There’s Something About Mary
Skiing isn’t a pastime in neighborhoods of the Bronx. In the Italian enclave of Arthur Avenue, the closest thing to wilderness that Mary Picciano, a.k.a. Mary Oz, knew was the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Mary’s great-grandmother emigrated from Italy, a widowed countess with nine children in tow, leaving her familial castle to escape the cholera epidemic. Undoubtedly, she didn’t envision any of her family moving out of New York City to the frontier of Colorado.
As they relocated around the Bronx and its suburbs, Mary says, “We would move in the middle of the night. I went to nine different schools before eighth grade and being in that environment I had to learn to fight. I’d have to fight to prove myself because it was kill or be killed for the new kid.”
As Mary’s mother tired of the moves and her husband’s mistresses, she left her husband, remarried a Hungarian skier and moved her family of four kids to Denver when Mary was 12. Mary didn’t see her dad again for almost a decade and later met an additional four half-siblings when she was 30.
At 17, Mary decided to head back to New York, live with an aunt and finish high school. “I went to Catholic schools my whole life and graduated from an all-girl high school in 1978,” she explains. Returning to Colorado fresh out of school, she went on what she describes as a fear and loathing road trip where she discovered Gunnison.
“As I passed through Gunnison I said, ‘Who would ever live here?’” She laughs about the unlikely prospect of a Bronx girl winding up in the land of sagebrush and cowboys. But her travel partner reminded her that a boy-crush was attending Western State College [WSC], which just happened to be on the edge of this feral little town. That boy-crush was “Brian Finney,” Mary giggles, noting, “and he’s still here on ski patrol.”
Acting on her girlfriend’s dare, Mary enrolled at WSC, “and if I didn’t get in she was gonna pay me $50, so I went in and registered and we continued on the road trip.”
On the way to Durango their car was caught up to its windows in a mudslide. “We crawled out of the windows in our bikinis, smoked a joint and caught some rays on the roof of the car until help came,” Mary says with a grin and adds with a shrug, “Hey, we were 18.”
Unknown to her while she was roof-tanning, she had been accepted to WSC with a full scholarship for a year. “When I got home my mother told me that I was supposed to be at WSC three days ago and she threw me in the car, dropped me off and I’ve been here ever since,” she chuckles.
Mary graduated in 1983 with bachelor’s degrees in education and sociology and started Mother Goose Daycare, enrolling 24 kids while also working as a substitute teacher in all Gunnison County K through 12 schools.
She met Oz, of Flatiron Sports fame, at one of those notorious WSC parties in 1978, and dated on and off before the two married in 1986. “There’s no skiing in the Bronx and if I was gonna hang out with Oz I had to learn to ski. He was one of the sickest skiers on the mountain. I remember hiking up to Headwall, numerous times a day, it was really intense. There was no Poma or T-bars back then. If I wanted to ski with them, I had to keep up. And now I say I’ve paid my dues and I avoid snow hiking, or any hiking in any season, anywhere.”
Mary laughs and explains that she still skis all those extremes but when summer arrives she’s a mountain biker. “And I water ski in the summer on Blue Mesa from the end of May until they kick us off the lake. You get an ice cream headache in that water it’s so frigid!”
Having decided early on in life that she wanted to travel, Mary figured the best way to do that was to work for an airline. She applied immediately out of college but received no response until 1986 when Continental contacted her for a “cattle call” in Denver. “There were 500 people there. Gary Garcia flew for Eastern Airlines and so he flew me to my interview in his private plane,” Mary says. She was one of the lucky seven picked out of the herd and claims, “I felt like I had won a beauty pageant.”
Her inaugural flight out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, called for an initiation and at 6 a.m., on the way to the airport, her crewmates told her it was customary for the new person to buy the donuts.
“We’re in a van on the way to airport and they pull up in front of an old deserted-looking Burger King building with a lot of cars,” Mary remembers. “I go in and there’s a man smoking a cigar in the doorway, and I ask, ‘Do you sell donuts here?’”
It was a dark and unlikely place for a donut shop. “I’m in my flight attendant uniform, I get through the doors and the place is packed with men having coffee, there’s loud music and topless women dancing on a bar. I asked for a dozen mixed donuts. It took me ten minutes to get them,” Mary says. She met the plane’s captain on the way out, who looked at her incredulously and asked her what she was doing. Mary naively answered that she was getting the donuts they had asked for. “He burst out laughing,” Mary says, “and he said, ‘We didn’t think you’d actually stay in there and get donuts!’”
Throughout her six and a half years as a flight attendant, Mary had extraordinary experiences, like during the Gulf war when Continental Airlines secretly transported U.S. troops and even the crew was not allowed to know their destination. “The troops would have all their guns on the cabin floor at their feet,” she remembers. She’s also had some close calls, having to land on foam runways twice—once when the landing gear wouldn’t deploy and another with a lost engine and gas pouring out of the other engine.
“In 1990, when that incident happened the cabin filled with smoke and people were screaming. We had taken off from Denver and had to go back. It wasn’t scary for me until we got everybody safely off the plane and I saw the cockpit… all the pilots’ shirts were soaked in sweat and I realized I could have died that day,” she recounts.
“Later that same day, after being released, I was flying back to Gunnison during a snowstorm. We’re circling Gunnison in extreme turbulence in the tiny prop plane and finally got diverted to Montrose. Everyone on the plane was totally freaked out, and I had to deal with another freaked out group. It was hunting season so almost everyone on the plane was a hunter.”
Mary had told the hunters about her ordeal with the emergency landing earlier in the day, so they rented a Suburban and they drove her to Crested Butte. “I called the Wooden Nickel at 9 p.m. and said we’re coming in for six prime ribs. Rex stayed opened for us. That was how I ended my day.” Mary recalls it as though it was just another day in the life and certainly the experience didn’t dissuade her from flying.
The airline job allowed Mary and Oz to travel extensively, the Greek isles, Bali, Denmark, Austria, England, and Costa Rica, and sailing in the Virgin and Abacos Islands—all of which she exclaims was mesmerizing and magical.
Mary left the airlines because she wanted to have kids, and she and Oz had their son, Mick, in 1996, followed two years later by their daughter, Marissa. Looking toward a new career, Mary became a certified aesthetician and opened her business, A Day at the Spa, in the Treasury Center in 1995, later developing the Wildflower Spa in the Grand Lodge. After 20 years of marriage, Oz and Mary went their separate ways, and with her spa biz proving to be too seasonal financially, she moved on in 2008 and expanded her knowledge and her spirit in teaching yoga, training at Boulder’s Corepower.
“Corepower was unlike any yoga I’ve ever taken,” says the yogini. “It transformed my mind, body, and spirituality and it changed my life. I’ve always lived my life on the edge, but yoga was a different edge. Finding challenges in postures, as in life, you just have to breathe and be present in that moment, trust in yourself that you can overcome it and achieve something greater. You have to persevere and believe in yourself whether it’s on your yoga mat, on your skis or in life. I find the strength and the courage to know God’s gonna take care of me and I teach my kids and my students to believe the same.”
When the lifts come to a screeching halt this year, Mary will be leaving the valley she loves for new adventures and a new path for the first time in 36 years. “When I moved here, the roads were dirt. I’ve seen so much change and my travels have given me the opportunity to see so many beautiful places on this earth,” she says. She admits that she’ll miss the 65-plus days of skiing she has access to.
But she also has wonderful memories she’ll hold dear forever, like hanging out with Tony at his Conoco and listening to his stories of the really old days, and visiting with other, now long gone, old-timers and hearing about their families and mining.
“Crested Butte will always be my Pandora [the magical planet of the Avatar film] and my home. It allowed me to raise two gifted athletic brainiacs who fondly refer to the Butte as Mother Rock.”
Mary already knows that she doesn’t want to be too far from skiing and the spirit of Crested Butte will remain with her always, wherever she lands. “I’m going to be on tour with my costumes, wings and various things. And I’ll carry Crested Butte wherever I go… this town, it’s full of love, and it’s something I’ll miss.”