On place and memory and finding home ground, one ski slope at a time.
Sarah O’Malley, Sugarloafer since…or maybe they don’t do that anymore. When I worked there 15 years ago, our name tags all listed the year we became “local”, local being a self defined state of mind, a date you declared your fidelity to an identity, to a place that informed a little bit of who you are. How long have you thought of Sugarloaf as your home mountain? At the time I think I dated myself to some time in the mid 80’s, but I’ve come to learn that my claim to that mountain runs way, way back.
My paternal grandmother was born in Madison, one of the towns you pass through on the way to Sugarloaf, at least when you come from my neck of the woods. She was raised there and in North Anson on her aunt’s farm. The house still stands and I drive by it every time I go to the mountain. One of the sugar maples on the front lawn is gone, and the barn is no longer attached to the house, but it is entirely recognizable. My grandmother was a Moody, second daughter of Orion Moody, who was in turn one of eight children of a Moody and a Taylor. Her mother was a Caldwell, Mabel Caldwell, who died when my grandmother was two years old (hence sheand her sister were raised by their aunt). Family lore has it that Orion helped cut the Tote Road on Sugarloaf, but I’ve never seen his name in any of the accounts of the history of the mountain. Another family story has it that the Taylors owned an entire mountain (probably Cranberry Peak in the Bigelow Range), and made a good amount of money through careful logging and forest management. The patriarch of the family gave each of his sons (of which there were eight) $1000 (a massive sum of money for the time) to go out and make their mark on the world with. Another uncle ran the buckboard coach between the village of Flagstaff and and Stratton, on a route now under the water of Flagstaff Lake. My grandfather was an engineer and he met my grandmother at a country dance when he was in the area surveying for the Wyman damn in Bingham. Their first date was a drive up on Eustis Ridge. These stories keep coming to me, and I learn more with every family conversation. They get refined and corrected and added to and accumulate as a history set in place that leads, on one branch, one twig, directly to me.
My own first trip to the Carrabasset Valley and Sugarloaf happened when I was maybe nine or ten. My father had grown up alpine skiing, and even at that young age I could sense his excitement about getting us to the mountain. We were pretty poor though, and couldn’t afford the on the mountain hotel, lift tickets, rentals, lessons for my sister and me etc. that would have had to go along with a day of alpine skiing. So we stayed in a crummy motel somewhere between Sugarloaf and Stratton, and made full use of the much less expensive Sugarloaf cross country skiing center. My parents had outfitted the whole family with cross country ski equipment just as the sport was starting to gain traction in this country. I know it was a concession on the part of my father, and that he really wanted us to one day be able to alpine ski, but cross country skis are better than no skis. I remember so well an afternoon tour with my father during that weekend. It might have been just him and me, and we followed one trail that connected the cross country trail network with the bunny slope just below the Sugarloaf base lodge proper. With our cross country trail passes, we were allowed to ride the bunny slope lift. I was scared but my father was so excited to ride the lift and slide down the gentle slope, even though he was wearing the hand made woolen knickers, knee high socks and nylon anorak that were the standard cross country skiing garb of the day. It was as close as I got to the mountain for many more years, until my father started making more money, and one Christmas I got a sweet pair of white K2 alpine skis with my name engraved on them, and white ski boots and poles to match, and I started to make my own memories of that place.
On Sunday, I made my first trip to the mountain this season. Having been skunked twice before this winter by terrible conditions, I was not going to let a cold wind (blowing over fresh snow) stop me. And the mountain didn’t fail to produce. It gave us dreamy sweet powder early in the day, it gave Shakleton worthy blasts of icy wind and frost nip on cheeks and noses, it gave that perfect late afternoon light with the snow swirling around in the wind magic feel that I can never get enough of. No matter how corporate, nonlocal, out of touch, condo crazy a business enterprise it seems, that place is the first place I learned about how balsam fir cones don’t fall off the tree, they disintegrate while still on the branches leaving just their central stalks sticking straight up, and you can see them in the tree tops from the chairlift. It’s where I got to know and love the tree Mountain Ash, and its clusters of red berries that you, like the balsam fir cones, see from the chairlift. It’s where I first saw and identified red crossbills, delighting in the power of recognition. I paid a visit there on my first backpacking trip in highschool, and in its shadow got hopelessly and wonderfully lost on my mountain bike with dear friends in college. It’s the place that held my grief the winter after my father died, when I lived a few miles from the mountain in a two room apartment and slept in the kitchen, stumbling through the sadness as I waited for the next part of my life to start.
Many times during the day on Sunday, I’d stop mid slope and look at the trees, look at the sky, look at the snow blowing in the wind. I’d turn around and look across the valley at the Bigelows and feel the peace of recognition. I’d think I know this place, just a little, just enough. And even more deeply, this place knows me.