The young Montanan, an untamed beast, is getting all wide-open-spaces and ruining dinner because he can't handle the right angles of the suburbs. After a few days of watching big-box stores kudzu their way down the interstate I don't exactly blame him, but seeing six Olive Gardens in 10 minutes is a trauma survived by millions daily. The plan was to go to Wisconsin, and maybe even Minnesota before our sojourn ends and we head home to Bozeman. That just won't do anymore, Thomas can't handle rounding the southern tip of Lake Michigan and heading through another few hundred miles of outlet malls, suburbs, and adult super-stores clustered behind each passing off-ramp.
So when the time comes to exit right, we continue forward towards Des Moines, Iowa, because of some bullshit line from a book written by a man who took road tripping a little more literally than we had until this point. Spirits soared at Timber Ridge in Kalamazoo where the slopes are empty except for race training and half time. The bar tender laughs and there is high morale amongst the ski-boot-wearing sports fans on a Sunday night.
Thomas can't handle rounding the southern tip of Lake Michigan and heading through another few hundred miles of outlet malls, suburbs, and adult super-stores clustered behind each passing off-ramp.
Something changes for the worse though, when we leave the cozy farm fields surrounding Timber Ridge. It could have been the single cassette tape—a hand me down from my grandfather used during his own wanders in the '70's—which was our only form of music. It may have also been the lack of clean showers, or just three weeks in a van packed-full of wet ski gear, but we never make it back to Packer country. In truth, the little idiosyncrasies of our trip have become our only beloved constants. No, it's the siren song of open landscape calling Thomas away, and unlike Odysseus, I'll face legal action for forcibly plugging his ears.
It takes no less than 40,000 rows of dead or harvested crops for Thomas and I to start talking again. This journey isn't as simple as the one I took with the train. There are no strangers to turn to. We make no less than 6 wrong turns in the space of three hours and a five-hour drive turns into something like 8. Thomas has the best Hot Beef Sandwich in Iowa at a truck stop while at least three men in greasy coveralls stare at us sideways. By the time we roll into Des Moines it's too late to investigate Kerouac's claims about the fairer half of the population, so we fall asleep in our first hotel room of the journey.
It's 11 PM in Deadwood on a Saturday night in January, and the chewy gamble we purchased in Ann Arbor, MI is finally kicking in. Thomas is going to sing Karaoke in a bar full of cowboy hats, and I can't keep my do-me eyes from crossing long enough to convince myself that I'm old enough to drink this water. The pot-bellied man on stage keeps repeating “there is something about her booooo-bies” way more than enough. We don't know who he's singing to because even he can't see where his finger is pointing. The girl running the mic for the night—a testament to the Black Hill's beauty—wears fishnets and a rose print mini-skirt and has little problem disarming our forgetful Frank Sinatra.
When she takes the stage I watch my heart shatter where it will surely be ground to dust by the heels of cowboy boots. I forget about it before my jaw can retire to it's proper elevation because when Thomas takes the stage I catch glimmers of an obese, delusional Joaquin Phoenix shining out of him. His gaping pupils don't notice the crowd of people leaving three-minutes into a six-minute song where he spends most of the time explaining how hard the song is. When he comes off the stage, I urge a hasty exit.
South Dakota, as far as I can tell, is full of responsible adults with zero tolerance for liquor weakness. Lean a bit too firmly on the bar and someone is gonna “watch it bud” you before you can rebound. Be on your best behavior. This is still a ski trip, damnit. I walk outside to ground myself with a rented cowboy killer and escape down the alleys where legends died over card games and women.
When we arrive at Terry Peak the next morning I get the distinct impression that God ripped the clouds from the sky out of spite. It's another warm sprinter day and I don't want to take my sunglasses off long enough to replace them with my goggles. After three weeks of skiing and traveling, I suddenly remember why I started skipping the last day of school. On my second run I turn harder than my lagging brain can process and wind up with a knee to the chin. This place is surrounded by open pit mines, and the constant beeping of behemoth construction equipment. I think about how much more awesome a nap would be.
When 17-year-old Alliyah slides up from the singles line and onto the seat next to Thomas and I, there is a moment of silence. She breaks that quickly though and starts talking to us about the terrain park. We learn about every new trick she's working on, how long it will take her to learn them, and how she can't wait to get out of school and become a ski bum. She snowboards as fast as we ski, and on our third un-intentional chair ride it's clear that she's in love with Terry Peak. She makes the hour drive by herself from Rapid City as often as possible. She doesn't mind the lackluster snowpack, and says YES with three exclamation points when I mention I don't mind running over rocks. She offers to show us around and we oblige.
South Dakota, as far as I can tell, is full of responsible adults with zero tolerance for liquor weakness. Lean a bit too firmly on the bar and someone is gonna “watch it bud” you before you can rebound
Most of the easily noticed terrain at Terry Peak consists of long, relatively steep groomers perfect for a set of skinny skis and a fresh edge. But Alliyah has other plans and we spend the day skiing acres of empty trees, steep hidden chutes, and run after run exploring endless wind-whipped ridges that make the mountain feel like a maze of hidden treasures with no one looking for them. There isn't a single lifty without a joke.
I don't care what anyone says, Terry Peak is a guaranteed good time. When the day ends I swear my return.
By normal barroom bragging standards the last three weeks of skiing were absolute garbage. In 21 days there were two days of powder. There were less than five days of sunshine. We traveled for days at a time without any change in scenery.
There was no way to tell that Thomas's melt down would be so moving. Life, like a moving escalator, only becomes a staircase when broken. Sometimes it takes a seventeen year old with a snowboard to go flying past you to notice. When Thomas and I left in search of skiing of a different sort, friends and family told us it would be a great “adventure.” Now, nearly six months after I hastily declared myself to be "adventure" on an overladen and poorly adjusted bicycle outside of Minneapolis, I know that the only real adventures come when forced to pick your feet up. “Falling Forward” as Bomb Snow Chief Motivator Todd Heath always says.
Long after nightfall the only sound in the van is the occasional thump from a bump in the road. The radio has been off for hours; nobody says a word. I know this silence comes from the calmness of content when Thomas asks if he can take a day off this week to go skiing.
It's nearly impossible to say “No.”