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Whitetail Resort – Mercersburg, PA

Learning to Ski (or, “a supposedly fun thing that I’m attempting again next month.”)*

Recently, at 25 years and 8 months of age, I learned to ski. Paying lots of money to strap friction-reducing sticks to the bottom of my feet by way of clunky boots and then spending the better part of the day trying not to grievously injure myself is not something that would have ever appealed to me until recently. I grew up in southern California, and therefore for much of my life avoided most athletic activities that required real shoes, let alone multiple layers of winter clothing.

But then I moved to the east coast, grew enchanted by its strange culture and customs, and even fell in love with one of the natives. After hearing tales of weekend ski trips from many members of my new east coast tribe, I decided that I too wanted to “hit the slopes,” or at least “pizza-French fry” my way down a nearby mountain. My Native Companion**, who had been skiing since he could walk, agreed that this would be fun, and volunteered to teach me how. With that, we settled on a free Saturday for a day trip, and set off to Whitetail Resort in the Tuscarora Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

After an hour and forty-minute drive through idyllic mountain scenery, we arrived at Whitetail around 9:30am. It was a bit of a madhouse, as Whitetail is a mountain resort of choice for anyone in the DC/Baltimore area seeking a quick ski/snowboarding day trip. Thankfully, parking was an efficient, hassle-free experience, and we we soon joined the very family-heavy throng of skiiers and boarders in line for lift passes.

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

Lift passes for the weekend cost $69 per person, plus rental for skis, boots, and a helmet – so I was out $128.78 before I’d even set foot on the mountain. Ouch. Native Companion assured me that this was standard pricing, and even a bit cheaper than the mountains he was used to. Once outfitted, and actually standing on skis in snow, we were accosted by a “mountain host” who noticed my inexperienced fumbling, and aggressively tried to sell me a $40 lesson in addition to the $128.78 I had just coughed up. Normally, I would have been able to easily follow her rhetoric and politely yet firmly shot down her sales pitch, or at least haggled her down to $30. However, the combination of cold air, restrictive layers, sticker shock, and balance challenges I had already experienced by 10am rendered me unable to respond, save imploring glances at Native Companion…who politely yet firmly shot down her sales pitch.

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

With that, we “hit the slopes” for my first “pizza-French fry.” (For those of you who have never skied or seen this South Park episode, “pizza-French fry” is the metaphor used to teach young children/ski beginners how to speed up and slow down by pointing one’s skis inward, and then setting them parallel). I mastered the basics, including S-turns and slide stops fairly quickly, so Native Companion ascertained that I was ready to move on from the bunny slopes after two runs.

By the time we got to Sidewinder, one of the more “advanced beginner”-level trails, I was feeling pretty cocky. Then we hit the trail known as Stalker, and all of that previous confidence disappeared. This green-turned-blue (or, beginner-turned-pants-shittingly-steep-for-a-beginner) run caused me to lose my cool, thereby lose my focus, and thereby lose control. My first real set of falls occurred here. At one point, while struggling to stand up from a rather awkward fall, Native Companion magnanimously flopped down onto the slope himself, to demonstrate the proper getting-up technique…only to struggle with it himself. That was rather heartening, though I’d never have admitted it to him at the time. However, after one particularly nasty fall, I experienced the closest thing to acrophobia I had ever known. I froze, panicked, and teared up as I shakily pulled myself back into a standing position. Native Companion couldn’t quite understand why I was suddenly a shivering mess over what amounted to a 45-degree slope, but assured me that I could get down this mountain – all I needed to do was “trust the pizza.” And trust the pizza I did. I couldn’t help but doing so, since Native Companion continued to shout “TRUST THE PIZZA!” behind me all the way down the run.

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

Once down the mountain after that harrowing episode, we agreed it was lunchtime. Native Companion had already warned me about the price and notorious mediocrity of ski lodge food – really, anywhere you have a tired, hungry, and captive audience will be like that (southern California brain immediately drew parallels to a Disneyland trip). However, Native Companion had also often spoken fondly of family trips that involved chili in a bread bowl and other comfort foods plus hot chocolate at the ski lodges, so I indulged in an egg salad salad sandwich, curly fries and of several servings from the hot chocolate machine. (Review: egg salad was meh, curly fries and hot chocolate were trans-fatisfying).

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

Since I had promised to give Native Companion a break from the beginner slopes so he could ski his customary black diamonds, I headed back to the lodge for more helpings from the hot chocolate machine and some people-watching/eavesdropping. Some notes: in addition to being a DC-Baltimore local mountain, Whitetail is actually a destination for many international groups, and since one can’t eavesdrop on a language they don’t speak, tone/body language-watching was the order of the afternoon. Conclusions: snowboarders all seem to have adopted a universally Ninja Turtle-esque tone/inflection in their speech, no matter the language, and children whine in the same pitch, no matter where they’re from in the world.

Native Companion finished his advanced runs rather quickly, and we set off on our last run of the day. Once again, we chose my old friend Sidewinder, just so I could finish the day strong. Though Whitetail offers night skiing (which, I’m told, is appealing because it’s icier, dark, and therefore more dangerous), we skipped out before 5pm, returned our gear, trundled back to the car.

Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort - Mercersburg, PA | On Flights + Feasts

The Maryland-Pennsylvania border is known in DC as a strange borderland inhabited by people who could be extras from “Deliverance.” Many of the houses that dotted the winding country roads on the way to Whitetail did, in fact, sport Tea Party flags of the “Don’t Tread On Me” variety. The parking lot at Whitetail treated us to several bumper stickers along this theme as well, including “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for the American.” The east coast is so wonderfully compact, one only needs to drive an hour and forty minutes away from their NPR-liberal enclave to experience an entirely different America.

And so, we set off from Whitetail to D.C., with sore quads, chapped lips, happy faces, and the taste of machine-spouted hot chocolate still in our mouths. Our only stop was Germantown, MD, for dinner at Applebee’s, because Native Companion had a gift card. We’d dropped so much money on that day’s experience, we had to be frugal. Plus, spinach artichoke dip.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sflocken.

*With apologies to the memory of David Foster Wallace, and one of his best essay collections.
**With apologies again to DFW. This is a reference to his 1994 Harper’s piece on the Illinois state fair.