PHOTO: Alessandro Belluscio | WORDS: Tom Deuring

I've responded to or ignored the last emails of the day and made note of where I left off for the next morning. While my co-workers power down laptops and head home to dogs and crockpot dinners, I'm filling my thermos from the office coffee machine. It's 5 o'clock in the upper Midwest and it's time to go skiing.

The rush-hour traffic thins as I drive out of the city, and soon I am just one of a few cars trickling east through the snow-covered cornfields in the early darkness of winter. By 6:00 I’ve parked at the bottom of a lift and am changing in the front seat of my truck. Luckily, nobody looks over and sees the half-naked man struggling into his long-johns.

I climb out and lay my skis down on the snow. The bright lights of the hill cast the world in sharp relief. All contrasts and shadows, my skis lay black against the glare of illuminated snow.

The bright lights of the hill cast the world in sharp relief.

Right now the hill is still busy: Kids from after-school programs, race teams, and groups of teenagers fill the lift-lines and litter the slopes. Things will die down in a couple hours. Clicked in, I wait in the lift line. A day's worth of skis and boards have scraped the snow down to ice.

As I ride up, the lone passenger in a lopsided double chair, I see everybody below laughing and shouting as they slide downhill together in groups or paired off. I feel lonely, I admit. But with a squeak and a bounce, I'm deposited at the top of the hill. As fast as gravity pulls, the giddiness of flying downhill takes over as I make my first run of the night.

I zig left and right down the run, weaving in between the other skiers traveling like flocks of birds, hooting and calling. The chilly night air softens their joyful, shrill laughter. All at once, a flock takes flight and wings its way into my path. The kids don't even notice, they part and swirl around me, breaking around an unseen current of air. I swerve and smear to reduce speed and they fly past. It's alright. They're young and we can all afford to cut each other some slack now and again.

Eventually, the school groups pack up and leave. The parents head home with their children. It's 8:00 and the hill is getting quiet. I eat a sandwich in the cab of my truck and finish the last of the lukewarm office coffee. I toss the dregs into the parking lot along with any last thoughts of work. Back on the slopes, ski patrol is closing down the fringes. The lifties jolt visibly when I ski up to the chair. A few trails are still open toward the center of the hill, but here at the edges the lifts are going quiet.

The closed runs fade into darkness like winding roads into a haunted forest. The orange glow of the lights gives the snow a jack-o-lantern tinge; bare and gnarled limbs seem to reach out of the darkness waiting to catch an unwary skier.

I consider diving under the rope, testing my luck against both the patrollers and the grasping branches. A breeze blows and branches scrape against one another, rasping like scattered bones gathering themselves back together. Nerves or my better sense take over and I veer away, instead heading toward the deserted well-lit runs.

Winter seems fuller and deeper when I'm skiing these late evening hours on an empty ski hill. The stars come out and lights come on in the windows of Midwestern farmhouses. As the lifts shut down one by one, a measure of solitude can be found. The mountain becomes my personal playground. Worries disappear into darkness and while the world is going to sleep we can connect with ourselves again.

I carve long, wide turns, using all the room I can.