Avalanche warning and moose crossing signs

My welcome to Utah: a foot of fresh snow

Sometimes you travel to be surprised, to wonder and marvel at things you’ve never dreamt of. Other times you hold an image in your mind of the way things are meant to be and find that reality doesn’t match up. Then (way) once in a while you travel somewhere to find it’s actually you hoped it would be, and still you marvel.

The idea of going skiing always seemed a bit exotic to me. Growing up in Kentucky, where we had neither enough snow nor proper mountains to ski, the idea of soaring, silent, white-cloaked peaks laced with mysterious aspens and snow-robed evergreens seemed very far away indeed. And the thought of gliding down those mountains? Even further. But I had a romantic notion in my mind of what skiing would be like. As a non-athlete for most of my life, that notion revolved mostly around steaming mugs of hot cocoa I’d sip from under my jaunty little ski cap. Once I developed an interest in outdoor pursuits and adventure sports, the idea came to include swishing merrily through great drifts of glittering snow, the lure of that apres ski hot cocoa ahead. It was quite a fairytale story of skiing I built up in my head, and one that could easily have been shattered by reality. But I went to Utah to learn to ski early this spring courtesy of the folks at Ski Utah, and when I wasn’t talking myself through the difficult task of leaning down the mountain as I attempted to ski, I was smiling like a Cheshire cat. As it turned out, it was exactly what I’d hoped it would be – except that in 3D, it was more amazing than I’d dreamed.

Bundled against the cold and the twirling snowflakes that were bringing us a foot-plus of fresh powder (Oh, how I like using the lingo of a new sport) my first day at Snowbird, I was so nervous my heart raced wild (that might have also been the altitude – more than 8,000 feet at the base). And even though – spoiler alert – in my three days of lessons I did not become anything approaching a graceful skier, I felt immediately how and why people fall in love with skiing. Gliding down my first bunny slope on great clouds of fresh snow, a smile bloomed on my face that would more or less stay (except when I was swearing at my tangled up feet and poles and mesh barrier during an unfortunate incident a couple days later). And no lie, when I sat my trembling-leg self down at lunch, there it was: hot chocolate. With whipped cream.

Apres ski hot chocolate

Apres ski hot chocolate. Le sigh.

The next day I was at it again, this time at Park City Mountain Resort. My lesson on this day focused on developing turns, and I spent a full day on the bunny slope going left and right, falling just the once but laughing at many, many more near misses as I careened down the terrain. And on this night I was rewarded with whiskey. Yes, this Kentucky bourbon lover parked herself at High West Distillery for apres, sipping a Boulevardier as fine as I’ve had anywhere, and sampling a flight of the jam-packed saloon’s offering. (Seriously, this place was packed: think two-hour wait for a party of four. Go early and give them your number. You can explore the darling Main Street in Park City and they’ll text when it’s whiskey time.)

For my third and final day I put myself in my instructor’s hands at Deer Valley. We won’t rehash the incident of the tangled-up skis and the barrier; let’s just say ski goggles are quite good at hiding tears of frustration for a new, wanna-be skier. But Mr. Mulder, a kindly and immensely patient teacher who handed out Werther’s candies to the lift attendants, didn’t lose faith in me, and by the end of the morning I was on my first real run of the trip, starting some 9,000 feet up on a bluebird day with the world spread at my feet. We set out down the Ontario Trail and so bewitching were the long shadows the trees cast on the brilliant white snow that I (almost) forgot to be afraid. Emboldened by my accomplishment, I set out again and again after lunch, skiing with the friends I hadn’t wanted to hold up earlier in the trip. We finished the day with a great many puns about finding the Success trail, but my giddy joy was completely genuine when I finished the last trail of the day before closing, and realized I’d skied all the way down the mountain.

Snow, trees, and blue skies all day

Chasing shadows down the mountain

In a way that made me wonder what I’d ever done to deserve such an incredible day, we sat down at Empire Canyon Lodge for what they call a fireside dinner. Try four firesides: great, crackling fires of cedar and pine on which our oh-so-savory dinners cooked. I made a dash immediately for the raclette fireplace, where hunks of pale yellow cheese melted in front of the fire, spinning lazy threads of golden cheese onto a waiting saucer. It would’ve been impolite to just gobble up the cheese so I made a trip around the accoutrements table nearby for the goodies to go on the side, most surprised by the perfect pairing the tarragon strawberry chutney made. After that it was traipsing from stews to leg of lamb to rosti and back to raclette before, get this, we went on a sleigh ride. No joke. The first time I saw the postcard-perfect team of Belgian horses pulling families and couples around the lodge I ran to the window to peer out, at and fairly bounced with excitement to take my own turn.

Four of us women tumbled out into the pink-tinged evening and piled into the honest-to-God wooden sleigh, where two – still not kidding here – ridiculously handsome, chaps-clad, hat-sporting cowboys tucked woolen, plaid blankets over our laps. I have possibly not giggled so much since the 4th grade when my parents banished my best friend and me from the dinner table for failing to quieten down. We snapped photos galore, collapsing into breathless laughter when the cowboys took selfies, the group of us clowning in the background. And then, in a move that rivaled my glee at my first glide down a snowy hill on skis, the cowboys giddy-upped the patient horses. And as the sun sank over the Wasatch peaks, and pink deepened to purple between the silver aspens, our shrieks rang out under the bright moon as the sleigh did snow donuts.

Smiling cowboys

Yep. Cowboys.

Still full from dessert of chocolate fondue after our sleigh ride the night before, I had to go home the next morning. Even had I not been booked on that flight, the prior day and night would’ve been impossible to top. It was so much better than I  imagined I almost don’t want to tempt fate by going again … almost.