Soul Mountain

FEATURE-December 2012
By Jaed Coffin
Photographs Courtesy of Sugarloafers

A kid’s quest for the perfect run.


It’s early September and I’m sitting at the bar of the mostly vacant Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel nursing a glass of whiskey and chatting with the cute young woman sitting on the stool to my right. She’s drinking her own amber-colored beverage while half-listening to me brag about my better years, but given the somewhat distracted look in her eyes, I wonder if she would rather be watching television up in her hotel room.

“Back when I was in high school,” I tell the young woman, “I used to come here all the time.”

“Oh?” she says, over the rim of her glass.

“Oh yeah,” I say. “Every weekend.”

The young woman smiles, but I can tell that she just doesn’t get it. It’s her first time up to Sugarloaf, after all, and there’s no snow and the lifts aren’t running and peak season is still four months away.

A silence passes. We sip our drinks. Then the bartender slides a plate in front of the young woman—I’ll pick up the tab—and without any concern for appearances, she digs in.

I should mention that the amber-colored beverage in the young woman’s glass is apple juice, not whiskey, and that her meal is of chicken fingers and fries, and that the young woman is not a twenty-something ski bunny but my four-year-old daughter. I don’t think she has any idea why her mom and dad have dragged her two hours north to spend the night in a strange hotel room just so her dad can get a closer look at a snowless brown mountain with no one on it.

I want to tell her that there was a time when Sugarloaf—as a symbol and metaphor—meant something to me, and that even now, as a father, it frames my past in ways that few other things in Maine do.

In our hotel room, as my wife puts my daughter to bed, I stand at the window and look at the mountain. It’s after Labor Day, and though the leaves are only just starting to turn, you can see the specter of fall haunting the golden pre-dusk light that skirts the ridge of Sugarloaf Mountain. As the light fades, the mountain becomes a single shadowy form, and maybe it’s the whiskey, or maybe it’s the fact that my wife and I don’t get away much these days, but I find myself filling in that featureless dark shape with all the meanings of the mountain that, as a young man, made Sugarloaf more than just a place to ski.

Don’t get me wrong: I was not by any means what anyone might refer to as a “Sugarloaf kid.” Neither of my parents knew how to ski, and for the first 10 or 12 years of my life my only exposure to downhill skiing was on Wednesday nights, when I caught the town rec bus up to Lost Valley in Auburn, where I took lessons outfitted in rental gear, jeans, doubled-up sweatshirts, and a hunter-orange cap—not the flamboyantly neon, early 90s uniforms suggestive of trickle-down Aspen glamour. I bought my first set of skis from a local ski and skate sale, and when it snowed my buddies and I spent our weekends dragging our discount deals through the blueberry fields and woods behind the old hospital, where we would build a big mound of snow and sticks and old tires at the base of a steep pitch called Bullet Hill that was wrecked daily by charging snowmobiles if it wasn’t iced over by nightfall.

All winter, we sat in the library during study hall periods drooling over the pages of Powder magazine, imagining Colorado winters and big, stylish drops off scenic cliffs alongside mohawked mountain-cowboy heroes. The more reasonable of us conjured more local dreams, mainly getting weekend invitations from the families who owned condos at “The Loaf.” One of my lucky buddies got a job looking after some kids whose parents owned a condo at Sugarloaf, and he had the enviable job of ski-sitting all weekend. He didn’t own equipment, so he borrowed mine, and on Mondays he came back with a pocket full of cash and embellished stories of powder and hot tubs and pizza.

Sometimes in the pages of my notebook, I drew the blue and white-tipped triangle symbol—over and over again in a peak-to-peak tessellating mandala—that adorned the bumpers of Loafer station wagons, perhaps hoping that my devotions to the image would somehow increase my chances of going there one day.

Who were those kids who vanished to that mountain every weekend?

To me, they led secretive, exotic lives. They seemed perfectly happy to quit basketball teams and skip hugely important junior high dances to disappear every Friday night and come back to school on Monday with goggle tans and chapped cheeks and stories about kids from other high schools in Maine who also spent their weekends in that mysterious otherworldly realm. They talked to each other about Sugarloaf in a coded lexicon that I only vaguely understood: bumps on Bubblecuffer, powder on Ripsaw, Lower this and Upper that.

The most compelling of our town’s mountain children belonged to the Copeland family. There were two brothers—Eric and Bjorn—and a kid sister named Siggy. The coolness of their names alone implied access to a world that the rest of us would never know. The brothers had perfect blonde skater bangs, and they didn’t play sports or run for class office; instead, they dressed in grandpa cardigans and baggy pants and were not considered “really popular” so much as “weirdly cool.” (They are now members of a Brooklyn-based band called Black Dice, which tours internationally.)

Siggy was similarly cool beyond her years: while I was just discovering the power of Van Halen and AC/DC, she came to school in a T-shirt that read “Death to the Pixies.” When I asked her who the Pixies were, she referenced the Lemonheads, who I hadn’t heard of either. Siggy didn’t play sports, but there was a rumor in school that she skied as good as any boy.

In eighth grade, my buddy Nicky and I finally got down to business. We spent many afternoons in November in a small office in the science room, calling the Sugarloaf Mountain front desk from our school phone, organizing an entirely self-serving class trip to Sugarloaf that we publicized with flyers we designed on an Apple IIe. I recall that we were offered a deal—50 bucks per person for a bus ride and lift ticket combo package. Naturallly, the trip sold out. Nicky and I, in reward for our efforts, got to ride for free.

By then, I could hold my own as a skier. And also by then, I admit, I was going out with Siggy. (By “going out,” I mean we talked on the phone once a week, never held hands, and didn’t ever hang out on weekends because, of course, she was at Sugarloaf.)

As the bus cornered the mountain road, and the collective gasp of 50 novice skiers filled the cabin, I tried to slow my heartbeat. Soon, I would be up on that white-striped mountain, skiing with my eighth-grade girlfriend who I was too shy to say hi to in the hallways.

I remember only impressions of that day: The snow was perfect. It was cold. I skied with Siggy. She was better than I was. The mountain was too big, the trails too steep, and I fell a few times. But I came home infected.

Over the next couple of years, I made pilgrimages to Sugarloaf as often as I could. At some point, Sugarloaf offered a season-pass deal to Maine kids for $250 a year, and many of my friends begged their parents to roll their birthday presents and Christmas gifts into a single pre-season purchase. The goal every winter then was to “bust your pass,” which meant skiing enough days, typically a dozen, to surpass the money you would have paid in daily lift tickets.

I soon began to bust my pass before Christmas, and it was not long before I could close my eyes during English class and call forth a hologram of the mountain and recite from memory the names of every wavy white stripe on it, and every invisible cutoff and glade that connected stripe to stripe. When those trails became boring, we skied only glades. When the glades got too easy, we hiked to the summit to ski the snowfields. When skiing got too easy, we bought telemark equipment. When snowboarding arrived, we telemarked the half-pipe. One winter, a ski patroller busted me and Nicky on the half-pipe and confiscated our passes for three weeks. We spent the next three weekends walking aimlessly around our town, kicking snow banks and playing video games as if mourning the death of a friend we had never known.

My wife and I order cosmos to our room, and watch some junk on television. But I’m not very relaxed.

“What do you want to do tomorrow?” she says.

We can’t ski. I know that. But there’s a look in my eye that she must have seen before. It’s a dangerous look; one that doesn’t do well indoors. I’ve probably skied three times since my daughter was born (too expensive, not enough time, ballet lessons, etc.) But I’m too close to the mountain not to feel the force of it.

My wife sighs. “Why don’t you get up early and walk up the mountain or something. Get some inspiration. Otherwise,” she says, “you’ll be in a bad mood all day.”

“Thanks,” I say.

As the morning sun crests the peak of Sugarloaf, I find myself half-jogging up trails whose names I no longer know, as if in pursuit of something I’m not sure is there. Occasionally, I turn to look back across Carrabassett Valley—a valley, I realize, that I’ve never seen in any other shade than bright white. Naked, Sugarloaf seems strangely bionic: the silver snow-making pipes that rise from the treeline, the still cables, the bouncing empty chairs, the lift stations in waiting. When in motion, after a snowfall and dappled with skiers, the cables and chairs pumping to the summit like veins, the mountain resembles a living organism. Now, it doesn’t seem dead so much as dormant.

Out of breath, I sit on a felled birch log and look down at the empty base lodge and the hotel where my daughter and wife are probably watching cartoons. Like a lot of Maine kids who got serious about skiing, I went west—to Colorado briefly, and then Alaska. At one point, I got in the habit of climbing unnamed peaks on remote volcanic islands in the Gulf of Alaska, carving huge turns down untouched bowls. It did not dawn on me then that every twitch and instinct I carried into those days in the wilderness were movements gifted to me by this mountain.

I meet my daughter and wife in the dining room for the buffet breakfast. The waitstaff happens to be the nicest I’ve encountered anywhere—well, besides maybe Thailand. The guy making omelets tells me stories about traveling in Greece and Turkey as a younger man. The woman who refills our water swaps stories about raising children. She cuts us a deal on my daughter’s meal because, she says, she remembers what it’s like to feed kids and my daughter only ate cereal. This, I realize, is a version of Sugarloaf happiness that, as a young man, I never anticipated would apply to me.

Before we head south, I give my wife an hour at the health club—to swim, hot tub, and take a steam bath. Meanwhile, I convince my daughter that I have a very important surprise to share with her. She’s confused. This place is so quiet and empty: What could there possibly be for a surprise?

Atop my shoulders, I take her down a wooded trail, past a brook where we spend a few minutes sending mini tree bark canoes down a series of small rapids. Then, I say, it’s time for the surprise.

One of the chairlifts from the lower village to the base lodge is frozen directly over the ramp—as if waiting for us. I lift her up, swing her back and forth a few times then get on myself.

“What is this chair for?” she asks. I point up the mountain. The sun has fully risen and you can see small puddles reflected in the light.

“You sit in this chair,” I tell her, “and it takes you way up high, to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, and then you ski down.”

She nods thoughtfully, but I don’t think she understands. And then in that same tone that questions the blueness of the sky, she asks me, “Why?”

“Well,” I say, and search for the words. But in the shadow of this old mountain, there are none.


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