Take George, long known for his grueling, bumpy, back-road, low-fare bus service to Florida, as one of the van drivers; Adam, consistently seeking to act out his “ground pilot” fantasy, as the other van driver; Sidonie, whose list of alter-names is so long no one any longer remembers her real one; Annie, as resident grump; Joseph, whose anger diffusion is so profuse that it could easily melt the snow on the far side of the mountain; and Monica, whose persistent, ubiquitous cough has approached a frequency equitable with that of rapid submachine gun fire; and you have the makings of a day-long, company-related, synergistic melange superficially described as a “mid-winter ski trip to the Pocono Mountains.”
This expose is not, mind you, an attempt to judge: we all have something and you have to love them. But all day long…!
In order to prepare for the group, Mike and I left the previous evening, stocking up on supplies and stopping for dinner in the jewel state of New Jersey. I understand that it had just adopted the new state slogan of “Jersey: what’s that smell?”
Arriving at our Mount Pocono hotel at 11:45, Mike, originator of the ski trip idea, removed his suitcase from the SUV and walked across the parking lot amid the icicle-like temperatures. Glancing at me with some responsibility and guilt, he cracked the silence, saying, “Okay. You can get your revenge some day by planning a beach trip on a hotter-than-hell day!” I would have smiled, but my mouth had been too frozen to make the movement.
We walked the mile from the lobby to the very large, sofa-adorned room, and immediately looked through the window to admire the mountain view. Instead, we saw the heating unit belonging to the next room.
Aware of my abhorrence for waking up early (in fact, I have no clocks with “a.m.” numbers), Mike attempted to gently approach the subject.
“We have to discuss when we’re going to get up tomorrow,” he stated with some trepidation.
I just looked at him.
“The group will be here at 9:00.”
Again, I just looked at him.
“We should get up at-”
“That’s too early,” I spat.
“No way!” I retorted.
“I didn’t even give a time,” he insisted.
“You didn’t have to,” I advised. “They’re all too early!”
Because of my resistance, I almost felt sorry for him. I said almost! After all, it was my tired butt at stake, not his.
“I’m sure they will leave at 7:00 and be here at 9:00,” he attempted to reason.
Sadly, I had realized for the first time in the six months that I had known him that he had been delusional.
Morning’s light infringed itself round the edges of the curtain in a way I found as welcoming as overweight George in a starving country. There he sat, “the Mike,” on the sofa, dressed and ready to go. I got out of bed, passed him, and asked, “This is 8:00 a.m.?”
“Okay,” I said, “I experienced it” and turned round and went back to bed.
“They have left at 7:00 and will be here in an hour,” he said. I had at least thought that he would have slept off the delusion.
While Mike ate breakfast and I stared into oblivion across from him in my still-comatose, sleep-deprived state, I informed him that I would call George to find out their location. It was 8:15 and, according to Mike’s assessment, they would be there in 45 minutes. George answered and said that they were on the Van Wyck Expressway, five miles from their origin and still more than 100 miles away. That first gloating voice rose up in me that said, I told you we didn’t have to get up at 8:00!
When I informed Mike, he made a contorted facial gesture with his mouth for which there is no English adjective equivalent. “I’m sure they will be here by 10:00,” he returned. It was at this moment that I had wished that I had brought my updated list of psychiatrists. Early delusional detection is the best cure, you know.
With the luggage now reintroduced into the SUV, we drove away from the hotel. If this were the moment when one was supposed to revel in the fulfillment of a full night’s sleep, I thought, then why did I feel like I had had only half of one?
The left turn at the entrance to Big Boulder Ski Resort took us round the frozen, mirror-like Lake Harmony for the minute-long drive to the green, wooden lodge, backed by the numerous slopes leading to it.
We checked in at the central ticket desk and received our hut assignment, a singular, wooden structure complete with tables, chairs, and sofas at the base of the slopes with the somehow-inappropriate name of “Flight Line.”
Driving to the hut’s entrance, we unloaded the car of our supplies and food. I elected to call George again in order to ascertain his location. When I hung up, I advised Mike that they had stopped for gas, but were once again enroute. He acknowledged with a nod. I paused for dramatic effect, and then advised him, “They’re still in New Jersey, you know.” He again launched into his contorted facial expression and my gloating internal voice again said, I told you we didn’t have to get up at 8:00!
Knowing that the group would be tired and hungry after the long, early-morning drive, I advised Mike that we should set up some kind of hot breakfast in the main lodge and we proceeded to walk there. The woman behind the counter said that the breakfast items were already on display and that she could make more if we had had a large group, but “breakfast usually runs until about 10:30,” she finished. It was 10:00 now. Mike assured me that they would be there “within 20 minutes or so.” “So” is a short word for a long time. He obviously did not know this group the way I had.
After a series of cell phone exchanges, we ascertained that they had exited Interstate 80 and would be at the lodge within ten minutes. It was now 11:30. Mike and I went to the parking lot, at the end of the approach road, to usher in the two vans, but after a freezing half hour, neither had appeared. They had telephoned again that they were at the ski resort entrance, marked by the “Big Boulder” sign and ticket booth, yet, after several more minutes, failed to appear.
“How long does it take them to follow a one-mile road?” Mike exclaimed with impatience.
Apparently the temperature had frozen his delusionality and he had begun to think like I. And what did I think? Only that four hours of sleep had been lost for nothing!
So cold did we become, that we returned to the lodge’s now impossibly-crowded cafeteria for warmth. After a few moments more, Mike stated, “They’re here! Let’s go!”
“How do you know this?” I asked, puzzled. “Do you see them?”
“No,” he responded, “I don’t see them. I just know they’re here. I feel it.”
I looked at him and thought, The last time you had that feeling, it was gas.
A string of snags had apparently turned the two-hour drive into a four-hour one: the forgotten van keys, the late departure, the rush-hour traffic, the unscheduled stop, the loss of direction. I could only wonder what their collective mood on this “pleasure trip” had been; unfortunately, I was about to find out.
The first van, scheduled to arrive at 9:00, appeared above on the single road leading to the lodge precisely on time–at 12:10! We had finally been reunited. It was something like the finale of the movie Airport ’75.
Joseph had replaced George as one of the van drivers when George himself had learned that he would have to negotiate roads with more than one-foot elevations (unlike the flat terrain encountered on his Florida run) and appeared through the windshield. Parking beside me, he opened the door and glared through me with two fire-projecting eyes. There followed not a preface, not a “hello,” not a “kiss my toe.” Instead, he launched into an uninterrupted submachine gun fire of explicates that had reduced the speed of Monica’s persistent cough to a slow-motion waltz and turned my ears a shade redder than the bitter cold had been able to. I looked in the van, but none of his 15 passengers were there. I could only wonder what happened to them enroute?
Kiki, known for her no-microphone-necessary boarding announcements at the airport, had launched into a venting, cursing, screaming episode targeted at Adam, responsible for the missed turn and the elongated drive, in the parking lot, an audible tirade which had carried 12 miles away to Camelback Mountain. (I recall having read the following morning that an unidentified sound of meteoric intensity had succeeded in producing its first-ever avalanche. Scientists were currently investigating the phenomenon.) Kiki, of Greek origin, certainly had the makings of a classic German.
During the walk from the main lodge to the hut along the perimeter of the slope, Kiki aserted, “Adam, you’re not the leader!” And George went out of his way not to follow Adam. The day was really starting off well! Poor Adam, I thought. There had not been a sole who had not been pissed off with him.
Although there had been very few bonafide, experienced skiers within the group, most faced their reluctance, took the short introductory ski lesson, and commenced their initial trek down the mountain, proudly not registering a single fall. Okay, so I couldn’t resist the urge to interject some fiction in the last clause. Did they fall? Indeed, like a line of tipped over dominos: George fell. Dalmin fell. Omi fell. Omar’s son fell. Monica fell. George’s brother fell. Jason fell. Joseph fell. Agnis fell. Janelle fell. Oh, hell! Did I imply they only fell once? Indeed, George fell again. Dalmin fell again. Omi fell again. Omar’s son fell again. Monica fell again. George’s brother fell again. Jason fell again. Joseph fell again. Agnis fell again. And Janelle fell again. The question had only been when. By the end of the day, George wore more snow than the mountain. The only one exempt from gravity’s effects had been Omar, whose most dangerous position the entire day had been his self-induced “living room slouch” inside the hut–although he did manage to balance a bottle of beer.
“Omar!” I enticed. “There’s nothing like the crisp mountain air; the pure, white snow; and the exhilaration of the wind in your face as you careen down the mountain on skis.”
He turned to me. He looked at me. He burped at me.
And that was all the “enthusing” I intended to do that day!
Gloveless, Peter braved the slopes and the extreme cold. As of this writing (three days after the trip), the feeling had just returned to the middle finger on his right hand!
Perhaps the greatest animation had been George’s “child-mountain sweep.” Having taken my physics-based Load Control course, he knew exactly what friction does and does not. It was the latter which applied now. Helpless to turn, direct, redirect, or stop, he was gravity-induced down the mountain like an aircraft without wings, headed directly for two little kids. Powerless, he skied between them, swooping each one up in an arm until three humans tumbled into a singular, distinguishless, avalanche-like, white blur. He should stick to driving a bus!
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, Damian, waiting on the eternity-long snow tubing line with his Duty Manager, reverted to virtual childhood over the pending experience and was professionally advised by the same Duty Manager: “Damian, don’t be afraid of the other kids! If they make a funny face at you, make a funny face back!”
During my first snow tube ascent, the lift suddenly stopped. Damian, who had been in the tube behind me, asked, “Why did it suddenly stop?
“If overweight George were here,” I yelled back, “I would give you a definite answer.”
During my second descent, the snow tube, again preceding Damian’s, launched off the mountain and rotated 180 degrees so that I watched Damian recede to miniaturization, making the entire drop backwards. So fast did it careen toward the bottom, that the first arresting pad did nothing to stop it, while the second snagged it and flipped it over, spilling me upside down on to the ice. Dazed, I stood up and searched for my lost hat. Unbeknownst to me at the time, little Moniquita had lurked somewhere within the crowd and had witnessed the entire event. Where was her cough now? At least it would have alerted me to her presence. As I returned to the hut, three people stopped me to comment on the maneuver. I had never met any of them!
Abdelhalim, who had left the group to purchase batteries in the lodge’s gift shop, surfaced several hours later on skis, seemingly frozen in motion.
“How is your skiing going?” I asked him.
“Great!” he responded, as he stood as stationary as a car with a dead battery.
“We’re headed back to the snow tubing line,” I said. “Do you want to come along?”
“I do,” he responded. However, despite all efforts to initiate motion, he only succeeded in digging a trench into the snow which went half way to China, and ultimately raised his two poles, allowing Damian and I to grab them and pull him like a pair of Central Park horses. We passed George and Joseph in this tri-unit configuration and I yelled out to them, pointing to Abdelhalim, “Pathetic, isn’t it?”
In order to permit Abdelhalim to try his hand…actually, butt…at snow tubing, I made the boldest step into skiing danger of the entire group: I actually held his skis and poles…with both hands, mind you (!)…and prompted Damian to take my picture. Think of how good this will look, I thought, and in a year’s time, no one will know the difference!
As the sun descended behind the mountain, a quiet descended on the hut. The faces, reflecting the aches of their muscles, settled into satisfaction. The flames, burning below the chafing dishes, heated the food, and wafts of hot goulash filled the room, accompanied by the dumplings and the spaetzel. Pear-filled Schnapps glasses lined the table. And Austrian music permeated the air.
It had been at that moment that I had realized that Mike’s vision had been realized–namely, that he had managed to recreate a little bit of Austria on that mountain in Pennsylvania and share the culture of his homeland with his newly-acquired American colleagues.
Adam, leading the others (as always), donned his ski boots and left the hut for another negotiation of the slopes, but at 5:15, it was not to be. The two rental vans had to be returned to Manhattan by 8:30 before being assessed an additional daily charge, and if the duration of the outbound drive were any indication, they would need every minute for the journey. Reluctantly, they returned their rented ski equipment and removed their belongings from the hut, filing out to the two vans. Mike accompanied them, and the hut, now vacated, somehow seemed overwhelmingly silent and lifeless, as if robbed of spirit.
As the last crunch of the last tire of the last van receded in the dying light, Mike returned to the hut, breathing an external sigh that the day’s preparations had finally been over, but enjoying an internal fulfillment that his ideas and efforts had brought happiness to each and every person’s soul that day.
We had braved it all: exhaustion, long journey, loss of direction, anger, upset, impatience, cold, ice, snow, aches, pain, and fall. And despite it all, we had a ball.
Would we do it again? Let’s put it this way: see you next year!
The author drove home with Mike and, after writing this story, slept for a week.