A River Runs Through It

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Waitsfield, one of three towns in the Mad River Valley, is only 5 miles from Sugarbush and 3 miles from Mad River Glen.

It's something people usually don't notice right away. But if you watch it long enough and get a feel for its ebbs and flows, you'll see there's something quite different about the Mad River.

Against all laws of nature, it flows backward-the water moves north rather than south. It is fitting then that the people who live in the Mad River Valley flow their own way, as well. Certainly not backward. But not in the manner most would consider customary for what can be described as a resort valley-one with two major ski resorts separated by only a few miles of winding road.

The three towns situated within the valley-Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston-are unlike most resort villages. They aren't about glitz. Or who has the most money. Or the biggest house. Beneath the picture-postcard beauty of covered bridges, white steepled churches and village greens are warm communities that combine the earthy living of the past with a watchful eye on the future. Locals value independent thinking while fostering a spirit of cooperation; they appreciate a little funk and a lot of soul.

It's certainly not an easy place to live. But some would say that the long and harsh winters are character-building. Temperatures in the 20s are considered downright balmy. Power outages are frequent. And shoveling snow from rooftops to avoid flooding is a frequent chore. Locals say the valley has two seasons-winter and the Fourth of July.

While much of the region's character is rooted in the weather, history has shaped its personality, too. Settlers first came to the area in the 18th century. Back then, pastures were filled with cows, and sheep farms lined the riverbanks. Open land was ripe with agricultural crops. Sawmills, gristmills and lumbermills churned out product along the river. But in the early 1900s, the lumber supply diminished and floods took down many of the mills. Milk pasteurization forced a large number of farm buyouts, and the population began to ebb as people took their businesses and dreams elsewhere.

It wasn't until 1948-when Roland Palmedo built Mad River Glen, the valley's first ski area-that the roar of the river was joined by the roar of ski lifts. Palmedo, one of the original investors at Stowe Ski Resort, returned from World War II to find that area had become too commercialized. So he opened Mad River Glen with the aim of creating a skier's mountain to rival even the most hard-core Western resorts. Nearby Sugarbush opened a decade later on Christmas Day 1958, and Glen Ellen (then separate, now a part of Sugarbush) opened six years later on Dec. 12, 1964.

While some locals grumbled about the jet-set drawn to Sugarbush-it was initially dubbed "Mascara Mountain" for attracting a steady stream of movie stars and politicians-many agreed the community began to thrive again with the birth of its diverse ski areas.

Sugarbush, which holds a commanding view from the valley floor along Route 100, is a two-mountain American Skiing Company (ASC) resort with a "bigger-is-better" agenda. In the past two years, the resort has added seven new lifts, including a high-speed quad to link its two mountains (something locals never believed would happen), increased snowmaking by 300 percent, cut numerous new trails, built snowboard parks and added après-ski amenities. In short, it has made a huge investment to create a destination resort.

Mad River Glen, on the other hand, is tucked away in the shadow of the Appalachian Gap along the spine of the Green Mountains. It is everything that Sugarbush is not: humble, understated and very much unchanged since it opened 50 years ago. Among its four lifts is the original diesel-powered single chair that chugs up the fall line to the summit. Employees still use hand-cranked field phones. There is minimal snowmaking. And only 40 percent of the mountain is groomed. Instead of a corporation calling the shots, Mad River is owned by its skiers-a cooperative of die-hard loyalists bent on protecting their mountain.

While Sugarbush's marketing team boasts of increased snowmaking, grooming and new trails, Mad River Glen happily lauds the fact that the trails still weave with wild abandon over unmarked obstacles; the single chair actually limits the uphill capacity and, therefore, the number of skiers on the mountain; and that many of the bumps that erupt at the start of the season are left to grow to epic proportions come spring.

In any other place, the corporate mountain would have swallowed up its privately held neighbor. But in the Mad River Valley, locals agree there is room for both. Though Mad River Glen loyalists sometimes whisper about the "McSkiing" over at "DisneyBush," and Sugarbush fans refer to Mad River as "Shangrila-de-da," the coexistence of these two resorts reflects how the valley embraces a healthy diversity.

That diversity is, in part, what lured "Old Guard" community icons away from cities nearly 40 years ago. "We came here for a different sort of life," says Jackie Rose, who with her husband moved to the valley to buy a farm and raise sheep and Belted Galloway cows. Today she operates The Store, one of the most successful retail shops in Waitsfield.

That diversity is also why Joan and Thom Gorman left fast-track editorial jobs in New York 20 years ago. Now they're innkeepers at the Millbrook Inn and Restaurant in Fayston. "What impressed us about the area, even then, was that it was not a company town like nearby Stowe," explains Joan Gorman. "This place had a lot of soul-even then."

To this day there remains only a handful of working dairy and sheep farms and numerous sugar houses billowing smoke come maple-syrup season. And all but one of the mills have been replaced by a tapestry of quaint inns, health spas, fine restaurants, major construction companies, architecture firms, a canoe manufacturer and specialty shops for just about any service or product imaginable.

There is a dizzying array of four-season recreational options. In the winter, besides the alpine ski resorts, there are four cross-country ski areas, several skating rinks, extensive snowmobile trails and hundreds of acres awaiting winter exploration. Come summer you can take a grueling mountain bike ride over Bragg Mountain, soar over peaks in a glider or visit an art gallery. You can play a game of golf at the Sugarbush Golf Club or watch a game of polo at the local field. You can enjoy some local gossip over a hamburger and fries at The Hyde Away or linger over a candlelight dinner at The Common Man.

The array of options is why the valley is drawing a "New Guard." It includes 30-somethings such as extreme skier John Egan, and former U.S. Ski Team member Doug Lewis. They've traveled the world over but chose to put roots down here. And young entrepreneurs such as Lisa Danforth, who operates a successful children's clothing business called Bottom Buddies out of her basement in Fayston. And David and Robin Cohen, who made the exodus from high-paying city jobs-he as a financial consultant and she as an advertising executive-to start a family and a jewelry business called Baked Beads in Waitsfield. Numerous others work two, three and four jobs to support their adrenaline habits and make ends meet.

Sure, some would acknowledge that locals are just a tad bit mad to endure the frigid temperatures of the long winter months and fluctuating economic climate of this community. But if you've ever been to the valley, you might come to believe, as the locals do, that the environment builds character. You might see that it's as unique as its river. And you just might discover that it's as hard a place to leave as it is easy to come back to.