Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Last Day of Stowe




We sat around the grill in a dirt parking lot, squinting up into the sunlight. Strung along the crest of the final descent of a ski trail named Gondolier were a line of figures, waiting. Behind us, the Fourrunner Quad chairlift stopped spinning just after 4 p.m., and the band, stationed on the deck of the Mountain Operations building, played their last licks. Every minute or so one of the figures from the line on the diminishing crest of snow would break free and begin to describe a series of languid S turns, carving out the final runs of the ski season at Stowe Mountain Resort.

It’s a competition, of sorts: a cohort of snaggly skiers linger as the shadows creep across the slopes, vying for the honor of being the last one down on the last day of lift-serviced skiing. The free-heel skinners among us scoff at this grade-school ritual, knowing that we can come back tomorrow and invest a couple of hours of sweat, then poach a later line. The truth is that there is always someone who will come after you and steal your glory; there’s always a bigger fish.

The philosophers among us wondered if that line of skiers in the fading afternoon light were but a symbol, another metaphor for the changes about to grip Stowe like the nostalgia of a warm afternoon in April. We usually don’t think of spring as a time of endings, but we are mountain folk, obsessed with winter, always sad to see it go, and the closing of the ski area for the season is a touchstone of our culture, an occasion to be marked, feted, and remembered. This year, as the beer and the wine warmed in the afternoon sun, as the sausages and burgers gassed plumes of summer smoke, as the Frisbees wafted hitherly through the air and the burble of a thousand happy voices made a joyful noise, there was more than a little musing about the end, beautiful friend, as Stowe begins its biggest transition since Perry Merrill lifted his gaze to the forested sides of Mt. Mansfield and said, “Here we will ski.”

And now, Vail is coming.

When we came to Stowe 17 winters ago, it was a different place. Rusticism dominated the area, and history could be heard in the squeaking of the Spruce Peak double chairlift, affectionately/malevolently known as the Big Pig, as it made it 20-minute ascent. Ancient green school buses, piloted by jovial/crusty drivers, lurched between Spruce and Mansfield bases, hearkening/presaging isolationism. The theme of the three base lodges (Mansfield, Spruce, and Midway) was cafeteria & cubbyholes. Though the perception of Stowe even then was posh, a better word would be “community.” Now, it’s different. Not better, not worse. Different.

Much was made about Stowe’s transition from that rustic reality to its new, shiny, Aspen-y Spruce Base development. Obituaries were written, including one by me in my 2014 memoir A Brief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. I prophesied Jersey barriers across Route 108 just after the Matterhorn, and helicopter landing pads on the Toll House Plaza. It may come to pass.

But Stowe won’t be the same, nor should it be. Infrastructure needs to be updated and maintained, new innovations and ideas tried, and new customers wooed. All these things were bleeding into the final afternoon of skiing at Stowe this year.

When we pulled in to the ski area parking lot just after 11, we saw a Stowe Police officer chatting with a ski resort security officer. They were relaxed, laughing, and we saw only one other officer, when we pulled out several hours later. It might have been the same one, but it’s worth noting the extremely tolerant attitude of the ski are. Folks were allowed to imbibe openly, at a facility that is licensed by the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, which means that technically, the only place a beer can be opened is at the bar, by the bartender—never mind the faithful folks honoring George Washington’s legacy as a hemp farmer.

And that’s where the apprehension gets mixed with excitement around the transition to ownership by Vail—aka MTN to stock wonks. We at Stowe have been spoiled by decades of ownership by an insurance company who treated the area like a favorite child, asking only that the locals run it faithfully and not too noisily. Will new ownership do the same? Will one of the biggest ski companies in the world look at the Ski Capital of the East with the same loving, paternal gaze as its predecessor?

We finished our feast at the bottom of Mt. Mansfield with pie, a fitting nod to the quirky Lynchian motif from Twin Peaks, an apt motif that seems a distraction in the show, a distraction in the same way we were distracted from our reverie by the impending sequitur/non sequitur of MTN.

In the end, we don’t know what the next moment will bring. We only knew, sitting together as the sun bent down behind the mountain, that this was the moment we had, and we were glad.