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Exploring New England on a Pair of Skis

For a while, our travel years were a little out of balance. My wife and I usually had an ambitious summer itinerary that often included two or more weeks in Europe, plus a week visiting my brother and his family in California, and then of course we’ll try to get to some of our local favorite places: Newburyport, Massachusetts, or Ogunquit and Kennebunkport in Maine, or down to Provincetown on Cape Cod. But once the tide of winter rolled in, burying us in cold and ice, we tended to switch into conservation mode. I’d go to work, go back home, and then stay home. It’s tough to leave the house on the weekends, the car in the driveway frosted over and not looking particularly inviting. Our calendar was a tale of two extremes: exploration and hibernation.

I first learned to ski when I was eleven or twelve and skied regularly through my teen years and into my twenties. One year in college I got skis for Christmas and so skied a little more frequently for a few years. Then, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I stopped. There is about a ten-year period, maybe even longer, when I didn’t ski at all. Then in the late-2000s my family rented a place up in North Conway, New Hampshire on winter vacation and I skied for the first time in forever. We did it the next year and maybe a couple years after that. On one of those weekends, my twenty-year-old skis broke, so I was back to renting again.

One of the biggest lessons my wife and I learned from traveling is that what we have here, in New England, is just as beautiful as anywhere in the world. It doesn’t make us want to travel any less, of course, but it does give us an appreciation for our own backyard. We have such great summer coastal communities, from P-Town at the tip of the Cape to the rocky shores of Bar Harbor, Maine, and so many in between. There’s the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Lakes Region. Fall foliage. Hiking trails. It’s all here for the taking.

I decided in 2018 that I wasn’t doing enough to take advantage of New England in the winter, that it was a shame that one of the landmarks of New England, its mountains and ski culture, was something I’d let melt away. So I bought myself a brand new set of skis and recommitted myself to the winter season. The days of frontloading the year with spring break travel and summer trips, and then tapering off into the winter, were over, I declared.

We decided on a reverse-engineering approach. That is, rather than the actual skiing being the goal and driving force, and the hotel room the necessity, we were going to look at it differently: the skiing would really be just a catalyst to get us out there seeing some new places and having new experiences.

That winter, for instance, I skied Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire four times. We used the town of Gilford as a home base, on the southern end of Lake Winnipesaukee. We ate dinner in nearby Meredith at a restaurant called Camp, its décor reminiscent of old cabins I’d stayed in up here as a kid. I appreciated the bathroom door with its authentic squeaky hinge and hook lock. Meredith, so busy in the summer season, felt desolate. Ice crystals flickered off the frozen lake like stars, and a few ice fishing shelters dotted the white expanse. Occasionally, a snowmobile would hum across the lake in the distance, a tiny silhouette of a shape etching a line through the horizon.

The next day we drove partway around the lake to the village of Wolfeboro. We got coffee at one of the many funky coffee shops on Main Street and sat in the back of the café, where a large picture window looked out onto Wolfeboro Harbor. I cupped my hands around my mug and kept them there, letting it warm my palms. We watched a seaplane take off from the ice of the lake, its wings tipping left and right as it climbed and found its balance.

We opened the season the following year with a December weekend up in Bethel, Maine, home base of the Sunday River Ski Resort. Sunday River boasts seven peaks and was by far the largest mountain I’d ever skied. We stayed at the Jordan Base Lodge right there on the mountain, a balcony view of the slopes. A fire crackled in the main lobby, and we used the outdoor Jacuzzi after my afternoon of skiing, even though by then it had started snowing.

At night we drove into town and visited the shops, the snow driving harder now. In one country store, we bought homemade fudge, the store’s wood plank floorboards creaking under our footsteps. We ate dinner at the Sunday River Brewhouse and sat near the front window, watching the snow and listening to live folk music. My body felt sore, in a good way, and the day of fresh air had seemed to clear my lungs, and my head. The beers felt earned, and welcomed.

In January we had another one of our traditional family get-togethers in North Conway, the quintessential New England winter ski village. The small town center is chock full of restaurants and bars, microbreweries and coffee shops, and of course Zeb’s, the old-time country store with everything from old-fashioned penny candy to clothing and retro bottled sodas from an old Coke machine. In the background the iconic train depot looms, the giant black engines of the North Conway Scenic Railroad parked in the yard, snow-capped mountains looming in the background.

We spent the weekend playing board games and eating. Our rental had a game room with a Pac Man and a Galaga arcade cabinet, and a view out the back sliding door of nearby Cranmore Mountain. One morning a group went tubing over at Cranmore, and my brother-in-law and I skied.

Just a week or so later Christine and I took a ride back up here and stayed in neighboring Jackson, New Hampshire. I skied Attitash Mountain during the day and we walked the quaint village later. Jackson’s a quieter home base than North Conway, but retains all the charm. We had dinner and drinks and walked to the covered bridge, then strolled to the photogenic Jackson Library for a couple photos. We liked Jackson so much we came back again later on that winter and I skied Black Mountain, just ten minutes outside town. Black is an independent mountain resort and it shows—there’s a vintage single-chair lift, something only a couple older resorts still have today. At the base of the mountain is a ranch with horses hanging out in a snowy pasture, which makes for a lovely view coming down the final stretch of your run. It’s impossible not to feel your body and your brain recalibrate, to synch itself to the rhythms of the mountain and rural Jackson. At the mountain’s summit, I always took pause to gaze northwest at the snowy peak of Mount Washington, almost having to force myself to break from its draw and start skiing.

This, in the end, is the whole reason for making the effort. The skiing is nice, of course, the exercise, the cardio, working those muscles that don’t otherwise get a lot of attention especially during the long, cold winters. But just as much it is the fresh air and vitamin D of the sharp sun, the 360 panoramic views of the ancient White Mountains. This year, because of the pandemic, our weekend ventures were sidelined in favor of easy day-trips to mountains like Crotched in Francestown, NH and Mount Sunapee in Newbury, NH. But even without the funky towns and winter villages—which was the main reason for my getting back into skiing in the first place—I’m still able to get out in open space. I like to take the greens and the blues, beginner and intermediate, even though I’ve been skiing my whole life. Maybe it’s a metaphor: not a destination but a journey, no race to the bottom for me. I take it leisurely, working on my wide carves, slicing an easy S through the snow. I’ll stop every few minutes, foremost to give my burning thighs a break, but also to hit the pause button. To take it in. I’m always surprised when I brake to a stop and the silence hits me. I never realize just how loud cutting through the granulated ice is. But then I’m surrounded by the quiet. Often I’ll find myself the only one on this particular section of the slope, and I could almost believe that I’m the only one here, on the entire mountain. Pine trees guard the tree line along the trail, pops of vivid green, sometimes encased in frozen drips of ice. Sometimes I hear the trickle of a stream somewhere hidden in the trees. I’ll pull my water bottle out and take a long draw, looking out at the vast expanse—the snow-capped mountains decorating the horizon, the frozen lakes below, Time slows. The moment takes over. Schedules and calendars disappear, washed away by the bright winter sun. I’ll take a long, deliberate breath, filling my lungs.

Then I’ll remember that I’m here to ski, and so, a little reluctantly, I’ll pull my sunglasses down and push off, moving again, the moment in the rearview. But I know there’s another one coming, right up around this next corner. A view worth stopping for. A moment worth savoring. And I also know, at this rate, I may never get down the mountain. And that’s okay with me.

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