Sat, 30 January 2010

When Spike is not getting distracted by boyish nostalgia about the old America during a trip to go snowboarding in New England, he's getting confused about stuff like frost heaves, rime snow and diamond dust.

We’ve been driving all night. By the sore ass, it seems so.

"Frost Heaves", reads a road sign framed by forest.

How does frost heave? A yacht heaves. A man heaves. But frost? What native muti bestows it with this power? Does Jack Frost lurk in this mystic woodland? Why, or who, does he heave?

"No," chuckles friendly southerner Tom Landon, 46, hands wet on the wheel, "heaves is a noun, not a verb".

We coast around a sharp bend in the buckled country road. Ghostly white strips flicker by. Suffused like the imprint after a flash bulb, they hang in the freezing air, and then fade to black. The headlights sweep across a new copse of birch, maple and beech, and another pale clutch of trunks glow in the dark.

The “Recalculating Bitch”, Tom’s nickname for the GPS, says we're at our destination, but we’re not. We grow closer though. Finally. We've been driving for nearly four hours. We hit the rush hour out of Boston at least 24 subjects of conversation ago. We oozed along Route 95 North slower than the tapped maple sap that will in Spring seep down the Vermont hills that surround us.

Frost heaves, says Tom, is a process. When water-saturated soil freezes, it bends the ground as it expands. Frost Heaves is American for “Danger: Potholes”.

Our destination is a rural home that belongs to Mike Landon, Tom's brother. Tom, an affiliate at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism like myself (our wives are Nieman fellows), is here to ski. I am here to 'ride'. Snowboarders have annexed this verb to establish their sovereignty on the slopes. 

Of course, the novelty of this snow-covered land is a constant distraction when a South African tries to tell a story about going skiing, er, riding.

The black VW station wagon with the Massachusetts number plates – Tom and his wife, Beth Macy, are actually from Roanoke in Virginia – finally pulls up in a snow-filled field at the foot of a forested cliff mostly obscured by the night. Above, soft lights glow from a multi-storey wood-clad home, a cheery oasis in the small wilderness of Mike's eight-acre stand.

A glass of bourbon and a hot dinner awaits us. Later, hunkered around the table, we talk about skiing, the mountains of Vermont, snowshoeing, and indigenous animals. There are bear in the back woods, but only occasionally when they have wandered from … Canada, New Hampshire? There is a fox up on the hill. There is not enough snow to fill the gaps between the rocks behind the house – no good for snow-shoeing. There are raccoon, porcupine and coyote if you know the signs. Older guys prefer telemark skiing. Arapahoe Basin in Colorado is a ski and ride mecca. 

Mike, 49, feeds his bank balance as a conflict management consultant at Dartmouth Hospital. He feeds his soul as a volunteer for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. Tomorrow he is taking a blind person skiing.

North Face fleece and machine-spun beanie apart, this is a man you'd have recognized 200 years ago. In fact, in 1810, had you stumbled half-frozen onto his porch in a winter blizzard, he is the man you would want to open the door. The same grizzled face, ruddy and friendly, perched upon the same short, broad and burly frame, would have smiled in empathetic welcome.

In those days, most visitors, no matter how frost-bitten, would have been met by a warning shot from a 12 gauge wielded by edgy settlers. Had you chanced on this homestead, in those days surely a rough-hewn log cabin, a warming shot from a bottle of whisky would have awaited you.

Sure, the rotgut bourbon passing your cold-blackened lips in 1810 would have nothing on the nine-year-old Knob Creek Kentucky bourbon we quaffed in 2010. But I reveled in the boyish fantasy of reclining on a bearskin chair in front of a roaring open hearth fire below moose antlers (while greasing the chamber of my Winchester repeating rifle). The schizophrenic heating arrangement between Mike's newly-installed furnace and the cast-iron wood burner was a more realistic compromise.

He and his fiancée Hannah Silverstein, a fund raiser for Dartmouth College, were having endless trouble with their new-fangled furnace in the basement. Something about the wood burner causing condensation on the outflow vent from the furnace which keeps short-circuiting it? As a South African, I am ignorant to the complexities of condensation, vents, flues and thermostats.

Certainly, no rustic plate of food from this imagined history could have matched the roast beef, stuffed mushrooms and creamed potatoes we had for dinner. In the grim days of long winter past, foul-smelling liquor probably performed a critical function – to wash away all trace of a steaming mug of greasy deer broth and a weevil-infested biscuit.

But enough of history! Enough! Bring me my snowboard.

The next day, in the pitch black of night, we awake groggily, down two cups of coffee, eat cereal, put on the thermal polyester underwear,  the woollen socks, the padded ski jackets, the pepper skins, the non-natural fibre sweats (natural fibres like cotton are no good on your legs and torso … they absorb sweat and make you wet) and the beanies. Then we pack googles, helmets, ski boots, backpacks, granola bars, water, gloves and their woollen inners, and all the heavy gear needed for our day on the slopes of our destination, Pico Mountain.

An hour’s drive straddles the passage from night into day. We pass towns with settler names like Lebanon, Canaan and Hanover. We drive along rural roads called Maple, Apple Blossom, Bear Pond, Moose Mountain, Moody Swamp, Skunk Hollow, and Shawnee Pond.

Later, I read on native-languages.org that the Shawnee are a native American nation from other states, the closest being Pennsylvania. I wonder the origin of that naming in Vermont. I discover that the first people to inhabit Vermont were the Abenaki nation. But they did not call it Vermont. Their land was N'Dakinna. The Abenaki of N’Dakinna come from two tribes, the Sokoki and Mazipskwik. The Cowasucks hail from Massachusetts.

 “Up to 75%” died of European diseases before the 18th century began. The survivors of neighboring tribes merged. Their identities “became blurry even in Indian oral history”. They often fled from attack to Canada, leading the British to consider them Canadian. “Their strategy of merging after heavy losses and hiding their existence from more powerful neighbors has hampered the Abenaki tribe's quest for federal recognition, it has also ensured their survival as a people,” the native website reads.

Oops, more history. Sorry.

As I ascend the main summit at Pico on a ski lift later that day, Hannah and Tom at my side, millions of miocroscopic snowflakes glint in the morning sun. Like tiny ice sprites, they surf towards us on an icy breeze. Alighting gently on our faces, we don’t feel a thing. “Diamond dust,” says Hannah. “A type of snow.”

The dusting on the fur trees lining the wide run up which we travel grows thicker as the ski lift nears the top. The branches seem to bulge with the weight of huge splodges of white. “Rime snow,” says Hannah. “Another type of snow.”

In the thick mist at the top of this wind whipped and icing coated peak, it’s like we’re in the middle of nowhere. Well, we are near Podunk after all. Podunk is used by Americans to refer to the middle of nowhere. Africans have Timbuktoo, Americans have Podunk.

Pico Mountain is a typical New England ski resort. The mountains are not jagged or majestic like you get in the Rockies or Alps. They are more like large hills, but some like Stowe, Sugarbush and Pico, have some serious double diamond runs, and miles and miles of terrain.

Yes, we had an awesome time. Yes, the sking was great. So was the riding. Yes, we hit blue square runs with names like Forty Niner, Lower KA, and Sundowner. We stuck to blue, with two green beginner runs to warm up. Yes, we avoided the black diamonds. Yes, I saw my arse a lot and my body felt like it had been dropped from a two storey building onto a block of ice about fourteen times. Yes, when it went well, I got kiff speed, and even pulled off a few vertical re-entries off snowy drifts along the edges. Yes, Tom pulled off a four foot ramp over a mogul that was seriously impressive.

But that’s all there is to say really.

Just a word of warning though. In New England, there is a lack of powder snow much of the time. Watch out for ice. Wear a helmet.

On our way back to the slopes on Day 2, Mike pulls out the Frisbee. Today is a perfect ski day, he says, grinning. How’s that, we ask.

“A perfect ski day is to play frisbee, go skiing and get laid, in that order,” he says.

On the way back to Boston, as the sun sets, Tom and I happily concur that we’ve easily accounted for two out of three. Sun-burned, wind-chapped and exhausted, the third variable would be nice to round off an epic day.

Nah,  not essential.


0 #6 spike_wavescape 2010-02-17 07:35
snow rimes (a two word noun, if you read the story, a type of snow that lies on the trees, ie, not 'rhymes' the verb)

similar to frost heaves (a noun not a verb) ...
0 #5 Ween 2010-02-13 01:20
Hey Spike
While you are snowboarding in sub zero temps, we are surfing bombs in warm Atlantic sea water. Thermo's has been cranking! Floating turds and all...
Jono James
0 #4 Jono James 2010-02-10 09:49
Snow Rimes with Blow not 'Board Ride'
Tsk tsk.
Dave M
0 #3 Dave M 2010-02-08 15:00
I dont know about the fleece - maybe in March but certainly not in Jan!! We had some nice long runs but there are also of plently of shorter ones. I think Erin said he was at Steamboat recently(or somewhere that sounded similar) - he is having an absolute blast and has bought a snowboard and now also working as a lift operator which has more regular income than snowboard instructor.
0 #2 spike_wavescape 2010-02-01 19:13
howzit Dave,
yes, i am still looking at a trip out to that side. Actually, Tom's other brother lives at Steamboat Springs so that is the current option. We're thinking of a March trip before the rush of the spring break, but still in good powder season. i have a fleece balaclava .. is that enough i hope!
the longest run was 4kms ... i think out West they're like four or five times that?!
Dave M
0 #1 Dave M 2010-02-01 16:21
Hey Steve
Glad to see you made it onto the slopes!Looks like you had some pretty decent conditions too. Hope you get out to A Basin to see what real hills look like!And dont forget the neoprene facemasks because all that bare skin is going to get chowed!
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