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Gord Rox (Harder) - to the Peak and beyond

It's easy to get sentimental about the past. The rough edges seem to get smoothed out by time. The high moments, in contrast, become enhanced as the years roll on.

It's easy to get sentimental about the past. The rough edges seem to get smoothed out by time. The high moments, in contrast, become enhanced as the years roll on. Funny thing too: we appear far smarter, handsomer, prettier, stronger, bolder - and oh-so-sexier - through the lens of Father Chronos than we do looking in the bathroom mirror.

But then maybe we were. Take Whistler in the late 1980s. Can anyone who lived that era really argue that today's harried, unhappy, over-stressed and over-worked local has it better than the goofy, fun-loving, hard-charging, life-hugging resident who populated this valley back then?

Of course not. That was 25 years ago, you'll argue. Places change. Times change. I mean, the world is a far different place today than it was when Ronny Raygun was president of the good ol' US of A. Isn't it? Stop for a moment. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself this: why did you move to Whistler?

If you answered "to get rich," you belong to a very small group here. Go ahead, quibble if you want, but I believe most Whistlerites moved to this valley to get away from the unhealthy trends of modern urban culture. They wanted to get closer to nature, to seek a playful relationship with their environment - riding, sliding, paddling, pedalling, hiking. And they wanted to do this surrounded by enthusiastic, outdoor-focused folk who nurtured the same kinds of dreams for themselves and their children.

The last thing they sought was a cheap reproduction of the crap they left back home. Whistler represented freedom. Wildness. Creativity. Whistler represented a chance to do things differently - and hopefully better - than they were done before.

Sound familiar? I hope so. In the many years that I've been writing this column, I've yet to hear different. No matter how people are drawn to Whistler initially - by friends, by business, by passion, by love, by happenstance even - most of them stay because they feel they've been profoundly changed by their encounter with this coast mountain valley.

So how did we get to this place where the mayor of the town can't go to the grocery store without fear of getting berated by his neighbours? Where people slash tires of officials they disapprove of? Where others dismiss critical thinking as the product of a deranged mind? We've become ugly and crass and cheap and unfunny.

This isn't the Whistler that I know. And I keep wondering how we devolved so quickly. I mean, really folks. The nudity and dope-smoking and risk-taking and innocent-fun-making of the late 1980s seems a lot less toxic than today's angry, over-charged, over-testosterone'd social-cum-business scene.

And I can't help but wonder where we lost our way. Remember the old slogan "Just Do It"? Although it was Nike who commercialized the phrase, it was Whistler residents who pushed that philosophy to its logical extreme. Fun was still the operative word 25 years ago. Sure, Intrawest and their ground-chewing developer friends were already licking their chops at the opportunity to transform the place into Surrey North. But they hadn't quite got their hands on all the assets yet. And the inmates still ran the asylum.

Big events? Sure - we had World Cup downhills and stuff. But mostly we had made-for-local (and made-by-local) contests. The Great Snow, Earth, Water Race, Peak-to-Valley, Saudan Extreme, bar races and restaurant races and mountain-top parties where people got tipsy on sponsors' wine and made passes at friends' dates. Yeah. Okay - so maybe it was all immature and silly. But nobody felt excluded. And everyone could play.

But enough with the introduction already. Geez, I'm already halfway through my column and I still haven't brought up the Peak Brothers, er, I mean Gordy Rox. Still, most of what I've written so far could have come out of his characters' mouths...

You've heard of the Peak Bros no doubt? Loosely based on the infamous trio of dope-smoking, music-loving, cop-dodging hipster outlaws of the late 1960s - remember The Freak Bros? - Gord Rox's popular 'underground' comic strip represented the ne-plus-ultra of Whistler local style circa 1990. Totally dedicated to big-mountain skiing - "True to two!" was their war cry - the Peak Bros were cool, cynical, world-weary mountain seers fuelled by weed, powder snow and their disgust for the creeping urban scene that was slowly infecting their personal Shangri La.

They were funny, harsh, uncompromising and exclusive. Newcomers to the valley were kooks by definition. Snowboarders were posers. Members of the pro patrol were cop wannabes. The town was run by cretins and carpetbaggers. And only the Bros' friends could define Whistler style.

Get it? The Peak Bros strip was as much a satire on locals' snobbery as it was a critique of the development madness that was taking over the town. But neither side really got it. "Hardcore" locals embraced the strip for speaking out their angst and urbanizers vilified it for its outlaw stance. The rest of us just laughed...

Like many cartoonists, the creator of the Peak Brothers somehow managed to frame a watershed moment in the story of the place he loved with humour and sensitivity, and yes, wisdom and forethought. Today the Peak Bros sound alarmingly prescient. The Whistler they feared and loathed has arrived. So where the heck is Gordy Rox when we need him?

Turns out he's living on the shores of Heffley Lake just south of Sun Peaks. Say what? Whistler's ultimate local has left the valley? A guy who held this place closer to his heart than anybody I know? Who marked his passage here with timeless characters and insightful observations? "Yep," says the 54-year-old with just a hint of irony, "I cashed out. Couldn't handle the bullshit anymore. I'd been thinking about leaving for a long time so when I quit working for the mountain in 2003 I decided it was time."

His real name is Gord Harder (get it? Rox Harder? Ha-ha). Whatever - the youngest of four boys, Gord grew up in New Westminster. One day his dad, Dr. Fred Harder, arrived home and announced to the family that he'd just acquired three mountain-lots sight unseen. "He bought them off a map," explains Gord. And laughs. "Paid $800 each, I think. They were in Alta Vista just across the road from the lake, and the only reason he didn't buy lakefront is that he was told it was all swampy there..." The year was 1964.

Those familiar with Whistler history know that the installation of mountain lifts was still a year away. It was Alta Lake that appealed to adventurous travellers in those days. And just getting there was a major achievement. "I remember the first time we went up," says Gord. "My dad thought they'd go for the day. But it took the whole weekend just to make it there and back!"

The Coast Mountains were a far more rugged challenge to transportation back then. Although the Vancouver-Squamish highway was paved, there were still some nasty spots to negotiate along the way. Still, it was once you left Howe Sound that the going got really rough. "It was pretty much single-track logging roads all the way to Alta Lake," laughs Gord. "And I would puke the whole way there."

But the family took to its new surroundings with alacrity and Dr. Fred and the boys had soon built a little cedar A-frame cabin on their lot.

As for skiing, it had always been part of the Harder clan's activities. "I'm so impressed," says Gord, "how my parents managed to get us all on skis by the time we were five." Before Whistler Mountain opened, the family would head south to Mt. Baker or maybe east to the Interior. But from the moment the lifts were in place above the lake, the Harders were in. "Fred was one of the first on-mountain doctors on Whistler," recounts his son proudly. And smiles at the memory. "I still remember him wearing those early Garibaldi Lifts coats with the doctors' red armband..."

Gord spent his high school years at home in New Westminster. "We were weekend warriors," he says with a sheepish grin. "I grew up next to Queen's Park, right next to the arena there." He stops talking. Let's a few chuckles escape. "You know, it's funny. Without that cabin, I would have probably become a hockey player. And I just can't imagine..." He searches for the right words. "I mean, skiing is a way of life. It defines you. It's way more than a passion - it's something that grabs you and won't let go." Another long pause. He sighs deeply. "As a kid, I dreamed of living next to a ski hill..."

His dream was about to become reality. "After graduating from high school, I kicked around town for a while. I was driving a forklift at The Bay's warehouse and wondering what the heck I was doing with my life." That's when fate intervened. A neighbour, Shawn Hughes, phone him up one day. "I really didn't know him all that well," explains Gordie. "But out of the blue he says: "I've got a cabin up at Whistler. Do you want to rent it with me?' And I just jumped at it." The Peak Bros had arrived.

Next week: Gord joins the staff at Whistler Mountain, becomes the company carpenter and starts drawing offbeat comics for The Answer.