Mad River Cult

Five Wild Days

For five wild days a few Januarys ago, I tried to become one of the skiers who has. I rented a room at the Mad River Barn, a red-paneled 19th-century farm building now serving as a guest house. The Barn, owned by Betsy Pratt, is the only lodging within two miles of the mountain. Waitsfield, the closest town, is six miles away. The Mad River Valley is refreshingly undeveloped. There are horse xing signs, and cow pastures, and covered bridges, but not a single traffic light. The Barn is run with the same relaxed attitude as the ski hill. If I had a case of the midnight munchies, I could wander into the kitchen and fix myself a snack; when I wanted a beer, I could pour myself a brew and leave two bucks on the bar. I never did get a key to my room (I'm not even sure there are room keys), and all week I simply left my door unlocked.

The Barn, I was told, is Mad River's hot spot. This proved one thing: There ain't much nightlife at Mad River. I arrived on a Saturday evening—Patrolman's Platter night—when the Barn's weekly leftovers are served to dirt-poor locals for dirt cheap. About a dozen Mad River regulars, all men, showed up. They had the squint-eyed stare, permanent hat-head, and mellower-than-mellow demeanor of people who've spent entirely too much of their lives on a pair of skis. I liked them immediately. Also, they had beards. There was more facial hair in that room than anyplace I'd ever been, whiskers hanging off jaws like strands of spaghetti. It's been said you can't join the Mad River ski patrol if you've shaved in the past 10 years, and I believe it.

We talked skiing. Tele John told me to ski with my pockets inside out, to prevent them from filling with snow. Casey the Fisherman said everything he remembered from school he learned on the single chair—that's where he did his homework. Eric the Deadhead outlined plans for a cliff jump on tele skis and said I could call him Tedder, short for telemark shredder. Kyle the Stockbroker mentioned his Harvard education, Wall Street wealth, and fantastic relief at abandoning them both to bus tables at the Mad River Barn. Chick the Tree God, a Barn guest like myself, explained that he was three days late reporting back to work in Massachusetts but couldn't be held accountable—his truck was unable to drive south when it was snowing out.

And sure enough, it was snowing out. By some unexpected gift of nature, a cloud that belonged over Utah had stationed itself atop Mad River. The result was the lightest, driest, deepest snow that had fallen on the mountain in years. By nine o'clock, everyone was heading off to bed; tomorrow was going to be another powder day. If I wanted to hit the bars, I was told to drive into Waitsfield and drink with the"tourons" staying at Sugarbush, a resort a few miles down the road that is derisively referred to by Mad River regulars as Mascara Mountain. If I wanted to be a Mad River madman, I was advised to get some sleep and be at the hill by 6:40 a.m. for Milk Run.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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