During one snowless winter, this New Jersey snowboarder tried to save his season by braving a 7-hour drive, a bad radiator valve and an icy attitude to reach riding nirvana at Jay Peak.
by Chris Weiss
TAKE A LOOK AT A MAP OF VERMONT, and it may be immediately apparent that Jay Peak is in a world by itself. On the northern border with Canada, Jay sits well north of most of Vermont’s resorts. A trip there will teach you that it is also far north of Vermont’s civilization — truly capturing an environment and spirit all its own. If you ever dreamed of a town that put riding ahead of all else, where you could escape everyday life and forego any dealings with pretentious off-season golfers and Stepford wives, it would look like Jay. A tiny resort set outside a tiny backwoods town, with nothing to do but ride. This is what it’s all about.
I began my journey to Jay well later in the season than I was accustomed to. It was Winter 2006, one of the worst riding winters that I’d experienced in years. West of the Mississippi, riders were awash in fresh pow and experiencing a record-breaking winter, but I was stranded on the East Coast. Even our one major storm, dubbed the Blizzard of ’06, was a rare upside down storm, blasting Jersey with upwards of 18 inches but barely touching New York or Vermont.
It was late March, and I was close to throwing in the towel on the season. Besides the lack of benevolence from Mother Nature, it seemed fate was determined to keep me from any worthwhile riding. When I put off a trip to Stowe for a week, the weather forecast was in my favor, with a storm predicted for the latter date. Instead, a surprise storm developed the weekend I originally planned to go, dumping a foot-and-a-half and the prediction for my weekend quickly became rain. SON OF A BITCH! And rain it did — downpoured for much of the time. I enjoyed it the best I could, but clearly, this was not the way to put this season in the books. I would not accept a reality in which I’d have to wait another 8 months to redeem this horrific snow season.
Late season, my incessant observation of resort conditions hit pay dirt when I found that Jay Peak was being whitewashed in several feet of snow. I wasn’t letting an empty wallet or a car on the verge of meltdown stop me from saving my winter.
Jay Peak would be my savior this year. It was a tall order, given I had never ridden there or heard any first-hand experience of the distant locale. However, I did know that I had buy-one-get-one-free passes, courtesy of my favorite microbrew Otter Creek. I also had a riding buddy who had had an even worse season than I. Perhaps fate was throwing me a bone.
We got off to a very rough start. Our plan was decisively half-assed. We decided late Saturday afternoon to take this trip on Sunday (my half-off passes were valid on weekdays only). We made what accommodations we were able and left the rest to the ride.
My buddy Mark is perhaps the laziest, tardiest individual on the planet. When I took a train into New York City to meet him at 3:30 in the afternoon, I thought I might be holding us up. I should have known better. By the time Mark got his act together and we hopped into his car it was nearly 8 p.m., hardly the time to begin a 7-hour voyage to a desolate resort. Mark’s beat-up old Gran Prix with a duck-taped radiator valve was also hardly the vehicle to undertake the voyage in. But our determination for salvation led our charge onto the highway. We were getting some fresh lines, one way or another.
Our first inkling of the hellish ride to follow came when we crossed over into Vermont. We stopped at a rest stop in Brattleboro in the midst of a strong dousing of white. Although the fluff is exactly what we came to Vermont for, we hadn’t planned on experiencing any until we arrived. We glanced over the rest-stop-sized map of Vermont and, although we were here, Jay was still a world away. We’d have to travel across the tall state in the midst of an overnight storm.
I took the wheel, as I had the most experience in winter driving. Unfortunately, I am damn near legally blind at night. I was trying desperately to race into the damp blackness that unfurled before me, so that we might arrive at a half decent hour. I could almost see the car skidding off the side into a ditch amidst a cloud of smoke and snow.
I had been putting off an eye appointment for years; doctors have never been my thing. In looking down the barren, slick highway I wished I had prioritized differently. At one point, I heard Mark yell something to the effect that we were going to die. I couldn’t argue. I plundered into the black abyss, with as much speed as my instincts could render.
The interstate in Vermont is very unlike interstates I had grown up driving in Jersey. It runs through the middle of nowhere, with no lighting and no amenities anywhere in sight. This became a serious affliction when our gas gauge started to hit empty. Mark’s big ol’clunker, in no condition to drive to the local 7-Eleven — let alone a 7-hour trek into nowhereland — guzzled gas like a jet engine. Like a truly naïve bastard, I had agreed to return the favor of Mark’s risky venture, which could have potentially retired his vehicle to the scrap heap, by paying for all of our gas. In retrospect, it might have been cheaper to rent a car . . . or take a plane.
At this point, I would have paid double the extorted gas price for the sweet relief of a full gauge. We began to fear we were in serious trouble when the sign for gas lead us to a barren country road and the only lights in the entire area were located on our hood. Next exit: 50 miles.
After a tense 40 minutes, in which we both silently pondered the prospect of being found frozen in the middle of nowhere weeks later, we found gas. Although solving one problem, this gas station created a new one. We weren’t especially sure where we were or how to get back on track. The station attendant was anything but helpful in mapping a painless way back onto the interstate. It took us around 30 minutes that we didn’t have to get right back where we had started our gas search, albeit tanked up and breathing the sweet air of relief.
It was close to 3 in the morning as we made our way through the village of Stowe. Little did we realize this was the last we’d see of any semblance of true, good old-fashioned civilization for 3 days. It occurred to me that I had never driven further north than this resort. I soon found out why. After leaving the outskirts and traveling through the small, disorganized town of Morrisville, we found ourselves in pure boonies, a house here and a house there — and then dark forested nothingness, surrounded by trees. I nearly crashed when the road unexpectedly curved to the right. In a state of delirious exhaustion, it took several minutes to realize that we had driven into the plow storage area, where the plow had stopped its nightly duties. The road was actually the snow covered mess that blended with the landscape before us. My poor vision was being pushed to its limits.
We trudged on, nearing complete exhaustion. At around 4:30, we finally arrived, although we both questioned if we indeed had. The town that we were staying in Montgomery Center looked nothing like any resort town I’d ever seen. It consisted of one intersection, a grocery store, a gas station and a handful of restaurant/lodges. This was barebones if I’d ever seen it.
Exhausted from the gritty ride, my buddy and I climbed out of our car and began to unpack or bags. We were immediately met by a golden lab. At first, he appeared to be a big friendly mutt, but as I reached out to pet him he showed a strong penchant for gnawing my arm. I wasn’t altogether sure if he was playful or hungry so I threw my hands into my sleeves and tried to make way to the lodge, whacky barking mutt in tow.
We stepped inside of Grampa Grunt’s Lodge, our home for the next 3 nights — 2.2 by this hour. Grampa Grunt was everything we had hoped for and more. As our new canine companion followed us in, he exclaimed firmly “Get that dog out of here!” Apparently, we had made the wrongful assumption that this was his dog. When we questioned him, we received the 4:30 in the morning version of “I don’t know whose dog it is”. Curious. We never saw this animal again. To this day, I wonder whether this dog was real fur and blood or a deliriously-concocted illusion.
We got to our room and couldn’t wait for the comfort of a warm bed. What we got was the awkward choice between equally psychedelically-clad temperpedic and water beds. In fact the amenities in this lodge were odd, speaking politely (luckily, we had requested a private bath; many residents were not so lucky. On the other hand, we missed out on the mirror over the bed, standard in some rooms). I took the temperpedic and my buddy the water bed and we laid down for what sleep we could muster in the midst of this strange environment and late hour.
It was about two hours on my end. I awoke early to get to breakfast, cooked fresh by the slightly surly Grandpa Grunt. And did I ever eat. Eggs made to order, bacon and sausage piled high, pancakes as big as a dinner plate and some kind of a Canadian variety of French toast were all part of the $5 dollar all-you-can-eat breakfast, infamous at this lodge. It was delicious and I soon found out that breakfast included a freebie: a sit-down conversation with Grandpa Grunt himself. I earned some interesting knowledge about how he’d built the lodge with his own hands, been in business for years and had a son who started his own board company. The only place in town to buy the boards is through Mr. Grunt himself. A feeling began to creep over me that this place possessed a rare, pure appeal in the world of riding.
We headed outside for our first ride day, and it was snowing. Not a strong blast, but rather a slow steady shower, which we’d soon find was the norm here. In fact, Jay rivals many western resorts in their annual snowfall, generally surpassing 300 inches. I began to experience snow as a way of life and realized Jay was slowly growing on me.
IT WAS ABOUT A 20 MINUTE DRIVE TO JAY PEAK RESORT FROM “MONKEY CENTER,” as the locals fondly refer to their town. Much of the ride made Monkey Center look like a bustling urban metropolis. The snow-covered scenery included nothing but trees, rough pavement and the occasional backwoods cabin. On more than one occasion, I viewed a rider crawling out of Jay backcountry, gloves off and thumb out. I cursed our luck that we had to avoid surefire local knowledge and secret stashes, as our car was packed top-to-bottom with us, our gear and crap Mark never bothered to take out. I’d have to find the goods on my own.
We rolled up to Jay, snagged our half-price passes and hit the tram line for our first annual taste of riding. The immediate and utter disappointment that I felt upon my first tastes of Jay is very difficult to verbalize. First, there was the tram. Being my first experience with a tram, I was expecting a big, efficient gondola. Where I got this crazy expectation is another question altogether. I quickly learned why the tram is fast approaching extinction. I stood in line for nearly 30 minutes just so I could pack into this big, standing room beast and make way up the mountain at a mind-boggling crawl. I watched double-chairlifts soar past us in the distance and immediately understood why the tram was an outdated means of snow travel.
The disappointment really took hold on my first run down. Snow was my sole reason for making this trip in the first place. I’d been watching for days and they had received close to 3 feet over the past 5 days. I expected first-rate, memory-churning riding. However, on this day one would have been pressed to find any sign of new snow at the top of Jay, or even on its runs. Hands down the coldest and iciest runs I’d ever experienced, the conditions were nowhere in the vicinity of the prime riding I had come for. In fact, 30 seconds into my first run I hit some solid ice, soared in the air for 5 feet and head planted. I spent the rest of the day confident that I had a concussion. This was not what I had risked life, limb and wallet for in taking this trip.
Switching from the tram to the lifts did not improve things much. The lifts defined a new level of bitterly cold wind that I had ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The wicked gusts coming off the backside of the mountain nearly blew me straight off the lift. The only way to ride was to throw on the hood, put my head down and pray for the summit, as my chair blew viciously back and forth. I grabbed on for dear life time and time again.
I tried to keep an open mind, but it proved a monstrous task to overcome my initial disappointment. I would spend days and, later, months before I realized how much this resort had to offer.
Veering off of the slick runs into Jay glades started to warm me. Jay has a ton of sick gladed areas. In fact, on nearly every run, one could make a quick beeline for the trees and disappear into the wilderness. And the conditions that were so lacking on their runs were in no shortage in the trees. I packed hours of knee deep, untracked powder into my two days at Jay. This place was a glade heaven. I’d spent most of my time on the Staircase Glades, finding a new entrance and fresh line every time — pushing piles of loose powder down the mountain in a pleasure-inducing freefall. This was clearly what I had been missing out on all season long. And damn did it feel good to be here.
Having head-planted on my first run, I rode Jay’s runs with a reserved caution from there on out, watching closely for ice. With some reserve, I was able to enjoy the runs well enough, but the moment I saw an opening in the trees I headed straight for it. My buddy, whose riding skills are questionable, enjoyed his first taste of the trees and we plowed through two- and three-foot stashes at eye-watering speed. This was what riding is about, plain and simple.
Given its backwoods locale, Jay offers scant opportunity for après ski and nightlife. Montgomery Center had two bar/restaurants that I noticed. The Snowshoe Lodge had good burgers at cheap prices and was a good place to sit down after a long ride and enjoy some local brews with your buddies. It had the feel of catering to a tight-knit group of people who shared a passion for a way of life, that any true snow enthusiast can understand.
If nightclubs and women are your thing, Jay probably won’t be. I didn’t see any single women in Snowshoe and not many women under 40 at that. The hottest place to chill seemed to be the BYOB lounge at Grampa Grunt’s. It had pool, darts, a poker table and the cheapest beers in town (available at the grocery store in bulk). It also had plenty of young bros, capitalizing on the unbeatable room rates at Grunt’s, a great opportunity to trade war stories and backcountry secrets. But, again, not too much in terms of females.
Seeing the delirious start that I began this trip with, I wasn’t in the market for any heavy nighttime debauchery. A sixer of Vermont ale and a couple episodes of Chappelle’s Show and I was out by nine, able to wake up early for a new day of powder excursions.
Our second morning brought the reality that Grampa Grunt’s extravagant breakfast was an exception, not a rule. If there isn’t a full house, Grampa Grunt ain’t cookin. Left with slim options, we headed off to the grocer for some breakfast-style Hot Pockets (BYOB lounge comes stocked with a full kitchen for all your cooking needs). Not the best way to start your day, but at least it provided the necessary carbs.
With my newly-discovered Jay knowledge, the second day was ten times the first. Concussion worries were replaced by tight tree-dodging lines, each run surpassing the one before. The winds didn’t let up, but then again, neither did the snow. The continual snow kept right on falling, as the “Jay Cloud” maintained its slow, steady dump, helping to fill in old tracks and allow for unlimited fresh lines. The day-long smile on my face made me realize that I might change my overall opinion of the place soon enough.
As the day began to wind to a close, I began to ponder the ridiculous number of hours I had accumulated waiting for my buddy Mark over the years I’d known him. Today it was payback time. I decided to end the day and my short visit by diving headlong into some backwoods to the far left of the resort.
I couldn’t have picked a better way to pay him back. I plunged downhill into unchartered pow, maintaining my momentum as long as there was enough gravity to propel me. I didn’t see a soul this last run and had the powder-landscaped playground all to myself. I got every last minute out of the trip. It was the end of my season, and in many ways this trip was my season.
Eventually, the terrain flattened out and I had to hike out. Well past 5 o’clock, I made it back to base and met Mark. We drove back to our lodge and I looked back at Jay with a mixture of contempt and fondness. It would take me a while to formulate a proper opinion on this place.
In fact, it took me several months to really establish a lasting opinion on Jay. Upon leaving the resort, the initial disappointment that had so filled my soul was still real and powerful, despite the glades. It snows 36 inches and this place is covered in ice?? I even spent precious time writing negative reviews about Jay, rebutting everyone who propagated the opinion that Jay was synonomous with SNOW. Maybe in the woods, I would write, but you can forget it on the runs. If you like woods go to Jay, if not stop your trip further south in Vermont — this was my message for all fellow enthusiasts.
However, eventually this attitude made a turn for the better. The more I thought about my trip to Vermont’s northernmost reaches, the more I found a warm nostalgia for Jay.
I realize now that Jay offers a truly unique experience that lies at the core of why I ride. The resort, as well as all surrounding communities, are stripped down to the most basic of basics. You can eat, you can sleep and you can ride. If you are looking to shop, spa, fine dine, party, or any other plush alternative, choose another resort. Period. You’ll find no shortage of other resorts tailored to your lifestyle. But, if you want to spend your trip riding — open to close — in a snow-induced trance, hit Jay up.
The atmosphere at Jay was a rare treat. Chatting with a dude named Grampa Grunt over a monster, pre-ride breakfast, ordering his son’s independent boards, waking every morning to continual snowfall, riding on the only tram in Vermont, spending hours in solitary, light fluff and just being in a place where riding comes first and foremost — bar none — this is what Jay offers its patrons. It is the chance to escape, get out into nature and experience glade riding at its finest.
So if you are serious about riding and want to experience the sport in all its elemental glory, put Jay on your To-Do list. Just be prepared for the all-out journey, and do yourself a favor — travel in daylight.