In Search of Big Air : Snow-filled days, mosh-pit nights and a taste of teen-age freedom.

Alex Markels lives in New York; his last story for this magazine was on extreme skiing

Saturday, 7:30 a.m.:

Cars idle in the Los Alamitos High School parking lot as the tour bus pulls in. Trunks snap open, and groggy-eyed teen-agers emerge, grabbing snowboards and skis and racing to the partly filled bus in hopes of staking out a good seat. Parents mill about, looking on with either worry or outright anticipation of their own upcoming freedom.

One mom tries to give her daughter a goodby kiss, but it's no use. Keenly aware that the kids on the bus are within eyeshot, the girl squirms free from her mother's arms.

"No mom," she says sternly. "Just say goodby."

"I'll kiss you," her best friend tells the mother.

Another parent is suspicious of the chaperon's youth. "I'm Courtney's mom," she says sternly. "This is the first year we've let her go."

"Oh, we'll be gentle with her," responds Matt Miller, a 21-year-old UC Irvine student who has volunteered in exchange for a free ski trip.

"No!" the woman exclaims. "Whatever you do, don't be gentle. They'll go wild."

A father points to his disheveled son, a wild-haired 16-year-old named Eli. "Last time he came back with green hair," the man says with a scowl.

"Maybe he swam in an over-chlorinated pool," offers Miller.

"I don't think so."

The big day is here. All over California, teen-agers are boarding buses for a defining ritual: the high school ski trip. This one's the coolest and the biggest: 3,000 kids from 200 high schools packed onto 59 buses bound for Salt Lake City; four days and nights partying with friends, mosh dancing at a rock concert, and snowboarding and skiing at resorts most have only seen in magazines.

Best of all, no parents! No one to make them clean up their rooms. No one to tell them what to eat or who to hang out with or what clothes to wear.

There are, of course, rules against drinking and smoking pot and staying out past the 11 p.m. room curfew, but the volunteers who supervise the trip, along with a parent or two, are a far cry from typical high school chaperons. Most are 21 to 25 and former fraternity boys from Southern California colleges; to their edicts of "don't do it" they are likely to add, "and if you do, don't get caught."

Kids are still boarding at "Los Al," the bus's last stop, when a beer bottle crammed inside a boot bag shatters and begins leaking all over the luggage compartment. Miller decides not to bust the owner. But since the bag is full of broken glass, he climbs on the bus and addresses the kids.

"I'm not going to open it," he announces. "Because if I find something, I'll have to kick the person off the bus. But whose ever it is, please take it somewhere and clean it out or it's not going on the bus."

The kids look around at each other, then at Miller.

"S'not mine," says one. "I wouldn't be stupid enough to bring bottles. I only brought cans."

"I only drink vodka," snaps another.

After a few minutes, a red-faced girl shuffles forward accompanied by a friend. She grabs the bag and the two scamper off to the school bathroom.

When they return, Miller takes a final roll call and signals the driver. The bus pulls onto the freeway and the kids settle into their seats, fidgeting with backrests, spreading blankets and plugging in CD and tape players.

The coach is no run-of-the-mill school bus. There are 47 seats, and all but the rear bench are velour recliners. Huge plate-glass windows provide seat-to-ceiling views of the passing landscape, and video monitors hang from the overhead compartments.

Miller has come prepared. When he heard his bus would likely have a VCR system, he grabbed half a dozen titles from his video library. He pops in his favorite, "Caddyshack," and the bus falls silent.

"Greatest invention since Ritalin," says one of the adults, pointing to the screen. Adds Miller: "On buses with just stereos, everybody fights over the music. And they get bored, and they start to party. This totally mellows them out."

Nineteen hours, 60-something Big Macs and about 100 dead bodies later ("Menace II Society," "Scarface" and assorted other blood-drenched flicks are in Miller's collection), we arrive at the Embassy Suites in downtown Salt Lake City. The ride was thankfully uneventful, especially compared to the bus behind ours.

It seems a bunch of rowdy boys from El Toro High School were paired with a group from Rosary, an all-girls Catholic school. Things got off to a bad start when a boy in the back mooned the Rosary parents just as the bus pulled out of the parking lot. During the ride, a chaperon thought he saw beer cans thrown from the bus, and a Rosary girl complained the boys were pinching girls' butts as they tried to get to the bathroom.

Turns out a Rosary parent is a police officer. Phone calls are made to the Salt Lake City Police Department, and by the time the bus arrives at the hotel, two cops are waiting. They board the bus and search for beer cans but find nothing. After chewing out a sassy El Toro boy, they march off and drive away.

Later, the El Toro boys are hanging out in the lobby with Shannon, one of the Rosary girls they'd allegedly grabbed.

"It didn't bother me," she says earnestly.

Tony, Joel, Todd, B.J., Jeff and Randy, ages 16 to 18, have all the trappings of a gang. Most sport shaved heads, blue satin flight jackets and ultra-wide pants with chain-linked wallets. Their talk is in code and littered with profanities. They've got enough attitude to last Mick Jagger a lifetime, but they say they aren't skinheads. Far from it. Tony and Jeff say they started shaving their heads for football, Joel did it for motorcycling. The others thought it was cool, so they did it too.

"I guess long hair's kinda played out," one explains.

Sunday, 7:30 a.m.

It's a windy, crystal-blue morning as the bus snakes up Little Cottonwood Canyon toward Snowbird ski area. Most of these kids have never skied outside of California, and they ogle the surrounding peaks as they step into the parking lot.

They claim snowboards and skis, then amble toward the lifts.

Once at the resort, they can go wherever and with whomever they want until the bus picks them up at 4:30. Cliques have already formed, most notably around Melissa, a sweet-natured 17-year-old who earned a free trip by recruiting 15 schoolmates.

She started snowboarding in eighth grade, though she's skied since she was 3. A senior this year, she says she wants to go to Boulder, Colo., for college. That is, if she can persuade her parents. "That would be soooo sweeet," she coos. "I hope to go there and, like, take classes and work at the ski lifts to help pay for school. That means I can board and go to school. Purrrrrfect! And no parents. Yes !"

Tomboyish, with blond braids falling from a black knit cap and a snowboarder's trademark baggy duds, she's perfectly at home with the boys. "They just push it to the limit," she says as she rides up the chair, half a dozen snowboarder dudes in tow. "I watch the guys take air and I say, 'All right, I'm going to try it.' I like the adrenaline rush. My boyfriend rips," she continues. "He's one of those guys who doesn't care what happens to his body. He'll just charge it and do the most insane things. You're, like, 'Whoa!' He inspired me a lot."

The group takes a few cruising runs to warm up, then it's off to search for big air. Scouring the hillsides, they fling themselves off rocks, moguls and just about anything else in unending pursuit of one tingly taste of weightlessness after another.

Snowboarders have a reputation for being obsessed with jumping and riding out of control, but their penchant for thrills is more a factor of their age than what they choose to attach to their feet. Not only are teen-agers more apt to push the limits until they push back, most are fledglings in a fledgling sport.

Snowboarding was invented in the late 1970s, but its popularity has recently mushroomed. Snowboarders, or "riders" as they prefer to call themselves, make up only about 17.5% of the total skiing population, but three-fourths of them are under 24, which lends the sport a decidedly rebellious character.

Skateboarders and surfers, finding much in common with the sideways stance and jibbing steering techniques of their own sports, have quickly adopted snowboarding as their own. That's infused it with a hip social culture that's part beach bum, part street kid and wholly miscreant.

But for all its smartass attitude, snowboarding is remarkably inclusive. Anyone riding a board is immediately accepted into the fraternity, regardless of garb or talent or age. Take our group: At the front of the pack there's Aron, a pimple-faced surfer dude who wears a firefighter's jacket. Next is Jon-Paul, a stubby former wrestler with jet-black dyed hair and a magnetic attraction for "hospital air," a.k.a. jumps that might land one in the infirmary.

Melissa, by far the most graceful rider in the group, holds her own, but a couple of the other kids are pretty green, one literally. He's Tom, a friend of Melissa who decided to celebrate his 21st birthday on the trip because its $329 price sounded like a "cool deal." Sporting a goatee and bright green hair, he picked up the nickname "Booger" during the bus ride.

About half the kids here are snowboarders. And like many, Tom has yet to get the hang of it and spends as much time on his butt as on his feet.

Unlike skiers, few snowboarders have ever bothered to take lessons. Nearly everyone holds recent memories of their own foibles and most are willing to offer a hand. "Your friends can teach you, so you don't have to take some stupid class," one school-phobic rider told me. "It takes two hours to learn."

But it's not simply that snowboarding's easier to learn. The sheer lack of defined rules and established techniques means there's no clear hierarchy. No one to tell you you're doing it wrong.

"Skiing is, like, a more serious sport," says Eli, as he pauses on his duff. "Snowboarding is, like, you just go to have fun. Everyone pretty much has their own style. There's no certain rules to it like there is in skiing. You can ride your board forward, backward, sideways, every which direction. You do whatever. You don't care how you look. You just try to get as big air as you can. But you try to be unique. Make your own moves."

To be sure, if style and precision are integral to skiing, the antithesis is true of snowboarding.

The clothing is potato-sack baggy, and the tricks performed seem awkward in the extreme. But for a generation yearning to express itself, snowboarding may be the perfect canvas. New moves with names like 540 McTwist, Backside Disaster Revert and Fakie2Fakie are constantly being invented. Riders cover their $400 boards, which look like oversized skateboards, with graffiti art and stickers, giving each a homemade quality. And the clothing, ranging from goofy Cat in the Hat to East L.A. gangsta, screams for attention.

"Skiers still l wear those tight stretch pants, like back when my grandparents were skiing," says Aron, whose bright yellow firefighter's jacket could very well turn into next year's latest fashion. "Snowboarding is constantly changing, which is why teen-agers like it."

To many skiers, however, the change is unwelcome. With a lexicon in which the F-word works as an adjective, verb and noun--often in the same sentence--snowboarders have earned reputation for rudeness. Rumors of gun-toting snowboarders and gangs on the slopes have helped polarize the skier-snowboarder rift. But truth be known, packs of wily snowboarders bear closer resemblance to "Our Gang" than to "Boyz N the Hood." And while adults may interpret their thug-like attire as a show of solidarity with inner-city kids, snowbarders reasons are far less philosophical.

"It's more comforatable," says one, standing in a tent-size jacket. "It's totally for freedom of movement."

Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Time for the main event: a three-band lineup starring Offspring, a thrash band now in heavy rotation on MTV. Frisked at the door, the kids file into a long hall with balconies on either side and a stage at one end. The music begins to pump. The emcee takes the stage and advises dancers against raising their elbows.

"Mosh in peace!" he exclaims.

The first band, Sublime, breaks into a grungy reggae, and the floor vibrates with stomping feet. By the second song, a swirling mosh pit springs up 20 feet from the packed stage. Boys pace around a 30-foot circle, crashing into each other like bumper cars, then recovering and continuing on. The pounding occasionally lands someone on the floor, but he's immediately scooped up and pushed back into the crowd.

Like their rule-wary snowboarding, moshing is a sort of dancing anarchy, free from the constraints of defined steps or rhythm. "It's legal fighting," says Tony, whose hulking frame downs at least a dozen dancers by the end of the night. "If you get knocked down, you look stupid in front of the whole crowd. If you knock them down, you're the baddest guy around."

Others see it in gentler terms. "Yeah, you push people, but you don't try to fight," says a longhaired boy from Santa Monica. "You just take that person's energy and you give it to someone else. And when they fall down, you pick them up. It's like they're your brother."

By the time the second band takes the stage, the scene looks more like a riot than a concert. The singer, a Madonna clone who fingers the crotch of her baggy pants as she struts around the stage, leads the girls in the audience through a version of her latest song, "Sixteen."

"A-B-C-D-E-F-G, don't you want to sleep with me?" they sing as the band blares.

When the band leaves the stage, a group of kids congregate in the middle of the hall. Lizzy, a doe-eyed 16-year-old, is dressed in her best grunge attire: knit cap, plaid shirt, baggy jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers. But, like most of the other girls, she's stayed far from the mosh pit, unimpressed with the boys' antics.

"Jon-Paul got hit," she says with disdain. "He's at the back near the men's room." Flanked by two medics, J.P. slumps in a chair, a three-inch gash over his right eye.

"My mom's gonna be pissed," he says with a lightheaded shrug. He points to a bruise under his other eye. "Last time she bummed heavily."

The injury count eventually rises to a dozen. Tonight's includes an epileptic seizure that temporarily halts the concert, a few sprained limbs and a concussion.

By room check, the kids have finally mellowed, but whether it's from exhaustion or intoxication is hard to say. In this hotel full of high-schoolers, almost everyone who wanted to has smuggled in some kind of alcohol, and the faint smell of marijuana wafts through the corridors.

At 2:30 a.m., Miller--who has logged maybe four hours of sleep in the last 48--gets an emergency call from one of the girls' rooms.

Shannon is choking and can't breath. Paramedics soon arrive. They ask her roommates if she's taken any drugs. The girls say they don't think so. Shannon, who's taking medicine for chronic asthma and bronchitis, refuses to go to the hospital. Her parents are called, and the next morning Miller announces on the bus that she's been sent home.

But she's in the lobby that afternoon, indignant over her treatment: "This is what I've heard about what happened to me: My lung collapsed, I OD'd on drugs, I was dead and came back to life, I choked on a marijuana seed, I mixed my drugs and my medicine because I wanted to kill myself because I couldn't handle the skiing up here."

She crosses her arms and frowns: "Pissed me off. It's so lame. I just choked on my gum, and my asthma worked up. And when your asthma works up, your bronchial tubes close. So, of course, I couldn't breathe.

"They called my parents at 3 a.m. telling them I was under the influence of drugs, but they didn't even know. You can't sit there and lie about me and tell them I'm on drugs. I could totally sue."

As it turns out, the tour's 32-year-old operator is the first to support her. "I believe in innocent until proven guilty," he says the next evening. "She said she wasn't on drugs, and they didn't find anything, so we let her stay."

Unfortunately, his subordinates had already begun a deliberate campaign of misinformation. Having run high school trips since 1979, he and his cohorts have long since figured out the best way to keep a lid on trouble: Ugly rumor. Clamp down on them hard, or at least give that impression, and you control 99% of the trouble that might follow.

"We don't always send them home, but we give the other kids the impression they're gone," he says. "That's why we have the detention center: When a kid gets busted, we say, 'Look, we're giving you the biggest second chance you've ever had. You'll stay on the trip, but you'll never see your friends until the bus ride home.' " Supervisors then quarantine the naughty youths in one hotel room, letting them out only to ski.

The tactic occasionally backfires, as in Shannon's case, but it succeeds in casting a clear "Here's the line. You cross it, you're out" message while avoiding the inconvenience of shipping large numbers home early.

Monday, 7:30 a.m.

The bus is half empty. After last night, many have decided to spend the day in front of the TV or hitting the nearby shopping malls. Those who do go are treated to six inches of fresh powder, though most are exhausted by noon.

"This is what it's all about," says Melissa, a serene smile lighting up her face as the day draws to a close. "It's that intense feeling. It's, like, one with the trees. Just you and a buddy cruising the woods."

Tonight there'll be a dance party, but nothing like last night's mosh fest. Most kids choose to hang in their rooms, relishing the freedom of partying late without threat of mom and dad returning home early. Red-eyed kids occasionally appear in the hallways. A few are busted for smuggling beer and hauled off to the detention center. But all in all, everything's mellow.

Wednesday, 6 p.m.

The bus roars out of the Flying J truck stop and onto I-15 south. The kids have ravaged the shelves of the mini-mart, inspiring the manager to high-five his cashier. Thanks to this and six other buses, the just-opened store sets a record for sales in an hour: $3,000.

After making last turns at Brighton ski area, the kids are exhausted and easily sedated with a flick. Miller plugs in "Stand by Me."

Everyone's swapped seats, and there are a few new couples sitting beside each other. As the night progresses, they slowly move closer, intertwining fingers, then arms, legs and, finally, lips. All in all, though, their shy make-out sessions are a far cry from the X-rated talk of the last few days.

"Used to be, we couldn't pry them apart with crowbars," says bus driver John Pfening, who chaperoned Emery's first outing 15 years ago. "All the girls and boys wanted to sleep together. Nowadays they could care less. The guys only want to party and the girls don't want much of anything to do with them."

Pfening figures it's probably the AIDS thing. But all in all, he thinks this generation of California kids is a lot less troubled than the mass media portrays.

"It got to a point in the mid-1980s that the kids were very destructive. They were throwing TVs out the window, causing thousands in damage to the hotels and buses. This year, out of 44 kids, this bus had a pillow missing. And for all their messiness, the entire group caused less than $100 in damage at the hotel. That's amazing."

Pfening has four kids, one of whom will soon be old enough to come. But will he let her?

He smiles. "Not without me as the driver."

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