Space Between My Skis

Souzz is on the Alumni Board for her college, St.Michael’s, near Burlington, Vermont, and there was a board meeting this past weekend…so of course I tagged along to enjoy the winter fun. Afterwards, we were able to squeeze in a day of skiing at Stowe—a place that I hadn’t visited in forty years (!).

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I’ve enjoyed downhill skiing for a long time, as I was taught to ski by my dad at age seven (my age, not his) in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When we lived in Rapid City, we had season tickets to nearby Terry Peak, and the whole family had a chance to learn the sport, pretty special (thanks, dad!).

My Stowe history began in 1979, when my high school ski club came up to Vermont from Virginia on a four-day bus trip. Back then, I had bushy hair, Stowe’s lift tickets were $16, the mountain had 34 trails, and skiing was my main passion. In the present day, my hair looks best under a helmet, lift tickets are $147, and Stowe has more than a hundred trails…but I still have a passion for skiing.

Souzz spent a lot of time during college in the 1980s gazing out at Mount Mansfield–the highest point in the state of Vermont, and one of the two mountains that form Stowe (Spruce Peak is the other). She didn’t downhill ski back then, only recently having found the sport, so she welcomed the chance to appreciate the view from the other direction.

There is a lot of history to this place. Stowe started as a lumber camp in the late 1700s, and skiing here likely began in the 1800s. The first known recreational skiing was in 1914, when a Dartmouth librarian skied down a trail now called the “Toll Road.”

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a road to Stowe for automobiles, and the US Ski Patrol was started at Stowe in 1934. The resort fully opened for business in 1936, and lift tickets were a dollar (still a hefty sum during the Depression).

Stowe felt the impact of World War II in a lot of ways. For starters, the Stowe ski patrol had a big hand in training the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division (specializing in winter warfare, often on skis). And in the midst of the war, Stowe’s only chairlift had to operate on a limited schedule due to fuel rationing.

Today Stowe is big business, with a lot of fancy lifts and services, and an entire village at the base of Spruce Peak (some call the village the Vail of the East).

Still, in some ways, the mountains are just as they have always been.

Another thing that is unchanged about Stowe is the cold. On that 1979 trip, I remember that the lift operator on the single chair handed me a pancho-style wool blanket before I got on the lift. At the top, I handed my blanket back to an attendant who then stacked it onto a pile of blankets that rode down on returning chairs. This practice continued until the single chair was replaced with a faster four-person chair in 1986.

As a teenager, I also remember aggressive runs down steep trails with huge moguls, as well as a big wipeout on a trail called Hayride. I’ve had a lot of falls over the years, but that one was particularly memorable because I knocked the wind out of myself on my thermos (tucked neatly inside the chest pocket of my anorak). Gasping for air after a faceplant is no way to look cool in front of your high school buddies.

It was also at Stowe that my high school idol, Tye, broke a ski binding in the middle of a trail called Goat (part of Stowe’s fabled “Front Four”) and then promptly one-skied the rest of the way down (clearly a cooler move than doing the Heimlich on yourself with a thermos). I had been trying hard to keep up with Tye on that trip, but it always felt like he was trying to lose me (well, maybe he was).

My return trip to Stowe this year was marked by a more conservative approach, but there was still some nice skiing, including a bunch of trails recommended by Souzz’s friend George. I even got back onto Hayride (sans faceplant)–and I love that George calls Hayride a “cruiser” (see his note below). It occurs to me that George might be a better skier than I am.

I’m no expert skier, but I’ve had the chance to travel and ski a fair amount—and Stowe remains my absolute favorite. The conditions have been great on my trips, the terrain is super interesting, and the mountain has a great vibe.

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I shared a chair with these fine folks. Is it still 1979?

Lastly, my Stowe advice: leave the thermos at home, skip Hayride, and don’t try to keep up with anybody named Tye.

Black and Tan

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Needles Highway, Black Hills

We are making our way east by way of the Badlands after a nice visit with my brother and his wife in the Black Hills. We drove the Needles Highway, visited Sylvan Lake and Custer State Park, and checked out the marvel that is Wind Cave.

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Sylvan Lake
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Wind Cave
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hail-proofing

Arriving in Pringle, my brother asked if I had full insurance on my car–a curious question to welcome a guest. Apparently there was a storm on the way, and golf-ball sized hail was in the forecast. With the carport full, it was time to get creative with windshield protection, local style.

While in the Black Hills, we asked about a Dakotas dish called fleischkuekle–and nobody had even heard of it. Hmm…. The locals do, however, seem to eat plenty of beef and also a fair amount of buffalo, which is easier to prepare and easier to pronounce–so it’s on tonight’s menu.

Next stop, Badlands, by way of the small settlement of Scenic. While misnamed, Scenic gave us the chance to pick up some buffalo steaks at the only store in town, the Tatanka Trading Post (Tatanka is a Lakota word that means “bull buffalo”). The friendly and helpful owner was happy to see us, and the guest book may explain why. We rolled in at noon and we were the first visitors of the day.

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photo by Heyn, 1899

From there, some gravel back roads brought us to the heart of the Badlands, named hundreds of years ago by the Lakota Sioux due to the difficulty they encountered in traveling this land (Badlands is “mako sica” in their language). The terrain is rugged, the heat is intense, and there isn’t much water in the park. Moving around on horseback would have been no easy feat.

While the heat and terrain haven’t changed, travel today is of course a different story, with an excellent road that loops the park. The Badlands are spectacular, a study in shades of tans and greys and colors that seem to just fall off of the prairie above it.

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Bighorn sheep

Back at camp, we served the buffalo steak with brats. The buffalo steak was tender and flavorful, somewhat sweeter than beef, and a nice addition. I would choose buffalo above fleischkuekle, but that may be because I don’t know how to say fleishkuekle.

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