The Calendar says it's March and that the official start of spring 2003 is just a few days away. But you'd never know it. Along with all the other afternoon commuters, I'm stuck in one of the many big storms that have rocked the East this winter. Inching along on the Mass Pike, I pass the Wachusett Mountain exit and can't help but think how liberating it would be to escape this misery for some face shots. Not today. I'm in grown-up clothes, on my way home from a meeting. But as what should be a one-hour drive turns into five, I vow to reward myself the next morning. At home, I toss my skis in the Thule box and set the alarm for early, determined to see if aquick dash to Wachusett can satisfy a girl who worships Jackson Hole in the West and Sugarloaf in the East.
Wachusett Mountain is Boston's backyard ski area, owned by the Crowley family—enthusiastic skiers who also own the Polar Beverage Company. Wachusett is a scenic, woodsy mountain with six-state vistas on a clear day and—from just the right spot—a direct shot at the soaring Boston skyline, 50 miles away. There are three main lifts, a modest 108 skiable acres and a 1,000-foot vertical drop. In other words, Wachusett is strictly midsize, except in one area: skier visits. There, the mountain is a powerhouse, drawing a big-league 425,000 per season. Add a dash of top ski-school experts, the busiest NASTAR race program in the nation, nightskiing and thousands of schoolchildren daily. Mix well, and what have you got? A fun, well-run ski area—not exactly Jackson Hole, but if you're a New Englander in search of a quick escape, it'll do the trick.
The morning after my hellish commute, nature is on Wachusett's side. As I gather my gear in the parking lot, the sun is shining strongly, but not enough to turn the snow to slop. I join a steady stream of early risers—some solo like me; some with kids who are clearly playing hooky to enjoy the nine inches of new snow; and a few clusters of moms freeing themselves for a few hours, light in their step from having made the school bus drop-off. I settle in for coffee in an alcove of the giant base lodge, and find myself surrounded by an older crowd. It turns out they're the WOTS—Wachusett Old-Time Skiers—who have been around since before the Crowleys came on the scene in the early '80s. Barbs fly across the room and tall tales of great runs flow with the coffee. In the alcove next to us, the moms are ready to make a few runs. Outside, three Boston radio stations are setting up for remote broadcasts later in the day. I head out with the crowd and board the Polar Express Quad.
Four minutes later, I'm already gliding down Conifer Connection, a tame but charismatic cruiser lined with tall evergreens. It's a quick run down the 1,000 vertical, with the tall New England pines blurring as I pass. But I don't mind that it's over too soon: Even on this sun-soaked, new-snow day, I can hop back on the chairlift with barely a wait. Four more minutes and I'm taking on Smith Walton, a narrower, steeper trail with just enough fall line and twists to send me back to those early childhood ski days in northern New England. I pause a moment and look out. I know Boston is somewhere to my left, but as far as I can see, it's just snow, woods and rolling hills. I'm amazed I can feel so far away, when just below me there's a spot where I can see the Hancock Tower. Next run, I choose the 10th Mountain Trail, another narrow, winding cruiser.
The Crowleys don't have unlimited terrain to work with; there are no bowls or long catwalks to different parts of the mountain. But they were smart enough to carve out trails with unique personalities. You can skate-turn along the winding, usually ungroomed Roper's Road and Balance Rock, or fly down Look Mom under the lift. There's a beginner area tucked safely off to the side, and the requisite terrain park for the teens. Wachusett may not be big, but it's well-planned and easy to navigate. None of the terraain qualifies as exceptionally challenging, but by lunchtime I've logged a solid 13,000 vertical.
I click out of my skis to take another look around the lodge. Since my morning coffee, the base area's personality has changed. School buses have arrived bearing local kids lucky enough to get a half-day of skiing for gym each week. Every weekday between 3 and 6 p.m., 2,000 schoolchildren take runs at Wachusett. In the lodge, each school has its own hangout, and when they're not skiing they're checking one another out. It's like a middle-school dance: everyone looking, some kids teasing, hormones super-heating the air.
In another corner of the lodge, adults equipped for racing crane to see results on a bulletin board. Wachusett's adult race leagues are legendary—with thousands taking part weekly. I know people who travel all the way from the Cape to run gates—a two-hour commute. The WOTS have packed it in. They take pride in racking up five-figure verticals before noon each day, then heading home. Meanwhile, the singles crowd is marking its territory for après. They place bags, jackets, any kind of marker, and then set out to ski.
Back outside, the snow is getting a bit skied off, but it's still remarkably good despite the crowd. In the afternoon sun, I cycle for a few runs on the Minuteman Express quad. Wachusett likes to call itself a three-part area, and it really does ski that way, despite the fact that you can almost spit from one quad to the next. Over at Minuteman, I glide down Ralph's, an outer-perimeter cruiser named for the Crowley family patriarch. It's tame but fun, and the views are great. Back up top I hit Look Mom, the terrain park, where skiers and boarders can ride the curbs and banks as aggressively or cautiously as they please. But it's on Hitchcock Trail that I find my groove. It twists and tumbles down the mountain the way New England trails used to, and I have to stay on my game.
The grooming fleet is out making its afternoon run now, and soon the night crowd will arrive to find plenty of flat corduroy. Looking out toward the parking lot, I see a stream flowing both ways—those who are spent from a day of playing on the small but entertaining mountain heading out, and those who got the bug for a run while at work in Boston or shoveling snow in the suburbs heading in. The night-league racers are warming up and inspecting the course on Challenger, the race slope. The place will hum till 10 p.m. when, for a few brief hours until morning, it gets to rest.
Sure, it's small, and it packs a lot of action onto limited slope space. But Wachusett makes it work. A week later, after yet another storm socks Massachusetts, I'm back out there, getting my fix. Though I live down near the Cape, I've learned my lesson. I know I can put my little one on the bus, get out on the mountain, crank out enough vertical to make it feel like a real ski day and still zoom home in time to keep the family running. To them, it's as if I were never gone. To me, it's the perfect getaway.