The first time I went cross-country skiing, I told myself that I was going to fall down, and I was going to laugh about it.
In retrospect, I overrated myself. By a lot.
I grew up in southern California, playing in the ocean since I was two. My dad put me on a bodyboard (what noobs call a "boogie board") when I was six. He held it and me for an oncoming wave, then gave me a push and shouted, "Paddle! Paddle! Kick!" I was never afraid. By the time I was ten, I was venturing out as far as they would let me, waiting for the oncoming set, paddle-paddle-kicking furiously until I felt the edge of gravity tilt me forward, and then sliding down the glassy face into shore. I learned how to dig in the edge of my board and carve sideways, eluding the foamy closeout and flying for miles (it seemed) down the coastline. I learned to sit up on my knees. I learned to use my side muscles as a lever and my arm as a fulcrum to spin 360 degrees while still moving forward.
None of this did anything to prepare me for life in the Keweenaw Peninsula.
One winter, when I was eight, my parents took us on a vacation to Lake Tahoe. They borrowed coats, gloves and boots from friends whose children had outgrown them, and signed up my sister and me for lessons on the bunny slopes while they went up the mountain.
Right from the beginning, I was against it. Nothing about this sport made sense to me. Instead of displacing your weight among four limbs, you were supposed to balance on two thin blades that were not only made intentionally slippery, but prevented every instinctive means of motion or self-protection. In the ocean, if you fell down, your fall was broken by a splash and corrected by an upsurge of tide. Here, falling down meant hard contact with a surface that combined the worst aspects of concrete and ice.
I gave the instructor a sullen twenty minutes before marching back to the chalet and bingeing hot chocolate until my parents returned.
I actively tried not to remember all this when we got fitted for our skis last year. That was 25 years ago, I chuckled condescendingly at myself. I'm more athletic now, less averse to trying new things. I practice yoga--that had to count for something in this balance-dependent sport. And it wasn't as though I was taking on black diamond runs at Mount Bohemia. Nordic skiing was, as I observed, essentially a more fluid form of walking through the woods. I imagined golden afternoons gliding contemplatively through soft, whispering powder.
As soon as we got home with our new Salomon hybrids, we strapped them on for a trial run around the yard. The snow was four inches deep, light and fine. Bryan, a veteran downhill skier, slipped once or twice--I laughed gaily and circled wide past him. Everything was fine.
Our first real ski was on New Year's Eve 2016, in the forest behind Farm Block. Ray and Viki, who own the property, have been cutting through these Keweenaw woods and waterways for longer than we've been alive--canoes in the springtime, skis in the winter. Ray easily chats about politics and points out eagles' nests and edible fungi while setting an unintentionally punishing pace. As for Viki, you hear her before you see her--the schuuush as she flies past, the hard scrape as she grinds to a knife's edge halt.
There were six of us in the woods that day, and I was the only one who hadn't grown up on skis. I expected to be spectacularly clumsy, but I hadn't counted on how slow I'd be. I also hadn't counted on the woods' uneven terrain, even in knee-high powder. Easing over fallen logs or bending downhill around a grove of trees took me right back to the Tahoe bunny hill. Especially when a stone or a hummock of ground sent me sideways down a short embankment into the snow.
I laughed, as I'd promised myself I would. It didn't hurt, and I didn't really mind the falling down--everyone knew it was my first time. What I did mind, though, was not being able to get up. The rest of the party, ready to move on, stopped considerately while I struggled to get up. Their intermittent chat faded as they idly watched me flail. I'd have done the same, if I were them--I was a sight, my face growing red, my jaw tensing, my poles and skis waving futilely like the legs of an upended potato bug.
What happened next startled even me. I locked eyes with the member of our skiing party unlucky to be standing closest to me, and shouted savagely,
"STOP LOOKING AT ME!"
It had the desired effect. Everyone's gaze kind of floated up and away, toward a swaying branch or a crow in flight, anything that could be noticed or imagined to relieve the burden my outburst had just laid on them. Meanwhile, I somehow finally made it to my feet--probably what I did was unclip my boots and stand up--and tried not to meet Bryan's eyes. I was a failure, not only at skiing, but at being a good sport.
Today, after three days of fuzzy fat flakes drifting down in a grey haze, the sun came out. The chickadees hollered, the fresh snow winked invitingly, and the window spilled a warm oblong of light into the room where I was trying to work. Like a kid whose friend is tapping at the back door, I hurried up and finished my chores, zipped on my Arc'teryx shell and my boots, and took off for the Swedetown trails. The skis rattling in the back of my Jeep, where I'd left them. It's now more trouble to take them out each time than to just leave them there, since rarely two days go by between skis.
I can't even tell you how it happened. I know there were plenty of dramatic episodes after that first one. There was a banana peel-style slip that landed me on my tailbone on hardpack, chased with a top-of-lungs tantrum that left two trail attendants wondering if they should leave me alone or come see if I was all right. There were more times than I care to admit where I'd snap at Bryan for coaching me too much/not enough, or invent reasons not to come along when he wanted to ski. There were times where I'd unclip, shoulder my skis, and walk down a hill, defying onlookers to chide me.
Now, alone on a midwinter day, I'm gliding contemplatively through whispering powder. In some ways, I've found, it's more like bodyboarding than I thought--carving down the face of a slope, using the side as a lever and the edge of the ski as a fulcrum. Rather than moving over water, though, it feels like I am water moving--flowing into curves, lengthening into a drop, condensing as I cascade into a valley.
I would never claim to have found the "secret" to skiing. (If there is a secret, it's to grow up here.) My turning point was the day I started looking in skiing for the same thing that the Keweenaw gives me in a thousand other ways: a chance to be closer to the earth.
At the top of the trail's deepest valley, I tuck my chest to my knees, and cling to the ground with toes, arches and heels. As the trail bellies out underneath my skis, I fix my gaze on individual grains of snow that balance on the track rim. The ground my plumb line, my body yielding to its changes. Time waits for me like an older sibling to catch my breath at the bottom of the hill, and then we're off again.