It’s 6 p.m. and I’m driving somewhere between the Kentucky border and Larry Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Indiana. The two-lane road cuts through rolling fields gone brown for the winter, past corn, cows, horses, and barns. Then I see a sign with a tiny white ski jumper silhouetted on a dark background, and then another group of signs beckoning me to turn left for Paoli Peaks. I take the turn just before the Midwest Inn and pass a Subway and a bowling alley as I wind away from the main road. But with each twist, I seem to get farther from the only hill I’ve seen since touching down in Louisville. Finally, the road lurches right, up a rise, and I arrive in a gravel parking lot.
Families and teens—walking among church buses, cars, pickups, and RVs—cross the lot toward a large building. To its right, at the far edge of the gravel, I spot a bright and incongruous expanse of white atop a barely sloping field of Indiana dirt. Walking toward it, I peer through a few scrub pines and nearly rub my eyes in cartoonish disbelief: Ahead is a field of snow with skiers unloading from the top of a quad chair. Have I driven to the summit of a ski area? Is that even possible?
The bullwheel atop the lift casts a shadow that looks like a swirling vortex onto a well-groomed ribbon of snow, a black hole awaiting beginner skiers who glide off and promptly fall, one after another. A concerned mother waves goodbye to her son as he trudges off toward the lift. “Chad,” she calls out, “don’t break no arm or leg!”
I walk out onto the snow and get my first full look at Paoli Peaks, Indiana, a hill with 300 feet of vertical, 125 snow guns, and enough rental gear to put thousands of beginners onto its slopes simultaneously. I have come to experience the twin novelties of schussing the Midwest and night skiing. I’ve long been intrigued by night skiing—or rather by my romanticized notion of slopes bathed in yellow light, my shadow projected in front of me, the moon and stars glittering beyond, a small flask tucked inside a jacket pocket. The one time I tried it as a teenager, though, the reality fell short of my fantasy. The hill was solid ice, it was incredibly cold, and my friend’s father, who’d taken us, confiscated my flask. Still, many years later, I held on to the idea that something like my fantasy could exist. Moreover, I held on to a nostalgic affinity for small, quirky ski areas that reminded me of the places in the Catskills and the Berkshires where I skied in my youth.
Paoli’s night skiing is enlivened by an additional twist. It’s Friday, and the ski area is to host its weekly College Midnight Madness ski session, during which, for $35, students from nearby universities can ski from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., with rental gear and a voucher for a lesson that few of them will bother with. Tens of thousands of students from Indiana University, Purdue, the University of Louisville, and the University of Kentucky live within striking distance. Before I arrived, I envisioned troops of college-age gapers, their ineptitude compounded by youth, a macho need to prove themselves, and the beer I expected them to be funneling between runs. I pictured kegs and costumes; Animal House on a hill.
But it looks like I’m early for the madness. Luckily, I’ve come prepared with an alternate agenda. As I head for the lodge to rent some skis, I reset the altimeter log on my watch to zero and check my pocket for the bouncer-style number clicker I’ve brought to keep track of my speed laps. I’m not sure what the record is for most runs in a night-skiing session. Twenty-five? Thirty? Whatever it is, I aim to break it.
Paoli Peaks occupies a small, round-topped hill a few miles west of the town of Paoli, Indiana, in that mostly snowless margin where the Midwest meets the South. The plural “Peaks” in the name seems more honorific than specific because you’d be hard-pressed to find more than one.
What began as a hilly pig farm was converted in 1978 into the world’s most unlikely ski hill, thanks to visionary founder Richard Graber. That first year, Paoli had one green, one blue, and one black run, one chairlift, and an optimism that some locals deemed foolish. Early on, Graber brought in Felix Kagi, a Swiss national and lifelong skier, and together they set about tackling the most obvious obstacle, the lack of snow, with an aggressive snowmaking system.
The cultural misunderstandings proved slightly harder to address. Customers would—and sometimes still do—walk into the rental shop with their skis still on their feet. One ski instructor told me of a student complaining that his ski boots were too tight, and it turned out he was wearing neoprene stocking-foot waders inside his rental boots. Another employee recalled the time a family from Alabama showed up in mid-May, expecting to ski. When told that there was no snow, the father was confused. “Then what do you do with all that artificial snow?” he asked. In spite of such misapprehensions, Paoli has thrived. Three decades on, a good Saturday can bring 2,000 skiers to a hill that now offers 17 trails, five chairlifts, two beginner areas, and three surface lifts. Past the hundred-yard-wide summit plateau near the lodge, Paoli drops into slightly steeper terrain, with gently sloping greens and double greens (yes, there are such things) to skier’s left, a terrain park in the middle, some blues and gentle blacks off to the right, and a snow-tubing park beyond them. It’s not a destination resort that dedicated skiers will go out of their way to find, but a place that democratizes skiing, a place where visitors from Alabama and Florida can get their first glimpse of snow.
“Watch your back, that’s what you’ve got to do,” advises the goateed pro-shop manager. He talks about resorts out West while clicking one of my boots into the bindings on a pair of demo Elans. To maximize my turns given the lack of vertical, he puts me on a new pair of twitchy slalom skis, about 20 centimeters shorter than my normal setup.
I’m not sure where to start. Chairlifts deposit wobbly skiers on the plateau that is the crest of the hill. The well-groomed run, illuminated at the top by tall light towers, seems to drop off into darkness just beyond, bounded by dark, snowless stands of deciduous forest. The danger posed by the critical mass of out-of-control beginners is intensified by Paoli’s upside-down, parking-lot-on-the-summit layout: New skiers have no idea what they’re getting into since they haven’t seen the mountain yet.
I push off. For a few surreal seconds, after dodging a couple snowboarders, I am just skiing—on man-made snow, under the buzzing glow of fluorescent lights. I eye nearby skiers suspiciously, maintaining a defensive pose while weaving turns through the crowd. Occasionally a nearby skier collapses in a heap. Just as I’m getting the hang of it, I notice I’m approaching the bottom, and I slow down to get on a triple chair. I stop and squeeze the bouncer’s clicker to read “001.” Two runs later, I stumble onto one of Paoli’s two black-diamond runs. A pair of teenagers discovers it just as I do. One wears a pair of Carhartt overalls, the other a tree-bark-camo jacket.
“What the heck did we come over here for?” shouts one to the other, the panic rising in his voice. “It’s a black diamond!”
And though this is an expert run only as graded on the most generous Indiana curve, it’s clear that for these two, paralyzed by the relative steepness of the slope, Paoli’s 300 vertical feet are probably about 275 more than they really need.
“Just go slow,” says one. The other nods in agreement. “When in doubt,” he says, “fall.”
“Eight seconds of glory,” says the local skier I’m doing speed laps with. “Not much, but it’s not bad.” And he’s right. I spent the early evening focused on skiing the whole mountain. After two hours and 17 runs, it’s mission accomplished. Still waiting for the college scene to materialize, I head into the lodge.
It’s 9 p.m. and a few students, easily identifiable by hoodies bearing their school logos, mill around the lodge. It isn’t a huge crowd, but it’s enough to give me hope that the depraved vision of night skiing I expected will materialize. A good sign: a half-dozen Indiana University students clad in matching red jumpsuits with a promising bit of embroidery across their backs that reads hoosier drinking crew.
They’re taking their time to gear up so I head out for a few more runs. Back on the hill, I see some college guys charging kamikaze runs while others chant, “Fall! Fall! Fall!” in unison from the lift. Other than that, the scene isn’t Animal House as much as it’s Brady Bunch. Families ski together late into the night. So do the 542 Boy Scouts who are here to work on their skiing merit badges.
My great hopes for the graveyard shift, the esteemed members of the Hoosier Drinking Crew, take their first lap. But they seem more interested in doing themselves physical harm in the terrain park—their favorite trick being the railslide-to-crotch-shot—than drinking. Thinking that at least someone should have a beer, I take a break just after 1 a.m. but find the bar closed. Tragic.
I’m not alone in lamenting the tame scene. “That maple there would have been weighed down with love beads and bras,” says one ski patroller I ride the lift with, pointing to a trailside tree. “And there would have been a bonfire over there,” he says, pointing to a flat spot to the side of the parking lot, where the Boy Scouts have pitched their tents. He blames the fact that Indiana University is no longer the party school it once was.
Whatever the reasons, my anthropological study of Midwestern skiing is far from over. As the hours tick on toward dawn, I observe spectacular wipeouts of nearly every conceivable type: the spinning fall, the sliding fall, the inexplicable single release, the slowly widening splits, the hard-to-watch suicide crash and burn, and, of course, several variations of the face plant. Many of the victims openly disregard the laws of physics—they lean forward with arms outstretched while simultaneously sticking their butts out in a way that puts them back on their heels—and yet somehow manage to remain upright for a few seconds.
The best vantage point for fieldwork is at the top of Skywalker, a 200-yard double green freshly dotted with small moguls. The new bumps have transformed it into a sort of pinball alley of carnage. At one point, I count 11 skiers in various stages of wipeout but they all pop right up, wobble to the lift, and head back uphill to continue their self-directed ski educations.
Head ski patroller Harold Holt has been cleaning up many of these messes for 20 years. A friendly bearded guy in glasses who traverses the hill on a snowmobile with his black lab on the back, Holt talks with me on the lift. Like patrollers everywhere, he has developed a sixth sense for impending trouble, honed by watching thousands of beginners take their first foal-steps on the mountain.
“Oh, that one’s gonna be trouble,” he says, motioning toward a shaky-looking teenage girl headed for the edge of the trail. Sure enough, she skids off into a patch of grass and the mud beyond. “There’s nothing too steep,” Holt tells me, “so they can’t get in too much trouble. Some who should take lessons don’t, but even if they end up skiing into the woods, they have fun.”
Holt is emblematic of what Paoli offers. He has as much passion for skiing as anyone I’ve ever skied with, but were it not for Paoli, he would likely never have had the chance to ski at all. He grew up in central Kentucky—“Home of Maker’s Mark,” as he puts it—and only saw pictures of skiing in magazines and on television. “Skiing just looked so darn fun,” he says, and he built a life around it. I ask him why there isn’t more “madness” in this midnight session and he tells me about Paoli’s early days, when radio stations would organize busloads of college kids more interested in partying than skiing. “Nobody knew what skiing was then,” he explains. “But by now, they’ve learned that skiing and partying don’t really go hand in hand.” It occurs to me that the way they’re skiing, they may as well be drunk, but I bite my tongue, thank Holt for the info, and carry on with my speed laps.
I slalom through college students, many of whom seem to be young couples trying to teach one another to ski. The results are mixed. “You stand up and hold on to me,” says one young man to his girlfriend near the top of the hill. “We’ll get down this.” His girlfriend stands up, leans on him, and they promptly fall over, together.
I see another couple arguing. The girl, wearing a pink beanie and seeming close to tears, is sprawled on the snow about 50 feet uphill from her boyfriend, asking him to come up and help her. “It’s a hill,” he shouts back, leaning down to tuck his jeans back into the tops of his ski boots. “I can’t go up it.” Then he skis away.
I crank laps through the night, straightlining runs and enjoying the still air, the cold, the stars, and the extra speed that the hardening snow allows. As I ride the chair up for the last time at 2:53 a.m.—after 38 runs, according to the clicker—I’m surprised to see the slopes still crowded.
I check my altimeter watch. It’s blank. After years of use, including an ascent to the summit of 22,841-foot Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, all the ups and downs on a pig farm in Indiana have killed it.