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Back 40: Mandatory Air

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Story and photo by Jessica Kilroy Contributor

I’m sitting in the Salt Lake City airport after 11 hours in the air. Eight more to go on the ground, three more in the air to Kalispell, and then one hour by car to my small hometown of Rexford. I’m glad to be on my way home to Montana.

After two months touring western Europe as an independent musician, I’m having a hard time figuring out if a plane landing outside is to blame for the ground moving beneath my feet, or if it’s just their confusion with the long forgotten sensation of still, solid ground.

Pavement, metro, escalator, trains, planes, stairs, cars, cobblestone, noise, sail boat, taxi, ship, sidewalk…elevator music, flat conveyor belt passing Pier 1 type wall art competing with alpine glow on the snow capped Wasatch Mountains through the window, disappearing in the distance, again. Constant motion to an uncomfortable chair.

Man, I miss the mountains.

The sensation of movement beneath my feet isn’t unfamiliar, and has me reminiscing about Big Sky, Bridger Bowl, Fernie, Jackson Hole, Grand Targhee and many winters dedicated to nothing else but the pure pleasure of powder. With no other agenda but to ski as much as humanly possible (while sometimes half assedly holding down a three-day-a-week laundry girl job), I frequently found the earth moving beneath my feet. I loved moments when walking after a good day of telemarking seemed more foreign then sailing down the mountain on my skis.

Strangely, I’ve found similarities between skiing and touring. They both take determination, patience, and preparation. The terrain is constantly changing and packed with unknowns. With no guarantees, if you end up in a tough spot, you’re bound to catch mandatory air. I guess that’s what I get for wandering off the beaten path.

The first time I experienced air was on the backside of Grand Targhee. It was a beautiful, bluebird day, virgin snow all around. I headed out early with three of my fellow slacker janitor friends and started hiking. Halfway through the day, skiing fast and happy, we came to a 30-foot cliff.

“Wanna learn how to huck, Kilroy?” John asked, grinning.

“Hell yeah!” I said. My heart raced with exhilaration and nervousness.

“Here ya go” he said, then disappeared fluidly into the air, landing in the fluff below.

Next, Joey slipped off the edge, fearless and skillful. He threw a front flip into a smooth landing, arms out in a victory V.

“Come on!” they shouted from below.

My turn. It was huck or hike up a steep, deep, treacherous slope alone. Mandatory air. So this is what all the hype was about.

It took some coaxing, but I did it, holding my breath the whole way down, forcing myself not to close my eyes, hearing John yell, “Stick it!” then a split second thought, “Oh shit, how do I land?!”

It was a rough landing, and I almost killed myself with my tele tips, but I survived to tell the tale, humbled but eager to do it again. Eventually, I was able to launch into the air with grace, but it took a lot of work, humility and recovery from stupid injuries and lessons learned the hard way.

The past four years surviving the recession as a touring musician have been a trial and error extravaganza of reckoning, resourcefulness, disappointment and blessing. The journey has been both the fun filled challenge I expected it would be and also an avalanche of surprise, knowledge and inspiration.

Much like the life of a dedicated ski bum, the shaky career path as an independent musician has required a healthy respect for adventure and a strong determination to go on no matter how discouraging the terrain.

I’ve learned not to bite off more than I can chew, beware of hidden obstacles, and most importantly, look where I want to land—not where I’m afraid of landing.

I believe that no matter what walk of life you come from, skis or shoes, mountain or pavement, it’s good to get off the beaten path every now and then, or altogether, and catch a little air with grace and gratitude.

Stick it!

Jessica Kilroy is a songwriter from Rexford, Montana. She resides wherever a couch happens to be free. Listen to her music at or

Megan Paulson is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Outlaw Partners.

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