Road trip to home

Story By Alissa Johnson

Last winter, my boyfriend and I piled into the pickup and drove through the night to reach Heavenly Ski Resort by morning. It straddles the state line between Nevada and California near Lake Tahoe, and a West Coast road trip gave us an excuse to make proper use of the Epic Pass.

Around 10 p.m. Pete told me that our Crested Butte neighbor, now retired and spending part of the winter in California, texted. He called our plan some “scary shit.” Given that it was my turn to drive and we were on some dark bend of the Loneliest Highway in America, I had to concede he might be right. We’d seen nothing but a line of floating red lights—an alien landing strip or some kind of desert testing facility, neither of which I wanted to go near. 

Pete will tell you I’m not in the habit of driving through the night for anything. In our family, he was the proper ski bum, moving to Colorado at 20 and to Crested Butte soon after. It took me 10 years in the corporate world and a divorce to make the move, so my experience was somewhat different. Perhaps that’s why I felt so amazed when our plan worked. One late-night nap in the back of the truck, and right on cue, we left the flats of Nevada, drove up the back side of Heavenly and parked within sight of the lift. 

In Crested Butte, we have our habits: Silver Queen to the High Lift, a run down the Headwall, then the North Face. Here we became the people in front of the map, making sense of where we were and accepting the fact that wind had closed the best lifts.

Conditions were marginal. Most of the mountain was closed, and it was hard to get much edge. But we still had views of Lake Tahoe, and when we’d made the most of the open runs, we hopped back into the truck and headed to nearby Northstar. 

Without having to check in at an office or take our passes from our pockets, we skied up to another new lift and hopped on. Many runs were also closed, but electric green lichen covered the trees in rows. When we looked down on Lake Tahoe, it was closer now, a wide, flat expanse of slate blue. My eyes were dry from lack of sleep, but it was hard to argue with the effort of getting there.

Our road trip wasn’t all skiing. We experienced the “atmospheric river” of the West Coast, driving north past flooded vineyards and gas stations and making a brief, wet stop in the Redwoods. Visits in Seattle and Vancouver, however, gave us the chance to ski Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and Steven’s Pass east of Seattle. 

The conditions in Whistler were the same as California. I met my match on a face no harder than the Headwall but three times the size. Surrounded by peaks of rock and ice, I spent 15 minutes convincing myself to take the first turn. We’d taken a gamble leaving CB in winter, and as can happen, we skied crust while friends back home skied powder. 

Then we went to Steven’s Pass. It was out of the way and smaller than the other resorts. On paper it had less to offer. But in the parking lot, the snowbanks were taller than the cars. On the mountain, the terrain looked a lot like home, and for the first time all trip, we sat next to locals on the lift. They chatted us up and sent us toward the best terrain. Most importantly, snow had fallen. We laid fresh tracks while the sun tried to burn through the clouds. Just like that the giddiness of skiing returned—this was the reason we drove through the night. 

Ski long enough, and you know that this is it how it goes. You never know the kind of season or day you’re going to get. Had the weather been different, it might have been Heavenly or Northstar or Whistler that I remembered best. As it is, Steven’s Pass sticks with me. I like to think it’s more than the weather. That it also reminded me what I learned in Crested Butte: the experience isn’t always about the ease of getting there or the acres of skiable terrain. It’s the quality of the snow, the character of the runs, and the friendliness of the people. 

It’s like our neighbor’s text. Reread with fresh eyes, we saw that he hadn’t called our plan scary at all. A longtime CB local, he called it sacred. A big word, perhaps, for an act as simple as skiing. But sometimes you’re lucky, and you have one of those moments when you glimpse the truth in his words.