Finding My Snow Legs
I’m currently experiencing my first full winter as a Vermonter. It also happens to be my first full winter as a work-from-home mom. Cabin fever isn’t quite the right phrase for what I’ve been feeling, because I’m tremendously grateful for the cozy old farmhouse my husband and I are nesting in and for the fact that I can work all day in fuzzy slippers and sneak in nursing my baby during conference calls. Yes, this new Vermont life suits me. And yet, with the sun setting at 4:15pm and frequent stretches of four or five days without leaving the house, I’ve found myself getting ecstatic over excuses to venture out of the house. Oh look, we need paper towels! Hey, today’s my scheduled flu shot, yesssss!
Clearly it was time to get outdoors.
When I told people we were moving to Vermont after living exclusively in urban areas my entire life, their first question was often, “Do you ski?” No. No, I do not. I came to Vermont for the bounty of the greener seasons, for the agriculture, the bird watching, the leaf peeping, the craft beer, craft cheese, craft-everything. I like snow, I like cozy sweaters, I’m starting to downright love wool socks, but I have zero skiing abilities. Furthermore, I’m not a thrill-seeker. I like my feet firmly planted on the ground thank you very much.
But with the walls of our house starting to close in on me, a few weeks ago I set out to find my snow legs with an outdoor sport that seemed like it might fill a void for this former flatlander: cross-country skiing. While I’ve dabbled in (and failed at) downhill skiing and snowboarding, something told me that I might be more of a Nordic gal. I like long walks, gentle bike rides, meditation, wandering about. Plus I played enough Winter Games on my Commodore 64 in the ‘80s to know that cross-country skiing is also quite rhythmic and athletic, which appealed to my urge to get some exercise to combat any onset of mom-body.
With my in-laws in town to watch our daughter, my husband and I headed for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, tucked up in the hills on the western edge of the Northeast Kingdom. We made a few wrong turns past some of the most Vermont-y looking homesteads -- all with hand painted “Maple Syrup” signs and coat-wearing horses munching hay contemplatively in the yard -- until we started seeing markers for the Outdoor Center. Started in 1976 on the property of the former the Cutler Academy campus, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center today is a non-profit that provides a training ground for competitive Nordic skiers and skullers (which I learned is what you call people-who-row) and trails for running and mountain biking. Their mission includes being good stewards of the land and using and teaching sustainable practices in order to do so. The hub of the property is the Touring Center, a long pair of maple-colored buildings with gently sloped roofs crowned with solar panels. A breezeway connects the two buildings where we entered under a sign: Nordic Center. Inside was a buzz of activity, people shuffling about with the swish-swish-swish of snow apparel, fit-looking retirees in spandex and college kids in Patagonia pullovers congregating at long wooden picnic tables, hands and bellies being warmed with chili, available in grass-fed beef or vegan varieties. Posters on the wall celebrated past seasons’ marathon ski festivals and a wood stove in the corner attracted a ring of weary skiers, stretched out in Adirondack chairs. It reminded me pleasantly of my summer camp mess hall, only, you know, more wintery.
For $60, plus $15 each in gear rental, my husband and I were outfitted with skis, polls and boots and ready for our first classic Nordic lesson with our instructor, Robert. With the kind of reading glasses that magnetically separate on the bridge of the nose, closely cropped gray hair and attire of the performance fleece sort, he had the put-together look of an urban transplant. So it made sense when we learned that before coming to northern Vermont, Robert resided in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, only a stone’s throw from our previous Brooklyn, NY home. World = small.
To get started, we first practiced pushing with just our arms, knees bent, to propel ourselves along the neatly groomed trail just behind the Touring Center. Compared to downhill skiing, I enjoyed how lightweight cross-country skis are and how my heel wasn’t locked in place but rather free to flex while my toes were snapped in a hinge-like binding to each ski. After more or less mastering two-arm pushing, we tried pushing off with one leg at a time, alternate arms thrusting a pole into the snow, left-right, left-right. The rhythm felt surprisingly familiar and I realized I was remembering how it felt when I would hit my stride playing Winter Games, the joystick flexing left-right, left-right while my 64-bit olympiad made her way down the trail. I’m serious.
From there we worked on increasing the bounce with which we pushed off each time so that we’d glide momentarily on each leg, balancing on one leg and then the other in what I could see would be a very graceful motion if I ever got the hang of it. I’m a pretty okay ice skater, and the gliding stride did somewhat resemble skating. However my take on it was more of an awkward shuffle at this stage.
Coasting across the groomed trails felt pretty good, and after several days of sub-zero weather, that afternoon’s mid-30’s was starting to feel downright balmy even as the wind whipped through the pines. I was gaining confidence, so when Robert asked who wanted to go first down a gentle slope that ended in a T where the path split off into the woods, I bravely volunteered to give it a go. I’d managed to come to a stop on the flatter part of the trail by gently aiming the tips of my skis in a V towards one another. So I pushed off and in the four seconds that it took me to glide to the bottom of the slope I experienced glee, then dread, then resolve, then panic as my momentum gained. I tried to angle my toes and lean to the side to snowplow into a halt, but instead I tumbled forward and landed face first in the snow. I waved both my arms at Robert and my husband at the top of the hill -- the universal sign for “I’m not dead” -- but I lay there for a moment, the wind totally knocked out of me. And by the time we shuffled back to the Touring Center and wiggled out of our boots, I could tell I was quite injured.
The doctor said my rib was probably fractured, but since you cannot put your ribs in a cast, all I can do is brace myself when a sneeze comes on, take pain killers and wait until I heal.
In spite of my crash landing, I’m eager to get back out on skis. The following weekend we rented Nordic set-ups for the season from our local sporting goods store, and with the fresh snow that’s fallen this week I’m looking forward to another excursion. For years I lived in New York City where the snow rarely slowed me down. I hiked through it to the subway, I shoveled it away from my basement apartment door, I trudged in it every day until it was black with dirt and trash. It was ugly snow, but by being forced to commute through it by foot, I spent a lot of time out in it, snowflakes sticking to my nose and eyelashes. It’s been odd this year to be experiencing the longest snow season of my life yet barely setting foot outdoors except to scurry from the car to the grocery store. It’s time to commune with the snow once again, and I suspect that once I do I will start to feel less like a visitor to these rugged mountains and more like a creature at home in her environment.