CATHERINE MALLETTE, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
February 21, 2010

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

Silver white winters that melt into springs

These are a few of my favorite things...

-- My Favorite Things, Rodgers & Hammerstein

We had a weekend to fill, my daughter Hadley and I. Specifically, it was "winter-term long weekend" at her school in western Massachusetts, and I, a New England native who has lived pretty much my entire adult life in Texas, decided with more than a touch of nostalgia that it would be wonderful to immerse ourselves in a silver white winter.

Downhill skiing was not an option. I'm simply no good at it, and the speed terrifies me. Instead, I thought about cross-country skiing. I'd done a little bit in the early '80s, mostly in the fields across from my childhood home.

When I learned that one of America's top cross-country ski resorts is run by descendants of Capt. and Maria von Trapp, my Sound of Music -loving heart began to sing. Located in Stowe, Vt., the Trapp Family Lodge was just a few hours' drive from Hadley's school.

And so off we went, one who is 16 going on 17, already weary from a cold winter, wondering why in the world her mother was dragging her into even more frigid weather. And one who is older and should have been wiser, but whose head was mostly filled with Rodgers & Hammerstein songs and visions of Currier and Ives sleigh rides and white-capped trees.

Was it a recipe for adventure, or disaster?

Learning to lunge

I have confidence in confidence alone!

Besides which you see, I have confidence in me!

-- I Have Confidence, Rodgers & Hammerstein

After a hearty and delicious breakfast of omelets and hash browns in the lodge's main dining room, we headed just a short walk down the road to the rental shop to get some skis. At 10 a.m. we started our hourlong lesson. The small group included a couple from Florida and a friendly teacher who looked like maybe he was skipping school on this 16-degree Friday morning.

While it was a bit nippy, surely this was God's country. The von Trapps, who later dropped the "von," settled in Stowe because it reminded them of their native Austria. Mountains on every horizon. Clear, clean air. Thick, snow-filled forests.

Buoyed by the beauty around me, I felt confident. I was sure I was going to be good at cross-country skiing. I mean, it's just like walking, right? And I'm good at walking!

After about 10 minutes, I learned that I had terrible form. I was lunging when I should have been doing something else. Still, it felt good, and it was fun to be gliding (OK, lunging) along under the trees. Our guide showed us how to move in the parallel tracks laid by some kind of special snowmobile. He showed us how to walk uphill in a "herringbone" fashion -- basically, you point your toes outward and then shuffle along. He showed us how to go downhill in the snowplow position.

On my first attempt to go down a very slight hill, I wiped out completely, rediscovering the fact that snow is beautiful but also very cold when it is just one set of Under Armour Cold Gear tights away from your skin. Still, I had confidence in me!

Looking at a map of the trails, I pointed at the Slayton Pasture Cabin, described on the lodge's Web site as "a true gem nestled in the woods on a knoll behind the Lodge." I was bewitched by the description: "Warm up on the hearth of the roaring fireplace and replenish your energy with homemade soups, sandwiches and hot chocolate."

"How do we get there?" I asked our teacher. He indicated some green (easiest) trails that would take us to the Cabin Trail, which happened to be black (difficult). Then we'd take some blue trails (moderate). I was slightly worried that the Cabin Trail might be tough, but then again, our instructor knew how bad we were, and he wouldn't send us that way if we couldn't do it. Right?

Against Hadley's protestations (she believed the lesson was sufficient skiing for the day), we headed off on what the Web site promised would be "an exhilarating trip."

Conquering the trail

Climb every mountain,

Search high and low ...

-- Climb Every Mountain, Rodgers & Hammerstein

Question: When is three miles not three miles? Answer: When it is uphill and your legs are attached to long sticks that make you walk like a duck.

The "knoll" felt more like a mountain. The Cabin Trail was killing us.

In the dense forest, it was hard to see far ahead on the winding path.

"I think that's where we meet the blue path," Hadley said hopefully, peering upward along the trail. "I can't see any horizon after that." But then we trudged along, turned the corner, and there was just more uphill trail. This happened several times.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes that had been playing in my head shut down, replaced by this thought: "Well, it's not as bad as going over the Alps to escape Nazis, but this is pretty miserable." Hadley voiced her own opinion: "This is my idea of hell."

We finally saw a sign with a map and breathed a sigh of relief. We were done with the Cabin Trail!

But we weren't. We were only halfway done. Still, both of us are achievement-oriented. We weren't going to let the hill conquer us.

After an hour and a half, we made it to the cabin, a rustic structure with a welcoming fireplace. We ordered turkey sandwiches, split a dense chocolate brownie and guzzled down lots of free water. The handful of tables were filled with people who looked quite happy, including a family who had skied up towing young ones on a little sledlike thing. These were not the sorts of people you'd find at a chic Colorado ski resort. No fancy clothes. No personal-trainerized bodies. Instead it was mostly gray hair and fanny packs. The majority were middle age or older.

"If they can do this, why can't I?" I thought to myself. This is a wonderfully troublesome way of thinking.

The knoll enchilada

Me, a name I call myself

Fa, a long long way to run

-- Do-Re-Mi, Rodgers & Hammerstein

The trip down took at hour. Hadley is a good downhill skier and she zipped along in her snowplow. I was the old lady in her Cadillac going to church on Sunday. I did not want to fall, and so I went slow. So slow that a man who passed us along the trail remarked to Hadley that I was "the slowest downhill skier" he had ever seen.

Despite my lack of speed, I did fall. Many times. Particularly challenging for me was a vast hilly area called the "picnic knoll" (which Hadley and I dubbed the "grassy knoll"), which sent me tumbling several times.

When we got back to our room at the lodge, Hadley collapsed on the bed. "I've never had such a workout in my life," she said. "I think people just do this to exercise, not to have fun." I agreed with her -- and yet, and yet. There is something about knowing you've accomplished something that quickly replaces the memories of how hard it might have been to accomplish it.

"I'm proud of you, H," I said. "I'm proud of you, too, Mom," she said.

"Let's go reward ourselves," I suggested.

Yoga and burgers

Follow every rainbow

Till you find your dream

-- Climb Every Mountain, Rodgers & Hammerstein

After a quick snack of cookies in the lodge lounge, we crossed the street to the fitness center for a yoga class. Faith Bieler , who looked like one of the most fit grandmothers in the U.S., led us in relaxation exercises.

"Smile at the blue sky. Smile at the sun. Smile at the sparkling snow."

You know, I thought to myself, it had been a beautiful day. The snow was sparkling in the sunlight. The view from the yoga studio revealed more sparking snow, stretched across miles and miles to a mountain range in the distance. You could also see steam rising from the outdoor hot tub, filled with happy people.

"Find a delicious pose for you," she intoned, as she taught us a series of moves to stretch our tired muscles. Vermonters love cows, she said, showing us a position she called the cat/cow that did feel sort of delicious in a bone-cracking way.

After yoga, we passed the workout room filled with free weights, weight machines and a variety of exercise machines, and instead went up to the massage area, where we indulged in hourlong massages that continued to soothe our aching muscles.

It was dark when we finished, but the athletic center was hopping with activity. Kids playing table tennis. Families in the big indoor swimming pool. I remarked to Hadley that the kind of people who come to a place like this really seem to want to take advantage of all it has to offer.

We had dinner in the lounge near the fireplace -- fresh burgers from the lodge's own breed of happy cows. We retreated to our spacious, comfortable room with European touches, such as wooden beamed ceilings and lots of what looked like hand-carved cabinetry. I think we were asleep by 9.

The next morning, I left my tired teen in bed, had a bowl of homemade granola in the dining room and went out for a quick snowshoe walk. The ski area was hopping with college kids who had come for a skiing competition. Music was blaring from loudspeakers and the smiling kids all gave the impression that they had no idea that it was just 8 degrees.

A history lesson

How do you find a word that means Maria?

A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

-- How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Rodgers & Hammerstein

Just before 11 a.m., near the lodge's gift shop, Kristina, a granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, was signing copies of a book titled The World of the Trapp Family . Kristina was hosting the morning's history tour. Here I learned that even though the lodge has 100 kilometers of trails for hiking, mountain-biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sleigh rides, as well as outdoor and indoor pools and tennis courts, a fantastic fitness center, fondue and other European-style treats in the restaurant and amazing views, one of the main draws is the story of the von Trapp family.

The hourlong tour included the BBC documentary The Real Maria. In it, Maria was about 80 and revisited Austria (she died at 82 in 1987). On the tour, I learned that the current lodge was opened in 1983 after a fire three years earlier burned the original structure to the ground. I learned that each room in the lodge has access outdoors, as the Trapps want visitors to be able to immediately connect with nature. I learned what was true in the movie version and what wasn't. Among these facts:

Not true: In the movie, Maria was sent from the abbey to be a governess to the widowed captain's children. In real life, the seven children had a governess. Maria was sent to teach just one of the children (also named Maria), who was ill.

True: The Captain used a whistle to call the children.

Not true: There was no rival love interest for the captain, as there was in the movie. And there was no big, singing romance between the captain and Maria. It was the children who wanted Maria to stay on. They told their dad that he should marry Maria to keep her on, to which he replied, "I don't even know if she likes me."

They went out to Maria, who was cleaning a chandelier and asked her if she liked him. She said yes because what else would you say to the children. Then she went to the Reverend Mother and told her that the captain wanted to marry her and was shocked when she was told that the nuns had prayed about it and decided it was indeed the will of God. She went back to the captain's house and when he asked her what had happened, she burst into tears and said, "They want me to marry you!"

True: They had a big wedding at the abbey, at which the nuns sang.

True: Maria taught the children songs, and they formed a family singing group that won prestigious awards.

Not true: Maria and the captain didn't get married and immediately flee Austria. They lived there for about 10 years together and had two children of their own before they left.

Not true: They escaped from a singing festival over the mountains of Austria into Switzerland.

True: They knew they had to leave Austria when one of their servants, who knew about their anti-Hitler sentiments, admitted to being in the Nazi Party. They also were summoned to sing at Hitler's birthday and did not want to do it. Wearing their singing costumes and rucksacks, they boarded a train for Italy. They went on to New York, where they arrived in 1938 with nine children and $4 to their name. Their son Johannes (Kristina's father, who would later turn the lodge into a cross-country ski resort) was born in 1939. (His son Sam, Kristina's brother, runs the lodge.)

True: The von Trapps were brave, inspirational people with strong values.

Up to the challenge

The hills fill my heart with the sound of music

My heart wants to sing every song it hears

-- The Sound of Music, Rogers & Hammerstein

As we said so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu to the lodge, I knew that I was taking home a pulled muscle near my hip but I hoped that we were also taking home a bit of the Trapp family spirit. During the tour, I had learned that after arriving in America, the family basically lived on a bus, giving concerts to make money. When they had a small amount saved, they had to make a decision: Would they buy everyone another outfit or invest in land to build a home?

That was how they ended up in Vermont, where photos show them pouring concrete for what would become their home and the original lodge, haying and wresting with cows -- the girls and Maria all wearing their dirndls because they didn't have anything else. Two of the boys, Rupert and Werner, went away to fight with the 10th Mountain Division as ski troopers in World War II and apparently at one point one of the Trapps said to a visitor to the farm, "We could use a few more men around here to work," to which the visitor replied, "Or just one more of your girls!"

Werner came back to Stowe and erected a stone chapel in the hills as a monument to Our Lady of Peace in thanks for returning home safely. Rupert went on to be a doctor (and coincidentally practiced in the tiny Massachusetts town that I grew up in, also called Hadley, where he treated my brother in the early '80s for a rash he (my brother) developed while camping before he (Rupert) retired in Stowe).

In the documentary, Maria remarked that her family had a talent for not having an agent at all the right times. The family wasn't consulted on the Sound of Music movie. They didn't make any money from it. But far from being bitter, she said that it was God's will because her family was meant to show the world that they stood for other things. Hard work. Faith. Love and respect for nature.

Hadley and I came up with a new phrase -- to "von Trapp it," which we think means to suck it up when challenges arise and move forward, embracing and enjoying life. I love that idea. I mean, who cares if I was the slowest skier ever to go those trails? Everybody starts somewhere.

"I'm glad we did this," Hadley said. "The lodge is cool."

Cool it was.

And off we drove into our silver white winter.

CATHERINE MALLETTE , 817-390-7828

Copyright © 2010 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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