Where the Wild Things Are

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Where the Wild Things Are

"I've got to show you the poster," says Cannon ski patrol director Mike Pelchat, when the howling wind that's making the chair sashay like Britney Spears lets up a little.

We ski into the basement of Cannon's tram building-literally, thanks to a skim coat of snow on the concrete floor-click out of our bindings and walk past the innards of the giant lift. In the patrol room, crammed full of radios, sleds, and rolls of adhesive tape, the Fischer-skis poster hangs above the coffee maker. Scrawled across the front in thick, black marker: You'll never catch me now-Bode Miller.

Normally, ski patrol directors don't flout the Snow Sliders Responsibility Code, but Pelchat beams with pride as he shows off this keepsake. That's because this isn't merely marketing schmooze, an autographed tchotchke from a visiting celeb. Bode Miller, winner of World Cup races and two Olympic silver medals, didn't stop here as part of his 2002 North American Goodwill Tour, nor did he sign on as official ski ambassador of Cannon Mountain. No, Bode is a born-and-bred Franconia Notch homey, and Cannon is his mountain. He lives a few GS turns away in Franconia, and so do his mom, his dad, and his brothers. He had his first day on skis here. His first run through the gates here. And his first brush with the patrol. "Oh, yeah, I got yelled at and harassed for just going too fast, straight-running stuff," he recalls. "I didn't do a lot of turning."

The relationship between Miller and Cannon may seem like mere coincidence-Bode represents ski racing's new school, and this place is nothing if not old school. The state-owned resort is the fourth-oldest ski area in the United States; its first chairlift was built in 1938. Even today, there are no condos, no base village, and no skiers wearing fur. But, as I came to understand this skiers' mountain and its people-Bode's people-I learned that it was no accident that America's best ski racer honed his take-no-prisoners style at this edgy, rough-hewn Eastern classic.

"He's down, he's up, he's Bode," shouts the starter, doing his best Bob Beattie impression. He's watching an insurance agent moonlighting as a ski racer get squirrelly, rail on an inside edge, and make a semiremarkable recovery at the third gate. This recovery isn't quite an Olympic-caliber correction, but clearly Bode Miller isn't Cannon's only go-for-broke racer. It's the second run of the resort's annual Avalanche Cup, a legitimate World Cup-style GS race down Avalanche, the steepest of Cannon's storied Fab Five runs. We're gathered just below Killy's Corner, where Jean Claude won the 1967 North American championships by taking an audacious line through this hairpin turn.

This Ain't NASTAR-Eat Your Wheaties warns the race's promo poster. Apparently I didn't eat enough: I'm freezing. It's not so much the five-degree temperature, it's the wind gusting from the northeast at 35 miles an hour. But I don't dare complain. Shivering in my insulated Gore-Tex, I'm standing among a bunch of guys in skin suits, and they seem immune to the cold-conditioned by Cannon, I guess. Bode puts it in perspective, recalling a particularly brisk Cannon day: "It was minus 20, with a 45-, 50-mile-per-hour wind. With the wind chill, it was minus 110. I had two neck warmers on, no skin exposed, and I still got pretty bad frost-bite on my nose and ears. The only thing that made me want to go in was when my feet got pretty cold."

Bode tells the tale matter-of-factly. Every Cannon skier has this kind of story. Indeed, single-digit temperatures are routine, and Cannon is the site of one of the highest wind gusts ever recorded in the continental U.S.-a 199.5-mile-per-hour blast in 1983. It's also the site of several fateful moments in ski history. From Avalanche, look left, and you'll see the trails where Bode raced for the Franconia Ski Club. And legend has it that during the '67 championships, Killy and his French teammates all locked arms at thtop of this course and pointed 'em. The first to peel off bought the beer. The name of le buyer de bière is lost to history, but it was not Jean-Claude Killy.

Five-year-old Bode didn't need a bar bet to fall in love with speed. He didn't need a clock, either. The Cannon Tram was his timer, and the key was a quick start. "You've got to slide down the railings, and get into your skis really quick and take off," he says. He'd get in a tuck and hold it straight down Tramway, Paulie's Extension, and then Avalanche, and if he got to the bottom before the tram did, he won. "I liked the fact that I could see directly if I was getting faster," he says. "I was into going fast. Lots of top-to-bottoms. Getting tons of miles in."

But Bode admits that as a youngster, he was long on cojones but short on technique. "When I went to CVA (Maine's Carrabasset Valley Academy) that first year, when I was a freshman in high school, I was tossing around the idea of switching to snowboarding, because I was so much better than everyone else at snowboarding, and I was still struggling with skiing," he says.

Even so, I am beginning to understand how Cannon could become a nurturing ground for a world-class skier. Despite efforts at grooming, the aforementioned Extension features snow that, on the hardpack scale, falls somewhere between a World Cup course and a hockey rink-"bluish greenish ice," in Bode's words. When I let it loose through Upper Cannon, I discover that twisty trail has the rhythm of a GS course. Ski it right, from apex to apex, and the trail all but hurls you from turn to turn-all 18 of them.

After the last Avalanche Cup racer has run, I steal a sample of the course. Skied on a regular day, the trail is wide and sneaky steep. This course was set by someone who knew what he was doing-it's tight enough to test your skill yet open enough to test your valor. As I run through the now-abandoned gates, the ruts are downright Calvinist, predetermining my course, rendering the bamboo mere window dressing. As I make the big hockey stop at the bottom, I'm glad I ate my Wheaties. And doubly glad I'm not wearing Lycra.

Some mountains welcome you. Cannon does not. Viewed from Route 93, the Fab Five on the mountain's front side look like some giant prehistoric grizzly casually raked a swath out of the mountain with an immense paw. Down the road apiece is the Old Man of the Mountain, a craggy rock formation that seems to peer down on you with thinly veiled contempt as you head toward the slopes.

But ask any local, and they'll tell you that the real old man of the mountain can be found in Cannon's parking lot when you're still in bed. If you want to know what Bode Miller might look like in 50 years, just hook up with 75-year-old Cyrus Gray.

With a cherubic face framed by a white beard and wire-rimmed glasses-think Santa after he's hit the gym for a couple months-Cyrus has been skiing here for as long as he can remember. Probably about 60 years now, give or take.

During the winter, Cyrus is a creature of habit. He leaves his house in Ashland at 2:30 a.m. and gets to the mountain about half past four. Then he gets to work.

"Build ski racks. Build snowboard racks. Build the coat racks. Shovel the decks off. Build a fire. Put the ski reports out. Whatever needs doing," he says. And the retired loom mechanic has been doing this for free for years. "This year they insisted I punch in, but I don't every day," he says.

Then he'll wait for the first chair and ski like an old bat out of hell for a couple of hours. But he doesn't exactly live for the freshies. "I like it hard," he says, flattening the "a" Down East style, so that hard rhymes with sod. "I want to hear skis on the snow." His idea of fun centers on only the most cursory speed control; covering the maximum amount of terrain in the minimum amount of time makes a certain kind of perverse sense for a septuagenarian. "I love Skyliner when nobody's in front of you," he says. "Just right straight down and let them fly."

Then around 11:30 a.m., he'll hit the bar for a Southern Comfort or two. In six decades on the mountain, Cyrus has seen it all, but he freely admits he's never seen anything quite like Bode Miller. "He's some skier," says Cy. "A crazy Cannon Mountain skier. He skied that way as a young kid, and he hasn't changed any."

"Cannon Mountain, This is Jo." Call Cannon, looking for a ski report, a price on lift tickets, or the answer to some truly stupid question (what's the weather going to be like next week?), and you're likely to get a brush with greatness at no extra charge. Jo, you see, is Jo Miller, Bode's mom. Why does she work here? For the same reason most people work at a ski area. "I started working here because I could get a pass for myself," she admits, "plus passes for my kids at $75 apiece."

But Jo Miller is no ski bum; it goes deeper than that. While Bode seems to be enjoying his globetrotting, his mom couldn't be more at home here. Cannon is part of the Miller family history. Bode's grandmother raced and taught skiing almost from the day the mountain opened. It was Jo's personal playground when she was a child, and later it served as a daycare center with chairlifts for Bode and his siblings.

All this hardscrabble Eastern history has prepared her-and Bode-for the craziness of the past year. After you've seen your 12-year-old son Bode swept away in an avalanche on nearby Tuckerman Ravine-only to reappear seconds later unharmed-it's hard to get too stressed out about a near fall in the Olympics.

Jo resigned herself early on that Bode would push the boundaries of skiing, particularly given the ample opportunities around Cannon. "We skied Mittersill quite a bit," Bode recalls. "We'd hike over there, and I had some ski-shop guys who would let me go with them, and we'd have people pick us up." Mittersill, a ghost ski area attached to Cannon that closed down in the early 1980s, is the area's worst-kept secret. I ask Pelchat about it, and he points me in the direction of a large closed sign. "Remember to keep your speed up as you go under the rope," he says with a wink. Just a short hike over the saddle and you're there. If you hold a series of hard rights, you'll end up right back near Cannon's base area.

I hook up with a group of locals who'd left a pickup truck near the condos down the road at Tuckerbrook. It's cat skiing New England style-frugal and rugged, enabled by skill, ingenuity, and improvisation rather than your Visa card.

Mittersill is even wilder and woodsier today than when Bode skied there. I follow my guides on the short hike over the saddle and slip through the tiniest of slots between two pines. Suddenly the world is covered with marshmallow fluff, the remnants of a quick-hit storm the night before. It isn't face-shot deep, but even the normally taciturn locals are whooping this day.

As we get farther down, the rent comes due. The trees narrow, the lines disappear, and the snow more closely resembles wallpaper paste. Linked recoveries become the order of the day, leading to unlinked recoveries and even a few up-close-and-personal moments with the local flora. When I get to the bottom, butt-sliding the last few feet toward someone's rear deck, I know I've earned my turns.

Mittersill's unofficial motto is "ski good or eat wood." In the bar afterward, I discover that this is more than just a catchy turn of phrase when a local tells me about one late-spring adventure in the Mittersill woods. "The whole surface of the snow subsumed, and I lost the turn," he explains. This sent him toward a particularly pointy pine. He swatted the foliage from his face as he prepared to hug an evergreen, but one pencil-sharp twig stuck on-or rather into his cheek. "I looked like I'd been shot by an arrow," he laughs. "It'd be chic down in New York, piercing, don'cha know?" In typical Cannon style, h's in front of you," he says. "Just right straight down and let them fly."

Then around 11:30 a.m., he'll hit the bar for a Southern Comfort or two. In six decades on the mountain, Cyrus has seen it all, but he freely admits he's never seen anything quite like Bode Miller. "He's some skier," says Cy. "A crazy Cannon Mountain skier. He skied that way as a young kid, and he hasn't changed any."

"Cannon Mountain, This is Jo." Call Cannon, looking for a ski report, a price on lift tickets, or the answer to some truly stupid question (what's the weather going to be like next week?), and you're likely to get a brush with greatness at no extra charge. Jo, you see, is Jo Miller, Bode's mom. Why does she work here? For the same reason most people work at a ski area. "I started working here because I could get a pass for myself," she admits, "plus passes for my kids at $75 apiece."

But Jo Miller is no ski bum; it goes deeper than that. While Bode seems to be enjoying his globetrotting, his mom couldn't be more at home here. Cannon is part of the Miller family history. Bode's grandmother raced and taught skiing almost from the day the mountain opened. It was Jo's personal playground when she was a child, and later it served as a daycare center with chairlifts for Bode and his siblings.

All this hardscrabble Eastern history has prepared her-and Bode-for the craziness of the past year. After you've seen your 12-year-old son Bode swept away in an avalanche on nearby Tuckerman Ravine-only to reappear seconds later unharmed-it's hard to get too stressed out about a near fall in the Olympics.

Jo resigned herself early on that Bode would push the boundaries of skiing, particularly given the ample opportunities around Cannon. "We skied Mittersill quite a bit," Bode recalls. "We'd hike over there, and I had some ski-shop guys who would let me go with them, and we'd have people pick us up." Mittersill, a ghost ski area attached to Cannon that closed down in the early 1980s, is the area's worst-kept secret. I ask Pelchat about it, and he points me in the direction of a large closed sign. "Remember to keep your speed up as you go under the rope," he says with a wink. Just a short hike over the saddle and you're there. If you hold a series of hard rights, you'll end up right back near Cannon's base area.

I hook up with a group of locals who'd left a pickup truck near the condos down the road at Tuckerbrook. It's cat skiing New England style-frugal and rugged, enabled by skill, ingenuity, and improvisation rather than your Visa card.

Mittersill is even wilder and woodsier today than when Bode skied there. I follow my guides on the short hike over the saddle and slip through the tiniest of slots between two pines. Suddenly the world is covered with marshmallow fluff, the remnants of a quick-hit storm the night before. It isn't face-shot deep, but even the normally taciturn locals are whooping this day.

As we get farther down, the rent comes due. The trees narrow, the lines disappear, and the snow more closely resembles wallpaper paste. Linked recoveries become the order of the day, leading to unlinked recoveries and even a few up-close-and-personal moments with the local flora. When I get to the bottom, butt-sliding the last few feet toward someone's rear deck, I know I've earned my turns.

Mittersill's unofficial motto is "ski good or eat wood." In the bar afterward, I discover that this is more than just a catchy turn of phrase when a local tells me about one late-spring adventure in the Mittersill woods. "The whole surface of the snow subsumed, and I lost the turn," he explains. This sent him toward a particularly pointy pine. He swatted the foliage from his face as he prepared to hug an evergreen, but one pencil-sharp twig stuck on-or rather into his cheek. "I looked like I'd been shot by an arrow," he laughs. "It'd be chic down in New York, piercing, don'cha know?" In typical Cannon style, he ignored the stick, snaking through the woods for two hours to get back to his car. When he walked casually into the ER, the nurse almost fainted. The doctor scratched his head and said something like, "Um, I guess we, like, pull it out." The branch missed his carotid artery by less than an inch.

Watch Bode Miller-or visiting French champions, hell-bent local racers, and grinning 75-year-old speed demons-ski, and you realize that such near misses cut to the heart of every Cannon experience.

Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire:

Vitals:
Top elevation: 4,200 feet
Vertical: 2,146 feet
Acreage: 163 acres
Snowfall: 150 inches Lifts: 1 tram, 1 high-speed quad, 1 quad, 3 triples
Info: 603-823-8800, cannonmt.com

Getting there: Take Exit 34C from Interstate 93; Cannon is approximately 150 miles from Boston.

Thirst: Live bands get started around 4 p.m. on weekends in the Peabody Pub in the base lodge, which is popular with locals and season-pass holders. An après-ski favorite, Woodstock Station and Brewery is known for its Pig's Ear Brown Ale as well as casual food and live entertainment (603-745-3951).

Hunger: The Common Man (603-745-DINE) has a big fireplace and appetizing dishes like lobster corn chowder and hazelnut-encrusted chicken. The eclectic menu at the Gypsy Café (603-745-4395) combines influences from Asia, Europe, and the American Southwest. An authentic '50s diner, the Sunny Day (603-745-4833) is the place for breakfast and pie; it's only open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.

Slumber: Since it's on State Forest land, Cannon has no on-mountain lodging. For local reservations, call the Franconia Chamber of Commerce (800-237-9007). Woodward's Resort is a family-style motor lodge with an indoor pool, a lighted ice-skating pond, and a decent on-site steak house ($49-$119; 800-635-8968, woodwardsresort.com). Three miles from Cannon, the Franconia Village Hotel offers mountain-view rooms ($69-$129; 888-669-6777, franconiavillagehotel.com). Lovett's is a 1784 Cape house on the National Historic Register that has 21 guestrooms and cottages ($125-$235; 603 823-7761, lovettsinn.com).

e, he ignored the stick, snaking through the woods for two hours to get back to his car. When he walked casually into the ER, the nurse almost fainted. The doctor scratched his head and said something like, "Um, I guess we, like, pull it out." The branch missed his carotid artery by less than an inch.

Watch Bode Miller-or visiting French champions, hell-bent local racers, and grinning 75-year-old speed demons-ski, and you realize that such near misses cut to the heart of every Cannon experience.

Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire:

Vitals:
Top elevation: 4,200 feet
Vertical: 2,146 feet
Acreage: 163 acres
Snowfall: 150 inches Lifts: 1 tram, 1 high-speed quad, 1 quad, 3 triples
Info: 603-823-8800, cannonmt.com

Getting there: Take Exit 34C from Interstate 93; Cannon is approximately 150 miles from Boston.

Thirst: Live bands get started around 4 p.m. on weekends in the Peabody Pub in the base lodge, which is popular with locals and season-pass holders. An après-ski favorite, Woodstock Station and Brewery is known for its Pig's Ear Brown Ale as well as casual food and live entertainment (603-745-3951).

Hunger: The Common Man (603-745-DINE) has a big fireplace and appetizing dishes like lobster corn chowder and hazelnut-encrusted chicken. The eclectic menu at the Gypsy Café (603-745-4395) combines influences from Asia, Europe, and the American Southwest. An authentic '50s diner, the Sunny Day (603-745-4833) is the place for breakfast and pie; it's only open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.

Slumber: Since iit's on State Forest land, Cannon has no on-mountain lodging. For local reservations, call the Franconia Chamber of Commerce (800-237-9007). Woodward's Resort is a family-style motor lodge with an indoor pool, a lighted ice-skating pond, and a decent on-site steak house ($49-$119; 800-635-8968, woodwardsresort.com). Three miles from Cannon, the Franconia Village Hotel offers mountain-view rooms ($69-$129; 888-669-6777, franconiavillagehotel.com). Lovett's is a 1784 Cape house on the National Historic Register that has 21 guestrooms and cottages ($125-$235; 603 823-7761, lovettsinn.com).

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