Living in a ski town

The communities of Hunter, Haines Falls and Tannersville, like nearby Windham, Pine Hill, Fleischmanns and Hillsdale, are basically ski towns, with sports enthusiasts calling the shots during the winter months. While the days of apres-ski partying have abated, challenges remain for full-time residents, as do continuing economic benefits. (Hunter Mtn. Ski Bowl)

They are here. They come here to ski from Rockland County in New York, the five boroughs, and New Jersey. And England.

Oddly, no one comes from Albany. I suppose denizens of The Capitol District, when they think “ski” think “north.” They should be thinking “nearby” and “up.” At 4000-plus feet above sea level,  the snowmaking machines at our local ski resorts furnish a winter wonderland with the flip of the switch.  And the switch gets flipped when the bones get read in early October.

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Except for last year. Last year was a guilty pleasure for those of us who really should be living in Boca. Last winter was one balmy snowless day after another! But snow is the MacGuffin. Those making a living in the winter-sports industry need it, and the winter sports enthusiasts want it. They really, really want it.

People express their desire to ski by spending lots of money. It is an expensive sport, made more expensive by the cachet that goes along with the lifestyle.

There are, however, exceptions. I knew a brilliant businessman who made a spectacular success of himself in several areas of commerce. I happened to be sitting in the lodge of the local ski resort when he wandered in. He was wearing a jacket so old and worn that it was easy to imagine it had been plucked from a dumpster. His ski pants were made of a dingy grey material one can remember only if one can also remember viewing the TV show “Get Smart” in its heyday. Identical replicas of his stocking cap are sold at most gas stations.

He pulled a chair out from the table where I sat.  A visiting ski mom next to me and cuddled a little closer to me, a look of disdain on her face.

A young woman approached, bearing a mug of hot chocolate and a pastry for the old man.

“Isn’t that nice?”  the woman next to me whispered, taking in the sad tableau with a tsk-tsk. “They must know he is poor and hungry.”

“No,” I whispered back.  “He owns this resort.”

Ski wear and snowboard apparel are nifty, let’s be honest. At one time, our mountain was dotted with chic little ski shops selling attractive, pricey togs. But alas, nevermore. Online sales have done their worst in that marketplace, as they have in all others (with the exception of high-end racehorses and very perishable produce). There aren’t enough residents up here to support much of any sort of retail. The added shame is that good ski wear is really, really warm and sturdy, qualities much needed for all of us when the mercury dips below zero, whether or not we ski.

We are high and frigid if, as can happen, we leave our coat in an overheated restaurant one mild night when the wine is flowing. It is possible to purchase a hoodie at the local supermarket that says “I Can Put You on the Naughty List.” But that garment would not withstand the ravages of winter, and the sentiment would certainly frighten our visitors, unacquainted as they are with this grandmother of two. We are grateful for our local church thrift stores, and we stock up when they are open in summer.  They close in winter because they can not afford to heat their facilities.

I’m not sure how skiers look beneath the greenish glow of the compact fluorescents at school and workplace, but here beneath our brilliant blue skies they can be identified by their rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, trim physiques. They frequent our excellent breakfast cafes and consume quantities of delicious calories. Despite the spirit of the times, these meals often include bacon, sausage, ham and fried potatoes.

Of course they want whipped cream on their hot chocolate. They love it that we can tell them just where the maple trees are that wept the maple syrup for them.  Likewise the hives that the honeybee called home, and in which they stored their nectar.

No matter how physically fit these tourists are, no one can take for granted the effects the altitude has on the weather, or the effects the altitude has if you makes one bad move on a cliffside trail. There is a documented case of two young men who followed their GPS onto a snowmobile trail deep into the forest. In their jeep. And got stuck. Lady luck was with them in the form of two bars on their cell phones.

My children attended a neighborhood private school that encouraged derring-do in the students. It was only recently that my kids confessed to routinely sledding on a mountain road so treacherous that the state closes it (installs barriers!) from November until June. That road is carved into the side of a mountain. One side drops off for hundreds of feet. There are no guard rails.

It is best, I believe, that they withheld this information until now when they have, at last, emerged from the age of “Wow!” to “WTF?” It was their teenage years that brought me to prayer. Had I known what they were doing in grammar school, we might be talking electric shock therapy.

Despite the emphasis of out modern times on physical fitness (I am referring, of course, to diabolical apparatuses like the Fitbit, a merciless step-counter which functions to urge people to keep on moving, like rats on a treadmill and which had to be concocted by a psychopathic genius at the NSA), not all skiers are svelte athletes with an equally heightened fashion sense.

In Sweden, people ski to get to work. It is an easy way to overcome Mother Nature’s frosty impediment to travel.  My little son was once put in an advanced snow boarding class because of his ability.  He was seven. There were three German women in his class, who were not as capable.  They were also saftig and jolly.  My little boy spent several hours watching them tumble, helping them up, engaging in snowball fights, and laughing until his stomach ached. The obvious language gap mattered not.

Snow is fun. Our local children have the advantage of easily and conveniently participating in sports not readily available to flatlander kids. Many of them start at about age three on The Bunny Trail. Some of them go on and compete nationally. The ski resorts encourage this, and offer affordable programs. Some kids get recruited to very good colleges and universities to compete for honors that pay tuition.

These are sports that one can grow old doing. My own grandfather was caught in a blizzard at the top of a mountain.  I hope he is smiling down at his great-grandchildren now, and has let go of whatever disappointment he had that not one child of his, or grandchild, had any intention of ever strapping on a ski boot. He also raced speedboats.

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Perhaps his early death and the family-wide wall of silence around his adventures accounts for my aversion, and that of my cousins, to thrill seeking.  But here I am, so married to this land now that when I find myself in a really flat landscape I feel twitchy. Vulnerable. Something is missing.

At one time these ski towns were also wild party towns. Many who crowded in the bars and lounges did not ski at all. They drank and smoked and drugged and crashed cars and passed out on the sidewalks.

That has changed. Times have changed. As much as I like to poke fun at our obsession with All Things Wellness All the Time, I did have my own epiphany.

It was the morning after the forced frivolity of New Year’s Eve, the year after I graduated from college. A dozen of us had partied at a friend’s club, and returned to his home to sleep it off. The next morning I woke earlier than everyone else. As I nursed a headache, smoked a Benson and Hedges, and tentatively sipped black coffee, I watched kids play outside. They were sledding, and making snow forts and snow men in the falling snow. They were noisy and happy and warm, in spite of the cold in the world.

It occurred to me then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life feeling that good. And now I do.