I came around the corner of the restroom and at the sink was a woman craning her neck at the mirror and touching up her lipstick. Immediately, I had that sinking feeling that I'd accidentally entered the wrong door, and I was about to be in a whole lot of trouble. Before I panicked, I thought for a moment, and I visualized the porcelain appliance I had just used. I quickly realized that, in fact, I was in the men's room, and it was the fair lady who had erred. Then I scrutinized the profile in front of me, and the doors of perception flew open. She was a guy!
In the same moment, I realized that I had seen more than a few people dressed in outlandish costumes during the weekend. And I'll bet if you mull it over with me, you'll agree that many of the wonderful events that fill Winter Carnival weekend in Steamboat Springs are as much about providing an excuse to play dress up as they are about ski competitions. I had my gender bending encounter at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center, where almost 60 skiers were preparing for a combined Nordic Challenge Series race and the traditional Sweetheart Relay. The Sweetheart Relay offers rewards, in the form of reductions in the skiers' race times, if they are wearing costumes. My friend with the lipstick earned his bonus points. But there were people all over town wearing costumes this weekend. The Muzzleloading Biathlon was held Saturday afternoon just west of the sulfur caves at Howelsen Hill. It's a combined ski race and target shooting contest that encourages competitors to dress like the fur trappers who plied the Rocky Mountains in the 1830s. That means they compete while wearing fringed buckskins, coats made of brightly colored trade blankets and hats made out of the skins of dead rodents.
Not far away, at the Telemark Revival, there was a woman competing in a giant slalom race while wearing a beautiful blue velvet skirt. Her costume acknowledged the ski clothes favored by many Steamboat women during the first two decades of the 20th Century.
Certainly, there were plenty of costumed revelers to admire during the Winter Carnival parade on Lincoln Avenue.
Back at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center on Sunday afternoon, I stepped up to the starting line of the Sweetheart Relay and sized up the competition. I was wearing a pair of hot pink ski pants that are relics of the 1980s, and a red, V-neck sweater. The field for the four-kilometer race could be broken into three distinct groups. There were eight or 10 Junior Olympians from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, There were also a half dozen geezers such as myself in the 50-plus age category. And there were about 30 children ages 4 to 12. Many of the little girls were wearing ballerina costumes over their pajamas. I felt a little conspicuous standing there waiting for the race to begin -- most of the real athletes at the Touring Center were entered in a 13-kilometer race. I longed to join them, but I already had registered in the shorter race, and thought it would have been bad manners to switch at the last minute. With a steely resolve, I vowed that no little girl wearing a tutu was gonna beat me to the finish line.
However, I hadn't bargained on Michaela Frias and Emily Lichtenfels. Michaela, 11, and Emily, 12, compete under the tutelage of coach Ben Barbier at the Winter Sports Club.
I skied about 75 yards behind the two girls and their darn tutus the entire race. Several times, I made determined runs at them, and each time, they fought me off.
To make matters worse, I could see that they were carrying on a relaxed conversation while they skied. They didn't even have to strain to stay in front of me.
"They're probably talking about Valentine's candy," I thought gloomily to myself.
After the race, I skied over to congratulate (confront) the two architects of my demise.
"My goal is to go to the Junior Olympics and then go to the Olympics," Michaela told me. The nonchalant way in which she announced her goals reminded me that Steamboat kids believe everything is possible. After all, many of them are acquainted with an Olympian or two. Emily told me her nature isn't quite as competitive as that of her friend. She enjoys cross-country skiing because of the sense of freedom she feels gliding over the snow.
"You go out, and you just feel like you can go," she said. "There's nothing that can block you. You just go."
I'm pleased and chagrinned to report that I didn't block Michaela and Emily from attaining their goals in the Sweetheart Relay on Sunday. But they had better watch out for me next year. I'm going to invest in my own tutu.