PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. — Lynette Morrison-Norton, 58, a Jackson, N.H., grandmother raised in South Yarmouth, never imagined being a Mount Washington Auto Road stage driver. In her sixth year, she gives guided tours up the 7.6-mile sinuous road to the Northeast’s highest point by van and, when the road is closed to cars for the season, by specially-designed snowcoach through any whirlwinds of weather.
Q. What’s the training like?
A. Training to drive is interesting. I got the keys, an experienced driver showed me how to prep my stage, check all the fluids, etc. Then I drove alone, up and down for a couple of days until I felt comfortable. The truth is that the driving never scared me, but the idea of the tour freaked me out. I knew basically nothing. Next Howie [Wemyss, general manager] rode with me, critiqued my driving, made some suggestions, and said I should let him know when my tour was ready.
Q. Any advice for white-knuckled tourists driving up?
A. Relax, take your time, use the pull-outs and enjoy the mountain. If you love to drive, drive. If you are a little freaked out take a guided tour. Nervous spouses should sit right behind the driver and look away from the drop-offs. I always tell people that it is different for everyone. Plenty of big, strong men are afraid of heights and driving on the edge of a cliff. Personally, I am happy when I am driving. I don’t want to be a passenger on that road with someone else at the wheel.
Q. Any close calls?
A. I was frightened, briefly, driving the snowcoach. Early in the season I went up around a part of the road called Oh My God Corner and found ice a little too late. My response was good, no hard braking, and when I stopped, the snowcoach actually slid backward and sideways to the rocks on the inside of the corner. I don’t know if my guests realized how scared I was, not of going over the edge, but of having to radio the base for assistance, of having to sit awaiting rescue, and of having an incident like that on my record. They say that every driver ends up in the ditch sooner or later, so I hope I am not jinxing myself, but my turn has not happened yet.
Q. Has a passenger ever lost it?
A. Once I had to turn around and go back before the summit because a dad was freaking out. He spoke a language I don’t understand and his kids finally had to tell me what was happening. He was sitting in the seat right behind the driver with his head under his coat praying to beat the band. . . . They all agreed it was too much for him. Down we went.
Q. How did you become comfortable telling stories while driving and being responsible for everyone’s safety?
A. It takes practice. Every trip and every group of guests is different. There are times when driving is difficult and I have said, “I’m gonna shut up now, and focus on what I’m doing.” No one complains.
Q. Do you look at the weather differently?
A. I look at the sky differently. I’ve learned a little about clouds, and more about what makes Mount Washington so special, weatherwise. I still get a thrill from being on the Observation Deck at the summit in 70 mile-an-hour-plus winds. I don’t bother with much of a hairdo when it’s windy up top. What’s the point?
Q. Any strange requests?
A. On one of the rare occasions when we actually stopped to watch a moose, a young lady from Brooklyn asked me if moose is kosher. I had no idea. On a snowcoach trip a young man proposed to his girlfriend. What made it unusual were the 50 mile-an-hour wind gusts and well below freezing temperatures. I had an older gentleman take the next trip rather than have a woman driver, but a couple of times I have had men say I have changed their minds completely about women drivers. Women often say they are happy to have a woman driving. It’s not unheard of for guests to be carrying the ashes of a loved one.
Q. Is it true you try not to use the brakes?
A. The vans used for tours have had the gear ratio changed so using our lowest gear coming down holds the vehicle back. So it’s not that we try not to use our brakes, it is that we don’t need to use them as much.
Q. Ever get a flat?
A. Never. But my dad wouldn’t let me get my license until I knew how to change one, so I’m not worried, except about the gravel sections.
Interview was edited and condensed. Marty Basch can be reached at onetankaway.com.