Ode to Becoming a Skier

With a little help from gravity, one Midwesterner leaves skiing’s cultural baggage behind.
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With a little help from gravity, one Midwesterner leaves skiing’s cultural baggage behind.
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By Jason Daley

In central Illinois where I grew up, there is no horizon. The country is so flat, the corn stalks so high, that unless you’re looking down from an herbicide sprayer or throwing yourself out of a second-story window, it feels like one giant corn maze. It’s not easy to escape, especially if you’re a young, poor wilderness nut longing for hills taller than the local garbage dump.

When people did get away, they flaunted it. The first time I saw a lift ticket was my freshman year in high school. It was the type of Catholic school where half the parents worked nights to pay the tuition and the other half paid it with their pocket change. Those strange, waxy talismans dangling from the other half’s puffy jackets were a subtle reminder that, despite our uniforms, there was a line. Was it a lift ticket from Ajax or some Wisconsin mom ’n’ pop? Had they transcended the bunny hill? Or had they watched Adam Sandler movies in the condo all day? It made no difference. That tag meant they were part of an elite alternate universe of ski weekends, schnapps, and chalets. The rest of us had corn in our teeth.

No one in my family had ever skied. Every four years during the Olympics, we dutifully snickered at the downhillers’ nut-hugging suits, and then forgot the sport existed. Skiers were the feather-haired douchebags of ’80s movies. Ski towns were where the upper crust stored their furs. Skiing was an unforgivable extravagance.

Eventually I grew up and moved to the Rockies. The first time I saw a mountain, in the late ’90s, I knew how the pygmies in The Forest People must have felt when they peered beyond their thick jungle curtain and tried to grab the tiny houses in the distance. Driving toward the mountain, I was afraid we’d crash into its base. Eventually, I met my own clan of Mountain People and spent that first summer exploring every chance I got.

But when my friends hit the ski swaps I hung back. This was the main event, they insisted. Wading trout streams, biking through autumn aspens, all that was just passing the time between ski seasons. It was late January before I gave in. I realized that none of them had feathered hair, and half couldn’t even pronounce “Givenchy,” much less afford it. If they left lift tickets on their jackets, it was an oversight.

Looking down the barrel of my first bunny hill, I felt the weight of that ski snobbery and everything about my life it represented. As the ground began moving beneath my wobbling V, I left it behind, slowly skidding into a new life.