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Sizing Up the Slopes in the Thick (and Thin) of Winter

You don't move to Vermont to see grass and dirt in the middle of winter. But when that annual contradiction - the January thaw - occurs, they may appear despite the odds.

Most years, I understand, the thaw is a few days of unseasonably warm weather working on an established snowpack that isn't about to yield. It means a few days of spring skiing far ahead of schedule. This year, however, the thaw did its work on a few inches that never had a chance to qualify as a ``pack.'' The browned grasses of last fall sprouted where only a few days before kids had been screaming down the slopes, blissfully anticipating another eight, maybe 10 weeks of schussing.

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Skis were racked in garages, and parents experienced wheel-twisting, tire-wrenching driving on thoroughly defrosted dirt roads - something rightly reserved for April's mud season.

My youngest son, a second-grader just beginning to understand there's more to skiing than the ``snowplow,'' had finished two weeks of a local tradition known as Ski Runners - a program that makes sure youngsters have a stake in Vermont's wintry economy.

Kids are bused into our two-lift ski area (melodramatically named Suicide Six) from all the surrounding towns - Bethel, Barnard, Sharon. Parents pay a pittance so their children can get instruction and an hour or two of free skiing every Friday afternoon.

By Week 3, alas, skiing was no more. After four or five days of warm rains, Suicide Six lost the stuff that winter thrills are made of. All that late-December and early-January snowmaking trickled down the drain, or gully, right into Barnard Creek, a humble stream usually iced over and nearly invisible in mid-January, but as of a couple of weeks ago a torrent at the base of the mountain.

Weather is the great social ice-breaker up ``north.'' Neighbors who know you have to drive down to Boston call with updates on road conditions. People sip from steamy cups in the general store and speculate about the climactic oddities. ``Global warming'' brought guffaws after last year's snowy winter. This year folks knitted their brows and wondered.

A January thaw that amounts to a meltdown starts a domino effect of knitted brows. A local gas station operator, who usually takes a fairly cavalier approach to life, became deeply serious talking about how every business in town would feel some meltdown of profits, too. The flow of ``flatlanders'' with skis on their cars and money in their pockets ebbs in proportion as the runoff from warmed slopes quickens.

But while the snow may be thin, there's a thick layer of resilience among people who've spent many winters up here. Remember the succession of relatively snowless winters in the mid-1980s?, they asked. This isn't all that shocking. Most still suspect that proverbial old-fashioned winters - when snow piled halfway up the sides of houses and fences, and maybe even the occasional low-slung telephone pole - are gone forever. But that doesn't mean extremely cold, even extremely white, Januarys and Februarys reminiscent of the 1890s won't materialize in the 1990s.

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More to the point, the local radio weatherman, the ``Eye on the Sky,'' cheerily assures us that winter will still make its entrance. In fact, last Saturday's foot and a half of powdery snow, followed by the last few days of sub-zero temperatures, have proved him right. We had been lured into thinking the best we could hope for was a scant few inches of wet snow and thermometers permanently stuck nearly an inch above where they could be this time of year.

A turn toward the arctic doesn't please everyone, by the way. People were saving lots of money on heating bills and plowing fees. Snow shovels were leaning on porches and shed walls, untouched. But that unnatural state of affairs couldn't last forever.

By the time you read this, the kids will be back on the plush white slopes at Suicide Six, and ski-hungry flatlanders and fuel trucks will be clogging the roads. And everyone in our corner of the country will be feeling a little more at home, if a lot colder.

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