Skiing Needs More Midwestern Vibes
No frills. Just snow. Even crappy snow. That, and maybe a brick of cheese.
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On January 1, 2014, I awoke to find that the evening’s single-digit temperature had plummeted into the negative teens overnight. In the winter, St. Paul, Minnesota, where I lived at the time, most closely resembles Planet Hoth rather than an actual functioning city. Still, rather than Jedis riding half-frozen tauntauns, people speak with a nasally long-vowel dialect and make casseroles. (It’s like “the force” but with more cheese and sausage gravy.) I promised a novice skier friend I would accompany him and his son to Afton Alps for a ski day. Surely, weather that was quickly moving to immeasurably cold would dissuade a couple of beginners. But, after generations of flash-frozen winters, Minnesotans have developed a toughness that is impenetrable to the cold and sound decision-making. Skiing that day was one of the dumbest, most terrible ski experiences of my life. And I loved every second of it.
Because skiing needs more Midwest in it.
The snow on New Year’s Day 2016 was so cold it squeaked and felt like dehydrated astronaut food. It didn’t even feel like real skiing, just flexing every cell in the body so you wouldn’t shatter into a million tiny bits. We hopped onto the chairlift, unloaded at the top, and immediately went inside the on-mountain lodge to sip hot cocoa by the fire. Once our innards melted and our souls thawed, we braved the groomers and skied a single lap, then shivered inside the base lodge and hoped the brain freeze wouldn’t spread to our eyeballs. And that was how we skied all day: chairlift, lodge, cocoa, frozen hellscape descent, lodge, cocoa, chairlift, lodge, cocoa, frozen hellscape descent, and so on. And it is somehow one of my most memorable, perhaps most revered, ski adventures.
Skiers are skin bags of protoplasm and contradiction. We love our on-mountain fancy restaurants and our grungy dive ski bars. We live for storm skiing during a massive dump; there’s nothing better. Well, we also lose our minds come springtime when temps hit the 40s, and everyone is in neon onesies and jorts. And sometimes, when the snow is complete horse caca, and the skiing is terrible, we laugh at how awful it is, and that, too, is a great ski day. Even our heroes who wash dishes all night to ski all day are a sharp contrast to our exclusive, homogenous sport. But nowhere is our contradiction more pronounced than our love of all things Ma and Pa. We see independent resorts as the David to the mega ski Goliath corporations. But we simultaneously turn our noses up at the Midwest ski experience. Two hundred-foot hills, BAH! So terrible! Mom-and-pop shop ski resorts are really just western hills with Midwest sensibilities.
I live in Colorado now, just down the street from a little place called Asssspen. It’s undoubtedly not Ma and Pa, but even though billionaires with more plastic in their bodies than your Tupperware drawer swipe credit cards with limits longer than international phone numbers stroll about Main Street in dry-cleaned Gucci ski clothes, Aspen is a true skiers mountain. And all the real, down-home humans are up on the hill wiggling and giggling. And, mostly, Colorado is home to ski resorts with heartwarming Midwestern characteristics. The last time I was at Loveland, I was issued a sticker ticket and a wicket. The parking lot BBQ scene at A-Basin is a Bears game tailgate by any measure. I ate a breakfast burrito kept warm in a dog crap bag after unloading the school bus at Silverton two winters ago, which might be the most Midwestern sentence I’ve ever written. Telluride is the most Colorado place on Earth. Still, the Tellurweirdo commitment to skiing daily, whether the runs are powder-filled or wind-blasted scree fields of frozen mank, vibrates with Midwestern work ethic and stick-to-it-iveness.
But the most Midwestern skiing you can do outside the Midwest is a mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Sunlight Ski Resort. Day tickets start at $80, and a season pass starts at $270. Sunlight even offers a “kids ski for free” deal for folks 80 and older. It has three lifts that access 71 trails on 730 acres. The terrain is straightforward and not overly challenging, cruisy and fun, and the entire vibe is family oriented. Lift lines, if any, are filled with hand-me-downs, decades-old skis, goggles, outerwear, and a lot of Carhartts, and you’ll likely see an eyebrow ring and a Sessions jacket from 1995. Parking is free. The lodge grill slings cheap deep-fried goodness, and the coffee tastes like Folgers served in a church basement, which is to say it’s friggin’ delicious. The last time I was there, a baby with a 5 o’clock shadow helped jump my car. He was also smoking an unfiltered Marlboro.
There is something that just seems purer about a place like Sunlight, where folks are skiing for skiing’s sake; no frills, white tablecloths, house music, or foie gras or celebrity chef. Just two planks on snow and maybe some chicken tenders.
Later in that season, back in Minnesota in 2014, I skied with a 70-year-old retired ski instructor named Buzz (not a nickname). It was another frigid day. Though it was above zero, the snow was between crappy and god-awful. But by Buzz’s reactions, you would’ve thought we were skiing waist-deep powder. With every turn, Buzz let loose a whoop-n-holler. And every time we skidded to a stop at the bottom of the lift, he yelled, “Ooooh, best run of my life.” My smile touched behind my ears then, and it still does every time I think about that day. Buzz loves skiing so damn much that he only needs to go downhill, anywhere, with snow. The fanciest food Buzz has ever had is lutefisk and hot dish. And the best snow he’s ever skied is the snow currently under his boots. The best day he’s ever had is today. And that, friends, is the type of skier we all need to be.