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Winter is My Maine Season

Christine and I spent some of our Christmas break up in Rangeley, Maine, a meandering four-hour drive in which one can actually feel time slowing down. It’s a long ride, of course, but a necessary one, like a four-hour portal: everything simpler and lighter on the other end. A Baptism of sorts.

Rangeley is the home base of iconic Saddleback Mountain, which had closed back in 2015 and spent the next five years dormant. The town, unsurprisingly, suffered mightily with the loss. Businesses faltered, people moved away. Doors were shuttered.

Aesthetically, Rangeley is just what you’d expect a classic Maine village to look and feel like. It’s small—just a few downtown blocks—but packs all the charm and warmth you’ve come so far to find. We stayed at the Rangeley Inn & Tavern, the renowned blue hotel that greets visitors as they drive along Main Street into town. The inn, build way back in 1908, has been refurbished over time, but still maintains its classic feel as one of New England’s grand hotels. After unpacking and getting settled, we brought a couple drinks to the front room and sat by the fire under a massive mounted moose head, letting our bodies transition into vacation mode.

We ate right across the street at Sarge’s, savoring burgers at the bar and trying some of the local brews. A band was setting up shop, but by then we were ready to head out. The next night we ate at Parkside & Main, sitting at the bar again, and had another great meal. I had a French onion soup. Everywhere we went, the people were friendly and easygoing, and most of all, welcoming. After a five-year drought, they were happy to have their mountain, and their livelihood, back.

We took a late-night walk, the streets cold, the night sky ink-dark and blanketed with stars. A horse-drawn carriage clomped down Main Street, while a game of pond hockey was in full swing under a bank of fluorescent lights, making the lake look as though it were glowing in the dark. On the way back to the hotel, we came upon a sign indicating that right where we were standing was the halfway point between the equator and North Pole, 3107 miles away in either direction. I read the sign a few steps to the right—the north side—while Christine took a few deliberate steps in the other direction, toward the equator, just to get a little warmer.

Saddleback’s a stunning mountain—high, beautiful, and offering spectacular lake-views in every direction. I think I spent just as much time standing on the summit, taking it all in, as I did actually skiing. And again, just as it had been in downtown Rangeley, the people could not have been friendlier—greeting me with smiles at every opportunity, asking me if I needed help with anything, if they could answer any questions for me. Saddleback was theirs, and they were proud to have it back.

* * *

A month later my family rented a cabin in Brownfield, Maine as the home base for our annual winter reunion. My brother and his family came in from southern California, plus my two sisters and their families, as well as my mother. We often spend these family retreats in North Conway, New Hampshire, but thought we’d try something different. I liked the rural feel, so much different from bustling North Conway (about thirty minutes to the west). The ride to the cabin was meandering and at times steep, the roads crumbled and challenging. Everything was sheathed in ice. As far as winter getaways were concerned, we were really getting away.

But, once out of the car, my back finally properly stretched and cracked, what I noticed was the air—cold, sure, but clean and pure, like breathing straight oxygen. Sound traveled on the thin air from miles away—a cracking tree, a bird, a distant team of snowmobiles. I took a moment to breathe it all in, drawing the cold into my lungs and then exhaling a plume of frosty condensation, expelling months of stress in just a few releases of exhaust. Like I’d undergone a transfusion of sorts.

My brother, Jeff, and I skied Sunday River the next day. It was the second time I had been there but the first for him. By the afternoon, my thighs were tight and protesting from exploring the vast expanse of the mountain (seven peaks!). After, we had a beer at the Sunday River Brewery in Bethel, and I bought a pint glass to replace the one I had that Christine had broken three years earlier. Let me tell you, it was a long three years waiting for that replacement.

The following day we drove to Cranmore Mountain so the family could go tubing, a tradition that goes back a lot of years with the Conways. I took a couple runs, but spent most of the afternoon bundled on the sidelines, watching the four little kids have fun: Jeff’s five and three year old, Katie’s six and four year old. I’m wise enough to know that these get-togethers don’t happen nearly often enough, and any chance I get to just stand back and watch them—the four little ones—play together, laugh together, hug each other, is an opportunity I take full advantage of.

And then that moment is broken, as I am suddenly distracted by the red blur of my mother’s coat, as she flies past me on her tube. She’ seventy-five years old.

* * *

Jeff and I skied Pleasant Mountain the following day. They’d just changed their name back to Pleasant after years with the moniker Shawnee Peak. I was pleasantly surprised by the mountain (you see what I did there?), even after spending a full day at majestic Sunday River just a couple days before. Pleasant Mountain felt more independent and quaint compared to Sunday River (after all, it’s probably less than half its size), but it didn’t feel small. On the contrary, Jeff and I found endless avenues and detours on the slopes, plenty of opportunities to explore, to get off the main arteries and into the quiet wilderness.

After, we sat outdoors at the base and tried a couple craft beers, large flakes of snow spilling down on us, drifting on the air currents like feathers. It was lovely, of course—heartwarming really—to see the little ones get to spend some quality time together—it’s really what these trips are all about, but it was also nice to spend time with Jeff, just the two of us, skiing Maine together. Sometimes I’d follow him down a few trails, carving along in his exact tracks, and sometimes he’d follow me for awhile. When we’d eventually stop, saddling up side-by-side, we would catch our breath, talk a little, and look around at the scenery—at the distant mountains, the drifting snow, the wisps of low fog navigating the birch trees. In a couple days he’ll be heading to the airport, the chaos and speed of the morning trampling the melancholy of another departure, another stretch of months when I won’t see them. The things we feel but don’t have an opportunity to say.

But that’s not for another couple days. For now, on this snowy January afternoon in Maine, breathing in the crisp mountain air, we finish taking in the moment. Then, rested, we turn our skis downward and get going again. We’ve got a few more runs left in us.

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