Matt Dickerson: Giving the gift of time (and Nordic skiing)

My wife, Deborah, and I both come from families with traditions of Christmas gift-giving: wrapping objects in boxes with bows and pretty paper, placing them under an evergreen tree for a few weeks, and then gathering around that tree as a family on Christmas morning and tearing off the wrapping we spent so much time putting on. For the first 30 years of our lives together — including especially our first 27 years as parents — we continued that tradition. Thus every year our collection of material possessions (and our corresponding need for additional storage space) increased.
Though I have nothing against that tradition, this year we are breaking it. Sort of. We have reached a liminal moment. A few months ago, our youngest “child” turned 20; we no longer have teenagers living in the home. And this year, we also won’t be putting presents under our tree. Not for our kids. Not for each other. We are giving instead the gift of time. In particular, we are giving the gift of time together. We are forcing our kids (and their significant others) to go on a family three-day, two-night, lodge-to-lodge cross-country ski trip in the Maine backcountry.
The seed of the trip was planted a year and a half ago when I visited the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Little Lyford Lodge east of Greenville, Maine, on their 100-Mile Wilderness property between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park. While staying at the lodge to do a story on wild brook trout and the AMC’s river restoration project, and becoming enamored with some of the roughly 80,000-acre property, I read a brochure on their cross-country skiing. Between three historic wilderness lodges on the property, and another private lodge nearby, it is possible to do a lodge-to-lodge trek up to five days and four nights, staying at a different lodge each night. You do the skiing. The AMC provides a warm place to stay (including hot showers and takes care of your meals and hauling your gear on snowmobile from lodge to lodge.
Deborah and I have enjoyed some wonderful cross-country skiing in Vermont over the past three decades, including an inn-to-inn ski tour beginning at Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen making use of the Catamount Trail. Spending an afternoon skiing through quiet New England woods is especially delightful when you know there is a hot shower and hot meal awaiting you at the end of the day. The “Country Inn” tour in Vermont was delightful enough to prompt us to try something closer to a wilderness lodge experience on the AMC property. So last March, when the snow was nearly gone in Vermont but a blizzard had dropped several feet of fresh snow in Maine, we booked a night at Little Lyford, and then a second night eight miles away at Gorman Chairback.
Although it is possible to drive to Little Lyford in the summer on gravel lumber roads, in the winter guests go in on skis. It’s part of what makes it feel like a wilderness lodge rather than a country inn. We arrived at the winter parking lot just after midday, tagged our duffle bag to be transported by snowmobile and left in the shed, then started down the trail.
The ski in from the parking lot to Little Lyford is a relatively easy trek a little over a half-dozen miles through rolling wooded terrain. There are a couple routes to choose from: a quiet trail through the woods and a more open trail along the snowmobile route. Though in hindsight I should have picked the former, we ended up on the latter, which made for some long, fast downhills. We passed a few snowmobile hauling sleds of food and supplies, and also passed (and were passed by) a few other skiers, but for the most part the trail was quiet as we skied through forests of evergreens and hardwoods, over streams and past wetlands, with occasional views of distant hills.
When we arrived and were shown to our private cabin, we found it already warm with a fire going in the woodstove. We felt spoiled. We had time for another short excursion on the trails near the lodge, and then made our way to the main lodge for a delicious, family-style meal ending with hot, homemade pies. The lodge is off the grid, and the cabins are heated by wood and lit with gas lamps. But there is power there, and the dining area is lit with electric lamps. More importantly, the showers are hot. We made use of them.
The second day was much the same. We skied from Lyford to Gorman — a slightly newer and larger main lodge — along a much narrower (groomed but snowmobile-free) winding trail through the woods along the West Branch of the Pleasant River. The air grew warm enough to ski in t-shirts. As we paused trailside for a lunch in the sunshine, we began to think how enjoyable it would be to take an adventure like this with the whole family.
By the time we had settled into a private cabin up at Gorman — where once again the woodstove was already lit when we arrived — and watched the sun set over the lake in front of the cabin, our wishful thinking was turning into actual planning. What would it be like to skip all the shopping and wrapping, skip the accumulation of more possessions we don’t really need, skip the excessive American demands on world resources, and ignore the constant appeal of consumerism in the commercials that would bombard us from October until Dec. 23?  The more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea. After another amazing meal, the decision was solidified. This would be our family Christmas present in 2017.
I know it is cliché to speak of time speeding up when you get older, but some things have become cliché because they are true. Part of our motivation for our plans this year were how much we enjoyed our March 2017 ski trip and our (selfish) desire to do it again ourselves, part was the less selfish desire to share the delightful ski trip with our family, and part was the conscious decision to step back from the consumerism of our culture. But mostly it was just a desire to value time with family (especially time away from the constant distractions of internet and cell phones) more than possessions. Our only regret is wishing we had done it earlier.

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