It's a blue and gold Saturday morning on Spruce Peak, and a handful of adults are clomping uneasily in rental boots, getting ready to ski for the very first time. "Where're you from?" asks Chuck, a bluff, grizzled guy in a red Stowe Mountain Resort parka, who seems to be a kind of emcee.
The middle-aged couple is from Ludlow, Massachusetts. The girl who looks like a model, complete with stunningly white teeth, is from Manhattan -- her handsome, experienced-skier boyfriend stands nearby to cheer her on.
And then there's me -- from Burlington. Chuck looks a bit taken aback when he hears that. "What's the nickname of Burlington?" he asks, as if hoping to catch me out as a Flatlander pretending to be local. When I answer, "the Queen City," he nods with sage resignation. Just another Vermonter who for some unaccountable reason has never learned to ski.
In my case, it's hard to say why. All my life I've been thrilled by the potential of cold, low-friction surfaces. When my family first moved to Vermont, I spent the winter sledding, skating and trolling around the apartment complex on cheap cross-country skis, which I would take down any hill I could find.
Ski-resort culture, though, was foreign to a kid from Manhattan's Upper West Side. In my mind, it was something out of a James Bond movie -- breakneck chases on the slopes, sexy clinches by the fireside. I was enthralled by the names I read on my high school classmates' sweatshirts -- Mad River Glen, Sugarbush -- but had no idea where those exotic places might be. Though we lived less than 20 miles from Stowe, the farthest I got up the Mountain Road was a stint working at McDonald's.
But all that is history on this cold, sunny morning. While Alpine skiing is pricy, it's not exactly in the stratosphere, especially with various package deals available for first-timers (see sidebar). This time I've taken the Mountain Road to the top to experience the raison d'être of all these swanky bistros, bars and tchotchkes on the verge of the Northeast Kingdom.
I expected the resort to be a self-enclosed world, something like a luxury cruise ship, but it's actually more like freshman week at a university with a lot of international students. Everybody's banging lockers, calling to friends, saving places at the long cafeteria tables. Through the wall-length windows is the sight that stops me dead: the mountainside swooping straight up to foreclose the horizon. To my untrained eye the blue-marked run looks vertical. Watching the tiny figures on skis and snowboards zigzag their way down, trailed by plumes of snow vapor, I'm mesmerized, the way I was when I watched surfers from a pier in San Diego. I know I won't be doing that run today.
I arrive late for the 10:30 lesson, in part because I've underestimated the time it takes to rent equipment. I quickly learn that Alpine skiing is a lot heavier than the Nordic version. The boots look and feel as if they're made of a heavy metal, perhaps lead, and going downstairs is a dicey proposition when your ankles have no range of motion to speak of.
Once the lesson begins, though, I understand the rationale for all this weight. Our instructor, whose nametag identifies him as "Dan D," tells us to lean as far backward as we can wearing our skis. Then forward. Surprise -- the boots hold us up. It's fun to defy gravity, but I have a feeling I'll have shin burns tomorrow.
Dan is an affable, 50-ish Vermonter who tells me about learning to ski on the slope outside the Sheraton Hotel. He shows us a basic snowplow position, a V with the skis' tips apart. Then it's time to get on the carpet lift -- basically a wet moving walkway -- and head on up the bunny slope, or pre-bunny slope, or whatever you call a very slight incline at the foot of the real hill.
The non-hill is, to put it bluntly, boring, because it's impossible to work up any speed. Cross-country can be scarier than this. Still, it gives me a chance to learn to turn left and right, a maneuver we practice by weaving between pink and green flags. I discover that by shifting my weight, leaning on the edge of a ski, I can change direction. I also learn that, once you're going down, the incredibly heavy skis suddenly feel light and aerodynamic. Until you fall.
After the woman from Massachusetts takes a couple of spills, Dan shows us the proper way to get up. Put yourself perpendicular to the slope. Roll belly-down and spread your legs akimbo so your skis make a V. Get on your knees and walk your hands up until you're standing. Then he makes us all fall and spread-eagle ourselves in the snow while tiny children with expert balance fly by on the slope above.
Finally, it's time to get on the chairlift, which turns out to involve some maneuvers of its own. I don't know why I was under the impression that the thing stopped to let you on, like a funicular. It doesn't. Once I'm safely in it, though, I look back and get a jaw-dropping view of Mount Mansfield, with insect-sized figures zipping all the way down from the distant landmark of Cliff House. "Not often we get this Colorado weather," says Dan.
At the top we find the Inspiration Trail, which snakes lazily down and around some twee, chalet-style condos that are under construction. If you went out of control, you just might find yourself smashing through someone's picture window -- but it's hard to imagine that happening on this wide, carefully graded slope.
Dan shows us how to slow ourselves down by curving back and forth until the horizontal momentum drags on the vertical. He makes us take the slope in stages, stopping to regroup when we reach a landmark, so a breakneck descent isn't an option. Still, for the first time I feel briefly out of control and hear the wind whistling in my ears -- exactly the sensation I'm after. When we get to the bottom, I'm like a kid with one thought: Dad, can we do it again?
Once more down the slope, and then it's time for lunch. The second and final lesson included in the package starts at 1:30. Our instructor is Pete, a wiry, keen-eyed fortysomething who's lived "all over," including the West Coast. While Dan is plainspoken, Pete is partial to elaborate sports metaphors. "What does Martina Navratilova's opponent do while she's warming up to serve?" he asks, illustrating how to ease into a turn. ("Duck," says the husband from Massachusetts.)
When we reach the top of our second real slope of the day, known -- to us, ironically -- as Easy Street, Pete asks us to tell him the color of our skis. Um, they're all orange. "Good," he says. "Now you never have to look at them again."
In addition to keeping our eyes straight ahead, we are going to stop jabbing the snow with our poles. In fact, we're going to stop using them at all. Pete holds both his poles parallel to the ground with his hands palm-up and arms extended -- "as if they were a tray of mimosas," he says. Our new objective is to get down this straighter, steeper hill without spilling our brunch cocktails.
How? "You have brains in your feet," Pete says. "Right now your senses are on overload, but soon you'll be able to hear what your feet are telling you." It sounds a bit Tao of Skiing, but I find myself understanding what he means as I jerk and stutter down the slope, awkwardly turning with my poles held out like an offering to the ski gods. If your feet can't find that edge, forget it -- suddenly you're in terrifying freefall. I snowplow down the steepest part of Easy Street and wait at the bottom while Pete helps out the Massachusetts woman, who's still falling. "We got this as our Christmas present to each other," her husband says ruefully.
We could all use a real mimosa about now. Still, after the lesson ends, I realize I'm hooked. I try to conquer Easy Street four or five more times as the sun leaves the mountains and the air goes frigid, but each time I chicken out and snowplow through the hard part. I fall, too. Once I disobey Dan's instructions and get up with my legs still tangled; an elderly ski instructor has to rescue me by releasing my ski.
I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stop with my skis parallel, like the experienced folks. But I'll be out here again. The brains in my feet have just started to think.