On Halloween of 1991, Minnesota’s first snowfall of the season brought 28 inches. It shut down the cities for three days because the snow removal equipment hadn’t been ready to go. At some point during our forced hibernation, my father called to say that he wanted to buy me cross-country skis. If I was going to live in that weather, I should make the most of it.
Fred and I immediately went to REI and bought the works. Skis, boots, poles, and proper ski wear, from polypropylene long underwear to wool socks and liners. We went to a brief orientation and took a few lessons. We are nothing if not by the book.
We didn’t know how spoiled we were in Minnesota. Every golf course, every city and county park, and every state park has groomed trails. We could buy an inexpensive statewide ski pass that let us use any trails for just the cost of parking. Fresh snow fell a couple of times a week and it never really got warm enough for the snow to get melty, so conditions were always good (if you didn’t mind the cold).
Fred was instantly good at skiing. Me, not so much. It took many tries to get the right feel, and hills terrified me—going up or going down. Still, we didn’t have kids, and we had ample opportunity, and I improved.
Then we moved east and had kids, and that was the end of skiing for a while. I’m not the parent who could throw a kid on my back or on some sort of sled and take them along. I was also appalled that there were so few ski areas with groomed trails and that the few that existed were expensive. Wasn’t this Western Mass, heaven for outdoorsy people?
I’m a little embarrassed about how long it took me to realize I could ski in the cemetery across the street from my house. To me, skiing meant packing everything into the car with snacks and making a day of it. Who knew that you could just walk up the street with skis thrown over your shoulder?
So now, when the conditions are right, I can ski anytime. I still have to get over myself—the me that dreads the effort of getting everything together to head outside. There’s the stress of figuring out how many layers to wear, so that I don’t freeze on the way out and start roasting within 15 minutes. Which hat won’t get too itchy? Which gloves will go on and off easily when I have to blow my nose? Once I get dressed, I then have work up the nerve to walk outside in my ridiculous snow pants and jacket. They are perfect for skiing: lightweight, water repellent, and with lots of pockets. But they’re grape gum purple with teal piping. This is what happens when you buy your ski clothes in the early ‘90s. I’d replace them, but the damn things won’t wear out and they serve their purpose so well.
From there, it’s remembering the proper neckwear, the Chapstick, the Kleenex, and my phone, and getting out the door.
But once I’m there. Oh.
I may ski with quiet or with music. Sometimes, I can ski in trails that someone else has cut, seeing where their path takes me. Sometimes I have to cut trails myself, even though it can be like hiking with big sticks on my feet. But once I create a track around the cemetery, I can go over it again and again, and finally get a good glide on.
I feel far away, but I can see my house and my kid’s elementary school, and I can greet my friends’ dog Sasha when she barks at my passing. There are ancient trees, and various animal tracks, and the secret backsides of neighbors’ houses.
Within minutes I feel a sense of peace that I rarely feel in any other situation. My body is strong, my lungs are clear, and well, my nose is running, but I can deal with that. I can be in the moment, or think about the day and the future, without anxiety. Everything feels fine. Even the gravestones feel like company and provide fascinating glimpses into Northampton’s history. At some point, each time, I marvel that I don’t do this every day.
Eventually, the clock tells me it is time to stop and return to reality. My body feels like it could go all day. I squeeze in another half lap, and then head for the exit, and home. I shed the layers and start the hot drink. I look out my kitchen window to see if I can make out my tracks in the cemetery, and hope someone doesn’t come along and stomp all over them. I feel blissfully achy and tired, and a little smug that I’ve found this wonderful secret.