The 5-Year-Old Who Ran Free On The Mountain
And why I did not feel obligated to alert the authorities
It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving and it’s snowing hard and the crowds have all turned south toward home. They crawl bunched and tailgating through the blizzard in their SUVs and their pickup trucks in the single-lane as I push north alone, toward the hill.
The mountain is not empty but it is not busy either and there are no liftlines. Because of this and because I am skiing alone and because I arrive late and do not stop to eat, I don’t speak to anyone all day after picking up my lift ticket. Alone is not a terrible way to ski especially when it’s snowing hard and today big fluffy flakes drift down in a windless floating haze and I’m happy to just stare dumbly at it on the lift rides.
But toward the end of the day as I’m edging up to the antique wood-slatted double chair a tiny voice behind me says, “Hey can I ride with you?” and it takes me a moment to realize he’s talking to me but I slide over and we ski into the loading area and board.
He likes this mountain he tells me but he also likes Nubs Nob and Crystal Mountain and Boyne Highlands. There’s cliffs in the trees he tells me at Boyne Highlands and I just say “Is that right?” even though in 25 years of skiing lower Michigan I’ve never seen anything resembling a cliff anywhere. His favorite mountain though is Bittersweet and when I ask him why he says because it’s the one closest to his house. And yes of course it’s his favorite and of course that’s why because that’s how 5-year-olds think.
The lift ride is short and when we exit he tucks fast and airs over a little drop and stomps it and skis off down the trail. Although he is under no obvious supervision he clearly knows where he’s going and how wonderful must that be to be 5 years old and let loose in such a place as this and it must feel enormous like everything does when you’re small. Like when I was little my mom would take me to Kmart and the place felt endless like that Long Island-sized Costco in Idiocracy but it kind of made sense because at least the aisles sit on a grid but a ski area to a small child with its winding alleys and tree islands and ever-spinning ride-based machinery must feel like fucking Narnia.
If you are reading this and your only thought thus far is, “Dear God an unsupervised child he is going to get devoured by coyote lions or sold to pirates or killed in an avalanche tsunami,” then I have to respectfully inform you that you are a part of the problem. I also have to tell you that there is no such thing as coyote lions.
The problem I am referring to above is the smothering supervision rituals we have collectively adopted over the past 20 to 30 years that are excising all forms of independent exploration from childhood, even in controlled environments. It is because of people like you that I am obligated to attend birthday parties for 3-year-olds and stand there along with 26 other adults looking at my phone and drinking wine from a Solo cup for an hour and a half while an up-and-coming actor who moved to Manhattan three months ago from Tuscassouri leads the children through a regimen of organized activities nine feet away.
In a rational world I would drop the kid off and go sit in the park and read a book or something, but we do not live in a rational world. We live in some kind of live-action gameshow, apparently, in which parents achieve ever-accumulating points in exchange for identifying the most outrageous non-existent dangers. “Oh, you let your child ski alone? Well what if there’s a spontaneous solar eclipse and a flock of owls that suddenly think it’s nighttime swoop down and seize poor stunned Jimmy and fly him back to their nests and indoctrinate him into their secret owl cult? And then the poor boy is raised as an owl and thinks he is one and he suffers low self-esteem because his feathers are inadequate compared to those of his fellow owls and one day he tries to soar away to show the owl bullies who tease him that his feathers though oddly bunched atop of his head operate just as effectively as theirs do and instead then instantly plummets to the earth and impales himself on his carved Order of the Owls scepter? How could you ever live with yourself?”
Homework: print out this image and circle all of the carnivorous dinosaurs, ninjas, loaded firearms, runaway semis, and landmines you spot hidden in the trees and on the mountain. Then carefully sketch a dotted line path that you would lead your child down to avoid these dangers.
It would be reasonable to argue here that a ski area is not a controlled environment, that it is fast-moving and easy to get lost and filled with on- and off-trail hazards and strangers, some of whom yeah are gigantic a-holes. That’s true to some extent, and I’m not suggesting losing your 5-year-old by yelling “Catch Me If You Can!” and dropping into Vail’s Back Bowls on your trip out west. But context matters. Most 5-year-olds have very small worlds and so they know those worlds quite well, and this kid clearly knew exactly where he was allowed to go. It may as well have been his backyard. And at Caberfae, where I was skiing that day, the owner was stalking around in coveralls with his walkie-talkie crackling and the lifties were the same jocular crew who have been manning those stations for years and my guess is that that kid’s parents knew every person on that mountain. If they needed to locate him, the task would most likely be accomplished in under nine seconds.
These are the eyes on the street that Jane Jacobs describes in her urban planning masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This observation of how communities organically spawn self-policing checks and balances to watch after one another elegantly captures how neighborhoods functioned before we barricaded ourselves behind air conditioners and abandoned the streets. Also before we decided that those streets were a live test zone for a Purge movie.
I did not grow up that long ago but I grew up in the ‘80s and when I think about it now or I watch the kids riding their bikes around unsupervised in Stranger Things which was something we actually did constantly it seems as though I am thinking about some other world altogether, as improbable and distant as Star Wars. When my daughter, who was 8 at the time asked me, “Dad, how old were you when you were allowed to go outside alone?” I literally could not answer the question because I have no memory of ever not being allowed outside unsupervised.
Of course not only did I grow up in a different decade, I grew up in a different place, in a small town in the upper Midwest and not in the heart of New York City like my own children are doing. And I have struggled with this question of how much freedom to give them more than any other, because by fencing my son and daughter to protect them from traffic or outlaws or cocaine vape pods I am defying a couple hundred thousand years of evolution, depriving them of the experience of independent exploration and problem-solving that comes with it and that has been the shared experience of all humans stretching back to the dawn of the species.
And I think that sucks. Over the summer, as I was preparing to launch The Storm and sitting out on my deck every day writing I also read just to change things up and because this was really bothering me Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. If you’re not familiar with this book it is exactly what it sounds like and was written by a woman who met the indignant wrath of the Parental Responsibility Corps when she wrote a newspaper column about letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. These were not tourists mind you but just regular people who live in Manhattan and ride the train all the time, and I can tell you as someone who has ridden the New York Subway a minimum of 10,000 times that it is not remotely dangerous compared to say riding in a car or crossing the street, and it is not at all difficult to navigate short distances as this kid was doing.
Skenazy’s book is a gigantic “Now hold on just a fucking second here” to a society that has collectively lost its ability to think clearly about how thick of a forcefield we’re obligated to drop over our children, and to what extent that particular mode of defense may actually be harming them. And basically she was like talk to your kids about what they’re capable of and empower them to do those things and little by little you have a kid who isn’t still living with you when they’re drawing from social security.
And there seems to be no better laboratory in modern American society to test children’s ability to say go to the bathroom without you their Almighty Guardian and Defender there to, um, supervise them, than a ski area.
And so early this season, when my daughter, who is now 11, wanted to sit out our afternoon session at Loon to read a book in the lodge, I did not hesitate to leave her alone in there for a couple of hours (after, of course, scanning the corners for bandits carrying machine guns and Molotov cocktails). A ski lodge is a place that is well-armed by Jacobs’ eyes on the street, crowded and lively and full of, well, families with kids. No one was dragging her out of there without getting noticed. Plus I am confident that she is also not dumb enough to fall for the old, “Hey there, Champ, I’m a friend of your dad’s, and I’ve got a whole wheelbarrow full of stuffed ponies out in my van that you can play with while he skis,” from some dude rocking a fake moustache and giant sunglasses.
And if the kids want to go off and ski by themselves? It depends on the kid and it depends on the mountain and how well they know it and how well it knows them. But if the kids can ski and can prove to you that they can navigate the slopes unassisted and you’ve double-extra checked the bushes for cackling child abductors in Hamburglar suits, let them ski. They’re going to have more fun without you anyway.
One of my favorite things to watch from the chairlift is groups of kids building up their own ramps and tucking to crush the jump and hockey-stopping and clicking out and hiking back up to hit it again and again. No adult has the patience for this shit. But for an 8-year-old, this kind of free play is like double Christmas. It’s what they’ll talk about in school on Monday and what they’ll remember when they’re 40.
And just maybe they’ll make it to 40 without you still paying their rent, since you told them when they were a little kid, “Hey, Bud, you can do it all by yourself.”
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Check out 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 |