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  • Writer's pictureJohn Giuffo

Dudeville Is Where The Heart Is

An Interview With Author J.D. Kleinke, Who Chased Powder West and Found Himself

The author climbing Mt. Elbert, c. late 1990s. Photo: J.D. Kleinke

For all but the most die-hard East Coast skier, there’s no denying the pull of big western mountains. With deeper, more consistent snow, more vert, and higher elevations, the peaks that push up west of the Continental Divide sing a siren song to those of us who crave the sorts of powdery turns and gnarly lines sold to us in almost every ski movie ever made. Many of us are satisfied with annual or semi-annual pilgrimages to those mountains we regard as near-mythological. Some scratch the itch by heading west and bumming around for a few years before life pulls them back home. Others relocate and remake themselves in the time-honored American tradition first popularized, it is said, by newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who advised directionless mid-19th century American males to “Go west, young man.” The journey west as reinvention in the face of personal struggle is a trope in American literature as old as the form itself, but it’s rarely hit as close to home with me as it did in ‘Dudeville,” a book by J.D. Kleinke, first published in 2017 but which I came to a little late as part of my feverish efforts to catch up with every possible book and history to be published about my now six-year-old mountain addiction. The description of Kleinke’s book, when I first read it, hit the sweet spot: “Dudeville is a coming-of-middle-age adventure story, set in and all around small-town Colorado during the outdoor sports explosion of the 1990s. Inspired by a wide and wild range of influences -- from Thoreau, Whitman, Muir and Twain, to Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Warren Miller -- Dudeville is equal parts extreme sports tale, male bonding romp, and reluctant love story, a sensuous, lyrical, exuberant exploration of the American West.” But it’s more than that. It’s a fever dream of regret and growth. A warning for all would-be seekers of western solace that the troubles we seek to escape have a way of following us, or reconstituting themselves in the person of others we encounter while fleeing our pasts. While many of us perseverate on the bounties of western mountains and stew in our frustration that those are lives we’ll probably never live, Kleinke actually did the thing: ditched an unhappy life back east and chased his long-nurtured dreams west. Following a dull marriage, a successful but deadening career in medical information science, and a re-awakening of the snow junkie gene in a series of visits to Killington while working his corporate gig in Maryland, Jack ditches the dead-end relationship, the unhappy job, and the frustrating mid-Atlantic home for a series of adventures in Dudeville, a nickname for one of any number of then-burgeoning, now-gentrified Colorado ski bum towns (think Telluride, Crested Butte, or Breckenridge). It becomes the hub around which all of “Jack’s” (Kleinke, in thinly-veiled disguise) adventures spin out – ill-fated relationships, epic hikes, and dangerous backcountry adventures. There’s a hallucinatory shift in time and perspective that permeates the book (which nicely complements the jam-band thrum which undergirds things), and which serves as a great device to tell stories about the present and past in a way that makes thematic sense, and ties together cause and effect over the course of years that aren’t always visible in the moment. It’s an impressively writerly and self-assured book, frankly, for a self-published work. Kleinke spends some time conjuring and describing a feeling he calls “The Presence” – a semi-spiritual sense of things that are larger than ourselves, and which tie us into the imposing nature lurking behind every bend or above every ridge in the mountains. The bulk of Kleinke’s tale is a love story, which, while I won’t spoil things, can fairly be described as rocky and tumultuous. This is true of his relationship with both the mountains and with “Jill,” a badass pro-skier who flies in and out of town and his life, upending the latter and forcing him to reckon with those things about himself that he’d thought he ran away from. Kleinke and I talked via a series of conversations over email. Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Kleinke at the top of Berthoud Pass, before the invention of the splitboard. Photo: J.D. Kleinke

ICM: So you say the book is a work of fiction, but I seem to remember you also saying that it’s a thinly-fictionalized version of real-life events – a sort of “the names have been changed to protect all involved” kind of thing. Is this an accurate understanding of the events in the book? How much is real, how much is license?

J.D.: It may as well be straight-ahead memoir: I did exactly what Jack in the story does, for the exact same reasons, and to the exact same bittersweet end. In my mid-30s, I blew off my life — marriage of almost a decade, intense job, circle of old friends — to go west, disappear into the mountains, and bag peaks, preferably those with good snow and long rides down. It was a classic mid-life crisis, played out at altitude, chasing the next adrenaline rush. I immersed myself in the ski-bum / dirtbag life I never got to live when I was younger. I grew up in a small town in a fairly rough way, had seen none of the world, and before I was even out of high school I was living hand to mouth for years in various East Coast cities, [then] just trying to put myself through college and figure out how to make a living.

ICM: My first guess at the book’s true setting: Dudeville is Crested Butte? Is that right? Tell me what it (wherever it is) was like 20 years ago.

J.D.: “Dudeville” is my characters’ nickname for the town they’ve all stumbled into and made their own. Columbine, Colorado, is a place I made up out of whole cloth, and which no one in the story wants to call by that name for obvious reasons. The Butte is a good guess, and the “pissing contest” story in the book is something I heard happened in a bar there.

But rather than just set the whole thing in there, or in Paonia, or Durango, Truckee, Ketchum, Telluride, you name it — I wanted the town itself to be a character in the book, to represent not just a specific place, but a psychic place, a culturally familiar, adrenaline junkie jumping-off point. And so the town of ‘Dudeville' itself is an amalgam, not just of great little ski towns like the Butte, but of dozens of towns that used to be like it used to be. Funky, ramshackle, once out-of-the-way places surrounded by immense beauty, resurrected from old mining camps all over the American West into waystations for mountaineers, river runners, climbers, desert rats, mountain bikers — fiercely independent, cantankerous communities full of fun-hogs.

And of course, thanks to all of that, these towns have been radically, horribly transformed over the past 20 years, into Aspen Lites, destination resorts full of condos, valet parking, t-shirt shops, sushi bars and all manner of tourist crap, surrounded by gigantic vacation homes that sit empty most of the year. Crested Butte has gone through exactly that life cycle and it didn’t take 20 years.

ICM:Let’s back up to the beginning: What planted the seeds for your migration west? You talk about an unfulfilling tech job, a lackluster marriage, etc. True for you as well?

J.D.: I was 29 years old before I ever set foot west of the Mississippi River, even though I grew up on skis in Central New York. But that’s just what you did growing up in the boonies outside Syracuse, unless you played hockey. My father first put me on skis at age five, and my first ever job with a pay-stub was as a 15-year-old ski instructor at this goofy local place called 90 Acres that doubled as a golf driving range in the summer.

Skiing in all those upstate New York areas was hardly glamorous back in those days. It was all brown-bag, ski-in-your-jeans, duct tape your shit together at places with barely a thousand feet of vertical, a way to kill those long winters, a way to make money on the weekends. Not once did it occur to me that I could actually go west and ski. That was what people did in Warren Miller movies, not what the drunk locals, and blue collar dads, and crazy lifties I grew up around did. And it was what the rich kids did. For me back then, Killington was as faraway and exotic as anything in the Rockies.

So, by the time I got through college, after multiple tries in multiple places, and into my first job, I found myself marooned in Baltimore, in a marriage forged in mutual struggle. And then my luck changed, my career took off. Jack may grumble in the book about the tech company he helped start and grow into something, but every entrepreneur loves to bitch like that about the work, the pressure, the sacrifices. But it was actually a thrill-ride — we were inventing a business category people in health care now take for granted — and I loved the rush of all that too, until the insane hours and pressure caught up with me, my marriage fell apart, and I started plotting how I could get out from under it and get west. It was actually snowboarding that hooked me, and a trip back to Killington in the middle of all that, and the sudden mobility that went with the job.

ICM: Tell me about the “big city music dream.” I know guitars haunt corners of your book, and I’ve seen that you still bust it out for Shabbos get-togethers. What’s your relationship to your music dream today? What guitar(s) do you still play?

J.D.: Music was the other thing that pulled me away from the mountains and skiing and the rest, the only thing that gave me joy through a lot of hard early years. At my very first attempt at college, at the University of Pittsburgh, I moved into this glorious hovel of a group house near campus, with three-fifths of a great local punk band -- this was 1981 — and the lead guitarist became and still is a close friend. He showed me how to play guitar, and I’ve been playing one ever since, though it’s all acoustic now, on my Martin D-15 and D-35 and Eastman mandolin, if you really want to know!

No more punk, though in that mix of bluegrass, alt-country, and hippie music we play, I do sneak in some cowpunk. And yes, synagogue services too, along with acoustic guitar in kirtans and yoga studios. What a long strange trip indeed. In fact, the sequel I’m working on for Dudeville has Jack, a few decades later, completely lucking into a situation where he can make a living making music. But no spoilers!

Kleinke hangs ten on Mt. Bross in Colorado. Photo: J.D. Kleinke

ICM:In the book, you describe a connection with a palpable, semi-spiritual quality you found on your mountain adventures. Do you remember where and when you were when you first felt what you call “The Presence?”

J.D.: Exactly as described in Dudeville: deep in the woods that surrounded our house on the outskirts of Manlius. I grew up in a religiously conflicted family — which is way too much for this interview — but I was exposed by my grandmothers to Catholicism and Judaism. I loved the music from both, and both had the same spiritual power. The feeling of connecting with eternity, with all the world was the same, just in different languages. And I didn’t really understand or have a name for all of it — until I experienced an overwhelming version of the exact same feeling in those woods, when I was eight or nine years old. Some landscapes are just charged that way, as I describe throughout Dudeville, and those woods are still heavy with it — something I discovered when I went back last year, for the first time in 40 years. Those woods are alive with it.

ICM: What did “preoccupied if not obsessed with snow and rock and ice” look like? How did this obsession manifest itself in your life? My own rampaging obsession never got as hardcore as yours seems to have, but I’ve tested relationships and confused friends and loved ones with my (admittedly-late) blossoming as a mountain junkie. What did the mountains do to your life? What role do mountains still play in your life? How much do you still get up, and is it mostly hike-to or is there a resort or ski area you’re partial to?

J.D.: The moment I re-discovered skiing, and then snowboarding that same season at Whitetail, I became completely obsessed. Like the obsession of having to make up for a huge amount of lost time. It was like the real me came back, after years of gut-wrenching struggle, the antidote to so much frustration, grinding labor, tedium. But isn’t that skiing? The moment you feel that drop, and hear the wind in your ears, you're a teenager again. You’re free. The cleanest adrenaline flush in the world. So, within a few short years, I had enough money, and all these business reasons to get out west — in CO, AZ, and CA, as luck would have it. My marriage had ended, so just like Jack, I engineered my entire life — which was still intensely busy with the business — around how many days I could still get out on the snow, or a mountain bike trail, or a hang-glider, which I’d also gotten into around then, thanks to my work travels. But because I was still tethered to Baltimore, I also found a spot in a group house up in Killington, and I was able to finagle weekends there after work in NYC and Boston. During this odd period, when my colleagues were all settling down and having kids and moving out to the 'burbs, I was going the other way. I was not just obsessed with mountains and snow and gear and my next adventure, but I actively displayed my obsession for all to see, storing all my gear — skis, snowboards, mountain bike — right there in the living room of my big empty Baltimore apartment. It became who I was, my way of saying, ‘Sure, I have this big fancy yuppie job and all this responsibility and all this pressure, but I’m actually a ski-bum, a dirtbag. I may look like an uber-adult, a guy helping run a high-growth company, but I’m actually not even here…I’m just doing laundry between trips.'

ICM: Was your journey west also rooted in your relationships with the real-life versions of Aaron the patroller and Amy the Rebound Girl? I know a lot about running up to Killington to shift the reality of city life, and those parts of the book resonated with me – sometimes disturbingly so. How much of a role did Killington (and any other Eastern ski areas) play in your fate?

J.D.: That’s where the fiction comes in. Aaron was inspired by a guy I met right after I moved to CO, and we did have many of the adventures detailed in Dudeville, and he's still one of my best friends. But by then he was well onto the trajectory we see him starting at the end of the book, but his backstory is basically Aaron’s, including the really painful part revealed near the end. The guy knows everything there is to know about gear, weather, avalanche safety, terrain, and adventure sports, and he LOVES telling gnarly stories, the more bizarre and gruesome the better. He’s also a gifted doctor. As for Amy the Rebound Girl — well — she’s the one who picked me up, at a bar in Killington, so there you go.

ICM:What is this power that mountains have to pull us away from our lives and sometimes our relationships?

J.D.: Mountains are not things; they are enormous living creatures, the closest physical manifestations we can have -- after the ocean or maybe the Grand Canyon — to something like God in our world. Mountains shatter our egos, calibrate our lives, and force us to confront who we really are and what really matters. Some people find this terrifying, and want to go no closer, or maybe even run away. Some people are just blank in the face of all that. But there are also people, like you and me, who find something profoundly seductive in that same exact confrontation. They crave it, become addicted to it, and to risk, and that's when they start to get in trouble, another thing I explore in the book.

Mountaineering can indeed be a religion, but as with all religion, it’s important not to use it to avoid dealing with your shit. That’s just another form of spiritual bypass, but it can get you killed. It has gotten many people killed in fact. But the mountains do beckon, tease the imagination, dare you to come closer. And the more you do that, the more you indulge and climb up them and ride down their snowy faces, the more you hardwire your whole nervous system and your spiritual life to those mountains.

And when you do climb up there, which requires an obsessive attention to gear, weather, your own conditioning, your mental fitness, your own mental obstacles, you are forcing a profound conversation with yourself. Can I do this? How would I save myself? Am I crazy? No one comes back from major challenges on big mountains without being changed, altered, empowered, and humbled, all of those conflicting emotions, all at the same time. Climbing a big mountain, and/or just skiing down one, by yourself on good snow, is nothing short of a religious experience. You realize how small you are and, paradoxically, how powerful you are. For me, it’s always a glimpse of eternity, and I come back bathed in peace.

ICM:When did you switch from skis to boards? When, why, and oh, man, all I could think about reading your descriptions of post-holing your way behind your tele and AT buddies, was “Why didn’t Jeremy Jones popularize the split board earlier?”

J.D.: 1991, the first year I got back on skis after fifteen years, and I saw the snowboarders carving it up at Whitetail. I went out and bought a Burton Air that must have weighed 20 pounds, and beat the living shit out of myself until I figured out how to connect turns, near the middle of the second brutal day. And then I didn’t ski again until I moved to CO and got out in the backcountry. And yes, at I would have given for split boards back then. Telemarking was the only option for serious hut trips and backcountry trips. AT gear was still shit back then too.

Kleinke and his trusty snowboard on Buffalo Mtn. Photo: J.D. Kleinke

ICM: Tell me more about the story of how you produced and published this book. Did you get it all down at the time, then carry it around with you for years? Did it exist in bits and pieces and follow you around in various file formats? Was there a frustrating series of publication proposals that lead to the ultimate self-published format decision?

J.D.: I had been writing Dudeville in my head for years, gathering all those backstories, and campfire yarns, and spiritual ideas the whole time I was working my day job and writing the books related to that job. So when I finally got clear to start typing out Dudeville, it was an immense pleasure to be writing about subjects that were so much more directly, personally meaningful. I also had some tough experiences with the three publishers of my first three books. The book publishing industry is a dysfunctional mess, two of my publishers were acquired midstream, and the third one folded a year or so after my medical novel came out. And what I learned with those first three is that the author does almost all the marketing work: finding blurbers and reviewers, pushing excerpts, writing support pieces, doing the book tour. All it took for me to realize I should just publish this myself was one NY literary agent telling me that there’s no market for a literary book about mountaineering, and another telling me that the “all they do in this book is go hiking and have sex, who cares?” So I just said fuck it. I've created and run several very complex businesses, I know how to hire people, deal with paperwork, and use the Internet, and I know what happens when a book comes out. So why wait for the year it takes to find a new agent, who then spends a year finding a publisher, who then takes another year to publish it?

ICM:To wrap up: There are two love stories at the center of the book – one between you and the mountains, and another between you and “Jill,” the badass pro skier who is always coming and going, and with whom you have an on-again, off-again relationship. Has “Jill” read the book? If so, what was her reaction?

J.D.: Yes, she has, and her reaction was via a text that read: “Fiction. Right.” She’s still a friend, and she’s living happily ever after. But I will say that as cool and together as the character in Dudeville is, the real version is even cooler. She’s doing critically important things to protect the environment, while raising a couple of great kids.

J.D. Kleinke is working on a sequel to “Dudeville” tentatively titled, “The Golden Shore,” about “Jack’s” move further west to California, to surf beaches, stability, and middle age. You can find out more about the author, and order Dudeville, here.


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