I was uphill when Jean Mills fell. She'd been leaving me uphill all day, quickly swooping over the snow. I know how fast I can comfortably go on skis, but I also know this: Jean Mills can go faster. She likes speed. "It's a good feeling, Jean says. "If you're in control, it's a great feeling.
This was a bright spring day in Montana, and the snow was bipolar: crusty in the shadows, grippy where the sun shone. Jean hit one of those slushy troughs, something happened, and down she went—a full-speed tumble.
I instantly had a sinking feeling. Jean Mills, you should know, is 82 years old. People her age break their hips sitting down wrong, and here she was plowing the slope with her chin. By the time I reached her, Jean was blowing snow out of her sunglasses. "My first fall all year! she said, a little outraged by it. She bounced back up. Jean has been skiing for nearly seven decades and has never had a serious injury. She wasn't about to incur one to impress me.
Jean has been a certified ski instructor for 35 years. Her philosophy is elegantly simple: She teaches people not to fall—and in the process they learn how to ski. She took up the sport during the pioneer years of American skiing—before World War II—when the object was to weave gracefully down the hill with your skis glued together.
She was always athletic, and always irrepressible. As a young girl in the 1930s, she insisted on playing baseball with the neighborhood boys—and they didn't have a choice because she owned the bat and ball. She married a "patient, quiet man, and a fellow ski enthusiast. After the war, they'd take ski-week winter vacations to Sun Valley, Idaho, where they'd enroll in lessons. "Sun Valley brought in European instructors like Christian Pravda and Stein Eriksen, Jean says. "They always had top-notch people.
After 25 years of lessons, the student became a teacher. Which is why I called her. I'd heard that an 82-year-old woman was teaching at Discovery Basin, Mont. It's a little late in my skiing career to be learning new tricks (I'm 42), but I had a suspicion I could learn a lot from Jean.
I grew up in the tablelands of northwestern Ohio, where the highest hill in town was the loading ramp at Sears. I took lessons during family trips to Boyne Highlands in Michigan, where I, too, learned to keep my feet glued together. Then I went to Colorado, where the top-notch teachers of my era—Pepi Stiegler, among others—taught me to step into turns, to generate more power, more speed.
In 1969, almost a decade before I first visited Colorado, Jean became a certified ski instructor. She charged 25 cents per lesson at tiny Wraith Hill, not far from Discovery. In 1974, Jean ended her 35-year employment at a local credit bureau to become a full-time Discovery instructor. She's been there ever since. People ask for her by name when they sign up for lessons. Sometimes when she's on the hill, she'll bump into a former student and realize she's instructed three generations of that skier's family.
She teaches with old tricks: telling young kids to "call their dog (hand held near their downhill heel) and "pick apples from the tree and put them in a basket (weighting and unweighting skis in a turn). Jean showed me a few old tricks, too. While I stood, watching her go downhill, I felt like that little kid at Boyne Highlands again, nervous and eager to shine in the eyes of my instructor. It had been more than 30 years since I felt that way on a ski slope.
When Jean started skiing, women were not supposed to "schuss. "Most of them wouldn't even try, she says. This was Montana in 1937, a time of different attitudes, different technique, different equipment—in fact everything about skiing was different in 1937 except for the notion that you could strap two slats on your feet and have a ball. "I remember hiking up hills for two hours just to ski down for five minutes, Mills told me. If going fast meant having more fun, and going straightt meant going faster, then Jean Mills was going to schuss whenever she damn well pleased.
People often describe growing old as "slowing down. The morning I met Jean, I saw her before she saw me. She stood at the entrance of the lodge in a slight forward lean, perfectly balanced in her posture. Even at rest, she exudes a natural athletic grace.
At age 82, you would have to truly enjoy skiing to do it 30-plus days a season. You also would have to truly enjoy life to like skiing so much. Because here's another truth: Jean is skiing in her own space now. She's left almost everybody behind. Most of her ski buddies either have quit, can't keep up or have died. Many days she skis alone. Her husband passed away in the spring of 1999. The following winter, after having taken two years off to care for him, Jean returned to Discovery. When she's on the mountain, she feels close to him. "We always skied together, she says. "I think about that a lot.
It's been years since I cared how fast I could go down a hill. I'm far more interested in this other thing Jean does so well, the way she leans into life, the way she manages to maintain her poise while holding nothing back. She knows just how fast to take her turns.
At 82, Jean radiates with the beauty that comes from letting the world blow through your hair, letting each day shine on your cheeks. But mainly she radiates with the beauty that comes from being at peace inside your own skin. She has found the thing in life that grounds her, even if it means moving very fast and sometimes—very rarely, but sometimes—plowing a little snow with your chin.