Perhaps the greatest tribute skiers pay to our sport’s irresistible draw is the lengths they’ll go to simply get to the mountain. Consider “The Drive.”
No, I’m not talking about Tom Brady engineering another last-minute touchdown for the New England Patriots. I’m talking about the drive to the north country, on a Friday afternoon, right after we get our weekend hall pass from work. Which means traffic. Lots of traffic, especially if you live in the Boston-Hartford-New York metropolitan belt.
It also usually means snow and ice, two elements that don’t mix well with any discussion regarding asphalt, rubber and the joys of internal combustion. But, unless we want to strap on the skinny skis at our local golf hill, or entertain ourselves with reruns of Mikaela Shiffrin on the flat screen, “The Drive” is a necessary evil.
Some of my earliest ski memories are of Mom and/or Dad white-knuckled at the wheel of our big Ford Squire wagon during the winter hauls from New Jersey to Vermont, New Hampshire or Quebec. Even worse was the expression on Mom’s face when, exhausted after five hours of piloting our barge, she let a friend take over the driving chores.
Mrs. Bogart, a sweet lady with no clue whatsoever about how to handle the elements, promptly plowed the family wagon, with all nine occupants, straight into a snow bank. I’ll never forget the sense of gratitude I felt when a group of young men stopped and pulled our Ford back onto the road.
Those recollections haunt me to this day, especially since I now have daughters of my own. But I also have the first-hand experiences that now temper my enthusiasm for The Drive. It doesn’t prevent me from going — it just gives reason to pause, plan and perhaps say a little prayer. Your basic driver-seat Christian.
Those prayers were never more fervent than a few years back, when my wife and I, pre-kids, made the trek to Sugarloaf one fateful evening. Typically, I really enjoy the four-hour trip to Maine’s Carrabassett Valley. It’s basically two roads from my home on Boston’s North Shore — Interstate 95 up to Vacationland’s capital in Augusta, then west on Route 27, through the lovely villages of Farmington and Kingfield.
On the night in question, however, Old Man Winter, lunkhead drivers and a rear-wheel-drive minivan all conspired against me.
We got a late start, made worse when some hot-shot in a Euro sedan ran a yield sign and nearly ran us off the road. I tried to laugh it off, as the guy followed us up Interstate 95, flipping us the bird. Hotheads I can handle — falling snow is another matter. It started slowly, but then gathered force just north of Portland.
Eventually, the Star Trek special effect of horizontal snow transformed my windshield into the cockpit of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise just as the ship was about to jump into hyperspace. The sensation is really, really cool — for all of three minutes. Then it starts to wear on you, and within 30 minutes promises to convert even the most mild-mannered, level-headed motorist into a raving lunatic.
Miraculously, just as I was about to go off the deep end along the frost heaves of Belgrade Lakes, the snow abated. Actually, “abated” might be the wrong word, since the snow simply changed to freezing rain. Which made the roads an ice rink. We inched through Farmington, took the right-hand turn where Route 27 lurches toward the Bigelow Mountains, and began the final leg to The Loaf.
Not five minutes later, when my concerned wife asked how the road conditions were, I casually pointed to the car in front of us, and said: “Honey, see those taillights reflecting off the road?” I didn’t even have a chance to finish the sentence before the car, going all of 35 miles an hour, lost traction on the ice and literally zipped sideways off the road. My wife, speechless, grabbed my arm, and I eased off the accelerator, dropping down to 25 miles an hour.
For the next hour, we crawled up the road, the van’s back end constantly fishtailing ever so slightly, which led to my ever-tightening grip on the steering wheel. Behind us was an expanding line of vehicles, a ghostly parade of headlights snaking through the Maine night like a funeral procession.
To make things even more unnerving, huge timber trucks kept barreling by in the opposite direction, convincing me that the crazed French Canadian drivers behind the wheels of those big rigs had a death wish. In Kingfield, I pulled over, not only to let my jangled nerves settle, but to let the 50 or so cars following us get around. Eventually, I screwed up my courage and we got back on the road for the last 18-mile stretch to Sugarloaf.
Until that point in time (remember, we didn’t have kids), I had never experienced such a visceral sensation of relief as the moment I parked by our slopeside condo. Resisting the urge to beeline to the nearest bar, I began unloading the van. I crossed paths with an attractive woman standing beside her newly dented Jeep.
“I thought that would have been the perfect vehicle for these conditions,” I quipped. With a look that made me wither, she spit out: “Four-wheel drive doesn’t do you much good when all four wheels are on ice.”
So now my wife and I have a pair of trusty, all-wheel drive Subarus. But each car has a fully loaded “winter rescue” box, containing road flares, sand, an ice pad, windshield washer, anti-freeze, jumper cables, de-icer, fleece blanket and extra mittens, hats and socks.
You can’t take enough precautions when preparing for The Drive. Even if you’ve said your prayers.