top of page

The American Way: Skiing in the Midwest

How is skiing in the Rust Belt? We went deep into North Michigan to discover what the Midwest ski culture has to offer. And, most importantly, do Americans drink Bombardino?

Life is unpredictable and hit you with opportunities you would have never imagined. It is up to you to catch or leave them on the table. After the pandemic, I decided to catch any good opportunity for traveling - who knows if the next lockdown is in 5 years or 5 months and for how long. In the end, do more. This mantra brought me to Nub's Nob, Michigan.

Most of the time, we don’t realize how lucky we are until we meet someone less lucky than us. Being born a 5 hours drive away from the Alps put me in a privileged position when it comes to skiing compared to 99% of the planet. I grew up 400 kilometers from the Dolomites and Canazei, one of the best places you can dream of skiing. But if you are not that lucky, you have to do with what you have: Nub's Nob. This is what skiing in Michigan is about.

nub's nob michigan maps
Nub's Nob is located in the peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron

A series of unfortunate events - sic - brought me to Detroit, Michigan this January and left me with a spare weekend to fill. Too long to spend in a sleeping city like Detroit in winter. Not enough to go out West to places like Vail, CO, or Park City, Utah. When you familiarise yourself with the US geography and costs, Europe seems even smaller and more convenient to travel around - this is how lucky we are. Traveling to Vail would have involved a 3h25 flight, renting a car, and driving for 1h30, let alone the hundreds of dollars.

I approached the trip with a lot of curiosity about the Midwest ski culture: how is different from the European? Some would call it Gonzo Journalism, where the author is the protagonist simultaneously experiencing and reporting on the story. This particular form of journalism found its father in Hunter S. Thompson during the 70s, with pieces of work like Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We are not at those heights here - for now.

As we exited Detroit and left the last real town behind us, the highway became lonely and broke through the infamous Midwest planes heading up North. Trees, farms, and billboards on both sides for hundreds of kilometers. There were no real mountains, not even hills, in sight. The landscape was flat and could have gone on forever from what it seemed. I heard that Detroit only gets 4/5 days of sun every year and this trip was proof in favor of that statement. The sky was always covered by clouds, with snow and ice coming from everywhere. We could not complain about the snow, there were at least 30 centimeters and the condition of the slopes was perfect.

nubs nob sign
Nub's Nob ski area entrance.

This area of the country is known as the Rust Belt, which gives its name to the economic and population declines in the 60s and 70s when Nub's Nob opened its lifts for the first time. You can really see this decline in the emptiness of downtown Detroit: the retail spaces, the offices, the parking lots, and the footpaths. Detroit is different from any other city in Europe and epitomizes the American city where you have to drive everywhere, there is no central square to hang out, and spaces are dilated and empty. Its soul is lost across through its huge surface and you can’t catch it just walking down the streets.

After years of skiing in the Alps, between Italy, Austria, and France, I would have never thought that I would have hit the slopes outside the continent in Nub’s Nob, Michigan, 4 hours north of Detroit and just a few kilometers from the Canadian border. If you are born in Michigan this is one of the 2 best spots that you can hit for skiing. Nub’s Nob claim is “Where Skiers Go” - you can’t get wrong with that.

Nub's Nob ski area map
Nub's Nob ski area map

We arrived at Nub’s Nob just before sunset and in time for the night session. Skiing at night is not a thing in Europe, but it is in the US. I think this has to do with the fact that the many ski areas were created on gentle hills and less on steep terrain which makes it harder to build the required infrastructures in the Old Continent. Many resorts offer this opportunity, even if not on all the slopes. Usually, the day session ends at 4:30 pm to leave enough time for grooming before the night session, which starts at 5:30 pm till 9 or 10 pm. Skiing at night is definitely cool and opens up so many opportunities. You can finish work at 5 pm and hit the slopes by 6 pm every day or go skiing before going out for dinner.

nub's nob lodge night
Nub's Nob lodge at night

Americans are famous to be efficient in how they set up things and how they do business, probably this skill was part of Henry Ford’s heritage - born and raised in Michigan. The ski rental at Nub’s Nob confirms this. All you have to do is fill up a paper form with your details, what you need, and your level. Then you walk to the counter where you pay and receive everything. There is no choice about the brand or type of skies: beginner, intermediate, or expert. One model for each level. Simple as it is. You can also leave your gear at the deposit overnight, so you don’t have to carry it in the car. It took us maybe 5 minutes to get our stuff. Fordism at its best.

Nub’s Nob is located in the northern part of Michigan which is both a winter and summer destination for wealthy families. Driving around the few towns we realized that the area is barely populated at this time of the year - apparently, the West is still the preferred destination for skiing. The closest supermarket was a 25 minutes drive away and had no restaurants around. Threes covered in snow, deers strolling around and a muffled silence sharpened the perfect atmosphere.

The roads up here are not for everyone

Our Airbnb was a nicely decorated summer cottage right on Lake Michigan. One of those houses we saw in American movies when the family migrates for the summer and the kids have crazy adventures - Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is the movie you are trying to remember the name. This created an asynchronous experience: we skied during the day and came back to a typical summer house in the evening - definitely something not possible in Europe

The ski area itself is nothing special if you compare it to the Alps. The resort has been around for more than 60 years and it seems that the lifts have been renewed in a minute. The lifts do not have the usual safety bar to put your skis on and to protect you from falling. Definitely, something you don’t see in Europe as it might be illegal and a bit scary if the weather conditions are not ideal.

pintail lift nubs nob
Pintail lift

Continuing on things that you would never see in Europe: the ski pass was a sticker that you have to stick on your jacket. I was quite shocked when they give me my sticker and I had to figure out how to pin it on my jacket so that the guy at the lift can easily see it. One upside of the sticker system is that there are no turnstiles at the lifts therefore no queues. Everything is very smooth and we have never waited more than 30 seconds to get on any lift. The long queues in Europe are a nightmare and influence where and how you ski. The sticker does the job.

Nub's nob 60s vintage
The lifts did not change much since the 60s

When it comes to the skiing culture itself, Americans remain Americans. You can see them doing a barbecue or eating fried chicken while drinking Bud Lights from the can in the parking lot or chilling at the lodge with whiskey and cigars. Nothing different from what you can see before a football game or in the summer by the lake. They don’t have staple foods or drinks like Strudel and Bombardino - bad for them. What amazed me was their cordiality. They have a smile for everyone. On the lifts, in the lodge, the lady at the ticket counter and the man who approached me in the parking lot and started talking in Italian because his daughter lives there. I guess not many tourists from abroad make their way up to Nub’s Nob. I made many friends thanks to my Italian accent which obliged me to listen to multiple “Come Staaaai?” and explain where I am from “From the center, near Bologna. You know?”. The Midwest cordiality added something intangible to the whole experience.

fried chicken french fries
Proper American food on the slopes

Overall, it has been different but not worse. Nub’s Nob made me feel the real America, the one outside cities like New York and LA. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape reconnect you with nature like nowhere in the Alps where every valley has a town and a ski lift. Michigan is the opposite of Europe’s crowding. Everything is a fight nowadays: find a parking spot, get the last pair of skis from the rental, and catch a crowded lift after 30 minutes of wait. Not in Nub’s Nob. Skiing felt like a real stress-free holiday: Where Skiers Go.


bottom of page