"Plan your life, and live your plan," intones Tom Hubbs, in a disarmingly familiar voice. As the official snow reporter for Stowe Mountain Resort, the sprightly 57-year-old is the guy locals hear when they call the snow phone as the coffee's perking to check if the "six-inch rule" is in effect and to learn whether another day of wages will be lost to the mountain.
"Yeah, I get paid, there's a limit to what I'll do that early in the morning for free," Hubbs says of the "job" he's embraced during his recent retirement. A 12-minute commute, albeit at 5:45 a.m., is a tidy improvement over traffic jams and a management job with the General Accounting Office in Philadelphia. "They pay me to ski!" Hubbs fairly bursts. "What's not to like?"
For a man with a plan, Hubbs still seems a little surprised by his good fortune. Perhaps he never expected to be averaging 125 days per season.
While Hubbs and his wife, Natalie, aren't exactly new to skiing, they did take up the sport relatively late in life. After skidding down the slopes of Greyrocks in Quebec on one of their first dates in 1973, the couple spent the next 25 years commuting religiously from New Jersey to northern Vermont ski resorts before retiring to Stowe two years ago.
"Over the years we just found ourselves coming back to Stowe more and more," Hubbs explains. "I originally was just focused on the mountain, because I live to ski and Stowe's such a great mountain to ski on. At some point, Natalie kind of gave me the sharp poke in the ribs that a husband will get and said, 'Take a look at this town; this is a pretty neat town.'"
Quintessentially Vermont, Stowe is both icon and real town, Hubbs says. "There are real people who live here. It's a good community." The couple isn't alone in that sentiment.
Drawn by the historic downtown and Vermont's highest peak, transplants have been laying down roots in Stowe since the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the first ski trails on Mt. Mansfield in the 1930s. Over the past decade, the population has surged more than 25 percent to 4,339 residents, many of them Baby Boomers looking for white powder confections in their golden years.
Beating the boom that the go-go years and 6-percent APRs have fueled, the Hubbs purchased a two-acre hillside lot with expansive mountain views in 1993 for less than $50,000, or about a third of today's market rate. They spent the next seven years plotting their escape from southern New Jersey, where Natalie did hard time as a high school choral director.
"I was at Stowe in December of 1999, just short of my 55th birthday, having a cup of coffee with a friend at the Octagon Lodge," Hubbs recalls. "He said, 'Let me ask you a question. You have about a third of your life left, how do you want to spend it?' Bam, it was over. That just crystallized it for me and I was gone. I turned 55 at the end of February, and a week later I was out of there."
Just a few years removed from going toe-to-toe with Senator Jesse Helms over the results of one of his audits, Hubbs displays the same analytical integrity when pressed on the effects of Act 60-Vermont's controversial education funding reform law-on his fixed retirement dollar.
"I have no gripe whatsoever with giving more money to poorer school districts; it's just a matter of equity to me," he offers. "That being said, I hate seeing it done with the property tax rather than the income tax because it turns town against town." Adding, "Certainly I wasn't blind to the fact that we were going to be paying more than we would have seven or eight years ago, but that wasn't going to stop me."
Few things, it seems, stop Hubbs when it comes to skiing. He still rips the mountain's 2,360 vertical and counts Starr and Goat-two of Stowe's fabled Front Four-among his favorite trails.
Natalie takes a more leisurely approach to life and skiing. She works two days per week at her favorite gift shop-"to put a couple more quarters in Social Security"-and hits the mountain or the tennis courts in her free time.
While extolling the virtues of Stowe's pastoral landscape, the Hubbs argue that Stowe isn't a cultural wasteland, either. Locally, the Helen Day Art Center and the Stowe Repertory Theatre offer solid artistic fare, and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra performs Mozart regularly at the Trapp Family Lodge. Nearby, Burlington attracts national acts. And Montreal is just a hard slapshot over the border.
"It's trying to get him out of Stowe that's the challenge," Natalie laughs. "What I miss most is the convenience of being able to get into the city." What the Hubbs gave up in urban access, they gained in mountain views and real estate value. Rolling nearly $200,000 in equity from their Jersey home, they built a handsome 3,100-square-foot "upside-down house" less than a mile from downtown Stowe. The living space and the master bedroom are on the upper floors to take full advantage of the vistas, though every bedroom has at least a tantalizing view of Mt. Mansfield's slopes.
"You know the story that when you retire you go to a smaller home, smaller mortgage, things like that?" asks Tom. "Well, it didn't work out that way," he adds with a grin.
With no kids and young hearts, the Hubbs expect to stay in Stowe even as they age. Undeterred by the weather -how else do you get 260 inches on the mountain?-the couple looked ahead when they chose to build on a lot better suited to birch and maples than a suburban lawn.
"My only mistake may have been allowing Natalie to talk me into planting grass in the backyard," Tom says. "I may have to mow it someday."
Whatever happens, bocce ball in Florida isn't part of the game plan. "A state where the second highest peak is Space Mountain at Disney World?" Tom asks. "I don't think so; that doesn't work for me."
STOWE TOWN FACTS
MEDIAN AGE 41
MEDIAN INCOME $35,474
HOUSEHOLD INCOME median: $52,378; from $75,000 to $150,000, 25 percent; more than $150,000, 17 percent
JOBS FROM TOURISM 44 percent
EDUCATION 672 students K-12; 54 percent of residents have college degrees
NEAREST TOWN OF SIZE Burlington, population 38,900, 38 miles away MOUNTAIN FACTS Base elevation: 1,280 feet; vertical rise: 2,360 feet;skiable acres: 480; average snowfall: 260 inches; terrain: 16 percent beginner, 59 percent intermediate, 25 percent expert
RETIREMENT With IRAs melting like spring snowpack, who retires anymore? In Stowe's historic village, urban refugees find the perfect blend of pastoral landscapes and a vibrant town life. If the prospect of gray skies and mud season cause the rheumatism to flare, Stowe's not the place. But for many, fall foliage and cherry-picking powder days on Mt. Mansfield-Vermont's highest peak-are the perfect salve for an aging body. Stowe has one blinking stoplight, the white steeple of the Stowe Community Church downtown, and a popular five-mile paved recreation path for pedestrians, cyclists and inline skaters.
BUSINESS CLIMATE Skiers looking to extend-or begin-their careers can find meaningful prospects beyond the orbit of the Mountain Company. Telecommuters and computer-based home offices are sprouting up all over Stowe, while the area's small business community has long been fertile ground for entrepreneurs and professional services, including IT, legal and financial consulting. Tubbs Snowshoes has found success in Stowe, and Ben & Jerry's sits fat and happy just down the road.