If you discount the dodgy crosswind twin-prop landings, the post-lunch deep-sea swims, the near-misses out on the autoroute, the closest I ever came to dying was in deep midwinter at Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield, Maine. Every winter my family traveled there for a week-long ski vacation, and in my eleventh year we rented the holy grail of all condos: the slopeside villa.

Slopeside villas at ski mountains are a bit like threesomes. Everyone’s heard of someone who’s been in one, but no one seems to have been in one himself. Sure, we’ve all stayed in town, we’ve all waited for the van in the morning with our ski bags, our scalding coffee . . . The one crucial piece of fine-print attached to the slopeside condo was this: it was a good ways up the side of the mountain, and to get home at night you had to catch a lift up and ski partway down the mountain to it. If you missed the last lift, the only way to get home was to hike. And hiking in ski boots is a miserable thing indeed.

At Sugarloaf they close the lifts in reverse proportion to their capacity, and their respectability. The first to go, just as the low sun tips the adjacent peaks with fire, is the slick gondola line, that string of floating studio apartments. Then go the high-speed quads, then the regular quads, then the two-person chairs, then poma-lift and rope-tow. Last to go is the lowly T-bar. Virtually every skier I know has a horror-story about a T-bar. (For those who don’t ski, a T-bar is a lift composed of a long, retractable steel spring or piston that’s hooked to a round-trip wire that pulls you up the mountain. At the base of the long spring or piston is a crossbar that the beginner ostensibly sits on, or, more likely, clings to. To ride one you wait in the snaking line, then step up to the pick-up point, where a waiting operator—bearded, wearing a wool-lined one-piece—snags the approaching T-bar, places the crossbar under your hips, mutters a prayer under his breath, and lets you go. You generally fall off the first thirty or forty times you ride one, which means you have to pick yourself up, go back in line, and start all over. T-bars are essentially the Pintos of ski lifts: they’re absolutely uncool, dangerous, and they have a terrible reputation. You usually find them on the bunny slopes of lesser mountains, where the beginning skiers don’t yet know any better. Since they’re difficult to ride, the decision to offer them as the sole option for the least capable skiers on the mountain seems questionable at best—sometimes I think owners do it for the comic effect: the pick-up and drop-off points on these rides are true scenes of carnage, with this unlucky dad tangled in that unlucky kid’s poles, and this unlucky mom tripped up by that unlucky teen’s tips . . .)

It seems appropriate, then, that at the end of our first day in the slopeside condo I missed all the lifts but the T-bar. I’d been skiing since I was five years old, so I was, by then, a fairly decent skier, and I rode T-bars only when forced to, and then with plenty of sneering to show my unfiltered contempt. When I realized I’d missed all the faster rides, I poled my way across the expanse just above base lodge known as ‘boardwalk,’ and skied right up to the buckboard T-bar. The operator told me that mine would be the last ride of the day, then deftly caught the approaching T-bar, slapped it behind my hips, and bid me adieu.

It’s a peaceful thing, being pulled up the mountain on a T-bar, so long as you have enough experience to ride one without effort, and there’s no one to catch you doing it. This was Maine’s deep midwinter, and there wasn’t another soul on the mountain, so far as I could see. A day’s worth of riders had already created hard and fast tracks for my skis, so it wasn’t really necessary to do anything but think about the individual chicken pot pie I was going to have for dinner. These were special treats, the prepackaged chicken pot pies, because they were individual-sized—growing up in a family of six, just about anything that was tailored to the individual was a special treat. I rode along the firm track picturing that first updraft of steam that would erupt when I cracked the pastry shell.

I was wrested out of my reverie when it became apparent that something was decidedly wrong. Describing the problem accurately will require a bit more physics than I’d prefer, but here goes: at the start of the lift, the wire pulling the T-bar was perhaps ten feet off the ground, which meant that as we started out, the T-bar spring angled steeply forward to where it hooked to the wire. During my reverie, however, the distance from the ground to the overhead wire increased dramatically, to a distance more like fifteen feet. Were there two people seated on the T-bar, or perhaps one fantastically fat guy, the spring would simply have stretched more to make up the distance. The problem was that I was alone, and I was not fantastically fat: I was, in fact, a somewhat scrawny kid. Rather than stretch, the spring remained fiercely rigid as it reached higher and higher, the angle of the spring getting steeper until it stood straight upright, and before I knew what was happening I found myself actually being lifted off the ground by this contemptible contraption. I’ll spare the reader too much detail of what followed, mostly in the interest of my own dignity, but suffice it to say there was first some clambering, then some dragging, then some outright airborne twirling about before I finally fell off in a chilly white cloud.

Red-faced, feeling equally furious and embarrassed, I skied back down along the track and told the operator what had happened. Perhaps he’d had a bad day, or perhaps my tone of voice suggested that the T-bar’s failed mechanics were his fault, but he told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was my last chance, and if I fell off again he was going to turn the ride off.

Same physics. Same lift.

Same spring, same result.

When I fell off the second time I panicked: I didn’t want to have to hike up the hill to the condo, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to ski down to confront the lift operator again. Here a wonderful thought occurred to me. It wasn’t necessary for me to ski down and then hike up to our condo. Though I’d fallen halfway up the lift, I was high enough up the mountain that I just had to cut across the three or four trails that separated me from the condo. Giving the rattletrap T-bar a final sneer, I popped off my skis, slung them up on my shoulders, and climbed into the snowy, tree-filled ditch that separated the lift from the adjacent trail.

Unsurprisingly, they get a lot of snow in Maine. In New York City we measure snowfall in inches; in Maine they measure it by the number of times the house was buried last winter. Downeasters think winters in Fargo are cute, that Chicagoans have it pretty good. Most of them would happily travel to Iceland with nothing but a sweater and pair of LL Bean duck boots. For some reason this never occurred to me, never figured in my master plan to cut across the mountain—I hadn’t taken two steps into that snowy ditch before I found myself buried up to my neck in hardpack snow.

No, really—I was in up to my neck.

Shocked quite senseless, I began to struggle, if flailing one’s arms and calling hoarsely for help can be considered struggling. At some point I got the bright idea of throwing my hat out on to the trail to alert any passing skiers (they were so few, so late in the dying day) of my plight. As soon as I had thrown it I realized that I was cold. It was then that I realized my plight wasn’t merely foolish, but was serious. I honestly couldn’t move, and after a few minutes the cold seemed to have seeped into my bones. With chattering teeth I continued calling for help, throwing my poles, my ski pass, my goggles, my skis out onto the trail. I truly believed I was going to die there, die there surely, entombed in ice like Jack Torrance in The Shining . . . At this point a passing skier noticed the yard sale on the trail, and stopped to inquire what was the matter. I don’t think she could have been more surprised to see me buried there in between trails. I explained—doing my level best to sound as if this, her aid, was a real inconvenience to me, as I was just about to save myself—that I’d got clean stuck here, and could she help? She extended her ski-pole, I grabbed hold, and after much pulling and yanking she got me free. I reassembled my equipment, thanked her profusely, and skied down the hill, utterly humiliated, there to confront the facts: it was a quarter mile up the steep slope to our condo. I was wearing ski boots and carrying heaving, unwieldy skis.

I sometimes think my mother is psychic. Or maybe she just knew me well, knew that I was the sort of kid who left his backpack on the bus at least once a week because he was too busy reading his Dungeon Master’s Manual, who left his homework sitting on his desk because he was reflecting on the lessons of his latest Peanuts comic. Whatever the reason, when, half an hour later, cursing and swearing and weeping and shivering, I finally caught sight of our condo, she was standing there waiting for me at the edge of the trail, there just as she always was when I needed her most, looking down the hill as if she had known since morning that this was exactly how the day would end up. I was about as dejected as a twelve year-old can be, which is plenty dejected. She didn’t ask what had happened, and I didn’t tell—I suppose the dusting of snow up to my chest told the tale well enough. She took my skis, put an arm around me, and led me inside, where I could smell a chicken pot pie roasting in the oven.

Chicken Pot Pie

1 ¾ pounds chicken breast halves

4 cups light canned chicken stock

4 tablespoons butter

¾ pound russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½ inch cubes

2 carrots, sliced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

¼ cup heavy cream

¾ cup fresh peas, blanched in boiling water

salt and pepper

1 pound puff pastry

1. Thaw the puff pastry in the refrigerator. Slice the chicken into bite-size pieces. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook for 5 minutes, until beginning to soften. Add the carrots, celery, leeks, and cook for 4 minutes, until soft. Sprinkle in the flour, stirring constantly, and cook to remove the raw taste from the flour, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock, whisk well, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and add the chicken, cream, thyme, parsley and peas, then season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, then turn off the heat and allow to cool for 30 minutes.

3. Roll the pastry out to a ¼ inch thickness. Cut out a shape 1 inch wider than the dish or dishes in which you’ll be baking the pies. Place the cut, floured dough in the refrigerator, until ready to use.

4. Pour the pot pie filling into an ovenproof container (or individual ovenproof containers) and top with the puff pastry. Brush the surface of the pastry with egg whites, then bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Yield: serves 4

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

5 responses to “Cheating Death in Maine”

  1. Amanda says:

    I’ve always, always loved the name Sugarloaf Mountain…it sounds like a cross between a poop and something you might like to eat lots and lots of till you get a bellyache…

  2. Keith, there are scads of memorable details here, including acting like, “Hey, if you’ve got a spare sec, would you mind saving my life?” to the woman who freed you w/ her ski pole. Particularly enjoyed the part about your mom *knowing*, as moms are wont to do.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Ugh – buried to your neck in snow? I can’t imagine how claustrophobic and frightening that must have been.
    Like Litsa, I loved the image of your Mum too – all-knowing and waiting for you to come home.

    • Keith says:

      what’s funny is that for a time the primary emotion i was feeling was embarrassment. it wasn’t until the cold set in and i noticed that it was getting dark out that i realized i was in trouble!

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