Driven to Distraction

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First Tracks by Iain MacMillan

from Winter 2012 issue

Driven to distraction

After an epic five-resort road trip in Austria years ago, George Koch had left me in charge of returning the rental car to the airport in Munich. I was running late for the flight, and behind the glass window Frau Blücher kept repeatedly pushing the keys at me as I pushed them back toward her.

“You mustn’t leave ze car vitzout ze papers!” she ordered.

“But I don’t have ze papers,” I tried to explain.

Although I could hear voices in the small crowd murmuring about the gall of doing anything in Germany without the proper paperwork (I wasn’t worried, it was on Koch’s credit card), the smiling American couple at the counter beside me only wanted to know where I’d been on the road trip. There was an instant bond as I backed away and drifted toward Departures with them, the staccato pen-tapping on Frau Blücher’s window quickly becoming distant.

Soon we were trading anecdotes and taking mental notes about each other’s different ski weeks. Mine included the first massive avalanche I’d ever seen up close; two fridge-sized boulders that bounded down the slope
and landed on the road directly in front of, and behind, our veering rental car—and Koch finally eating a hamburger that he’d been storing in the glove compartment for four days like Homer Simpson.

“What? It’s like a fridge in here!”

Good times.

With plenty of much older memories of cold Quebec ski resorts and motels-with-bed-jigglers still floating around in my head, I guess I got the bug early from my family-road-tripping parents. Later, at university in
Kingston, none of my roommates had cars, but occasionally someone’s parents, who were on holiday, unknowingly left a station wagon in our communal care—which only meant one thing: road trip!

On one memorable expedition to Stowe, the five of us witnessed a hit-and-run accident in Burlington VT, which we dutifully reported to the local constabulary. We wouldn’t reveal the licence plate number, though, until the police officer promised to put us in the back of his cruiser and deliver us ceremoniously to the University of Vermont sorority house where we’d found refuge.

The days of smuggling Kiwis and Aussies into the U.S. with skis on the roof are definitely over now that border guards regularly take their cranky-pants pills. One of the better border stories in my memory bank involves a buddy’s beater of a manual-drive car with a broken starter stalling in the inspection booth while being questioned. Driver Dave had to ask permission from the guard for all his passengers to get out and
push-start his infamous cruiser.

Sometimes road trips are solo—and less memorable. Koch reminded me about a five-hour drive from hell I did trying to find him in St. Anton on our Return to the Alps tour a few years after I was allowed back to  Munich. With roads so narrow and winding they weren’t mapped (these were pre-GPS days), and not a soul about to ask directions, I finally showed up in the wee hours of the morning. To make matters worse, we left a metre of powder to head to our destination hours to the south where there were -30 temperatures and no new snow for a month.

On a Ski Canada solo-road-trip story from his home in Calgary to snowy places like Smithers and Shames in northern B.C., Koch proudly reported back to me once: “I was resolved to put every road-food wrapper in
the passenger footwell to see if I could get the pile level with the seat—and I did!” He got very friendly with his radio and tape deck.

I haven’t decided whether Albertans, skiers from Saskatchewan or Ontario are the biggest road-trippers, but when it comes to frequency and number of kilometres driven for, and in, snow, I think it would settle down to these three if there were any national championships.

Two road-trip stories appear this issue: Tobias c. van Veen overwrote a collection of some of his best university-days recollections of wheeling around Quebec ski country; it starts on page 44. And on page 50, I wrote
long about buddy David Harkley and yours truly packing four weeks into four days through parts of the aptly marketed “Powder Highway” in B.C.’s Monashees and Kootenays. There will always be more of the kind in Ski Canada.

Admittedly, a more restful ski holiday could be had hunkering down in a slopeside condo in a purpose-built resort for a week. No, road-tripping isn’t for everyone, but it remains adventure tonic for others. So where are you heading off to this winter?

Iain MacMillan
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