My magical mystery tour (on skis)

It’s hard for me to believe that there was a phase of my life - once upon a time and long, long ago - when Nordic skiing was unknown to me, rather than the abiding passion it has become. But it’s true.

Growing up in Westchester County, winter sports were never a major focus within our family. True, we skated at a local rink, and on the Bronx River when it froze betimes, and the green flag was raised. I took figure skating lessons one winter, and although I enjoyed it, my pleasure was not enough to counter the fear that I would be discovered and pilloried by school mates. My father had been born and raised in Austria and had skied in his youth, so I heard about the beauties and challenges of the Alps from him and from his transplanted boyhood friends. Fritz Grünwald and his family, who skied every weekend in Stowe, made an especially big impression on me and kindled my desire to ski. My Aunt Mimi, an avid Alpine skier herself, got me skis and ski garb one Christmas and introduced me to Alpine skiing at Whitney’s in Jackson, NH. (Despite my parents’ objections.) Through high school and into college I was an avid and pretty proficient - though not sufficiently careful - downhill skier. To the extent that I knew or ever thought about Nordic skiing, I considered it unappealing, clearly without the dash or challenge of barreling down the mountain just on the edge of losing control and in full view of the (hopefully impressed) audience on the lift.

Near the end of my four years in college, everything changed. I had visited a girlfriend in Boston and we were returning to school - she to Colby Junior and me to Dartmouth. We got a very late start because of a snowstorm and therefore decided to stop at the Putney School to visit her older sister where we could crash for the night before finishing our trip in the morning.

During dinner in the school cafeteria, I overheard conversation about a group going skiing that night with Coach. I asked about it, and JB and I were were invited to join them. It was only when I saw the skis that I realized I was not going to be riding lifts or showing off. Rather than ‘fess up to the fact that I had never done this, I bluffed my way through the process of selecting equipment and suiting up. I found myself on what I now know were classic woodies with three-pin bindings and bamboo poles, borrowed knickers and high socks, and warm wool mittens, at the tail end of a line of a dozen skiers from the Putney Nordic team, lead by their Coach (John Caldwell), and heading out into the night.

I remember every detail. It was bitter cold, but wicked still. The snow was squeaky and fresh, the sky had cleared after the storm for a nearly full moon, and in places the snow sparkled and glistened in a way I had seen only in movies and photos. There were no set tracks in the 20+ inches of soft snow, but being behind a dozen skiers made that irrelevant for me. Much more relevant was that I had no clue how to manage my equipment, and so spent considerable time getting up. At first I was glad there was no one behind me to watch and laugh, but after a bit, when the gap between me and the next skier had grown, I would happily have tolerated some ridicule in return for companionship and a guarantee that I would not be left out alone.

Before too long, a couple of the skiers came back and gave me some pointers and encouragement, skiing easily along in the deep snow next to me, and by halfway through our trek, I was capable of keeping the group in sight. It was undoubtedly fortunate for me that they had to break trail. I don’t remember noticing when I wasn’t cold anymore, but by the end of our several hours of magic, I was warmer than I would have believed possible. And the sights and spiritual stillness of the trail, the woods and rolling fields of southern Vermont, the evergreens and buildings piled high with fresh snow, these are still with me. To this day, I can close my eyes and return to that place on that night and have it be more real than whatever current foolishness I need to escape.

When we got back to the school and while we were putting away our equipment, someone pulled out a big bag of orange slices, which I can still taste. Shortly, the group gathered around a world class fire in a large stone fireplace, and shared hot chocolate, toasted marshmallows for ‘smores, and tall tales of high adventure in the snow on what they called their ‘skinny skis.’ I was smitten.

That was the only time I ever met - let alone skied with (actually, far behind) - John Caldwell, generally regarded as the father of American Nordic skiing, but I am tremendously indebted to him, and to the serendipity that turned me away from the dark side and led me to embrace The Nordic Force one taps into when striding and gliding through the magical kingdoms accessible only on skinny skis. 

 


 

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