Snowmobiling: slumming on the slopes

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Sept. 3 2008 7:24 AM

Snowmobiling

Slumming on the slopes.

Todd Palin, husband of Alaska Gov. and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, is the four-time winner of the Tesoro Iron Dog contest, the world's longest snowmobile race. This year, he placed fourth despite breaking his arm in the middle of the 2,000-mile slog. In a 2006 "Middlebrow," Bryan Curtis took a snowmobile out for a spin and lived to write about it. The article is reprinted below.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Among winter sportsmen, the downhill skier is the one most concerned with his social status. Vail tourists exude a mild hauteur, whereas telemarkers have an unshaven disdain for the common herd. Cross-country skiing has its own rarefied constituencies—fitness freaks, bird-watchers—and snowshoers are gentle souls who want to commune with the forest. Then there is the snowmobiler, the most noxious of the lot. His social and aerobic obligations are minimal. Though James Bond piloted a snowmobile in A View to a Kill, the snowmobiler is not a chic winter tourist. He is a grunt from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a man who pauses on 100-mile rides to hit a circuit of boozy "pit stops" with names like the Hoop 'N' Holler (an actual destination). As he plows through bucolic meadows, the snowmobiler leaves a thick trail of purple exhaust. He sneers at environmentalists who would ban him from the national parks. He calls his ride a "machine."

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I was in the mountains near Durango, Colo., the other day to hang out with snowmobilers. A woman from an outfit called Outlaw Tours had asked me to meet her along the road that winds north into the San Juan Mountains. At the appointed spot, I found the group's headquarters, a teal shack with restroom facilities conveniently situated in the snow out back. There was a light snow falling, and seven Polaris snowmobiles were lined up out front. With thin skis protruding from their noses, the machines looked like crustaceans on ice in a fish market. Myself and four other relative novices would follow our guides on a two-hour snowmobile tour. Half of it would be conducted on snow-packed trails in slow-motion single file, and the other half on a frozen lake, where we would be able to hit the accelerator and really "open it up." A guide approached me and asked, "May I start your machine?" and with a satisfying roar we set off.

The primary virtue of snowmobiling is that it's ludicrously easy. "A lot of people who snowmobile are lazy," explained a happily unshaven 29-year-old guide named Mike, who later was seen riding his machine and smoking a cigarette at the same time. The main skill under study by a novice snowmobiler is the technique called "butt steering," in which you throw your rear weight in the direction that you wish to turn. The other thing to remember is that the accelerator is on the right handlebar and the brake is on the left. Outlaw Tours insists on babying its customers. Cherry-red helmets prevent injury to the cranium, and the machine's handlebars have warmers to prevent chapped hands. (Katie Holmes, pregnant with Tom Cruise's child, was spotted riding a snowmobile this winter, and one can only imagine the amenities provided to her.) The only real danger is the wide, horsey saddle, which, as soon as the machine is set in motion, produces a rather merciless vibration in the groin region.

After a few uncertain starts, we came onto the trails. I was riding second from the lead, trailing Mike's machine. Every five minutes or so, Mike would turn around to make sure I hadn't cruised into a birch tree, at which point the two of us would exchange a terribly strained thumbs-up and then speed off again. Trail-riding is a bit like navigating a maze, with sharp turns and constant application of the brakes, and after more than a few 90-degree turns, the maneuvering can become tedious. But within minutes we reached the frozen lake, a placid, magnificent spot high in the mountains. The lake had been covered in a thin powder, with only a small beaver dam and few patches of exposed ice as obstacles. Positioning the machine to give myself the longest possible straightaway, I hit the gas and went blistering across the icy lake at speeds approaching 45 miles per hour (this feels very fast on snow), before coming up on the snowy berms on the other side, at which point I squeezed the brakes with equal ferocity. I completed this circuit about three dozen times, with loud whoops as I reached top speed. Mike stood next to his snowmobile, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the sight of an out-of-towner making an utter fool of himself.

Snowmobiling is an unambitious sport even among its biggest fans. "The idea is to have fun and don't destroy the machines," explained Mike, who added that the snowmobile pilots enjoyed the same narcotic regimen as ski bums. Like ski-bumming, snowmobiling encourages open-ended adventures. The basic idea is to charge off into the wilderness, sometimes covering 100 miles in a day, or else try stunts like high-marking, a contest to see who can reach the highest point on a slope with or without starting an avalanche. (DVDs with titles like Redneck Fury 2 catalog the more gut-wrenching exploits.) Another popular outing is the night ride, with a lantern strapped to the helmet as you whiz through the pitch-black forest. Needless to say, all of these are insanely dangerous. For the most hard-core snowmobilers, who in America can be found mostly in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, it is made more so by frequent stops for alcohol. The whole thing resembles a softball game where there's a keg of beer at every base.

As a result, sledheads have a gruesome injury history. According to one newspaper, Wisconsin alone averages about 25 snowmobile deaths per year. Many result from snowmobilers going too fast (souped-up machines can reach 100 miles per hour), being too drunk, or some combination thereof. After one rider's death, a Madison newspaper reprinted a sheriff's report that provides the most heartbreaking evocation to date of snowmobiling culture: "All members were drinking that day at each 'pit stop.' Average of one beer or drink per hour. They had been riding all day, approximately six hours worth and traveled approximately 125 miles of the trail circuit. At two different stops, they had pizza or hamburgers."

There is a pitched battle between snowmobilers and environmentalists over the use of machines in national parks. All I can say is that if you think snowmobiles represent an affront to nature, then you should get a load of the Texans who deposit themselves in Colorado each winter. But the environmentalists' point is taken. Winter beauty is based on beautiful foliage and total silence, and buzzing on a snowmobile makes these qualities impossible to appreciate. By the end of our two-hour tour, only Mike and I remained, the other machinists having gotten tired of the "butt steering." We switched off our machines, and for the first time all day I noticed we were parked in one of the more serene spots I've ever seen in my life—a crest filled with pistachio-colored aspensand white-capped pines, the winter sun peeking through inky snow clouds. Introspection not being fashionable for a snowmobiler, Mike and I grunted only a few words about the beauty of the place. Satisfied that we had communed with nature, and noticing we were presently traveling at zero miles per hour, we pulled the starter cords, revved the machines, and growled back into the forest.

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