Christmas Stowe-Away

December 5, 2010 – There's no place like home for the holidays, but sometimes it's good to go elsewhere to experience the season for a bit. Ideally at one of the places that's really become associated with Christmas over the years. New York City comes to mind, of course. Any town that has a name along the lines of Santa Claus or North Pole. The rural parts of Connecticut, thanks to Barbara Stanwyck. Kilarney, Ireland, if you believe the carol. And for some reason, Stowe, VT, has always been on that list for me.

I just today returned from a long weekend with friends in Stowe. A group of us got together and rented a house right on the slopes of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak. Ostensibly, it was to ski, but none of the group were really skiers. Some had never done it before and those of us who had were just dabblers. I personally haven't been for a few years. When you aren't a connoisseur of snow conditions, going before the season hits high gear is ideal when it comes to cost control and crowd avoidance. Mostly, the purpose of the trip was just for us all to escape the confines of our own living rooms for a few days.

I've been saying we, but my wife and I didn't ski at all, despite having a slope within stumbling distance of the rental house. It's basically because of the baby, who stops us from doing enough things in life that I'm starting to believe she's actually Sam Becket, hoping that his next leap will be the leap home.

In this particular instance, it was no big deal. I have a long list of stuff that I like about skiing, and skiing is actually at the very bottom. Much higher are hot alcohol drinks, snowy landscapes viewed from the windows of fireplace-warmed rooms, and seeing lots of people in knit hats and bulky coats (I find people more palatable when they are bundled up, for some reason).

It started snowing from the moment that we arrived, so I didn't get to use all the Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby jokes that I had practiced on the drive up. But that was the only downside of the weather. Snow is God's salt. Anything it's sprinkled on just gets better. And it was the first snow we've seen this season, meaning (if I have my Christmas lore correct...highly doubtful), that any snowman we built would have come to life if we happened to have the appropriate head apparel for it.

Sometimes I think that ambiance is all I want out of life, and the snow really helped make the weekend the success it was. In fact, it didn't stop snowing the entire time we were there. Fortunately, it wasn't the risk-your-life-to-get-provisions or spend-hours-digging-out-vehicles kind of snow. It was predominantly a fine, light, constant sprinkling, with less than an inch of accumulation over the course of three days. It was as if some cosmic two-year-old had gotten a hold of the planet and just wouldn't stop shaking it.

During the day, when the rest of the group were taking full advantage of their insurance policies on the slopes, my and mine went downtown. Now, Stowe is a tiny town. Wikipedia numbers the residents at around 4,300. However, because the locals are often the minority in Stowe, there are tons of restaurants and activities and stuff to see in the area.

I'd been to Stowe before, but never in December and never while it was snowing. It's nice any time of year, but during Christmas, everything is festooned with lights and evergreen garland and that, combined with the snow, made us feel all peace on earth-y and good will toward man-y. I think I might have actually said hello to passing strangers on more than one occasion while walking the streets. In another day or two, when the glow from the trip wears off, I'll be mortified about that.

We ate at a 180-year-old restaurant called The Whip, took pictures that will end up as future Christmas desktop wallpaper, made our way through the warren of quirky shops that hide behind the simple building facades that line the main street, and did all the stuff we all used to hate our parents for spending family vacations doing.

Back at the house, we would watch out the windows as the advanced skiers flew down from impossible heights in an almost free fall, while gondolas and ski lifts ran perpetually (and often emptily) like some kind strange factory hard at work making secret things. Inside, the kids that were present with us watched the Harry Potter marathon that ABC Family fills out its 25 Days of Christmas programming with.

At night, the slopes were closed, but you could go out on the balcony and listen to the sound of snow makers blowing and watch the tank-like snow groomers visible only by their intense headlights make their way down the mountain trails like army cavalcades in apocalyptic movies. The lodge areas below were warmly lit, and every once in a while a random light turning on high up in the world would remind us that it was not a night sky that filled our windows, but a dark, looming mountain.

We at our dinners in, which really brought us all together, with everybody pitching in according to his or her strengths (my superpower when it comes to that is just staying out of the way with a cordial in my hand) while Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and other dead singers serenaded us from beyond the grave.

Obviously, there isn't a narrative of any kind to this post (sorry), nor is there any Doogie-Hauser-style moral to be gleaned from it. All I know is that when you're sitting around a fireplace, tipsy on hot-buttered rum served in Christmas mugs and having a serious hour-long conversation about Santa Claus, then somewhere a Christmas angel is getting its wings.