Smith: Farewell until we meet again, Warren Miller (column)
I first learned how to ski when the Van Nuys High School Ski Club offered two weeks of dry-land ski lessons and a trip to Table Mountain — all for $9. The San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles didn’t get much snow during the 1960s, so we learned how to clomp around in leather boots, lashed to hickory skis that towered over our heads, perfecting our sidestepping, kick turns and herringbones.
But, the event that truly made me a “skier” was attending my first Warren Miller ski film in the fall of 1965. I’ve never been the same since.
Besides breathtaking shots of skiers with more grit than sense plunging down couloirs that I’d never ski in some country I’d never heard of, Warren dispensed his legendary dry wit. In years to come, Warren would become famous for his “Warrenisms”:
“You are a unique person — just like everybody else.”
“I won’t ruin a good story with the absolute truth.”
“Always try everything at least twice.”
“The best thing about skiing backwards is you can see where you’ve been.”
“When I started skiing, my pants were baggy and my cheeks were tight. Now my cheeks are baggy and my pants are tight.”
“Never eat in a restaurant that has a bowling trophy on the cash register.”
“There are only four things you can do on skis: turn right, turn left, go straight or sell them.”
“Jumping on skis is easy. Landing is the hard part.”
“If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your thing.”
“If you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you’ll probably end up there.”
“Ski as much as you can, and you’ll never die telling yourself, I should have spent more time at the office.”
“You can’t get hurt skiing unless you fall.”
In the years that followed, ski season didn’t officially begin until Warren Miller came to town, narrating his latest ski film in his wonderful, playful monotone: “You want your skis? Go get ’em.” Everyone I knew who skied (and there weren’t many) attended the shows. Each summer, I’d look forward to the antics Miller would capture in his next film, accentuated by his dry wit and running commentary.
While I always suspected that Warren Miller’s itinerary extended well beyond the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, I had no idea the lengths he went to, to offer the same wonderful experience to thousands of other skiers across the country: driving all night, surviving on ketchup squirted into a cup of hot water and oyster crackers and sacrificing days of sleep, only to discover that they sold a paltry eight tickets to his presentation; not even enough to cover the cost of his gas.
In the afternoon, Warren would roam the halls of the hospital at Sun Valley, Idaho, looking for patients who would consent to having their casts embellished with his cartoons. In addition to action photography and writing, he was an exceptional cartoonist. The cost? One dollar. If he was lucky, he’d sell enough to buy him and his roommate, Ward Baker, lift tickets for the next day.
Decades before Netflix and YouTube, Miller zipped from coast to coast, from Southern California to Canada, from Oregon to Vermont in his beat-up truck, never reneging on a single commitment. He just couldn’t bear the thought of standing up an audience who were willing to pay to enjoy his films.
Fast-forward to 2004, I cornered Warren and begged him to write the foreword for my first book. I couldn’t think of anyone besides Warren to kick off my book about skiing that would capture the freedom and raw fun of trying to figure out how to survive a day on skis. Naturally, he consented.
Few of us have entertained the opportunity to commit ourselves to our dreams. Somewhere along the line, we caved into college, careers and families. But, Warren Miller did it all.
In addition to becoming a world-renowned ski bum, he was a successful entertainer, businessman, loving husband and father — all while juggling his coast-to-coast schedule in hopes that a few might show up to his shows.
Not many can attest to that.
So, we’ll miss you, Warren. We’ll miss the memories you gave us and the motivation to ski that one last run at the end of the day. To ski just a little bit harder and better than yesterday. Be safe, my friend. We’ll meet you at the top on the other side.
“The best place in the world to ski is where you’re skiing that day.”
Allen Smith is a resident of Oceanside, California.