The Dirtbag Ball in Big Sky, Montana, is as good a ski town party as we've seen. PHOTO: Ryan Turner
The Dirtbag Ball in Big Sky, Montana, is as good a ski town party as we've seen. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

What Makes a Ski Town?

You and me and everyone we know

The bride's wig is slipping, veil and all, over her face. It's hanging down into her eyes, glinting somewhere between blonde and tinsel. She doesn't seem to care; she just sort of tosses it sideways as she dances and it looks like her eyes are closed anyway. She's noodle dancing, in Sorels and a too-big white dress, on the floor of the Great Northern Brewery, in Whitefish, Montana, between a guy dressed as Elvis, and a dude still in his ski gear. It's winter carnival weekend. The parade has been over for a few hours, and even though it hasn't been dark for long, everyone is lit up enough to get dancey. The band--four old guys who look like they've been playing here forever, and like they probably followed the Dead around before that--is playing covers of "Amie" and "Dead Flowers," heavy on the guitar solos.

I am smushed between locals, beer in hand, up on the landing above the stage. I am an outsider here--this is not my town--but I can tell a couple of things about it from the people dancing on the beer soaked floor.

This morning we laced through the crystallized trees on the backside of Big Mountain. It hadn't snowed in a while but, by following people who ski here all the time, we found deep turns in the trees. When we skied off the top of Chair 1 we stood out in the wind long enough to look out into the peaks of Glacier National Park and Canada. Temperatures were topping out in the negatives and it was so clear it hurt. Once the cold beat us into the Summit House we ran into people we knew, and people they knew. We had 10 a.m. beers and pizza and got invited to tag along for the rest of the day, to the carnival.

I think any small town has a sense of localism that's borne by community and some kind of were-in-this-togetherism. Ski towns have that too, but they're a little different. They're transient, most people aren't from there, but that means you can get sucked in quickly. Call it the two-year rule: you stay though the summer, people start to recognize you, they let you follow them into stashes, they invite you to orphan Christmas, or on a river trip once the snow melts. Sure, you're not a local local, but you're still in. The teeny, hard-to-get-to towns, like Whitefish or Telluride, are the best, but the big ones have it, too. Spend a couple of seasons in Breckenridge and you won't be able to go to the KingSoopers without running into people you know.

And that's why a lot of people stay, too: the sense of inclusion, of knowing your neighbors and being in on the secrets, of being comfortable swirling at the bar with the local weirdos.

I felt that on the street during the carnival. Most ski towns have some event like that, the Al Johnson, or Reggae Fest or the Scorpion Downhill, which everyone shows up for. We stood with a woman who had just blown her knee, and people kept coming through to check on her, to give her down jackets to wrap around her braced leg, and hand warmers to slip in her pockets. People skijored down the street, and the parade kept stopping so that people on floats could have conversations with people in the crowd. Wayne Newton was there, because he’s Wayne Newton. And, because the parade was inexplicably Vegas themed, a wedding chapel-themed float came through with several non-sober looking brides.

After the parade, we flooded off the street into crowded bars. People we'd seen on the hill that morning yelled and hugged, and everyone seemed to know each other. And even though they didn't really know us they pulled us in.

By the time we had finished the fries from our late-night burgers, a friend of a friend drunk-generously offered us her car (another small town specialty), and we spilled out onto the sidewalk, headed for bed, hoods pulled close against the cold. The bride was sitting on a bench with her puffy jacket zipped over her gown and a beanie pulled over her crooked wig. Another girl in an unfortunate party dress was trying to convince her to go home--it was clearly past pumpkin hour--but she wouldn't budge. Everyone she wanted to see was out in town and she wasn't going anywhere.