November is a difficult month for me. In the northwest corner of Montana, daylight hours are few, sunshine is nonexistent, and the skies threaten snow, but take a long time to deliver. All I want, is snow. Sunshine be damned, let it snow.
Fall is great–I love how the hillsides turn gold from the change of the larch needles, like yellow veins of the mountain stretching down to the valley floor and pumpkins are wonderful. But, honestly, I could do without fall. I’m a proponent of endless winter. All I want is for ski season to arrive. I may not always pray for world peace but I do pray for snow, sometimes in a pair of ratty, hole ridden snowflake adorned flannel pants from my middle school days. They are not flattering and some may even consider them indecent.
I hope to not sound like a total ski bum–“Dude can’t wait to shred the gnar! The pow-pow was sick!” is not my vernacular but in any case, I am part of this tribe, brethren of winter, a tribe dedicated to mountains, snowflakes, and powder turns. You won’t hear me utter the new-school snow speak of “pow-pow” or “shreading the gnar” but there’s been one consistent thing in my life and that’s been skiing.
I blame it entirely on my parents.
Northern Michigan probably doesn’t conjure images of skiing in most people’s minds but it’s true, I was raised by two ski bum parents on the slopes in Michigan. My home ski hill is proudly not a landfill like many other ski resorts in southern Michigan (no one really likes southern Michigan. It’s all about life Up North) but is an actual topographic feature. My parents had me on skis at 17 months of age.
My dad worked road construction and his job would lay him off each fall. He took a job tending bar at Nub’s Nob, a small family-run day lodge just north of Petoskey. Both my parents, who were both raised in southern Michigan, were skiers. They both escaped the suburbs and farmlands and moved north where three resorts were within a 30 mile radius of their house. Nub’s Nob rises just high enough above the hardwoods that you can see Lake Michigan on a clear day.
I’ve tried ballet, abandoned Girl Scouts after having to sell cookies and hating doing so, played sports in high school but was completely awkward and ungraceful in doing so, especially the athletics where hand and eye coordination were essential. But skiing has always made sense to me, to my body, and is what I simply love doing most.
Over the years, I’ve become a better skier but I still love the way it makes me feel. I’ve even traded in my alpine bindings for telemark. I also have so many cherished memories related to skiing and am thankful for them. My family wasn’t a very rich family, but my parents knew how important skiing was to them, so my dad worked all those years at the Nub’s Pub so we had access to discounted lift tickets. When I reached high school, my parents announced they could no longer afford for me to continue to alpine ski race (honestly, who really can afford to race? Multiple pairs of skis? Tons of gear? Season passes? It’s outrageous). Ski racing was a middle school and high school sport in Michigan (besides the Great Lakes, another great reason the Mitten State is a great place to grow up) and I had a lot of fun doing it. So, on the weekends I worked as a ski instructor at Boyne Mountain, a mere 6 miles from my house, to score a free ski pass and also learn how to drink with my fellow Austrian ski instructors. I know, I sacrificed a lot to keep skiing.
The culture of skiing has changed a lot in my lifetime. People used to actually ski in jeans, now they make snow pants that look like jeans but aren’t really jeans. Tricky. Lift tickets were affordable and parties in parking lots were allowed, even encouraged. No one skied with a cellphone-I mean, can you imagine skiing with a bag phone? Impossible in the 90s! Skiers didn’t ski to make movies and didn’t suffer cases of frostbite on their ass just to wear baggy pants. I hate to say the “old days were better,” but in some ways, with skiing, they truly were. But perhaps that’s because when I was growing up on Nub’s Nob, I had some pretty damn good times as a kid and I’m lucky for that.
My brother and I skied around with another group of boys our age (I was the only girl). Our parents were all friends. Nub’s Nob had outdoor charcoal grills and two chalets spread around the mountain, encouraging families to host their own slopeside barbeque. Our weekends at the ski hill were pretty much the same routine: drive to Nub’s Nob, get our boots on, and then JD and I would flee from our parents, join our friends, practice our Spread Eagles and Daffy Splits off jumps and come lunchtime, ski to our parents at the designated grill. Then, after we’d eaten our fill, we’d ski away and find our parents at the Nub’s Pub once the lifts closed. They’d enjoy a cold Labbatt Blue and we’d drink hot chocolate, with a bit more extra whipped cream on top due to our status as the bartender’s offspring.
Now, this next story might make my parents sound slightly like bad parents but they’re not. Trust me. It’s just that on one spring ski day when JD was 10 years old, he got drunk. Some adult made Jello jigglers for the slopeside potluck and forgot to tell the other parents that these seemingly innocuous treats contained vodka and were not to be set out on the table during lunchtime. Well, the plate of Jello ended up on the table and my brother was well known to be a good eater. So he saw a plate of red Jello and he ate. Several alcohol spiked Jello treats. My brother had to be carried down the hill, skis still attached, in my dad’s arms. JD may have been given coffee to sober up.
As a family we skied every weekend and then my brother and I participated in Ski Academy, a weekly ski coaching program at night. Oh yes, in the Midwest we love skiing so much that we ski day and night! My brother and I had Ski Academy on Wednesday nights and my parents raced in the recreational night league on Thursday nights. My mother still ski races in the recreational night league. She becomes very upset if her team doesn’t place in the top three. This league is highly competitive because while Michigan lacks steep terrain and powder, it makes up in racing on ice and cultivating serious competition in the over-40 crowd.
I knew after college I’d move to Montana so I could ski. Skiing is very unique in that it affects your entire life. People will move to the mountains, lose their jobs, and most often, their significant others just to ski. There aren’t a lot of other sports that capture someone so intensely. In my mountain town it is not about how much money you make but how many days you ski each season. Your status is determined by how many powder days you call off work, if you hike up the Big Mountain before the lifts start running in December, and if you ski in July on Logan’s Pass in Glacier National Park. I live just 15 minutes from the base of the ski resort and when my dad offered that perhaps I should consider moving elsewhere to find gainful employment, he suggested Denver. He said it’s only a couple of hours to the ski resorts.
A couple of hours? What? I reminded him that it was he and my mother who instilled this deep and binding love for skiing in me and that my entire life, with the exception of my stint in Indiana for college, I’ve never lived more than 20 minutes from a ski resort! Driving I-70 from Denver to the mountains is unfathomable to me. With my degree from a prestigious liberal arts college, I’ll join everyone else in this town with their degrees and PhD’s and wait tables at night just so I can ski all day. It might sound a bit foolish or even childish (is there are female version of the Peter Pan syndrome?) but once you fall in love with the mountains, the complete freedom of gliding down a hill, snowflakes kissing your cheeks you don’t care about anything else but being happy.
I’ve hit a few lows in my life but skiing has helped me recover, find my strength and regain my balance. If I can’t write, I go skiing. Stories make more sense when I’m skinning up the mountain on a backcountry tour. If I’m sad, playing around in the snow is better than a good book, chocolate or a glass of wine. Of course, if it’s been a really good ski day and I’m completely tired after skiing my reward is a good book, chocolate and a tasty beverage. And, I’ve even found love.
Life is simplified during ski season. You wake up and immediately call the snow phone to check the snow report. It’s an anxiety ridden time–praying and hoping for new snow but knowing that even if it isn’t a powder day, it will still be a better day on the mountain than anywhere else. Breakfast is made quickly while dancing around in your long underwear (I should do more yoga, but dancing is a good warm up too) and then it’s off to the mountain, double and triple checking that all your gear’s in the car: boots, skis, gloves, helmet and goggles.
At the end of October this fall, we got a major snow storm that left close to 40 inches of snow on the Big Mountain. With good friends, I hiked up the mountain and skied down. But then, like November always does to our tortured souls, it warmed up and the snow melted. While I’m more than thankful to have ski two days before Halloween, even crossing over day old grizzly bear tracks, I know I’ve got to endure the long month of November before the snowfall is consistent and the mountain is dressed in her very best white.
If you live in a mountain town you understand this feeling of anticipation to the point where it’s excruciating.Your days are spent checking the weather forecast, sitting on the couch in your ski boots to convince your feet this is what they really love, and lunge around the yard, encouraging your legs to respond. Yet, I’m so lucky to already have a lifetime of wonderful ski memories accumulated in my heart to get me through this most torturous month of pre-ski season.
Is it snowing yet?