Amtrak -- Scene One: Union Station.
Train number 60 huffs and gushes, clouding the platform in puffs of steam: the 5:10 p.m. Montrealer, fresh from Miami, has all aboard.
The whistle blows. Wheels tug at tracks. For 19 hours, Quebec will come steadily
The destination is Mont Tremblant, a French-Canadian ski resort in the tuck of the Laurentian Mountains -- 50 miles north of Montreal.
Amtrak sleeper. Round-trip bus. Six days of skiing. Twenty hours of lessons. Two meals a day. Skis. Boots. Room and shower. Price: $617. (Experienced skiers say it's a steal.) Amtrak -- Scene Two: Onward to Mont Tremblant.
Ander, a cordial, heavy-eyed porter in the sleeping car, helps with luggage: "Anything you need, just let me know." Cold beer flows in the club car where three Washingtonians grab a table: Richard Fitzsimmons, a Senate aide who has never been on skis, Skip Stephens, a lawyer, and Claudia Higgins, a Federal Trade Commission attorney. Stephens and Higgins are veterans of the slopes. The trio is headed for a week in Killington, Vermont.
"Whew! I barely made it," said Stephens. "You know all that stuff in the movies where they yell 'All aboard'? Not on this train. I had to run to get on board."
They open box lunches from a Capitol Hill deli, pulling out two splits of Jacques Bonet champagne, two half-bottles of red wine, cheese, pate, pickles, sandwiches and a bottle of Dewar's White Label.
Toasts are raised, celebrating the chance to turn a week into an eight-day weekend.
Higgins sips her wine, peers out the window and says, "I love trains. They're so romantic." Amtrak -- Scene Three: Dinner.
I joined the three Washingtonians in the dining car. Blue-and-white checked tablecloths. White carnations. We order two steaks and two bowls of U.S. Senator ham and bean soup. (Washington, it seems, never goes away completely.)
Twenty minutes pass. No steaks. A second attendant suggests we reorder. "The other attendant didn't know that we were out of some things," she apologized. "All we have left is the soup and sandwiches."
The first attendant then sat down to talk with two other employees.
Five New Yorkers, just on board, find a table. The oldest, Jim Holec, a retired civil engineer, waves at the attendant for service.
Twice -- within 20 minutes -- the dining car attendant walks right by the hungry New Yorkers. Twice they say they would like to order. Finally, the attendant announces that the dining car is closed; again, he sits down with his friends.
Holec is outraged. Feigning courtesy, he approaches the attendant. "Would you like a glass of beer or wine?" he asks. "Perhaps you'd care for some coffee -- anything to make you comfortable."
Our dinner party strolls through the cars, yielding to pitch and yaw, then pausing between cars to watch the night lean toward Canada. On the way back, we walk through the dining car. Two attendants are enjoying their dinner -- two steaks. Amtrak -- Scene Four: Night and Day.
Guitars and harmonicas accompany the rhythm of the train. Late night poker games begin. In the passenger sections, book pages turn. Talk subsides. Shoulders slump. Children sleep.
Morning brings snow. The train rests at the border while Blackie, a German shepherd, noses his way through the baggage car, searching for drugs. Canadian customs officials routinely check some passengers -- but not all. "Nationality, destination and length of stay?" Outside, frozen lakes dapple the forested countryside. A half-hour later the inspection concludes and the dog and inspectors disembark.
Onward. Still in the blow of snow, we cross the St. Lawrence River. Ice floes churn downstream. A skyline forms and neon touts Five Roses blended whiskey.
Clack-eta-clack. Rail and track. Take me there and take me back.
"Mon-tre-al-l-l!" shouts the conductor; the train hears. It heaves and sighs to rest. Canada -- Scene One: Montreal.
Pierre, a sallow-eyed cab driver in coat and tie, has driven the streets of Montreal for 33 years. Between train depot and bus station, he says, you can see $5 million in fur coats. After a $3.20 fare, he drops his passengers at the Voyageur Bus Company.
The bus swells with skis, poles, bags and boots. Six noisy men from New Jersey hop on wearing blue-and-white baseball hats with BZC written on the front: The Bayonne Zipper Company is on board. Canada -- Scene Two: The Boys on the Bus.
Halfway to Mont Tremblant, the Bayonne Zipper Company, New Jersey's answer to the Bowery Boys, pays the driver $5 -- in American money -- to turn around and find a beer store. Ten cases later (sixpacks don't exist in Canada), the bus heads for the lodge. Joey Petrone, a 31-year-old teenager, top banana in the BZC and a man who would con the Pope, pops a can of Bardor -- Molson's malt liquor.
The BZC times its yearly visit to Mont Tremblant to coincide with an annual skiing vacation taken by the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.), a New York-based school that brings 50 single, college-aged women to Canada -- women wearing black satin pants, chalk-white cowboy hats and ostrich-feather coats dyed pink and purple.
F.I.T. plus BZC spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Canada -- Scene Three: Mont Tremblant.
Lollipop-colored cottages of Mont Tremblant splash yellow, pink and blue on knee- deep snow. It's 5 below. "Don't worry," says a local. "Nothing closes down until it's 60 below."
At 3,001 feet, with a vertical drop of 2,201 feet, Mont Tremblant dwarfs its neighboring peak. Some slopes are more than three miles long.
Tomorrow morning at 10 -- the beginner's class -- the class of the klutz, the fool, the unwitting, the unwilling and the unwise -- begins. Canada -- Scene Four: Lesson One.
The instructor is Neal Vinel. Tan and athletic, he flies down the steepest slope like a songbird, his skis in perfect pitch. Through the wind, past alpine trees, his hips and knees play on.
His students flounder all over the beginner's hill, an incline no steeper than a pitcher's mound but more intimidating than a landslide. Everyone struggles to stand erect. Posed like stick-men, the class is pigeon- toed on fiberglass feet as the great sliding snow-plow begins. Poles are verboten. On command, the downhill slide starts single-file: "Who-o-o-o-a!"
Neal instructs, cajoles: "Bend your knees. Stand up, stand up. Look at me. Shoulders square. Push, push hard on the inside of your skis . . . All right. Get up and try it again. That's fun, eh!"
By the end of the day the class is traversing a gentle incline. But the mountain looms on the morrow. With an eye toward the peak, a husband and wife from South Africa beg off: "Uh, Neal. We don't think we'll be with you tomorrow."
Mettle meets metal on the chairlift en route to the peak. There, way up there, mountains fold across piney land, the air colder than an icebox. We learn that there are two ways to come down: skis first and skier first. Both work. Canada -- Scene Five: The Lodge, Every Day at 4:30.
Have a Mont Tremblant Cocktail.
Recipe: Take the sparsely furnished lounge and add chairs, scotch, bourbon, bad jokes, wine, beer, marijuana, malapropisms, cheese, smoked meats, a lot of wet socks, Canadian crackers, Cuban cigars, Cuban rum and soda, ice, a half-dozen Republicans, puns, a couple of French-Canadians, the apoliticals, four people from Baltimore and the Red-Eye Express Company -- two wild- eyed skiers who believe in skiing and drinking as fast, hard and often as they can. Canada -- Scene Six: Morning, Mother and Son.
Breakfast. Enter Rene, 35, mother of Jason, age 5. Rene, divorced from one marriage and separated from another, is looking for a husband. "Maybe I'm the marrying type of a girl," she says.
For 14 years, Rene -- with family, friends or husbands -- has come to Mont Tremblant. "Hey bucko," she says. Bucko?
Rene, it seems, hardly skis. But she loves Mont Tremblant, except for French- speaking Canadians who don't understand English. "Yesterday morning I kept asking for toast, and this lovely girl kept bringing me eggs. Before it was over I got five eggs and no toast."
She dislikes the $3.75-an-hour baby sitting fee. And a son, she admits, is a social hindrance. So, at midnight, Jason is wandering around the halls asking, "Do you know where my mommie is?"
Two hours later, Jason sees his mom coming up the steps with a chiropractor.
"Are you going to be my new daddy?" asks Jason.
The next day, the chiropractor leaves. Canada -- Scene Seven: Our Class.
By week's end, the mountain has whittled our original class of nine to three. Four hours of daily ski instruction takes its toll.
We move to the intermediate slopes. Now, we are learning to parallel ski with speed, fall with velocity and tumble with determination. That stuff is easy; the hard part is getting up. Canada -- Scene Eight: Joey and the BZC Have a Party.
For two nights, Joey notices cottage 503 is empty. So, brass in hand, he walks up to the nightclerk and asks for the key to cabin 503. Having never met Joey, the clerk complies. Once the BZC only had plans. Now, it has room. The Zipper Company buys 18 more cases of beer and throws a party for half of the mountain.
At 3 a.m., a bleary-eyed, angry clerk answers a complaint, and shows up at cottage 503.
"What are you doing here? Get outa' here," barks Petrone.
"You're not supposed to be here my friend. What is going on in there?"
"That's none of your business. You better get outa here. Pierre (the chief chef) gave us this cabin. (False.) Now you beat it."
The night clerk retreats into the snowstorm, never questioning Petrone's bluster.
For the rest of their stay, the BZC buys a maid's silence and cleaning skills for their "private" three-bedroom gingerbread house.
"Ain't life great?" says Petrone. Canada -- Scene Nine: The Slopes.
We watch, rapt, from the lift as it pulls along above the course: On passing tree limbs, water droplets scoot down icicles; some fall to the ground and gather in frozen mounds.
Twenty feet below, beneath the pine's reach, signs of a snowshoe hare point up the mountain; mitten sized, and in pairs, the rabbit tracks brim with fresh rims of bothered snow. Perhaps, the hare is standing nearby, waiting for us to continue so he can continue. Every day, the tracks are there. Every day, the rabbit is unseen, but out there with ears laid back. That certain knowledge makes the frozen shards of earth and snow seem more friendly. Who fears to tread where bunnies bound in the snow?
For some, skiing is as foolish as bailing out of a plane, with or without a parachute. For others, the fear is half the thrill, once the basics are only basics. Traverse the hill. Head for a tree and turn like hell before it hits you.
Look straight ahead and lean forward. The up-and-down thumping across an open space can startle. Even so, keep going. It's the easiest way to get to the bottom where if you want to quit, then by God quit. Canada -- Scene 10: The Last Supper.
The flames from a stone fireplace turn water glasses golden.
For the sixth, and final, day and night, Claude is running from kitchen to table and back again. Veal, salmon, omelettes, trout, perch, croissants -- and more -- follow in his wake. His English is good. His French is better. And he speaks money very well.
Claude hovers around the table like a hummingbird, dipping for tips. "Coq au vin. Coq au vin. Coq au vin." (Claude says every dish three times.) "Who has the coq au vin? . . . Salmon steak. Salmon steak. Salmon steak," he says. "Who has the salmon steak?"
Marge, a waitress in peasant garb, hurries about, ever smiling beneath a coil of blonde hair. Waiting tables for college tuition, she worries about the United States adopting Canada as a 51st state. "America just takes what it wants, eh!" she says. "If they want Canada, America will take Canada." dly Canada -- Scene 11: Saturday Morning Goodbyes.
Some pack. Down the road a couple of miles, the Pentagon ski club is wrapping up its ski extravaganza. Some squeeze in a final run down the mountain. Marvin, the owner of Glen Burnie Transmission Company, and I ride up the lift for one last run.
It is cloudy. Fresh fallen snow leaves a foot of powder on the ground. From the summit at dawn, the muscle of the Canadian northland appears to relax, the flex of high wind and freeze stands at ease. A revenant of fog lingers in the deep crevasses of the glacial valley, dropping a gauzy veil across the hand-size tracks of hares. Bleary- eyed, the sun looks down on slopes dipped in marshmallow.
At the top of the run, Marvin takes a wrong turn and aims straight for Grand Prix, an expert slope that heads downward like an elevator descending over a mogul field of corrugated delirium.
"Holy s---!" yells Marvin, tossing his poles in the air, leaping ahead for a "No Skiing" sign. He grabs at everything and slowly stops his sliding fall. "Man," he says, "I just about killed myself."
Marvin makes it back to the lodge, packs, and heads home to Baltimore in his private plane. Scene 12: Back on the Road
The BZC, of course, opens two more cases of beer.
Montreal, 21/2 hours later, reappears. The Montrealer, heading south, leaves in two hours. Fagan and I strike out for Old Montreal on the subway.
At 6:55 p.m., Amtrak leaves amid a new experience: Train 61 has courteous service. Trains, it seems, can actually be fun.
Across the border, in St. Albert, the American customs agents check each bag. Today, no problem. But the night before, an attendant said they found $35,000 in stolen money smuggled in a rider's attache case and baggage.
A stop in Vermont: Fitzsimmons and Stephens get back on the train for the second leg of the trip -- sans Claudia who is resting in a hospital bed with a broken femur. Stephens says she will be there for three weeks. Epilogue.
It's December and another ski season is upon us. I recently bumped into Skip Stephens at Dominique's, the first time I'd seen him since the train ride.
"How's Claudia?" I asked.
"Fine," he said. "She gets her cast off tomorrow."
Her three weeks had turned into 32.
I called her up. "It was awful, just the pits," she said.
After three months in the Vermont hospital, a sedated Claudia, firm in traction, flew to Washington in a chartered plane. "They doped me up terribly. I was saying this is the greatest flight I've ever been on. This is the greatest landing we've ever had. Skip had to shut me up so the pilot could hear the radio."
But following her eight-month ordeal, Claudia is undaunted.
Will she ski again?