I frittered away the morning with drinking coffee and other obligations and arrived at the parking lot of a favorite ski trail around noon. A wind was building, a tendril of the next polar vortex that the weather sites were predicting. I skied several hours yesterday on old wind-blown snow where every plant of my ski pole sounded like Styrofoam being stabbed with a dry knife. I step into the bindings and set off down the trail. I am deliberately underdressed but even knowing that I’ll soon have my heart rate up and blood flowing does little relieve the real aching pain of cold fingertips and the inadequacy of my thin wool cap that doesn’t even slow the wind down as it conveys the warmth away from my scalp. An unsettling coldness creeps down the nape of my neck and over my ribs. The new snow is slick and soft and my gripper wax is not quite as grippy as I’d like it. I force a bit of concentration and repeat in my head my starting-out mantra: rhythm, balance, momentum…rhythm, balance, momentum … And thirty-some years of muscle memory takes over. And I am gliding through the woods in graceful silence save for the muted swish swish of skis on new snow.
I access the trail at a county park at the boundary of Wisconsin’s driftless region. It is embedded in the characteristic swale and ridge topography with craggy oak woodlands on the steeper parts and farmland in the valley bottoms. That farmland was prairie and oak savanna before the farmers arrived and even now the valleys of the driftless region are haunted by gnarly spreading bur oaks that flaunt their mass and permanence at the winter sky and all but shake their fists at the puny human scale of my concerns – grumpy old men of the prairies. Winter is a season of harsh adjectives reflecting ancient anxieties about discomfort and danger with being cold and hunger associated with long-dormant vegetation. But new snow mitigates it all. It’s pristine and soft and, coupled with a bright sky, it dazzles you with light. New snow covers the rough edges and absorbs the noise. And when I get a good sweat going and I can stop on the trail and simply listen without feeling chilled, it’s hard to escape a calming sense of distance and isolation and arresting beauty. The winter wind makes a distinct and subtle roar as it whistles and rattles through the canopy of stiff and frozen branches. Oddly enough, it speaks to me.
A poor life this, if full of careI’ve been a cross-country skier since the 1970s when dad took our family down to the local bike shop one winter and bought us all skis. It was a bit of a fad at the time and before long we all were outfitted with corduroy knickers and sweaters, hats, and knickersocks decorated with snowflakes, reindeer, stylized alpine motifs and snowy pine trees. We even acquired a wineskin somewhere that my parents (God bless ‘em) would occasionally fill with actual wine. It was a tear-drop shaped plastic bladder encased in a fake leather covering with a braided and tasseled red cord that enabled it to hang over your shoulder. Family ski outings became a faux-Nordic costume drama staged in the rolling glacial woodlands of southern Michigan.
We have no time to stand and stare
But I learned that pattern…rhythm, balance, momentum… The essential and basic means of forward progress on skis are the same as those we all use for walking. You push off with your weight on one foot and then you shift your weight to catch your forward momentum on the other while your arms and poles swing to counterbalance: …rhythm, balance, momentum… It’s that simple. Cross-country skis are convex and your toes are attached to the crown in the middle of the ski. Under your foot is either a fishscale pattern excised into the base or a coating of soft wax designed to grip and hold the snow surface when you use your weight to compress the center of the ski into the snow. Walking movements. Unfortunately small deviations are less forgiving but then again few of us have as much experience on skis as we do walking. One exaggerates this pattern to get the weight transfer right and to build speed. Weight on the ball of your propulsion foot, shoulders slightly ahead of the hips. …rhythm, balance, momentum…
Those skis expanded my horizons. I’d put them on after school and take off bushwacking across the woodlots and farmfields around our house. With a Christmas-gift hatchet strapped to my belt, my expeditions were punctuated by stops to chop stuff that needed chopping and by the occasional twig fire to warm my hands and raise my outdoorsman bone fides. I’d follow animal tracks in the snow and interpret their dramas and learn their secrets. Our family ski outings ended when my dad fell on a steep downhill section on the outside loop of a 15-mile trail. He was a younger man than I am now. He skied out on a badly wrenched knee and when he couldn’t lift himself out of bed for church the next morning we took him to the hospital so the orthopedic surgeon could salvage what was left of the torn tendons. He never skied again. So I skied alone in the farm country out my back door and I learned to love it. I’d listen to the wind. I’d read Jack London and I invented life-or-death adventures for myself until the slanting shadows reminded me that it was time to return home for supper and to do my homework. Now, I rarely ski off of established trails and I think of dad on every downhill. Now, my fantasies are much more sedate.
With too much focus on technique, I lapse into a bad habit of skiing with my head down. I can hypnotize myself watching the back and forth of my ski tips. When I do this, my reality narrows down and thoughts focus. This can be therapeutic. Today for instance I find myself wrestling with a particularly vexing frustration from work and while I find that a victory over it seems unlikely, on skis at least, I feel like I can fight it to a draw. I can also become too enamored of the winter scenery and lose my sense of the trail I am following. This has dangers of its own and can result is wasted effort and uncertain footing (and embarrassing crashes). So I find the balance between watching the trees and watching the trail. ...rhythm, balance, momentum... But, I know myself well enough to know that this is what I came for. When I began today, skiing was a means to an end. I sought training and exercise to build endurance. An hour into the trail, skiing and the way it purges my head and lungs, is the end in itself. I forget how much I need time alone in the woods.
Like the character in Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon I will miss this feeling when I am warm and dry and protected. Already, I can sense the restlessness among my neighbors and friends. Its been a long and cold winter. Already, the days are getting longer and the calendar is tumbling toward spring. In a few weeks this moment will be a memory – and I will miss the wind and the cold and the distance.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,Back at the parking lot, I load my skis in the truck and put on the down coat I left in the cab. My back and chest are soaking wet despite the high-tech fabrics and almost as soon as I step out of the bindings, I begin to feel clammy and cold. My cap is circled with frost and I have ice in my beard. I left a frozen water bottle on the dash and enough sunlight focused through the windshield to thaw for me a few swallows of cold water. I start the truck and the NPR announcer assaults my senses and I am surprised at how alien his familiar voice sounds. My family is home and I start thinking about what to make for supper. Tomorrow is Monday morning. I have deadlines and obligations and people who depend on me waiting. …rhythm, balance, momentum…
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
I point my truck home. There’s poetry in the rear-view mirror.
Leisure by W. H. Davies, Songs of Joy and Others, 1911
The Spell of the Yukon by Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, 1907