Midwesterners and Mountains

Finding inspiration in unexpected places.

Around the holidays at any ski resort, you can bet your can of Montucky that a middle-aged Midwestern man wearing jeans and a Packers sweatshirt is going to come barreling out of the trees with three kids in tow yelling, “Oh sure, you betcha’—fresh tracks!” With his hair flapping around reflective sunglasses, he’ll fly over bumps to shows his kids that Dad’s still got it. But then some punk local high-schooler on the chairlift will yell, “Hey old man, give it up!” and the euphoric bliss for this flatlander vanishes in a puff of cold smoke.

These jeans-wearing Scandinavians swarm the ski resorts like molasses the second half of the ski season, gawking at the snowy peaks and posing for family photos outside the resort. Try and hate them, but these happy-go-lucky tourists have most likely driven all day and night from the prairie lands of middle America with screaming kids, barking dogs, and a cooler full of stinky bologna… and they’re still having the time of their lives. They may not have the greatest reputation out West, but these out-of-towners deserve a second chance.

Despite the lack of mountains or “fresh pow,” learning to ski is an essential right of passage for many Midwesterners. It begins with the first trip to the local hill (usually four hours away), where kids squeeze into faded rear-entry boots and step into their first pair of straight skis in front of the rope tow. From there, the aspiring skiers journey through years of Powder and Snowboarder subscriptions, hand-built jumps behind Dairy Queen, and church trips to Montana in over-crowded vans blasting innocent pop jams. But these fellow snow-lovers are never greeted with open arms out West. Instead, they end up as the butt of every tourist joke at the mountain. (Don’t believe me? Read “Spot the Gaper” in the Winter 2009-10 issue of this magazine.)

A short hiatus from the mountains two years ago brought me back to the plains where I grew up, and over to Minneapolis. At first, as these city-folk talked about their weekend ski trips, my snow-elitist attitude looked down on these “hill-dwellers.” Your resort has only two lifts? You like skiing ice? Do you even know what powder is? I was the snow bitch. But as I settled into the Midwestern groove, I realized that for many, every single day of the year leads up to five glorious days spent out West at a ski resort—the family savings accounts, the 6am fitness classes, the new North Face outfits—all for one solitary ski trip a year. After hearing, “I would give anything to ski just once a year,” over and over, I began to reevaluate my appreciation of the mountains and wondered if I had taken it all for granted: all of those mornings I scoffed at “only four new inches,” or the days I spent in a hurry, too busy to glance up at the view. It took a city of flatlanders to remind me that in the end, it’s a day spent in the mountains playing in the snow—something most people in the world only dream about.

So I will continue to defend the gapers on the mountain, despite everyone else trying to bury them in a snowplow pile. Yes, they may be dressed in jeans and Smith goggles from 1992, and yes their shit-eating grins may aggravate your hangover, but they are beyond exhilarated just to be standing in a 15-minute lift line as they gawk at the snowy peaks. And frankly, you should be too.