For some reason people always ask me what my favorite ski trail is. I dont really know why. After all, it is a very subjective question, and we all find pleasure in nature in very different ways. But I ran into a client at the ski area the other day and I found myself asking, “what was your favorite run (of the day)”. I couldn’t stop myself. It just popped out. And I wasn’t just making conversation. I have NO TROUBLE there. But then I had this epiphany. I realized I was asking because I wanted to know more about them. I knew who they were, I’d gotten to know them quite well during the process of researching real estate, and later constructing an offer and purchasing a home for them in the Mad River Valley. But there is a difference between developing a professional relationship and skiing with someone. And what I learned is that there is a whole lot more to learn about people when you take a few turns with them on the mountain. You learn something about their personality, what gives them joy, how they handle adversity; you learn how they manage the challenge of staring down that which intimidates or scares them. Their skiers acumen, if there is such a thing. We skiers ALL have a favorite trail and I had never really thought about why my favorite trail was my favorite trail. Until that moment.
When Sugarbush Resort’s Mount Ellen opened in 1963 as Glen Ellen, the trails were named to honor the Scottish heritage the resorts moniker suggested – Highlander, Royal Tartan, Brambles and Bagpiper; Donny Brook, Laddies Lane, Hop Scotch and Cliffs; Wee Lass, Devils Elbow, Scotch Mist and Upper Glens – renamed Tumbler by the new ownership at Sugarbush Resort in 1977. Although I have always loved the ingenuity and unique sense that accompanied those long-ago trail names – somehow it gave them their own personality, their own identity and their own place in Vermont ski history – nothing represents the skiing style that my personal favorite has bestowed upon me; Tumbler
Or as the old timers call it, The Tumbler – a twisting, craggly run that starts on a not-so-easy-to-find traverse from the top of the Cliffs and opens into a rollicking roller-coaster ride to the bottom of the North Ridge Express. For people who ski with me, they probably get it right away. What I do on snow is not so much skiing as tumbling onward into the abyss, like a bouncing ball rolling down a rocky hill-side and disappearing out of sight from time to time, I bob and bounce off of things in a frenetic attempt to keep my helmet on, my feet underneath me, and my skis heading somewhere in the general vicinity of downhill. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And while it is nearly as likely to end in a loud thud as in the ever-present glee only a skier can truly understand, I always feel at home when I’m careening headlong down Tumbler.
It’s funny. When you ski as I so frequently do, at Mt Ellen, you run into two distinct generations of snow traveller there; the old-timers and the rest. There are patrollers who work at Mount Ellen today that were there on the day Glen Ellen opened its doors to Central Vermont skiers for the first time. There are likewise people making their first ever visit or those who have been here a while, making turns on the same trails their skiing forefathers did 50-some years ago. You know an old-timer at Mt Ellen not by the wrinkles in his face or the grey in her hair but by the words that they use to describe the mountain they grew up skiing. Many still refer to the resort by it’s original name, somehow defying the gravitational effect that subsequent corporate entity’s have inflicted upon her in branding and rebranding Glen Ellen as their own. Others hold onto those classic trail-names of another generation and whisper about how nice it would be to own this place and change the names back – as though this might be the only requisite reason to enter into such a venture. Regardless of their age, they speak in the same, totally unique dialect of the Glen Ellen old-timer. The Glens. The Tumbler. The Cliffs. The Brambles.
A few years ago I remembered seeing an old Glen Ellen trail map that I found while searching NELSAP; an excellent if not nearly obsolete website created in the infancy of the internet as a school research project on lost ski areas in New England. After a brief search of the web, I found the same old trail map. To my surprise the qualifying article “the” , which has found its way into the vernacular of the Glen Ellen old-timer when describing the NEW trail names, post-dated their actual experience at Glen Ellen. They were on no trail map, they hang in no museum or lodge. The actual trail signs contain no definite article at all. So I asked around and was met with shrugs at best and no definitive answer as to where the article in question came from. I quickly learned what most freshman english students already know – that the definite article the is a literary device that transforms a common noun into a proper noun. A singular determiner that identifies the noun as an individual; the only one.
So here’s to you, Glen Ellen Old-timer. Your slow old chairlift A, and the 20 minute ride up to mid-station, is gone. So too is Hop Scotch, Aberdeen Alley and Hoot Mon. But your favorite trail, and mine, lives on in its unique state, preserved, singular in its purpose, tucked away as someones favorite, and forever an individual. Unique. The only one. And when someone asks me what my favorite trail is, I may simply answer their question. But I also know that the question means a whole lot more. While they may be making conversation, I know that they are asking a bit more of me. My answer will certainly be “Tumbler”. But, if you have the time, I might suggest that we take a few turns, because the only way to really answer a question you may not know you were asking is to experience, in person, the least common of trails. The Tumbler.