In 1995 I was a sophomore at Gateway Regional High School in Huntington, MA. I had been XC skiing competitively for 4 years, immersed in a Western Mass training group led my one of my first mentors and coaches, Ed Hamel. This group of dedicated teenagers deserves its own chapter in my story, but for now just serves as a precursor to a relatively dramatic change in my life that was about to occur. Matt and Matt (M2S) were both part of Ed’s training group, gradually making names for themselves on the New England junior XC Ski circuit. Around this time, with the big picture in mind (preparing for skiing at the Division 1 level in college), they both took the leap from Worthington to attend one of the most distinguished XC Ski academy’s at the time, Stratton Mountain School, located in Stratton Vermont. Looking up to those two, and wanting the same thing, to ski competitively in college, I followed their lead to try to become a faster skier; however, my path would lead me in a very different direction…enter BMA.
Burke Mountain Academy (BMA) is located 3 hours north of Northampton, MA, of off the Lyndonville exit of Interstate 91, in the Northeast Kingdom of East Burke, VT. When my parents and I were looking at options as to how to further my development as a skier we came across BMA as an underdog of sorts in the world of New England’s ski academy’s, as far as XC programs go. With a student body of roughly 100 at the time, only 5 were XC skiers, the rest were Alpine skiers. I enrolled at BMA in the fall of 1995 and moved into a host home to save money on boarding costs. On the drive with my mother to Burke that fall I became absolutely terrified with what was about to happen. Not having Matt and Matt to identify with and rely on for support, I was forced into a situation where I didn’t know anyone. My personality as a scared and lonely introvert was about to rear its ugly head.
At BMA I was introduced to a new socio-economic class. Money. To my parents credit they leveraged themselves pretty heavily so that I could make this jump, taking out loans and asking for help from my grandparents. Looking back I am beginning to appreciate the financial strain that was put on our family so that I could take the opportunity to attend an expensive ski academy. Because I was thrust into a new “crowd” I immediately perceived myself as an outcast, incapable of relating to my peers because of this difference in financial class. Again, this was my perception, not reality, but as a 15-year-old I didn’t know any better at the time.
Over the last several years I have had a recurring nightmare, and lately this dream has been extremely prominent. In the dream I am back at Burke. It’s an uneasy feeling of solitude, nervousness, and loneliness. Just the other night I woke up in the middle of the night sweating, my sheets soaked, having just had another dream of being stuck in the Woods House dorm at BMA. It was one of those types of dreams when you wake up and you’re relieved that it was just a dream. To me at that time, BMA was stocked with “cool” kids, and I felt nothing like that, uncool as they say. To add to all of this mental tripping I was in the midst of, physically I had not yet hit puberty, in fact I was the last kid to actually grow hair on my legs (which is ironic considering I have been shaving my legs for athletic reasons for the last 13 years). Everyone else my age at BMA had gone through this developmental process, which only added to my insecurities. It was absolutely terrifying.
As I write this I am listening to Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory. This album was the soundtrack of those years. Wonderwall and Champagne Supernova are the two songs that stand for something more than just classics, but reminders of my issues during that time. I am quickly reminded of one of my classmates at the time Ryan Heinz, who was from England. In my eyes he was one of the cool kids, up to date in music, a fast as hell skier, and someone who I held on a bit of a pedestal for some reason. Later on in my BMA career I had the opportunity to room with Ryan, who was deeply influenced by the British Rock scene, and in the midst of writing his own music. I latched on to his infectious enthusiasm for music, and emulated the style that he was developing for himself. Years later I reached out to him and asked that if he ever needed a rhythm guitarist to join his band to let me know. Unfortunately rhythm guitar was all I was good for at the time. The other band that stuck out that takes me back to those years was the Dave Matthews Band. Under the Table and Dreaming had just come out and everyone was listening. Being a fan of both Oasis and DMB was the main way I tried to relate to my peers, to have something to talk about. The last, and probably most influential impact that was made on me was when Robb Gushiken lent me a copy of the Trainspotting soundtrack (I think it may have even been Ryan’s copy). Rob’s comment to me was “check out track 13, it’s the best.” The first time I heard Underworld’s Born Slippy changed my love of music, going from rock ‘n’ roll to the world of EDM (sorry Kieran, but it all started here for me, you know I love ya 😉 ).
Overall, the trials and tribulations that I experienced at Burke as an insecure teenager helped make me into the person that I am today, however it wasn’t necessarily all for the best. In 1998 I was recruited and accepted to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, to join their developing XC ski program. When I got to SLU I used the feeling of insecurity as motivation to make sure that my social experience at BMA was not repeated. I was hellbent on making friends and being socially accepted. Enter alcohol, most notably Labatt Blue and Beast Ice. In alcohol I found a way to get out of my own head and the introvert closet I had been hiding in, to relate to my peers, putting my inhibitions aside. And guess what? It worked, the minute I began drinking and meeting people I started kicking ass, making friends, forging relationships that I so deeply sought, ones that I felt I could never achieve at BMA. SLU, which will ultimately get its own chapter in the this story, was one of the best times of my life. However, it was also the place that I learned to drink hard, and often.
In a twist of irony, Matt Whitcomb would eventually become the head XC ski coach at Burke. Later on he would then go on to buy land and build his own cabin in East Burke. It took me several years to grow the courage to finally visit his cabin. I had not been to BMA in 14 years, I was scared shitless to visit and have feelings of insecurity resurface. I remember sneaking a ton of whiskey during that trip just to make sure I was numbed out a bit. After visiting however I saw the town of Burke, and BMA, in a new light. All I could think about was what it would be like to move to Burke and build the area and community into an east coast trail running/ultra mecca. I still think about that possibility today.
I left BMA in 1998, 16 years ago. I find it amazing that just now, as I am sober, I am able to process the reality of those years, leaving my insecurities at bay. Ultimately my tenure there was an amazing time of personal growth. I am so thankful that my parents went above and beyond their means to allow me to leave home at 15 and go through the hardships and vulnerabilities of adolescence in a foreign environment. Today, I have nothing but fond memories for the most part, less the uneasy dreams that I wake up in the middle of the night from. Burke Mountain Academy has a very special place in my heart.