Trial by Snow
I learned to ski on the swath of field between where my parents parked their rust-flecked Volkswagen and the cabin perched at the height of that field. It wasn’t far—maybe 1,000 feet—but it was uphill, and from the vantage point of a toddler precariously balanced on his first pair of skis, it might as well have been 1,000-miles. Thus it often seemed easier to throw myself against the high snowbank left by the town plow and wail, my tears cold on my cheeks, because (as I’m sure you’ve discovered) wailing almost always fixes what needs fixing. Alas, even if my parents had been inclined to carry me through the snow and up the hill (which they were not), I was too big to carry. Instead, I would strap on my little skis and follow in the tracks of my parents to the dark cabin at the top of the hill.
After we’d moved from the cabin, I didn’t ski much at all. At the time, my father had just taken his first full-time, career-oriented job, and we still teetered on the edge of poverty. Downhill skiing was not within our means, nor was I much interested. I remember the occasional foray on cross-country skis, but that’s about it.
I came back to skiing in my early teens. My uncle, an alpine skier who lived in the Colorado mountains, sent me a pair of his old Rossignols. They featured colorful racing stripes and complicated bindings and looked impossibly fast. On weekends, my mother took me to Bolton Mountain, where I gamely tried to keep pace with my friends, many of whom had been downhill skiing since I was sobbing in snowbanks. While I had good balance and general familiarity with snow, the ease with which one could build speed when pointed down a mountainside—especially if one did not know how to turn, which I did not—frightened me. And I simply could not determine how to navigate the moguls. If I went over the them, I crashed. If I tried to weave around them, I crashed. I tumbled off their peaks and rag-dolled through their valleys. I bruised my legs, my arms, my butt, my face. Since this was before anyone wore helmets on the mountain, I rang my bell repeatedly. Basically, I hated it.
So I quit skiing again, for about another five years. By now, I was working in a bike and ski shop in Montpelier and it just seemed weird that I didn’t ski. All my co-workers skied, as did most of my friends. And the memory of those moguls was becoming more distant with every passing. Besides, I’d been but a boy then; now, I was a man. The mountain would be mine.
That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. Indeed, the learning curve was as steep and unforgiving as the so-called intermediate slopes my so-called good friends cajoled me into tackling. “Come on,” they’d say. “This one is easy. You’ll be fine.” We’d push off from the top, and this would be the last I’d see of them until I arrived at the bottom of the mountain to find them looking as fresh as if they’d all just stepped off the pages of a tourism brochure, while I’d be lucky to still be in possession of my major appendages. The trial-by-fire approach of my ski buddies was like moving to a foreign country (say, Kyrgyzstan) without knowing customs, culture, or language. But slowly, achingly, agonizingly, I improved. The way I saw it, I had little choice but to sink or swim, and this time, darn it, I was determined to swim. I skied nearly 40 days that first year, and more than 50 the next. I fell in with a group of hard-charging, hard-drinking granite workers who’d cut numerous gladed runs on a remote mountain north of Barre. We’d hike up the mountain by the light of our headlamps and ski until the wee hours of the morning. From them I not only learned to be a better skier, but also many things that probably shouldn’t be mentioned in print.
About this time, I began writing for ski magazines, and soon scored what I still consider to be one of the sweetest freelance gigs of my career: I became eastern editor at SKIING magazine. In essence, this meant I got paid to ski and then write about it, both of which I would gladly have done for free. Alas, the great recession of 2008 brought an end to my contract.
I don’t do much alpine skiing these days; it’s just too time-consuming, and the ski-for-free perks I enjoyed as a magazine editor have long since expired. But on April 1, 2017, we awoke to the cruelest joke of all: Nearly a foot of fresh snow. I tried to maintain my good humor as I trudged through chores, but snow fell down my boot tops and by the time I’d finished morning milking, my socks were soaked and my spirits were in the gutter. My sons didn’t even try for good humor. “This sucks,” Rye exclaimed at breakfast. This was the most printable of their laments.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Penny, perhaps inspired by the prospect of exiling us and our sour moods from the house. “Why don’t you go skiing?”
And this is how my sons and I found ourselves at the peak of Burke Mountain, them on rented gear, me on the dusty, dull-edged boards I’d dragged out of their resting place atop a bed of hay. I’d found my boots in the corner of the barn, and when I’d tipped them over, two mice scuttled out of sight. Yeah, it had been a while.
It wasn’t the first time either of my sons had been downhill skiing, but it was close. I led them to the top of Willoughby, a long, straight, intermediate run, wearing immaculate corduroy from the morning groomer. “Come on,” I said. “This one is easy. You’ll be fine.”
And you know what? They were.