By Derek Taylor
This is a weird place to go to find the soul of skiing. You just passed Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills play their home games. The skies are grey and gloomy. The trees are barren. There is nothing passable for a mountain in sight. But when Glen Plake tells you this where you’ll find it, you go.
An hour later, you’re in Ellicotville—nicknamed E-ville, though it appears to be anything but. Its main street looks like Ketchum. On a side street, you walk into a shop called City Garage, and things start to look up. Salomon is hosting a poster signing with pro skiers Nick Martini, Keri Herman and Cody Ling. Kids are clamoring for autographs while their parents and coaches casually drink beers in the repair shop. But again, this isn’t what you flew across the country for. Ski-star-studded poster signings are a dime-a-dozen in Western ski towns.
Then it starts. The first person on your hit list has just walked in. It’s Radio Ron, decked out in his signature neon one-piece and carrying a stack of posters from Meathead Films’ Wild Stallions. But he doesn’t have time to talk. He quickly saddles up next to Herman and starts handing out autographs with snippets of unsolicited wisdom to unsuspecting kids.
So you spark up a conversation with the 40-something, larger guy wearing a fading long-sleeve T-shirt. It reads: It Must Suck to Ski Like You. Soon you realize this is The Gobbler. The Gobbler prefers not to use his real name. He works a government job that he also prefers not to talk about, besides that it allows him to work doubles all summer and stack his vacation time so he can take a couple of months off in the winter. He uses that time to ski 80-100 days a year between trips to Utah and his home hill of Holiday Valley.
What the Gobbler, and everyone else in E-ville, wants to talk about, is skiing. A former semi-pro baseball player turned freestyle coach, The Gobbler was a top gun during the 80s hotdog era. To prove it, he rolls up his sleeve to show me his ink—a tattoo based on a photo of himself doing a mule-kick backscratcher. Along the base of his skis, it reiterates the slogan from his shirt.
The Gobbler introduces you to Adam, who you immediately realize is the final cog in your search for the soul of skiing in Ellicotville. Or so you think. Adam can only be the one Plake calls Backseat Jesus. Which is good, because there is nothing about Jesus’s soft-spoken demeanor that would suggest he is anything but man with long hair and a graying beard who likes to ski.
Jesus runs his family’s sporting goods store near Columbus, Ohio, but where he would rather be is here, skiing Holiday Valley. Jesus regularly drives the five hours to Ellicotville, usually crashing with his friend Ray (nicknamed Moses). These days, most people have dropped the Backseat from Jesus’s nickname. These days, backseat implies poor form. Jesus sees it differently. “It doesn’t really bother me that much,” He says. “Most people don’t know it’s a technique pioneered by Jean-Claude Killy and Jacques Vuarnet. It’s a difficult technique to teach and even harder to learn. Obviously it’s not something I can utilize all the time, but if I can get away with it, you might see me hangin’ out back there.”
Jesus considers himself an old-school purist. He learned to ski in his teens, and spent the years after high school chasing storms and sleeping wherever he could stay warm. He says his priorities are skis, boots and poles over a soft bed and an electrical outlet.
In contrast to The Gobbler and Radio Ron, Jesus is immensely humble, quiet, almost too vanilla, it seems, to be the soul of skiing. Then someone pours Jagermeister shots, and before it gets to your lips, you’re stopped. Not for a toast, but a blessing from “Jesus, Lord of the Jager.”
The party starts to wind down, and you finally get face-to-face with Ron. He extends a meaty hand covered in something black and sticky. Only after shaking it do you realize it’s because he’s been holding his gum. The 50-something Cleveland native works part-time as a school janitor and lives above his parents’ garage to support his ski addiction. Family, he says, keeps him from moving to Ellicotville full time. “I have three nieces,” Ron says. “And I’d rather not have to drive two-and-a-half hours to go see them.”
A fixture of the last few Meathead films, Ron is the best known of Ellicotville’s characters. He is compulsively fit, and will bang bump lines all day, emanating his signature “bip-bip-bip,” between each turn. On film, Ron is almost a parody, a real-life saucer boy included for equal parts comic relief and refreshing look at the more “real” side of ski culture not often seen in ski porn. Judging by his propensity to sign autographs, however, the satire is lost on Ron.
Eventually the party moves down the street to The Depot, a pizza joint and watery, and you realize how deep the soul of skiing is embedded in E-ville. Moose, who owns and runs the place with his wife Vicky, managed Greg Stump’s business during the glory days of the 80s. He is the godfather of the ski scene in Ellicotville. The place is a veritable temple to Holiday Valley, and by that virtue, to the sport itself. For more than two decades, this converted train depot has been the Vatican of skiing, and Moose is its Pope.
Soon enough, shots are poured again, and Jesus is there to do the sacrament.
“Gather around with your libation,
And prepare yourself for liquid salvation.
But this drink is not like the rest,
First it must be properly blessed.
And here bless is your favorite savior,
It is Jesus, Lord of the Jager.
You may drink…”
And the soul of skiing is saved.