One night when I was 12 years old my father walked into my room, shook me awake, and said it was time. It was 4:30 a.m. The bus would be leaving soon. I dressed myself quietly in the dark, grabbed my rental skis, and followed him into the damp mid-Atlantic night.
We lived in the small town of Salisbury, Md., which is so flat that the biggest hill is an overpass. It rarely snowed. As a result, I had so little idea of what skiing was about that I can still recall my father explaining this exotic sport to me in our den. I was 10.
“Can I go with you sometime?” I’d asked him.
“One day,” he said.
That one day was today; I was old enough for Dad to take me skiing. It would be my first time. It meant eight hours on the road to get seven hours on the hill, then heading back home.
Mr. Hamill ran a barbershop and was the head of the Salisbury Ski Club. About six times a winter he would take groups to the Poconos in a huge charter bus driven by a good-natured Mennonite named Noah. People from as far away as the Eastern Shore of Virginia would pile into his diesel Ark and glide out of the flatlands. Dad, in his mid-40s, had been doing these trips with buddies from his office, a regional utility company, for years. With Noah, we could ski all day in Pennsylvania and be home late that night—all for about $50. Dinner at the King of Prussia Hardee’s cost extra.
That morning, Dad sat me in the front with a boy my age and retreated to the back of the bus with the adults. We were bound for Little Gap, now Blue Mountain, which sits near Kunkletown at about 1,400 feet. The runs dropped for about 1,000 vertical feet—a full 30 overpasses, maybe more. I couldn’t fathom such numbers.
“This is your first time skiing?” an engineer named Prasad asked. “Let me tell you! The slopes have lots of wildlife. Have you ever seen a snow bunny?”
Over the years I probably took 12 of those trips. Each time, the bus ride was the same. The noise from Dad’s posse in the back would grow louder as we got farther north. Everyone would ski all day and then get even louder on the way home. The bourbon flowed. The floors turned sticky. One poor bald guy fell asleep and—lookee here! A marker! People held contests to see who could worm-crawl the farthest through the luggage racks. Meanwhile, I learned to link turns, jump, and even go backward. Eventually I stopped looking for bunnies.
As for Noah, he never said anything. A lady named Peggy would feed him chicken biscuits and then admonish the Mad Men in the back to “lay off the monkey juice.” He died in 2010, and his obituary hinted at how he loved driving people to fun places. Dad swears one time Noah adjusted his speed so a guy in the rear could pass a beer to a truck driver.
I cringe thinking about some of that now, but not at what my father and those trips gave me. I became hooked on skiing, on the communal buzz that energized it, and the idea that unlike the school sports I did, I could do this one with my family. Soon my younger brother joined in. Even my mother, who had never done a sport in her life, tried to ski. She was so terrible that she landed in a lesson with a one-legged high-school French teacher, but even now she says she wouldn’t trade that trip for anything.
Dad doesn’t ski anymore, but now my daughter, Evie, does. She was born in Switzerland, where we lived for a few years thanks in no small part to that first Little Gap trip. When she was four months old I took her out for the first time with our ski club. We rode in a train from Bern to Lenk. The ride was tame. I never saw the driver.
The next morning I strapped Evie to my chest and did a few easy runs while she slept in her pink fuzzy suit. It was all very sweet, but don’t be fooled. One day she’ll crush the luggage-rack contest in the back of a bus. And I’ll be in the front—next to my wife and the grandkids—enjoying a bourbon.
After stints in Bozeman, Santa Fe, and Switzerland, Tim Neville lives in Bend and regularly drives his Prius up to Mt. Bachelor.