For each of us, certain days in our lives loom as so significant that the living of them becomes nothing less than a dreaded passage through the needle's eye. Such, for me, was Stowe Derby Day. In my zeal to compete in the race I had made of it perhaps something more than it actually was. For example, there was the matter of my appetite—I had none. On race morning, the thought of a simple bowl of bran flakes with the requisite banana and milk was nauseating. A wifely offering of two over easy on a warm plate with a side order of toast?—Get that stuff outta here! I was on the verge of becoming impossible. But I knew I was ready.
Between my 19th and 20th visits to the toilet, I got dressed and packed my equipment in the car, then tried to kiss my wife, who was bent over the dog's dish, tearfully shoveling in good eggs and toast. I tried to console her but it was no use, so I headed for the door. She stopped me by inquiring if I was planning to hotwire the car or might I want the ignition keys. "Just give them to me. Just give me the keys," I said, snatching them from her outstretched fingers. She said she'd wait until after the race to serve the divorce papers on me. Under the circumstances, that was sporting of her.
At the base lodge, 100 or so fellow contestants, themselves steeped in the day's significance, were poling around the parking lot. Squinting, I made my way into the gloomy lodge to claim my bib and learn my starting time. It was to be a staggered-start race, with entrants going off three or four at a time every 30 seconds, according to bib numbers. My own number, somewhere in the 200s, put me in the middle of the pack. I had an hour before my start, and I killed half of it double-poling below the lift line to burn off a gallon or two of the adrenaline that threatened to shoot me into New Hampshire.
In various corners of the parking lot, the roar of blowtorches, steady and dragonlike, bespoke waxing plans other than my own. Then, literally before I knew it, I was in a roped-off chute with other contestants, stamping the snow off my skis and awaiting my turn to ride up the mountain.
You didn't need a demographer to interpret the interest our presence stirred in the paying customers on the other side of the chute. In our quaint knickers, nubby knee socks and woolen caps, we were creatures from another era, come to steal headsies in their lift line.
"Where's your heel binding?" a gray-haired gentleman in a color-coordinated down ensemble asked me.
"There isn't one."
"How in hell do you carve a turn on those things, then?"
"Have fun," he said, turning dourly to see if he would ever get a chair ride up the mountain.