Welcome to God’s Country
(Note: Essay originally written in January, 2018—JB)
At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, I step outside the terminal into gorgeous 70 degree weather. Rolling behind me is my businessman’s suitcase, while slung over my shoulder are two ski bags—a long skinny one for my Elans, a short dumpy affair for the boots.
I flag down the hotel shuttle, and its driver stares at me quizzically. In silence he helps me with the luggage, but turns all chatty once behind the wheel.
“So where’d you go skiing?” he asks. He is grizzled, gray, and stocky, with the arms of a retired linebacker. I imagine him a fine beer-league bowler if he lived in Wisconsin or Ohio, but I have no idea how that translates here in the mid South.
“OK, where you gonna go?”
“Just west of here,” I tell him. “Up in the Smokies.”
He pounds the steering wheel with two fists.
“Hell, hot dang,” he says. His strength is wasted on the automatic steering. “Hot dang!”
“Is that unusual?”
“Unusual, my ass!” sang the driver. “You are the first s’umbitch Yankee I ever met to say he’s in North Carolina for the snow.” He spits out snow as if through a gap in his teeth, as if he were cursing in a foreign language.
“The frickin’ North Carolina snow,” he adds. “I mean, dang!”
Um, well, yes.
I am here for a sales meeting in my professional field, which is educational publishing, with the skiing something of an afterthought. My Yankeeness is evident from a baseball cap, which in fact is emblazoned with the B for the Boston Red Sox, but nevermind that. I might also be announced by my honker of a nose and black hair and nasal overtones of voice, which scream Jew boy to me, and conceivably also to the driver.
The ski bags earn additional confused stares and bemused smirks in the hotel lobby. Eventually the desk clerk carts away both bags into temporary storage and hands me a claim check, upon which I safely assume my identity as Generic Business Traveler.
For the rest of the day and throughout the next, no one asks me about skiing in North Carolina, or anywhere else, because I do not raise the subject. Nevertheless, in the recesses and small moments, I wonder whether I am as bonkers as the van driver thinks I am. I have been skiing since age 7, and at some point adopted the notion that I want to sample as much of the sport as possible, wherever feasible. To date I have skied in 15 of the 37 U.S. states in which lift tickets are sold, and now I have my scheme in place to add one more to the total. Yet I am aware that I am in land better known for tobacco farms and pecan trees than alpine sports.
I raise the issue in a phone call with my wife.
“Just relax and have a good time,” she says.
OK. Will do.
Wednesday night, per the plan, I plunk down my credit card for a rental car, and at the crack of dawn next morning I am driving westward along U.S. 74. I happen to know that if I were to extend the journey for an additional thousand miles or so, I would arrive in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, home of legendary resorts such as Taos and Angel Fire. So I am tempted to think, “Well, if this latitude allows all that snow in New Mexico, then it can do the same here in North Carolina, can’t it? Am I heading to an undiscovered skier’s paradise?!”
Well, um, no. Elevation is the monkey wrench in my little narrative. Taos tops off at an impressive 12,481 feet, while my Carolina destination for the day, appealingly named Cataloochee, climbs to less than half that height, making its climate a lot warmer. Because the Appalachians are much older than the Rockies, they are both shorter and rounder, and thus much tamer. Factor in global warming, and the result is….
I try to minimize expectations.
Just beyond a body of water that GPS tells me is called Lake Junaluska, I pass a church with a huge marquee. The church sign reads “REPENT! For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God—Romans 3:23.” Then I notice a second sign on the ground below, written in magic marker on a cardboard placard. Its message is “Free Hot Chocolate for Skiers!” I note an urn or two on a long folding table. Elsewhere in the parking lot are a dozen or so teenagers and adults, standing in a circle. They might be singing.
I drive by. I am already fueled with coffee and a donut from Krispy Kreme.
“You’re from up north, aren’t you?” she asks.
“Oh yes,” I reply.
“I can always tell. What do you think of this place?”
“Any day skiing,” I tell her, “is a good day.”
We are on the Omigosh chairlift, which is the main lift of Cataloochee and the only lift to the top. My companion for the ride appears to be at least 70 years old, placing both of us well over the mean age for the day’s patrons. We are surrounded by school children, all arrived on the yellow buses that now fill the parking lot. Earlier I had reviewed the license plates and insignias—the schools are scattered across North Carolina, as well as places like Knoxville and Atlanta.
“You got that right,” she says.
I ask her if she’s a native.
“Providence, Rhode Island, born and raised. Been down here twenty years now.”
“You like it?”
“This is God’s country,” she replies.
Her snowboard, for it is a snowboard, has a solitary sticker of a peace symbol. It is a wooden snowboard of a kind I have seen nowhere else. It might be handmade.
This is my fifth or sixth ride up the Omigosh, I have lost count. Two runs lead down from the summit—a black diamond and a blue cruiser, or so they are labeled—and I have done both, repeatedly. The snow is soft and forgiving, making none of the runs especially challenging.
“Hard to argue with that,” I say.
Indeed. Cataloochee is gorgeous, especially from the summit. Aways in the distance is Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and true to its name are low, ghostly clouds that have settled among the hilltops. Snow streaks the forest floor and twinkles off the pine needles. The lifties had been playing Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and now have switched to John Denver. With a little imagination, I can hear the songs whistle through the trees as I schuss past them. Alas, the dominant actual sound is the white noise of the snowmaking cannons.
“You have a great day now,” she says, for we have reached the top of the lift. The vertical here is 740 feet. She speeds down the expert trail faster than I would have guessed. For the rest of the day I catch glimpses of her and that peace-promoting snowboard, but we never speak again.
The school children are extremely well behaved. Most are congregated on the bunny slopes and attended by instructors. They ski or snowboard in little conga lines. The main runs, where I am, are frequented mostly by older kids who gamely point themselves downhill and attempt a turn or two, as if they’re negotiating a high wire act. Are they improving as the day goes on? They definitely are getting bolder.
I come to what in skier’s slang is called a yard sale: various equipment spread over the hill, all dislodged and strewn asunder as the skier stumbled downhill. I pick up each item and carry it to its owner, a pre-adolescent boy flat on his back, covered in snow, gazing upward with an emotion I can’t quite discern.
“Are you all right?” I ask him.
Eventually comes the reply.
“That was fantastic!” he says.
Earlier that morning, inside the lodge, every table was claimed by school children and their chaperones. I was ready to bolt the lodge and change into my ski gear on a bench outside when a good-natured soul waves me over as he clears a space next to him. I happily accept. I notice his gym bag is emblazoned with the name Saint-Something-Something Day School, Greensboro, North Carolina. The school logo includes a simple cross on a shield, a design I associate with King Arthur.
“The ski day is the most popular field trip of the year,” he tells me.
“Sure looks that way,” I reply.
The children around us might range from 8 to 18. With extreme politeness, the younger children ask their elders for help in finding missing mittens or gloves or goggles, or snapping up a button, or strapping on ski boots. The man with the gym bag responds dutifully to all requests. I expect him to ignore me but he keeps coming back to the conversation.
“Everybody just loves the mountains,” he says, “the students, the teachers, and the clergy too.”
“You have the, um…” I stumble because I don’t know the right names for the clergy. Are they reverends or pastors? Priests or nuns? I look at the gym bag again, which I’m sure reveals the necessary information to the cogniscenti, but I’m Jewish and never got the hang of the distinctions.
“You have the clergy here, too?” I finally ask.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “We start the day with Big Father Dale leading everybody in prayer, and then the kids are just amazed that the Father is also the fastest, smoothest skier on the slopes.”
He winks at me knowingly, and I have no idea why.
For the rest of the day, I keep an eye open for a nominee for Big Father Dale. Apart from an elegant parallel turn, though, I am not sure what I am looking for. A skier in priestly robes? A halo around a ski helmet? Only that night, halfway back to Boston, do I realize that the man who befriended me in the ski lodge was referring to himself.
At one o’clock, conditions change drastically. The wind, which had been nonexistent all morning, starts picking up, and the snow from the snow cannons begins whipping about in confusing directions. Almost at the same time, real snow starts falling. First a few flakes, then a steady downfall, and then a true blizzard.
Just like that, the same mundane trails that I had been traversing ad nauseum are transformed into a blindman’s obstacle course, the dangers being not so much any rocks or moguls but my fellow skiers. Over the wind and the snow cannons come the bemused howls of the teenagers.
“Be careful!” I call out—which is lame, useless advice to say to teenagers, as I know because I am a dad to one of them.
I stop on a flat stretch to get my bearings and wipe my goggles. Before I realize what’s happening, I hear a high-pitched shriek and—wham!—she slams into me. I am not quite pushed to the ground but the girl has tripped over my ski tips. I help her up, a tall black teen in a light blue parka. I notice the cornrows escaping beneath a white pom pom.
“I’m real sorry, mister,” she says.
“No harm done,” I tell her.
I observe a patch on her coat advertising the Atlanta Dream, the women’s basketball team.
“Boswell!” the girl yells into the wind.
I turn around. Trundling through the blizzard is another out of control skier, this time a white teenage boy. He’s heading straight for us, all arms and knees.
“How do I STOP?!” he shouts.
He answers his question by crashing into us. This time I am thrown into the snow.
“Boswell, you jerk!” says the girl.
“Sorry,” says Boswell. He has managed to stay upright. The snow keeps falling thickly, and the wind is howling.
“There aren’t any more of you, are there?” I ask from beneath them.
As if on cue, two more teenage skiers come barreling into us, and they collapse into the snow and take the other two down with them. All four of the teenagers are laughing. Boy and girl, black and white. What the hey, I laugh with them.
Three o’clock, and I am on my last chairlift ride, or so I have decided. The white-out has spent itself, giving way first to rain showers, and then the warmest temperatures of the day. The snow quality, a tad iffy to begin with, seems to be degrading into the realm of slush, with bits of steam eerily rising from various patches. As if someone had pulled the stopper on a bathtub, the school children had drained off the slopes and into the lodge, and then into the yellow buses. I observe the buses depart, one after another every few minutes. I also see my old friend the snowboarder from Providence trudging through the parking lot, her wooden board slung gamely over her shoulder.
Next to me on the chairlift is a young man, maybe in his twenties or thirties, wearing a brown overcoat and a pasty expression under a plain green baseball cap. It’s not a typical skier’s costume. I wonder if he is a teacher or otherwise associated with the school groups, and if so I want to offer a little praise. I attempt a hello or two but he is silent.
Then the lift stalls. We dangle in mid-air. The snow cannons had been stopped or moved elsewhere, so this is as quiet a moment as the day has offered.
“Always happens once, huh?” I chirp.
The young man in the brown overcoat stares straight ahead, as if I was not there at all. But then, in a small but insistent voice, he starts chanting. No, not chanting. He is praying.
“Our Lord Merciful Jesus who art in heaven,” he begins, “please forgive my sins and deliver me unto salvation….
“Um,” I try. “Um, well, I’m sure the lift will start again in a minute….
“Our Lord Jesus who art in heaven, please forgive my sins and transgressions and grant your mercy and deliver me unto your kingdom. And Lord Jesus please forgive the sinner whom you have steered by my side in our hour of need. He is a stranger but he is your child and my brethren, so unshield his eyes so he can see the truth of your everlasting light and eternal grace…
This goes on for a while. We are maybe 5 feet above the snow-and-slush covered ground. Even if the rope snapped, which never happens, we would survive with minimal injury. The thought of jumping crosses my mind, if fleetingly. Eventually the chairlift lurches forward. My seatmate turns silent again, and we part ways at the summit, as efficiently as I can manage.
Six PM, aboard the shuttle bus at the Asheville airport. Along with my suitcase and ski bags I am now carrying bottles of sorghum syrup molasses from a roadside stand, a last-minute gift for my wife, along with a couple of candy bars with artistic labels for the teenager. I am the sole passenger. The driver this time is a black woman of large girth and a disarming manner; she reminds me of the woman who was almost elected the Governor of Georgia.
“Did you have a good day skiing?” she asks me.
“I sure did,” I tell her.
“Good for you, sir,” she says. “The Smokies are so beautiful. Not enough people get up there in the winter.”
“It’s God’s country,” I reply.
“Amen to that. You have a good flight now.”
Twenty minutes later, in the men’s room, as I splash water on myself, I take a good look at the tired, unshaven face in the mirror. The day had begun at five AM in Charlotte, and ever since I have been driving and skiing and driving again. Ahead of me were several hours aboard two airplanes, with a layover in Philadelphia. I would make it home around midnight, if there were no delays, and the next day there would be reports and spreadsheets due for my job. In my mind I replay a revised version of the prayer for my own redemption and salvation, and I struggle with the concept of myself as sinner. Just what are my sins? I look for a way to end the little prayer for myself. I decide to pray for safe passage home, and I go catch my flight.