My father takes a left-hand turn on to the Graves Road with our rusty old station wagon, as we bump up the dirt road into the parking lot of Big Rock early that Saturday morning. It’s 7:20 AM, more than an hour and a half before the mountain opens for the day, and there are only two other vehicles in the parking lot; a little red colored Ford Ranger and a beat up black Ford F-150. We pull into our spot close to the ski patrol hut and unload several pairs of skis, a few each for me and dad, and the skis for my sister and mom who will show up later that day. I step onto the freshly groomed corduroy and feel the snow crunch beneath my feet as I somehow manage to wrestle 3 pairs of skis up to the patrol hut. My dad unlocks the padlock, and we step inside, our breath instantly freezing the air. Somehow the hut feels colder than it is outside. My dad opens the old 55 gallon drum woodstove and crumples up some newspaper and puts some kindling on top to get the fire going. He throws on a few bigger logs, and we head over to the Lodge to warm up and catch the ski scoop for the morning. As I walk through the side door, Marie greets me with a huge smile and slabs a bunch of butter onto a fresh bagel and puts it on the stove for me. By this point a few more of the ski patrollers, workers and hardcores have arrived at the mountain for the morning and we all sit down together to eat breakfast and get ready for the day. This is the start to the many Big Rock mornings I remember throughout my life.
All these memories came crashing back to me, as I rolled my wheelchair into the Duncan Graves funeral home last night to pay my respects to Gary Pierce who sadly passed away too early in life from brain cancer. As I entered the room I was instantly overwhelmed by a lifetime of memories and emotions as I saw the entire Pierce family and the many folks who made my Big Rock family as I grew up. There was Dan, and Erin, and John, and Travis… the big kids I had looked up too and always looked out for me when I was just a little bugger on the slopes, and there was the ski patrollers Randy and Conrad and Alan and Steve and Tom who had been my older buds, almost like an extended group of uncles. And finally there was Wendell, my mountain grandfather sitting on a chair. I was overwhelmed to see everyone together, a few years older, but still the same amazing people, and instantly thought back to my childhood and how all these people, how the Pierces, the patrollers, and particularly my father and Big Rock made my childhood the best that any kid could have wished for.
I know I’m not reminiscing alone when I think back to the old days of Big Rock. It wasn’t just a place where people would ski back then, but a place where Wendell and Marie brought happiness to everyone’s lives and made us all feel just like we were part of one big, Big Rock, family. They opened their arms to everyone who came through their doors in such a genuine we love everything about this sport/lifestyle that made Big Rock the most special mountain I’ve ever been too. And that’s saying a lot, considering I made my life skiing and traveled to some of the most famous mountains in the US with my job as a ski lift engineer. Truthfully, none of them compared to the genuine hometown, family feeling of Big Rock.
As I moved from person-to-person last night, and listened to the many stories of the person we were remembering that night I was instantly taken back to a lifetime of incredible memories and stories. I thought about the crazy man with the big white boots fearlessly climbing up and down those lattice towers, the many summers and falls I spent with my father and Randy trimming trails and rolling hay out over the rough spots, the time Gary was driving me down the Comet when the black truck lost its brakes and we almost ended up in the woods, and the time he hollered at me when he nearly fell off the tower when I didn’t throw that huge wrench quite close enough to his outstretched arms. I thought about all these memories, how times Gary almost single-handedly kept the mountain running, and how because of all his and his families dedication so many people in this area got to enjoy skiing culture in Northern Maine. Gary, Wendell, Marie, all the Pierces, thank you so much for making Big Rock the place that it was to me. It is without a doubt, second to only my incredible parents/family for making me the man I am today.
I’m still thinking about all these memories today, and want to share a few of the special ones with you. I’m sure all of you Big Rock rugrats will chuckle to think back to all the great times we had.
Snowball fights and Chinese Downhills
Remember those spring skiing afternoons when after a season full of skiing us kids started getting a little bored with just skiing and resorted to pelting each other and sometimes the adults with snowballs? I can remember one particular morning when the Presque Isle kids went after the Mars Hill kids and Marie thought we got a little out of hand and put us in our place.
Then there were the trail wide processions of youngsters with the ultimate race to the bottom… The Chinese downhill! If that wasn’t daring enough sometimes we moved our fearless race to the Hoochi Man!
That old Poma Lift
Remember how they used to load us small kids with an adult/bigger kid close by front and rear, so when the Poma would lift us up the bigger people could sit down and stretch the cable lower so we could keep our tips on the snow. What about those times you’d get a frozen one and the lift would launch you to the sky, sometimes taking whatever you had between your legs with it!
Cranking the Ski Patrol Hut to 110°F
We used to love getting that old cast-iron barrel stove just glowing red with heat. I can remember the day Ted placed his 7XKs a little too close to the stove and blistered his bottoms, or the countless mittens that caught on fire, or the time Conrad came into the hut after a cold night skiing and almost passed out from the heat. We’d sometimes drop huge bunches of snow on the stove to make a sauna until the old ski patrollers rounded us out.
The Big Rock Burgers
Mmmmm… Need I say more! Marie could make the best hamburgers and bagels on this planet! What in the heck were the new owners thinking when they got rid of the legendary Big Rock burger cooking stove. How dare you!
Skiing the Entire 14 Days of Winter Break
I remember skiing so many days in a row, that by the end of it I could barely move the next morning, but still we kept skiing. We’d get to the hill early in the morning, do lap after lap on the fresh corduroy, and when we’d had enough skiing we’d start snowboarding, or riding shovels down the hill (yeah, you really can ride a shovel… It fit the butt cheeks perfectly), or a couple times we even cut trees down across the cross-country trail. Didn’t that tick Gary off with the groomer… Hey, I really didn’t like cross-country!
Working my Summers and Falls to Pay for My Season Pass and Skis
It was pretty sweet growing up with a father so heavily involved with the skiing culture/mountain. He wasn’t just the high school ski coach, ski patrol director, ski instructor, but so heavily ingrained in the skiing culture and Big Rock family that skiing became our everything. We didn’t just think about it/enjoy it in the winter, but worked our summers and falls at the mountain or ski shop.
I remember loading these gigantic bales of hay onto the back of Gary’s black Ford with a forklift, the shocks of his poor truck absolutely sinking to their knees, and then driving his black truck up the hill with its radiator overheating and throwing the hay off to cover the rocks and doing all over again and again. I’d be hiking up the Chair Trail with my father and Randy winding out the bladed weedwacker to cut the brush, and traveling all over the state to ski sales with Travis and that little Isuzu panel truck. I vacuumed up literally millions of house flies after they bombed the Lodge, and painted the rental shack and ski racks so many times I can’t even count it. Me and dad would just work and work, sometimes at the most strenuous and exhausting jobs, some of them mind numbingly boring like inventorying the old boots, but we never minded it because of the people we were doing it with and because we were working for our season passes and new skis. It was an incredible way to get ready for the season!
And I Could Keep Going on and on
And I could keep going on and on and on about all these incredible memories, and yes, thinking back to this and remembering is a little sad at times, but it also makes me so happy to sit here and think back to all the wonderful memories and times I’ve had. And now, all these many years later, six of them without me actually skiing I’ve now come to realize that the actual skiing is only a small part of what makes skiing the incredible lifestyle it is… The biggest part is the people!
You see, skiing isn’t so much about the skiing as it is the people you’re doing it with.
And with that, I promise you I’ll be soon finding myself heavily involved in the lifestyle and culture again.