On Being a Connecticut Skier

“These guys are good, T.J.”

“Yeah, but they’re not from Detroit.”

–Aspen Extreme, 1993

It’s a great moment at the start of a very bad movie: two buddies are at the top of a steep mogul trail in Aspen, Colorado, waiting for their turn to show what they can do.  If they make it to the bottom in one piece, they have a chance to become ski instructors at Aspen and make lots of money.  Everything about this is absurd, of course.  Like I said, it’s not a great movie.  But then one of the buddies, Dexter, looks over at the other, T.J.  Dexter is clearly intimidated by the great skiers around them: “These guys are good, T.J.” After all, these two guys have probably never skied a trail this steep before.  They’re wearing jeans.  Their home ski area?  Mt. Brighton, Michigan — “200 feet of landfill.” Here at Aspen, they’re out of their league in just about every possible way.

But they do have one ace up their sleeve.  Just as it’s their turn to go, the other buddy, T.J. — the more confident of the two — lowers his goggles.  “Yeah,” he says, “but they’re not from Detroit.” Game on.  They jump over the edge.  Guess who’s ripping down the moguls, passing everyone, and throwing double helicopters like an early 90s Johnny Moseley?  Guess who makes the Aspen Ski School?  The guys from Detroit.

“Aspen Extreme” (1993)

We all love to romanticize where we came from.  We went through some serious adversity when we were young.  We had three older brothers who always beat us up.  We had a demanding father who was always pushing us.  We grew up on the mean streets of . . . wherever.  But this hardship didn’t break us, it made us stronger.  It made us the person we are today.

That’s what we like to think, right?  That pride is evident when he says that line: “Yeah, but they’re not from Detroit.” That means: we learned to ski in the mid-fucking-west.  Not in fancy Colorado powder.  Not with fancy new equipment.  We learned to ski, literally, on a pile of garbage.  We learned in the worst conditions imaginable.  We got this.

I always loved this scene because I could relate to it.  I grew up skiing in Connecticut.  It’s not exactly Detroit, but as skiing goes, it’s close.

Back when I was racing kayaks, whenever my father came to races, he’d noticed that when I was on the course, the announcers would tell the crowd that my hometown was Middlebury, Vermont (which is where I went to college).  “Oh, I see,” said my father.  “Sounds sexier than being from Connecticut, I guess!” It’s true — I was writing that on the info sheets at the races.  Because no, Connecticut is not a sexy place to be from.  Not only are we incredibly bland, but we’re surrounded by way more colorful states.  You can make fun of New Yorkers.  You can make fun of Massholes.  You can’t not make fun of New Jersey.  But Connecticut?  There’s nothing to make fun of.  We don’t even have an accent you can imitate.  It doesn’t exist.  If it did, it would probably sound like a very competent financial planner, crisply advising you on why you should diversify your portfolio.  Connecticut is a place where people go to look at the leaves, to go antiquing, or to send their kid to boarding school.  Usually I tell people where I’m from and they say things like, “Oh, what a quaint little village!  We stayed at a charming inn there.” There’s no street cred in being from Connecticut.  The list of Times in Life in When Being From Connecticut Gets You Street Cred is short:

  • Sitting Around at a Table of Investment Bankers (“Yeah, it was rough growing up in Connecticut.  If you were a Morgan Stanley kid, you damn sure better not be in the Merrill Lynch side of town after dark.  Sometimes we’d get jumped by older kids trying to push derivatives on us on the way home from school . . .”)
  • In a Bar, Talking About Pro Sports Misery:  (“First the Whalers left Hartford, then Robert Kraft dangles the Pats in front of our noses . . .”)
  • Taking Control at a Business Meeting: (“I grew up in Darien, Connecticut.  I got this merger.“)

For better or for worse, the high school students I teach in Vermont know exactly what their state is all about.  You want to throw Bernie Sanders jokes?  You want to make pot-smoking hippie jokes?  They roll with it.  They know what they are.  But growing up in Connecticut?  I never did.

Except when it comes to skiing.  Now I know what you’re thinking: “You can ski in Connecticut?” See, that’s exactly what I mean.  The one time I’ve found that being from Connecticut does provide a certain perverse sense of hardscrabble credibility is when you tell people, usually friends of yours who learned to ski on childhood vacations to places like Stowe, or Vail, or Aspen, that you learned to ski at Ski Sundown, Connecticut.

Source: Skisundown.com

It was January of 1993 when we showed up at Ski Sundown.  My brother and I were tearing up the house and our parents had given us an ultimatum: take up basketball, or take up skiing.  So, despite our auspicious basketball surname, that January we rolled into the giant dirt parking lot across the reservoir in New Hartford and looked up at “the mountain” (as all the locals called it) for the first time.

Ski Sundown was sort of a presence in my life for years before that.  All my friends packed their stuff up each Tuesday afternoon to take the bus over to Sundown for the after-school ski program that just about everyone was a part of except me.  Sundown was just six miles from our house and boasted 14 trails.  At just over 1,000 feet, it’s not even a tall peak for Connecticut.  The vertical drop is just 625 feet — less than a fourth of the drop at many Vermont ski areas.  The three chairlifts and the base lodge had been put up back in the ’70s and ’80s.  There was a rental shop and a giant dirt parking lot and not a whole lot else.  The year before I’d gone mountain biking with a friend and his father and we’d emerged at one point from the woods at the summit.  We saw the lift towers and the grassy trails and I didn’t think much of it.  But the next January, swinging into the parking lot with my face pressed up against the glass, the front-side trails of Gunbarrel, Stinger, and Exhibition looked like they descended from outer space.  I had to be up there.  I knew I was hooked immediately.

Ski Sundown (Source: AlpineZone.com)

I took my first lesson in January of 1993.  I remember the slick, varnished wood chairs in the lodge and in the rental shop, and rocking back and forth walking in ski boots for the first time on the concrete floor of the rental shop, the satisfying click as I ratcheted on the rear-entry ski boots and felt them encase my ankles like casts.  I remember the smell of cheese fries and the chaos of colors and ski tickets dangling from jackets in the lodge, the click as I stepped into the bindings for the first time, the slice of my rental K2s across the snow at the bottom of the beginner hill, where my father waited with me for my group lesson, the big green circle nailed to the tree: The Loop, Sundown’s traditional first beginner trail, the whir of the poma lift later that day as I got closer and closer in line.

Riding the poma lift was the first Connecticut skiing adversity I faced.  Poma lifts are hard.  Poma lifts are scary for beginners.  You still see them in Europe, but rarely in the US.  I doubt you saw many even back in 1993.  Nowadays most beginner hills have either slow-moving chairlifts or magic carpets.  Magic carpets are gentle: all you have to do is stand still, and the carpet takes you uphill.  Sometimes they even have nice attendants who offer you a hand getting off and on.  Chairlifts are simple too — all you have to do is to sit down.  But riding a poma lift is basically like having to learn to water ski on your first day.  You’re handed a small disc by a gruff-looking attendant which you quickly have to slip between your legs, make sure your skis are pointed straight, and then hold on tight as the disc whips you uphill.  It’s scary.  Then you’re getting pulled uphill on your skis, which means you have to have control over your skis.  Which clearly most beginners, myself included, did not.  If you do lose control for a fraction of a second — and there’s about a 99.8% chance of this happening if you were just learning to put your skis on about 20 minutes ago — you will cross your tips, land on your face, and start getting raked across the snow like a water skier behind a power boat, bumping up and down until the surly attendant puts down his cigarette, stops the lift, and walks up to help you back onto your feet.  Meanwhile everyone else on the lift is cursing you for gumming up the works.  Every time I rode the poma lift that first year, my thoughts were sort of like this: “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t be that guy who stops the lift . . .”

Riding the poma was sort of like ski hazing for anyone who started at Ski Sundown before 1994 (when they mercifully replaced it with a chairlift).  But having survived it made you feel tough.  You’d proved yourself.  Years later I found myself peering over a cliff on a mountain in the Catskills, wondering if I should charge off the edge with a hang glider strapped to my back and hope I came out the other side of the dense cloud that made seeing my feet difficult.  “Hell, I rode the poma lift in Connecticut,” I thought.  “I got this.”

The skiing itself was much the same as the poma.  It wasn’t quite hazing, but we weren’t exactly skiing in Utah powder.  Learning to ski in Connecticut will always be a little like learning to play baseball in a vacant lot with a tennis ball, a yardstick as your bat, and pizza box as home plate.  You have to use your imagination, but if you stick with it, by the time you get to a real field, it feels totally lavish, and you might just have developed pretty awesome hand-eye coordination from trying to hit your brother’s slider with a three foot ruler.  All of us who grew up skiing at Ski Sundown — especially if like me you pretty much skied every day, rain or shine — grew up skiing in some pretty interesting snow conditions.  After all, Ski Sundown tops out at about 1,000 feet.  That’s not even the base lodge at most Vermont ski resorts.  There’s not a lot of natural snow to work with.  As a result, you get pretty used to skiing on manmade snow, which is like natural snow, except harder to ski on.  It sort of looks like those chunks of salt you can buy to melt the ice on your driveway.  In the morning it would all be groomed down and would look like beautiful corduroy, until you skied across it and your skis would make this terrible chattering noise as all the salt chunks quickly fled to the sides of the trail, leaving bluish patches of glare ice behind you.  Sometimes the grooming machines would chew up the snow and miss grooming it and you’d get these football-sized chunks called “Death Cookies.” We’d get to the bottom and hop on the chairlift and my father, who joined the Sundown Ski Patrol in 1994, would grin as he radioed in the trail conditions: “We’ve got another great morning of loose granular!” Loose granular: chopped up ice that had been groomed.

By about 10 am, every trail would be scraped bare like this and you learned to ski the edges of the trail, where the manmade crystals piled up into moguls.  If you closed your eyes, moving through the mounds of salt felt almost like skiing powder.  (Of course close your eyes and you’d probably hit a tree — you had to ski the very edges of the trails just to do this.  And of course the woods right next to your skis were more than likely completely brown.) The middle of the trails were always ice.  Now for years I’ve heard fancy-looking skiers at major American resorts complain that the trails were “getting icy” and I would just shake my head:  “They’re not from Connecticut.” What they meant was that all the powder had been tracked up.  What I grew up skiing on was real ice: the bluish kind that you see on frozen rivers, with the snowcat treadmarks dug in from days before.  That’s when you’re skiing ice.  A lot of people think that to do it well you’ve got to push down harder on your edges to get them to grip.  In fact, the opposite is true: you want to stay light on your edges and stay over your skis so you don’t fall over.  You learned this very quickly skiing in Connecticut.

Skiing in Connecticut wasn’t quite as icy as T.J.’s frozen waterfall descent in “Aspen Extreme,” but it was close. (Source: epicski.com)

Other times, if the temperature was a little too warm and they were making snow, the manmade snow would get sticky: you’d try to ski through it and your skis would stop moving, sending you straight over the handlebars.  Every trail would start to turn to moguls by about 2 pm — and not the kind of pretty, symmetrical moguls you see in ski magazines, but Volkswagen-sized frozen walls in no particular pattern.

You learned how to handle pretty much anything that was thrown at you if you spent 60 days a year skiing trails like Stinger, Tempter, and Gunbarrel, the way I did back in the ’90s.  Even better if you were doing it at night, when it was even colder, icier, and harder to see under the lights.  Sundown was open every night until 10 pm, except on Friday and Saturday nights, when my father was ski patrol hill captain and the ski area was open until 11 pm.  On most nights we’d smell weed on the chairlift and watch the pile of tossed beer cans under the lift near the top of Chair 1 grow.  One time my father had to pull some drunks out of the woods next to Tom’s Treat during the 11 pm sweep of the mountain.  When my father asked what the hell they were doing, they said, “Uh, we lost our ski poles,” (which was true), “and we’re making new ones.” (They grabbed some sticks off the ground.)  These were the kinds of people who were skiing on Saturday nights at Ski Sundown.

Even though Sundown didn’t have a lot of natural snow or a lot of vertical drop, what it did have going for it was a large population of fairly affluent families right in the neighborhood.  Years later, when I became a teacher in central Vermont, I realized that the majority of my students — who grew up in the shadow of Killington Peak — had never skied.  They couldn’t afford to ski — especially not at Killington.  There are really two Vermonts: the lavish world of the ski resorts, and, often right in the vicinity, the poor towns like Bethel, where I worked, and the two worlds often have surprisingly little to do with each other.  

Central Connecticut is basically the reverse: you have a fairly modest, inexpensive, unpretentious ski resort right in the midst of a lot of fairly well-off, suburban towns.  Every weekend Jeep Cherokees and Chevy Suburbans unloaded local kids from Canton, Farmington, West Hartford.  Going to Sundown for us was sort of like going to the mall.  For a few hours, you had the run of the place and some freedom away from your parents.  Looking back, of course, I can see the class divide: the kids from wealthier families, from Avon, Simsbury, Granby, stepped into the newest fluorescent Salomons and industrial grey Langes and wore season’s passes on bands around their knees over crisp black ski pants.  Kids from the poorer towns — Winsted, Torrington, Barkhamsted — came out a few times per year — or as part of the after-school programs that flooded the place every weekday afternoon — in New York Giants Starter jackets, jeans tucked into rear-entry rental boots, in strange hats, crouched over their skis like linebackers.  Pretty much everyone I knew in elementary school I spotted over there at one time or another.  By the time I was about to head off to my regional middle school in seventh grade, I felt like I knew pretty much everyone from the other towns already from skiing.  Whenever I think of Sundown, I think of kids — skiing together in packs, hanging out in the lodge, sneaking cafeteria trays to sled down Little Joe, wondering what town those girls on the lift were from.

Back in the mid-90s, most ski resorts were still about seven or eight years from really catering to kids by building terrain parks.  The whole “freestyle” movement was just beginning.  Skis were still long and straight.  Pants were still normal looking.  Mogul skiing had just been added the Olympics.  Snowboards were just starting to take off.  I watched as the ski patrol gained its very first snowboarder in 1994.  When I was first at Sundown, you could get your pass pulled for jumping.  They even had a special group called “Guest Services” — which was basically a shadow ski patrol made up of older, no-fun types (“We’re the moms of the mountain,” one of them told my father on the chairlift) whose express purpose was to make sure there was no jumping, no skiing too fast, and no skiing off the trail (I once got yelled at just for standing on the shoulder of the trail).  Looking back, it was probably the presence of too many kids like me that made adult paying customers will the Guest Services into existence.  After a few years, Sundown started to relax.  We would hit jumps that just “happened” to form on the edges of trails.  The hot moves back then were remnants of the 80s freestyle — daffys, twisters, spread eagles — the kinds of moves guys were doing on the pro mogul tours back then.  The big showpiece of course was a helicopter.  If you could do that, you were a god.

Early season conditions at Ski Sundown can be interesting.

Things were changing culturally.  Nirvana and Soundgarden blasted from the liftees’ speakers at the base of Chair 2.  This was right before the birth of “new school” freestyle skiing — terrain parks, inverted aerials, halfpipes — basically the snowboard and X-Games influences that were also radically remaking whitewater kayaking during the same period.  Kids at Sundown were starting to wear what became the official “new school” freestyle skier wardrobe: long, sagging pants and oversized sweatshirts.  Soon Sundown, like most ski resorts, began to realize that if your main customer base is a bunch of teenagers who want to jump, you might as well start catering to them.  By the late 90s, not only could you build jumps, but Sundown was building them for you.  Portions of first Canyon Run, then Tom’s Treat, and then — as they realized that being seen by everyone is half the fun — even Stinger and Exhibition were portioned off for the types of terrain park features springing up at resorts across the US: rails and big, table-top jumps.  Sundown began sponsoring a “big air” competition long after I’d moved away.  One year I went back to ski during Christmas break in the mid 2000s.  There were only two or three trails open at that point — one beginner trail on Sunnyside, one regular trail, and one trail fully devoted to a terrain park!  It was really interesting to watch this shift.

It wasn’t long until, by the mid-90s, my father started taking us skiing at other resorts.  We branched out slowly.  Our friend, a local there, was amazed when we resolved to and then did ski every trail at Butternut by lunch time.  Jiminy Peak, Bosquet, Catamount — little by little our radius began to expand outward from Connecticut.  Each time we went to a new resort, each mountain seemed both incredibly large and incredibly easy to ski.  I remember the first time we took a ski trip to Vermont to a “big” mountain: Mt. Snow.  Nowadays, living in the Whites, I actually have trouble discerning much difference between Mt. Snow and Ski Sundown — they both look small to me — but to a Connecticut kid, back in 1994, Mt. Snow looked like the Eiger.  At Sundown we rode the chair for seven minutes and skied down in two.  At Snow, we were whisked to the top in ten minutes on the high speed lift, and barely made it skiing down in twenty.  And their main mogul trail, right under the lift — Exhibition?  It was really, really easy compared to Gunbarrel back home.  The moguls were small.  They followed a regular pattern.  The trail itself wasn’t even that steep.  There was something weird about the snow, too — it was so smooth and so soft . . .  it was natural snow.  Even the hardest trail at the whole resort, Ripcord, which was definitely steep, had been groomed.  And this wasn’t loose granular.  This was soft corduroy.  And it basically stayed good all morning — because none of the tourists were skiing it.

Since I started skiing, I’ve always read about how eastern skiers are better than their western counterparts because they grow up skiing in difficult conditions. While I like to imagine that the same was true for me — and even more so — coming from Connecticut — the truth is probably that it was just plain old practice that made you a good skier — whether it was in Connecticut or Colorado or Norway.  And if you grow up six miles from a ski area that’s open basically 24-7, and you have a father who gets free tickets and spends a lot of his time there?  You’re going to get a lot of practice.  I took up skiing when I was 11.  For the next three years, I spent pretty much all my time at Ski Sundown in the winter.  I skied when it was raining out.  I skied on every snow day we had off, ever.  I skied two or three big powder days.  I skied in early December, when Canyon Run was a path of white and the whole rest of Connecticut was brown.  I skied in late March in a t-shirt when the trails were slush and dirt.  I competed in the mogul contest on my 206 centimeter-long Dynastars.  I skied across the giant, oily pond at the bottom of Gunbarrel for the pond skimming contest (and made it across).  In pro football terms, I got better because, quite simply, I got a lot of reps.  Did skiing on weird, manmade snow, rock moguls, and ice have something to do with it?  Sure — but it was more about getting out there and doing it.

Several Ski Sundown skiers have gone on to become fairly big names in the ski world.  One of the guys I skied with the most when I was in middle school was Dylan Natale, who was a great athlete and who went on (I didn’t even realize this until a few years ago when I stumbled across his name online) to become a fairly well known skier out west:

A few weeks ago I was at the Mt. Washington Resort watching the new Warren Miller movie, “Chasing Shadows” when a segment came on featuring two brothers: Neil and Ian Provo.  “I think I used to ski with those guys back in Connecticut,” I whispered to my fiancee.  Sure enough, they began talking about learning to ski in Connecticut.  They’d moved out west to the mountains of Utah and become big enough names to land their own Warren Miller segment.  To say I “skied with them” is misleading — they moved away right as I was getting to know them, but they were fixtures at Ski Sundown back when I was first starting, and their mother patrolled with my father during that first year.

Growing up as a Connecticut skier had the everlasting effect of establishing my bar for good skiing appallingly low.  Skiing ice moguls in hail on a windy day in December?  I’m there.  Things start to get skied off by 3 pm and the trails look like they just took a zamboni across?  I could do this at night, if you want.  Although I’ve been lucky enough to ski all over the US and in the Alps, most of my “home” resorts over the years — Catamount, the Middlebury Snow Bowl, Whitetail (in Maryland!), and Cannon — have been the kinds of places that friends of mine, who learned to ski on family vacations out west, usually think twice about visiting.  But I relish them, because that’s what I grew up with.  Although it’s fun to imagine that being a Connecticut skier was some sort of street cred I’d earned — some sort of adversity I overcame, the truth is in fact that opposite: having a ski area like Ski Sundown, so close to my house where my friends and I could spend all our time was not an adversity I overcame — it was great luck.  And in the end, more than any real technical skills that Sundown taught us, being a Connecticut skier is more of a mindset than anything.  Tell yourself enough times that you are capable of enjoying something, and you will.  Tell yourself you can make it down anything, and you can.  It’s a confidence and a sense of pride that comes from a simple mindset.  You stand at the top of a trail that’s unlike anything you’ve ever done, with a bunch of skiers who are the best you’ve ever seen, and you tell yourself one thing: “Yeah, but they’re not from Connecticut.”