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Essay: Winter, Skiing, and Fate
By Rick Blum
After a long, hot summer (by New England standards, anyhow), the weather has suddenly become fall-like, with cleaner, crisper air, and the thermometer dipping into the 40’s at night. I should be cheering, as fall used to be my favorite season, but since installing AC in our house, I’ve come to enjoy summer more and more, and am already bemoaning its departure.
Of course, a good part of my loss of appreciation for fall weather is the knowledge that winter—a season I’ve come to enjoy about as much as a prostate exam—is soon to follow. Not even a repeat of the eerily mild winter of this past year is something I feel like I want to endure, except to use as an excuse to flee to Florida or Arizona, or some other destination that has little experience with the white stuff.
Despite that, I still retain a soft spot in my heart for winter owing to the simple fact that it is responsible for most of the good things that have happened to me the last 35 years. Let me explain.
I grew up in New Jersey, where, compared to Boston, winters were relatively mild. Oh, we got snow on a regular basis, but it not nearly as predictably as here, and definitely not as voluminously. Still, there was usually enough snow to—at some point every winter—have snow ball fights, sled down serpentine wooded paths, build snow forts and, even, ski. It was the latter activity that set me on my life’s eventual path.
It all started in a neighbor’s yard. My best friend, Keith, called me up after a substantial snowstorm (translation: four inches) and said to come on over…and bring some skis. Well, this sounded swell to me, though I had never skied in my life and really had no idea where we were going to do this since it was relatively flat terrain in his neighborhood. Nevertheless, I dug my mother 30s era wooden skis with the beartrap bindings out of the basement and headed over to his house.
When I got there, we trudged two backyards down the street, where, there, sitting in the middle of the yard was a three-foot mound of snow, sloping on one side and sheer on the other, as a ski jump might be—which is exactly what it was. The hill we would hurl down in order to launch ourselves off this makeshift jump had a vertical drop of, oh, maybe eight feet, but all of it nearly straight down making it possible to build up enough speed to reach the top of the jump with sufficient momentum to clear the backs of our skis before plummeting the three feet back to earth.
For the next several hours we dutifully sidestepped up the hill, then pointed ourselves toward the jump with the abandon that only two teenage boys with no sense of safety could do. Keith was the first to land and remain upright, though he had some practice runs before I showed up, so I didn’t feel bad about this. Me, I managed a successful landing on my fifth try, at which point I raised my hands in triumph and let out a triumphant whoop. Unfortunately, I had not yet learned how to stop, having never needed to do so up ‘til then, and proceeded to ski right through the rhododendron plants and smack into the back of his neighbor’s house. Undeterred – and after a quick consultation on the art of snow plowing – we continued to climb and soar, improving our form and distance on every run, eventually managing, I believe, to fly nearly six feet from the end of the jump before thudding on the flat landing area – and snow plowing like crazy.
Well, we were soon seeking out larger hills in town, and using plywood to build jumps that allowed us to stretch our flights to 12, maybe even, 15 feet. These accomplishments spurred us to want to tackle a real mountain, of which there was but one in all of New Jersey, about 45 minutes from our hometown. So one winter vacation day off we went, skis, poles, boots and a boatload of bravado to conquer skiing’s toughest challenge, or so it seemed to us.
Now a ski area in New Jersey in the 1960’s was not more than a large hill and a single poma lift, which can be challenging to novices like ourselves. Undaunted, we both managed on the first try to make it to the top of the hill without falling. We paused briefly to peer at the snowy-covered expanse between us and the bottom of what appeared to be the north face of Matterhorn, then pointed our skis downhill just like we had so many times before when jumping back at home.
Now, if not learning how to stop before launching oneself over a ski jump—as modest as it was—was a bit of an oversight, then not learning how to turn before heading down a substantially larger hill was perhaps a more egregious mistake, for we were quickly rocketing straight down the slope, back toward the loading area, all the while intensely praying that no one would cross our paths. Fortunately, we missed all our fellow skiers, and in less than a 30 seconds found ourselves still upright at the bottom of the slope … heading straight for the flimsy snow fence separating us and the lift line.
Now, as I have already said, I had learned how to snow plow in order to avoid running into the backs of houses, but I had never tried this technique at what seemed like breakneck speed, so quickly discovered that skis with wooden edges really don’t dig into packed snow well at all. Barely able to slow my progress, and the fence looming larger by the second I did the only thing I could under the circumstances: I fell, rolled over a half dozen times and came to rest inches from the fence – and a line of terror-stricken skiers. Keith was similarly sprawled out beside me.
Well, all’s well that ends well, they say. So we picked ourselves up, headed right back to the top of the hill, and started down again. Now, if our first run on a real “mountain” was an exercise in recklessness, our second trip was a model of caution—this time snow plowing diagonally across the hill at approximately three miles an hour. When we got to the far side of the slope, we experimented leaning this way and that until finally figuring out how to turn and cross back to the other side of the slope, a technique we would repeat a couple dozen times that run until we started to look like real skiers—or at least our image of what real skiers should look like. This was New Jersey after all.
Well, we never went back to that ski area. And a much discussed trip to the Adirondacks somehow went the way of so many other good ideas that require both planning and money. So we continued to do our skiing jumping locally when conditions permitted, which wasn’t that often. But the ski bug had taken hold, and just when I was considering where to spend my college years. Consequently, when my guidance counselor suggested the University of New Hampshire for its respected engineering program, I immediately added silently, “and awesome skiing.”
I did end up at UNH, though it was a bit deflating to arrive on campus only to discover that not only was its terrain was flatter than my hometown in New Jersey—decent skiing was more than an hour’s drive away.
Over the four years I attended UNH, I’m guessing I didn’t get to ski more than a half dozen times. The one four-day trip we had dutifully planned to Stowe, Vermont, was short-circuited by a fender-bender incurred barely a half-hour from school. Still, I learned to tolerate cold and biting winds of winter, and thus chose to stay in area after graduation, eventually running a small nightclub near campus.
Which brings me to the main point of this story. Winter brought snow, and snow enabled skiing, and skiing six-thousand-foot mountains hooked me on the idea of New Hampshire as a destination for college. (Previously I had set my sights on southern California.) Which positioned me after school to be running a college nightclub; which is where I met my wife for the first time; which set me on a thirty-plus-year path that, if not always without its hidden potholes, one that brought more pleasures than I could possibly have expected when I innocently thought, “and awesome skiing.”
To be perfectly honest, it was another seven years after that fateful night before my wife and I started dating, By then I had abandoned downhill skiing for cross-country—a source of cheap thrills and no mountains necessary—and moved from the open spaces of southern New Hampshire to the cramped confines Cambridge. And though we eventually married and moved to the home town of Great Brook Farm cross-country ski area, one of the few in metro Boston, we have never skied together—cross-country, downhill or jumping.
Still, I’m convinced that skiing was the key factor that sent me her way. (Ironically, when I made the fateful decision to head north for college, she was living just 20 miles to the south of me.) And there’s no skiing without winter. So I am resigned to bucking up and bearing the cold and snow and ice and frozen slush and bitter winds of winter with minimal complaint—at least until global warming makes it all unnecessary. Which makes me think it’s time to go fire up the furnace and send some more CO2 into the atmosphere, and just maybe this winter will be another warm record breaker. Sorry, Great Book.
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