It’s still dark when we meet in the grocery store parking lot, the early shift is in there making donuts already, but other than my idling Outback the parking lot is still. We’re a motley crew, two snowboarders, three skiers, in an assortment of yard-sale outerwear and Ross specials.

There’s no argument over who has to take the middle seat. We all know who has the shortest legs, and the shortest skis. Snowboards go in the back of the Subaru, there’s only so much room in the racks for skis. Before we pull out of the parking lot we run a quick check: Snow pants, boots, poles, goggles, helmet, jacket? Driving three and a half hours only to realize you left your ski pants in the laundry never ends well. We’re all in basketball shorts and hoodies. I’m not sure why we chose the basketball shorts instead of base layers, maybe because we’d heard that that’s what Tom Wallisch wears under his ski pants?

I bought this car because it had a tape deck. The cord from the adapter snakes back, carefully routed through the center console to the back seat. The guy in the middle got a Zune for Christmas and knows how to download songs off youtube, so he’s the defacto DJ. The first hour goes by fast, it’s dark and I’m just focused on not hitting any moose on the hilly section through the wheat fields.

As I slow to 35 to pass through a tiny town that mostly consists of a gas station, bar, and post office that all share the same deck, we swap from the cassette adaptor to the radio. When the signal is strong sometimes we can pick up the reservation’s radio station, and their indigenous singing and chanting always signals a transition in the drive. Up until this point the guys in the back have been sleeping, careful not to lean into each other’s shoulders as the drowse. The change in music wakes them, they stretch, and the car bounces a little as they stir. We drop back down into the mist, the radio crackles, and we swap to the ski mix CD. An older friend left it in my car last season, it’s a little edgier, and we know if we turn it on now it will play through twice exactly as we enter the ski area parking lot.

The lake town means we’re just an hour and a half away. There’s a long straightaway with 7 stoplights in a row for the four lanes of traffic. Legend has it that once this car full of skiers made it through perfectly with each light turning green as we approached. That hasn’t happened since though, and instead we’re stuck at each stoplight next to rusted out trucks full of hunters. Once there was a Tacoma with skis in the bed, a gaggle of women driving it. We tried to make a cardboard sign, ask them which resort they were headed to, but the light turned green and we never saw them at the hill.

Once we’re through town we can start talking about the skiing. None of us owned smart phones back then, and when you’re driving three-plus hours to the hill, you have to leave home before the resort has posted their snow report. So it’s always a crap shoot, wondering if the weather forecast delivered, if we’re making this pilgrimage only to be met by rain and wind, or maybe we’ll pull in to a surprise pow day. Who cares, regardless we’ll ski until the closing bell rings.

Hold your breath across the long bridge for good luck, remember to take the early exit to bypass a few stoplights, finally make that turn onto ski hill road. We know all the corners by heart, counting up switchbacks until the last roundabout, the descent down through condos and town homes. The free lot is already filling up and we boot up fast. It snowed last night, the plows are out, the skiing will be good.

We’ll ski hard till four, eat our saltines and sandwiches on the lift so we don’t have to skip a lap. We’ll crank out the last few laps, trying to get last chair on the backside, take two more runs on the front, and then let patrol chase us off the hill. Then we’ll load back into the car, ditch our boots into a stinky pile in the back, and head home with the windows open and the car steaming, five teenage men in a hatchback makes for a pungent aroma. We’ll stop for Wendy’s on the way back. Three and half more hours of driving, seven all told, to ski dust on crust from 9 till 4. Push the ski mix CD in for another listen, remember to slow down as we pass the casino, cops like to lurk there.

Now I live 20 minutes from the ski hill. I put on my boots in the living room and walk a block to catch the shuttle up. I enjoy being able to just head up for a few hours, not committing to seven hours in the car just to ski whatever the mountains throw at me. But I miss some of it, the sleepy early mornings, and the jubilant conversations on the way home. Skiing’s a little sweeter when you’ve earned it with a long drive, and I still listen to that same mix as I ride the shuttle up the hill.