Column
March 29, 2017

The family that skis together

By Brett Yates

During the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Neil Gorsuch, the federal appellate judge from Colorado, Republicans strove to give Donald Trump’s nominee opportunity to present himself as a friendly, well-rounded human being—as opposed to the Constitutional pedant and heartless enforcer of unjust power structures that leftists might suppose him to be. During one of his more personal moments before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch brought up his love of skiing.
Gorsuch and his wife regularly vacation at Winter Park, Colo., where, according to Gorsuch, their two daughters became “ferocious double-black-diamond skiers.” Apparently, one of those daughters was, at the time of the hearing, exploring the backcountry near Telluride. “I always say the family that skis together stays together,” Gorsuch concluded.
As it turned out, the press received Gorsuch’s genially personalized expression of universal family values with some hostility, or at least with a certain snarky unsurprise at Gorsuch’s tone-deafness: of course a product of the conservative elite (Gorsuch’s mother headed the EPA under Reagan) would attempt to endear himself to ordinary American families by mentioning his luxury ski vacations at a resort where a one-day ticket costs $150.
Even for me, whose most treasured childhood memories nearly all revolve around skiing with my family, there was something off about Gorsuch’s remark. Were we to infer that families that can’t afford to “ski together” will necessarily crumble under the weight of their indolent misery? It’s easy enough to imagine, in Gorsuch’s mind, a dichotomous world of “skiers” (capable, energetic, private-school-educated success stories, who meet challenges in life as fearlessly as they do on the slopes) and “non-skiers” (convicts, pregnant teenagers, drug addicts). Presumably, in the United States of skiers and non-skiers, it is the role of government to ensure that the former group is rewarded for its manifold contributions to society and that the latter group is gradually pulverized into dust.
I’m a skier, but I don’t love the flatland conception of skiing as a sort of wacky hobby of the extremely rich, like art collecting, yachting, or elective plastic surgery—although people like Neil Gorsuch will always guarantee that some Americans will continue to view it that way. Once you’re on the snow, the sport expresses a fairly undeniable reality of its own, more powerful than that of day-to-day life and, in my view, superseding its cultural trappings: the mountain is not a social construct, and the pleasure of navigating it is, ultimately, pure sensation—it’s not socially derived. But then there are, too, those who go to Aspen or Vail not so much in order to ski as to immerse themselves within the world in which skiing exists, where non-skiers are excluded.
One of the ironies of the sport is that, while it may seem to exist as a weekend reward for the triumphant executives of Corporate America, its most dedicated practitioners are, in large part, those who have decided bravely to forgo careerist ambitions—they’re willing to live in small, snow-locked towns in the mountains, working outdoors or in food service or hospitality jobs, in order to pursue the activity that they truly love, sacrificing the mainstream approbation that comes with a white collar. Nearly every Hollywood movie ever set at a ski resort centers on a class tension between these two groups: the snotty Gorsuch family on the one hand, and the amiable, down-to-earth “ski bums” on the other.
In real life, these groups are not, on the surface of things, as easily differentiated as they are typically made to be by Hollywood wardrobe departments. Perhaps those who embody what I perceive to be the true spirit of the sport can express the distinction only by being better skiers than those who show up just once in a while for the sole purpose of reminding themselves that they, unlike others, have enough money to do such things as this. Of course, on the whole, I believe that ski area locals, vacationing families, and weekend warriors can and should and do coexist as one big happy family, with no group passing judgment on the others; I’ve happily belonged to all three. Still, if I ever found out that Neil Gorsuch (or one of his daughters) was a better skier than I am, I’m pretty sure I’d have to quit the sport immediately and forever.
I doubt I’ll ever encounter him on the slopes, but you never know. By his own account, he was on skis last year when he received a phone call and heard that Justice Scalia had passed away. “I am not embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t see the rest of the way down the mountain for the tears,” Gorsuch later commented. For the record, Neil, this sounds extremely unsafe. Are we really supposed to allow someone who would so recklessly endanger the lives of other skiers to sit on the Supreme Court?

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