Under The Big Sky
10:08 AM EST on March 7, 2022
Situated in the Rocky Mountains, 50 miles due south of Bozeman and 10 miles north of Yellowstone, is Big Sky, Montana. Everything you think Montana looks like, Big Sky looks like. The trees are tall and lean, each branch of them pristinely topped with snow, as if flocked. Above the tree line, the mountaintops are white as cotton. Their summits are alternately majestic and forbidding. Look in any direction and it feels as if you can see for thousands of miles. Your shoulders broaden. Your lungs fill. It’s 20 degrees out and yet it feels like 60 with the sun shining down on you. You’re reminded of how claustrophobic your normal life is compared to life out here, in this greatest of expanses.
I went to Big Sky last week. Three years and change since I was stuck in a hospital bed, with doctors uncertain that I would live again, or that I would be able to do much past that if I did. And yet, there I was. In Montana. Ready to ski. Ready to scratch an itch that has, to my pleasant surprise, only grown more pronounced as I’ve grown older.
The first time I went skiing was at Alpine Valley in Southern Wisconsin. We were living in Chicago at the time. My dad, an avid skier, took us to the mountain and didn’t bother getting us lessons. He strapped a pair of rental skis to my feet, took me and my siblings up the lift, and then told us all to stay where we were so he could explain how to ski down the mountain. I didn’t bother listening. Or staying at the top, for that matter. Instead, I bombed right down the hill. I was not wearing a helmet, because it was 1983. I didn’t know how to turn. I didn’t know how to stop, until a small ditch at the bottom of the run did the job for me. All the way down, I heard Dad screaming TURN!, which made no sense to my 6-year-old brain. Why would I want to turn? There were trees to my left and right. Wasn’t the point of this to go down?
We moved to Minnesota and my folks quickly enlisted us in a weekend ski club that took my siblings and me to a nearby resort every Saturday—buses left at 6:00 a.m. sharp—with 100 other hyperactive kids while all the mommies and daddies stayed home to drink wine and chill. This was back when skis were as straight as fenceposts, so learning to ski adroitly took years, rather than the approximate four hours a kid can now learn on modern skis that have much deeper sidecuts. My first year in the club was all snowplow skiing, with the tips of my skis kissing the whole way down. My second year was step turns. By my third year, I had graduated to parallel turns. Normal skiing turns. The club gave me a special chevron patch on my jacket to commemorate the achievement.
No matter my skill level, there were always other skiers on the mountain who were better than me. Superhuman, in my eyes. I had a pair of red skis—I think they were Rossignols—and in the lift line, I’d gawk at the fancier skis that the official ski bums used. I remember the brand names plastered on them: Atomic, Volkl, Dynastar, Kästle, Salomon, K2 … oh, I thought K2s were so badass. One day, I thought. One day I’ll be good enough to rock some K2s. I would fly down mogul-laden, triple-black diamond slopes with perfect form and then retire to my ski lodge, where a smoking hot girlfriend and I would make love on a bearskin rug. I would be a ski god.
I did not become a ski god. There was a hard and definitive ceiling to my skiing abilities. I hated skiing on ice. I was terrified of moguls. I was strictly a blue square guy. When my boots started to make my legs ache—taking off your ski boots is about the best feeling on earth—I would find any excuse I could to ski down to the chalet to buy hot chocolate and play video games. I judged most ski resorts not by the slopes but by the arcades they had on hand in the lodge. This was Minnesota. Despite the climate, it isn’t a state avid skiers go out of their way to visit. I skied a rotation of local places like Buck Hill, Afton Alps, and Mount Kato, that were enjoyable but deservedly anonymous next to the Vails of the world.
My dad, a very capable and elegant skier his whole life, understood this innately, so he took us beyond Minnesota to bigger, more famous American ski resorts: Beaver Creek, Stowe, Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula, and more. My mom never skied, but Dad loved it and still does. He’d ski with us anywhere. Even after tearing his ACL on the mountain in Ironwood, he kept on skiing with us. Even after we left Minnesota. Even after I myself stopped skiing for years at a time, Dad kept at it. Skiing kept him young and vigorous. Little did I know that it would one day do likewise for me.
After leaving college, I didn't ski seriously for decades. This was a matter of both laziness and geography. I now live in Maryland, a state that gets some winter but nowhere near enough to have a permanent snowpack. There’s one fairly close ski resort, but you have to be willing to ski alongside 58,000 other D.C.-area residents who all make the trip there the second conditions appear to be favorable. My daughter joined a ski club in middle school, entirely for social reasons. Some of the kids in that club got busted vaping on the mountain. You have to really want to ski to be a skier around here. For a long time, I didn’t.
But Dad never stopped. He still skied both locally and in destination resorts like Park City. Once he skied Big Sky, he knew he had to bring my brother, Alex, and me, with him for return engagement. So he booked us a flight. Suddenly I was in Big Sky, staring up at slopes that seemed a million miles long and just as wide. I went down one run and realized yes, I could still do this. I was pleasantly surprised. Enthralled, even. I didn’t give a fuck about the chalet or any arcade it might contain. I only cared about the skiing part.
At one point on that trip, Dad tired out. He was getting older, plus his goggles kept fogging up and, due to hearing loss, he couldn’t hear anything we were telling him from afar. He needed a break, so he went back to our rental condo early. Alex and I not only stayed on the mountain, but got onto the Powder Seeker chairlift: the highest lift on the entire mountain. For an extra $100 at Big Sky, you can take the Lone Peak Tram that goes all the way to the summit. But that’s for insane people. Going ALMOST to the top was as bold as I cared to be. Alex, too. We got on the Powder Seeker to reach our quarry.
I love chairlifts. I love the quiet of them. Sometimes you’ll get small talk on the chairlift—yuppies talking yuppie matters—but I like it when no one says a word at all. There's no peace quite like it. You line up along a red stripe at the bottom of the slope, waiting for the empty chair to come swinging around to greet your backside. You take your seat, making sure you don’t sit down too early (or too soon) and end up on your ass, holding up the lift and causing everyone to stare. You lift away from the ground, and then … nothing. All you hear is the hum of the bullwheels turning as you pass by the supporting towers. Beyond that, there’s a light groaning of the wind and the clink of the support bar coming down over your lap. I like passing effortlessly over treetops, gazing up the mountain and down at the tiny skiers and boarders shredding down below, hearing only my anticipation to join them. Alex and I got onto the Powder Seeker and said nothing to one another. It was the afternoon by now, so we had exhausted all avenues of small talk. And we needed to conserve whatever energy we had left. This was true big-boy skiing. I didn’t REALLY know if I could handle it.
I did. We went up the Powder Seeker again and again. When I took my boots off that night, I’d more than earned the satisfaction. I promised myself I’d come back here one day.
Four years, one brain surgery, and one pandemic later, I did.
A few months ago, I told Dad, “Hey, we should go BACK to Big Sky,” and he said to me, “I’ll be honest, Drew: my Big Sky days are over.” He still skis at a local mountain, on two new knees, but he’s since retired from more ambitious ventures out in the powder. He’s a man who knows his limits. I, still a spry 45, am not always thus.
So I got a sudden invite out to Big Sky a couple of weeks ago and, ready to shed my pandemic existence, took the offer. I even bought nice ski pants to commemorate the occasion. My wife thought they were too expensive. Of course, everything related to skiing is too expensive. It’s why everyone on the mountain looks like they stepped right out of a white zinfandel ad.
I arrived in Big Sky and geared up. I promised to know my limits but, in the back of my mind, my goal was to work my way back up to the Powder Seeker. Big Sky is such a huge ski area that you could restrict yourself to a fraction of it and still spend an entire day skiing down different runs. I got on the lift, swore to start off on a green circle, and immediately went to a blue. Blue square runs (intermediate) and green circle runs (beginner) may have their own designations, but differentiating between them isn't always easy, especially depending on conditions. Some blues get icy and horrible, in which case I quietly feel like I got sold a false bill of goods. Others are well groomed and eminently bomb-able. Perfect for a 6-year-old.
On this day, I got a heady mix of each. On my first run, I had an easy go of it and screamed WOOOOO! at the top of my lungs all the way down. True rock ’n roll shit. I was still all there. Always nice to be reminded of such things.
The next run, I caught a skied-off part of the snow that made my own skis go wobbly. I’d pause for a breath every 100 yards down. Through the rest of that first day, I could feel my thighs and my spine ready to burst as I held crucial turns. When I felt myself going too fast, I reflexively dragged my poles behind me, as if that would slow me down any. Skiing will expose you like that. You can't fake your way down a mountain. I didn’t want to fall, out concern for both my body and my pride.
I fell. Many times. One time I even fell in the goddamn chairlift line. People tried to help me up but I was too heavy. I could feel my ass crack poking out of my new ski pants. I felt like I had dressed up for a part that everyone now knew I couldn’t play. I was mortified, and still am. I took my skis off, got up, clicked back into them, and got on the lift. On the way to the top, I stared up at the Powder Seeker and the Lone Peak Tram. I watched the pros fly down impossibly pitched runs, oncoming trees and rocks of no concern to them. I have NEVER had that kind of athletic confidence, and I’m too old to gain it. The confidence to ski every blue near and far was all I required.
On the second day, I lost some of that. I fell again. I hit some chocolate chips (rocks) at the top of the blue and made a series of dad sounds I wouldn’t be able to duplicate even if you played me a recording of them. I knew I wouldn’t make the Powder Seeker this trip, and I didn’t. That was for the younger folk. I, now rickety and deaf, would have to be satisfied with whatever other skiing I could get.
And I was. My best friend and I left the mountain at 2:00 p.m., napped, and commenced our après-ski festivities without guilt.
My daughter can ski now. My sons both skied for the first time over Christmas and got the bug after falling 500 times on their way to the chairlift. I have that annoying parent tic where I desperately want my kids to have the same indelible experiences that I had growing up: going to overnight camp, playing sports, falling in love, and skiing. I would love for them to go up that Powder Seeker, maybe even higher. Because I know what’s up there. I know how long it stays with you.
So I will ski again, despite my body and my southward migration doing their best to keep me off the mountain. I can’t ski as well as I used to, but it’s not always about ability. It’s not about conquering the mountain. It’s simply about going there. A mountain is a god. It's big enough to consume you and, on a primal level, I want it to do so. I want to feel part of that vastness. It awakens things in me, pleasant and unpleasant, that nothing else can.
That last night in Big Sky, my best friend fell asleep at roughly 8:00 p.m. Still awake and bored, I walked down to the lobby. Outside the front entrance, only the town center was visible in the night. Beyond, the Rocky Mountains rested in the dark. And waited.