It’s a typically chilly spring morning in the broad high-desert region of southern Oregon nicknamed “Oregon’s Outback.” A gravel road winds past hayfields and around small buttes. A heavy-duty pickup hauls a large trailer, rattling over cattle guards and kicking up a wake of dust.
Trucks hauling trailers of hay or livestock are not an uncommon sight in this vast sagebrush rangeland. But this trailer is like no other in the region; it is hand-made of plywood, rusted machine parts, sun-bleached wood reclaimed from the desert playa and an assortment of salvage windows.
The large trailer looks like a nomadic tiny house on wheels. In fact, it has been used for that purpose. And it is also a classroom. And a manufacturing shop.
The truck pulls up to an unmarked spot on a desolate stretch of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There is a gnarled tree for shade and a view of an alkali lake. A good view for the day’s work.
Michael Lish climbs out of the cab. He wears heavy work boots, Carhartt pants stained with grease, a faded chambray work shirt and leather work gloves. His black hair is starting to show some gray of middle age, though it is cut in a style Lish has sported since he was a teenager — his signature mohawk.
He walks to the back of the trailer and unlatches the shutter doors. He pulls out power tools and an electric generator to run them.
It’s time to make some custom skis, and school is now in session.
On this particular spring weekend, Lish and Kristin Broumas are offering one of their two-day build-your-own-ski workshops. It’s just one facet of Lish and Broumas’ ever-evolving business endeavors — collectively called Community Skis — that allow them to share their love of making skis and creating community.
An unlikely location for making skis
“When people find out about us, they want to come to where we are because they’re coming to natural places that are incredibly beautiful and create an amazing backdrop for building their ski,” Lish said.
Participants in the workshops have ranged in age from 7 to 80, said Broumas and come from all over the world. The students for one of their workshops last March were Attila Jurecska, Hungarian born, but now living in Beaverton and his daughter, Francesca Jurecska, 19, who was visiting him from Italy. Attila skis a little, but Francesca has never skied before.
“It can be intimidating for some to think, ‘I don’t know anything about ski design. I don’t even really know much about how I ski in a sense. So, how am I gonna design a set of skis?’” Broumas said. “But it’s not like that. It’s having a conversation with somebody who knows what you say and how to take that and turn it into a perfect, basically custom-fit ski for you.”
Think of the term “custom-designed skis,” you might imagine movie stars and super models in fur-trimmed ski parkas getting out of Porsches to hit the slopes … that image is a far cry from this basin of sagebrush, dotted with cattle, crisscrossed by barbwire.
Located about 40 miles north of Oregon’s border with California, this ski-making enterprise is a long way from the ski resorts on Mount Bachelor and Mount Hood. It’s even farther from the legendary high-end destinations like Colorado’s Vail and Aspen, Sun Valley, Idaho, or Park City, Utah.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a spectacle, but it certainly creates curiosity,” Lish said. “People drive by like, ‘What are you guys doing?’”
Making skis from scratch
The task begins with locking lengths of Baltic birch plywood onto a workbench, then cutting them into the exact contoured shape of skis with a router.
Francesca takes the router in her hand and flips the switch. The tool comes to life with a high-pitched whir. As soon as it begins to move along the edge of the plywood, it shoots a spray of wood shavings.
“A router is a pretty gnarly tool in the sense of what it does,” Broumas said. “It has a kind of high-pitch noise, and it’s heavy and it’s kind of awkward. It’s not an intuitive tool. And most people, unless you’re a cabinet maker, really haven’t ever used a router or really even been around a router. So it’s cool to see someone, especially a young lady, just pick up that router and just go for it!”
As Francesca moves the router around the second board, carving it into the contours of a ski, she gets more relaxed and assured.
“Nice,” Lish said, looking over Francesca’s shoulder.
“We’re using power tools that you get at Home Depot, but these custom jigs are pretty ingenious how they were set up and designed so that anyone that has never used a power tool before can come in and build their own ski and feel confident and feel safe,” Broumas said.
This tiny ski-making factory is engineered to be as efficient with space as a sailboat — every tool has its place. The workbench can be different things at different steps. Below it is a heater chamber, to cure the skis once they are coated in epoxy resin.
Every step of this process has been designed by Lish and Broumas. And they want to share this process. They’ve created a program where they go to schools to work with middle and high school students. Every year they bring their ski-making trailer to Colorado and conduct workshops with high school students at schools in Carbondale and Denver. This year, they are doing a ski-making program with a non-profit Art center in Denver in conjunction with the Colorado School of Mines.
In their traveling ski-making program, they can work with 16 students to produce 16 sets of skis. They’ve broken the process down into stations for each step.
“So we aren’t teaching every student how to build their skis,” Broumas said. “We’re teaching a few students how to run each station and then they’re teaching each other.”
By the end, the students have their own custom skis; but in the process, they have learned hands-on skills, communication and cooperation, while having a lot of applied-learning fun.
Some schools want to host their own ski-making programs and have a ski-making trailer of their own, like in the town of Wenatchee, Washington.
Lish and Broumas created a branch of their business they called Community Fabrication, to build these compact classroom workshops.
“And so we’ll build, say, a 40-foot trailer, which is a neat solution for a school district that has maybe two high schools and a few middle schools, and they want all the schools to be able to make use of this mobile classroom,” Broumas said.
After a morning of shaping the skis and laying on the smooth P-Tex base and metal edges, it is time to bind everything together with a layer of fiberglass.
Broumas mixes a small batch of 2-part epoxy in a plastic tub. Attila and Francesca suit up with smocks and rubber gloves. Scooping up globs of the gooey resin, they spread it over the tops of their skis with their fingers and smooth it over the strips of fiberglass sheets. This is a quiet moment, no whirring and buzzing power tools. It looks more like Montessori arts-and-crafts hour than custom ski-making.
“This is nice,” Attila said.
The graphics, which have been printed on a thin, translucent rice paper, are unfolded and laid over the wooden ski base, revealing the design.
“These are amazing,” Francesca said.
“Oh wow!” Attila seconds.
Attila loves astronomy, and his custom ski design has mountains and a starry night sky. Francesca’s is a complimentary style, with an image of a rugged mountain range, like the Italian Alps. The color and texture look like an antique lithograph from a 19th-century book.
Broumas is the talent behind the graphics. In the trailer, she’ll sit at the tiny countertop with her laptop. Sometimes customers will send her a handful of images of their favorite things — photos or family or pets, or their favorite places, cartoons, or drawings … or they might offer just general concepts of what they love or their personality.
Someone could, for example, ask for a Hawaiian surf theme with a Salvador Dali twist, incorporating their favorite food jelly beans and an image of their Burmese mountain dog Herbert, and yes, Broumas can not only put that together but meld these disparate elements into a unified design that plays out across the two skis.
Broumas promises that she will never reuse a design. “So it’s truly theirs. Nobody else will ever have a ski that looks like that,” she said.
Meeting the neighbors
In the middle of the vast sagebrush range, where rural routes 395 and 31 split, is a spot on the map called Valley Falls.
There’s an abandoned gas station on one side. Another side has a large metal pole barn and a row of John Deere farm equipment. And on the third side of this junction is a patch of gravel where the highway crews used to park their heavy equipment.
You could give the locals a million guesses as to what would happen to this patch of gravel when the 1-acre of land at the fork of the road sold in 2020, but no one would have guessed it would become Oregon’s destination for do-it-yourself custom skis.
Lish recalls the locals gave him leery looks when he first moved his trailer onto the gravel spot in the spring of 2020. His oil-stained Carhartt’s fit in, but they did a double-take of his mohawk.
Originally from L.A., Lish has sported his signature mohawk since he was a young man. He told Broumas that he’d keep it until he felt comfortable with it in all social situations.
“Apparently he hasn’t gotten comfortable with it yet,” Broumas said with a chuckle. “But that’s who he is. He likes to push himself outside of his comfort zone.”
Lish recalls his first encounter with a neighbor. Lish was outside, fabricating a new a gate for his new property with an electric MIG welder.
The neighbor, Ken Weekley, jumped into his pickup, sped across the highway and pulled up into the parking area so hard that he sent gravel flying. He berated Lish for being careless about the fire hazard of his welder catching the dry grass on such a windy day.
A few weeks later, Weekley returned, apologized for the aggressive tone and introduced himself.
“As it turns out, we’re incredibly close friends now,” Lish said.
Over the months, the locals watched this patch of gravel become a nexus of trailers. In the summer of that year, two shipping containers arrived and were stacked on top of each other and converted to a workshop. An unusual and somewhat eccentric compound was being created.
But the locals could see their like-minded spirit of pioneering, self-reliance and hard manual labor, Lish said.
“We only have maybe 10 households within a 40-mile radius, but within those 10 households we’ve gotten to become very close,” Lish said. “And what I mean by close is you watch each other’s back, and unless you’ve experienced it, it sounds kind of cute, cozy, whatever, maybe a distant past, but it’s real out here. It’s absolutely real.”
Lish and Bromaus, the new arrivals, were starting to fit into the local community just fine.
Not a typical startup
Their long, winding journey started in the parking lot of California’s Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
Lish had a small trailer, portable generator and an inexpensive hand-grinder that he was using to tune the metal edges of skis. Then he began to try to make his own skis.
He’d make a pair, test them on a run. They’d break, and he would go back to the drawing board, analyze the damage and make another pair.
As people stopped by to see what the skier with the mohawk was making in his trailer, Lish invited them to help or even make a set of skis for themselves.
This evolved into the first business that he dubbed 333. He’d ask the client three questions about what they wanted, take three hours to make them a set of skis and charge them $333.
Lish moved his fledgling enterprise to various stretches of BLM land.
“It’s nuts,” Lish said, “it became this really popular thing in Mammoth.”
As his cottage business grew, Lish needed help managing the orders and administration.
In 2009, he posted an ad for a business manager. In his iconoclastic way, he created an application that was intentionally designed to take several hours to fill out and asked seemingly non-related questions, like what books the applicant was currently reading.
“I got people that were seasoned business managers, people that were in the ski industry, recently-graduated MBAs. I mean, it was impressive,” he said. “And I got this one application and she had no managerial experience. Her background was interior design.”
On one of Lish’s questions, the applicant replied simply that she thought she knew what Lish was asking, but had no way of forming an answer. This intrigued him.
He followed up with a phone interview, which resulted in Lish getting into an argument with the applicant. He decided then that this was the applicant he needed — someone who could stand up to him and speak her mind.
“I’m like, ‘that’s perfect,’” he said. “Because this is not gonna be a typical company and its objectives aren’t even typical.”
Broumas comes West
Broumas was living in Golden, Colorado, at the time. Although she could do the job remotely, she agreed to drive out to California to meet Lish in person and spend a few weeks getting to know the ski-making process.
Broumas met Lish on the side of the road in Death Valley, and he gave her an iPod loaded with songs he thought she’d enjoy. “And that’s how Michael is, he’s very thoughtful like that. He’s thinking about ‘how she’s gonna feel when she gets here,’” she said. “‘How can I make her kind of just get connected and dialed in as quickly as possible?’”
Broumas listened to the playlist as she drove through Death Valley and into California’s Eastern Sierra. She immediately felt comfortable with him.
“It just felt right, like, ‘okay, this is where I need to be right now,’” she said.
Broumas stayed with Lish for a month, learning about the process of making skis in the off-grid trailer on BLM rangeland.
In the desert, days could be searing hot and frigid at night. Living in a tiny trailer was tight quarters and offered few creature comforts.
“Growing up in Maine helped,” Broumas said.
Her family cut firewood for the long Maine winters and grew their own food in the summer. She was used to hard work and outdoor chores.
“So the idea of building skis off-grid in a trailer I thought was really interesting,” she said. “And I knew I could live that lifestyle at least for a little while.”
The first month rolled into the next. And then the next. Broumas realized she was going to stay.
They built up the business and eventually had a ski-making workspace and community gallery in Mammoth Lakes, California, where they hosted public events. They named this new version of the business Community Skis.
They recall this time with nostalgia and some bittersweet feelings. Lish describes that time in his life as being younger, more temperamental, perhaps too proud, and alludes to burning bridges in the community, prompting them to pull up stakes and set off across the West.
As they roamed in their mobile factory, they worked and lived in the tiny trailer they built. Sometimes literally elbow to elbow, they were in proximity that would be challenging for any couple. But they weren’t a couple; they were strictly business partners.
“We just had separate sleeping spaces, and we kind of had our own routines, and we just figured it out,” Broumas said.
“The truth is, our focus was truly on developing these businesses,” Lish said.
They roamed across the West and landed in Wyoming for a while, where they built skis for customers. Then, they circled to the Northwest and settled in Bend and built a custom ski factory for a local high school.
Other schools wanted factories of their own, so they built more. Then, they found a 1-acre property in Valley Falls and shifted their operations to Southern Oregon.
“When we finally kind of got this property, about that time, things started to make settle-down sense,” Lish said. “At that point we looked at each other and like, we’re not totally sick of each other. In fact, we’re not sick of each other at all!”
Lish and Bromaus had found the reason to halt their searching and settled into a new chapter of making a home base together as a couple in Valley Falls.
First ski lesson
The skis are completed and Francesca is excited to ski for the first time in her life.
Lish and Francesca head to the only ski hill in the area, the one-lift Warner Canyon. Run by volunteers, it’s only open on weekends, so Lish and Francesca have the bottom of the ski hill to themselves.
Lish guides Francesca as they step into the skis. He holds her coat gently as they begin to move, gravity tugging them downhill.
“Now, turn,” he said. “Good!”
They make a series of slow s-shaped turns. As the ground eventually levels out by the lodge, they glide to a stop. They high-five.
“Let’s do it again!” Francesca said with glee.
‘House in the fields’
For the final evening of the workshop, Lish and Broumas haul one of their large trailers a few miles from their headquarters, down a gravel farm road and park it in the middle of a hay field. This trailer is dubbed, “House in the fields,” and is another custom aspect of the custom ski-making experience — a one-of-a-kind one-table restaurant.
Broumas moves easily in the small kitchen of the trailer. On a massive stove, several pots simmer. Her chef knife slides effortlessly through vegetables. Skills she learned working in commercial kitchens translated easily to this part of the business.
This trailer with the commercial kitchen has a surprise: as Bromaus preps the evening meal, Lish flips a few latches and presses a start button to a small winch. One of the walls of the dining room slowly begins to drop. Once completely down, the wall creates a deck to step out onto, offering a panoramic view of the surrounding fields and hillsides.
Attila and Francesca sit to be treated to the delicacy of Broumas’ cooking. They toast as the setting sun turns the surrounding hay fields golden.
Two neighbors stop by, having finished up a long day of spring cattle branding. Lish and Bromaus invite them to stay for dinner.
The meal comes out in courses. The wine flows freely, like the conversation. Broumas looks around and appreciates the moment.
“It’s the atmosphere that was created that makes them feel so comfortable and safe and happy,” she said.
One of the neighbors offers to take Francesca horse riding, which would be another first for her. This is what Lish and Broumas had envisioned — strangers brought together at the table, united by hard work and craft and inviting an openness to new experiences.
“It’s kind of exponential,” Broumas said. “The further along we get, the more we kind of feel like we get back from it.”