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Motown: Ski Town - Ski Mag

Motown: Ski Town

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Detroit has more to offer than Ford and Ted Nugent: It's also got skiing -- suburban style.

The strange looks begin at the Northwest baggage check-in in Denver. "Did you have a good time skiing?" the lady asks me, as I offer up my ski bag for the flight to Detroit. The assumption in her question is obvious: I am yet another tourist heading home to the Midwest after a week's skiing at Vail or Aspen or Breckenridge. My response throws her.

"Actually, I'm on my way to go skiing."

"In Michigan?" she asks.

"Yep, in Detroit." She gasps; it is the only time I have ever broken through the steely facade of an airline employee's check-in banter.

Ah, Detroit. The city of my birth, and the target of all manner of scornful assumptions from people who live in parts of the country that are not Detroit. It's so dirty! It's so gray! It's America's first Third World city!

Fellow skiers that I have told of my plan -- to return to Detroit to check out a couple of its four metro-area ski areas -- have, as expected, been especially skeptical. But the fact of the matter is that the ski industry owes Detroit a massive debt. Not just because it has supplied the wheels that have gotten people up to the mountains for all these years. And not because it has been the source of such recent ski-world icons as freeskier Gordy Peifer (who grew up in Clarkston, just outside the city) and the opening sequence of the movie Aspen Extreme (which takes place atop Detroit's Mt. Brighton). Rather, the ski industry owes Detroit because Detroit is a premium source of skiers.

In Michigan, thousands of skiers get their start at Detroit's little metro areas -- Brighton, Pine Knob, Mt. Holly, and Alpine Valley, all of which are about an hour's drive from downtown. They then migrate north to bigger hills like Nub's Nob and Boyne Mountain and eventually set their sights west. Without the passion for the sport that the little hills outside Detroit -- and, to varying degrees, their counterparts outside Chicago and New York and Minneapolis and Los Angeles -- instill in millions of Americans, Colorado and Utah would be plumb out of luck. In the great human food chain that is American skiing, metro Detroit's four ski hills are the plankton.

I've been feasting on the fat mountains and deep snow at the top of that food chain ever since I left Detroit at the age of 15. But I got my start on the plankton, busing up to those little Detroit hills on Saturday mornings, taking lessons, learning how to ski bumps, and blowing my lunch money on endless games of Galaxian and Tempest. For the past few years, curiosity about those hills has been nagging at me: Were they really so bad? I was about to find out.

I've lured an old friend, Jamie Schriebl, to join me on this trip as photographer, and I meet him in Detroit Metro's crowded, chaotic terminal. He, too, is skeptical about my plans. He's just gotten back from Austria, and on the flight in, he saw nothing resembling snow -- or elevation change, for that matter -- anywhere in southeastern Michigan. First I decide that what Jamie, a Vermonter, needs most is an immediate full-immersion course on Detroit ski history. We've got plenty of daylight left on this March morning to poke around on Detroit's south side before heading north. So I point our rented Pontiac Aztek toward Riverview Highlands, a.k.a. Mount Trashmore.

Riverview is, in fact, a trash heap. Or at least it was, until some developer covered the old landfill with dirt, threw up some lift towers, and opened it for skiing. A golf course and tracts of expensive housing soon followed, and the economic star of Mount Trashmore began to rise. But only for a time. The skiing is now long gone, the lift towers sold off, and Jamie and I have come purely as curiosity seekers, like tourists ogling some defunct Communist-era factory in Tbilisi. The hill is barren, remarkable only because it is a rare bump on the otherwise tarmac-flat topoaphy of Detroit. To our amazement, though, the golf course is humming right along: People are still out there swatting balls around in the cold wind and blowing trash. After three minutes of milling around making wisecracks, we fire the Aztek back up. I've had my laugh, and now Jamie is suitably primed for Detroit skiing: It can only get better from here.

We drive north on I-75 and turn off at the exit for Pine Knob, a ski hill that's known to most Detroiters in its alter-ego mode as a major concert venue. In high school, I spent several memorable summer evenings here pumping my fists to the likes of Billy Idol and the Steve Miller Band. But what I remember best are the freezing Friday nights I spent here in the winter, screaming down the front-side runs, making clumsy attempts at talking to girls, snatching occasional nips of peppermint schnapps from little paper-bagged bottles. As Jamie and I pull into the parking lot, the nostalgia is boosted to nearly unbearable levels when the synthesized strains of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" come floating from the area's PA system.

We've arrived on a Friday evening, and I'm prepared for a replay of my adolescent night-skiing exploits. What I'm not prepared for is seeing how badass Pine Knob's kids have become. Jamie and I have been riding one of the slow doubles for no more than a minute when we spot a giant terrain-park kicker illuminated by a spotlight. I immediately have one of those sinking, you-can-never-go-home-again existential moments: We had moguls here when I was a kid, but we never had one of those.

Seconds later a figure comes blasting out of the darkness and into the pale blue lights above the jump: It's a skier -- not a snowboarder, as I'd expected -- and he's spinning, crossing his skis, grabbing his binding, looking in every respect like one of those West Coast jibmasters that have taken hold of skiing's youth culture. He sticks the landing, then rides away switch. Another skier follows him, and then another. There are no snowboarders to be seen; all we see is cutting-edge pipe-and-park skiing -- the real deal. And just like that, Jamie's skepticism has been shattered. Whatever happened to Pine Knob being a place where you learned to ski? These kids rip.

We unload and scoot over to the terrain park to watch the session. There are easily 40 kids out here, and within a few moments, several of them have clustered around us, yammering at us as we watch their buddies go flying by. Evidently, word that we're from SKIING Magazine has spread quickly. One kid on a snowboard tries to convince us that he has made a terrible mistake in lending his skis to a friend: Snowboarding, he claims, is passé; he's mortified that we'll ID him as a knuckle-dragger in the magazine. Through all the chitchat, we learn that Pine Knob has become a bit of a new school hot spot. "You guys came the wrong night," one kid tells us. "A couple Fridays ago a guy was doing 1080's, back flips, you name it."

After watching the acrobatics for a good while, we push off to do a little night skiing of our own. Pine Knob's runs are flat for the most part, and almost exclusively east and north facing, the better to retain snow during southeastern Michigan's frequently early springs. This basic geometry is common to all four metro-Detroit ski areas, but each of them has a few odd wrinkles that add challenge and -- dare I say it? -- thrill to the skiing. At Pine Knob, the most pronounced of those wrinkles is a steep, double-fall-line drop off the side of one of the area's main runs. It's called The Wall, and though it stands only about 70 feet high, it is the scourge of every intermediate kid who comes to Pine Knob: It's got big moguls and lots of ice. Most kids end up sliding down it on their butts.

I have painful memories of The Wall, so I'm glad to now be in a position to teach it a lesson: I straight-line the thing, howling with vengeance as I pick up speed, my Völkls slapping across the tops of the moguls. Less than two seconds later, the run is over. We head into the lodge for a beer.

Having spent the night in one of those formulaic highway-side hotels -- and having had dinner at a loud sports bar where the menu's marquee meal, the Gourmet Big Chief, consisted of two double cheeseburgers and a bottle of Dom Perignon for $111 -- we return to Pine Knob on Saturday morning to see what the place is like in the daylight.

The inaugural Dave Serwinski Memorial Race is taking place on a dual-GS course, complete with jumps. The snow is thick and gloppy, and people are wiping out everywhere. One guy in a blue GS suit takes an especially bad digger, groaning with pain as he slides on his face. Some people run up to him emergency-style, but he sits up unassisted and announces, "I need a beer!" Moments later, a guy in a T-shirt comes sliding into the finish on his side, yelling, "Oh, shit!" A spectator yells back, "Safe!"

What's great about Michigan skiing -- especially for adults -- is that Michiganders are comfortable with the fact that their mountains are vertically challenged. They just look for other ways to have fun with what they've got. As I'm sitting there at the bottom of the course, watching a guy fish a Milwaukee's Best from a pile of snow, the course announcer says, "Colorado doesn't really have anything on us here at Pine Knob. We're just closer to the top of our peak."

Trying to determine which of the four metro-Detroit ski areas is the baddest (not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good) is a little like trying to decide which Geo model is best suited for entry in the Indianapolis 500. That said, Mt. Brighton has always struck me as a meatier mountain than its neighbors. For one thing, it has not one but two peaks, with a 250-foot vertical drop, which gives you a sense of actual travel when you ski from one to the other. For another, it has Challenge, easily the steepest, toughest run in southeastern Michigan. Located on the back side of Brighton's more advanced peak, the thing is covered with big moguls, and it drops off so steeply eight or 10 bumps down that it disappears from sight altogether as you look at it from the ridge above -- not entirely unlike any number of supersteep runs at Taos.

Thanks to the recent warm weather, Challenge is closed, and as I stand there thinking about poaching it anyway, a patroller glides by wagging his head at me. It occurs to me that my chances of being caught trying to poach this line are 100 percent: Neither of the lifts at the bottom of the run are operating, and there are no trees anywhere on this side of the hill to hide in. I wonder what would happen: Would I be embarrassingly chastised? Banned from the mountain, like Doug Coombs at Jackson Hole? Arrested? A disturbing image of the Detroit penal system comes to mind, and I slink away.

On Sunday, we head over to Mt. Holly, 20 minutes north of Pine Knob on I-75. It's eerily empty -- a far cry from the Disneyland of marauding ski-club kids I remember -- but still sunny and cheery. Half the lifts aren't operating this late in the season, but they do have a high-speed quad -- the Mach 1 Express, said to be the fastest in lower Michigan -- up and running. Why a detachable lift is needed on a 350-vertical-foot slope is beyond us, so after a couple of warm-up runs, Jamie and I decide to do a little research on the thing. From the top of the lift, it takes us 47 seconds to ski down Canyon, a black run, to the Mach 1 lift line. The ride back up takes us 1:40, almost exactly twice as long as the descent. We do it again and find that a bomber straight-line run down Canyon takes 38 seconds. Next, a slalom run -- in which we farm continually linked side-by-side short-swing turns like a couple of '80s demo-team dorks -- takes 64 seconds. Then we do some math: In a six-hour day of continual skiing, a decent skier, averaging 51 seconds per downhill run and spending a minute 40 on each ride back up the Maacross the tops of the moguls. Less than two seconds later, the run is over. We head into the lodge for a beer.

Having spent the night in one of those formulaic highway-side hotels -- and having had dinner at a loud sports bar where the menu's marquee meal, the Gourmet Big Chief, consisted of two double cheeseburgers and a bottle of Dom Perignon for $111 -- we return to Pine Knob on Saturday morning to see what the place is like in the daylight.

The inaugural Dave Serwinski Memorial Race is taking place on a dual-GS course, complete with jumps. The snow is thick and gloppy, and people are wiping out everywhere. One guy in a blue GS suit takes an especially bad digger, groaning with pain as he slides on his face. Some people run up to him emergency-style, but he sits up unassisted and announces, "I need a beer!" Moments later, a guy in a T-shirt comes sliding into the finish on his side, yelling, "Oh, shit!" A spectator yells back, "Safe!"

What's great about Michigan skiing -- especially for adults -- is that Michiganders are comfortable with the fact that their mountains are vertically challenged. They just look for other ways to have fun with what they've got. As I'm sitting there at the bottom of the course, watching a guy fish a Milwaukee's Best from a pile of snow, the course announcer says, "Colorado doesn't really have anything on us here at Pine Knob. We're just closer to the top of our peak."

Trying to determine which of the four metro-Detroit ski areas is the baddest (not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good) is a little like trying to decide which Geo model is best suited for entry in the Indianapolis 500. That said, Mt. Brighton has always struck me as a meatier mountain than its neighbors. For one thing, it has not one but two peaks, with a 250-foot vertical drop, which gives you a sense of actual travel when you ski from one to the other. For another, it has Challenge, easily the steepest, toughest run in southeastern Michigan. Located on the back side of Brighton's more advanced peak, the thing is covered with big moguls, and it drops off so steeply eight or 10 bumps down that it disappears from sight altogether as you look at it from the ridge above -- not entirely unlike any number of supersteep runs at Taos.

Thanks to the recent warm weather, Challenge is closed, and as I stand there thinking about poaching it anyway, a patroller glides by wagging his head at me. It occurs to me that my chances of being caught trying to poach this line are 100 percent: Neither of the lifts at the bottom of the run are operating, and there are no trees anywhere on this side of the hill to hide in. I wonder what would happen: Would I be embarrassingly chastised? Banned from the mountain, like Doug Coombs at Jackson Hole? Arrested? A disturbing image of the Detroit penal system comes to mind, and I slink away.

On Sunday, we head over to Mt. Holly, 20 minutes north of Pine Knob on I-75. It's eerily empty -- a far cry from the Disneyland of marauding ski-club kids I remember -- but still sunny and cheery. Half the lifts aren't operating this late in the season, but they do have a high-speed quad -- the Mach 1 Express, said to be the fastest in lower Michigan -- up and running. Why a detachable lift is needed on a 350-vertical-foot slope is beyond us, so after a couple of warm-up runs, Jamie and I decide to do a little research on the thing. From the top of the lift, it takes us 47 seconds to ski down Canyon, a black run, to the Mach 1 lift line. The ride back up takes us 1:40, almost exactly twice as long as the descent. We do it again and find that a bomber straight-line run down Canyon takes 38 seconds. Next, a slalom run -- in which we farm continually linked side-by-side short-swing turns like a couple of '80s demo-team dorks -- takes 64 seconds. Then we do some math: In a six-hour day of continual skiing, a decent skier, averaging 51 seconds per downhill run and spending a minute 40 on each ride back up the Mach 1 Express, could log 143 runs.

At the top of the hill, I meet Steve Franklin, a 31-year-old snowmaking specialist in Carhartt coveralls from Davison, Michigan, near Flint. He has worked at Mt. Hood in Oregon, and I ask him why, after having spent quality time on a big mountain out West, he works at a ski area in Detroit.

"People who work at ski areas, and skiers themselves -- they're the best," Steve says. "They're friendly. They're out there to have a good time, and we're out here to give it to 'em." And it occurs to me: To the folks slinging steel on the assembly lines up in Flint, working outside at Mt. Holly has to look pretty darn good. And exciting: After a pause, Steve informs me, "Next week, we're gonna have a box race."

"Like, cardboard boxes?" I ask.

"Yep. Unlimited, though." My eyes widen: unlimited cardboard boxes, hoo boy!

Click on the related slideshow below for more photos from Motown: Ski Town.e Mach 1 Express, could log 143 runs.

At the top of the hill, I meet Steve Franklin, a 31-year-old snowmaking specialist in Carhartt coveralls from Davison, Michigan, near Flint. He has worked at Mt. Hood in Oregon, and I ask him why, after having spent quality time on a big mountain out West, he works at a ski area in Detroit.

"People who work at ski areas, and skiers themselves -- they're the best," Steve says. "They're friendly. They're out there to have a good time, and we're out here to give it to 'em." And it occurs to me: To the folks slinging steel on the assembly lines up in Flint, working outside at Mt. Holly has to look pretty darn good. And exciting: After a pause, Steve informs me, "Next week, we're gonna have a box race."

"Like, cardboard boxes?" I ask.

"Yep. Unlimited, though." My eyes widen: unlimited cardboard boxes, hoo boy!

Click on the related slideshow below for more photos from Motown: Ski Town.

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