Indiana? Isn't that a flatlander's paradise with field after field of perfect corn? Indeed, much of Indiana is flat, but the state's southern reaches are a pleasing jumble of hills and valleys. Nestled deep in these hills is Ski Paoli Peaks, a friendly bare-bones resort that attracts a near-cultish following. The closest town is namesake Paoli, a tiny settlement of about 3,500 people. Indianapolis is about 90 miles north, while Louisville, Ky., is a shorter 45-mile trip, making it an easy ski commute for weekenders.
But then there are the true believers-snow-starved skiers and boarders from as far away as Alabama and Florida who often join the usual crew of skiers from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. While many residents of the lower Midwest and Southeastern states load up for a multi-hour drive to the mountains of West Virginia, some skip the long road trip and opt for the more palatable, hour-long drive to Paoli's peaks, instead.
Granted, southern Indiana could hardly be considered the heart of ski country, what with an average annual snowfall of 12 inches and a state high elevation of 1,257 feet. The snowbelt begins two hours north in the central part of the state, so a lot of time at Paoli Peaks is spent on manmade snow and, when it's cold enough, rest assured the machines are blowing.
Paoli's facilities are up to the task. More than 110 snow guns can layer the entire area with 12 inches in 24 hours. Still, your best ski friend is a telephone to check snow conditions before loading up the truck for the trek to the slopes.
And trucks are what you'll see in Paoli's parking lot; this is, after all, farm country. Area skiers try to pack a full winter of skiing into the relatively brief December-to-March season, so the lot's usually full. And the resort makes the most of its limited season by staying open up to 19 hours a day on weekends, when special after-hours "Midnight Madness" skiing is offered from midnight to 6 am.
Because of the area's borderline geographical location and the constraints set by Mother Nature, residents shook their heads when local physician Dr. Richard Graber began building the resort in 1978. The prevailing opinion when it opened-with three acres of trails and just one quad and a ropetow-was that it was a fool's fantasy. Twenty-two years later, Dr. Graber's daring dream has grown to 15 slopes, five chairlifts (one quad, three triples and a double), three ropetows, a 45,000-square-foot day lodge, slopeside condominiums and close to 80,000 annual skier visits.
It may not be Vail, but it is an appealing little gem with an amiable, unpretentious feel. Talk to skiers around the huge fireplace in the airy, top-of-the-peak day lodge and you'll hear the words "cozy" and "friendly" used to describe the place. The resort's clientele is just as affable. None of that worldly, been-there-done-that swagger that pervades many larger ski resorts is evident here. The crowd is an easy mix of unsteady beginners clad in Levi's, intermediates in camouflage hunting outfits and smooth experts sharpening their skills for Western trips.
Typical of the latter is Nancy Clark Pickrell from Louisville, carving her way down the PowerLine Racing dual-slalom course, posting a respectable time and beating her husband, Tim. Nancy keeps sharp by running gates with the Louisville Ski Club and competing in Blue Grass Challenge races. Like many who ski here, she has been coming to Paoli practically since it opened more than two decades ago.
The slopes are full of these homegrown skiers who have matured with the resort. Strike up a chairlift conversation and the odds are good your seatmates learned to ski here. "Paoli is a good teaching ground," explains Pickrell. So good, in fact, that in 1999, USA Today named Paoli one of the 10 best places to learn how to ski.
About 25 percent of the terrain is geared toward these beginners, though the lion's share-55 percent-is intermediate, and the remaining 20 percent is advancced and expert. Paoli's runs fit perfectly with the crowd, offering enough variety to keep a visit from becoming too repetitious, no matter what your skill level. The resort is unusual in that you park at the top and ski down from there. Ski out of the lodge and drop off to the left to the beginner runs of Hoosier Bend or Indiana Jones, or cruise right to intermediate favorites such as Walnut Alley and Graber's Express.
But Paoli caters to a broad range of abilities. Check out the boarders tearing over the jumps and carving through the quarter pipe over at Jurassic Snow Park. Then cruise over to Haywagon and watch the experts exploding down the bumps. These two runs are where the hardcore gather, and as the sun sets behind the hills and the lights go on, the tempo picks up. Boarders catch bigger air off the rollers at the Park, and skiers bomb down the tree line a little faster. Margrit Wurmli-Kagi, marketing director and part owner, sums it up: "Paoli is mellow during the day, more charged at night."
Ah, night skiing-the secret to Paoli's success, accounting for nearly 20 percent of Paoli's skiers each season. When the crowd thins, the bunch that's left is intent on getting in max slope time. The runs are a collage of shadows and surreal light, a blur of skiers hurtling through sparkling clouds of drifting snow. The roar of the snow guns and the whooping and yelling of nightriders break the silence of the crisp night air. Dr. Graber's dream definitely lives on.