Mad River Valley | Vermont's Snow Globe
It seemed that almost everywhere I turned in Waitsfield, I found someone making something, or selling an item someone close by had made. At the village’s 4orty Bridge Boutique, the proprietor brewed me an espresso while I admired a display of handcrafted gold jewelry. “Those pieces are all made by Sheri DeFlavio, here in town,” she told me, nodding in the artisan’s direction as if she were in the next room.
Standing at the intersection of Mad River Valley creativity and the local passion for winter sports is Dave Sellers, inventor of the Mad River Rocket. Dave, an architect, has designed homes and public buildings all over the world, and has taught at Yale—but his local notoriety derives from what has been described as his “sled on steroids.”
“I tried to design an alternative to skiing,” Dave told me as we sat in his happily cluttered office at the edge of Warren village. “Skiing is expensive, and energy intensive. With the Mad River Rocket, you get a lifetime pass for $100—the cost of the sled—and you have 50,000 acres of sledding terrain in Vermont alone.”
The sturdy plastic Rocket differs from traditional sleds in two important ways. First, you ride it while kneeling, with a knee strap securing you to the sled. And second, it has what Dave calls a “negative keel”: Instead of digging down, the square-shaped channel of the inverted “keel” creates its own monorail out of snow as it makes its descent.
“It’s the only wilderness sled in the world,” Dave says. “You can take it to the top of any mountain in Vermont and ride down. There’ll never be an instructor, because it’s so easy to learn. We’ll take any conditions that nature provides, except ice, and we want to challenge skiing.”
Dave Sellers also challenges the throwaway culture of the modern era with his Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design, located in a rambling old house near the Village Bridge in Waitsfield. “It’s a collection of stuff that’s beautifully made, stuff that lasts,” he explains. At the Madsonian, you just might find that toaster or electric fan that you wish you’d kept, or maybe still have.
The Valley is a hub of Vermont’s local food culture, as well, as I learned from Karen Nevin. “Everything has to do with local farmers,” she says. “Most of the world has farmers’ markets in the summer; we have them year-round (info at WaitsfieldFarmersMarket.com and VermontLocalvore.org). Winter markets are held either at the Inn at Round Barn Farm or at the Big Picture Theater. I buy my pork here, my beef there … I know my cow.”
I got a sense of just how committed Valley people are to the locavore ideal when I dropped in for dinner at the Big Picture Theater & Café. Tucked just across the lobby from Waitsfield’s little movie theater, the café is a cheerful array of snug booths with a nice comfort-food menu. The “Big Picture Burger” came with local blue cheese and sautéed mushrooms, on a brioche. It had the unmistakable flavor of grass-fed beef, and, after I’d finished and was sipping the last of my Tuesday-night special $5 Chianti, I asked the waitress where the beef was from. That’s something you do only in places like the Mad River Valley. She answered, “Oh, do you know where Helm’s place is?”
“No,” I said to her, “I’m not from around here.”
“Well, his name is Helmut Nottermann. Wait a minute, I’ll ask.” She went over to the kitchen, talked with a co-worker, and came back to tell me “Snug Valley Farm.” It was, apparently, only about 50 miles away, in East Hardwick. Know your cow.
While I finished my wine, I listened to Dylan on the restaurant’s stereo and decided whether I wanted to trundle across the lobby to see the latest James Bond movie, or tuck into my four-poster at the Yellow Farmhouse Inn to read. I chose the latter, remembering the help-yourself tea selection and the cornmeal–lemon–almond crackers on the sideboard. It just didn’t seem like a night for techno-mayhem … and I couldn’t picture James Bond asking where his burger came from, even though he does get picky about how his martinis are mixed. (Shaken or stirred, by the way, they’re the Big Picture’s Saturday special at $5 a pop.)
In the morning, fortified by the inn’s French toast and baked pineapple squares, on my last day in the valley I slid aboard one of Mad River Glen’s single chairs. It seemed odd, making the ascent in my own private seat, but early on a weekday like this I probably would have been alone on a double. It was so early, in fact, that I was treated to first tracks in six inches of fresh powder at the summit.
To the east, the morning mist had just cleared from the peaks of the Northfield range, and before kicking off onto one of Mad River’s “Ski It If You Can” trails, I paused to take in that valley view I’d first seen from the opposite hills. Again I looked into Vermont’s snow globe—looked and then plunged inside. I shook the powder, and watched it whirl around me.