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The Buckeye Bunch

The Buckeye Bunch

Travel
By PJ O'Rourke
posted: 09/07/2006

Round on the ends, not quite as high in the middle as one might prefer, Ohio is the doggone friendliest family destination in ski country—or would be, if it were actually in ski country. Time for a family ski vacation. "How about Gstaad?" said Mrs. O., grabbing a Bogner catalog.

"How about Aspen?" said I, having an inappropriate single-in-the-'70s flashback.

"How about Disney World?" said Poppet, age 4.

"There's no skiing at Disney World," I said.

"Whatever," said Poppet.

When it's time for a family ski vacation, you have to be honest about your family. Mrs. O. has been on skis about once since our eldest child, Muffin, age 7, made her sonogram debut. "I love skiing," says Mrs. O. And she does, except for the getting cold, the being outdoors and the sliding around on skis.

"I like the hot chocolate," says Poppet.

And our youngest, Buster, is 15 months. There are really only two skiers in the family, and only one is any good. I didn't learn to ski until I was 30. And when and where I learned, the powder was mostly on glass-topped coffee tables and "downhill" was a description of character.

I have reformed my personal life but not my ski technique. I'm a bunny-slope Sonny Bono. Muffin, on the other hand, was skiing before she could count to her boot size. Her turns and runs are quicker than the French army's. She whips through moguls that give me knee surgery just looking at them. But Muffin has a problem. It's not exactly fear of heights; she takes the most Himalayan chairlift rides with car-seat complacency. Rather, she has "ski agoraphobia." When she gets to the top of a hill and sees more than 45 degrees of the horizon revealed, she defaults into snowplow lockdown and starts missing her mom in the lodge. Muffin hates vistas.

I surveyed our family ski vacation needs: For Muffin, not too much scenery. For the rest, not too much skiing. I peeked into the bank account. Not too much money. I had an inspiration. There's a place that gets snow almost every day of winter, and it has the added advantage that I'm from there.

"Ohio! Hooray!" said Muffin. "Aunt Loulou let my cousin Tiffany get pierced ears in first grade!"

"We are not staying with your relatives," said Mrs. O.

"What's round on the ends and high in the middle?" I quizzed the girls. "O-hi-o."

They looked puzzled. As well they might, since the maximum elevation in the state is 1,549 feet. Not that the Alpine Valley ski area, east of Cleveland, is anywhere near so dizzying. It has 230 feet of vertical drop. When Muffin and I stood on the peak of Exhibition, Alpine's black, um, cubic zirconium run, we were pretty much level with the ski lodge's chimney top. I gave Muffin my Ohio avalanche safety lecture: "You are so safe from avalanches." And I told her not to ski out of bounds.

"Why?"

"Because it's completely flat."

I'm almost certain—although I got a D in high school physics—that somebody on stubby super sidecuts with no poles who weighs less than a down comforter is slower than a 57-year-old wideload on early '90s Rossignols the length of Middlemarch. But a view from the summit that was as exciting as standing on a footstool had reassured Muffin. Before I could say, "Follow me and watch how I turn," she was back in the liftline. So I put her in a private lesson. Doubtless there's much I could still teach Muffin, but I'd have to catch her first.

I put Poppet in a lesson as well. Poppet is that child who, anything you want to teach her, she knows it already, whatever it is. "Whatever," in fact, is her particular favorite word. "I know the alphabet—A, B, G, D, whatever."

Alpine Valley ski school director Rich Cunningham assigned instructor Joe Cooper to deal with whatever, and he put instructor Dave Hall in charge of Muffin. Alpine's Jodi Tusik found a quiet spot in a function room for Buster and our family babysitter. The babysitter had trepidations about the trip. She comes from a partf the world with indoor temperatures outdoors. But then she realized—what with the jolly bustle in AlpineValley's lodge and the uncrowded nature of Alpine Valley's slopes—a lot of Ohio skiing is done indoors.

Dave and Joe would return with glowing reports of Muffin's and Poppet's behavior. This leads me to suspect that Dave couldn't catch Muffin either and that Joe was being diplomatic or, as we call it at our house, lying. More to the point, Muffin and Poppet were aglow and full of hints that adoption by the Alpine Valley ski school would be a parental upgrade. I gather Alpine does not use the "damn-it-listen-to-me" instructional method favored by Dad.

Meanwhile, Mrs. O. and I had our first chance to spend the day skiing together since 1997. Being diplomatic, I'd say she was a little rusty. While "damn-it-listen-to-me" may dampen relations with your children, it produces a tsunami in relations with your spouse. A good family ski experience depends on skillful movement of one part of the body. That would be the mouth.

Once I shut up, Alpine Valley was a swell family ski area. This was Tuckerman Ravine as far as Poppet was concerned. There was enough challenge for Muffin and little enough worry for her parents. On 72 well-supervised acres, Muffin couldn't get much more lost than we wanted her to be.

Everybody at Alpine Valley was possessed of downright, fundamental Red State good cheer. The mood may have had something to do with the prices. Lift tickets were $24 for kids, $8 for kids under 6 and $26 for adults. (In three years, I get the half-price senior discount!) Equipment rental for Muffin, Poppet and Mrs. O. was $55. Private lessons were $32. Add it all up and it didn't equal lunch at Vail.

You might think Alpine Valley lacked thrills for me. You'd be wrong. There was one run that took my breath away and transported me to that near-weightless sense of bliss, a giddy marriage of flight and free-fall, where I was beyond command yet not out of control. This was the tube ride I took with Muffin.

The line for the inner tubes was much longer than the lines for the chairlifts. Come to that so was the line for lunch. Ohio exposes the id of winter sports. Secretly we'd all rather be sitting down.

Ohio's skiers do a lot of their sitting down on the slopes. The Boston Mills ski area is southeast of Cleveland and very similar to Alpine Valley in size, bargain value, solicitousness and pleasant company. A sunny 40-degree February day had brought out large numbers of that pleasant company. Their skiing explained how Ohio has produced seven presidents and no Bode Millers. The problem is one that's not addressed by instruction books, instruction videos or instructors. Ohioans, with no point of reference for skiing except what they do in the summer at the lake, are trying to waterski. They carefully distribute their weight on both skis and hunch to compensate for the pulling power of gravity, which they picture as a metaphorical 100hp Evinrude. A special form of Ohio ski teaching is needed. Most Ohioans know how to ice skate. A video called "Playing Hockey with Planks on Your Feet" would be invaluable. Although this might cause Ohioans to start high-sticking with their poles and thereby spoil the atmosphere at Boston Mills.

Alternatively, Ohioans could spell our babysitter and watch Buster toddle. He does fine as long as he's shifting from foot to foot and maintaining forward progress. But when he tries to plant himself firmly on two feet, he sits down. We deposited Buster with our babysitter in the clean, cheerful cafeteria at Boston Mills. Even the undersides of the tables were clean, our babysitter remarked, having seen all of them while chasing Buster. We foisted off Poppet on an amiable certified kids instructor, Herta Schwaiger. Mrs. O. went to ski somewhere out of the range of advice from me. Or said she did. (Several malls are nearby.) And I took Muffin on the Boston Mills expert run.

This turned out to be an expert run. Or 60 yards of it was. A landfill ramp had been bulldozed out from the modest natural slope of the hill. Beyond the lip of this ramp was the closest thing Ohio has to a headwall. Muffin went right over the edge. My heart pumped, but not as fast as her knees. She went down in half a dozen perfect little parallel turns with daylight beneath her skis on every one. She did this another 15 times. It is impossible for a child to be bored by anything that scares a parent.Alongside the headwall run was a genuine, if abbreviated, mogul field. Here Daddy messed up. I swear I can turn once as well as anyone. It's just that before I can turn again, I—to judge by my mogul performance—need to sit down. Muffin skied the bumps with the special grace of a 7-year-old girl—part ballerina and part frog.

The headwall and mogul field shared a chairlift with the snowboard park. The teenage snowboarders were much better than the adult skiers.

Summers on a skateboard at the mall give you moves you don't get being dragged behind a Correct Craft. Plus, no Alps or Rockies are needed for snowboarding. You can just neglect to shovel wheelchair access ramps and slide the railings. But these were Ohio snowboarders, with no tattoos. As for piercing, only the high school girls' giggles were that. They were all wearing the requisite bag-it-came-in clothing, but the snowboarder attitude eluded Ohio youngsters. They fussed over Muffin. It will be a significant shock to the sport when the Greater Cleveland Style hits snowboarding at the X-treme Yes Ma'am No Ma'am Games with Hilary Duff blasting from the speakers during the halfpipe competition.

I lured Muffin back to the cafeteria with a promise that she could try snowboarding just as soon as the College of Orthopedic Surgeons and her mom said it was OK. Herta Schwaiger gave an upbeat assessment of Poppet's skiing progress. "She's very sweet, and she can do almost everything now."

"Everything but stop," said Poppet.

"Well, yes," Herta said, "her stopping needs some work."

"I stopped for hot chocolate," Poppet said.

Mrs. O. returned from skiing suspiciously un-snow-encrusted. Buster was retrieved from under a table. And we all went back to our super luxury spa resort off Interstate 90 in Concord, Ohio.

If you don't think there's a super luxury spa resort off Interstate 90 in Concord, Ohio, it's because you don't travel with three small children and don't know the meaning of super luxury. It means connecting rooms with doors that can be opened only from the parents' side; PBS Kids and no Jerry Springer on the cable TV; speedy room service specializing in shocking-colored, fudge-flavored breakfast cereals and chicken fingers; patient, forgiving housekeepers who can erect a portable crib and are handy with a mop; and a really shallow indoor pool where air and water temperatures are slightly too high for humans and thus perfect for Muffin, Poppet and Buster. Of such is the luxury at Renaissance Quail Hollow Resort, which also has a steakhouse worthy of a state full of cattle (serving chicken fingers, too) with patient, forgiving waitresses who are handy with a mop. As for the spa part, a cigar bar serves single malt scotches as old as I felt when the kids got their second wind and began doing cordless bungee jumps on the king-size bed.

"Honey," I said to my wife, "I need to go check my email."

"There's no Internet access in the cigar bar," said Mrs. O.

"Bonus."

Ohio provided other, less expected, luxuries. Peter and Paris Ferrante, members of the Cleveland Ski Club, took us to dinner at Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, owned by Peter's family. Ohio has better ethnic food than New York City, for a simple Darwinian reason. Even the O'Rourkes were able to figure out that Ohio is a better deal than the slums of Manhattan. There's Cincinnati schnitzel, Cleveland kielbasa, Toledo falafel. Ferrante's food was best of all. The veal dishes would shake the philosophical foundations of People fort run. Or 60 yards of it was. A landfill ramp had been bulldozed out from the modest natural slope of the hill. Beyond the lip of this ramp was the closest thing Ohio has to a headwall. Muffin went right over the edge. My heart pumped, but not as fast as her knees. She went down in half a dozen perfect little parallel turns with daylight beneath her skis on every one. She did this another 15 times. It is impossible for a child to be bored by anything that scares a parent.Alongside the headwall run was a genuine, if abbreviated, mogul field. Here Daddy messed up. I swear I can turn once as well as anyone. It's just that before I can turn again, I—to judge by my mogul performance—need to sit down. Muffin skied the bumps with the special grace of a 7-year-old girl—part ballerina and part frog.

The headwall and mogul field shared a chairlift with the snowboard park. The teenage snowboarders were much better than the adult skiers.

Summers on a skateboard at the mall give you moves you don't get being dragged behind a Correct Craft. Plus, no Alps or Rockies are needed for snowboarding. You can just neglect to shovel wheelchair access ramps and slide the railings. But these were Ohio snowboarders, with no tattoos. As for piercing, only the high school girls' giggles were that. They were all wearing the requisite bag-it-came-in clothing, but the snowboarder attitude eluded Ohio youngsters. They fussed over Muffin. It will be a significant shock to the sport when the Greater Cleveland Style hits snowboarding at the X-treme Yes Ma'am No Ma'am Games with Hilary Duff blasting from the speakers during the halfpipe competition.

I lured Muffin back to the cafeteria with a promise that she could try snowboarding just as soon as the College of Orthopedic Surgeons and her mom said it was OK. Herta Schwaiger gave an upbeat assessment of Poppet's skiing progress. "She's very sweet, and she can do almost everything now."

"Everything but stop," said Poppet.

"Well, yes," Herta said, "her stopping needs some work."

"I stopped for hot chocolate," Poppet said.

Mrs. O. returned from skiing suspiciously un-snow-encrusted. Buster was retrieved from under a table. And we all went back to our super luxury spa resort off Interstate 90 in Concord, Ohio.

If you don't think there's a super luxury spa resort off Interstate 90 in Concord, Ohio, it's because you don't travel with three small children and don't know the meaning of super luxury. It means connecting rooms with doors that can be opened only from the parents' side; PBS Kids and no Jerry Springer on the cable TV; speedy room service specializing in shocking-colored, fudge-flavored breakfast cereals and chicken fingers; patient, forgiving housekeepers who can erect a portable crib and are handy with a mop; and a really shallow indoor pool where air and water temperatures are slightly too high for humans and thus perfect for Muffin, Poppet and Buster. Of such is the luxury at Renaissance Quail Hollow Resort, which also has a steakhouse worthy of a state full of cattle (serving chicken fingers, too) with patient, forgiving waitresses who are handy with a mop. As for the spa part, a cigar bar serves single malt scotches as old as I felt when the kids got their second wind and began doing cordless bungee jumps on the king-size bed.

"Honey," I said to my wife, "I need to go check my email."

"There's no Internet access in the cigar bar," said Mrs. O.

"Bonus."

Ohio provided other, less expected, luxuries. Peter and Paris Ferrante, members of the Cleveland Ski Club, took us to dinner at Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, owned by Peter's family. Ohio has better ethnic food than New York City, for a simple Darwinian reason. Even the O'Rourkes were able to figure out that Ohio is a better deal than the slums of Manhattan. There's Cincinnati schnitzel, Cleveland kielbasa, Toledo falafel. Ferrante's food was best of all. The veal dishes would shake the philosophical foundations of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The squid could send Neapolitan fishermen to cast their nets in the Great Lakes. But it was the wine that amazed. Ohio has wine, but it's mostly from Concord grapes, the grapes used to make a PB&J. Cork up some of those jelly jars with the Flintstones on them, store these in your basement for a few years, and you've got Ohio wine. The Ferrante family, however, has been working for 70 years to grow grapes for adults on the shores of Lake Erie. The result is that splendid wine you get at a bistro in Italy, the wine that comes to the table in an unmarked carafe, and when you ask what it is, the waiter offers only Mediterranean shrugs and evasions—because it's imported from Ohio.

But does Ohio have skiing that's equally great? Actually, in a way, it does. The Cleveland Ski Club was organized in 1937and is one of the few ski clubs in America that owns its own hill. Most Ohio skiers are Ohioans stuck on skis. Cleveland Ski Club members are skiers stuck in Ohio. When they can't get to Alta or Stowe, they go 30 miles east of Cleveland to Big Creek. They found the property by looking at topo maps and asking the state highway department where it had the most trouble plowing roads. Big Creek isn't really a hill. The slope goes down, not up, into a 175-foot-deep, heavily wooded gorge. The club hired a timber company to clear five ski trails. Each is a version, in miniature, of a perfect run. A broad, arcing sweeper is smooth enough for children's lessons but fast enough to race on, and it provides three minutes of micro-cruising. A wider, precipitous, mildly bumped descent flutters the tummy. Or you can gut-wrench yourself on a much more precipitous, ungroomed version where you swallow all 175 feet in one gulp. Then there's a nightmare of a glade, or, if not quite long enough to be a nightmare, a nightmare's coming-attractions reel.

Big Creek is open to the public but seems to be skied mostly by club devotees, some of them third generation members. The club does most of the maintenance itself. On the lip of the gorge there's a small Swiss-style chalet full of kids, prized chili recipes in potluck dishes and parents keeping babies from crawling into the fireplace. Outside, the snow banks are stuck full of cold beers.

Big Creek has two T-bars. Mastering these up the side of the gorge is a better test of skiing skills than conquering the Colorado backcountry. Muffin had a last-moment flinch that sent the T-bar into Dad's kidney. Ski Club kids Poppet's age were unfazed. They made my skiing look like Poppet's.

Lest Poppet end up skiing like me forever, I tried to give her a lesson. I held her under her arms, plopped her into the ample wedge made by my old-fashioned skis, and headed down the sweeper. Apparently Poppet has been studying the techniques of nonviolent protest and passive resistance (perhaps in the works of Gandhi—she attends a progressive pre-school). She went completely limp, converting her 35 pounds into the stuff at the center of black holes in space. Thank you, Quail Hollow, for the parboil-temperature swimming pool, which makes a pretty good whirlpool bath if you put your back against the filtration outlet.

Poppet's best winter sport is making snow angels. She does it intentionally if you take off her skis, and I promptly did. Muffin competed in her first ski race. She placed third in her age group. I placed about 281st in mine, the Cleveland Ski Club having 280 members. Poppet made friends with some like-minded girls and proceeded from intermediate to advanced snow-angel making. Everybody was looking after everybody's children, so Mrs. O. could go off with Paris Ferrante and other moms. The last I saw of my wife, as she plunged into the gorge, was a pair of skis that had been smartly brought together and the cute little hip thrust she made when she carved her turn. Our babysitter discovered that Ohio chili is spiced to a degree that's alarming even by the standards of her native lannd. Buster crawled happily into the fireplace. I had a beer. And another.

Go ahead and go to Jackson Hole if you're taking a ski vacation. But if you're taking a family ski vacation…. Plus, if Cleveland becomes a winter travel destination, think what an improvement on Sundance its film festival will be. You won't have to sit through any solemn bum-out documentaries or pretentious handheld indy productions or incomprehensible art films—because Drew Carey will be picking all the movies.

October 2005he Ethical Treatment of Animals. The squid could send Neapolitan fishermen to cast their nets in the Great Lakes. But it was the wine that amazed. Ohio has wine, but it's mostly from Concord grapes, the grapes used to make a PB&J. Cork up some of those jelly jars with the Flintstones on them, store these in your basement for a few years, and you've got Ohio wine. The Ferrante family, however, has been working for 70 years to grow grapes for adults on the shores of Lake Erie. The result is that splendid wine you get at a bistro in Italy, the wine that comes to the table in an unmarked carafe, and when you ask what it is, the waiter offers only Mediterranean shrugs and evasions—because it's imported from Ohio.

But does Ohio have skiing that's equally great? Actually, in a way, it does. The Cleveland Ski Club was organized in 1937and is one of the few ski clubs in America that owns its own hill. Most Ohio skiers are Ohioans stuck on skis. Cleveland Ski Club members are skiers stuck in Ohio. When they can't get to Alta or Stowe, they go 30 miles east of Cleveland to Big Creek. They found the property by looking at topo maps and asking the state highway department where it had the most trouble plowing roads. Big Creek isn't really a hill. The slope goes down, not up, into a 175-foot-deep, heavily wooded gorge. The club hired a timber company to clear five ski trails. Each is a version, in miniature, of a perfect run. A broad, arcing sweeper is smooth enough for children's lessons but fast enough to race on, and it provides three minutes of micro-cruising. A wider, precipitous, mildly bumped descent flutters the tummy. Or you can gut-wrench yourself on a much more precipitous, ungroomed version where you swallow all 175 feet in one gulp. Then there's a nightmare of a glade, or, if not quite long enough to be a nightmare, a nightmare's coming-attractions reel.

Big Creek is open to the public but seems to be skied mostly by club devotees, some of them third generation members. The club does most of the maintenance itself. On the lip of the gorge there's a small Swiss-style chalet full of kids, prized chili recipes in potluck dishes and parents keeping babies from crawling into the fireplace. Outside, the snow banks are stuck full of cold beers.

Big Creek has two T-bars. Mastering these up the side of the gorge is a better test of skiing skills than conquering the Colorado backcountry. Muffin had a last-moment flinch that sent the T-bar into Dad's kidney. Ski Club kids Poppet's age were unfazed. They made my skiing look like Poppet's.

Lest Poppet end up skiing like me forever, I tried to give her a lesson. I held her under her arms, plopped her into the ample wedge made by my old-fashioned skis, and headed down the sweeper. Apparently Poppet has been studying the techniques of nonviolent protest and passive resistance (perhaps in the works of Gandhi—she attends a progressive pre-school). She went completely limp, converting her 35 pounds into the stuff at the center of black holes in space. Thank you, Quail Hollow, for the parboil-temperature swimming pool, which makes a pretty good whirlpool bath if you put your back against the filtration outlet.

Poppet's best winter sport is making snow angels. She does it intentionally if you take off her skis, and I promptly did. Muffin competed in her first ski race. She placed third in her age group. I placed about 281st in mine, the Cleveland Ski Club having 280 members. Poppet made friends with some like-minded girls and proceeded from intermediate to advanced snow-angel making. Everybody was looking after everybody's children, so Mrs. O. could go off with Paris Ferrante and other moms. The last I saw of my wife, as she plunged into the gorge, was a pair of skis that had been smartly brought together and the cute little hip thrust she made when she carved her turn. Our babysitter discovered that Ohio chili is spiced to a degree that's alarming even by the standards of her native land. Buster crawled happily into the fireplace. I had a beer. And another.

Go ahead and go to Jackson Hole if you're taking a ski vacation. But if you're taking a family ski vacation…. Plus, if Cleveland becomes a winter travel destination, think what an improvement on Sundance its film festival will be. You won't have to sit through any solemn bum-out documentaries or pretentious handheld indy productions or incomprehensible art films—because Drew Carey will be picking all the movies.

October 2005tive land. Buster crawled happily into the fireplace. I had a beer. And another.

Go ahead and go to Jackson Hole if you're taking a ski vacation. But if you're taking a family ski vacation…. Plus, if Cleveland becomes a winter travel destination, think what an improvement on Sundance its film festival will be. You won't have to sit through any solemn bum-out documentaries or pretentious handheld indy productions or incomprehensible art films—because Drew Carey will be picking all the movies.

October 2005

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