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A Skier's Crossroads

Most of the year, I feel nothing but neighborly affection for the people in my community. But on powder days, I hate them.

You see, living in Waterbury, Vt., is a blessing and a curse. Like a number of my neighbors, I was drawn to Waterbury because of its proximity to some notable skier's landmarks: Stowe (home to Stowe Resort), Waitsfield (home of Sugarbush and Mad River Glen), Bolton (with Bolton Valley) and Richmond (where legions of Vermonters have learned to ski at the family-owned Cochran's ski hill). Waterbury, population 4,639, is hemmed in by the Worcester Mountains to the east and the Green Mountains to the west. Mt. Mansfield and Camel's Hump-half of Vermont's complement of 4,000-foot summits-stand at either end of the town.

What could possibly be the problem with this idyllic setting? It's that Waterbury residents are some of the greediest, most voracious powder hounds in the region. The moment I leave my driveway in Waterbury Center (the "Center" is actually a rural residential area that lies halfway between Stowe and Waterbury, and is part of the latter), I have a good idea what the skiing will be like 20 minutes away at Stowe, my home ski area. If my dirt road is unplowed and untracked, my chances of claiming first tracks are good. But a telltale trace of tire treads before 7 am means my next door neighbor, Stowe ski patroller Brian Lindner, has beat me to the hill. On the main roads I may pass Amy Hunter bombing down the road on her way to ski patrol at Sugarbush, about 20 minutes south of town. Or it could be Bob Bortree, ex-University of Vermont ski champ, heading to Stowe to reclaim some old glory in the gates at the mountain's weekly ski bum races.

Ironically, the fact that Waterbury does not have its own ski hill is its primary selling point to many people. Add a destination resort to any real estate market and the cost of living soars. The average cost for a 2,000-square-foot home in Stowe is $188,363, while a comparable Waterbury home runs $114,682. "Waterbury is certainly the best town that a true ski bum can afford to live in and still have money left to ski," asserts fellow Waterbury Centerite Kim Brown. Brownie, a columnist for the Stowe Reporter, has taken full advantage of being so close to the action: He has long been a maddeningly prolific thief of first tracks at Stowe.

Skiers have actually been coming to this town for as long as people have been skiing in Vermont. Back in the Thirties, the snow trains from New York and Boston delivered skiers to Waterbury, where they would board a trolley for the 10-mile ride north to Stowe. Waterbury was home to the 1,000-foot Pinnacle Park ski tow in that era, as well as a ski jump and a lighted ice rink. These days, a sign in town justifiably proclaims Waterbury as "Vermont's Recreation Crossroads." Skiers from points south will still likely travel to Stowe or Sugarbush via the Waterbury Amtrak stop or the Waterbury-Stowe exit on Interstate 89.

Lacking a ski area of its own, Waterbury today is more a skier's town than a ski town. Ski lore and an affection for things snowy permeate the community. Thursday night at the bar at Tanglewood's Restaurant has become a traditional meeting place for a bevy of local sliders. There you'll find an assortment of area ski scribes, skiers and incorrigible alpine addicts such as Denny Boyle, a Philadelphia realtor who commutes by plane each Thursday to his Waterbury Center home so he can ski all weekend.

Truth is, I never paid much attention to Waterbury before I set down roots here in 1991. Among lifelong Vermonters, the town's identity was forever linked to the state mental hospital: "Send 'em to Waterbury" meant a person had seriously lost touch with reality. To weekend warriors, Waterbury is a place to stop for some gas or road food while racing back to Boston. My only memory of the town from the Eighties was a stop that I made at the dingy Waterbury Pub to have a Bud and change into dry clothes after skkiing Mad River Glen. As we scarfed down our dinner, the locals in their coveralls looked at us in our Gore-Tex as if we were space aliens.

Waterbury has been transformed in recent years, but not by skiing. The catalyst for change can be summarized in two words: Ben and Jerry. The ice cream hippies set up their main factory in town back in the Eighties. The rest is history. The sprawling building atop a hill with cows grazing in front and a picture of Planet Earth plastered on its side is now Vermont's top tourist attraction. With 150 full-time employees, it's also by far the largest private employer in town, and regularly bribes local residents with free ice cream (where else are you rewarded for paying your property taxes with eight pints of Chunky Monkey?). B&J's has spawned a cottage industry of specialty food companies around town. Grazing along Route 100 here is guaranteed to provide enough stimulation for the drive home.

In downtown Waterbury, the collision of old and new is captured on the corner of Main and Stowe streets. On one side is the Waterbury Pub, a favorite smoky haunt of the old Vermonters. Directly across the street is its yuppie alter ego, Arvad's Spirits & Light Fare, with a long list of microbrews and imports. Continuing down Main Street, several imperious white church steeples give the downtown its requisite New England character. The sprawling grounds of the state hospital have been taken over by a variety of state government offices. During summer, some of the younger bureaucrats shed their jackets and ties for a rip-roaring lunch-hour game of ultimate Frisbee on the front lawn.

The face of Waterbury has changed, but its soul has not. I am reminded of that on powder days as my neighbors and I dash off to the various lifts that lace our mountains for another delicious taste of what lured us here in the first place-and what keeps us around.

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