Curves Ahead

Travel East
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Curves Ahead

Buttery sunshine has me rolling up my sleeves as I steer my car north out of Manhattan. It's a beautiful day for a road trip. Traffic is light, and by lunchtime I'm climbing out of the Hudson Valley toward a horizon pregnant with Green Mountains. High snowbanks line the side of the road, and soon I'm bouncing over frost heaves stained white with salt. My Vermont skiing pilgrimage is under way.

The purpose of this trip isn't just skiing. I intend to devote as much attention to getting there as being there. And though there are quicker ways to get to the slopes, I aim to thread my way north through the heart of Vermont ski country on what is arguably its central nervous system, historic Route 100. I'll combine rambling tours of general stores, sugarhouses and quaint country inns with a smorgasbord of the state's finest ski hills, and I'll seek out the company of bohemian rat-race refugees and old-time New Englanders.

Click the slideshow for more images.

Route 100 frequently appears on top 10 lists of America's most scenic drives. That may be due largely to benign neglect. Vermont's busier, more efficient north-south highways follow friendlier terrain to the west (Route 7) and east (I-91), while 100 bulls its way up the middle through the north-south mountain ridges that corrugate the center of the state. Long ago abandoned by all but local traffic and sightseers, it ranks low on the Department of Transportation's to-do list and, for decades, has been spared "improvement. It remains a bucolic, two-lane affair—double yellow stripes down the middle, cracked asphalt occasionally muddied by the passing of agricultural machinery.

In places, 100's tortuous route trends only grudgingly northward, through mountain passes and narrow valleys, often accompanied by the narrow headwaters of some of the state's better-known rivers—the Black, the White, the Mad. It deferentially picks its way around cornfields, instead of through them, and through villages, instead of around them. A couple other things become instantly apparent when you cross the border into Vermont. There aren't any billboards. (They've been illegal here for decades.) And in a state whose people annually pitch in to clean up (Green Up Day), there's very little roadside litter. Quality of life, indeed.

My first ski resort is Mount Snow, which serves as the gateway to Vermont skiing, and not just geographically speaking. With its abundant acres of gentle terrain, it's perfect for those new to the sport. It's also one of the easiest ski areas in the world to figure out, with broad groomers down the front face, black diamonds on the northern side and easier runs to the south. Not surprisingly, families love it here, and it's a gas to watch from the chairlift as tykes shred the strips of moguls left on the sides of some of the groomed runs. I share one ride with an elementary school teacher from New Jersey who owns a condo nearby. "You should see this place during school holidays, she says.[NEXT ""]When the lifts close, I continue north through forests dusted with snow, past villages huddled by the banks of dark streams, the peeling paint of many classical revivals testifying to the effects of brutal winters. Vermont's toughness and its hospitality seem like opposite sides of the same coin. What could be more welcoming than a country store with a pot-bellied stove while a winter storm howls outside?

In the town of Weston, I stop at the Weston Village Store and breathe in the old-time ambience: creaking broad-plank floors, timber framing and a tin ceiling. Teddy bears and wood bowls share jumbled shelf space with rustic ceramic crockery, hand-woven baskets, duck decoys, wind chimes and weather vanes. In an attached building I find the fudge section, and nearby, locally made jams and aged cheddar cheese.

But maple syrup, of course, is the essence of the state, and Route 100 is lined with forests of maple trees ("sugarbushes) and dotted by tuledown shacks with vented ridgelines and huge piles of firewood stacked nearby in advance of sugaring season. In Ludlow, I stop at the Green Mountain Sugar House and visit with the owner, local girl Ann Rose. Rose's outfit taps more than 10,000 trees each spring. They generate so much sap that tanker trucks are required to haul it for processing. Water is removed from the sap first by reverse osmosis, then by boiling. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.

Ann gives me a piece of doughnut smeared with maple cream. "One of the great things about maple sugar is how many things you can do with it, just by taking out or adding water, she says, ticking off the list: syrup, sugar on snow, maple cream, "indian sugar and candy. Add an ingredient or two, and the possibilities explode. In the store next door I find maple cookies, maple jelly, maple fudge, maple cream, maple custard and even maple pepper. I'm milling about when a young woman comes in. "You have creamies? Oh my God! She's so ecstatic that I have to have a soft-serve maple ice-cream cone myself. It's smooth, rich and sweet, but as I head out the door, I harbor what might be considered a heretical thought: Can there be such a thing as too much maple?

Ludlow's local mountain, Okemo, skis a bit like Mount Snow. It's got 500 more vertical feet, but the terrain is similarly gentle, with lots of unthreatening groomers down the middle, additional easy stuff on the sunny southern side and more challenging pitches to the north in Jackson Gore, which opened three years ago, and where, on a gorgeous day, I spend most of my time. Getting there from the main base area requires a bit of a traverse, and it's a weekday, so I rarely have to share a chair, let alone wait in line for one. Okemo is known for its prodigious snowmaking and grooming, and the conditions are excellent, with single-black runs like Quantum Leap and Limelight presenting some fun zippy pitches without the icy spots I find on the double-blacks.

From Okemo, Route 100 passes through some of its loveliest stretches, skirting the shore of broad, snow-covered Echo Lake before winding along the valley of the White River. At one curve, I have to stop to let a dozen wild turkeys cross the road. My day's drive ends at the cozy and impeccably quaint hamlet of Warren, on the banks of the Mad River, where I check into the Pitcher Inn. Under its deceptively traditional gabled roof, I find the Relais & Chateaux property to be one of the most remarkable lodges I've ever experienced. [NEXT ""]Each of the 11 rooms evokes a different theme, having been designed and executed by a different architect. I stay in the Mountain Room, designed by John Connell to suggest an old-time backcountry wilderness experience. Within the spacious, high-ceilinged room, one corner is framed in 2x4s and roofed with galvanized metal to mimic an old Forest Service fire tower, with a painted panorama of Green Mountains outside the tower's "windows. Old Vermont license plates, antique ski gear, traps, pitons and slabs of Vermont granite up to eight feet long adorn the walls. I'm frequently stunned by the attention to detail lavished on each room.

The closer I look, the more whimsical touches I find: a handmade birdhouse, a vintage first-aid kit and an actual snow brush issued to the troops of the famed 10th Mountain Division. It's like living in an art installation. But a luxurious one, with computer-controlled lighting and a bathroom that features both a steam room and a whirlpool tub.

In the basement bar, I fall into conversation with Whitney Phillips—local boy, backcountry adventurer and president of a sled-making company, Mad River Rocket. Real Vermont, he tells me, starts at Route 4, an east-west corridor I crossed near Killington. "Nothing south of that is Vermont, he says. "It might as well be Mexico.Phillips also relates—while naming no names—how locals create their own hidden trails within the Green Mountain National Forest, which covers all the land to the west of us.

Ski poaching, you might call it. It's all part of the headstrong, somewhat rebellious spirit of the place.

A timid law-abider myself, the only trail I cut is to the ticket window at Sugarbush, which is actually two ski areas connected by a lift, the Slidebrook Express, which runs mostly on weekends and holidays. With 2,600 feet of vertical and 508 skiable acres, the terrain is varied and challenging. The morning is chilly, and the snow is hard at first, but as the sun rises higher the skiing improves dramatically. After exploring most of Lincoln Peak, site of the main base area, I drive over to the quieter Mount Ellen side and enjoy myself even more. At the top of the mountain—the state's third highest— I take in a vista that extends east to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and west to the Adirondacks of New York. Near the end of the afternoon, I find myself panting for breath in a mogul field alongside a bearded local who offers some encouragement. We share a chair on the next ride up, and he introduces himself as Kevin Russell, a green-space advocate who has planned his life so that he can take long lunch breaks and ski. "There's an incredible wealth of creative talent in Vermont, he says. "People come here for the slower pace, and even though it means having to get by on a smaller income, it's worth it to be able to lead a meaningful life.[NEXT ""]Indeed, something about these mountains has drawn creative people for years—refugees from the frantic commercial imperative of the big city, individuals whose souls require a setting that inspires. In Waitsfield, I stop in at the Schoolhouse Market, which sells wine and gourmet foods, as well as five kinds of cheese made on-site. Like many of the area's newcomers, owner Larry Faillace was living in a big city and holding down a conventional job when he decided to radically change his life. He and his wife toured Europe studying the craft of cheesemaking, then bought a farm and brought over a Belgian cheesemaker to give them lessons. Today, Larry runs the cheesemaking operation with his 18-year-old daughter, Jackie, and passes on his learning to others via three-day cheesemaking courses. He slices two samples of his cheese: Aurora, a Trappist-style cow's milk cheese, and Cosmos, a sheep's milk cheese made in a Mediterranean style. Both are richly pungent and delicate. "We only make cheese from May to November, he tells me, "but we age and sell it year round.

Like many of Vermont's creative transplants, Faillace has taken a workaday craft and elevated it to an art. The town of Waitsfield, a few miles down the road, has become something of a hub for such people, including glass blowers, potters and quilters. "The town's become a destination for its crafts, potter Ulrike Tessmer tells me as she applies a layer of glaze to a pot inside her showroom/studio, "and that helps all of us. A few doors down, I stand in the showroom of Mad River Glass amid fantastical gyrations of frozen color. Peering through a window into the basement workshop, I see an artisan twirling a glowing red blob of molten glass on the end of a metal pole.

Vermont draws not just artists, but independent souls and dreamers of every stripe. Back on the road, I head toward Stowe, 45 minutes north, and meet up with Bruce Linton, an amiable young Philadelphia native who gave up civilization to pursue his dream of becoming an Iditarod dogsledder. He's built up a stable of 80 sled dogs and a thriving business giving rides to tourists. As Bruce and an assistant rig 12 dogs to their harnesses, the animals howl and yip, eager to get running. He shows me how to climb into the basket, then slips off the anchor rope, and away we go, bounding over the frozen trail.

The first stretch involves some uphill work, and the dogs stop a couple of times, requiring some shouting and sled-pushing on Bruce's part before we get under way again. Then the trail flattens, andst, which covers all the land to the west of us.

Ski poaching, you might call it. It's all part of the headstrong, somewhat rebellious spirit of the place.

A timid law-abider myself, the only trail I cut is to the ticket window at Sugarbush, which is actually two ski areas connected by a lift, the Slidebrook Express, which runs mostly on weekends and holidays. With 2,600 feet of vertical and 508 skiable acres, the terrain is varied and challenging. The morning is chilly, and the snow is hard at first, but as the sun rises higher the skiing improves dramatically. After exploring most of Lincoln Peak, site of the main base area, I drive over to the quieter Mount Ellen side and enjoy myself even more. At the top of the mountain—the state's third highest— I take in a vista that extends east to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and west to the Adirondacks of New York. Near the end of the afternoon, I find myself panting for breath in a mogul field alongside a bearded local who offers some encouragement. We share a chair on the next ride up, and he introduces himself as Kevin Russell, a green-space advocate who has planned his life so that he can take long lunch breaks and ski. "There's an incredible wealth of creative talent in Vermont, he says. "People come here for the slower pace, and even though it means having to get by on a smaller income, it's worth it to be able to lead a meaningful life.[NEXT ""]Indeed, something about these mountains has drawn creative people for years—refugees from the frantic commercial imperative of the big city, individuals whose souls require a setting that inspires. In Waitsfield, I stop in at the Schoolhouse Market, which sells wine and gourmet foods, as well as five kinds of cheese made on-site. Like many of the area's newcomers, owner Larry Faillace was living in a big city and holding down a conventional job when he decided to radically change his life. He and his wife toured Europe studying the craft of cheesemaking, then bought a farm and brought over a Belgian cheesemaker to give them lessons. Today, Larry runs the cheesemaking operation with his 18-year-old daughter, Jackie, and passes on his learning to others via three-day cheesemaking courses. He slices two samples of his cheese: Aurora, a Trappist-style cow's milk cheese, and Cosmos, a sheep's milk cheese made in a Mediterranean style. Both are richly pungent and delicate. "We only make cheese from May to November, he tells me, "but we age and sell it year round.

Like many of Vermont's creative transplants, Faillace has taken a workaday craft and elevated it to an art. The town of Waitsfield, a few miles down the road, has become something of a hub for such people, including glass blowers, potters and quilters. "The town's become a destination for its crafts, potter Ulrike Tessmer tells me as she applies a layer of glaze to a pot inside her showroom/studio, "and that helps all of us. A few doors down, I stand in the showroom of Mad River Glass amid fantastical gyrations of frozen color. Peering through a window into the basement workshop, I see an artisan twirling a glowing red blob of molten glass on the end of a metal pole.

Vermont draws not just artists, but independent souls and dreamers of every stripe. Back on the road, I head toward Stowe, 45 minutes north, and meet up with Bruce Linton, an amiable young Philadelphia native who gave up civilization to pursue his dream of becoming an Iditarod dogsledder. He's built up a stable of 80 sled dogs and a thriving business giving rides to tourists. As Bruce and an assistant rig 12 dogs to their harnesses, the animals howl and yip, eager to get running. He shows me how to climb into the basket, then slips off the anchor rope, and away we go, bounding over the frozen trail.

The first stretch involves some uphill work, and the dogs stop a couple of times, requiring some shouting and sled-pushing on Bruce's part before we get under way again. Then the trail flattens, and the dogs pick up speed. "They can run 12 mph for 14 hours, Bruce said. The trail slopes downward, and we careen around corners, the dogs' legs in full stride, bits of snow and ice pelting me in the face. We're probably only doing 20 mph, but being so low to the ground makes it feel twice as fast.

Up To this point, dogsledding is the greatest thrill of my Route 100 journey. But my skiing adventure is about to reach a high point too. The town of Stowe not only boasts the highest mountain in the state—4,395-foot Mt. Mansfield—but also the richest tradition of skiing. Norwegian immigrants long ago introduced the art of getting through the snow on planks, and the nation's first downhill ski race was held on Mansfield in 1934. The heritage comes to life at the Vermont Ski Museum, a charming collection of artifacts and exhibits that occupies an airy restored meeting house in Stowe's village. Most surprising historical nugget: The state is home to more than 100 "lost ski resorts that have gone out of business over the years.

The ski history lesson continues next door at the Green Mountain Inn. The inn, which has been lodging travelers for more than 170 years, played an important role in the initial ski craze of the 1930s. In its ground-floor dining room you can read a framed Look magazine article from that era, describing an adventurous young couple staying here while learning to "schuss and "snowplow. (The young man grew up to be President Gerald Ford.) Many of the lodge's older rooms retain the genteel charm of those days, while an annex in back offers a more modern form of swank. Throughout, the walls are graced by gorgeously evocative watercolors of the area by local artist Walton Blodgett, who died in 1963.[NEXT ""]The past is alive and well in the old village, but up on the mountain Stowe has its eyes on the future. Across the road from Mt. Mansfield, the Spruce Peak area is a beehive of construction as the resort embarks on a $300 million expansion plan. So far, two new chairlifts have been built, a new trail cut, and snowmaking boosted by 40 percent. Naturally, there will be real estate as well—a village of new shops, condos and homes, some selling for as much as $1.6 million—along with a golf course for summertime visitors.

While sun-splashed Spruce Peak specializes in easy turns for novices, the real action is where it's always been, across the street on Mt. Mansfield, with its 2,360-foot vertical and challenging steeps. After a week of being lulled by southern Vermont's gentler inclines, I'm jazzed to find myself confronting a whole face of double-black-diamond runs spiderwebbing down from the top of the FourRunner Quad—the fabled Front Four of National, Goat, Starr and Liftline, as well as the historic Nosedive, hand-cut by Civilian Conservation Corps workers back in 1935.

For lunch, I ride the gondola up to the Cliff House Restaurant at the top of the Gondolier run. As I settle in at my table with a bottle of Vermont-brewed Magic Hat ale, the sky, which has been overcast and threatening, begins to clear, bathing the mountain in gold. The panorama stretches to the state line and beyond, all the way to the Presidential Range.

It seems like I've come a long way, driving nearly the length of the state, but from up here, I can see in a glance how small Vermont is. How small, and how spectacular. Tomorrow I'll head home, retracing my route back through these same stunning mountains and cozy valleys. It's going to feel less like leaving it all behind than going back for seconds, and I know it's going to be sweet. Vermont in winter, I muse contentedly, is a lot like its favorite treat: It boils a lot of flavor into a small space.

December 2005 and the dogs pick up speed. "They can run 12 mph for 14 hours, Bruce said. The trail slopes downward, and we careen around corners, the dogs' legs in full stride, bits of snow and ice pelting me in the face. We're probably only doing 20 mph, but being so low to the ground mmakes it feel twice as fast.

Up To this point, dogsledding is the greatest thrill of my Route 100 journey. But my skiing adventure is about to reach a high point too. The town of Stowe not only boasts the highest mountain in the state—4,395-foot Mt. Mansfield—but also the richest tradition of skiing. Norwegian immigrants long ago introduced the art of getting through the snow on planks, and the nation's first downhill ski race was held on Mansfield in 1934. The heritage comes to life at the Vermont Ski Museum, a charming collection of artifacts and exhibits that occupies an airy restored meeting house in Stowe's village. Most surprising historical nugget: The state is home to more than 100 "lost ski resorts that have gone out of business over the years.

The ski history lesson continues next door at the Green Mountain Inn. The inn, which has been lodging travelers for more than 170 years, played an important role in the initial ski craze of the 1930s. In its ground-floor dining room you can read a framed Look magazine article from that era, describing an adventurous young couple staying here while learning to "schuss and "snowplow. (The young man grew up to be President Gerald Ford.) Many of the lodge's older rooms retain the genteel charm of those days, while an annex in back offers a more modern form of swank. Throughout, the walls are graced by gorgeously evocative watercolors of the area by local artist Walton Blodgett, who died in 1963.[NEXT ""]The past is alive and well in the old village, but up on the mountain Stowe has its eyes on the future. Across the road from Mt. Mansfield, the Spruce Peak area is a beehive of construction as the resort embarks on a $300 million expansion plan. So far, two new chairlifts have been built, a new trail cut, and snowmaking boosted by 40 percent. Naturally, there will be real estate as well—a village of new shops, condos and homes, some selling for as much as $1.6 million—along with a golf course for summertime visitors.

While sun-splashed Spruce Peak specializes in easy turns for novices, the real action is where it's always been, across the street on Mt. Mansfield, with its 2,360-foot vertical and challenging steeps. After a week of being lulled by southern Vermont's gentler inclines, I'm jazzed to find myself confronting a whole face of double-black-diamond runs spiderwebbing down from the top of the FourRunner Quad—the fabled Front Four of National, Goat, Starr and Liftline, as well as the historic Nosedive, hand-cut by Civilian Conservation Corps workers back in 1935.

For lunch, I ride the gondola up to the Cliff House Restaurant at the top of the Gondolier run. As I settle in at my table with a bottle of Vermont-brewed Magic Hat ale, the sky, which has been overcast and threatening, begins to clear, bathing the mountain in gold. The panorama stretches to the state line and beyond, all the way to the Presidential Range.

It seems like I've come a long way, driving nearly the length of the state, but from up here, I can see in a glance how small Vermont is. How small, and how spectacular. Tomorrow I'll head home, retracing my route back through these same stunning mountains and cozy valleys. It's going to feel less like leaving it all behind than going back for seconds, and I know it's going to be sweet. Vermont in winter, I muse contentedly, is a lot like its favorite treat: It boils a lot of flavor into a small space.

December 2005

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