Brian Williams was born at Travis Air Force Base in California and grew up at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. At the remote base he called home, he took to tinkering on bikes, extending the forks of 1970-era models with sissy bars to make homemade choppers.
“I was always that guy who liked to work on things,” said Williams, 59, currently working as a bike mechanic at Sturtevants in Hailey.
“My younger brother and I got good grades and stayed out of trouble, which made sense because our father was the chief of police at the Air Force base, and a Freemason,” Williams said. “It was a diverse place, probably more black people in Fairbanks, due to the military, than the entire state of Idaho.”
Williams said Eielson was home to one of the longest runways in the world and a place where pilots from other countries on “mixed operations” with allied forces conducted cold weather training in remote locations.
“The place was huge,” he said. “It was 8 miles from the gate to where we lived, and 70 miles round trip from the nearest bike shop. We didn’t have any money or a lot of stuff, so when someone got a Skateboarder Magazine, it got shared all around.”
Williams said his parents drove the family to Eielson up the 1,700-mile Alaska-Canadian Highway and soon learned to withstand the long cold nights of winter.
“It starts in October, and people called it ‘closing the refrigerator,’” said Williams.
He attended the Air Force base school and then took classes in business at the University of Alaska. He subsequently went for one year to Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, where he was introduced to mountain biking by former professional rider Dave Wiens.
“I went back to Alaska in 1984 and bought a Univega Alpina Pro model. I had to bring it back to the shop because something wasn’t working on it. The mechanic asked me if I wanted to take a wrench, and that started it all for me.”
Williams spent 20 years in the Lake Tahoe area, working, riding, and skiing and snowboarding at Palisades Tahoe and Alpine Meadows. He also had a painting business.
“I got in 80 days each year on the slopes,” he said.
Williams traveled widely, mountain biking with “three bros” in Chamonix, France, and later watching Lance Armstrong speed by during a mountain stage of the Tour de France. Back in Alaska, he rode the Pinnell Mountain Trail, not far from the Arctic Circle.
“It was July 21, and the sun never went down, but just skimmed along the horizon. No trees and nothing but high alpine tundra above 4,000 feet elevation. We were some of the first people to ride that trail.”
As a young black man doing mountain and winter sports in the 1980s, Williams must have stood out. He said he recently found out through DNA testing and research that his mixed heritage contains Ethiopian, Irish and Seminole ancestry.
“Who knows who those ancestors were,” he said. “That came from what they called ‘sneaking into the slave house’ back in the day.”
In 1992, Williams joined a group in Mexico for an article in Japan’s version of Powder Magazine. They traveled around the Yucatan, explored Mayan ruins, got robbed in Tulum and then hiked and skied 18,490-foot Pico de Orizaba, a snow-capped volcano and the highest peak in Mexico.
“I snowboarded it,” Williams said. “But I have a feeling the snow up there isn’t what it used to be, like it’s also melted off Kilimanjaro.”
Williams was on a mountain-biking trip in Wilson, Wyoming, in 2007 when he decided to visit his girlfriend, Lara, who had taken a job at Barry Peterson Jewelers in Ketchum. He came to town for the first time on the long dirt road from Mackay and down over Trail Creek Summit into Sun Valley.
“There was still a little snow on Baldy, and I was just struck with how beautiful the place was,” he said. “I did some research and found that Idaho had a total population smaller than Salt Lake City. And California was getting to be too much.”
Brian moved to Hailey, and he is now married to Lara. He services bikes and other sports gear, welcomes customers to the shop and sometimes shares stories. He said if he could redo his education years, he would go for a vocational technology degree.
“But I have never seen myself in a career path,” he said. “I have skills and insights and the desire to do many things. But what I am doing now is a lifestyle as much as a career.”