We were ascending to a floodlit ski run under an hour from Manhattan, and possibly the least fashionable resort in the western hemisphere. New Jersey is a state with an image problem. It runs down America's east coast in a plump S-shape, its northern half a sprawling commuter suburb of New York City, and its southern half a sprawling commuter suburb of Philadelphia.
For New Yorkers, the trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey means crossing the psychological boundary between civilisation and the beginning of the vast cultural desert of the Midwest. Manhattanites, ever dismissive of the 'bridge and tunnel' crowd who live beyond the Big Apple, see the Garden State as a wasteland of derelict factories and vast, ugly pollution-belching chemical mills.
New Jersey's chief artefact is the Turnpike freeway, used by singers from Simon and Garfunkel to Nanci Griffith as an off-the-peg metaphor for a dead-end life. The most favoured insult a macho young New Yorker can use about a girl is 'she's about as pretty as the ride in from Newark'.
Image is important to New York's skiing classes, who picture themselves rubbing shoulders with the fur coats and movie stars in Aspen and Vail, or perhaps in the more rustic setting of Vermont, complete with log cabins and roaring fires. They won't readily admit that usually a day's skiing means a short trip into the hilly heart of New Jersey. Maybe the resort of Vernon Valley Great Gorge will never rival the Rockies, but with 17 lifts and 52 pistes it can offer a serious day's skiing. A huge array of floodlights dangling in the trees along the slopes means the runs stay open till 10 or 11 at night; so you can go skiing after work.
To get there, cross the George Washington Bridge and point westward on Route 80. The turn-off to Vernon Valley comes after 20 miles or so - don't miss it, because Route 80 doesn't stop until 2,500 miles further on, when it runs out of land at San Francisco. Once off the highway, the real New Jersey experience begins. The FM stations begin to thin out and the cacophony of everything from opera to rap is replaced by a diet of solid Meatloaf. The road is lined with squat malls and fast-food joints, each adrift in its own enormous car park, and the route is lit by towering illuminated signs advertising the essentials of modern American life: Burger King, Exxon, Motel 6.
The ski village at Vernon Valley has the atmosphere of a suburban skating rink or a bowling alley on a Saturday afternoon. At the ski rental shop teenage girls with cherry lipstick and big hair, ferociously sprayed to obedience, point you to the self-service boot rack. Simply grab an armful of boots and hope you land a pair.
The boys who hand out the skis swear unimaginatively at each other and slowly strut about in their baggier-than-thou trousers. Don't worry too much if the colour of your skis clashes with your boots, for out on the slopes you won't be competing in the fashion stakes with many one-piece designer Gore-Tex bodysuits. Check shirts and grungy jackets are the order of the day. Wide boys stub out their last cigarettes and go whooping off down the slopes with scarves and hooded sweatshirts flapping behind.
This has been a good year for the resort. The big snowstorms that have buffeted the eastern USA have kept the runs complete. But the management is sanguine about the prospect of a warm winter: they claim to have the world's largest snowmaking system.
There is a good selection of easy slopes and a few short black runs and mogul fields. The runs twist and turn past looming snow-covered shapes of what appear to be roller-coasters and winding canals. These turn out to be chutes and waterslides. In the summer, the ski area becomes Action Park, a sort of watery Disneyland, trumpeted as 'the world's largest water park'.
One of the best aspects of skiing in New Jersey is that, although it may be short on glamour, the company is a lot more interesting than the glitzy types on the slopes of Colorado.
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