Crash-country skiing: First timers enjoy learning the sport
The woods in winter! Downy snow falling gentle as a whisper! O! The bliss!
Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the woods came to mind, “for only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in — to learn from it what it is.”
Indeed! I beamed ecstatically, on the very verge of a rapturous swoon. Meanwhile, about 20 feet ahead of me, there was what appeared to be a grouchy baby bird hatching from a snow egg. There was flailing. And growling?
“Did you just growl?” I asked fellow features writer Melinda Mawdsley.
She heaved herself back to her feet with a much-affronted huff and a mighty scowl, covered in snow. I wobbled forward to offer sympathy and ended up falling down, too.
Ugh. The woods. Thbbbtttt.
Cross-country skiing, it turns out, isn’t just like walking. As performed by Melinda and me, it’s a series of lurching forward spasms punctuated by tumbles down the slightest of slopes. However, before heading up to Grand Mesa with outdoors teacher extraordinaire Doug Freed on a recent Thursday, we assured each other it would merely be a strenuous walk. Neither of us had tried it before.
O, it is to laugh! Silly Melinda and Rachel.
“I feel like I should genetically be good at this,” Melinda said. “I’m part Norwegian.”
Heredity failed her, though, from about the minute we clicked into our skis. I mean, whoa. They’re so ... narrow. Are they supposed to be that narrow? Doug assured us they are.
Then, giving us an almost comical amount of credit, he tried leading us up a tiny, tiny incline not 20 feet from where he’d parked at the trail head for the Skyway Trail System. I followed Doug and Melinda followed me, and suddenly I was heading backward.
“Stop,” Melinda said.
“I can’t,” I informed her.
“Stop!” Melinda said.
Crash, I said — or did, rather. There’s a trick to going up hills, tiny or otherwise, on cross-country skis, and I had time to contemplate it while Doug untangled Melinda and me and heaved us back to our unsteady feet.
Reconsidering his methods, Doug took us for a practice loop on a flat stretch nearby, where we began learning the schussing rhythms of cross-country skiing. In the fumble of our lurching spasms, we could begin to see how the Hans Brinker glide would develop — the quiet poetry of minimal, fluid motion.
But in the meantime, we Frankenstein shambled after Doug as he led us up the 1.6-mile Sunset Trail. What had begun as a light snow grew more insistent, drifting into the forest of towering Ponderosa pines through which we skied. Except for our breaths and the tiny-bird squeaks of our poles plunging into the snow beside us, it was perfect stillness and silence. It was, at the risk of sounding florid, holy.
But then Doug would lead us down a small hill and never mind all that preening “poetry of the woods” business. It was time to fall down. Poor Melinda. Every single time. I think her boots didn’t fit right, on account of the European sizing.
“No!” she started saying before landing on her bum yet again in the soft powder.
“Who are you saying no to?” I wondered. “Sir Isaac Newton?”
How obnoxious. She should have shoved my head in the snow. But she would have fallen down before she could get to me.
It’s really easy to catch an edge on those narrow skis, it turns out.
Heading back on the Winslow Trail, a little more than half a mile, we briefly left the shelter of trees for a wide open expanse of snowy field. It was snowing really hard and the wind was blowing, attacking our exposed faces with mean little pellets driven sideways on what felt like a gale.
“I’m done,” Melinda said, and I agreed that the blizzard lite did feel terrible.
But ... it was so beautiful. The crystals clinging to my eyelashes lent a dreamy cast to the crazy tumble of falling flakes, to the frosted fields and trees, to the sleepy expanse of horizon. It was magical.
And then I fell down.