Almost Heaven

Story by Heather Hansman & Photos by Steve Lloyd

Holding on to the skiing life in Westbygod Virginia. A preview of the feature in the February 2016 issue of POWDER.

In a cabin up an offshoot of the Dryfork River, in a corner of West Virginia’s Canaan Valley, 13-year-old Resi Anderson lowers her head to say grace over a plate of venison made from a deer her dad shot from the front porch. “Thank you, God,” she says, “for this food we’re about to eat, and thank you for snow and for powder skiing.”

But don’t tell anyone about it, they say, like any good cagey local. Tell ’em it’s all hicks and flat skiing. That we’re all rednecks living down in the holler. Don’t talk about the trees, or the touring, or the way you can barter for local homebrew or honey with the guy who works in the first aid room, because everyone lives close to the land around here. 

Ken Gaitor, the director of slope operations, who has a Slayer beard and an alternative rock taste in music, gave me a half-filled mason jar of moonshine with “French 120” scrawled on the lid by a Sharpie. He said it was sweet potato and apple flavored, but it smelled like nail polish remover and burned worse than it smelled. 

We’re basically the lovechild of Hank Williams and Black Flag whose ski instructor was Glen Plake,” says Bob Lilly. “The things that we value are way, way, way different than what the resort towns value. It’s what happens when you’re poor. When I was growing up you were sewing patches on your jacket, and buying your skis at yard sales, not because you’re trying to be cool, but because it’s what you had.”

The road would bring $1.25 billion in revenue to the area, and, more importantly for skiing, it would connect the Canaan Valley directly to the beltway of D.C. That could change the ski scene here in the valley significantly. It has the potential to bring in a ton more people, which is both necessary to bolster skiing and a potential hazard to the freewheeling spirit of the sport around here. “You seen a cop since you got here?” Chip asks me. “Didn’t think so.”

West Virginia skiing is its own brand of genuine weird, which is what keeps it interesting, but it probably needs to grow to stay alive, which means it might not feel that strange forever.

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To read the full feature by Heather Hansman with photos by Steve Lloyd, pick up the February 2016 issue of POWDER (44.6).