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Holding onto History

Fall Line
posted: 03/04/2004

When I was a kid, I loved to ride the chair with my dad and hear his stories of skiing in the old days. He'd tell of flailing down narrow trails on edgeless hickories, or of riding the ski train to Vermont, or of the time his friend Dick Best dried his leather ski boots on a wood stove and they warped into gravy boats.

His stories make me regard Brian Lindner of Stowe, Vt., as one of skiing's unsung heroes. Like an alpine Freud, Lindner uncovers skiing's repressed past-then stores it in his garage. Lindner says his wife often meets him at the door with, "What did you bring home today?" The way Lindner sees it, "if nobody saved things, museums would be empty."

People like Lindner understand that skiing has one of the most romantic histories in sports, from the early jumpers to the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. Football's pioneers didn't risk their necks flying off a jump in Soldier Field Stadium in 1939. No army of golfers beat back the Nazis on the cliffs of Italy.

My dad started skiing when Stowe was truly the Ski Capital of the East because it had a chairlift. His stories made that past come alive. He'd tell me that he nearly missed the ski train because the conductor misunderstood his high school-French and said, "No, we don't stop at any place called 'Mon-Pell-Yay.'" (Montpelier, Vt., was another matter.) He told me how everyone wore their workaday overcoats on the lifts to stay warm, how Lowell Thomas delivered national radio broadcasts from the basement of the Green Mountain Inn, how only crazies dared to ski Nosedive.

Lindner, a 51-year-old insurance executive and part-time patroller, can tell you that some of the world's greatest trail designers cut some of the first "down-mountain" trails at Stowe, and that it had one of the first chairlifts in the U.S., as well as the first ski dorm. Lindner can show you where the famous Nosedive used to be. (Now the reconfigured trail is a boulevard.) He can tell you that the towers that supported the single chair my dad rode were hot riveted in the same Brooklyn shipyard that built the Queen Elizabeth. The people who ski and work at Stowe also enjoy his stories. "When people know the history of their company, it helps build pride and morale," he says. He points to one of Stowe's first toboggans stashed in his garage: "Stowe has the oldest organized ski patrol in the U.S. This is our 70th year." That's history.

Yet Lindner remains one of the few who care. One day 18 years ago, he discovered that Stowe management was hauling those lift towers to the scrap yard, and he asked for one. They wanted $500. None survived. When Stowe replaced its single chair with a quad in 1986, management tried to sell the old chairs for too much money, and ended up discarding most of them. Lindner until recently had one in his garage (he's since donated it to a ski museum), along with an original gondola, antique groomers and old wool poncho blankets. And the stone hut on top of Stowe? It's standing because years ago, while employed by Vermont's Youth Conservation Corps, he ignored orders to tear it down.

Meanwhile, the ski industry moans that numbers remain flat. That's partly because too many resorts have become as faceless as Wal-Marts. History sells: We pay more to stay at a historic inn than a Motel 6. At places like the Balsams Wilderness in New Hampshire, its hotel hallways lined with photos and letters from famous guests, the past creates atmosphere. It's exciting to know that you're sharing space with the ghosts of Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth. That's why smart resort developers build ersatz history-picture those pseudo-Old World villages at Tremblant or Vail. And nearly every ski bar in the world has vintage skis and snowshoes screwed to the walls.

More people would ski if more lodges looked like the 1960s beauty at the Balsams, with its smell of an actual wood fire in an actual stone fireplace. And every resort would be improved by saving a few narrow, natural-snow trails, where you feel like you're on a mountain, not an inclined white carpet. People may like megaresorts, but they love places with hot-riveted towers, like Mad River Glen and Alta.

Of course the fault lies not just with management, but with us. Skiing is constantly evolving, and we all want the next big thing. I wish I still had the red-white-and-blue Rossi ST-650s I worshiped in high school but later tossed aside for something newer. Resorts have become bland partly because management thinks that's what we want.

But managers ought to have vision. Too many know nothing of the skiers and events that preceded them. That's why they can't see that turning a Charlie Lord-designed trail into a golf course with lifts is as vile as paving over a Frederick Law Olmsted garden. When we destroy skiing's past, we plasticize the sport. That doesn't mean we need to turn every lodge into a museum, but it does mean that resorts need to find their own Brian Lindners-and listen to them. Then they'll know what lift towers to save, what bygone skiers to brag about and what photos to hang near the cafeteria line.

Our past teaches us where we come from and who we are. It connects the generations and shows us that though the sport has changed, the reason people wake up early on a cold winter morning to head up a mountain has not.

I'd like to take my own sons down Stowe's Nosedive as it was in my dad's day. I'd like to tell them stories of my own on the chairlift. I want them to love skiing as much as I do. Don't my kids-and their kids-deserve that, too?

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