KILLINGTON, Vt. - Sidewalks, sushi, and grits? Oh my. Of all the things I remember about Killington Road since my last visit 21 years ago, those are not among them.
But The Cave? Now that rings a bell.
"Yeah, it's right over there still, by the ladies' room," said Jason Evans with a laugh. Evans is the general manager of the Wobbly Barn, a legendary wood-beamed bar, dance hall, and restaurant that has been here for 45 years. He pointed to a little area at the rear of the place where men gather to graze for women, its appearance and purpose unchanged since my own grazing days.
Back then I had no kids and skied my brains out at Killington. Then kids came, money went, and skis rusted. Now at 54 I had to come back and check out the road that meant so much to me as a place to eat, drink, and be merry. It is the only access road from Route 4 to the Beast of the East, as Killington is known, the biggest ski area in the region.
One thing is the same: Rounding the hill near The Summit Lodge and catching the first glimpse of Killington's snow-capped peaks, I got that familiar anticipatory belly churn I always had felt back in the day. But much is different; for one thing, there are sidewalks now, largely unused, the locals said. And there were never stop lights; three now regulate traffic on the roughly 3-mile-long road.
Other big differences leap out at me. Mother Shapiro's is no more; Sushi Yoshi has taken its place. The restaurant Powderhorns is now Garlic. And over at Wally's American Grill, a '50s-style retro restaurant-watering hole that a half century ago was a gas station and still boasts gigantic porthole windows in front, Roger Sims slings grits. Sims is 29, a full-time chef and part-time singer who hails from the West Virginia mountains, fancies cowboy hats, and makes one of the meanest omelets on the road.
"I'm a new Northern face with a Southern taste," said Sims, who came to Killington with his girlfriend in the fall and decided to stay.
Wally's is a fun joint about two years old where oranges bounce along an overhead conveyor belt toward a juicing machine and wait-staffers send orders along a zip line to the kitchen.
"I love it around here," Sims said. "It feels about as close to the West Virginia mountains as it gets."
The road has never been jammed with buildings, as some resort access roads can be, but lodging has been boosted in recent years with the addition of places like The Killington Grand Resort Hotel, a 300-room behemoth near the base of the mountain.
Many lodging places have been updated and renovated, including the Birch Ridge Inn, bought in 1997 by Massachusetts natives Bill Vines and Mary Furlong, he formerly of the tech trade, she a former executive for Ocean Spray.
"This had been a small executive retreat," Vines said of an A-frame structure now enclosing 10 cozy rooms. "We expanded from about 4,000 square feet to 10,000 and have been busy ever since."
When Vines and Furlong started out, they were the first new commercial venture on the road in a dozen years, Vines said. Now the newest is the purchase of Killington and adjacent Pico Peak last year by Powdr Corp., a Park City, Utah-based business that owns several ski resorts and has invested more than $5 million here in improvements.
"It's a wait-and-see thing," Vines said of businesses on Killington Road that are wondering how much more the mountain's new owners will invest in a resort that many say went downhill under former proprietor
Horace "Red" Glaze, 77, is a contractor, and knows the road better than most. Glaze came to Killington in 1960 from his native Westfield, Mass., to build the Red Robb Inn, a building now home to the Killington Mountain School. He never left.
"I sold the inn in 1971 and retired - for about two weeks," Glaze laughed. "I played golf but got bored and just had to get back to work."
He's been building ever since, including Café Toast on Killington Road, a small restaurant he built for his second wife who loves to cook, and a new 6,000-square-foot home.
"It's more house than I need," he shrugged. "But it makes my wife happy, and that's all that counts."
Killington Road is bustling in winter and dead in summer, Glaze said, and that's something that needs to be addressed. Most huge mountain resorts thrive in warmer months. Killington doesn't, and businesses on the road suffer.
"We need a lot more flowers on the road, a lot more ambience; this place is absolutely dead in the summer, and that's a shame," Glaze said. "We have two great golf courses here, one of them is the only municipal golf course in Vermont, the Green Mountain National. They need to build on stuff like that to get more people here in the off-season."
Evans, 37, has been at the Wobbly Barn since he was a youngster, helping out when his dad ran it. The place gets its name from the way it looks - and the way it reacts when it hits its 600-person capacity. Constructed of old planks from New England barns in 1963, it is solid, but when the club rocks, the ceiling lamps in the restaurant below wobble pretty good, he said.
"We bumped out the stage and made some other improvements, but not much else has changed," Evans said, pointing to two bars where the most visible differences I see from decades ago are flat screen TVs. "It's still the Wobbly."
The quality of businesses has improved on Killington Road, he said, because "we all had to get better to compete with one another. Restaurants are better; ski shops are better. We all force each other to be better."
The Cave will not change, he said, not that it matters to me anymore. Anything that happens here happens well after my bedtime anyway.
"Nope, The Cave won't change," he said. "We'll leave it alone."
Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at Kandarian@globe.com.