My family used to take vacations in the remote town of Peru, Vermont. With only 375 residents, Peru’s most prominent feature is a popular ski destination, Bromley Mountain. But we weren’t headed to Bromley to ski; our trips were in September, when there wasn’t yet snow on the ground. That’s because what drew us to Bromley was one of the longest Alpine Slides in the world.
Bromley’s slide opened in 1976, and I was scarcely a toddler when my family discovered it in the early 1980s. After we rode the chairlift halfway up Bromley Mountain, we found ourselves confronted with a distant relative of the luge: a fiberglass chute only a few feet wide, ridden on a sled that has wheels and brakes. The teenaged instructor taught us that the more we push the control stick forward, the faster we’d each go, shifting our weight and leaning into the curves, lest we wipe out and finish the 2/3rd-mile track with friction burns.
Family lore has it that, after my barely verbal self rode the slide for the first time in my father’s lap, I immediately started flailing, asking for “muh! muh!” (more! more!) Clearly this slide was destined to become an annual tradition.
While I loved the speed and sensation of the slide, my mom preferred the more sedate Sun Chair, added to Bromley in 1984. This chairlift traveled beyond the slide’s point of origin, extending to Bromley’s slideless summit. There is nowhere better to witness the colorful explosion of fall foliage than in Vermont, and the Sun Chair provided an unparalleled view. But when my mom dragged me away from the Alpine Slide and up the Sun Chair, I found something more interesting than leaves.
Whether you’re skiing or sliding, chairlifts are meant to ridden one way only; you hardly ever encounter anyone going the opposite direction. But in the absence of snow and slide, the Sun Chair was the only way both to and from the summit. That meant we’d often see other people coming toward us a mile away.
I was excited for our inevitable intersection. We’d driven to Vermont all the way from Massachusetts — how exotic! Who knows what other travelers we might meet. So in the brief few seconds when our chairlifts were within shouting range, I eagerly asked: “HI! WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!”
I got so many interesting answers! Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut… some even as far away as New Jersey! Of course, I graciously reciprocated, sharing that my mom and I were from Massachusetts.
“Ken!” my peaceful, introverted mom would gently admonish, with both a smile and a flush. “You don’t need to greet everyone.”
But I wasn’t! Even I had my degrees of shyness; I wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and ask them such questions. But courtesy the intractable trajectory of the chairlift, they were approaching me — so why not enjoy the moment?
I was recently reminded of this childhood characteristic as a friend and I hiked to Emerald Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the most heavily trafficked route in the RMNP — several websites refer to “the extreme popularity of this hike”. Unsurprisingly, we were regularly passing or being passed by fellow hikers headed in either direction.
As we hiked, I found myself examining the apparel of each oncoming alpinist. Some sported nondescript hiking gear; others advertised their favorite bands or television shows. But if I spotted a ball cap with the familiar red-and-white
B of the Boston Red Sox, even my non-sportsball self couldn’t help but get excited.
“Boston?!” I’d exclaim. “Yes!” they confirmed, prompting me to follow up with more details: “I’m from Leominster! Where are you from?” I got so many interesting answers! Quincy, Northampton, Beverly… some even as far away as Falmouth! I haven’t been back to Massachusetts since before the pandemic, and I was so delighted to connect with some aspect of my home state.
One hiking trio admitted they were not actually from Boston; it’s just the nearest sports team they could root for. Where are you actually from? I inquired. “Vermont!” Gasp! Have you been to Peru? Bromley Mountain?? Near Manchester Center??? Of course they hadn’t; it’s a small town in a big state — blink and you’ll miss it. But that solitary blink contains my favorite childhood memories, and a fair number of adult ones as well. These tourists had been closer to my mecca more recently than I have been in years.
That sense of connection, no matter how fleeting, is one I crave, to the point of manufacturing it for others. When I saw two other hikers wearing hats with the initials “K.C.”, I offered, “Hey — Kansas City? I went to Rockhurst!” I thought these travelers might appreciate encountering a piece of home while so far away from their own. And I’d only spoken the truth: I never said I’d matriculated in Missouri at the Jesuit institution of Rockhurst University — only that I’d gone there… which I had, every year for fifteen years, to attend KansasFest.
Just like when I was a kid, I forgot that the person I was with might want to focus on the surrounding nature and not the people populating it. But unlike on that chairlift 35 years ago, the person I was with in the Rocky Mountains is a fellow extrovert prone to bouts of shyness. “You’re so friendly!” she admired; “I wish I could do that.” This time, perhaps I was the one who blushed a bit.
Someone once asked me, “What’s the point of meeting someone you’ll never see again?” The reason is because we’re not guaranteed to see anyone ever again; all we have are these solitary moments. So we take these precious opportunities to connect, we remember them for as long as we can, and we use them to be unabashedly ourselves, in whatever state and whatever our age.