Why The '90s Was The Perfect Decade To Drive A Car Down A Ski Hill
WARNING: Driving a car down a ski hill is very dangerous, and you should never do it.
During the 1990s, I managed to graduate from college, moved to California for a job parking cars, relocated back to the Midwest for jobs not as good as parking cars, and somehow convinced the woman of my dreams to hang out with me, long-term. Oh, and I was also a passenger in a car that drove down a ski hill (one that sports a 700-foot vertical drop). Here's how that went and why it was a model '90s experience ...
When Johnny D Came Calling
I worked weekends in the early 90s at this ski hill in Wausau, WI, back when it was called “Rib Mountain.” My friend, who I’ll call “Drinking Buddy #1,” got me a job on the lift - where I was called upon to sit in a shack, look out a window and occasionally exit the shack every so often when somebody wiped out to see if they were ok. It was a lot.
After a taxing season of that, I was only too happy to be sitting in the lodge for the end of the year party slugging beer with Drinking Buddy #1 when another lift operator, a wild-eyed fellow I'll call Johnny D, burst upon us and said, “Me and Ang just drove down the hill, you wanna do it?”
I later heard Johnny D was involved in an armed standoff with the police after taking a little too much of the acid, but on that night, he was perfectly lucid and clear about what he wanted to do.
I recall Drinking Buddy #1 and I looking at each other and saying, “Sure,” before following Johnny D out to his car, which brings me to my first point about the '90s.
People Drove Lots Of 80's Junk That Deserved To Be Destroyed
Johnny D did not have a nice car. He actually had the same car as the one pictured below, and it did not look anywhere near as generically respectable and nice as this does:
That’s a Buick Skylark - a model that was made for 46 years, and one that does have its admirers but c’mon. By the 1980s, they were boxy pieces of crap, not unlike most '80s autos, which as a whole feel less like cars that were sought out and purchased but more like they were issued to people - cars like this:
That’s a Yugo, often cited as the worst car ever made. Zero to 60 in a nap-inducing 14 SECONDS. Yes, they only cost $3,990 new, and tons of people bought them, but they likely got to the loathing place where Johnny D was with his '80s car - they just didn’t have the bad sense to drive them down ski hills.
Out in the lot, we met his girlfriend, Ang, who sat in the passenger seat. Both front seats were the bucket variety (remember that detail, it will be important later). She had a bump on her forehead from their last excursion. “I hit it a little on the roof; I’m going to buckle up this time.”
Yes, that should have been a massive red flag. But not for us, Drinking Buddy #1 and I piled into the spacious-but-no-belts Skylark back seat. Johnny D fired up the motor and then the stereo, which was probably worth more than the car. Johnny’s taste in music was better than his taste in rides. Come to think of it …
The 90's May Not Have Been The Best Music Decade Ever, But It Did Do One Thing
The song cranking on Johnny’s D’s killer system was "Man In The Box" by Alice In Chains. It’s the second cut on their Facelift album and what people call “a banger” these days.
It may not sound like anything out of the ordinary to you now, but I will say that at that time, it was an absolute godsend. Why? Because hair metal garbage like this had a Terminator-like grip on music for far too long.
The whole grunge sound that supplanted it out of Seattle eventually devolved into a marketing machination itself, but at least for a time, the '90s rocked hard enough to, in the words of Kyle Reese, “Smash those metal motherf***ers into junk.”
I think if it had been this or this or this playing as we ascended the back side of Rib Mountain, I might have gotten out of the car. But I identified with what was cranking - probably because it actually sounded like rock instead of this and this and this. “Man In The Box” had me right where I needed to be to do something as stupid as what we were doing, so on I went.
The literal ‘top of the mountain’ was a State of Wisconsin park. To ensure no one entered when it was closed for the season, the park was heavily fortified by two posts with a measly chain stretched across them. Better yet, there was ample space to drive a Buick Skylark around one of the posts. So Johnny D just followed his tracks from the first time he drove around it to warp his poor car down a ski hill, and we soon trespassed our way to our destination.
That destination was the edge of what was essentially a cliff. Appropriate! A snow-covered cliff, but a cliff nonetheless. Johnny D positioned the Skylark for its launch and turned off “Man In The Box.” The time had come, and I strangely didn’t feel particularly afraid. Granted, I had a gut full of beer in me, but maybe it was more than that ...
The '90s Were A Time Of (Some) Optimism
As I’ve sorta intimated so far, the early ’90s were in some ways an extension of the ’80s.
In the not-so-serious department, there was plenty of bad holdover hair (some of it is making a comeback today - I’m looking at you, mullet), food, and fashion. Squarely in the serious department, though, was an economic recession, AIDS, and plenty of racism.
But in other ways, the '90s blazed a new trail. There was reason to be hopeful. Not hopeful like we are today, mind you, but one previous concern lessened considerably.
The Berlin Wall fell, and for the first time in forever, the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the East and West ending in the vaporization of the planet didn’t feel like a thing you needed to lay awake so much about anymore. (However, Putin has laid awake til he figured out how to rev that back up.)
So sitting in a Skylark on the precipice of the largest vertical drop in the State of Wisconsin, I considered the international political situation and felt at peace with what we were doing.
Just kidding, I absolutely did not. I will cop to being much, much younger back then and admit my lack of concern and general optimism definitely owed to my age. That said, there just was something in that '90s air that filled my sails, and I wasn’t as concerned then about the past or the future. I was fine working at a sky hill, fine living in a dumpy apartment, fine driving a Chevy Luv pickup truck, fine being in the moment - that moment.
I’ve struggled the rest of my adult life with trying to get back to that mindset. It was great. In the Skylark, we all looked out over the vast expanse together, and then Johnny D gunned it.
Escapism Took A Different Form For Us
By this point,, you’ve probably wondered, “What the hell was the matter with you?” That’s perfectly fair, what we did was dangerous and stupid. But in the way of a defense, I’ll offer this: escapism options back then were waaay fewer compared to now.
Go ahead, call BS - yes, we could have been doing much more constructive things with our time, like volunteering at Crimestoppers, and there were pretty good video games, but think about it: What would you do without the Internet and everything it makes possible?
For us, that question was easy: go find something crazy to do and then tell stories about it later.
If Johnny D had done this today, he’d have shown up in the bar with a phone video of it. We’d have watched the video and been like, “Wow, cool - forget it.”
But as it was, we were two ignorant, half-drunken idiots craving experiences, somewhat out of youthful energy, somewhat out of boredom. And this was an experience that promised to be big.
When the car lurched over the edge, I watched the speedometer go from nothing to like buried in a flash before slouching back into my seat. We were going very fast, but Johnny D kept the car moving in a straight line.
Until we hit a headwall and went airborne.
If you’ve ever been airborne in a car (I don’t recommend it), the following can happen: if the driver doesn’t let off the accelerator, the wheels have no resistance and create a high-pitched whine. Yes, Johnny D had his foot on the accelerator because go faster.
We were in the air for probably no more than a couple of seconds, it just seemed a whole lot longer. And when we landed very hard, Drinking Buddy #1 probably wished we could have stayed airborne. That’s because the passenger bucket seat (I told you we’d get back to it.) completely broke free and slammed into Drinking Buddy #1’s chest, Ang-occupant included. And that’s also when Johnny D completely lost control of the Skylark.
The car began to spin uncontrollably, which can happen when you’re traveling down a steep, snow-covered grade at unsafe speeds. During one of the revolutions, I happened to be able to focus long enough to see that we were headed off the ski run and directly towards the woods. It was at that moment that I got really scared. I did not pee or crap my pants, there wasn’t time for that.
And then, at the last second, for either divine or physics reasons, the car righted itself, and Johnny D was able to guide it to the edge of the parking lot. To this day, I cannot believe our good fortune.
However, the Skylark did not share in that good fortune. It was, in a word, destroyed.
Drinking Buddy #1 struggled for a time to extricate himself from a back seat full of bucket seat and Ang, but he soon joined me by the Skylark. We surveyed the damage. The front tires (where the car landed) were both bent inwards. It was kind of like looking at someone with two broken legs.
For his part, Johnny D was in a bit of shock. He had a real mess on his hands, and he knew it. Drinking Buddy #1 clutched his chest (he later was treated for two cracked ribs), and I took that opportunity to drop my expert medical analysis of, “Hey, guys, we’re outta here, he’s hurting.”
We left Johnny D and Ang standing by the saddest Skylark on the planet and got our butts straight the hell home. I think we both slept with one eye open that night, figuring the cops were inevitably going to come calling, but they never did.
So mission accomplished - we had a story to tell. I’ve told it often, and I just told you. Join me next time when I explain why the Early Aughts were the perfect decade to have a bachelor party in a cheese factory parking lot.
Chris is the co-author of DeckZ: The Titanic, The Giant Smugglers and plays guitar in this band.