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His Last Ride

FRANCONIA - If there was any fanfare marking Roger Odell`s last ride on top of the Cannon Mountain tramway, it was the glorious morning. At 7 am, the day had yet to break over Mount Lafayette and the steep slopes and floor of Franconia Notch were bathed in a mauve glow in the last moments of dawn. Snow still clung to the higher peaks and aside from a passing truck, all was clear and still.

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After 32 years of working at Cannon Mountain, the last 20 as a lift mechanic, its been Odell`s responsibility to insure the chairlifts and tram at the state-owned ski area are in safe working order each and every morning theyre open. Checking the tram requires the mechanic to climb on top of the car and stand in a cage that allows him to look down at the cable and the car attached to the cable some 30 feet or so below.

On a morning in October, Odell made his last scheduled inspection of the tram. Like he has countless times over the past two decades, he strapped on a safety harness and nimbly climbed over the cable and tram attachments to secure himself on the small catwalk-like structure. A nod to the control room and the tram set off skyward.

``We check to make sure everything is normal,`` he said. ``We look at the cables and if we see anything thats not right, we stop and check them. We`re responsible for the safety of a lot of people.``

The tram stops at each of the massive steel towers that carries it to the 4,180-foot summit and Odell, impervious to just how high off the ground he is, steps off the tram, checking both sides of the cable that brings one car to the top of the mountain and the other to the bottom in an endless rotation.

``You can`t be a lift mechanic if you can`t climb or you`re afraid of heights,`` he said.

Thousands of people ride the tram in four seasons - from leaf peepers to skiers. Inspections happen every day it runs and sometimes being a lift inspector is no fun when it`s 30 below at the base of the mountain, a relentless and brutal north wind is scrubbing snow and ice over the summit and the cable and steel towers are encased inches thick with ice.

Those are the days when Odell has had to make his way down the mountain on snowmobile or snowcat and bang the ice off the machinery to get the tram up and running.

But it`s mornings like this one that makes such an unusual job enjoyable.

``It`s so peaceful,`` he said. ``Some days you can get some time for thinking.``

Coming over the rise of the mountain at the second tower, a chilly wind is scrubbing over the snow, which bears tracks from some intrepid skiers a few days before. When the tram stops, the breeze oscillates through and around the cable, producing almost unearthly music.

Cannon boasts the first tramway to be built in North America. In 1937, hardworking crews packed 100 pounds or more of gear on their backs up the face of the mountain to erect the towers, string the cable and attach the two cars. It gives Cannon a unique sense of history that is instilled in all who work there, many of whom are like Odell, making a career at the mountain.

He started at the mountain as a carpenter and was on the crew that constructed the new, larger tramway, which was dedicated in 1980, the year he became a lift mechanic. He recalls long days of hard work, of sunsets and northern lights.

``We saw sites we`ll never see again,`` he said. ``When you watch the sun go down in the west, it`s just huge and then all of a sudden, it drops behind the mountains.``

His intimate knowledge of the tram is one his bosses hate to see go.

``We`re always concerned about losing people of the quality and caliber of Roger Odell,`` said Rich McLeod, director of state parks. ``People with that kind of knowledge and dedication are almost irreplaceable.``

Odell calls the tram ``the pride and joy of the state`` and would like to see its history preserved.

``I wish someone had some time to set up a museum for it,`` he said. ``When it was built in `37 and `38, those first workers were tram pioneers. I learned my job from the first and best lift mechanics in the country.``

Odell is off on vacation now and will return in a week or so to finish up his career. He`s thinking of returning to carpentry and maybe doing a little traveling. His co-workers joke with him that if he wants to ride the tram, he`ll have to pay full fare, like everyone else.

``I learned my job from the first and best lift mechanics in the country,`` he said. ``I have worked with a lot of great people and its been fun working here.``

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