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Carry the solitude and peace of the mountains with you.
America’s first true ski towns were born just after the worst moments of the Great Depression. In 1934 it was Woodstock, Vermont, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts — not Whistler and Vail — that delivered. By day Alpine skiers enjoyed the dual luxuries of an uphill ride and a lodge (or hut) where they could socialize and warm their feet. A ski shop was never far away. At night there were lodgings, bars, and eateries, all of which specialized in being friendly to skiers.
By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, a dozen fledgling yet full-service ski towns dotted America’s mountain landscapes. They were as varied in character as the mountain ranges in which they took hold. Together they formed a new breed: places simultaneously devoted to manmade recreation and to communionwith the great outdoors. The combination proved uniquely uplifting. People who went to Cannon, Sun Valley, Aspen, or Manchester for the purpose of skiing fell under the mystical spell of the mountains.
World War II slowed the ski boom, but nothing could stop it. Ski towns offered relief from the pace of an increasingly urbanized and troubled world. Skiers, like farmers, found themselves marching to the larger and more timeless rhythms of nature.
After the War — in the wake of The Bomb — skiing and ski towns really took off. The country was fat with peacetime prosperity, but lots of people were afflicted with a postwar funk called weltschmerz. They were depressed by what they’d seen of the “civilized” world. Soon whole bunches of people in their 20s and 30s moved to ski towns, checking out of the mainstream altogether. Their goal was no more lofty than having the freedom to spend day after endless day in a peaceful bubble, close to nature and on snow-covered slopes. Here was the weltschmerz antidote — and the birth of the parallel universe.
In the 55 years since, lots of lucky Americans — especially those in mountain resort towns — have found themselves living in a society so relatively stable, safe, and prosperous that they have been free to indulge their desires to the nth degree. Instead of being preoccupied with fundamental security, they have been able to pursue the ultimate powder turn, the gnarliest mountain bike ride, and the perfect golf swing.
I first arrived in Truckee, California, in a classic Sierra blizzard. I was 15. My problems were small, but they seemed big. Mainly, like a lot of 15-year-old girls, I just felt weird. My parents — perhaps hoping to get relief from this surly and erratic alien who had taken over their eldest daughter’s body — had shipped me off to Squaw Valley to live at a coach’s house and spend an entire month skiing. I did not know that spending time in the mountains andon my skis was about to become the magically restorative cure for whatever ailed me.
I walked the short distance to the gondola — and met a daunting mountain that both humbled and thrilled me. Almost immediately I fell headfirst into a deep drift on Red Dog. I was helpless. My feet kicked cartoonishly in the air. I wallowed around for more than an hour, trying to get upright, trying to find my skis, trying to get the hell off that stupid slope.
I was hooked.
Here was something tangible to be daunted by. Here was something far bigger than teen love and algebra, something far more solid than the mysterious unhappiness that drifted like odorless gas through my parents’ house. Learning to ride a faster, more flowing ski hinted at expanses of future harmony. Marveling at the dollops of snow on the boughs of evergreens and holding hands with a boy during night skating at Squaw’s old rink made much more sense to me than trying to achieve popularity by being skinny and cruising the mall in the “right” designer jeans.
I never wanted to leave.
Of course, life in a mountain town today has its ups and downs. For me the big upsiide continues to be the way skiing brings me closer to nature, and the way nature restores calm and peace within me. One avenue is through the skiing itself: When I’m charging down a snow-covered mountainside, whooping with glee, I feel like a wild thing in my perfect element in the world, a dolphin cavorting in the sea. Another is far quieter: Every year I find myself pausing more frequently to admire a view, linger in a quiet forest, or bask in a ray of sun. Just seeing green boughs bending with snow or the dragon’s breath of dispersed clouds licking the slopes helps me let go of anxiety and go forth refreshed. When I’m away from the mountains, keeping those visions inside me makes every other encounter a bit more tolerable. The civilized world may be getting scarier, but the timelessness of nature is still ready and available. And it’s available while skiing — just as it always has been.
John Muir may have been the granddaddy of the wilderness-conservation movement, but ironically he also promoted tourism to mountain settings — especially for people who lived in cities. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he wrote in the late 1800s. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
I don’t know about you, but on a good day, that’s what happens to me when I go skiing.