Who the hell still wears a car coat? With the exception of those Ferdinand Marcos-style billowing Filipino shirts, it might just be the ugliest piece of clothing ever designed for the male body - and it immediately singles you out as both sartorially challenged and a geek.
The guy filling his car next to me at the gas station just outside Concord, New Hampshire, wasn't only wearing a car coat, but one whose hue could be politely described as shit-brown. He was in his late 50s, wearing matching shit-brown nylon gloves, a shit-brown knit hat and thick horn-rimmed glasses. Being someone who never minds engaging in snap generalisations, I decided straight away that he was an actuarial adjuster guy for a local insurance company, whose central goal in life is making certain that leaky cistern which flooded your living room is regarded, professionally speaking, as your own damn negligent fault.
He was also a born-again Christian. How did I know this fact? Simple: he had one of those fish symbols attached to the bumper of his Oldsmobile. You display this if you've got that telephone call from Jesus and want the world to know you're a member of the Been Saved Club. His licence plate was a New Hampshire one, adorned with the state's Zen slogan - "Live Free or Die" - and on this cold, sleety February morning he didn't exactly exude born-again bonhomie. But I had made a wrong turn somewhere and was currently in need of directions, so I asked.
"Excuse me, sir, but is this the right road for Vermont?"
"The People's Republic?" he asked. "Yeah, keep on the highway for another hour and you'll get there."
The People's Republic? The guy had made a joke! And one that spoke volumes about the way Vermont is regarded, not just by its immediate geographical neighbour, but just about every other redneck corner of the country. After all, in the eyes of most conservative Americans - of which there are certainly more than a handful - Vermont is always regarded as a pinko, hippie-dippy, tree-hugging, Sufi-leaning, green-obsessed, gay-friendly Cuba-sous- Neige. In short, the sort of all-purpose goofball place where the state legislature reads the tea leaves before sitting down to business.
Don't pay attention to such trash talk. Vermont - like most New England states - never follows a specific party line (you'll find plenty of Republicans up there, but generally of the old-school libertarian variety who consider the Bible-thumping wing of the party to be rather déclassé), and generally basks in its own flinty independence. Yes, Burlington, its main city, has possibly the highest concentration of tofu restaurants and psychic healers in the North-east. And yes, the state prides itself rightfully on its environmental policies and the fact that it doesn't take the Ten Commandments as the starting point for social policy.
More tellingly, Vermont is, in a word, Elysian. Its Green Mountains may not boast the same epic grandeur of the Rockies, but still give the state an impressive undulating topography. Its woodlands remain verdant and deep; its lakes are numerous and clear. Its towns - like Middlebury and Montpelier and Burlington - have managed to retain their original New England character without embracing faux-colonial theme-park trappings. And as soon as you plunge down a back road, you find yourself passing through villages where white clapboard is still the prevalent building material and waterways seem omnipresent and where the overall hush reminds you that you have ducked away from the hyper-mercantile realities of modern life.
I'd come to New England to engage in my ongoing wintertime obsession: cross-country skiing. Growing up, not only was I considered a non-athlete (especially by my Marine Corps veteran father), but also a klutz; someone who was constantly twisting his ankle through the maladroit negotiation of a kerb, and could never remain vertical for more than 15 seconds on downhill skis. As I came to discover in later years (when I tried the sport again), I loathed everything to do with alpine skiing. Maybe it had something to do with the crowded slopes and the speed demon idiots who seemed determined to treat a downhill plunge as some sort of penis extension, in which they could menace all slow fellow travellers (i.e. moi) through a show of grande vitesse.
But then, while on holiday in the hinterlands of Quebec in 1999, I discovered the pleasures of cross-country skiing. Here was a sport that didn't demand you move at an allegro con brio speed; that was individual and isolating; that brought you through pastoral landscapes. In short, a sport which perfectly suited my "I want to be alone" mentality.
Since then, I have cross-country skied in such disparate terrains as the Italian Dolomites, the Swiss Alps, the Norwegian highlands, the Canadian Rockies, and a particularly hard-ass corner of Finland just above the Arctic Circle. But I had yet to try out this sport in that corner of my homeland in which I was educated, and which I always considered to be one of the few remaining bastions of sanity and pluralistic values in the United States: New England. And my first (of two) stops on this midwinter tour was an inn somewhere deep within Vermont's Green Mountains with the profoundly twee name: Blueberry Hill.
Blueberry Hill. En route, visions of Laura Ashley-dom danced in my head as I imagined the sort of establishment that prided itself on its pastel-tinted soft furnishings, which reeked of rhubarb preserves and cinnamon-scented candles, and which mulled-wined its visitors into submission.
Such clichéd presumptuousness proved to be just that. Blueberry Hill Inn was a delight. Located down an unpaved road, 12 miles away from the town of Middlebury, its splendid isolation was augmented by its complete unfussiness. A stern, yet sprawling white clapboard house, its interior décor embraced the quasi-puritanical spirit that still so defines this corner of the country. My bedroom was pleasantly furnished in a style that could be best described as No-Nonsense New England, devoid of such distractions as telephones and televisions, making it easy to disconnect from the outside world.
I read with trepidation before my arrival that meals were served communally and that the inn was unlicensed and operated on a BYO basis. Having arrived with a half-case of wine - and armed with misanthropic doubt about wanting to chat to the other guests - I again had my assumptions about the place turned upside down. For anyone from this side of the pond who believes that most Americans sign up for a 12-step programme after daring to imbibe the second glass of wine, do spend a few midwinter days at the Blueberry Hill Inn. Not only will you find that the guests are literate, informed and argumentative (hey, it's the North-east), but are also great believers in the pleasures of alcohol. Maybe I simply got lucky, but I had several fantastically animated dinners at the inn, augmented by two groups of visitors who arrived with travelling cocktail cabinets (with proper martini glasses and olives). And the food, though served boarding house style at long tables, was absolutely wonderful and the perfect antidote to a long day's journey in the surrounding backwoods.
Alas, during the few days that I spent at Blueberry Hill, the forces of global warming conspired to raise the temperature a few degrees and melt a significant portion of the snowpack. This meant that the cross-country trails that survived were thin and had lost the track settings that usually allow you to glide through the woods with greater ease. Nonetheless, I was able to forge my way into a hilly realm of pines and half-frozen streams - its lack of visual drama more than compensated for the sense of Thoreau-like stillness that pervaded this corner of the Green Mountains. To stand on a hillside, looking down on a still snow-dappled forest as winter light receded in a hazy blue New England sky was to understand the great reclusive pleasures of this back-of-beyond corner of the north-east.
And, of course, on the day that I left Blueberry Hill, it started to snow like hell.
The snow continued as I headed back towards the most vertiginous part of the eastern seaboard: the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Daredevil skiers of the kamikaze variety swear by the high-octane dangers of Mount Washington. Having climbed to its 2,000m summit twice in high summer, when it is still half-covered by a glacier, I also know that it is a vertiginous nightmare and best observed, in high winter, from the still elevated but less maniacal confines of Bretton Woods.
Students of 20th-century history will recall that Bretton Woods was the place where the post-war economic reorganisation of the Western world was sorted out. I sense they did this indoors. Or, at least, I hope they discussed such weighty matters somewhere warm, because by the time I started to negotiate its sizeable network of cross-country trails, the temperature had dipped to -10C and a sharp wind was forcing me to pick up the pace and head through this woodsy plateau at speed.
On my only visit to Moscow, nearly 20 years ago, I headed out (in a deeply hungover state with a correspondent friend based there) to explore the hummocky pastoral countryside on the outskirts of the city. Being in the midst of Bretton Woods immediately brought me back to this deeply Russian landscape, as its slender trees and still lakes and glazed white meadows had a Turgenev-goes-New-England feel to them. The sort of winter scene in which you could easily imagine Ivan Ivanovich challenging Dmitri Dmitrievich to a duel over the honour of Anna Alanovna, esteemed daughter of ... well, you get the idea.
What did make Bretton Woods eminently preferable to the Moscow countryside - besides the preponderance of excellent cross-country trails - was the fact that the Notchland Inn was just 15 minutes down a spectacular mountain road. From a distance, the Notchland looked like a tarted-up version of some Charles Addams manse. Once inside its quirky and very pleasing Arts-and-Crafts design, its fantastically plush bedrooms (again without the temptations of televisions), its wonderful conservatory (hallucinogenic in a full-blown storm), and its immaculate (and very large) breakfasts - all conspired to make me never want to leave the place.
But the obsessive self-disciplinarian in me had to head off every morning for my 15km run along a ski trail. Cross-country skiing isn't simply addictive; it also makes you feel truly virtuous. Like hiking, it rewards your hard physical endeavour by getting you back from where you started from. As such, it's the sport of which the puritans would have approved - especially those of the New England variety.
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HOW TO GET THERE
One week's cross-country skiing in New England with Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk) costs £1,425 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights with British Airways, b&b accommodation including one night in Boston, three nights in Vermont and three nights in New Hampshire, some meals, ski or snowshoe hire, a snowshoe excursion, cross-country pass, and seven days' car hire.
My idea of off-piste fun
Spend an afternoon in Burlington, a little gem of a university town - urbane, civilised and abutting the banks of Lake Champlain, one of the great aquatic wonders of the eastern coast. Rent a bike, even in winter, and negotiate the towpath. In New Hampshire, North Conway is the outlet capital of the state. If you are in desperate need of upmarket retail therapy - Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein - this is your spiritual home.