Skiing Resists the Great American Coronavirus Shutdown of 2020 - for Now

I’ll go until the lifts stop spinning

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When my daughter was 4 years old, I took her to the Statue of Liberty. To board the ferry from Battery Park in Manhattan to Liberty and Ellis Islands, all passengers must pass through airport-style TSA security. As I pulled my keys from my pocket, I remembered that the small Swiss army knife that I carry at all times was attached to my keyring. The officers, as is their duty, confiscated it. We continued onward, me the foiled-I-guess terrorist and my 4-year-old daughter.

This was more than a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and confiscating knives was something the TSA just kept doing because it had seemed like an obvious thing to do after 19 men had hijacked four airliners with box cutters and crashed them into things. And it was a good idea for the couple of months afterward. And then the TSA started mandating that cockpit doors remain locked during flights and no U.S. passenger plane has been hijacked since, and it is unlikely that one ever will be again. Certainly, no one is orchestrating this feat with a two-inch pocket knife.

And yet this stupid rule remains. The TSA itself tried relaxing the regulations in 2013, hoping to free up resources to focus on actual security threats.

“It makes sense for TSA agents to be looking for bombs that could bring down a plane, not scouring luggage for penknives,” a Washington Post editorial said at the time. “The agency is not and cannot be in the business of protecting every passenger and crewmember from every conceivable threat. … In the post-Sept. 11 era of reinforced cockpit doors, savvy passengers, a more robust air marshal program and flight attendants trained in self-defense, allowing penknives onto planes would not result in such tragedies [as the Sept. 11 attacks].”

No level of argument mattered in the end. A coalition of Very Concerned Do-Gooders beat back the changes, and so you can be rest-assured that no cackling supervillains will be sinking a ferryboat into New York Harbor tomorrow with the aid of his folding keychain knife.

Yes I know: Better safe than sorry. You never know. It only takes one.

Such clichés are rippling across social media in our coronavirus winter. This appears to be the moment we have collectively chosen to care about something. It’s a curious choice, given the numerous national pathologies that level tens of thousands of our fellow citizens annually, but here we are, closing the city gates against ghostly invaders after several rival armies have already marched directly through.

Here in New York, the city seems to be slowly shutting down. You can get a seat on the subway at any hour. Parking is plentiful. Groceries are harder to come by. Many large employers, mine included, have instituted mandatory indefinite work-from-home policies. An atmosphere of what’s-next uncertainty prevails.

The cancellings and the closings and the postponements haven’t bothered me. We could all probably use less of everything. It’s the drumbeat calls for “social distancing” that I find disturbing on a visceral if not logical level. The United States, with its car culture and ever-sprawling suburbs and decimated downtowns and phone-in-hands-at-all-times 20th century posture is already a 75-year-long continent-sized experiment in social isolation. Anyone who has ever been abroad knows how empty America feels when you return. It is not healthy, this place. Our collective isolated existence, sliced into never-speaking boxes of movement and entertainment and commerce, help explain our hyper-partisanship and our paranoia and our fear of everything.

When I found skiing I loved skiing in part because it took place in actual places. And what I mean by that is that a ski area, clustered as it must be around its designated trails and lifts, retained the sense of on-the-ground busy-ness and spontaneous social interaction that defined cities from however many millennia ago they were invented until cars came along and we were like, “fuck all that, let’s build a world in which we just use these to do everything no one ever talks to anyone.” And in the lonely rural place I lived as a teenager these ski centers provided a jolt of life and being part of something larger that I desperately needed.

This need to escape the car-McMansion-big box prison is also why I moved, ultimately, to New York, a place where social distancing is almost impossible. It is hard to feel lonely here, the sense of place ever present, the bustle and motion of it invigorating. Even in these uncertain days, the streets remain lively, a kind of this-is-crazy-but-what-are-you-gonna-do unspoken sense of resignation animating the crowds.

There is no such self-awareness right now on social media. I’m seeing a lot of moralizing. A lot of solemn declarations. A lot of righteous crusading and virtue signaling and you-are-a-very-bad-person-if-you-so-much-as-step-off-your-front-porch shaming.

It is all very tedious. That there may be solutions other than the most extreme solution is not a popular opinion. To the shut-it-all-down crowd, we’re two Brad Pitt action scenes away from World War Z.

Yes I’ve seen all the charts and statistics. I know about Italy and South Korea and China. I understand that there is a problem here. I’m kind of surprised that we’re actually finally taking something seriously. But it’s been so long since we did so that I kind of think we forgot how to do it. Since we as a nation do nothing about almost any problem, we have in this case chosen to do everything, shutting down the economy and barricading ourselves away en masse.

The Sept. 11 attacks traumatized this country, made it allergic to logic and deliberation in the key but easy-for-most-to-avoid-most-of-the-time realm of airports. We overcorrected there and we will probably not un-overcorrect for decades more, if we ever do at all. And that’s cost me like six Swiss army knives over two decades because damn it I always forget to take them off my keychain but whatever I can live with that.

The complete shutdown of society that we are witnessing here is something else altogether. If the fallout from that day 19 years ago was a stressful but by-now-routine trip through airport security, that same level of paranoia and you-never-know certitude applied through the myriad pillars of daily living could alter everything from how commerce functions to the way we work to social rituals. Dystopian worlds often lock onto pandemic origin stories because such events can rewire existence in profound and unexpected ways. “Yes, Kids, it’s true that adults used to greet one another by clasping their hands together and waving their arms vigorously. Then a very bad disease came. And that’s why we all now say hello by doing The Dougie.”

As SXSW was cancelled and the NBA suspended its season and the NCAA called off March Madness, I kept waiting for the falling dominoes of ski area closures. So far they have been limited. Berkshire East and Catamount, owned by the same family, closed first, directly citing virus concerns. A handful of other mostly small and medium-sized Northeast mountains have followed: Mohawk, Burke, Mt. Abram, Blue Mountain, Montage, Elk. Jay Peak is by far the largest and most influential. Vail-owned Whitetail, however, may be the loudest bellwether of things to come.

The mountains that remain open are mostly doing so deliberately, even defiantly. “We are still planning to remain open every day through Sunday, April 26 and then reopen for a final weekend on May 2,” read a mass email sent from Sugarbush President Win Smith yesterday. “Many of our trails with snowmaking such as Stein’s and Spring Fling still have 8-10 feet of depth on them. Personally, Lili and I, along with our children and grandchildren, plan to continue skiing and enjoying our wide-open spaces, fresh mountain air and thousands of acres of wilderness here in the Mad River Valley.”

I’ve received dozens of similar emails. Vail sent one note explaining changes – no hot food, no sharing chairlifts with strangers – at its 37 ski areas. The Alterra mountains, including Stratton, sent individual notes, as did Killington. All emphasize the additional sanitation and operational measures they are taking to help avoid spreading contagion. All acknowledge that this is not a normal time – many are shuttering enclosed lifts for the season but keeping their chairs moving. This is how you do an effective something without doing a destructive everything. 

I don’t know how long this ski season will last. Social pressure is a powerful thing. Governments may force mountains to close. Small crowds may do the same. A cascade of closing announcements following this weekend would not shock me. But with nine states and 200-ish ski areas from the Poconos up to Maine, one of them is likely to push through to late spring. Vail, Alterra, Powdr, and Boyne, with their massive mountains, deep snowpacks, sophisticated communications and lobbying networks, and resources to weather a slower-than-usual spring, will mostly decide this.

As for me, I’ll be skiing until the lifts stop spinning. I don’t think I’m going to have much company. The United States of Bubble World, population 327 million, is not all that interested in the whole outside thing even in normal circumstances. But in a time when the nation is closing in on itself, we need more than ever to have a few remaining places that face outward, toward the world.


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Previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds |