By the time I buckle my boots, the people wearing Hefty bags are already skiing. They are having an awesome time.
The sleet is coming down almost horizontally. It’s just cold enough that it freezes on contact, coating the railings of the tram dock with a solid, immediate layer of ice. I have come home to Cannon Mountain, N.H., for Christmas after becoming one of those people who leave New England for bigger mountains and deeper snow out West. I thought the Rockies had made me tough—patrolling at A-Basin, backcountry missions that call for two kinds of crampons, that kind of thing.
In the wide-open spaces of Montana, a busy day is a chance to catch your breath and the local gossip.
The blinking blue light atop the Baxter Hotel, Bozeman’s highest building, means one glorious thing to the residents of this southwest Montana town: powder day. Another lumbering highline storm has arrived to deposit that famous cold smoke on Bridger Bowl. As a listless college student in Bozeman, I’d watch it pulse through the darkness on my frigid walks home from one of Main Street’s fine drinking establishments. It would fill me with hope for a deep and lucid tomorrow, as my buddies and I struggled for clarity through all the bottom-shelf whiskey we’d just shot.
Here’s the thing about those icy, flat slopes: They absolutely make you a better skier.
I’m about to talk about Stratton Mountain, the ski resort that’s just 10 minutes from where I grew up in Vermont, and I know what you’re thinking: Ice. Bitterly cold temperatures. Liftlines crowded with New Yorkers and Bostonians. Terrain that’s, well...the place is known as “Flatton.”
Yes, it’s all those things. But it’s also my home ski area, and here’s why I love it.
Pack the car the night before, wake at a ridiculous hour, layer long underwear under track pants, then pull away from the world of rustling palm fronds, bougainvillea, and perennial hibiscus flowers before L.A.’s 10 million or so other residents wake up and clog the roads.
Mammoth is the third most visited ski resort in the United States, although it has often ranked second and even first. For southern Californians, the big mountain’s enduring appeal is elemental—part of the cosmology of California living, like a reset button for the Angeleno soul.
Every week I limped my freshly ripped muscle fibers off the Eskimo Ski Club bus, then sometimes went straight to bed without dinner.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina. I’d stay late in the studio and watch the older girls in pointe class, with their impassive faces and impossible jetés. Then, shortly after I got my own pointe shoes, I quit. Not because I stopped wanting to be a ballerina, but because every Sunday my legs were so saturated with lactic acid from nonstop Derailers, Railbenders, Drunken Frenchmen, and Golden Spikes at Mary Jane, Colo., the day before that I could not developpé them off the floor. Saturdays were for skiing, for trying to keep up with my older brother—at all costs.
I thought I won it for being fast, a misconception my father did not dispute even though it would cost him thousands in race gear and entry fees over the next decade.
I used to crave chocolate moose— yes, moose—because there was a counter that sold them in the old base lodge at Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain in the early ’80s. The place offered other cast-chocolate Maine kitsch, too—lobsters, lighthouses, seagulls—but it was the moose lollipop I wanted.
It was one of those unpredictable memory-making experiences that consistently happen when you’re a ski family.
When youth-group lessons release on Saturday afternoons at Eldora Mountain, Colo., there are probably 300 families hitting Boulder Canyon Drive, a twisty, narrow two-laner that shadows Middle Boulder Creek down the canyon. A few years ago, as my wife and two kids, with me at the wheel, were crawling in a line of traffic heading home, some weird inversion happened and the wet asphalt instantly became covered in black ice just as the road started to curve. Looking a few vehicles ahead, I saw one car spin off to the right, stopping with its nose over the streambed.
It’s a wonder we didn’t end up with serious injuries to our wool-hat-clad heads.
Hunter Mountain, N.Y., isn’t where I actually learned to ski. But Hunter is indeed where I learned to ski. Chasing my older brother down icy black diamonds like Hell Gate and Minya Konka, yard-saling big-time on the double blacks at Hunter West—Westway, under the liftline, even. No matter how hard I skied—or rather how hard I bit it—my brother never let me win.
I’d like to apologize to everyone in those liftlines whose skis I walked on.
I’d like to thank all the guys—students at Norwich University, all pushing retirement age by now—who gave me shoulder rides to the top of my local hill in central Vermont. I was five, too small to hold down the poma platter. They made a little boy with a runny nose very happy. Man, how I loved to ski when I was five.