It's a bluebird day. Crisp air, brilliant sun, the odd marshmallow cloud suspended in an otherwise flawless sky. A rare August day, indeed, in the usually drizzly British Midlands, a few hours north of London. But a business trip brought me to Great Britain, and I wouldn't want to miss out on the skiing.
The Tamworth Snowdome is a big, old box of a building, the town's second-most prominent architectural edifice after a 15th-century castle. Counting the adjacent "leisure center," it's nearly five football fields in length.
Beneath its queasy green exterior are 558 feet of bunny hill."A cowshed with a wheelchair ramp," is how 28-year-old native Megan Powell Vreeswijk puts it. But in a country with little snow and fewer mountains, manmade flakes and a "nursery slope" will have to do. It did for Megan, who learned to snowboard here at 25. And it does for me. The place just makes me giggle.
The Snowdome has been around since 1994 and gets about 250,000 visitors a year, 75 percent of whom also take ski trips-or plan to, once they get their ski legs here. One-hour sessions range from $15 to $30, with various discounts.
On this Wednesday afternoon, there are about 40 people cruising around, including a half-dozen youngsters learning how to sidestep up and snowplow down. Other days, they set up gates or a quarterpipe. And Aspen's Pub, which offers a view of the slope from one floor up, is busy every night.
Between the artificial snow, the artificial light and the easy terrain, I'm transported back to my fifth-grade ski club at Pennsylvania's Tanglwood ski area. There's even a ropetow, though the main lift is a "travelator"-an airport-style people-mover. The ride up is two-and-a-half minutes. The ride down is 20 seconds, 30 if you make a lot of turns. It starts with a little dogleg, followed by two modest ribbons of descent.
A snowboarder chick zips by me, blond hair trailing behind her like a comet. She's Jo Street, 18, and is one of 60-some part-time instructors. Jo is hoping to take her first trip to the mountains soon, perhaps to Canada.
And that's the beauty of the Snowdome: It's 365-days-a-year evangelism for a sport that always needs new converts. The mountains will be part of Jo's and Megan's lives forever. And that relationship started on this snow-covered wheelchair ramp.
As for me, I wouldn't go out of my way to ski indoors again. But if a dome opened near my home in Texas, I'd be there. You don't need palm-sweating vertical or pillows of powder to work out the kinks, get the quads firing or simply get a snow fix.
You see, it's not so much an alpine experience as it is a diversion, no different from ice skating or bowling or miniature golf. "It's no substitute for blue skies and the mountains," one Dome employee admits. It's not even a substitute for below-zero whiteouts or edging on blue ice, let alone moguls, glades and powder. But it's skiing. You take your turns where you can get them. And after last run, you're already in the pub. A skier could do worse on a hot August day a few hours north of London.
Jason Cohen is a writer for Texas Monthly and the author of Zamboni Rodeo. A skier for 25 years, he currently lives in an Airstream trailer and gets around a lot.