Breckenridge’s Jeff Bergeron releases second Biff America book
In Denver tomorrow, the Oscar Wilde of ski bums, with his powder blue eyes and straw-colored shock of hair, will be sitting at a table at the SnowSports Industries America Snow Show.
Using his left hand and writing in a style reminiscent of a 6-year-old, he will be signing copies of his new book, “Biff America: Mind, Body Soul – The Backcountry Years,” a collection of his essays for Backcountry Magazine.
It is the 62-year-old’s second volume of his beloved columns, which are also featured most Sundays in the Summit Daily News.
More than anyone, Jeff Bergeron is amazed at his unlikely evolution from a dyslexic boy growing up on the south shore of Boston to a radio and TV madman and finally to a bona fide writer beloved by Coloradans and ski aficionados across the country for his irreverent and scatological musings on life and love in the backcountry. None of it was part of a plan.
ROAD TO THE ROCKIES
By his own account, he was a horrible student growing up. “I had the grade-point average of a plant,” he said.
By a six-year margin, Bergeron was the youngest of six siblings in a noisy Catholic family in Brockton, Massachusetts. While his brothers and sisters set themselves apart as overachievers in school, Bergeron, though a talented athlete, pulled in a steady stream of D’s and C’s.
Because of his book-smart kin, teachers assumed Bergeron was lazy. He eventually learned to play it off that way, but in the beginning he said he tried as hard as he could. To make himself concentrate, he would bite his cheek, or pretend he was president and a bomb would go off if he didn’t finish an assignment. Nothing worked. Only decades later would Bergeron come to understand that he had undiagnosed learning disabilities.
Thanks to some string pulling from his high school football coach, Bergeron, a star running back, graduated from high school and immediately left home at 18, working as an itinerant bartender.
Two year later, seeking to put family turmoil and a run-in with the law behind him, Bergeron left his native Boston for good. When he was 20 years old, Bergeron’s best friend, Keith, made him an offer: Head west with him and become a ski bum.
Unlike his friend, a Lutheran used to vacationing at Vermont resorts, Bergeron had never skied. “I was Catholic, we just boxed,” he said.
So in 1974, or maybe it was 1975, Bergeron and Keith pointed a Volkswagen Squareback towards the Rocky Mountains. Bergeron said it was like travelling through a foreign country. When they got a flat tire in Independent, Missouri, for example, they decided to hitchhike to a nearby Montgomery Ward’s to get a jack. However, the locals who picked them up could not understand their dropped-R accents — Montgomery Waaahds they said to uncomprehending Midwestern ears.
Keith and Bergeron eventually made their way to Breckenridge, Colorado. It wasn’t their planned destination, but after Keith ran his VW into the Blue River after winning a Yukon Jack drinking contest, it seemed like as good a place as any to set down roots. (“The bartender told Keith, ‘Now drive straight home,’” Bergeron said.)
At the time, Breckenridge was, in Bergeron’s words, “a composite of ‘Bonanza’ and ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’” — a wild and woolly mix of cosmic cowboys, miners and hippies swirling all together on dirt roads, wooden sidewalks and rowdy bars.
Bergeron and Keith were the clean-cut ones. “People thought we were narcs.”
He wrote his mom and told her, “This is the place I was meant to be.”
THE BACKCOUNTRY YEARS
He started working as a bartender and waiter, getting his first gig at the Shangri-La. And he started skiing.
“I was a menace,” he said. “ I was a horrible skier with horrible equipment.”
But he soon progressed in his skill level, soon finding lift service and the resort scene too confining, even though Breckenridge Ski Resort was much smaller and less crowded back then. He began what would be a life-long love affair with the backcountry and “human-powered skiing.”
Like any ski bum, Bergeron worked odd jobs. For him, that fortuitously included writing ad copy for a local radio station. That led to voice work, which led to TV and radio shows, which led to Biff America, a kind of High Country Howard Stern who wasn’t above douche-bag detectors, when he didn’t like someone, and bowel boycotts, when it didn’t snow.
Biff America is the name that stuck, but the alter ego was protean, never holding to one set identity, stretching out over the years to fit with Bergeron’s career and the evolving community he called home. He began interviewing celebrities and statesmen. Biff grew up.
“The community had changed, I had changed,” he said.
In his words, he had made a good living in a small media market. He was, in his own way, the king of all media — except one. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he started his writing career, which he’s now far more proud of than his decades of radio of television (“10 percent of it was really good, 90 percent of it sucked,” he said).
In 1993, things changed dramatically for Biff America. He got married.
After a series of failed relationships (“my romantic and professional affairs have had the shelf life of egg salad,” he wrote in one of his columns), he found a person even more obsessed with backcountry skiing than he was — Ellen Hollinshead. A powder hound well known to readers of Bergeron’s columns, she is his mate and muse.
That same year, his mother also died, which led him to temporarily step away from his wacky radio and television persona. “I couldn’t be funny any more,” he said. So he took on odd jobs like working at the Frisco Marina and, fatefully, writing a series of columns.
“Spell-check saved my life,” he said.
He started writing for local magazines and newspapers. Initially, his pieces went for the easy laugh. Then came the life lessons and the philosophical yearnings. Now, he said, he wants his columns to impart a lesson.
He and Ellen still take the RV on the road every spring for four months in search of snow. But they aren’t just focused on earning their next turns. After the couple fought to pass a ballot initiative that would create a fund for purchasing open space around Breckenridge in 1997, Bergeron has been a fixture in local politics, serving on the town council from 2004 to 2012.
“I realized that in a small town you can be a participant and not just a spectator,” he said.
Come November, Bergeron is planning on running for town council once again.
In the meantime, he will continue to sign books and write columns for perhaps a third book.
Bergeron said writing, the thing that tormented him as a child, has, ironically, become his therapy.
“What saved me is when I started writing — writing was so lethargic,” he said.
Ellen gives him a look. “He means cathartic.”
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