A few weeks before surgery to replace my left hip I got a call from an old friend. The Colorado-based ski journalist Rachel Walker had just taken a job as the editor of new blog from the snow sports apparel brand Stio. She wanted to give me an assignment. Telling stories about mountain culture across the United States the Town Hill Chronicles is a fun read that profiles favorite ski resorts from the perspective of area locals who love them. Even though I haven’t been able to ski for the past two years Rachel wanted me to share my thoughts about one of the hills near Madison, a spot called Devil’s Head. With one operation down and one to go I’m happy to offer up this short essay from a guy on the mend who can’t wait to ski again! ~ JEM
I thought my skiing days were over. My last run down Devil’s Head was in the rear view mirror. I suppose it would have been easy to just hang up my boards and never come back. But these ancient bluffs carved by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age kept drawing me back.
I wasn’t born here, wasn’t raised here in the Midwest. But here is where I make my home. It’s free of the chest-thumping hyperbole of big mountain towns in the Rockies, the Cascades or the Sierras. Right here, 500 feet above sea level, is where folks with blue-collar sensibility live and work and play and dream of bigger things.
They also ski. And snowboard. And for years I joined them until the pain in my left hip and the tingling in my right destined me for the surgeon’s scalpel. They need to be replaced, and my surgery is scheduled for this winter.
But before I head into the operating room, I want to see my mountain one last time. It takes 45 minutes to drive from my little house in Madison to Devil’s Head. The road to the ski hill spoons the Wisconsin River, where a dozen bald eagles flock like seagulls to catch fish from the open water between cracks in the ice. It’s bitter cold but free, as birds tend to be. Heading out in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday in January, I’m feeling just as free.
I pull into the parking lot past five guys in Carhartts and hockey jerseys standing around a Weber kettle grilling brats and drinking beer. They take notice of my empty roof rack. I’m self-conscious: no skis. I slam the car door and limp over the ice-covered black top to freshly groomed snow.
I think of my last run two years ago. Sliding off the chairlift at the top of Dante’s Inferno, a weird kink in my hip joint kept me from putting weight on my leg. Strapped into tele-boots and boards, I flexed, trying to carve my tele turn before I went barreling down the hill. But it didn’t happen. Every time I sent the command from my brain to my leg, I got a searing sensation. Each turn ended in a crash. I’d make my way down the intermediate blues one bad left turn at time.
The right turns weren’t much better. From the Inferno to the Cauldron I did this awkward dance with the Devil down the hill to make the slow painful turn. I should have been shattered. I should have gone in. But I couldn’t pull myself away from the hill. On the ride back up I watched as my friends linked graceful turns down the expert blacks I used to ride: Sidewinder, the Cyclops, and the Serpent. Playing it safe I took the long way around down the beginner greens through the Burns, the Meadows, down the Cirque and through Devil’s Playground. Even though it hurt just to stand, I was happy to ski, albeit badly.
After that last run, I nursed a beer in the Avalanche Bar. Cutting the day short, I sat and watched other skiers go past from a plate glass window. I was like a kid outside the candy store. I wanted what was on the other side. And somehow I knew the hill would take me back. Someday.
It’s been two years, and that day is nearly here. After my upcoming operations and a lot of rehab, I’ll have a pair of new hips and a date to get back to the hill.
With the promise of two improved legs, I’m going to change the music. I’m going to dance with the Devil again.
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