To Ski or Not to Ski

That’s the scandalous question.

There is nothing like a long Montana summer. The air smells sweet when the combines run, the birdsong fills the morning and evening light, and the rivers are open to wade or float or cast in. Best of all, though, are the long days. Every memory of summer conjures up halcyon hours of sunlight. I may not belong to the same class of sun-worshiper as the blight-side Bozemanite with the dreads and stick-and-poke tattoos and amethyst necklace, but my devotion is situated high in the catalogue of solar enthusiasms. It’s no wonder why Montana attracts summer vacationers from all four corners of the Earth: there’s a lot of daytime and much to fill that golden splendor.

While the dog days are rightly designated “the tourist season,” Montana is no less reputed for its hibernal enticements. As soon as the camera-wielding, bear-bell-brandishing, huckleberry-product-purchasing masses disperse in the fall, you can count on the timely descent of the other variety of out-of-stater in a few months’ time. They came, they saw, they clogged up the lift lines. Naturally, there is a large contingent of year-round Montanans who hold these seasonal visitors in the same regard they would a colony of Zebra muscles. But there exists an even more shocking and repulsive figure in the slope-dweller’s estimation: the Montanan who doesn’t ski at all. It is this figure, a member of a silent and depressed minority, that I shall herein endeavor to represent.

For the non-skiing individual, winter is hell. Those afflicted with seasonal affective disorder are tasked with outlasting the long gelid void that insinuates after hunting season, Christmas, and the New Year have come and gone. For these afflicted souls for whom skiing is no outlet, the incoming storm flurries on a weather map are a fairly reliable reading of encroaching mental cold fronts, too. Those who are nonetheless content to pass the dreary months without careening into trees or other human beings in order to cope must navigate the alternately semi-literate and excessively affluent powder hounds pullulating in the streets with the same tact one would employ politely shooing a Jehovah’s Witness from one’s door. Conversation is avoided with anyone wearing Patagonia bibs, toting a laptop besmeared with bumper stickers, or donning those polarized sunglasses that resemble funhouse mirrors. These criteria pretty much eliminate the possibility of discourse with anybody outside of people in the JoAnn Fabrics checkout line, but even that’s a risk in these latter days. When the dreaded meeting of worlds does occur, it often plays out as follows:

Skier: “Hey brother-man, you shred the gnar-gnar yesterday?”

Non-skier: “I shredded some zucchini.”

S: “Dude, that’s a good one. Shreddin’ the zucchini. Right on.”

NS: “Yeah, I made a casserole.”

S: “Hells yeah, ’chini man. You ski or snowboard?”

NS: “I toboggan.”

S: [Furrows brow and stares. Starts to speak, then stops and sips beer.]

The non-skier might thus attempt to slip between the horns of this dilemma. But such fruitless exchanges inevitably lead to inbred populations of indoors- and outdoors-people during ski season. If one actually lives in Bozeman through the winter and isn’t in jail or an iron lung, it’s just assumed that one goes to ski swaps, hawks lift passes, and calls in sick on powder days.

We are all aware that there are other outdoor sporting alternatives to skiing. If you take out a second mortgage and convert the bed of your pickup into a gear locker, for example, you can take up ice climbing. If you’re into less elaborate forms of prodigality, you might buy yourself a pair of snowshoes and posthole your way to Flathead Pass. Snowmobilers will jeer, but at least you won’t be able to hear their insults over the noise of their snow machines. For the intrepid individual, there’s always winter nymphing, but this is not a venture to be undertaken lightly. Certain existential questions arise while you shake the ice from your rod guides, questions like “Why am I here?” and “What am I doing with my life?” You could of course cross-country ski, but then you’d have to squeeze into the latest in Lycra and fence your way through the unruly canine hordes up Sourdough. Parry-riposte… take that, ankle-biter!

In the countless hours of dark between November and March, the non-skier must find inventive means to cope with reclusive subsistence. Some tie flies in front of happy lights. Some soak at Chico for days on end. Others start attending Toastmaster meetings. For all, though, the cultural expectation to ski or snowboard is simply too great a burden in the midst of brief days and cold commutes, a cross which must be quietly borne among the crowds of irritatingly buoyant slalomers and their grotesque jargon. 

The folks who tranquilly tumble down the slopes all winter long are surely the envy of the seasonally-defective and skiing-challenged. The skier has found what they cannot: distraction from and delight in the great diurnal truncation. Consider, then, the plight of non-shredders who put on their yard sales in the spring and who wish to avoid all manner of sickness for the duration of the season. Saluting the Bridger Canyon whale is no test of citizenship. Denigrate the simpletons of wintertide all you want. Introduce them to your backcountry posse with a pernicious giggle. Give them the number of your super-patient friend who’d be happy to give them a few pointers on the bunny hill. Inquire of them, “How do you even live in Bozeman and not ski?” But do so with discretion, oh ski-bum-missionary: the powder grows scarcer and the lift lines longer. Perhaps it’s best to give the misfits a break and let them hibernate.