Getting Comfortable in Vermont's Outdoors
The challenge of a skier's intermarriage

The challenge of a skier's intermarriage

This is a story about the challenges of intermarriage.

No, not that kind of intermarriage. A few months after marrying a wonderful, committed Jew, my wife and I were faced with a difficult predicament owing to our divergent backgrounds.

I’m from an outdoors-oriented, cold-loving Northeast family where the highlight of winter is skiing. My wife is from a warm-weather climate where winter means light sweaters and umbrellas, not parkas and snowshoes.

So when our first winter together arrived, I was faced with a tricky problem: How could an intermarried couple – a skier married to a non-skier – go on a winter vacation together?

My own parents hadn’t provided much of a workable model. Both were skiers, and our family used to take annual ski trips to New England. But then my mother gave up the sport, and our winter family vacations fell apart, much to my father’s chagrin.

I was determined that my marriage would not suffer the same horrible fate: ski-less winters. Skiing was just too important to let something like my wife’s complete lack of experience in it get in the way.

So last February, the two of us headed from New York City to four Vermont ski areas – Okemo, Mad River Glen, Smuggler’s Notch and Stowe -- to see whether, and how, we could make this thing work. My wife had put on her first pair of skis the year before, and I was hoping we could ramp things up a notch.

In the end, I learned some important lessons that, in retrospect, maybe should have been obvious: Be flexible, don’t push too hard, don’t schedule too ambitious a trip.

But, having none of this valuable hindsight at the time, I was fated to make a few mistakes.

We woke up on the first morning of our trip in a slopeside hotel room in the Jackson Gore Inn at Okemo, a 632-acre ski resort in southern Vermont less than four hours from New York. A light snow was falling, and one or two fresh inches already were on the ground.

Perfect, I thought.

Eager to get on the slopes, I hurried through my morning routine and urged my wife to do the same. By the time we got our gear and met my wife’s ski instructor for the morning, the skies had cleared and I was raring to go.

“I’ve met a lot of couples like you,” the instructor told us after I explained our situation to him. Okemo, he said, was a perfect mountain for partners of varying degrees of ability to enjoy skiing together. “The most important thing to remember,” he said to me, “is for you to be patient with her.”

That’s when I knew I was in trouble.

But I nodded earnestly, hightailing it to the chairlift after a quick kiss to the wifey. “Have fun!” I yelled, without looking back.

Two hours of speed skiing down Okemo’s nicely groomed and eminently enjoyable terrain followed. I figured I’d warm up a bit first before hitting the black diamonds; it was, after all, my first day of the season.

Okemo is great for cruisers, but the mountain’s two peaks also pack plenty of surprises and hidden gems. The main summit’s heavily traveled blues and blacks are fine for warming up, but the more challenging terrain can be found at Okemo’s peripheries. The quieter Jackson Gore Peak has a bevy of black diamonds and a couple of double-blacks running down from its summit, and there are a few hidden glades nestled in the trees all the way on the other side of the mountain, at Okemo’s South Face. There’s even a tree run called Loose Spruce.

I was just starting to discover some of these pleasures after half a dozen morning runs, getting my blood pumping. Then I cruised to our lunchtime meeting place five minutes early, figuring it would be better to wait for my wife than to keep her waiting.

As it turned out, I had to wait nearly half an hour till she arrived. She wore a look of intense concentration on her face as she took her last turn or two, but she broke into a wide smile after skidding to a stop beside me.

“She did great,” the instructor said, pulling up right behind her. Extolling her abilities, he gave us a couple of tips about areas where she needed work. Before letting us go, he unfolded his trail map and pointed out two or three runs he’d chosen for us that we both could enjoy skiing down.

I smiled and nodded – and then promptly ignored his advice.

When my wife and I got to the top of the North Star Express Quad after lunch, I went left when the instructor told us to go right.

“This one is blue, too,” I told my wife. She reluctantly followed. “It’ll be fine,” I coaxed. She wasn’t convinced.

Half an hour later, with the afternoon sun sinking and the air starting to get cold, we were still making our way down. My wife was tired and anxious, and I wasn’t nearly sympathetic enough. She began to have trouble making her turns, and the confidence and excitement she had showed at lunchtime gave way to fatigue and -- after one particularly steep bit caused her to take a couple of hard spills -- despair.

Damn, I thought. She’s not having fun anymore.

Drained and disheartened, she finally called it quits somewhere halfway up the mountain, near some trailside condos.

I helped her climb up a snowbank to the nearby road, then picked up her skis and zipped down. It took me only a few minutes to stow the equipment and get the car, but it took far longer to locate the correct windy, icy road where she was waiting. After several wrong turns, I finally found her, shivering and ready for a hot soak.

It’s a good thing we were staying slopeside. We shed our skivvies, made for the pool at the Jackson Gore Inn and took a long soak in the Jacuzzi. By the time we got out, my wife’s smile had returned, and I was grateful for it.

The next morning, as if in retribution from the heavens, we awoke up to a damp, rainy day. So we packed up and headed north, to the unconventional Mad River Glen ski area.

Our mood picked up as we drove along forested country roads marked by spectacular frozen waterfalls and towering, snow-covered trees. The rain tapered off when we neared Mad River, and I was excited again as we parked the car. But after catching sight of the pair of old buildings and rickety-looking chairlifts that comprised Mad River’s base area, all I could think was: Is this it?

As it turns out, I was not disappointed. Owned and operated as a cooperative, Mad River Glen has a no-frills approach and anachronistic feel that’s a welcome change from the commercialism of other resorts. Instead of pricey restaurants, endless advertising and a fancy base area, the spartan lodge at Mad River’s base feels -- and smells -- more like a summer camp bunk and cafeteria.

The mountain itself has terrain like no other ski area in the Northeast. It has steep, tree-filled trails pocked with boulders and obstructions that rival double black diamonds out West, gets an average of 250 inches of snowfall per year and has the only single-seat chairlift left in all of North America.

But don’t let its size fool you. Even though Mad River Glen only has four chairs and 45 runs, there is skiing aplenty if you can take the tight turns through the trees — as I saw pretty much everyone doing during my two days there. And instead of having my lift ticket confiscated for straying from the marked trail, I was egged on by Mad River’s staff, who cheered me when I ducked in and out of the trees, my heart in my throat.

Among experts, Mad River is known for some of the most challenging terrain in New England. Mad River even offers a “No Stop No Fall” contest for skiers able to make it down Paradise, Ferret, Upper and Lower Glade, and Waterfall trails without stopping or falling. Needless to say, I was not a candidate.

But the mountain also has a layout that works perfectly for the intermarried ski couple: difficult and easy trails that crisscross each other all the way down the mountain. So you can ski the hard stuff while she skis the easy stuff and stay within approximate earshot of each other.

Not that my wife and I skied much together.

I deposited her with a ski instructor, Terry Barber – whom I later learned was a skiing legend and, as it happens, a really great teacher and super-nice guy – and I took off for the hard stuff with Mad River’s enthusiastic PR guy and his 9-year-old son.

I could barely keep up with them. They jumped and hopped around trees and through snowdrifts while I fell back on my thighs, straining at every turn and nervously hanging back, intimidated by the narrow, steep drops ahead of me. I even took a tumble once or twice. I was glad my wife wasn’t around to see it.

Meanwhile, she had discovered newfound enthusiasm thanks to her instructor, who worked with her patiently on turns, speed and confidence over the next two days.

All the while, we felt we had the mountain to ourselves, due to the timing of our visit and the weather conditions: foggy one day, snowy the next.

As for the price, lift tickets are a bargain at $39 for an adult mid-week pass, considerably less than at other Vermont resorts. If you really like the place, you can buy into the cooperative that owns the mountain, at $1,750 a share.

Though Mad River doesn’t own any of its lodging – there are no condos at the base area – there are myriad inns that line the roads leading to the mountain.

At the recommendation of a staff member, we stayed at the Millbrook Inn, a cozy bed-and-breakfast a couple of miles from the mountain run by a personable and exceedingly accommodating couple, Joan and Thom Gorman.

Originally built in the 1850s as a cape-style farmhouse, Millbrook was turned into a country inn and restaurant by Henry and Ginny Perkins in 1948, the same year Mad River opened for business.

We stayed in a comfortable, picturesque room with a slanted ceiling, an antique oak queen-sized bed, a rocking chair and private bath. In the evening, the Gormans insisted on cooking us a kosher dinner, despite the challenges and our protestations that it was unnecessary; we had come with our own food.

Thom, the chef, was not to be deterred. He came out for a briefing on kosher laws and then set to work, double-wrapping our fish and cooking it in a bamboo basket and rolling homemade pasta cooked for us in a dedicated pot. The food was delicious, and the gesture emblematic of the Gormans’ warm hospitality.

After dinner, we relaxed in the inn’s quiet sitting room in front of a warm fire before crawling under our checkered quilts and calling it a night.

The next day we headed north again, this time to Smuggler’s Notch, a ski area that in many ways is the polar opposite of Mad River – but in a good way.

Where Mad River is rugged, Smuggs – as it's known -- is groomed. Where Mad River is bare-bones, Smuggs is all-encompassing, complete with nightly activities for kids, multiple lodging areas and a base village complete with restaurants and shops. Where Mad River is no more than a ski mountain, pure and simple (snowboarders are forbidden), Smuggs provides a comprehensive resort experience. That’s one of the reasons it repeatedly is named the No. 1 family ski resort in North America by Ski Magazine.

Despite this, or perhaps because it was so comfortable at Smuggs – we were staying in a one-bedroom premium condo complete with capacious den and full kitchen, washer/dryer and porch – my wife wasn’t really in the mood for skiing by the morning of our fourth day.

When we awoke the snow was falling fast and furious, a bruise my wife had sustained on our first day at Okemo was turning a nasty shade of purple and she was just plain tired.

Rather than forego skiing for one of the many other activities Smuggs offers – guided nature walks, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, snowmobiling, ice skating, or even yoga and wellness classes -- I left my wife curled up on the sofa in front of the condo’s massive picture window and went skiing by myself.

Here I learned a couple of valuable lessons: One, don’t schedule skiing for every day of the trip. Two, be flexible: If one partner doesn’t want to ski, adjust. Of course, I made the wrong adjustment, leaving my wife behind while going off to schuss alone.

Appropriately, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of guilt that day, and I quit the mountain early to rejoin my wife.

The next day I was a bit smarter, and the two of us started off the day skiing together. This time I took it nice and easy with her, and she did well on the greens and blues of Morse Mountain, the Smuggs’ peak designed exclusively for beginners and early intermediates.

The layout is well suited for inexperienced skiers. Instead of having to do battle with fast-moving experts and reckless intermediates zipping through beginner greens on their way to the lifts, the beginners at Smuggs have their own mountain.

Elsewhere, Smuggs has some tough terrain and fantastic views. You can see half the state and a piece of nearby Stowe from the top of Madonna Mountain, elev. 3,640, but you’ll have to pay attention on your way down. I worked my way down the bumps on Upper F.I.S. over and over again, figuring out how to take the moguls without straining my thighs. When my legs started to get shaky, I treated myself with one of the cruisers that run down from Sterling Mountain, Smuggs’ third peak.

This day ended much better than the last, though I sensed from my wife that I still had some penance to do for my neglect of the day before.

I tried to make up for it the next night, when we moved onto Stowe, the last stop on our multi-site ski trip. I scheduled my wife for a massage at the Stoweflake, a decadent spa just outside the picture-perfect New England town of Stowe.

While some stranger worked on my wife’s aching shoulders, knees and toes in a full-body treatment, I waited in the spa, soaking in a mineral bath and then sitting under a 12-foot-high massaging waterfall in the aqua solarium. I dried out in the Stoweflake’s sauna. Finally, when I was good and cooked, I relaxed in front of a fire in the “sanctuary lodge,” a newspaper on my lap and a glass of cucumber water in my hand.

We spent the night – and a restful Shabbat – at the Ten Acres Lodge, a romantic inn about two miles out of the town of Stowe and about six miles from the ski area. The lodge is a mix of new and old. Our room had a wood-burning fireplace, but also a flat-screen TV. Ten Acres is a 172-year-old estate, but we stayed at the more modern and recently built annex, the Hill House Suites, completed in 1986. We had a bathtub inside and a shared Jacuzzi outside.

And because we weren’t in the bed-and-breakfast’s main lodge, we also had our privacy, which was nice on Shabbat. We sang the songs of Friday night under a brilliant, starry sky and stowed our perishables in the foot-high snow on our porch.

On Sunday morning, there was a blizzard. But, rejuvenated by the spa, my wife was game for some powder.

Once at Stowe, she went off with her instructor in near-whiteout conditions while I took some turns with an instructor of my own. At one point in the morning, I spotted my wife wading into deep powder, and holding her own.

In the afternoon, we were even able to enjoy some of Stowe’s intermediate trails together. It was a world of difference from that first day at Okemo, when my wife quit mid-mountain in the mid-afternoon. Now, she took her turns sharply and quickly, pausing only occasionally as we made our way down Sterling, a long, winding trail on Big Spruce Mountain, the lowest of Stowe’s three peaks.

And we skied up until the last minute, returning our gear and piling into the car for the long drive home after 4 pm.

All in all, we didn’t do too badly for an intermarried couple. We had made some mistakes – okay, I had made some mistakes – but I knew I had done something right when, on the way home, my wife and skiing partner began talking about what we’d do next time.

Ah, what sweet words: next time.

Getting There

Okemo Mountain Resort (Tel. 800-78-OKEMO) is about four hours from Manhattan by car. Mad River Glen (Tel. 802-496-3551) is about five hours from Manhattan. The Millbrook Inn (Tel. 800-477-2809) is just down the road from Mad River, in Waitsfield, Vt. Stowe Mountain Resort (Tel. 800-253-4754) is five and half hours from the city, and the Ten Acres Lodge (Tel. 800-327-7357) is five minutes from Stowe. Smuggler's Notch Resort (Tel. 800-419-4615) is about six hours from New York. The author was a guest of the aforementioned resorts and inns.