Memories of, and praise for, small ski hills

In Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick Adams got off the train in Seney and walked on the railroad tracks out of the burned down town. He walked to the railroad bridge, looked down into the running river. He stood there for a long time, Hemingway wrote, and watched the trout steady themselves in the current.

“He felt all the old feeling.”

Early Monday evening I was sitting at the top of Mont Ripley, fresh off the “Husky” chairlift, ratcheting my snowboard bindings tight on my boots. Far below I could see the smokestack of the Quincy smelting works, the rigging of the idle cranes in the Julio Contracting yard, all as shadows in the failing light and haze of snow. I didn’t expect such a rush of memory as what came to me.

The first time I sat at the top of that hill was something like seven years ago. It was autumn and the chair lift was idle. That winter, I was at that hill just about every night, working off the stress of small-town daily news reporting. I had learned to snowboard just the previous winter, down in the Lower Peninsula, before I moved to Calumet.

I still have the same equipment I had back then. My snowboard is a relic, a Burton Bullet from something like a decade ago, handed down to me from my brother. I’ve always liked the look of it – forest green with splintered wood graphics to make it look like somebody’d shot it through with buckshot – and I have lot of good memories tied to it, so I see no reason to replace it, though it has probably lost some of its spring over the years and. My boots and helmet were old when I bought them.

That was at the used ski sale at Cannonsburg Ski Area in eastern Kent County, Michigan, back in the winter of 2005. Cannonsburg is the hill I learned to snowboard on before coming north. It is a a small hill. I’ve never snowboarded on a mountain, but I’m okay with that. I actually think small ski hills have a lot to recommend them.

The sensation of carving smooth, fluid turns on a snow-covered ski hill has something in common with the sensation riding surf. But the shape of a snow-covered ski hill is immutable in a way that an ocean wave is not. Part of the appeal small ski hills have for me is that memory can apprehend their contours more easily than is possible with a mountain. It is easier to imagine new interpretations of those contours on the lift ride back to the top. It is possible to revisit rewarding terrain again and again.

Gliding down the familiar topography in Ripley Monday night, I wondered why I had let so much time pass since the last time I put on my snowboard. At the top of the hill I looked down at the Portage Canal, at the smelter stack, and at Julio’s old iron.

I felt all the old feeling.