In 2009 I wore out my welcome in Illinois for the second time and moved to northern Vermont to live with my wife and her people. I brought all my worldly possessions, which included the clothes on my back, some more clothes in a duffle bag, also on my back, and thirty boxes of books. (Thanks to the e-book revolution, the next time I move I can simplify my load to thirty boxes of Kindles, Nooks and iPads.) I also brought some other baggage, not the kind you check at the airport or load in the back of your Honda, but the kind you carry from childhood trauma into adulthood.
You know what northern New England has a lot of? If you guessed infrastructure and reliable cable/internet providers, hahah, I hate you. The correct answer is ski lodges and resorts. Lots o’ mountains in this region. Plus it starts snowing in early November and doesn’t stop until, like, October.
One of them is already half buried! Why does this look appealing?
So when I moved to Vermont, the question I heard constantly from new acquaintances was do I ski. And when I said no every time, they gave me a knowing, slightly condescending look that said, “Not a lot of places to ski in Chicago, huh?” which was true but had nothing to do with my answer.
work for am affiliated with a school that has two different ski teams (Alpine and Nordic, whatever those mean) during its winter sports season. The school offers weekly ski trips to its boarding students in the winter. I see teenagers in cold-weather gear with skis and snowboards every Saturday foregoing homework and college applications and, you know, things that aren’t skiing to race down a mountainside in defiance of gravity and nature.
So every once in a while, one of those kids asks me why I don’t ski. I tell them I’ve done it before and it ended about as badly as a ski trip could end without an avalanche.
The great and powerful state of Illinois is not known for its hilly terrain (or law-abiding governors). But right in the Northwest corner of the state is a quaint little town called Galena. Known as “Montana’s Metropolis”, Galena boasts wonderful antiquing opportunities, a tourism-based economy, and a rich history of ore mining, haunted houses, and corrupt government. It also hosts the only thing remotely close to a mountain for two hundred miles in any direction, whereupon sits Chestnut Mountain Resort. In the winter, Chestnut becomes the premiere ski/snowboard destination for people in or near Galena. Their selection of hills and trails is impressive… if you’re from Illinois.
Courtesy of Chestnut Mountain--what the trails looked like before "the incident".
Chestnut Mountain is where my future as an Olympic skier was born, and, two hours later, died. Chestnut Mountain is why I don’t take advantage of the fact that the area in which I now live is known for recreational skiing. Chestnut Mountain is why I cry a little bit when kids ask me this story…
Courtesy of Chestnut Mountain--what the trails looked like after "the incident".
I went to Chestnut Mountain while in the third or fourth grade so I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old (Edit: eleven). It was a weekend adventure to exotic Galena with my mother, father, brother Neil and probably some extended family I don’t remember, the reason for which should be clear by the end of this tale.
Look at the map on top, the one not discolored by broken dreams. See the green dot in the upper left representing the Bunny Hill, well, I owned that dot. I mastered the Bunny Hill. I rocked that seventeen degree vertical decline for a solid hour to the point where younger kids, older first-timers, and even actual bunnies were looking to me for instruction. I could already envision clever nicknames for myself, like the Wizard or the Chestnutcracker or the Bunny King (Shut up! You think of a clever skier nickname! I was eleven!) and thought maybe there was a chance they could make a movie about my skiing awesomeness starring John Cusack.
Make way for His Awesomeness, the Bunny King!
That’s when my brother got involved. He was, and is, older than me, maybe seventeen or eighteen at the time (Edit: I don’t know). He hadn’t seen my impressive mastery of the beginner slope because he’d been coursing his way down one of the trails marked in black on the map above. I have no idea where my father was during any of this; I only know he showed up around the same time as the paramedics. My mother left Neil and me under Dad’s watch, so she is not totally without blame here.
Neil suggested I test myself by bringing my game to one of the more challenging trails. Look at the upper map again. See the trail on the right hand side in black that goes all the way down, the trail named Warpath–F***ING WARPATH?!?! That was the challenge Neil put to me, and he convinced me with the magic word: girls. If girls would be impressed that I completed the Warpath Trail, then that’s exactly what I was going to do. Or else he was calling me a girl for only skiing the Bunny Hill. Either would make sense. Both would make sense.
That’s how I found myself at the peak of a black diamond hill named after a slaughter of the most savage kind. Neil said he would be right behind me. He said girls would be waiting for me at the bottom. He said I would never forget this moment.
And my parents? They said nothing because who the hell knows where they were?
So I pushed off with the poles and began my descent of the Warpath.
I don’t know exactly when things went wrong. My hardly reliable memory of what happened on the trail recalls falling immediately, unbalanced by gravity’s affect on the sheer decline, and toppling face first in the snow.
Witness reports, however, dispute this, claiming they heard “the Chestnutcracker scream for at least thirty seconds” before a deafening silence. Neil, who was right behind me at the top and for the first part of the descent has also proven unreliable, admitting that he wasn’t watching me, or where he was going down the hill. Looking at/for girls, I imagine.
Now, there are only two things I remember from high school physics, despite not taking it in high school. One is that the Incredible Hulk could never happen in real life. The other is that an object in motion tends to stay in motion until another object/force acts upon it. Meaning I would have made it all the way down the trail if the ground hadn’t stopped me. Also meaning my brother continued down the hill regardless of my state… well, briefly.
Whatever his motive for putting me on that hill, which I remind you was called the Warpath, Neil was sincere when he said he would be right behind me. Too close behind me, it turns out, because when I stopped sliding down the snow, Neil kept on a-racing.
Right. Over. My. Face.
A typical snow ski curves slightly up at the front. I don’t know the aerodynamic reason why and I don’t care. All I know is this manufacturing decision saved my life. Neil’s ski did not go through my head as inertia would suggest, but rather over my face, first striking the bridge of my nose and then riding over my forehead, packing my head deeper into the fresh snow with every pound-per-square-inch of pressure.
You know what the Warpath Trail still has a lot of to this day? If you guessed my blood, hahah, I still hate you. And you’re right.
They claim I would only answer when addressed as Bunny.
I don’t remember waking up until after I had been carried back to the lodge, but the paramedics who treated me claim I was semi-lucid and answering questions.
The story doesn’t end with my mother freaking out at my father for not keeping me safe, or my father responding, “Me? I thought you were watching him!” It doesn’t end with Neil apologizing for nearly killing me or having some sort of cathartic realization about putting his own self interest and girls over the safety of his little brother, because so far as I know that never happened. And it doesn’t end with Lindsey Vonn or any other girls waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, other than maybe some cousins whose names I’ve never been able to get right since that day.
I don't know what she's cheering about in this pic, but it's not me.
No, the story ends the following week when I returned to my elementary school in DeKalb, Illinois, a town severely bereft of any type of elevation. A town as flat as my face when the EMTs dug it out of the snow. My first day back from Chestnut Mountain, the nurse at Lincoln Elementary called me into her office. She had seen the ruin that was my face, the fierce swelling and bruising around my eyes that looked like a domino mask. She asked what happened. I told her a skiing accident.
The nurse actually turned around in her chair to look out the window. I told you, most of Illinois is absurdly flat. Skiing is as common a recreational activity there as shark diving. So it isn’t without merit that the nurse questioned the veracity of my statement. Then she asked how things were going at home, and I told her things were mostly okay… except, you know, my dad had been working really late at UPS. It was the holiday season and all; he came home late, he was always tired and grumpy.
That was all I had to say for the nurse to call the Department of Child and Family Services.
Though “the incident” was eventually explained and corroborated substantially enough to drop the charges, things with Dad didn’t get any better for a while. Neil mostly stopped using me as chum to attract women, unless telling people I was his bastard son counts, and that was just dark.
I still get the question from time to time from people around Vermont. Do you ski? And every time they ask I try not to remember the pain. I try not to remember this:
I have no interest in picking up the sport again. I do not acknowledge the members of our Alpine and Nordic Skiing teams (seriously, what are those?). I refuse to chaperone students on trips to the ski resorts they attend around Vermont and New Hampshire. For the life of me, I cannot think of one single redeeming thing that would get me back on that mountain.