Thousands of miles from her backyard, Aimee Engerbretson feels right at home in the Chilean Andes. Photo: Liam Doran


Where the Heart Is

First published in issue 17.1 of The Ski Journal.

Arriving in Key West after traversing the Eastern Seaboard, I found myself muttering something I unfortunately spew forth too often.

“It feels like we left planet Earth.”

And we had.

I have said the same unoriginal phrase about New Orleans. San Francisco. Prague. Valparaiso. Tokyo. Even some neighborhoods of Chicago and New York. A creature of the Intermountain West from birth, the decidedly unexotic rituals of the majority of Earth’s humans blindside me on a near-regular basis. Shit-talking deep-sea anglers? Taxis as a regular mode of transport? Korean BBQ for breakfast? St. Louis? Might as well be from Mars.

Valparaiso is bizarro San Francisco on the central coast of Chile, which itself can feel like bizarro California. There are hills and colors and a view of the Pacific. But here there are ancient ascensores, funicular trains ascending the hills from the coast. There are student protests you must join in order to cross the road. And around every corner, behind every empanada shop, is the ghost of Pablo Neruda.

Drive east from Valparaiso, though, and you run headlong into Santiago (bizarro Denver). Drive farther east, and you run square into the flanks of the Andes, one of our planet’s greater ranges. Thirty switchbacks later, something peculiar happens: Stuff starts to look familiar.

You see a shanty. Outside of the shanty, there are skis. There is a Lange boot poster covering the window, “Suave Por Dentro.” Versions of people you know are rummaging outside, drinking versions of beer you know. Sporting versions of hairstyles you know.

Valle Nevado feels like home.

Fly into Paris. It’s the center of the universe, but definitely not home. The metro has tires. The fries come with mayonnaise. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by beauty and history and style. 

Take a bullet train south for two hours, catch a bus east, below the flanks of the Alpe d’Huez, depositing you in the long shadow of La Meije. To a New Yorker, this is an inner circle of hell. To us, it is familiarity incarnate. La Grave is full of our people. Our hangouts. Our vibe.

What is it about ski towns? In La Grave you have to order lunch in French. Your legalized addictive stimulant is erotically “cafe au lait.” Ham has been hanging in a locker for 20 years before being applied lovingly to a buttered baguette.

But we all speak the same language.

It is the same in Kitzbuhel, in Solden, in Sapporo. We find the feeling in Queenstown, Boyne Mountain, Nelson, Silverton. Another version of home, and to me it feels like a warm embrace.

And what I mean to convey is this: In a world torn asunder of civil graces, with people behaving as if the planet may implode any day, where Florida and Louisiana feel as if I have come unstuck from real life, I can drive north for half a day into the most core town of the domestic version of our sport, seated at the foot of the Tetons. Flat-bellied, large-lunged, thick-livered pseudo locals may vibe my license plate, but share a few common tales, some mutual gear appreciation and the requisite shit talk about “You should have seen the snow last week,” and Jackson might as well be a family reunion. How?

It is not the ski shops, nor the watering holes. It’s not the burrito joints nor greasy spoons. I’m not sure it’s even the mountain. My working theory is that our overflowing stoke finds some permeability, some cosmic window in our winter souls, and it leaks out. That universal energy gravitates toward some ski-town magnetism whose origins are as old as the actual universe. 

That energy hides its face during autumn’s mud season. In whatever hemisphere you call home, the magnetic poles pick up the hint of recharged ski-town stoke as they bend toward the solstice. 

Leaving Hemingway’s rum-fueled chaos behind, our compass points north, an overnight flight giving way to bus, then cab. And then we crest a hill, see some distant glow whose life force feels familiar. Deposited adjacent to a lodge whose woodsmoke alone warms our souls, we are back in the heart of this world’s version of something that we know all too well. Tomorrow, we ski.    


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