I had heard a lot about Rumford.
Born in Littleton, one of New Hampshire’s northern “cities,” I spent my early days on skis at Bretton Woods, where my dad was the nordic center director. But that was about as far east in the state as I remember venturing, except for the occasional visit to Mount Washington.
From the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, Rumford was still an hour an a half away. It was in Maine for crying out loud. When would I have ever gone there?
As a kid, that’s how I saw it. For the first nine years of my life, I grew up singing UNH rally songs with my grandfather and just assumed the Granite State was superior to the 49 others in this country. While I couldn’t know for sure, I was pretty confident were were better than Vermont, the upside-down version of New Hampshire.
But I haven’t given Maine much thought. The coast was nice, cold, but fun, with good lobster rolls. The interior had flannel-wearing men’s men with beers in hand as soon as the workday was over — or during their shift if they could get away with it.
That said, I grew up around a similar crowd. The accents were just thicker in Maine. People were nice, winters were cold, and locals would call you stupid if you drove anywhere without snow tires or four-wheel drive.
At least we were adequately prepared with the latter while driving to Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, for the Eastern high school championships nearly 10 years ago. I was an underclassmen, my dad was the chauffeur and a few friends from nearby schools were the passengers. By this point, the family and I had relocated to Queensbury, N.Y., and I went on to graduate from Lake George High School.
But back as a sophomore, I just remember passing Mexico, Maine. Funny, I thought. Rumford was a passing glance, a paper mill town in the middle of no where. I mean, it was somewhere. Next to Mexico.
Fast-forward to December 31, 2011: I was going to ring in the New Year in Rumford. I embarked on the five-hour drive from upstate New York to the site of the U.S. Cross Country Championships alone and without much in the expectations department. Several people told me to count on it being freezing. Toss out the forecast and just bundle up.
So I did. In an attempt to refine my packing skills (I’m usually pretty excessive), I brought with me only outdoorsy necessities. I wasn’t going to Rumford to impress anyone with my ever-changing wardrobe, I just needed to stay warm through seven days of races Jan. 2-8.
After a scoping out the venue and course at Black Mountain with my co-worker, Audrey Mangan, who had raced there before, we drove back into town to figure out where we were supposed to spend the night. We had the address of a house on a backstreet of Rumford and instructions to get a key from the neighbor. Which neighbor? Not a clue.
When we pulled up the ice-covered driveway to a friend-of-a-friend’s house, Audrey made the executive decision that there was only one neighbor to go to: the closest one. Still in ski boots, she shuffled across the ice, which covered the neighbor’s yard as well. I stood in neutral territory between the homes in complete darkness while Audrey knocked at the front door. The welcome she received wasn’t exactly what either of us had expected.
In the neighbor’s defense, it was New Year’s Eve, and we did look like a couple of hoodlums in our matching black Bjorn-Daehlie “uniforms,” which were really just FasterSkier-labeled ski clothes labeled we happened to wear the same day. (Our matching clothing turned out to be an inadvertent theme of the week).
So the neighbor wasn’t too happy with us. She had no idea we were coming; somewhere along the line, communication took a nose dive. And she wasn’t about to let just anyone into her neighbor’s vacant house.
Before I could ask what she said, the woman shut the door. Audrey remained on the stoop, patiently waiting for her to return.
After a few phone calls and some convincing that we had permission from the friend of the friend who owned the house, they let us in. For two nights, including New Year’s, we stayed in the home, which apparently hadn’t been lived in since at least the summer, according to the expiration date on a block of cheese in the fridge.
There was no internet or a shower curtain and the place had little furniture, but it was all we needed to start the week. It gave me a chance to make a trip to the local McDonald’s for Wi-Fi at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning after a wild New Year’s. (Actually, New Year’s Eve was memorable. Audrey and I ate dinner at two-time Olympian Chummy Broomhall’s house and had some nice conversations with the 92-year-old living legend.)
A day before the races were scheduled to kick off, I realized I had packed entirely wrong. Up at the mountain on Sunday, coaches and athletes attempted to test skis on a sunny 45-degree afternoon that reminded many of spring skiing.
Regardless of what time of year it was, the conditions made for happy skiers. Wearing sunglasses and smiles, hundreds zipped around the 1.4 and 1.6 k sprint loops. One person even donned a sleeveless T-shirt.
Around 6 a.m. Monday morning, as I mentally prepared for the first day of races in the curtain-less shower (sharing my concentration with keeping the water contained), I heard a knock on the bathroom door. Matt Voisin, one of two bossmen at FasterSkier, was on the other side.
“No races today!” he shouted. He had just received the message from the race organizers at Black Mountain that overnight rain had saturated the manmade course.
Surprisingly, the artificial base held up. There were a few thin spots on the course, but organizers were confident they could blow snow and groom as needed to get the races going on Tuesday. They also had stockpiled snow, which could be shoveled onto the course, but it had to dry out.
Sitting in the museum-turned-media center at the Black Mountain alpine lodge, the four members of the FasterSkier crew watched as the overcast morning took a strange turn. Around 10 a.m., it was snowing, yet the temperatures remained above freezing. Then the clouds lifted to reveal blue sky.
“If you don’t like the weather in Rumford, wait a minute,” said one woman, who was knitting by the window.
Her words became the catchphrase of the week, as Tuesday revealed cooler temperatures and adequate conditions for snowmaking and races. The adjusted schedule continued as planned, and even on the coldest day (Wednesday), adaptive skiers toughed out single-digit temperatures to race.
I went for a run that day. I hoped that maybe a few minutes after I started, the weather would suddenly shift and I’d have to shed layers on the side of the road. It didn’t.
Fortunately, all the extra clothing forced me to regroup on the side of the road, tucking in as needed. There, I took a photo of this sign, which was one of many things that made me smile in Rumford.
Here are a few of the others: