My visions of the Christmas holidays have always been couched in snow — drifts of it snugged up to red New England farmhouses, sleigh bells and sleigh rides, making snowmen and building forts at the end of the driveway to provide shelter for snowball fights. Lots of family and friends and gales of laughter piercing the cold air from toboggans whooshing down the hill.
That was childhood. I no longer live down a country lane. I live in a ski resort, a place that many, many people like to visit for the holidays.
This is a land of contrasts — hot summers and cold winters, mountains and desert, times when making a left turn is a no brainer and times when left turns are impossible. This time of year a day that begins with a Robert Frost snowshoe trek in the quiet woods can segue into an encounter with herds of wild city people running amok in public places.
On one of the first mornings of the New Year, my husband and I bundled up for the cold temperatures and headed out snowshoeing with our dog to the deep woods and meadows just outside town, a place crowded only with drifted snows and pines. We drove past flocks of people sledding and building snowmen. They used what was at hand — pine boughs and needles to cover the snowheads with bushy pine dreadlocks.
Up at the tops of the several sledding runs, dads gave their charges a push and shouted encouragement as they slid down the hill. Kids shrieked with fear or glee as their round saucers picked up speed. Anxious mothers in fashion boots rocked from one cold foot to the other, watching, ready to catch or rescue.
A mile or two farther down the road, we parked, slipped into our snowshoes and set off into the track of a snowmobile. In this deep snow we would have been postholing without the symbiotic trailsetting of snowmobiles. Clods of snow fell from branches, landing with muffled thumps. And except for the occasional discontented raven squawking at our intrusion, the only sound was the squeaking of snowshoes on snow. Our contentment was complete. I looked around at the graceful pines hung with snow, the almost-fluorescent blue sky above and wooded snowfields that seemed to stretch forever — grateful to be lucky enough to live in the mountains, in a town of human scale, without big boxes to supersize our needs.
Back home, we settled in for the afternoon. But a sudden craving for a chicken pot pie dinner propelled me to the market. Off I trundled in search of puff pastry, frozen peas, mushrooms and white wine. Never satisfied to do one errand when I can gang a bunch of them into one trip, I stopped into Tailwaggers, which is next to Vons, for homemade dog cookies. There I ran into two friends. One of them is a crackerjack storyteller, often unspooling tales of drama and trauma. This tale was no different, and I was hooked, listening intently, so completely captivated that I lost track of time.
There are few times during holidays in a ski resort to grocery shop without the accompaniment of hundreds of strangers, all packed into the grocery box. Sure enough, I’d missed the narrow window when I could breeze in and out of Vons in a scant few minutes. By the time we’d finished hashing out possible outcomes for my friend’s story, and I walked into the market, the cacophony had reached highest decibels.
Vons is the sole market in town. Its prices are high — Mammoth is a resort market five distant hours from suppliers. I grabbed the second-to-last cart, imagining supermarket bumper cars — a greater challenge even than maneuvering through rush-hour mobs in Grand Central Station. My strategy was to shift into low gear, not be in a hurry, and enjoy the amusing show scrambling in front of me.
Snowboarder dudes ambled with sailors’ gaits in their droopy pants, baggy tops and odd headwear. Gaggles of girls in pastel parkas, couples with overtired tots, middle-aged folk in toasty UGGs — vied in every aisle for space and merchandise in an odd dance of reach and pull, dodge and grab, scowl and smirk.
Checkout lines oozed to the back of the store, carts knitted in and out of those lines in a weird frenzy. People with their carts overloaded to point of groaning waited in express lines, ignoring the sign that limits the take to 15 items.
Now working their tenth day in a row, checkers were on automatic — bobbleheads with deer-in-the-headlights eyes and weary smiles that trembled. Baggers fled from one checkout stand to the next, stuffing plastic bags full of groceries. “Twenty-one days of hell,” a bagger whispered hoarsely, begging me to let him carry out my bag so he could get a few minutes’ respite.
I exhaled upon emerging from the supermarket’s north side entrance onto the parking lot of treacherous ice that can last all winter. SUVs — gigantic white or black behemoths — parked wherever they pleased. Their engines left on, seething with power, they could be transformers, primed to turn into road warriors on the way back to L.A. Small vintage Hondas in shades of teal and turquoise squeezed between them, diminished by the gigantism of the SUVs.
“Made it.” I exhaled again. As I drove home, the calm, wonder and gratitude of living in a small mountain town re-surged. I have lived in the city, rushing here, bustling there, stressed by the knowledge that there was so much to do, and so little time. I remember the feeling of being a tourist, of leaving my life and arriving in some version of paradise, moving in a magical bubble throughout my visit. There is much to be said for coming to the mountains and untying the knots of city living. While I no longer live down childhood’s quiet country lane, I can’t imagine living in a more perfect place, where eyes lift to a vertical, mountainous horizon. And despite the squeezed feeling of a very full town, I welcome holiday revelers to come and explore their individual touristic bubbles.