Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An Ode to Michele and Team Gray

Back in about nineteen hundred and eighty-five or so I had an opportunity to take a semester out of school and come to Utah try my hand at being a ski bum, so I worked at Snowbird and skied most days (I even have an “I heart Snowbird” sticker somewhere in my archives; ironic considering I just bashed them last week in an op-ed in the Deseret News and haven’t skied there for a dozen years!).  Brother Paul was living here and I was able to see and ski with him a bit, but since he was a working guy in his first real job he was pretty busy, so most days I was skiing alone. 

And thus I stood in the corner of the tram car by myself, day after day, just watching and listening to my fellow Snowbirders.  Therefore, I couldn’t help but notice that every weekend I saw the same very attractive girl who always had about a dozen equally attractive kids circled around her, yukking it up and clearly keen to be in her space.  That is, as long as they could keep up on the descents; she was as graceful and quick on skis as she was with a compliment and a big laugh. 

Soon enough I left Snowbird and went back to school, but Paul stayed and I would bust back out to Utah for Christmas breaks, and invariably I’d see the same attractive girl casually slaying Great Scott, Upper Silver Fox, etc with her posse in tow.  And then on one of those Christmas vacations I saw her doing it on tele gear, and of course my infatuation only increased.   One year Mike Elovitz came out with me for the annual Utah Christmas foray, and in the tram line I pointed out to him the Tele Queen of Snowbird and mentioned that I’d been seeing her for years, but she always had such magnetism that there were too many people attached to her to ever bust into that circle.   I did a bit of snooping about to get some beta on her, but of course to no avail.  So it goes in the formative years. 

Some weeks after we returned to Portland Mike and I walked into the Bridgeport Brewery after an ultimate game (as was our wont), ordered a beer, turned around, and stopped dead:  there she was.  The Tele Queen of Snowbird! Right there in Bridgeport!  But this time there was no magnetic posse; just one other woman.  Emboldened, since I was now on my own turf, I marched right up to her and said “Hi! You’re Michele Martin, you’re a tele skier from Salt Lake, you went to Georgetown, you’re a diver, and one of your parents is named Pep, but I’m not sure which one!”  To which she wisely responded:  “Well now, who are you, and why are you stalking me?”  which of course was exactly the right response.

We have many “moments” in our lives, and very few of them are actually very substantial.  But that one was very much a “Sliding Doors” moment, where both of our lives fundamentally took on a new trajectory that continues literally to this very day. 

It turned out that Michele had just recently moved to Portland – with a boyfriend, much to my chagrin  - and was already wise enough to know that her passion for skiing was going to get muted by the relatively lackluster skiing available on Mount Hood, so once she realized I wasn’t a stalker (or was I?) and we were chatting she mentioned that she really wanted to get into kayaking.  “Kayaking!  We’re kayakers; we’ll teach you!” Mike and I exclaimed.  Little did she know what she was getting into, but she applied the same grace and athleticism to the rivers as she did to steep ski lines, and soon enough we were driving all over the Northwest paddling its great rivers.  
formative backcountry skiing on the north side of mt hood
a very flattering picture getting ready to mount up for some formidable river!
And as it turned out, she later dumped her boyfriend and Mike swooped in, but a trip to Utah where he got absolutely shelled trying to keep up with the Queen’s posse at the ‘Bird was the beginning of the end of that romance, though fortunately the friendship remained.

Not long after this a fourth musketeer was added:  Barbara Harper, fresh from a similar migration to the West to find good adventures and fun folks, and the four of us and our broader community proceeded to spend years charging down rivers, skiing  peaks, playing bad ultimate frisbee (though Michele later captained national and world championship teams), and generally yukking it up. 

At some point in that frenzy I met Ryan Gray, a strapping young videographer for Nike, and he asked me if I knew of an outdoorsy woman who had a size 7 (sample sized) foot and was a medium apparel size who would be a good model for Nike’s ACG outdoor line. Did I ever!  Michele was willing to stuff her size 8+ feet into size 7 shoes for the cause (and money) and for Ryan, and in addition to him making her into the early-90’s poster child for ACG he - like many  - fell head over heels for her. 

Our carefree lives got a gut-wrenching blast in 1994 when Barbara died in an accident on the river (the subject of another post, or maybe not….); I was not there that day, but Michele was, and as I returned home and stepped off the plane I realized there was no one I needed more at that point.   We had shared so much together already, but this was big, and even as she grieved and had survivor’s guilt she was a rock for the rest of us. 
a year later, at a ropes course with Barb's friends and family
A year later Michele and Ryan got married, and she honored me with the request that I be one of her bridesmaids, which I happily accepted.   As such, she made sure that I didn’t lured out on the groomsmen outings, which was fine with me; I was in very fine company!
I was willing to wear a low cut dress myself, but Michele knew where to draw the line. 
Some years later I was again out in Utah for a Christmas holiday and she introduced me to a woman named Ashley, who was very similar to Michele in her abilities to laugh, ski, and make other people feel great.   At the end of the day Michele sidled up to me and slyly said; “You know, Ash is single!”  I protested that she knew that I had a nice girlfriend, but Michele just gave me her famous smile full of brilliant teeth, and that was all that was needed.  Michele knew better than I did what was best for me, and now - almost 20 years later - Ash and I are still making the most of it. 

The years flowed by and Michele and Ryan added to Team Gray, having three great kids who grew to love rivers and mountains as much as their parents.  And Michele  inspired an entire generation of Portland kids as high school English teacher (and as one who could out-ski all of her students!).   But their idyllic world got rocked a few years ago when Michele – as avid and regular of an athlete as any of us – fell over on the tennis court with a stopped heart.  Fortunately there was a defibrillator nearby, and they were able to keep it going for the quick zip to the closest hospital, where a renowned cardiologist was just checking out for vacation happened to still be around, and he was able to bring her back.    One of her heart vessels literally tore open due to a difficult/impossible-to-predict and very rare condition.  Since then she’s had multiple stents put in and some fairly aggressive and unusual treatments to address it, but is always pretty dismissive about it:   “Oh, it’s fine”, with the only nod to what could potentially be a fatal condition that she just not run quite as fast! 

Michele and I both put in for our Grand Canyon permits in the early 90’s, and The List for the GC was epicly long.  I was able to use my permit in 2002, but  - because she wanted her kids to enjoy that trip with her – she put it off for a few more years doing many river trips with brother Scott and family and others to make sure she and her family were ready for The Grand.  In the meantime she was gradually rising to the top of the list where she could choose any date she wanted, and finally she got her much-vaunted launch date in August of this year.  And they honored Ash and I with an invitation to finally join Team Gray on their Grand Canyon journey. 

However, their world was turned upside down on Friday morning:  their oldest daughter Ruby had died in her sleep that night after a glorious week of skiing in Sun Valley with her friends, telling Ryan she loved him, and going to bed like she did every night. 

Team Gray has had their fair share of challenges, but this…..this is big.  Too big.  Ruby was – like the rest of her family – a goofy and lovable force of nature, and her passing will clearly leave a gaping hole in not only the Gray’s lives but that of their vast community, since the tragedy of the loss of youth in general and children in particular is desperately acute. 

Indeed, that moment in Bridgeport Brewing was a turning point in both of our lives, and I’ve many times been thankful that I was bold enough to confront Michele with my stalkage that night.  She’s tough as nails and Team Gray has been through a lot together, but this is a whole new dimension for she and her family to process.   Undoubtedly they will do so with the grace and courage that they’ve inspired in all of the many friends and students who have grown to love them. 


  1. A wonderful and fitting tribute to friendship and family. Well done Tom.

  2. thanks for sharing that Tom.

  3. Tom, that is such a nice write up. Thank you for putting this in words and sharing. My heart is gaped open too. xoxo