The Drive

Coming to grips with fear, the steering wheel, and icy roads

New England Ski Journal (11/14/2004)

Brion's comments:
'There are few things I enjoy more than an untracked mantle of new-fallen snow on my favorite trails under a crystal winter sky. Except, maybe, the absolute relief of arriving at my slope-side accommodations after a hair-raising ride. Yes, if you're going to ski, you have to learn to respect "The Drive."'

Feature article:

Perhaps the greatest tribute that skiers pay to our sport's siren song is the lengths that we'll go to simply get to the mountain. Consider "The Drive." No, not John Elway and the Broncos against the hapless Browns – wrong sport. I'm talking about the drive up north, typically on a Friday afternoon, which means traffic. Lots of traffic, if you live in the Portland-Boston-Hartford-New York metropolitan belt. And since it's ski season, it also means snow and ice, two elements that just don't mix well with any discussion regarding asphalt, rubber, and the joys of internal combustion. But, unless we want to strap on the skinny skis at our local golf hill, or entertain ourselves with Franz Klammer reruns on the box, "The Drive" is a necessary evil.

Some of my earliest ski memories are of mom or dad white-knuckled at the wheel of the big family wagon during the long winter hauls from New Jersey to Vermont or Quebec. Even worse was the expression on Mom's face when, exhausted after five hours of piloting our barge during one trip, she let a friend, Mrs. Bogart, take over the driving chores. Of course, Mrs. Bogart, a sweet lady with no clue whatsoever about how to handle the elements, promptly plowed the wagon, and all nine occupants, right into a snow bank.

Those recollections haunt me to this day, especially since I now have little ones of my own. But I also have first-hand experiences behind the wheel that now temper my enthusiasm for The Drive. Mind you, it doesn't prevent me from going, it just gives reason to pause, and perhaps say a little prayer – your classic, driver-seat Christian. Those prayers were never more fervent than a few years back, when my wife and I, pre-kids, made the trek to Sugarloaf one fateful evening.

Typically, I really enjoy the four-hour trek to Maine's Carrabassett Valley. It's basically two roads from my home on Boston's North Shore – Interstate 95 up to Vacationland's capital in Augusta, west on Route 27, through Farmington and Kingfield. What could be easier, right? On the night in question, however, Mother Nature, Boston drivers and a rear-wheel drive minivan all conspired against me. We got a late start, made worse when some cracker in a Euro sedan ran a rotary yield sign and nearly ran into us. I tried to laugh it off, as the guy followed us up Interstate 95, flipping us the bird. Hotheads I can handle –falling snow is another matter. It started slowly, almost benign, but then gathered force just north of Portland.

Eventually, the Star Trek special effect of horizontal snow transformed my windshield into the cockpit of Captain Kirk's Enterprise just as the ship was about to jump into hyperspace. The sensation, of course, is really, really cool – for all of three minutes. Then it starts to wear on you, and within a half hour promises to convert even the most mild-mannered, level-headed motorist into a raving lunatic.

Miraculously, just as I was about to go off the deep end along the frost heaves of Belgrade Lakes, the snow abated. Actually, "abated" might be the wrong word, since the snow simply changed to freezing rain. Which made the roads a speed-skating venue. We inched through Farmington, took the right-hand turn where Route 27 lurches toward Bigelow Mountain, and began the final leg to The Loaf. Not five minutes later, when my wife asked how the road conditions were, I casually pointed to the car in front of us, and said: "Honey, check out those taillights reflecting off the road." I didn't even have a chance to finish the sentence before the car, going all of 35, lost traction on the ice and zipped sideways off the road. My wife, speechless, grabbed my arm, and I eased off the accelerator, dropping down to 25 miles an hour.

For the next hour, we plodded up the road, the van's backend fishtailing ever-so-slightly. Behind us was an ever-growing line of traffic, a ghostly parade of headlights snaking through the Maine night like a funeral procession. All the while, huge timber trucks kept barreling by in the opposite direction, convincing me that the wild French Canadian drivers behind the wheels of those big rigs had a death wish of their own. In Kingfield, I pulled over, not only to let my nerves settle, but to let the 50 or so cars following get around. Eventually, I screwed up my courage and we got back on the road for the last stretch to Sugarloaf.

I've never experience such a visceral sensation of relief as the instant I parked by our slopeside condo. Resisting the urge to head straight for the nearest bar, I began unloading the van. On one trip, I crossed paths with an attractive woman standing beside her newly dented Jeep. "I thought that would have been the perfect vehicle for that drive," I quipped. With a look that made me wither, she spit out a terse reply: "Four-wheel drive doesn't do you much good when all four wheels are on ice."

So now we have a four-wheel drive of our own, a trusty Subaru wagon. But I have a good-size box, containing road flares, sand, an ice pad, windshield washer and engine anti-freeze, jumper cables, deicer, fleece blanket, extra mittens and socks, and tire chains, that comes out of the back corner of the garage and into the back of the Subaru at first frost. You can't take enough precautions when preparing for The Drive. Even if you've said your prayers.


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