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NO ROOM AT THE INN: A CHRISTMAS TALE
by Paul Maraschiello
I was sitting at my computer working on a story when the phone rang. It was Glen Testa, the most critical ski coach I have the pleasure of knowing. He needed a little writing done for one of the kids he coaches and asked me for help. He had been one of my housemates from my ski bum days at Killington and I was more than happy to take care of this little project for him. He tried to sweeten the deal by inviting me up to Vermont for Christmas. I usually avoid Vermont like the plague over the Christmas, remembering the 45 minute lift lines, blue ice and sub-zero temperatures. Without thinking, I jumped on the offer. Vermont was experiencing one of the heaviest snowfalls in recent history, and the skiing would be great.
I had just sold a story about freestyle skiing to the Mt. Times and Outer Limits was beckon to me. In doing the story, I had dug up memories of skiing with Donna Weinbrecht, Jon Lamb, Tony Sgro, Bobbie Huntoon, "Crazy Ernie" Forst, Pepe Gougenburger, Bob Aldighieri and a host of other freestyle competitors and Killington regulars I had known in the old days. The season I lived with "Crazy Ernie", my living room couch (and floor) had played host to many hopeful professional freestyle skiers. When your sharing a ski house with competitors on the pro-freestyle circuit, you never know who will decide to drop by for a visit and train for a few days on the man-eating moguls at Killington. And of course, they were always welcome at our place. Some had funny names like Mortimer Mogul and Crash. They had varying degrees of talent, but were all filled with the hope of someday becoming a top freestyle skier. Most were lucky to get a free pair of skis or boots from a sponsor. The really good ones would pick up enough prize money to allow them to continue to compete, but most were dependent on ski bum jobs and the philanthropy of their families.
I had been a ski bum at Killington for almost ten years and had couch privileges for life with my old cronies. When I have money, I like to stay at the North Star Lodge, but this time I was INVITED. I decided to mix a little business with skiing and contacted Killington, Okemo, and Pico Peak in an effort to line up more material for more stories about skiing. When I mentioned that my most recent article would be on the front page of the Christmas week issue of the Mt. Times, the directors of marketing and public relations were very accommodating. I was on a roll, so I called Sugarbush and Mad River Glen and arranged to visit those ski areas too.
I called another old Killington buddy, Tex, to tell him about my story appearing in the Mt. Times and he INVITED me to stop over at his place and spend a night on my way up, even though he was planning to be out of town. "I'll leave the door unlocked for you," he said. I was batting a thousand! I could drive from Washington, D.C. to Tex's place in Fair Haven, Vermont on Christmas day and ski Okemo bright and early the next morning.
I telephoned my daughter Jessie and invited her along as my photographer. She had skied Killington many times with me, but never skied any of the other legendary New England ski areas that had invited me to visit. Of course she said yes. She had to juggle her teaching schedule a little (she was a Junior Ski Instructor at Whitetail, our local ski area), but she was eager to go.
I picked her up at her mother's house at noon and we headed north on Interstate 95. There was very little traffic on 95, so we made very good time. The weather was good and cruse control kept me on the right side of John Law.
We pulled into my friend Tex's place in Fair Haven around 10 PM. Tex had built the ultimate bachelor pad a few years ago. It was a two-car garage with a studio apartment on the second floor, right in the middle of a ten-acre piece of land just over the Vermont boarder from New York State. I only experienced a little difficulty locating his driveway. All of Vermont was covered by three feet of snow. I drove down the dirt road that served as a driveway and parked the car in front of the garage. All the lights were out and there was no one home. I tried the door and it was unlocked. I called to Jessie, to grab her gear and we went up stairs to the apartment and got settled in for the night.
We were up bright and early, I nuked a couple of quick cups of coffee in the microwave and jumped into the car. I was 8 AM, the sun was shining and it promised to be a great day of skiing. We got to Okemo an hour later. We met the marketing director and she had arranged for us to spend the day skiing with the Okemo Freestyle Team. We had a great day of skiing with them.
After skiing, we headed to Glenn Testa's place in Bridgewater. Glenn is quite a character. He was just a weekender when he shared a house with me, in Pittsfield, years ago. Later, he moved up to Vermont and has been living there ever since. He is certified as a ski coach by the U.S. Ski Coaches Association (USSCA) and he is a classic ski bum. After teaching skiing for many years, he retired from the ski school and became a private ski coach. He was one of the few Americans to coach the Argentinean National Team and he really knows his stuff. One of the many Boston immigrants who have been lured up to Killington by nine months of skiing, he has worked as a construction and has tended bar at the Pasta Pot, Zorba's and other spots at Killington. Currently he is recovering from a serious injury he sustained when he saved the life of a workman who fell off the roof of the Killington Grand Hotel. Glenn was the foreman of the roofing crew and when he saw the man fall, he caught him in his arms. This heroic action saved the man's life but really messed up my old friend.
When it comes to skiing, Glenn is the most opinionated ski bum I know. Glenn finds fault with almost everybody's form, with the exception of "Crazy Ernie", Pepe Gougenburger, and Jon Lamb. According to Glenn, "Nobody else at Killington can ski!"
His list of good skiers is very interesting. "Crazy Ernie" undoubtedly had the most natural talent of any bump skier I have had the pleasure to know. He competed for years on the pro freestyle circuit, until a ruptured disk ended his pro career. He is a USSCA certified ski coach (just like Glenn). He had his own TV show on Killington TV, called "Crazy Ernie's Ski Tips", and is featured, along with Donna Weinbrecht, Jon Lamb and Bob Aldighieri in Killington's instructional tape on mogul skiing. He now lives in the Fire House at the base of the mountain at Jackson Hole and is considered "King of the Mountain" by the locals. The last time I talked to Ernie, I told him that I had heard he was into Extreme Skiing and jumping off 50 foot cliffs. "That's a lie, he said. They're 70 foot." "For you, that's easy. When you were competing, you had to do inverted ariels, now all you have to do is land," I responded. He just chuckled. "Ya, you're right," he said. Ernie has become a legend among real skiers and he has really earned his nickname "Crazy Ernie".
Pepe Gougenburger also passes Glenn's test. Pepe was one of the first Austrian ski instructors to come to Killington in the '70. He is a former Austrian Army ski trooper and was the fastest chief in the USA when he won the Grande Marnier Ski Race in '91.
Another skier who's ability Glenn respects in Jon Lamb. Jon is an institution at the Killington Ski School. He conducts Killington's mogul clinics and also helped make the Killington freestyle tape with Donna and Ernie. He is also a frequent contributor to the Ski Bum News.
When Glenn starts to pontificate about this one or that one of our friend's lack of skiing ability, I always take it with a grain of salt. The people he was found of lambasting were all very good skiers.
I learned to appreciate Glenn's keen eye, the night I dropped over with a copy of the Killington video tape on mogul skiing. I had been skiing Bear Mountain the day they were filming "Crazy Ernie" skiing the bumps and it was the scariest thing I had every seen.
I looked up Outer Limits and watched the cameraman filming Ernie as he descended Outer Limits. The cameraman was riding down the chairlift with his camera trained on "Crazy Ernie". Ernie was making prefect turn, after perfect turn, through moguls the size of Volkswagens. Watching the cameraman, my heart was in my mouth. He was riding down the Bear Mountain Chair with the safety bar up! I had a flash of the lift coming to an abrupt halt (as they often do) and the cameraman catapulting a quarter of a mile to the ground. Luckily, this did not happen and all ended well. Later, when I complemented "Crazy Ernie" for his great performance in the bumps, he surprised me by complaining that he had to ski so slow, just to keep in camera range.
Glenn watched the video with the trained eye of an experienced ski coach. When Donna Weinbrecht came on the TV screen, Glenn yelled "Look at that, look at her hand." I watched her intensely, and only saw a very beautiful girl skiing the bumps flawlessly. "What do you mean?" "Look at her left hand", he said. I could see nothing. "She's favoring her left hand," he said. I could still see nothing.
After watching the video, we went out to dinner. We just went down the road to a little Italian place that had just opened up in Bridgewater. When the waitress came to take our order, it turned out to be Donna Weinbrecht's sister. After a little small talk, Glenn mentioned seeing the tape Donna had made and pointed out that he had noticed she had favored one hand when she was making a pole plant. I was astonished when Donna's sister said, "did you noticed that? Donna hurt her shoulder in a ski accident and worked for a year to fix it." I couldn't believe it. Glenn had only watched Donna ski for a few seconds and picked out her only flaw. He really had an expert eye. That's why people from all over the country seek him out for coaching. One look and Glenn can diagnose all your faults on the snow.
Whenever I'm with Glenn, we spend hours discussing skiing and equipment. .This trip Glenn was no exception. Glenn had to show me all his new toys. He brought out his new Vökl Snow Rangers. "I keep these hidden in back of the wood pile, so my wife won't see them," he said. Glenn's a skiaholic, addicted to the best equipment. The right ski for the right conditions in a must for him. I understood, after all, I have 10 pairs of skis, myself!
Glenn is into lifter plates. "Once you're up, you'll never come down," he said. Glenn is skiing on ESS. bindings with racing plates, "these are only available to top racers." He had six pairs. He kept saying that the leverage you get with plates was incredible and really allowed you maximize your speed in a turn. Glenn was complaining that his buckles were dragging on the snow during racing turns. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of calipers and measured the thickness of his plates and bindings. "I think you can go to 67 millimeters," he said. He adjusted the calipers and held them up. "I can go up this much more," he said.
I love visiting Glenn. He's a character and his wife is too. Karen, his wife, was his girlfriend when we shared a ski house, years ago. Her heavy "Southie" Boston accent and heart as big as all outdoors has endeared her to me. Anyone who can put up with Glenn for almost 20 years deserves a medal!
The next morning, Jessie and I went up to Killington. As we drove up the access road, Killington Mountain came into view. "Looks just like a post card," Jessie said. And she was right. No matter how many times I see that mountain, it takes my breath away. Turning the corner by the Grist Mill, it looms into view, majestic, with its trails covered in white, promising some of the most challenging skiing in the East.
At the end of the day, we were worn out, but happy. Experiencing the wonderfully tired feeling that comes from pitting your skill against the mountain and doing all right. Jessie was skiing beautifully. She was a second generation ski instructor, who had literally been raised on skis. The "Old Man", wasn't doing as well. I was skiing OK on the groomed steeps, but I was having trouble in the bumps. "Rust", I mused, as I thought over the wonderful day we had on the slopes.
The next morning, we headed to Pico Peak. Although it was sunny in Bridgewater, Pico was in a cloud. There was an eerie mist hanging over the mountain. I hadn't skied Pico in years, and this was Jessie's first experience with this family mountain. We skied all day and by 3:30, the cloud on the top of the mountain was starting to descend and we were getting tired. I always follow the old adage "You only get hurt on the last run" and we called it a day.
We headed up to Sugarbush next and did not know what to expect I had called the Sugarbush housing bureau the night before and was informed that every room in the Sugarbush/Mad River Valley area was booked. No Room at the Inn was an old Christmas tale but I wasn't worried.
As we got close to Sugarbush, I woke Jessie from her aprés ski slumber and asked her to keep an eye open for vacancy signs. There had been sign out at the Fluer de Les in Pittsfield, earlier but my skier's intuition told me that I could find something closer. I explained to Jessie that I had not made any reservations, figuring we could find something when we got to Sugarbush. "Nothing new there," said my daughter. Jessie had accompanied me on a trip through Italy and the French Riviera, where the only reservations we had, were plane tickets and a rental car. We had traveled from Switzerland, down the east coast of Italy, across to Naples, north to Rome and then to the Riviera without a single reservation. Jessie was used to my not so well-planned excursions.
Thus, began our odyssey from ski lodge, to ski lodge. Just outside of Waitsfield, the was a vacancy sign. I pulled in and hurried to the desk, only to find that someone had robbed the "No Vacancy" sign, they were full. This set the pattern for the evening, No Room At The Inn. I pulled into every lodge and Inn between Waitsfield and Waterbury. I figured EVERYPLACE can't be filled. I started to make a mental list of people in the area that I hadn't seen in 20 years that might put us up for the night. I was getting desperate, I even thought about calling my X-wife! As I pulled into the center of Waterbury, I saw the feint glow of a vacancy sigh in neon. We checked into the Waterbury Motel and didn't have to sleep in the car.
The next day, we were at Sugarbush. I didn't even recognize the place! They had purchased Glenn Ellen a few years ago and connected them this year with the world's longest high-speed detachable chair. Of all the ski resorts I visited on this trip, I was most impresses with Sugarbush. They seemed to provide the most varied terrain, most choices of expert bump runs, and were really able to move a lot of skiers onto the mountain. The investment this resort has made in snowmaking and lifts will attract really good skiers back to this excellent mountain.
We headed back to Waterbury and had dinner at an interesting restaurant in the center of the town. It was a restaurant that was having an identity crisis. It was a Mexican restaurant that was owned by people from India, so it had Mexican and India cuisine. The pungent odor of curry wafted over us while we munched our taco chips, dipped in salsa.
We hit the sack early and headed to Mad River Glen in the morning. Going to Mad River Glen was like stepping through a ski time warp. NOTHING had changed since I had visited this area 20 years ago. And, by golly, nothing was GONNA change! The lodge was just as I had remembered it, small and rustic.
The single chair still serviced some of the most challenging trails in the East and snowmaking was almost nonexistent. We explored Mad River carefully. Narrow, bumped up trails, bare spots, rocks and other surprises greet the unaware at this novel ski resort. We stayed away from the rally gnarly slopes that looked like they would do a number on any but the most advanced skiers. Some of the most difficult slopes looked as if the rocks and bare spots would trash your skis in an instant. Jessie LOVED Mad River..
This was the best ski trip I had ever had with my daughter. I had been able to introduce her to some great ski areas and we had a blast.
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