He arrived in Salt Lake City in October 1974, with $100 in his pocket, and took an $8-a-night motel room at the Majestic Rockies. He sat down on the bed and said, "Well, this is wonderful. I wonder what kind of TV they have out here." Did he consider what would happen when the $100 ran out? "Certainly. I would be destitute."
At nearby Snowbird he got no encouragement. Back to the Majestic Rockies. "When you get a loaf of bread and a pound of baloney and plan to eat off it for a week," Spooner says, "that humbles you." Then things got really bad. His money soon was gone, and so was the baloney. An old Bette Davis movie was on television ("about a lonely person") when the phone rang—just like in the movies—and Snowbird ski school boss Junior Bounous was requesting Spooner's services.
Spooner was ready to begin instructing at Snowbird on opening day, Thanksgiving. He went to the top of the mountain, whooped, and started down. "I made four turns and I thought, 'Hmmmm, I'm going too fast.' " True. He caromed over a cliff, landed half on snow, half on rocks, and ruptured his liver. "I was pretty close to going to the big ski school in the sky," Spooner says. "That mountain simply ate me up and spit me out. I couldn't conceive of a mistake that great." Spooner was hospitalized for three weeks.
In ski instructing, personality and style seem to count for more than substance. After all, if people can't get the hang of skiing, they don't say, "My instructor didn't know how to ski." Rather, they will say they didn't like him personally or, "He couldn't seem to explain what he wanted." Instruction has gotten more sophisticated since the days when somebody with an Austrian accent would stand on the mountain and say, "Bend zee knees, that will be $3 pleeze." Today, a winning personality translates into dollars for the instructor. In the beginning Spooner earned $18 a day plus $2 for each person in a group lesson, an average of six pupils for a $30-a-day total. (A four-hour group lesson cost the student $14.) But nowadays Spooner mainly teaches private lessons for $20 an hour, of which Spooner gets half. Most lucrative of all is a full-day private, which costs $120 for up to three people. Spooner averages $200 a week. "I didn't take up skiing to make a buck," he admits.
There are perks. One group insists that Spooner join them for pizza and wine. "It's wonderful," he says. "Out here girls don't feel like they're being hustled like they do in the city." Says one of his students, a frequent visitor from New York, "Craig doesn't give the impression when he's teaching that he has seen it all before."
On the slopes, Spooner is a mixture of tour guide, drill sergeant, valet, psychologist, philosopher, con artist and trash collector. "We all want the same thing," he says to his class. "We want to feel more at ease on skis. It doesn't take long to get a feeling you are soaring with the eagles. If I laugh at you when you fall, don't worry. When we ski powder, we all fall." Then he does, to the hoots of the class. Spooner responds, "My, my, the vultures don't have any mercy after the lions are through."
Spooner is a chatterbox, talking of the need for bending the knees and for holding the poles right, rotating the shoulders, edging the skis, proper rhythms, weight transfer, steering. "Does that feel different?" he shouts up the mountain at a student. "It really does," comes the reply. "Of course," says Spooner. "That's because I am a magician."
One of his theories is that "An instructor should never say, 'Ski down the hill.' That scares everybody. Instead, I say, 'Slide down the hill.' " He also does not believe in dwelling on what a person must do "because as soon as you start saying what they have to accomplish, they immediately start thinking about failing." His is more the old technique of the Army lieutenant: "Follow me." And as soldiers always have, ski students do, too. Spooner is coaxing: "Relax and feel the boards under your feet." And philosophizing: "Nature created this mountain for us and it has a personality. I feel the edges of my skis caressing the mountain. There just aren't many feelings in the world like powder skiing." Then he's off in a cloud of heavenly white. Next he's advising: "O.K., folks, be on time and flow with this mountain." A student muses, "That's really nice. I wonder what it means." For Spooner, it's the satisfaction of helping someone have fun, to feel better about himself: "If I can't see a marked difference in four hours, I have failed," he says. "When it comes to the instructing, I am so serious I can't put enough into it."
There are down moments, of course, but not many. When students get bored, Spooner says they stare up the mountain. When they don't want to learn, "I question their motives for even being there with me." And while it is strenuous physical work, Spooner says, "A lot of people don't realize that in order to feel good, you have to work hard."
Which he does. Yet, here he is at midday, sprawled on a bench in the Utah sun, admiring the girls passing by and giving them ratings, if they are deserving. He'll work hard again today. But Spooner isn't fretting about that. In fact, he's genuinely excited about it. He has this wonderful capacity to enjoy this moment. "Can you imagine how good it is to work at a job where you are always seeing smiles on faces?" he says. "And to know that you put them there?" That, at bottom, is Craig Spooner's joy in work.