Dependably Sweet-Sugarloaf/USA

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Carrabassett Valley, ME--Coming home is never as much a homecoming for me without snow. For as long as I can remember, winter in New England meant three things: cold, snow, and skiing. And returning to these constant comforts is like reinvigorating from my own youthful well.

Coming home this year looked more like that other eastern constant: manmade snow with a styrofoam consistency. Soul-less skiing. Stuff no one really wants to tread on. On top of the meager surface sat sadness: tragedies in life and skiing ate quickly at us like the warm fogs that sometimes cloak New England slopes and strip them of snow. Times are tough, or are they? Christmas, formerly a time of gift giving and receiving redefined itself seamlessly-now all family togetherness and introspection.

But wouldn't you know, the American Skiing Company still had something in store for its patrons. Like the Chicken Fried Steak I've come to enjoy living in Colorado, Sugarloaf USA, that good old eastern glass and wind-hammered mountain in western Maine welcomed me with open arms. There are several things I treasure about pre-Christmas skiing in the east: no liftlines, dependable snow (ice is redundantly unforgiving), and camaraderie among skiers. Sugarloaf has them all-for the whole season. The uncrowded groomers offered great opportunity for high-speed carving more trying and rewarding than the easy-turning Rockies' slopes I've become accustomed to. Laps on King's Landing, Spillway, Sluice, and Narrow Gauge quickly brought me back to the racing days of yore, and conjured a hunger I rarely feel in hip-deep powder. And before long, I was swinging short turns on the sugary, heavily gunned terrain of Hayburner, newly opened. For the first time in my life, I actually reveled beneath the geysers of unnatural snow. After a few turns, my goggles crusting over and my father a few meters behind, skiing felt like it should feel-all smiles.

If you decide to make the trip to Sugarloaf, there are a few must-sees. Hug's, about a mile south of the access road on Rt. 27 offers simple Italian cuisine in an unpretentious and laid back atmosphere. You might even catch a glimpse of Sugarloaf's Chief Operator, John Diller, abiding laws at the bar with Sheriff John Moody. The Shipyard Brewhaus located in the Sugarloaf Inn is another of my favorites. Try the Blue Fin Stout on tap and some Duck Fingers courtesy the nearby Seasons Restaurant while relaxing to a game of billiards, cozying around a fire, or watching college basketball on TV. A little further up the mountain, in Sugarloaf Village, check out The Bag and Kettle for good food and live entertainment. A bowl of The Bag's famous Cheeseburger Soup, a Bag Burger, and a pint of Potato Stout will have you rollicking with locals in no time. Other noteworthy haunts include D'Ellie's for excellent soup and sandwiches just a few feet from the SuperQuad and the Widowmaker Lounge in the base lodge for live bands and suds nearly every night. Send the kids to the Avalanche Teen Club in the base lodge for video games and other entertainment or head down to the Anti-Gravity Center at the end of the access road for rock climbing, skateboarding, and other fun activities. On the mountain, check out Bullwinkle's, just off the Tote Road trail for a midday hot cocoa and schnapps or lunch on the deck.

Beside the luxury of being home with the family, Mom on her new Gauer snowblades, Sister a Snowboard convert, and Dad, feeling the flow on his Volkl Vertigo Motion set up, another satisfaction brought a smile to my lips. Nearby Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA) praised its two most auspicious alums, Kirsten Clark and Bode Miller, currently two of the US Ski Team's top medal contenders. I'm ecstatic for these two racers who are "making good" on the world stage having arisen from humble New England origins like my own. So there is that vicarious pleasure. Then there is my own claim to fame-I beat Bode once, in a sllalom, about eight years ago.

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