It's Hit the Snow With a Pro day at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a chance for the average Joe to share a run with real snowboarders. In a tent at the mountain's base, a dozen teenagers wolf down free pizza and mingle with Jackson Hole's best riders. Two wide-eyed teens approach Travis Rice to tell him, essentially, how amazing he is. Rice, who, at 23, could pass for a teen himself, says thanks and asks where they're from.
"Idaho," one says.
Rice smiles, blue eyes beaming.
"And I da pimp."
The kids stare at Rice, then at each other.
"Get it?" Rice says, visibly pleased. "You said I-da-ho, as in, I am the ho, so I said I da pimp!"
The kids nod. It's not clear they get Rice's pun, but who cares? They're about to have a session with their hero.
At 5'11'' and 175 pounds, Travis Rice is a solid block of spastic spunk and snowboarding skill. He burst onto the pro scene in spring 2001 at Snowboarder magazine's Superpark 5 event. A virtual unknown, he stunned the 150 other pros in attendance by throwing a backside rodeo (inverted 540 launched from the heel edge of the snowboard) over a 117-foot jump. No one else had landed it, few others had even tried it. From that moment, Rice has been a dominant force in snowboarding, casting a giant shadow over both the film and contest worlds. On a good day he can dominate any freestyle event, but slopestyle-with its always unique mix of rails and jumps-is his best showcase. And come Jan. 28-31, Rice will be in Aspen to try to repeat his 2002 X Games Slopestyle gold medal. Only a fool would bet against him.
"He has an uncanny mix of natural talent and complete confidence," says Snowboarder editor Pat Bridges. "Every time he puts his board on the snow he has the potential to do something spectacular." Bridges is just one voice among many. Mention Rice to anyone who's seen him ride and the words "natural" and "talent" inevitably follow.
No, really. "I don't feel like I helped him in any way," says Troy Kindred, Rice's high school coach. "Travis was so naturally talented he was almost uncoachable."
But this skill level also stems from Rice's roots. Much as Stephon Marbury was shaped by the concrete courts of Coney Island, Rice's "game" reflects his coming from the ideal place to raise a snowboarder. Growing up in Jackson Hole, the 55-mile-long valley in northwest Wyoming that encompasses the tiny town of Jackson and the smaller Teton Village, anyone blessed with the ability to excel in sports tends to do so on snow. The Teton Mountains offer some of the most challenging, most thrilling terrain in the Lower 48, and it's hard to overestimate how much skiing and snowboarding matter here. Patrons may wear cowboy hats at the town's Western-themed bars, but they don't run rodeo highlights on the bigscreen TVs; instead, there's a constant stream of ski and snowboard videos. And no matter how many Teton Ales are thrown back at night, dedicated locals are up at 6 the next morning, calling the "Snow Phone" for the latest trail conditions. It's an obsession that borders on addiction.
"You see people who are just lit," says Rice's dad, Paul, a retired ski patroller. "Not lit on drugs, but on the sheer thrill of what they've done on the mountain that day."
Into this powder-crazed community came one unusually strong baby; a kid who was skiing by 2, doing gymnastics by 3 and-to the horror of a neighbor who called Rice's mom to complain-doing flips off the roof of his two-story house at 8. Then, at 10, after he'd done everything he wanted to do on skis, Rice was handed a snowboard.
Within one season he was flying over the resort's extreme terrain, heading to the mountain every day after school, no matter if the slopes were covered in powder or ice, no matter if he first had to finish hockey practice. He and his pals spent hours hiking the backcountry, dragging a VHS camera with them to record their jibbing sessions. He dominated one regional comp after another with a dizzying array of twists, spins and grabs that few had seen before. It was just a matter of time before the rest of snowboarding discovered Jackson's homegrown antihero.
AFTER TAKING the slack-jawed Idaho teens down the mountain, Rice calls it a day. On his way home he stops at the Village Cafe, a homey refuge from the resort crowds that Rice calls "the hub of everyday shredding." The VC is a hangout for local pros, and on any given day you can find guys who put Jackson Hole boarding on the map in the 1990s, shredders like Bryan Iguchi, Lance Pitman, Willie McMillon and Rob Kingwill. It's nothing fancy, and the low-key vibe suits Rice perfectly. It's easy to get the idea that Rice would be content to spend the rest of his life boarding in Jackson. "In a lot of other ski towns," he says, "there's a pretty heavy scene, from what people wear to how they act. A whole attitude. Riders come to Jackson to get away from that."
Rice says his good-byes, exiting the VC with a large knife he left there the week before. But there's an innocent explanation for why Rice is packing lightning. He loves a good (long) joke. "I needed it to be the Knife-Fighting Smurf," he explains, pulling out a season pass that shows him brandishing the knife with a scrunched face and a crazed look in his eyes. "Last year I was the Egotistical Tennis Pro."
Maybe it's because of such pranks that people who don't know Rice well are surprised to learn he has a serious side. Or maybe it's because he'll sometimes start whistling mid-conversation. Or because when his housemate Curt calls, Rice's cell phone moos and announces "Heifer Alert!" But whatever his quirks, Rice is serious about his love of Jackson. He tries to do as much as he can for his hometown in the few months each year when he's not traveling. In addition to participating annually in Hit the Snow With a Pro, Rice helps out with local fund-raisers and gives out snowboarding gear to local groms. "It's a pretty tight-knit community," he says. "I had to break out for a while, but the more I came back the more I realized how special it was."
Jackson appreciates Rice right back. Just ask the mom whose daughter wouldn't wear her helmet on the slopes until Rice signed it. Or ask Rice's high school English teacher, who keeps a poster of him in her classroom. Or ask the childhood pal who spots Rice gassing up his snowmobile and hurries over for a hug, face glowing with excitement. When Rice introduces an out-of-town guest, excitement bubbles over to pride. "I knew Travis when he was just a little kid jumping off roofs."
Thanks to sponsors-including Oakley, Lib Tech, Red Bull and DC Shoes-Rice can now jump off the roof of his very own two-story house in Jackson. From the hot tub on his deck he can gaze up at the jagged peaks of the Tetons. There's a sauna in the basement along with a drum kit and a pool table. On the first floor, in a small, wood-paneled room, Rice maintains a small digital movie studio with a Mac G5, two flat-screen monitors, a 2.7-terabyte drive and high-end Mackie speakers.
He used the studio to review footage of The Community Project, the 2005 snowboarding movie he produced that includes appearances by many Jackson pros. Although Rice competes in major contests, it's in films like The Community Project, Transcendence and Pop that he sets himself apart. Shaun White may be the face of snowboarding to casual fans, but insiders know that Travis in the backcountry is untouchable. When MD Films was casting First Descent last year, producers of snowboarding's first major movie wanted Rice-even though he rides for Mountain Dew rival Red Bull-because they knew the chemistry between, and combined talents of, him and boarding icon Terje Haakonsen would guarantee monster scenes.
Watch Rice on his board and it's easy to see how he could inspire even the best of his rivals. When he approaches the lip of a jump, he always seems to be riding a little faster than the others, and when he launches, he always seems to fly a little higher. His agility in the air is phenomenal, an exhilarating precision to his every twist and turn. But what truly sets Rice apart is how smoothly he returns to earth and rides on, as though 100-foot jumps were little kickers, as though falling short might not mean a trip to the hospital. Watching him ride is like watching Kobe go to the hole-Rice wants it more, is more creative and graceful going after it and always gets it done.
When Rice is in Jackson these days, it's rarely for rest and relaxation. Mostly he does what he does the rest of the year: films on the mountain. And when big-deal pros like Nicolas Muller and Kyle Clancey visit, they know they have a place to crash. "I'm sort of in the import business," Rice says of his snowboarder flop-house.
Since asking world-famous athletes-and friends-to sleep on the couch is declasse, Rice is having custom bunk beds built for one of the spare bedrooms (the drawers underneath will be long enough to fit a snowboard bag). And though he acknowledges that some wild partying still goes on, a more typical night-after a grueling day of snowmobiling up steep terrain for little more than a few seconds of usable footage-means chilling at chez Rice, watching DVDs, playing pool and, if it's still light out, skeet shooting out back.
When Rice does step out on the town, he's always the recipient of second looks and excited greetings. But unlike in Japan (where snowboard fans can be obsessive) or at the X Games, Rice isn't hounded by autograph seekers on his home turf. That's partly because so many locals already know him, partly because of all the other pro riders in town and partly because there are so many nonsnowboarding celebs around. Over the past decade or so, Jackson has become a getaway for the rich and infamous, and the likes of Tiger Woods, Harrison Ford and Dick Cheney own homes in the valley. (The veep's house is visible from the 18th hole of the public golf course, and Rice & Co. regularly try to nail it by shanking a drive.) None of this impresses full-time residents who are more concerned with snow conditions than with which Alister is out shopping. "Jackson is not readily given to hero worship," Paul Rice says. "The people who move here are into their own lives and their own accomplishments."
Still, it's thanks to people who carry American Express Black cards that a number of chichi restaurants have opened in town. And it's at the dimly lit sushi bar of one of them that another side of Rice emerges one night-the philosophical side. He and his girlfriend of two years, Jenny May, are sharing spicy salmon tartare and sipping sake when the talk turns to the importance of creativity in leading a satisfying life. For all his action-sports slang, Rice can wax eloquent when he chooses. Or maybe it's just the sake. "That's what snowboarding means to me," Rice says. "It's all about interpreting the mountain. You can find a roller, and one person might see a jump and a landing, someone else might see a butter, and someone else might just see a rock. That's the beautiful part of snowboarding. It's really about the exploration."
Lucky for him, he need not go far to explore. "Jackson Hole," he says, "is as good as it gets."