Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first time I went skiing at Snowshoe Resort, I met this tall, smiley guy who checked my pass and effortlessly managed the lift line. He was blasting tunes while making the rounds and chatting with everyone. The next time I went skiing, I saw him again. Then, I went during the summer to ride at the bike park, and there he was, in his element just with bikes instead of skis. I see Michael Williams, aka. Mike Ballhooter, every time I go to Snowshoe—and you probably do too. His happy spirit and ability to smoothly manage the Ballhooter lift have made him a legend of the Snowshoe scene who is recognized far beyond West Virginia’s borders.
The last time I went to Snowshoe, I saw Mike at the lift on the Western Territory and brought him a copy of our fall issue and a bunch of stickers (who doesn’t love stickers?). I asked if he’d be interested in being our profile for this issue and was thrilled when he agreed. When Mike and I started talking, I heard some giggling in the background – it was his wife Dayna, who worked at Snowshoe’s ski school in the early 2000s. Mike claims he’s a shy guy who doesn’t talk much without her around, but it didn’t take long to hear about his 28-year history at Snowshoe and the wonderful life they’ve built in nearby Clover Lick. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up in West Virginia?
I grew up in Harford County, Maryland. I was born in the country to a family of farmers. I even took a career as a farmer for a while, but it just didn’t pay that much. Then I got a job working as a welder for a power company. I got transferred down to Bath County, Virginia, to put in a dam. Two of the guys that came with me were from West Virginia, so that’s how I ended up over here. I lived in Clover Lick, West Virginia, and went back and forth to Bath County. That’s how I learned about Snowshoe. Then, the company went to Hurricane to build a quarry factory. But I liked it here and thought I’d try to get a job at Snowshoe. My sister told me, “You’ve always been a country boy, Mike, so I guess West Virginia is just you.” If I want a city, I can go over to Marlinton.
What was living in Clover Lick like back then?
I called it the backside of the mountain. That is a lonely spot out there – but that’s good. You can’t get in any trouble out there because there’s nothing to do. I moved there around 1984 and got trapped during the 1985 flood. There were two ways in and out of Clover Lick, but both had bridges, so we couldn’t get out until they fixed the roads. When we could leave town again, we went to help do the cleanup in Marlinton. We did quite a bit for the community. Everybody helps each other, that’s what I’ve learned here in West Virginia.
When did you start working at Snowshoe?
I came up here to put an application in August 1993 and—this is no kidding—it was already snowing. I thought ‘it doesn’t snow in August,’ but it did that day. I started in December that year and have now been there for 28 years. When I started, I was the ticket checker. A lift ticket was only $20. If someone didn’t have a lift ticket, I had to charge them five dollars, which I got to keep as commission. I had a money bag with me and I had to write receipts. I busted one guy four times in one day at four different lifts. At the end of the day, I’d easily have $300 or $400 in my pocket, and it started with just a five-dollar bill.
What’s your secret to running the lift line at Ballhooter?
Michael: I just know how to figure out where people need to come in and where they need to go. For me, the challenge is to get four people in that seat every time. Everybody says, “how does he do that?” There is only one way – you gotta have control over the line. Even I have lost control sometimes. I remember telling the customers, “woo – you all need to slow down, you’re about to run me over.” They’re eager – they’re all here to ski and I don’t blame them.
Dayna: He’s got a rhythm to himself when he works. It’s like he’s in his little zone – like you see those traffic cops that are out there blowing their whistle and dancing, directing traffic. That’s him in his element. Visitors are really impressed by how fast the line moves when he’s running line. He can talk to people and have fun and bust them at the same time and they’re still smiling even though he’s taking their pass away, or back in the day, charging them money. That’s what’s so crazy about him, he can set the standards with the customers, and they just have so much respect for him.
Tell me a little bit about building mazes for the lift lines.
Michael: You have to put up ropes and poles to guide skiers in certain directions. If the maze isn’t set up the right way, skiers can fall, slowing down the lifts. So I have to come up with ideas for the best way to build the maze. I even had to draw one on paper in the summertime, I love this, I had color codes and everything.
Dayna: His ability to tie off rope and make lines and barriers with ropes and poles has trickled over to our house. If there’s an area at the bottom of the driveway that’s really muddy and trash trucks are turning around in it, he will rope it off. It’s like his mini version of Ballhooter. I’ve seen him do it to the garden also. He’s like, ‘those dogs are not going to get into our garden this year.’ If he had it his way, I would have to back up my truck in his little lines.
How’d you earn your nickname, Mike Ballhooter?
All I did was check tickets and run lines, that’s how I got my name, because they liked the way I did it. About six years ago, on my birthday, Shawn Cassell [the digital marketing and PR manager at Snowshoe] said we need to set up a website for me because I was Mr. Ballhooter. Now everybody calls me that. They call me on the radio, “Mike Ballhooter – can you hear me?” My tag says Mr. Ballhooter and it’s my license plate on my car.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
If you’re not having fun out there, you’re not going to have a good day. You’re going to be there all day no matter what. I tell my workers that whatever’s going on in your mind, you are not taking it down to Ballhooter. It’ll be there when we get back, but right now we’re going to work and have fun. My favorite part is talking to the guests. I like meeting people and seeing where they’re from. When we first started, we used to have a lot more time to talk to people. Now that we have the scanner, it takes away from that. We used to have a contest to see where people would come from. We would see a lot of people from outside of the United States, a lot of people from Sweden. I’m still trying to figure out how they found out about this place.
What’d you think of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup?
It was just so awesome. The first time they came, I worked at Ballhooter, so I missed the races because I was on the other side of the mountain. This past year I got to see all the riders and talk to so many people. I had a blast. It seemed like at the end of the day, I was just about as famous as the racers were.
How has mountain biking changed over the years?
Dayna: In 2000, you would ride your bike all the way down the mountain and there was a bus with a trailer. You’d put your bike on the trailer and ride back up the hill. In the early 2000s, they started putting the bikes on the lifts and building all the bike trails. It just grew from there.
Michael: Now they’ve got a whole mountain of trails. When we first started putting bikes on the lift, there wasn’t a bike rack. We’d pick the bikes up, put the bikes on the bar, and we’d bungee them on. We had to use a quad chair because it was the only one that could fit the bikes without them hanging out. Only one lift had a quad chair and that was Ballhooter. But we made it work.
You always bring a happy, fun attitude to Ballhooter. What’s it like to be a staple of the Snowshoe scene?
Michael: It’s not just here – it’s everywhere I go. I can go out of state, and people will recognize me. It’s unbelievable. I get along with everybody. I can laugh with them. If someone’s upset, I’ll help them figure it out. My boss sees that and tells me, “You have the gift of gab don’t you, Mike?” I said, “If you’ve been gabbing as long as I have, you’d have it too, buddy.”
Dayna: When we first got our house, he was in a car accident, and he missed like four weeks of work. His boss at the time, said “My emails are full of the complaints and the concerns about where Mike is.”
Michael: I had a lot of people get ahold of me. They even sent me money because they knew I wasn’t working. I felt bad about that, but I’m grateful they were thinking about me. If you treat people good, it’ll come back to you good.
Why have you stayed at Snowshoe for 28 years?
Michael: I had chances to take other jobs over the years that paid more, but I didn’t take them. I was supposed to retire two years ago, and I still haven’t done it. I just had to stick around to see what’s going to happen next. Every year there’s something different. This is the one job I actually enjoy doing.
Dayna: And he just gets more and more famous every year.
Michael: That does help, too.
What outdoor activities do you enjoy?
I love the outdoors. I was always outdoors in every job I’ve ever had. My winter activity is sitting in the house and watching TV. I’m a news junkie. I tried snowboarding, but that didn’t go too well. And I had skis when I lived in Maryland, but I didn’t do too well up here and gave up. But I do have a daughter Tosha and a wife that worked at ski school – that made me happy. In the summer, Dayna and I hunt for morel mushrooms. I’m slow in the woods. If you’re going to find mushrooms, you gotta go slow. I also love fishing and gardening. I grow a garden every year and have so many flowers in my yard.
I hear you have a few pets too.
We’re a rescue family. We have saved a lot of animals in our time. We deal with mostly Siamese cats, I don’t know why, they’re so snooty, but they are good cats. We currently have four cats, two adults and two babies. We went to Beckley to pick up the babies, Juno and Jupiter, which are a breed called Snowshoe Siamese because of their white colored fur. We went all the way to Kentucky to get our dogs. They’re a brother and sister that I named Biscuit and Gravy.
What are your hopes for outdoor recreation and tourism in the future?
I just hope they keep it going. For the people that do come in, all I ask is one thing, what you bring in, take out. Don’t leave any trash behind. I go fishing and in some places all you see is trash. Then you have to clean the trash up before you can enjoy your spot. I pick up trash everywhere I go, and I just wish people wouldn’t litter. We have a fine gem here. Let’s keep it that way.
Go ski or board at Snowshoe this winter and pay a visit to Michael at the Ballhooter lift – you can’t miss him!