Georgia All Over
Touring the sensory experiences of a state that refuses to be neatly categorized.
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I had heard from many a seasoned skier that Telluride is the best place to ski in America. The cloud-like powder is perfect, the wide-open runs are often empty so that you might have a whole mountain to yourself at a time, and the only time you truly waited for a chairlift was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And with 2,000 skiable acres and nearly 150 trails, there was something for everyone, which was ideal because I’m novice at best, and I would be traveling with my boyfriend, a double black diamond regular, and our four-year-old child, who is still trying to master his pizza wedge stop.
Besides the epic skiing, I had heard rave reviews about the actual town of Telluride. Unlike glitzier ski resorts like Aspen and Vail, that are crowded with designer boutiques and fur-clad celebrities, Telluride has maintained its freewheeling Western roots. The main street of this former mining town boasts a few farm-to-table spots and a stylish cowboy hat shop, but there’s still the old opera house (now a musical venue) and a small-town hardware store selling everything from buckets to wooden toys to penny candy. There’s still the Butch Cassidy vibes but the town also hosts some of the country’s most esteemed cultural events like the Telluride Film Festival in September.
You get that sense of laid-back-cool when you arrive at the Auberge Collection’s Madeline Hotel and Residences, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property. As we checked in the receptionist poured me a local IPA from a tap behind the counter. There was hot chocolate and stuffed animals near the fireplace—catnip for my son. The Madeline is located in the center of the Mountain Village, with 84 guests rooms and 49 suites (as well as permanent residences) which wrap around the ski resort. Our two-bedroom apartment, two-bath apartment (including a very powerful steam shower) looked over a charming ice rink.
It was all very Alpine-meets the Wild West cozy. We passed groups of families huddled around fire pits on our way to Tomboy Tavern for our first dinner—chili and steaks to fuel up for tomorrow’s first day on the slopes. Outside the restaurant, I spotted a flier advertising Dennis Quaid and the Sharks playing that night at a local club. This is as Hollywood as this place gets, I thought. Yes, Oprah Winfrey has a house here but the mood here is decidedly low-key. That’s why I didn’t even notice a smiling Mr. Quaid when he walked past us just a few minutes later.
The next morning we headed to the Madeline ski valet area, just a few steps away from The Meadows, a shallow bowl area where beginners and children can practice on more mellow trails. The valet had our skis ready at a rack outside so guests can literally clip in and go. The end of the day is just as easy, you step out of your skis and store all your equipment with them. This is a blessing when you have an exhausted four-year-old in your company who doesn’t want to even walk, let alone carry his ski boots. All the time you save gives you that much more time in the hotel’s two hot tubs and heated pool with glorious views of the mountain.
That first morning while I was clicking into my bindings, I noticed two adults being helped into chairs that were connected to skis. The instructors helping them wore blue jackets that said Adaptive Ski Program. Nearby, another set of instructors were negotiating with a little girl in a red snowsuit to get her into her skis. Her arms flailed slightly as she tried to resist. But she was soon convinced to clip in after they told her how much fun they were going to have. I soon learned Telluride’s Adaptive Program, which started in 1995, is a non-profit organization that offers therapeutic recreation to individuals with disabilities. I had never seen such a program in full force. For the next four mornings, I would see groups of men and women of all ages, from those with MS to veterans, heading out to snowboard or ski. There was always an excitement in the air. As a novice skier, I still get nervous before I start skiing for the day, worried I’m going to forget what to do and wipe out. I was in awe of their attitude.
My son’s attitude wasn’t as admirable as those in the adaptive ski program. Within the first hour of ski camp, he decided he didn’t want to be with other kids and he also didn’t want to leave me. Luckily we found a private instructor, Katie McHugh, who would let me come along for the lessons. Over the next three days, Katie would toggle between luring my son down the slopes with Starbursts and promises to make snow angels at the bottom and helping me navigate the green trails. She knew I was still an anxious skier but she was determined to get me to relax and have fun. She had me ditch my poles so I could focus on the footwork (“Move your toes, not your upper body.”). She made micro-adjustments to my posture. “Ski down the hill like the Winged Victory of Samothrace,” she told me, referring to the famous Greek sculpture in the Louvre. I began to lean forward and let my body move with the skis. Things fell into place and I was soaring. It was because McHugh felt my fear and had empathy. “I want you to have fun,” she told me. She also had an innate sense of when my son was about to hit a sugar low and she’d quickly scuttle him off the slopes and into the pizza place near the hotel.
One afternoon we took the chairlift up to Galloping Goose, a lovely four-plus mile trek that winds through pine forests. McHugh pointed out all the houses and told me who lived where. She used to work in real estate and also seems to know everyone in town, as evidenced by the nonstop waves she’d get on the mountain. Below us, I saw another skier from the adaptive program serpentining through the pine trees. I asked her about the resort’s adaptive program. She had taught many children with special needs and told me how gratifying it was to watch these kids do things on the slopes that perhaps they couldn’t do off them. She told me her brother was visiting from out of town and was skiing with a friend of hers who was 93 years old and had one leg. “It’s supposed to be fun, remember?”
The next day while my boyfriend skied double black diamond runs like Gold Hill Chutes and Revelation Bowl, I went out on my own without Katie. I headed up the Sunshine Express to work on the various green runs. Telluride has beginner-like trails that take you all the way up to 11,000 feet so you don’t feel like you’re always stuck in the kiddie bowl. But I liked my novice routine. And with no waits at the chairlift, I could get five or six runs in an afternoon.
I skied Enchanted Forest (a blue!) through the trees and the hidden gnomes and the little wooden structures. I went down Bridges that shoot you through tunnels under the road. There was hardly anyone on the trail so there was no fear of a tween snowboarder clipping my ski or a swarm of toddlers bombing down the mountain next to me.
I had the mountain to myself. The fresh air, the pine trees, the views of the San Juan mountains against a blue sky. It was spectacular. And then I heard a tiny voice exclaim: “Whee!” It was the little girl in the red snowsuit I had seen my first day at the Adaptive Ski Center. She was with her two instructors. She swooshed past me, her instructors next to her, cheering her on. The four of us would ski down Galloping Goose for the next 15 minutes in a beautiful silence—only broken by the little girl’s excited yelps now and then. This was what skiing was all about. It was an exercise in patience and a little bit of confidence. It was instructors I heard all week at Telluride being kind to you and encouraging you that you could do it. Telluride perhaps is the best place to ski for countless reasons but mostly because it’s “supposed to be fun.” It was for this little girl next to me. And it was for me.