RANGELEY, ME – How does the old saying go? With ski buddies like these… Meet Twang and Clang, my wingmen, and after their performance this weekend in Maine, I’ll be grateful if the next time I go back to Saddleback the resort staff aren’t waiting for me with a big net.
Maine’s Saddleback Mountain proved every bit the fierce challenge and magnificent setting pictures and reviews made it out to be; the full-day drive was well worth the payoff. Ferocious and rugged, Saddleback is a proper rejoinder to Jay Peak: difficult, ungroomed, and wild, full of character and endless challenge. Moguls aplenty, acres of glades for skiers/riders of every level, and a lift system that can weather the exceptional cold and wind: the mountain never fails to provide drama and excitement.
And on this trip my friends provided the comedy.
Herding cats: that’s what I’m doing. I have to be the engine that motivates both of my “A party list” friends when it comes to winter adventures. I nag them until they buy Indy Passes, I call them incessantly with trip ideas, and I plan logistics with the flawless execution of a master booking agent. Just show up, and keep up. That’s all they have to do.
But if it weren’t for me, they wouldn’t get out much. Clang can’t even book a hotel without it being haunted, TV-less, or with only one bed in the room, (that’s last year alone). And Twang leaves everything until the last minute, invariably showing up completely frazzled and often late.
Once you get them out on the mountain though, they are rock stars and they are troopers. So they get to stay.
The plan was a 4:30 Saturday afternoon rendezvous at the Rangeley Saddleback Inn, Twang leaving from Boston, (just under four hours including a stop), and Clang and I driving in from mid-New York, (eight hours-fifteen minutes per GPS, but more like nine-and-a-half with lunch break).
So mid-drive General Jay is doing a routine check on one of his Colonels and calls Twang.
“Are you on your way?”
“No!” he stormed angrily. “I haven’t even left yet! I got to the rental car place, pulled out my newfangled wallet I showed you, and all my credit cards had popped out! They’re all over the street somewhere. I’m looking for them now.”
I thought back to Christmas, when he showed me a present he’d bought himself, a James Bond-esque wallet full of push-button gadgets. He pressed one, and with a “twang” his credit cards popped out from the side somewhat loosely. He smiled at me like a man expecting me to think it was cool, but really I thought it was a good way to lose all his credit cards.
So, of course, the wallet waits for the worst possible time to make Jay a prophet. Right as he’s leaving for the trip, somewhere in Boston the wallet went “twang,” the credit cards spilled all over Massachusetts Avenue, and now tweakers from nearby Methadone Mile are trying to hit up cannabis dispensaries across Boston on my buddy’s dime.
Hence the name Twang.
Screwed before we even get there I thought to myself. Twang’s had similar misadventures arriving at Attitash, Park City, and Loon. I reckoned we’d see him at midnight at this rate.
Still, the stoke is indominable in me, and though the drive to Saddleback proved long, it gave us stunning views of the back side of New Hampshire’s grand Presidentials, snow-capped and ice frosted, looming over the road with their stern profiles. Stoke fired! I thought, smiling. Then, upon crossing into Maine, with oceans of tall timber expanding across the horizon, wide-eyed with wonder I felt the true vastness of Maine’s wilderness, and the joy of this assignment hit home…
Here was a destination I knew next to nothing about; I never even heard of Saddleback until Indy Pass landed them. But research revealed 2,000 feet of vertical and a whole lot of black and double black diamonds. Now nature’s might and majesty unfolded before my eyes, and as we rounded a bend, we got our first glimpse. I pointed trails out excitedly to Clang: first the Casablanca glades, a wide swath of snow-capped forest. To skier’s right Muleskinner tumbled into Nymph – unmistakable. Then Black Beauty and Frostbite, twins slithering like serpents next to each other. Further along we saw the network off the Rangeley quad and the T-bar, including Royal Coachman, Grey Ghost and Silver Doctor.
The traffic of the world far away, in this idyllic tranquility, the stoke exploded into fireworks.
Arriving at the tail end of the nationwide sub-Arctic freeze, and after driving through minus-13 temps, Saturday evening warmed to an almost balmy -1. Sunday was a whirlwind tour of the mountain; hitting the entire interconnected system of trails off the Rangeley Quad and the T-bar. These consist almost exclusively of expert runs to skier’s right, such as Jane Craig, Peachy’s Peril, and the Professor, and intermediate trails to skier’s left, such as Parmacheenee Belle, Blue Devil, and Red Devil.
By the way, those trails are not named after people; they are named after hand-crafted fishing flies made by locals. Rangeley is a well-loved fishing destination.
Also, don’t be fooled by the trail map – runs are likely harder on the mountain than they are marked on the map. Trails here at Saddleback are narrow, windy, steep, and likely ungroomed. Several blue squares would pass for expert trails at any other mountain, and several single blacks should definitely be listed as double blacks, especially Professor, which made me look like Gilligan. Moguls on headwalls, criminally narrow, tree-studded, and with more coils than Medusa’s hair, if Professor is a single black diamond then I’m Alice Merryweather.
We also briefly toured the summit, shredding both the lift line, Family Secret, and the highly popular Tight Line. Sadly, the plan drawn up on the chalkboard – hit the entire network of summit trails starting first thing in the morning on Monday – was scuttled by a freak fog that came in thick as steam from a witch’s cauldron. We were ready for first chair, but the top 75% of Saddleback Mountain had turned into Baskerville Moor. Even runs down Grey Ghost (aptly named on that morning) and Silver Doctor were perilous; you couldn’t see more than five feet in front of you. Prudence and sanity dictated keeping to the tree line and lapping skier’s left off the quad or t-bar as you waited with the patience and optimism of Conrad ANker for a break in the weather.
The fog slowly cleared after noon, and we took a few laps at the summit before leaving for the ling, dark drive home. Sadly we missed everything skier’s right of Tight Line, including Chutes 1 through 4 of the Casablanca Glades, all spoken of in holy whispers.
Saddleback also features a series of cross-trails that conveniently traverse the mountain. One runs directly across the summit ridge, offering entry into close to a dozen trails and glades. The first 100 feet of vertical are all super-steep no matter where you drop in. Another cross-trail called NW pass avoids the first 100 feet and allows skiers and riders to drop into single black territory instead of double black, but again, beware: your mileage may vary. Expert means expert at Saddleback.
Other than the fog, we couldn’t have asked for better. The temps went up just enough to be comfortable. Not only were lines totally non-existent, riders frequently had entire quad chairs to themselves. All 68 trails were open, and coverage was excellent. With reverse camber and double fall lines everywhere, and a vibrant glade system, (similar in size and difficulty to Jay Peak, another similarity between the two mountains), Saddleback is Expert Skier Heaven.
Meanwhile the self-contained novice areas are a winner too. In a coup of design, an entire spider web of novice trails and glades lay directly beneath the base the base lodge serviced by its own quad chair. A second novice area, also serviced by a quad, lies just above the base lodge, serving also as a slow zone for those coming back from the upper mountain. The rest of the mountain is no place for beginners. Most trails are ungroomed and the moguls get gnarly.
Best of all, the mountain’s vibe was infectious. The mountain takes pride in its excellent staff of greeters and rightfully so. They are friendly, helpful, and everywhere. Service is not dead; it is alive and well in Maine. It’s prompt, it’s useful, and it comes with a smile. Thank you, Saddleback. You’re welcome, Mr. Flemma.
It’s impossible to overstate what a coup Indy Pass pulled off getting Saddleback; the entire winter sports world is richer for the mountain’s new exposure to the larger skiing and snowboarding world. Cherish this place, it’s top echelon in the east, and, pound for pound, as difficult through the trail map as any winter sports venue in the country.
***[Editor’s Note: As mentioned, the weather curtailed the mission, but with so much to explore at Saddleback, a return trip is inn the planning. We’ll hit the summit in earnest, meet some locals, learn some mountain history, and delve deeply into more of Maine’s treasures…as we did below…]***
THE PIZZA OF DOOM AND THOSE DADGUM TARNATION BUFFALO BILLS
Happily, Twang arrived at the Inn at 7:30, not midnight, just in time for dinner. Of course, he had no sleeping bag, and the inn had no cot. There were some padded chairs, but Twang is too tall to sleep perched precariously between two of them. So, he slept in his snowboard bag.
Told ya he was a trooper. *BONUS!*
Meanwhile, at the jacuzzi Clang had researched restaurants and selected a place less than a mile away called Furbish’s Brewhouse.
Remember that name. Those of you that follow this column are aware I’m not only a foodie, I can cook, particularly well. And I’m really picky about food. One of the reasons you so seldom see me write about dinners when I’m on the road is that whatever restaurant I picked that trip might have sucked.
As it happened, Clang’s selection of Furbish’s wasn’t just a home run, it was a Barry Bonds-esque tape measure blast out of the stadium. Finally! Champagne quality food at beer prices! A creative young Chef named Chip who presents bold nuevo cuisine with a dash of good old fashioned Maine common sense. The tater tots are stuffed with cheese and bacon – “Tater Kegs” as he calls them. Brilliant! The bowl of mussels is deep and wide, plentiful as an entree, though it’s listed as an appetizer. First rate! (I know, I ordered mine with hot spicy marinara instead of the menu’s beer steamed option, an impromptu, off-the-menu request Chip handled adroitly.) The dish was so huge, I barely had room for the savory wood-fired pizza we shared among the three of us.
Ahh, the pizza…by now you’re still wondering about this Pizza of Doom I’ve foreshadowed in the title. Thank Clang. Well actually thank Clang and the Buffalo Bills. As we were eating our tots and mussels, Clang decides it’s time to strip me of all dignity because I won’t root for Buffalo’s football team, like he so fervently does. He extolls all I’m missing out on by not joining something dubiously called the “Bills Mafia.” He scorns and scoffs that I dare to root for my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers instead of a team closer to home. He winds himself into a frenzy at my chutzpah for not joining him in cheering for Buffalo if Pittsburgh gets eliminated. And he still has not forgiven me for the unpardonable sin of enjoying that epic comeback by the Kansas City Chiefs against Buffalo in the 2022 Divisional Playoffs, one of the greatest football games of all time.
I’m sorry, my bad. Screw this professional sports writer all to Hell for appreciating one of the sickest football games in NFL history.
Anyway, as Clang’s trying to convince Twang what a traitor I am to my hometown and him – I practically howled when he histrionically bellowed, “It makes me wonder if you’re really my friend or just my acquaintance” – the pizza arrived on its tall pizza stand, about a foot off the table of the hi-top we sat at in the bar room. Still telling his story, he watched me carefully pull two slices apart with my fingers, slide one onto the spatula, and place it on my plate, and as he reached his climax, (the part where Buffalo gets screwed and loses the game), he tried to cut the pizza with a fork and knife. The instant he pressed down to cut a slice, the entire stand – pizza, tray and all – catapulted into the air, did a perfect half flip, and then dove forever into Pizza Infamy.
The seven slices of savory sausage and peppers hit the floor with a rather mundane and flaccid *SPLUT!* It was the *CLANG!* of the platter and the pizza stand that resonated throughout the restaurant like a thunderclap.
Hence the name Clang.
The waitress didn’t miss a beat, not even a smirk as she deadpanned, “Are you guys gonna call five second rule on that?”
I plan on dining out on this story for quite some time. The jokes write themselves. “Hey Rich Stoner! I got an apres for ya! Come hang with us!” Or how about “Now look what you’ve done, Buffalo Bills, you dadgum tarnation polecats!” Or my personal favorite “Clang and Twang: Thing 1 and Thing 2 got nuthin’ on them…”
My slice was excellent, by the way. I took delight in eating it with ironic slowness, savoring every bite, my eyes never leaving Clang’s mortified face.
“%#@&ing delicious,” I pronounced, doing my best Gordon Ramsay imitation. Even Twang got into the act a bit.
“It looked good, what little I saw of it,” he drawled.
We tipped big: a whopping 66%, because they fired us a new one without charging us.
All night and the next day, I thought about going back to Furbish’s. I’ll pause while you clean the coffee off your laptop. I’m not crazy, nor suicidal; I told you…the food was that good, and in a town you don’t know well, you ride the hot hand and go back.
I tried not to feel like Bill Buckner walking back into Shea Stadium, but I needn’t have worried. We didn’t get three steps in the door before we were recognized.
“You guys are back,” the waitress said with a smile.
The smile was a welcome surprise. Walking in I was worried they’d offer us gift certificates to a different restaurant.
“Yeah, we thought you liked our act so much, you wanted to know what we do for an encore,” I quipped.
“We put your mussels dish on the menu. It’s a special,” she said proudly, still smiling.
Wait, what? I thought. She pointed over at the board behind the bar. There it was – Hot Spicy Mussels in Marinara. I breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t going to chase us out! Of course, I ordered it again, and another pizza, this time a bold pulled pork with manchego and a blueberry hinted barbecue sauce, flawlessly executed. Cue Gordon Ramsay one more time: #%@&ing delicious! We tipped 66% again.
Thankful, well-fed, and with some new friends in the restaurant business, we almost escaped town without incident, but the Skiing Gods decided to make poor Clang a Jerry once more. This time it wasn’t on the mountain, it was at the swimming pool. I was coming out of the jacuzzi, when he shouted “Watch my cannonball!” and took a running leap into the pool.
Trouble is, a fully clothed young lady named McKenna was skimming the side of the pool at the time, and she got hit full in the back by the wave of displaced water, drenched head to heels. It was like a Roland Emmerich movie tsunami slamming into New York.
Oh, Smalls! You’re killin’ me!
Didn’t some jam band just write a song about this? “From out of the darkness a wave appears! In a moment of confusion!”
Poor McKenna. Her eyes simmered to a furious shade of “I hate you,” then her face contorted with the effort of brushing the incident off. “He’s a guest, be nice…he’s a guest, be nice…let it slide…let it slide…I love being wet…I LOVE BEING WET…I LOVE BEING WET, DAMMIT!”
We left a big tip for the hotel staff too.
So what’s the wisdom to take away from this story? 1) Saddleback is a beast. Run, don’t walk to get here. Come soon and often, preferably with an Indy Pass. 2) The best ski resorts, restaurants, and hotels put guests and relationships first, so be good to the locals. They’re great to you. 3) I love my friends, warts and all. They show up, they keep up, and they shred madly. The rest is a work in progress, kind of like the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs.
As for Saddleback, I fell in love with it. It made all my skiing dreams come true. I can’t wait to see it again. I just hope when I get there, they don’t offer me gift certificates to a different mountain or make me sleep in a snowboard bag.