,300 feet
Longest run: 2 miles
Number of runs and trails: 32
Area day lodges: 3 (Hart Prairie, Agassiz, Fort Valley)
Lift-ticket price: $42 adults; $24 children ages 8 to 12, free for skiers younger than 7 or older than 70
Season: Typically mid-December through mid-April (check Web site for updates)
Lodging: Room rates are $65 Sunday through Thursday and $85 Fridays and Saturdays at the Ski Lift Lodge & Cabins.
Information: (928) 779-1951 or www.arizonasnowbowl.com. For info on cross-country skiing, click on ‘‘Flagstaff Nordic Center.’’
For information on area hotels and attractions, visit the Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site at www.flagstaffarizona.org or the Arizona Office of Tourism Web site at www.arizonaguide.com.