All photos/art by Corey Hendrickson
The Mad River Valley is a winter wonderland famous for its skiing, but those who live here know that their towns are also filled with creative people and warm moments.
I’m sitting in my car on the shoulder of Common Road, halfway between Waitsfield and Warren, Vermont, finishing the last of my Christmas slab of dark chocolate and contemplating a snow globe. No, it isn’t the kind you shake, and it wasn’t in my stocking with the chocolate. I’m looking down into Vermont’s snow globe, the Mad River Valley.
There’s a valley for every pair of hills in Vermont, but seldom do you get the sense of “valleyness” that you do here, where the Northfield Mountains to the east, and the steep spine of the Greens to the west, cradle the realm that lies along the Mad River, this valley’s keel. It’s a remarkably self-contained little world, and under the bright blue dome of a January sky, a snow globe is just what it seems.
The two towns of Waitsfield and Warren anchor the heart of the Mad River Valley. (Fayston, Moretown, and Duxbury are the other Valley towns.) Tiny Warren, just off the southern end of the stretch of Route 100 that follows the river, is defined by two institutions: The Warren Store, one of those Vermont general stores that sells sandwiches and designer clothes on the same ancient, wood-heated premises, and the posh Pitcher Inn, with its renowned restaurant and wine cellar, and guestrooms each designed by a different architect.
Waitsfield, seven miles north, is busier. At its heart is the 1833 Village Bridge, also known as the Big Eddy Bridge, second oldest in Vermont still in use. There was more than a big eddy here in late August 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene made the normally mildly irascible river truly Mad. But the bridge survived—as did the nearby block of shops and restaurants—though one building had to be nudged back onto its foundation. A block away, on the corner of Route 100, the yellow-brick Joslin Memorial Library is a place where, according to a local guide, you’ll find “even the occasional dog.”
To the world outside—even to Vermonters who live beyond those two defining ranges—the Mad River Valleyis all about skiing. That’s understandable; two of Vermont’s premier downhill ski destinations spill their trails eastward from the Green Mountain cordillera. Their characters are wildly distinct: Cooperatively owned Mad River Glen, in Fayston, is a defiant throwback, with its deliberate paucity of grooming and snowmaking, exclusion of snowboards, and legendary single chairlift (there are also a pair of doubles), while Sugarbush, sprawling across both Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen in Warren, is bigger, far more lushly clustered with lodgings and restaurants, and decidedly more au courant.
In fact, as I was told by Rick Rayfield, proprietor of Waitsfield’s wonderfully eclectic Tempest Book Shop, Sugarbush is where the term “jet set” was coined—by none other than Oleg Cassini and Leonard Bernstein, who skied here in the ’60s. Bernstein favored Sugarbush because he could spend the weekend here, just up the road from his New York Philharmonic, without having to take an actual jet to the Alps.
At the Hyde Away, a comfortable old shoe of an inn just off Route 100 on the way to Mad River Glen, I spent an agreeable hour in the pub having drinks with a member of another venerable New York institution, the Fire Department. Other Vermont resorts are thick with Bostonians or Montrealers, but Gotham still skis the Valley.
But the local passion for winter goes well beyond the downhill runs, whether at retro Mad River Glen or with-it Sugarbush. “As soon as it snows here, you can’t reach anybody,” says Karen Nevin, director of the Valley Arts Foundation, which promotes cultural participation year-round and hosts the monthlong Vermont Festival of the Arts each August. “Everyone snowshoes, or cross-country skis, out their back doors.” For those whose back doors don’t open onto trails, or for visitors, there’s XC at Ole’s and Blueberry Lake in Warren and snowshoe excursions offered by Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield.
And then there are the Icelandic horses. Off Route 100, in Fayston, Karen Winhold’s Icelandic Horse Farm has been home for more than 25 years to the shaggy, diminutive equines first brought to Iceland from mainland Scandinavia around 1100 AD. Odinn, Freyja, Frigg, Loki, and the rest of Karen’s herd of more than 30 horses are all masters of the breed’s singular lateral four-beat gait called the “tölt.”
“People giggle when they feel the rhythm of that gait,” Karen says—and they can enjoy the ride for up to two hours, all winter long. “The horses really do like the snow,” Karen adds. “The powder is fun for them to go through.”
As I was petting Freyja’s nose, I heard “Hi.” I hadn’t seen anyone in her stall, until farm worker Alice Peal, who was grooming Freyja, emerged from behind her flank. I must have looked startled, because Alice asked, “Did you think it was the horse?” Well, they are named after gods, after all, and they hail from a land where elfin magic still has its believers.
If the Mad River Valley has drawn its share of enthusiasts for the winter outdoors, it has exerted no less of a pull on artists and craftspeople. I’d been told by a local that “ski areas aren’t the key to the valley—it’s the creative people here.” Without agreeing that one element of the region’s attractiveness should be set against another, I did find a remarkable store of artistic vitality in the Mad River Valley. The “Waitsfield Art Walk” is a 1.3-mile stretch of Route 100 that takes in some 19 shops and galleries—places such as Waitsfield Pottery, Artisans Gallery, and Mad River Glass, where Melanie and David Leppla blow and shape exquisite wares while visitors look down from the shop into their workroom. “The sense of community here is really conducive to creativity,” Melanie says.
It seemed that almost everywhere I turned in Waitsfield, I found someone making something, or selling an item someone close by had made. At the village’s 4orty Bridge Boutique, the proprietor brewed me an espresso while I admired a display of handcrafted gold jewelry. “Those pieces are all made by Sheri DeFlavio, here in town,” she told me, nodding in the artisan’s direction as if she were in the next room.
Standing at the intersection of Mad River Valley creativity and the local passion for winter sports is Dave Sellers, inventor of the Mad River Rocket. Dave, an architect, has designed homes and public buildings all over the world, and has taught at Yale—but his local notoriety derives from what has been described as his “sled on steroids.”
“I tried to design an alternative to skiing,” Dave told me as we sat in his happily cluttered office at the edge of Warren village. “Skiing is expensive, and energy intensive. With the Mad River Rocket, you get a lifetime pass for $100—the cost of the sled—and you have 50,000 acres of sledding terrain in Vermont alone.”
The sturdy plastic Rocket differs from traditional sleds in two important ways. First, you ride it while kneeling, with a knee strap securing you to the sled. And second, it has what Dave calls a “negative keel”: Instead of digging down, the square-shaped channel of the inverted “keel” creates its own monorail out of snow as it makes its descent.
“It’s the only wilderness sled in the world,” Dave says. “You can take it to the top of any mountain in Vermont and ride down. There’ll never be an instructor, because it’s so easy to learn. We’ll take any conditions that nature provides, except ice, and we want to challenge skiing.”
Dave Sellers also challenges the throwaway culture of the modern era with his Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design, located in a rambling old house near the Village Bridge in Waitsfield. “It’s a collection of stuff that’s beautifully made, stuff that lasts,” he explains. At the Madsonian, you just might find that toaster or electric fan that you wish you’d kept, or maybe still have.
The Valley is a hub of Vermont’s local food culture, as well, as I learned from Karen Nevin. “Everything has to do with local farmers,” she says. “Most of the world has farmers’ markets in the summer; we have them year-round (info at WaitsfieldFarmersMarket.com and VermontLocalvore.org). Winter markets are held either at the Inn at Round Barn Farm or at the Big Picture Theater. I buy my pork here, my beef there … I know my cow.”
I got a sense of just how committed Valley people are to the locavore ideal when I dropped in for dinner at the Big Picture Theater & Café. Tucked just across the lobby from Waitsfield’s little movie theater, the café is a cheerful array of snug booths with a nice comfort-food menu. The “Big Picture Burger” came with local blue cheese and sautéed mushrooms, on a brioche. It had the unmistakable flavor of grass-fed beef, and, after I’d finished and was sipping the last of my Tuesday-night special $5 Chianti, I asked the waitress where the beef was from. That’s something you do only in places like the Mad River Valley. She answered, “Oh, do you know where Helm’s place is?”
“No,” I said to her, “I’m not from around here.”
“Well, his name is Helmut Nottermann. Wait a minute, I’ll ask.” She went over to the kitchen, talked with a co-worker, and came back to tell me “Snug Valley Farm.” It was, apparently, only about 50 miles away, in East Hardwick. Know your cow.
While I finished my wine, I listened to Dylan on the restaurant’s stereo and decided whether I wanted to trundle across the lobby to see the latest James Bond movie, or tuck into my four-poster at the Yellow Farmhouse Inn to read. I chose the latter, remembering the help-yourself tea selection and the cornmeal–lemon–almond crackers on the sideboard. It just didn’t seem like a night for techno-mayhem … and I couldn’t picture James Bond asking where his burger came from, even though he does get picky about how his martinis are mixed. (Shaken or stirred, by the way, they’re the Big Picture’s Saturday special at $5 a pop.)
In the morning, fortified by the inn’s French toast and baked pineapple squares, on my last day in the valley I slid aboard one of Mad River Glen’s single chairs. It seemed odd, making the ascent in my own private seat, but early on a weekday like this I probably would have been alone on a double. It was so early, in fact, that I was treated to first tracks in six inches of fresh powder at the summit.
To the east, the morning mist had just cleared from the peaks of the Northfield range, and before kicking off onto one of Mad River’s “Ski It If You Can” trails, I paused to take in that valley view I’d first seen from the opposite hills. Again I looked into Vermont’s snow globe—looked and then plunged inside. I shook the powder, and watched it whirl around me.