One of the first things you learn when coaching young kids is the art of the People Slalom. Essentially it’s a DIY slalom course using people as gates in a somewhat orderly, snakelike procession down the hill. For kids just learning the game, a comparative grown-up goes first, marking an x where each person should stop. As kids gain experience and (one hopes) maturity, they can place themselves, making people slalom into a self-perpetuating run that lasts until you get to the bottom of the hill or until the inevitable logjam creates a mosh pit of chaos.
All that is required for a decent People Slalom is friends, a ski run with discernable vertical drop, a sense of fun, a willingness to organize, and a little common sense (if you want to see ski patrol show up, try running People Slalom on a crowded Saturday on a main run). The best part about the undertaking is getting to see the same people pass by you again and again, each time offering a chance to make a face at them, yell a message or just watch them in action. The bigger the group the longer it takes to see any one person again, but they always show up. The fluidity of the thing—the way people weave in and out of your sphere, newbies joining in on the fly, and nobody every really knowing where the course will end up— seems to me like an apt metaphor for the skiing life.
My dad made sure the skiing life was in my blood. His agnostic and apolitical view of when life actually begins was this: Life begins when you learn to ski. As the youngest, and therefore littlest of his kids to learn how to ski, his nickname for me was “Little Person.” Raising four kids to be skiers, initially as weekend warriors, was no easy task. It required steadfast determination of purpose, and very little accommodation for individual will. It’s not like Dad said, “Hey Little Person. How would you like to go skiing today?” Instead our typical ski day involved significant whining and pretending to be sick by all kids, followed by Dad herding us into the station wagon, cajoling us into horrendous boots and marching us on to a blustery chair. When we finally reached the top of the mountain and admitted this wasn’t so bad, Dad’s smug “I told you so” smile was his hard-won victory. Eventually, we became a self propelled unit and I imagine all of our lives improved.
When I first moved east, and out of my cozy ski town nest, my trips west were bittersweet. They were full with the joy of being in my familiar stomping grounds but tinged with a wistfulness for the people and place I left behind. If I didn’t run in to old friends on the mountain I worried that this place no longer belonged to me, or I to it. If people didn’t come by our house, once known as “Hotel California” for it’s eclectic guest list and open door policy, I worried that something about the place had irrevocably changed.
Very soon, however, I came to trust that ski people never really leave you. They move all over the place, but if you wait around long enough they always reappear. All you have to do is show up at a mountain, any mountain, and you’ll find your people. If you don’t know them already, you’ll meet them.
A recent western road trip affirmed this. It started with two days of skiing in Squaw with my older son. At first we didn’t see anyone we knew. It was, after all, a late season weekday. But, as usual, we started meeting people on the chair and in the liftlines. With some we discovered we did indeed share a “one separation in the ski world” connection, and with others we forged new connections based on whatever we learned in five-minute encounters. On one chairilift ride we befriended a nice couple who, we soon learned, were road-tripping in their customized Sprinter van, complete with bikes, backcountry gear and dog.
Our conversation with Justin and Laurel started around a Jackson Hole baseball cap, then drifted to work (they had almost moved to our hometown in NH), to adventure (apparently it’s tradition of skiing Mt St Helens on Mother’s Day in a dress) and then to the realization that they too were headed to Mt Bachelor the following day. “See you on Hwy 395,” we joked, saying goodbye at the top of the lift. Sure enough, at Bachelor our tracks literally crossed. They led me to their favorite run, and after skiing I toured their “home.” Stepping back to take a broader look at the parking lot filled with happy exhausted skiers in an après ski tailgate scene I thought, “This is living!” and totally re envisioned retirement.
The parade of friends, new and old, that we met on the trip got me thinking of what exactly makes ski towns so special. Being part of a ski town is not an insular feeling that you can never leave, or a too-cool-for-you reticence to letting new people in. Neither is it about having to prove your “localness.” Rather, it’s the security that comes with knowing that if you have the right spirit for it, you will always belong in a ski town. On top of that, citizenship in one ski town effectively gives you a passport—or at least a green card—to all of them. That solid sense of belonging, if combined with a skier’s natural zest for adventure, offers the bonus of comfort and freedom.
It’s now been over 20 years since I moved to New York City for the “one year” that ended up becoming an entirely new life. At the time, even one year felt like a scary adventure for someone who had traveled far and wide, but never really lived as an adult outside of the ski town cocoon. To their credit, none of my friends tried to hold me back from my move. Perhaps they knew what I would soon learn. Your ski people will always be with you. I can and do pass this nugget of wisdom to my kids with total confidence, whenever they embark on change in their own lives. As they say in Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.”
Our road trip ended back at Squaw, with a memorial for my dad, the man who boldly bossed me in to a lifetime love affair with skiing and its people. The crowd that turned out was brilliant—diverse, sincere, open-hearted, game. They were a true reflection of the man who welcomed anyone who appreciated good company and mountain air. We finished the day with a top to bottom run in his honor. Along the way we poached a GS course to run heats of Banzai DH, the ended with a People Slalom right down the belly of East Broadway. As the course moved down the hill, changing shape and speed, smiling skiers wove in and out of view, checking in on each other and of course keeping the chain going strong. This video of it was taken by Eva, my ski homie for 40 plus years!