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

March 05, 1995|ALEX MARKELS | 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.

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