70s Squaw (lorez)

It doesn’t get much more ’70s than this. The Huntington family poses in front of the hotel at Squaw Mountain. That’s me looking pretty cool standing next to my dad.

Today the iPod reached back into the past and pulled out “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond. Yes, that Neil Diamond. Neil doesn’t get a lot of respect from music aficionados. He did write “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, and UB40 had a hit with his “Red, Red Wine.” On the other hand, he’s responsible for some real dreck, like “I Am, I Said.” “Song Sung Blue” is catchy, but irritating. His duet with Barbra Streisand, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” is the song they play on a continuous loop in Hell. So, yeah, Neil doesn’t exactly radiate cool.

Still, I have a special fondness for “Cracklin’ Rosie,” his ode to having a time with a poor man’s lady and hitching on a twilight train. For me it’s a Squaw Mountain song, one of the hits I taped off the jukebox in the lounge at the ski area outside Greenville, Maine, where I spent many of my weekends back in the 1970s. Along with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the juke box included the top hits of the day, like “Hitching a Ride” by Vanity Fair, “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce. While the adults sat around drinking Manhattans and wearing their après ski mukluks (this was the ’70s, remember), I’d drop a quarter in the jukebox and tape my selections on the tape recorder I had received for Christmas. That was the iPod of the time.

(To enjoy the wonderfulness of “Cracklin’ Rosie” for yourself, click here.)

After hearing “Cracklin’ Rosie” on my walk today, I decided to keep the Neil thing going and dialed up “Sweet Caroline.” This is the song the Red Sox play during the eighth inning of every home game. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Neil showed up unannounced at Fenway and asked if he could sing “Sweet Caroline” live for the fans. That was pretty cool. He also appears in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s concert film about the Band. I’ve never figured what he’s doing in that movie. I could look it up, but I prefer to retain a little mystery in my life.

Neil is still alive and kicking. Squaw Mountain is, too, but for a while it slipped into a coma. It went through a series of owners and finally hit rock bottom when its big chairlift failed and injured four skiers in 2004. The lift never reopened. The mountain struggled on with only its lower trails before shutting down completely in 2010. Vandals trashed the main lodge a few years ago. It was enough to break my heart. Losing Squaw made me feel like one of the connections to my younger self had snapped.

However, in 2012 some Greenville locals formed the nonprofit Friends of Squaw Mountain to reopen the mountain and they made a three-year deal with the owner to lease the ski area for $1 annually. Volunteers refurbished the lower lodge, obtained a groomer, and restarted the lower triple chair (which had replaced one of the T-bars I had known). The Friends launched fundraising efforts, including selling sponsorships for each chair on the lift for $500 apiece.

When I read about Squaw’s reopening I became determined to ski there again, even though I now live in distant Pennsylvania. Finally I got a chance. My mother was celebrating her 80th birthday, so my wife, Beth Ann, and I decided to visit my parents in Augusta to celebrate and then push on to Greenville to ski. I couldn’t wait to visit the mountain, where the memories lay as deep as January snow. Beth Ann and I departed Augusta at 7:00 on a frigid Saturday morning, with the outside temperature an impressive 23 degrees below zero. We headed north up I-95 and then wound through the through a familiar roll call of towns—Newport, Corinna, Dexter, Sangerville, Guilford, Abbott, Monson. On Indian Hill outside Greenville we finally got a view of Moosehead Lake, a white and frozen expanse stretching out below us. Big Moose Mountain (the state changed its name from Big Squaw in 2000) reared up to our left, frosted with snow and ice.

On our way to the mountain we passed my parents’ camp on the main road. When they bought it in 1972 for $5,500 it had just a single room. We added an upstairs (and by “we,” I mean mainly my older brother) by putting down planks to create a ceiling/floor and adding some pull-down stairs.

On Fridays after school we loaded up the family truck, a four-door Ford behemoth, while the dog grew increasingly excited about the impending road trip. Once my dad got home from work we embarked for the two-hour drive to Greenville, arriving at a very cold and dark camp. The first task was getting a fire blazing in the Franklin stove and lighting the oil burner, but winter was always very reluctant to release its grip. Once unpacked, we could sit by the fire and wait as the cold slowly retreated. When we could no longer see our breath we could remove our coats and eventually shed our sweaters. The weekend had truly arrived.

The kids—my brother, my younger sister, and me, plus the friend or two who came along for the weekend—hung up blankets to wall off our own territories upstairs while my parents stayed downstairs. We all slept in sleeping bags on folding cots (except for the dog, of course, who didn’t bother with a cot but did have a sleeping bag).

Camp didn’t have running water and we had to dump a bucket into the toilet to flush. We brought heavy containers of water to last us the weekend. If we ran out we drove down to Breton’s store in Greenville Junction to refill. We had no shower, either. That wasn’t so bad for a weekend visit but on longer stays we used the pool at the ski area’s hotel. Our parents relaxed in the adjacent Lumberjack Lounge, where they could watch through big plate-glass window as the kids swam. Sometimes we sat in the saunas until we could no longer stand the heat, and then rushed outside through the sliding glass doors to wage a snowball fight in wet bathing suits, our bodies steaming in the cold.

season passSaturday meant skiing. The mountain was only a few minutes away and we skied from the time the lifts opened until they shut down at 4:00. After some time in the lounge, it was back to camp for cocktail parties, where my parents would entertain friends who had come up for the weekend and the kids would hang out upstairs, reading comic books and cracking wise. Saturday nights meant watching the CBS lineup—All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart—on the tiny black and white TV. (If we changed channels someone had to go outside and manually turn the big aerial to get a decent picture.) By the time Carol Burnett came on my dad would be snoring so loud it shook the rafters.

When Beth Ann and I bumped our way up into the parking lot at Big Squaw’s refurbished lower lodge, the temperature had climbed to a relatively balmy -4. It seemed the cold had scared away all but the hardcores. We saw no one on the lift, and in the lodge found only a handful of hardly skiers plus the cheerful volunteers who sold tickets, rented equipment, and manned the grill. Beth Ann rented some skis, we bundled up in layers of warm clothing, and then we skied down to the new chair, the mountain’s only operating lift. It was still so cold the snow squeaked like Styrofoam beneath our skis.

Lodge

The Squaw Mountain hotel, as it appeared when we skied there recently.

Some things remained consistent, such as the way the snow-dusted pine trees on the mountain seemed to shrink against the cold; or the silence on the chair, broken only by the lift’s whispery hum and the rubbery bumps when the cable passed over the wheels on each tower. The magnificent view remained the same, too—Mountain View Pond in the foreground, Moosehead stretching out beyond it toward the rounded humps of the Spencer Mountains, with the whaleback rise of Mt. Kineo visible to the north. But other things were different, and not for the better. When we skied down the Upper Fitzgerald we passed the buildings of the now-shuttered upper lodge and hotel. Sheets of plywood covered the glass doors to the pool. The restaurant and lounge were deserted and silent. The parking lot was empty. The jukebox, I’m sure, was long gone.

looking up

Looking up at the main mountain, now closed.

Most notably, since the chair to the top no longer operated, the entire upper part of the mountain remained frustratingly inaccessible. As I skied on this return visit, I stopped now and then to gaze wistfully at the glimpses I got of the upper trails, visible through the trees. I could see a bit of the Moose River, its course choked with growth, and some of the Piscataquis. They were now ghosts on the mountainside, just out of reach.

Later I waited for my wife outside the lower lodge, and a man asked me to take a picture of him and his teenage son. He told me they had driven up for the day from Dover-Foxcroft. I snapped a couple of shots with his camera phone. “He’s not getting taller than me, is he?” the man asked, pointing at his boy.

“Not yet, but he’s getting close,” I replied. Then the two of them skied down to the chairlift, ready to create some memories of their own.

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