I was driving Highway 64 from Telluride to Taos late last month when inspiration struck.
Soaking up the spectacular western vistas and looking forward to a few days at Taos Ski Valley, my mind – never far from politics – turned to former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Taos resident and a beast of a skier who routinely tackles the legendary mountain’s toughest terrain.
As the Journal’s Washington correspondent, I had the 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate’s cell number in my phone, so with my wife egging me on, I sent Johnson a text message asking if he might be free to ski with me. To my surprise, he replied within minutes saying he accepted “the challenge.”
Uh, let me assure you I did not “challenge” a guy who has finished three Ironman Triathlons, scaled seven of the world’s highest mountain peaks and run 100 miles through the Rocky Mountains in a single stretch. I immediately started wondering what I had gotten myself into.
We met at the mountain base two days later at 9 a.m. sharp under gloomy gray skies and a forecast calling for a high of 19 degrees. We shook gloved hands, and Johnson asked what I felt like skiing.
“I don’t know – maybe cruise a few greens and blues (novice and intermediate runs),” I replied with a nervous smile, knowing that wasn’t in the cards. Johnson arched a skeptical eyebrow at me, grinned and moved toward the chairlift.
After we disembarked, the former governor – dubbed the “fittest presidential candidate of all time” by Men’s Health – headed down Porcupine, an intermediate cruiser. I felt a surge of relief as I followed behind. Johnson was going to take it easy, at least at first. Well, actually no – he wasn’t.
He quickly veered to the right and over the precipice of Spencer’s, a steep black diamond run with moguls seemingly the size of Volkswagens. With a deep breath, I dropped in behind him and started the descent. I made it to the bottom without falling, but my quad muscles were already cursing me. The governor, waiting at the bottom, kindly affirmed my abilities when I caught up.
That’s pretty much how it went the rest of the day – Johnson pushing me out of my comfort zone, me struggling to keep up and feeling surges of pride when I did. As we hiked to Highline Ridge with our skis slung over our shoulders, this altitude-challenged D.C. swamp dweller – nearly 20 years Johnson’s junior – again fell behind. Johnson reached the summit and walked back down about 50 yards, grabbed my skis and carried them the rest of the way to help me in my ascent. No, that wasn’t emasculating at all.
Steeling myself, I followed the governor down a spectacular double-black diamond tree run through powder stashes off of Highline Ridge and later down the awe-inspiring West Basin Ridge on the mountain’s front side. I’d always wanted to ski the West Basin Ridge (I even have a framed poster of it in my office) but never quite had the nerve.
Despite my trepidation at the crest, I’m pleased to report I made it down alive.
We also rode the Kachina lift to the mountain’s 12,400-foot summit twice and skied down that vertigo-inducing vertical. It was among the most memorable ski days of my life and made me realize that, while I’m pretty good, there is always room for improvement.
Johnson’s fitness at age 64 is astounding and an inspiration to anyone who aspires to remain active well into their later years.
The day also reaffirmed my love for Taos Ski Valley. It’s an absolute gem of a skier’s mountain – on par with the world’s best – and with multi-million dollar improvements ongoing, it should be an immense source of pride for all New Mexicans.
Of course, as Johnson and I rode the lifts between runs, we talked a little politics. He vowed to never again run for the presidency, citing a deep disillusionment with an American political system that rewarded Donald Trump with the keys to the White House despite his “dishonesty.”
He said he has been disappointed in Trump’s aggressive deportation and immigration enforcement in the early days of his presidency, but that he supports some of his other policies, such as relaxing regulations on businesses.
But while he won’t run for president again, Johnson said that at the urging of several high-profile Americans whom he declined to name, he’ll keep his political action committee, “Our America,” active and stay involved in national policy debates.
Not surprisingly, Johnson said he’s most interested in supporting the momentum for marijuana legalization, especially now that staunchly anti-pot Jeff Sessions is the U.S. Attorney General. Johnson predicted that one day Americans will look back at America’s punitive drug policy with the same regret as alcohol prohibition.
While Johnson plans to stay at least somewhat active in national policy, he said he’ll do it from New Mexico, where he was raised, went to college and made his fortune in construction before entering politics. The governor built his dream house about 16 miles from Taos, and has 88 days of skiing under his belt this season alone.
“I love New Mexico, I love Taos and I love skiing,” he declared. “I’m here for the duration.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.