Lady & Gentleman, start your engines

As a balmy December melted into a temperate January, the vaunted snowmobile trails of northern New Hampshire were either icy or as bare as a baby’s bottom in July. Then one Saturday night the temperature dove, and six inches of snow transformed the neighboring fields into a link in a trail system stretching through forests, pastures and frozen lakes. The following morning we found ourselves beside a dazzling snowfield, awaiting friends who had offered to give us our first ride. We also found ourselves facing some longstanding fears — and prejudices.

HE: ‘Loud and smelly’ was how several friends of mine described snowmobiles. But others, some of them cross-country skiers, were rapturous about the ease with which snowmobiles could open the countryside for exploration. ‘It’s so beautiful and so accessible. I really feel as if I’ve been to places where few people have ever been,’ said a woman who is a hiker, equestrian and a cross-country skier.

SHE: One winter when I was 14, my father talked a lot about buying a snowmobile to check our lakeside camp on the end of a long, unplowed road. Snowmobiles were still novelties then, but my mother had already formed a strong opinion about them, which she expressed by buying each member of the family a pair of snowshoes. ‘And by the way,’ she pointed out, ‘they were handmade by a man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowmobile accident.’ Ahem. Her point

wasn’t lost on me: not only were the machines a noisy, smelly nuisance (her usual complaints), they were dangerous to boot. Since then I’ve remained squarely in Mom’s corner: give me a quiet snowshoe tramp across a pasture, or a cross-country ski trail through conifer woods.

HE: My father always hated motorcycles, as I’m sure he would have disliked snowmobiles. Perhaps in rebellion I chose to ride cycles — ‘loud and dangerous’ — for 16 years. Naturally, snowmobiles interested me, so on a sunny Sunday, we arranged to meet some friends for instruction and some riding experience.

SHE: I agreed to this mostly because if there’s one thing I hate more than the smell of gas fumes, it’s the loud click of a mind snapping shut. And since we live in an area where snowmobiling is popular, I thought I should at least experience it before taking a position. Now comes the moment of truth — five “sleds” appear on the crest of a hill and begin to crawl in our direction, glinting in the sun like giant beetles.

HE: I’m surprised that the machines are as quiet as they are, considering that these all have two-stroke engines. The familiar smell of exhaust from this kind of oil- and gas-burning engine hangs in the air, but it isn’t overwhelming. The manufacturers say they’re working to reduce the noise and smell. Then I’m told that none of these snowmobiles are two-person vehicles, and I realize that my wife is going to have to ride one on her own. Since she has expressed strong apprehensions about snowmobiles, I’m concerned.

SHE: The generosity of our neighbor, Amanda Baker, who offers to let me drive her modest-horsepower machine, has spared me the humiliation of riding behind my husband like, well, a chick. In the pull of a choke, my defiance takes over. After Amanda’s father, Doug, shows me how easy it is to work the thing — one handle has the brake, the other the throttle — I begin to see my ride as an act of liberation. I do feel a tad nervous, though, as the engine vroooms to life.

HE: ‘A tad nervous?’ Hmmm. Not exactly the feelings I had heard expressed earlier, but perhaps being freed from having to cling to my waist or clutch the machine’s rear handgrips while staring at the back of my head has boosted her confidence. In any event, she climbs aboard with no visible hesitation and, once she understands the controls, putts tentatively away as the other snowmobilers root for her. In less than 100 yards, she gives it more gas and begins to glide briskly along the trail.

SHE: After stuffing my head into Amanda’s helmet, I lurch forward along the looping trail. The engine’s thrum slides to my brain’s back burner as steering moves front and center, but it adds to the illusion that I’m zipping along at 40 mph. At the wide U-turn, I stiffen up, don’t lean far enough into the curve, and the sled heads downhill, off-trail. The skis squirm on the unpacked powder, but I manage to point them back uphill to the trail. The machine sits low and takes the terrain in a two-part motion, the fluid glide of the front skis followed by the steady milling of tread. It’s like riding a caterpillar on skis. Rejoining the group, I realize I’m smiling.

HE: Grinning and whooping is more accurate. I’m surprised that she doesn’t do a victory dance upon dismounting. Now I turn my attention to my ride, on Adam Baker’s souped-up sled. I borrow a helmet and Adam starts the machine and gives me some basic instruction on the brakes and throttle. Very simple, difficult to foul up. I climb aboard and creep forward. After I cross a small bridge I feel a bit more comfortable and lay on the gas. The snowmobile’s responsiveness startles me as it leaps ahead more quickly than I had expected. I slow it down because I’m now traversing a low hill and the tracks struggle for purchase on the packed snow. I realize that the rear of the sled could begin to drift, causing control problems. After I make a wide turn and start back, I begin to get the feel of how the snowmobile handles, much as I had learned the same with my motorcycle years ago. The rest of the ride is pure fun.

SHE: Well, well. Because of his motorcycle jones, I expect him to blast off. But at first he’s as cautious as I was, his body straight as a stick. I’ve noticed that experienced riders lean forward, eating up the trail. On his next loop, he’s easier in the saddle — not quite a hot rod, but the potential is there. Would I do this again? Yes. On a regular basis? I don’t think so. In the end, give me human-powered locomotion. I can date a machine, but we’ll never go steady.

HE: On my second ride, I feel more comfortable and am able to cruise at a speed that feels appropriate for snowmobiling. When I return, Adam grins, telling me I’ll be owning one before long. Well, probably not. Snowmobiles are fun, and while I’d still like to go on a long winter ride, if I had enough disposable income to purchase a pleasure machine, it would be a motorcycle. You never forget your first love.

Jane Roy Brown and Bill Regan are a writer-photographer duo.