TOGWOTEE PASS, Wyo. — At Aspen and Gstaad, they sneer at us. They say we have to steer with our knees because we carry a shotgun in one hand and a can of beer in the other. They say we're too clumsy to ski, too unbalanced to ice skate.
They may be right. We're snowmobilers.
You can find us amid the most beautiful snowscapes in America: the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, Yellowstone country in Montana, Moosehead Lake in Maine, Grand Traverse County in Michigan and the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Thrills? You'll find a great share of them snowmobiling. How about plunging down the face of Angle Mountain in the Tetons at 150 m.p.h.? Or caroming off the jagged walls of the Breccia Cliffs of Wyoming? Or tunneling under a mile-long canopy of firs in Michigan's gorgeous northern woods? Or whooshing past the customs agent at St. Pamphile on the Maine-Quebec border?
No snowmobile? No problem. You can rent one for about $75 a day in most American snowmobile resorts, plus $10 for a suit--a waterproof moon explorer costume with a crash helmet.
The snowmobiling world is a wide one, with some resorts best suited to poets and others to urban cowboys, some to wackos and others to Dudley Do-Rights.
Togwotee Mountain Lodge in Moran, Wyo., for instance, is a family kind of place, for straight arrows only. You follow your leader and you keep your speed at less than 45 m.p.h. Late every afternoon, there's a cocktail party on the house.
While all snowmobile resorts receive huge annual snowfalls, Togwotee Mountain Lodge is way out ahead. Togwotee Pass gets more than 600 inches of snow a year. This compares to 166 inches at West Yellowstone, Mont., which calls itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World.
At Togwotee Pass, you can count on not only a white Christmas, but also a white Easter. And, most years, you can still build a snowman on Memorial Day. Which is about the outer limit for cheap thrills at Togwotee Mountain Lodge.
None of this namby-pamby stuff at West Yellowstone. If your tattoo says "Live Free or Die," if black cats cross the street when they see you coming, if your lap dog is a Doberman, then West Yellowstone is your kind of place.
Raucous snowmobilers ride directly out of their budget motel rooms ($27 for a double with bath at the Pony Express Motel) onto the main drag and whoop into the air. They're on their way to Yellowstone National Park, to remote areas reachable only by snowmobile in winter.
Complaining in October's Travel & Leisure about the 1,100 snowmobiles that roar into the park daily from West Yellowstone, writer Bob Devine called them "detestable machines." He objected in particular to their "buzz-saw whine."
In the Adirondacks, there's no carping about the decibels. Old Forge, pop. 1,061, welcomes snowmobilers as a major prop to the economy, and snowmobiling is legal on every street but Main Street.
Snowmobilers here creep in on little cat feet, for the Adirondacks are America's own Lake District. Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the region's tranquil beauty in his poem, "The Adirondacs." James Fenimore Cooper used Adirondack settings for "The Last of the Mohicans." Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the area in 1888. And Theodore Dreiser based "An American Tragedy" on an actual murder in Big Moose, a five-minute snowmobile journey from Old Forge.
Old Forge is spectacularly beautiful, with mountain backdrops, massive stands of balsam, blue spruce, red maple and yellow birch and sparkling lakes so plentiful that they bear numbers, not names. You'll wonder why it's not a major resort. Take off your gloves to snap a picture and you'll find out. Temperatures of 40 degrees below zero are not uncommon.
Stevenson, while living in nearby Saranac, wrote to a friend that the "mercury in the thermometer curls into the bulb like a hibernating bear." Then he fled to Samoa.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in New York was 52 degrees below zero on Feb. 18, 1979, at Old Forge.
It's never been that cold in Maine, and certainly not on Moosehead Lake, where daredevil snowmobilers hurdle over foaming rapids into groves of white cedar hard by the jagged crags of Mt. Kineo. Snowmobile rentals there are not easy to come by--you'll have to arrange one beforehand with your hotel--because insurance has become so expensive.
The snowmobile season in Maine lasts just about forever. Locals brag that they have 11 months of winter, two weeks of slush and two weeks of summer.
Maine is the poorest New England state, and you'll find no one in apres-snowmobile sealskin mukluks. Instead, the highlight of Maine's snowmobile season is the Log Driver's Cookout at Island Falls in Aroostook County.
Here, huge mounds of beans are buried Friday morning in pits lined with hot coals and served, with coffee and doughnuts, to 1,000 snowmobilers that night.
Vice President George Bush has been invited to this year's event, scheduled for March 5 and 6.
And then, there's Grand Traverse.