To control our speed we started off snowplowing, the skis forming sliding wedges ahead of us, but when we reached the lower half of the road, past an abandoned apple orchard, there were firm, machine-set tracks. This is about as far as the track-setting sleds of the Jackson foundation venture, and from here we crouched in downhill tucks and let the slots in the snow cradle the skis.
It seemed simple enough—let the skis run and hang on. But we were soon moving much faster than I'm accustomed to on cross-country skis, and every bump or rough spot threatened to throw me out of the tracks. I made two dramatic recoveries, and after a whistling run that covered several hundred yards but lasted only seconds, I spun to a skidding stop on a flat turnout. Annie, who had preceded me downhill, waited there. She waved a pole and pointed north. In a col on a high ridge we could see, improbably tiny and distant, the Wildcat gondola station. We were halfway to Jackson.
Chilled from the swift skiing, we rested only a moment before striking off at a right angle back into the woods. We crossed a wooden bridge over an ice-blocked brook, swung around a corner and coasted through the trees to Carter Notch Road, where many Wildcat Valley Trail skiers arrange to be picked up after skiing the upper mountain.
Unfortunately, a landowner's barbed wire fence across the original trail required a detour on foot, down Carter Notch Road and left to the Jackson town dump. At this dismal sign of civilization we stopped to wax our skis and strip off a heavy layer of jackets and wind pants; for the rest of the way the trail, though still predominantly downhill, offered more conventional cross-country skiing, with longer flats and occasional uphills. But there was one hint that it might not all be easy going. Scrawled on one of the blue trail markers was a blunt warning: MAURICE, HE SAY WATCH YOUR ASS.
Maurice, Brant told me, worked on the foundation's maintenance crew, and his advice was justified. The trail turned icy and climbed a sidehill strewn with exposed rocks. A foot of new snow might have made it skiable; as it was we sidestepped and scrambled.
After this we encountered only one other arduous stretch, an area of massive windfalls (that have since been cleared), the debris of a winter windstorm that left more than a thousand trees across this and other trails operated by the foundation. We threaded our way through the surviving trees and emerged onto the ski-tracked fairway of a golf course, usually rather boring skiing but now a relief. It gave us our first opportunity to stretch and work the rhythmic kick-and-glide of the cross-country racer.
We raced the last quarter mile to the Jackson ski touring headquarters. My wool cap was soaked through with perspiration. The thermometer read 12�. Time from the top of Wildcat: about three and a half hours.
Anticipating the comforts of a Jackson tavern had pricked our pace over the last several miles. Within minutes we were sitting by the fire warming our hands and feet, smug and satisfied.