IN EARLY EVERY DAY FROM NOVEMBER through April, 57-year-old Bernie Chabot climbs into his ailing "winta' beata'," a 1989 Acura Legend, and makes an eight-mile drive from his home in Jeffersonville, Vermont, heading south on Route 108 to Smugglers' Notch ski resort.
There's nothing unusual about that; hun-dreds of people make the daily drive to Smuggs'. But you won't find Bernie in their midst when the masses show up. That's because the grizzled skier motors past the main entrance to the mountain, pointing the Legend's studded snow tires (they're worth more than the car) up the rutted hill toward Smuggs' legendary Upper Parking Lot.
The "Uppah Lot," as Bernie calls it in his thick New England drawl, is a long way from the condo-land of New England's Family Resort. And for the management at Smuggs', it's just fine that jalopy-driving hardcore locals like Bernie, who's been skiing the lot since the '60s, steer right by the village.
Originally excavated for the Jeffersonville Ski Ways in the late 1950s, the Uppah Lot served two Poma lifts until the Sterling double chair was built in 1964. Skiers still step into their skis in the lot, straight-run a 20-degree pitch, and double-pole or skate through a maze of race training, terrain park, and ski school activity before reaching the lift.
If you're a tree skier, all wormholes lead back to where the day begins. And it's when the ski day ends, especially in spring, that the Uppah Lot scene comes alive.
When the snow flies and the barricades go up in October, closing Route 108 to Stowe for the season, getting a good spot is worth the grind. Cars start rolling in at 6 A.M. on a powder day to become staging vehicles for pre-lift uphill tours across the base area and up Chilcoot on 2,200-vertical-foot Madonna Mountain. Downhillers like Bernie roll in around 7:30. Every day sees a blended society of Nordic and backcountry skiers, early-season snowmobilers, ice climbers, dog walkers, and even the Vermont National Guard's Mountain School. The Uppah Lot is a regular municipality in the mountains, complete with town officials and local outlaws.
"Bernie's definitely the mayor," says longtime Uppah Lottah Brad Holden. "He's there first thing in the morning and he's one of the last to leave. He's got his own spot." Holden, a local surveyor by trade and woods skier by nature, has voted for Bernie every year since the late 1980s (yes, there are real elections). It's hard not to vote for an incumbent-especially when he's a legend known for shaming younger skiers with his tree-skiing skills and brewing a wicked beer. He also used to work for the resort in the '60s, which gives him some clout, but not much.
"I was fired for having a party in the Uppah Lot in 1972," Bernie says. That was before his political career, back when resort employees weren't allowed to wear facial hair, let alone go into the one bar at the mountain-even off the clock. So Bernie started tailgating in the Uppah Lot. "Now look at it."
On any given Sunday, smoke plumes from as many as a dozen grills. Students from Johnson State College play Frisbee and bocce. Late in the season, folks stay until the sun disappears behind the north shoulder of Mount Mansfield sometime after 6 P.M. These days, no one will get fired for lighting up the hibachi or sipping a home brew: Though they don't mind keeping the Uppah Lot scene low-key, the managers have embraced Bernie's village. Bernie even allows some of them to park there.