(Editor's note: J. Anton Blatz and René Wymer are serializing loosely-connected tales of city life in the form of an illustrated, non-fiction novel. Read Chapter 1 here. Look for Adventures close to home each month in Model D.
Chapter 2: Ski Detroit!
I met the crew in Brush Park, drinking beers in a loft. They had started their tour in Corktown, cruising past the Victorian homes and tree-lined streets of Woodbridge, occasionally amusing a person shoveling along the route. The group stopped for beers at the Woodbridge Pub, thawing out their toes and fingers, before carrying on across the major avenues of the Cass Corridor to their next stop.
This was the aftermath of 'Snowmageddon', the storm that sent hordes of chaotic shoppers to the grocery store, lining up to buy frozen dinners, bottles of water and cases of beer, anticipating two feet of snow. Before Robocop stirred up passionate debate
across the city, our biggest fear had nothing to do with glorifying the wrong kind of Detroit icon, or with spending loads of money on something that made us look silly. Our biggest fear was much simpler, rather: whether we would have enough food in our cupboards to get us through until the snowplows came to dig us out.
Life was pretty normal for February in Detroit. Cold temperatures and snow had lived up to the high-water mark of childhood winters, and we were forced to brace ourselves against the elements, instead of resurrecting childhood stories of giant snowdrifts and igloos.
The collective attitude was decidedly mellow. Despite chaos in the Middle East, Father Nature was having his way here at home. The morning after the storm was no different. Instead of two feet of snow draped across the city, we had ourselves five tidy inches.
The eye of the storm had veered to the West of us. Chicago had it much worse. Parts of Wrigley Field's roof blew off during the storm, some 900 vehicles were stranded on Lake Shore Drive, and a snowmobile club had banded together to rescue stranded drivers on an interstate highway, like some benevolent gang of outlaws.
The morning of the storm, I took the option to work from home. That meant I missed the first stages of the Urban Ski Crawl (also known as Cross Urban Ski Club). They had just skied across Woodward Avenue when I met them, ahead of the city snowplow crew. With such a small tax base and enormous urban footprint, the city has a hard time keeping up with the demanding Michigan winters. Some folks blame the city for this, but that's about the same as blaming a mortician for death. I think more people should see this for the enormous opportunity that this presents. Skiing through a city is 100 percent wholesome fun.
Inside the loft, the mood was charged. Hats and gloves, boots and skis littered the entrance, and the Ski Club sprawled across chairs, sofas and barstools, chiseling away at a twelve pack. They were ready to cut more tracks with the remaining light.
We set out for the Dequindre Cut, a former line of the Grand Trunk Railroad that once serviced the Riverfront Industrial District, Eastern Market and the suburbs beyond. There are few places in cities that give you a sense of detachment like train corridors do. Cruising through the cut, with Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Towers
standing high overhead, you get to experience the city a different way, like when you see it from an airplane.
The Dequindre Cut has arguably the finest collection of graffiti in Detroit. The concrete abutments that follow the city's street grid provide a measured pace. They also gave artists enormous canvases of concrete to work on, in relative seclusion. New graffiti in the Cut has all but dried up since the pedestrian corridor was opened to the public, but the collection has been preserved, a sort of museum of counter-cultural art made with spray cans.
I was curious to know whether the Cut would be ski-able. Although many of the overpasses have been removed (presumably to draw more light in), six bridges still cross over top. I figured these would block snow from piling up beneath and create giant impassable sections like pedestrian rumble strips. Fortunately, five inches and strong breezes managed to cover things fully.
Coming out of the Cut, we headed towards the riverfront, a few hundred yards away. The sky was beginning to take on the rich tones of sunset. A park has recently been built close to where the path of the Cut meets the riverfront. Small ponds have been dug to create a scenic marshland encircled by walking paths. Excavated dirt has been piled into a modest-sized hill, perfect for bombing. We shot down it and made our way to the untouched snow of the picturesque Riverwalk.
A thin shell of ice on the Detroit River caught reflections of Ceasar's Casino in Windsor and the other buildings of the Canadian city's skyline. Snowdrifts piled up along each country's shore, nosed to the side by the traffic of massive freighters.
We skied past diners in GM's Renaisance Center, crossing through Hart Plaza, and into the rows of buildings downtown. There's only one place to après ski the Dequindre Cut: the Grand Trunk Pub
. The GT's high-arched interior formerly housed the Grand Trunk Railroad's ticket office. I suppose folks used to take the exact route we did, only opposite, heading to the Dequindre Cut to board a train after buying their ticket downtown.
Fried pickles and beer went down easy at the Grand Trunk. We ordered a few 22-ounce bottles of Jolly Pumpkin to share. Jackets, sweaters, gloves and hats came off, and we flipped through pictures of the trip.
Heading out into the night, I made the short walk to the People Mover. Tonight it would serve as my gondola. Gliding high through the city, past a frantic snow removal crew, I touched down in Greektown for my final run home.
J. Anton Blatz says he will look for you down at the pub.Illustration by René Wymer.