Published on November 1st, 1999 | by John Morton
John Caldwell’s Wild West Ski Tour
Posted November 1st, 1999
This essay was originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio.
My early cross-country ski racing career benefited from the guidance of John Caldwell, Putney School’s famous math teacher and ski coach. After the publication of his popular book Cross-Country Ski in 1964, Caldwell became the guru of nordic skiing here in America, and Olympic hopefuls migrated from across the country to work out in Putney, Vermont. Part of Caldwell’s magic was his easy-going, fun-loving attitude toward training.
Caldwell had a unique ability to make even the most demanding conditioning sessions seem fun, but John’s classic workout was The Tour. This was an endurance event that seldom had a planned route and never had a predetermined duration. More than just a workout, Caldwell’s tours were adventures, even expeditions. When the location was Putney, Caldwell would lead his group of National Team Members over the rolling hills, across brooks, through apple orchards, and deep into endless hardwood forests. Then he would disappear. Even in winter, breaking trail through unbroken powder or scampering across an icy crust, the crafty coach would somehow double back on his own tracks, leaving his mystified racers to find their way back to Putney on their own. More than once, exhausted skiers from the Rockies or Alaska hitchhiked back to Putney from the neighboring towns of Dummerston, Townsend, and even Westminster.
John Caldwell’s most memorable ski tour took place in Yellowstone National Park. In the late autumn of 1971, prior to the tryouts for the Sapporo Winter Olympics, National Team members, including cross-country skiers, nordic combined competitors, and biathletes had been invited to take advantage of the early season snow at Big Sky, Montana. The accommodations were great, there was plenty of snow, and the training was terrific.
But Big Sky is isolated. By Thanksgiving, after weeks of intense training and hundreds of kilometers on skis, the high strung Olympic hopefuls were climbing the walls. So Caldwell, Head Coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Team at the time, planned a diversion.
On Thanksgiving Day, he loaded up four rugged Jeep Wagoneers with athletes and headed south through the beautiful Gallatin Canyon. More than an hour later we reached the village of West Yellowstone, the western entrance to America’s first National Park. Both the town and the imposing Park Entrance were totally deserted. Barriers blocked the access road and signs made it clear that the Park was closed for the season. Caldwell left the lead vehicle and checked the abandoned Ranger Station. He returned and conferred with the other coaches. With a, “What the hell” attitude, they shifted the Wagoneers into four-wheel drive, plowed through a roadside snow bank, around the barricades and into the Park.
Then the fun really began! A race immediately developed down the snow-packed road to Madison Junction. Encouraged by the athletes, the coaches put those Jeeps through a deep-snow, four-wheel-drive, high-speed chase unlike anything they had ever experienced on a factory test track.
The thrill of speeding down the snow-packed road inspired our next adventure, skijoring. Someone had a length of rope, so we took turns whipping over the snow-covered road on our delicate cross-country skis, pulled by the Jeeps at 40 miles an hour! It was an unforgettable thrill.
We stopped several times to photograph animals: elk, bison, swans, geese, and even a coyote. Of course, having cross-country skis allowed the more determined photographers to test their courage by getting up close and personal with their wildlife subjects.
One of the westerners on the team had been in the Park before, and led us to a spot where a boiling, thermal spring overflowed into an icy river. We stripped down in the snow and gingerly found a narrow band of steaming water where the temperature was hot, but not scalding. A dozen exhausted athletes sat on the warm rocks, up to our chins in the strong current, relishing nature’s Jaccuzi. Someone handed each of us an ice-cold beer. After several weeks of two, and even three workouts a day, intensified by the unrelenting anxiety of vying for a spot on the Olympic Team,that soak in the hot spring was absolute heaven.
Bright red and steaming, we fumbled into our clothes and returned to the Jeeps. The coaches plowed on to Old Faithful. We parked in front of the magnificent wooden lodge and waited for the geyser’s hourly eruption. I vaguely remember Caldwell engaged in an animated conversation with the winter caretaker of the lodge, but then Old Faithful erupted, and we watched with rapt attention. When Mother Nature’s most reliable marvel sputtered to its conclusion, we loaded the Wagoneers and followed our tracks back to West Yellowstone. Totally relaxed from our dip in the hot spring, most of us slept until we reached the Park Entrance.
I woke to see our exit blocked by Park Service trucks, complete with flashing headlights and rotating beacons. Several armed Rangers, looking very official under their “Smokey the Bear” hats, stood in front of the roadblock. As Caldwell stepped out of the Jeep we rolled down the windows to hear what promised to be an entertaining exchange. John began by explaining that we had stopped on our way in to get permission, but that no one was around. I heard him use the phrase “Olympic Team” several times. The Rangers were not impressed. They simply glared at him until he was finished.
Then the fireworks began. The Head Ranger read Caldwell the riot act, enumerating in detail the federal infractions we had committed including, (but not limited to): illegally entering a National Park, speeding on an unmaintained road, harassing the wildlife, indecent exposure, consumption of alcohol in a restricted area, etc. etc. We had committed violations which could easily result in $24,000 in federal fines, and possibly jail time! It was the only time I have ever seen John Caldwell at a loss for words.
It was a very quiet ride back to Big Sky; partly because we were so tired, but mostly because we were convinced that something serious would result from our carelessness. Somehow, Caldwell smoothed it all over. None of us had to appear in court or even chip in for the fines.
John Caldwell is still admired and respected by a couple of generations of American cross-country skiers. His original book, Cross-Country Ski has been reprinted eight times, and has sold more than 500,000 copies. But, I suppose there are a couple of Park Rangers in West Yellowstone, Montana who still have their doubts about him, even after 25 years.