In search of skiing midwest

In Search of Skiing

Gavin Gibson

I am not a skier. I keep tapping these five words out and deleting them repeatedly as North Dakota's fields pass by and the clack-clack…clack-clack…clack-clacking of tireless train tracks direct me to a new destiny.

My nerves are shot.

Two weeks before leaving Montana, I decided to start over in no particular direction, promptly selling all of my possessions and quitting my construction job that supported my writing job. It takes a fool to try to make money writing, and a ski writer might as well play jester in a fool's court. There are more turns to talk about in NASCAR, and the money probably exists, too.

Giving away my ski gear felt like exorcising a foolish dream played out for far too long. Get a real job, Gavin. Fall in line. I've got a few months of living money and a resume. It's time to figure this out.

The train comes to a swift halt, and a solitary black tire comes bouncing down the adjacent road and into view. There's been a collision. Some poor soul's mad dash for Sports Center had left the rear of his car all train-mashed and en-route to watch TV at a nearby hospital. We understand that he's OK, just needs to get checked out because train impacts tend to cause trauma. There is also going to be a four hour investigation, but the snack lounge is serving beer, so passengers should not feel impatient.

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I close my computer because blunt force train mergers also cause train passengers to lose their inhibitions towards strangers, so I head for the lounge and strike up a conversation. I spend the morning learning the finer points of cutting wheat, growing wheat, getting out of growing wheat, and turkey stewardship mistakes from a kind gentleman on his way to spend the next 6 weeks cutting wheat away from his family. His job requires 8 hours of driving a combine in one direction before making a single turn. I imagine his entire suitcase is full of books on tape.

I doubt our audible literature tastes are similar so I scan the car until I catch a glimpse of a copy of “A Sand County Almanac” resting on the lap of a pretty young lady who is also traveling alone. Years of overcoming après-awkwardness closes the gap between us and I soon discover that Aldo Leopold is a cheeky bastard and best read aloud after wine bottle dinners in the dining car.

We spend the night looking for windows to poke our heads out of. At one point in Western Minnesota I catch the stars being serenaded by the train wheels catching cracks and realize the stripped down version of myself has no limits. I can adventure without skiing— I am infinite potential. I am also incredibly drunk. The next day I step off the train in Minneapolis with a splitting headache and a bicycle. I leave the train station with a loose front wheel and poorly adjusted saddle. I am adventure.

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Following a month of weddings, wine-based wedding choices and two more train rides of equal infamy, I arrive in Socorro, New Mexico with a fence to build in exchange for Grandma's home cooking. It takes my digestive tract about three weeks to adjust to the green chiles.

After two months I discover isolation and my daily highlight is Star Trek re-runs with Grandpa. I wake up to the WHOOMPS of nearby experimental munitions testing and find little comfort in the sounds of killing to come. I wage my own battles with a murder of crows obsessed with the pecan tree shading my grandparents century-old adobe home. Without Internet, I listen to Merle Haggard on an old wooden radio that predates my existence. Each day my hands are filled with tools or torches and I stay busy. In my spare time I chase wild pigs through the desert with my camera. For the first time in a long while, I replace the seasonal rituals of ski movie premieres with sunsets and silence. I am definitely not a skier.

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"For the first time in a long while, I replace the seasonal rituals of ski movie premieres with sunsets and silence. I am definitely not a skier."


Fast forward five months after hoping on Amtrak's Empire Builder Train, and I'm waking up aboard the back of an unheated, 20-year-old conversion van in a gas station parking lot to the familiar sound of a scraping snow plow. The van is parked illegally, but at 7am the white-out conditions in Bruce's Crossing, Michigan that initially forced me off the road haven't let up, and the plow operator clearly has a level of respect for wayward winter travelers. I skip cleaning the snow off of the van windows and move it to a more favorable location to avoid any dreaded-but-familiar taps on the glass. Just as I begin to doze off again it hits me; if summer is for following your dreams, then winter is for sharing everyone else’s.

We know this in the mountains, where the air is thin and the wind is cold and every turn or step is better with learning. One look in the lift line is enough to see there are as many ways as there are faces to get to the same point. When we stumble there will be hands to help us up, because we aren't competing, we're experiencing. If we stick to it long enough, these practices spread to the rest of our lives.

Here in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where snowlines have nothing to do with elevation and everything to do with plowing, that knowledge seems to permeate ski area boundaries. The tidy concept of a “ski town” doesn't exist in the Midwest, instead ski areas sit in view of towns where people just happen to go skiing—a lot. Living the dream here doesn't mean powder pillow stacks served up with breakfast, it means working a shift and then catching some snow after dinner. Somehow figuring out what makes people tick here makes more sense than that job I was supposed to find.

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My own path down life's mountain wouldn’t be possible without the helping hands of those who are sliding along side of me, or letting me clog their snow plowing paths. It's only human to fall over once in a while, and maybe this lesson is best learned by physically falling. That's an easy concept to forget in the rosy-faced embarrassment of the “real world,” where showing up to work five minutes late can change your life forever. Find a path that you enjoy falling down, and if one less spread sheet gets filled out, the world is not going to end, it may in fact get better.

We aren't skiers; we're realists, and we're everywhere. The true meaning of pay to play comes with the cold, and because of that we can do anything any way we choose. I wasn't running from skiing when I got on that train, I was scouting new lines through life, and luckily for me, I'm winding up at the base of another chairlift. I realize that the only insanity is to give those lessons up, to stop falling, even if it lands me in New Mexico or sleeping in yet another gas station parking lot. I'm thankful for the shake up. Now, I think I'll go skiing.

For Part 2 at Mont Ripley, Click Here


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