Our winter sport involves all manner of movements — up the lift and down the slopes, over moguls and across traverses, down steeps and along cruises. But for many New England devotees of the sport, the most significant movement is … to the past.
Because part of the appeal of skiing is less about movement than about memories: Making first tracks after a midwinter snow dump. Conquering a forbidding trail. Watching your child take her first chairlift ride. Snuggling with your sweetie on the lift and maybe stealing a warm wintry kiss. All to a Barbra Streisand mental soundtrack: The way we were.
Which is one reason why, after five inches of the kind of snow that Coloradans describe as champagne powder, I made my way to Black Mountain, the way things were … a very long time ago. Actually 54 years ago.
That was when, with my parents and little brother, I first ventured into the White Mountains. We stayed in a cozy inn on a New England hill. It snowed overnight. We drove up to Black Mountain, then as now a wrinkle in the granite of New Hampshire. I took one look at Whitney’s Hill and thought it was the North Country version of San Juan Hill, formidably hard to conquer. Today it looks like an anthill, and I’m no Rough Rider.
As the years passed, my love for this sport deepened, but as it did the tug of the past strengthened. I’ve skied in a dozen states, three Canadian provinces and two European countries. Always I am pulled back to New England, to the ice we describe as packed powder, to the hills we call mountains, to the teeny wind-swept faraway outposts we call resorts.
It may not surprise you to learn that the day of that five-inch dump there were only 11 cars in the parking lot at Black Mountain. I asked the young woman at the primitive window that doubled as box office and rental shop how many tickets she had sold.
“Handful,’’ she said. New Englanders are as thrifty with words as with dollars.
“Seriously,’’ I asked. “How many? Ten?’’
She shrugged. There is real eloquence in a ski-area shrug.
“Five?’’ I asked.
Maybe five. Up the creaky stairs and into the lunch room I went, there to encounter another woman, this one in what can only be described as a fit of delicious delirium over the new snow, and about the otherwise empty room the two of us occupied.
“All the hot shots are at the big mountains,’’ she said, telling me something I already knew. “Goodbye! Have a good day! We are here — and it’s better.’’
Better, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
After five inches of that cup-runneth-over champagne powder, I realize that there is only one lift operating, and that skiers won’t be permitted beyond the mid-mountain station. So what? There aren’t 20 of us here at 10 a.m. And how many chairlifts can you ride at one time? Just how many runs can you take in one day?
It was at that moment that I encountered the sign that summarized the retro experience that I found so captivating: “Restrooms — Building Next Door.’’
I pulled out my phone and made a quick check. Out at Breckenridge, in Colorado, there were 34 lifts operating that day. Thats’s 34 times as many as here. There also were 11 restaurants at the resort. At none of them was the restroom in the building next door.
This I knew: I am at the right place.
And I was at the right place the next day, at King Pine, the lovely jewel of a ski area operated as part of the Purity Spring Resort on Route 153 in Madison, N.H., around the bend from Crystal Lake, perhaps the prettiest summertime swim venue in the state. Another quiet I-am-in-the-right-place place that provided a loud blast from the past, even though the restrooms were in the same building as the lunch room. The ethos and environment were the same. No frills. No frippery. No foolishness.
Between these two ski sideslips into the past I walked through North Conway Village. There were snow boots on my feet, skates slung across my shoulders. I stopped in that venerable warming hut on the side of Schouler Park in the center of town, slipped on my blades and ventured onto the ice of the skating rink that I first enjoyed 50 years ago.
If I were an artist on canvas I would say my fellow skaters and I were en plein air. We were merely outdoors, but what an outdoor panorama: The shadows falling on Mount Cranmore. The stores on Main Street (the road possesses the beguiling official title of Mount Washington Highway) lit up. The caramel-colored train station behind me. And the mysterious Moat Mountain range, that fortress of smoky quartz and feldspar, rising behind it.
There was music, of course, in the air, but for me the real music came from a 6-year-old’s proclamation to his delighted dad: “This,’’ he said, “is 100 percent better than video games.’’ The past suddenly didn’t seem so far away.
Earlier that week I had encountered a gentle ski instructor on the familiar terrain of Mount Cranmore’s South Slope. At the end of a run we shook hands and I asked his name.
“Phil,’’ he said. “Phil Haynes.’’
Knowing, as Robert Frost put it in an entirely different context, how way leads on to way, it eventually became clear that he was the son of Norma Haynes, who, on this very hill, a half-century ago, taught me to ski. It brought back so many memories — memories of the way we were — and in the brilliant sunshine of a New Hampshire noon hour it prompted me to wonder, as Barbra Streisand did,
Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line?