I came to skiing—downhill skiing, that is—late and resisted lessons. I am, therefore, a bad downhill skier, one who, if faced with a trailful of fresh powder on some stumped and touristed slope, would rather be back at the lodge—reading Veblen, say, or Scrooge McDuck; sleeping in front of the idiot box, or just sleeping. I could never get the hang of downhill and thus developed a bias against the slippery sport and its pretensions. Psychologists might term it a phobia.
That being so, I was hard-pressed to explain what, recreationally speaking, had prompted me to move bag and baggage to Vermont, specifically ski country. Then, by way of answer, cross-country skiing happened along.
It seemed a whole lot saner than the Alpine variety with its suicidal terrain and endless technical debates. And a whole lot cheaper, too—no lift tickets—and cross-country equipment was blessedly free of the polyurethane surfeits that typify Alpine gear. Alpine skiers, in their florid, foam-injected, electric-cherry Frankenstein boots and saucy stretch clothes, looked synthetic; their skis were synthetic; they skied on synthetically groomed terrain. Cross-country skiers, by contrast, in their understated, all wool, leather and wood everythings, looked natural, and this was a period in our culture when natural meant something. I decided to give cross-country a try.
My wife and I bought our first cross-country gear from a local entrepreneur of Norwegian descent who fitted us for skis and poles like a quartermaster tricking out draftees. "Vut are you? Six-vun? Two-ten centimeter." I admired the graceful sculpture of the skis I was handed, caressed the hickory bases with their durable lignum vitae edges and marveled that anything so beautiful should also, like the giant longbow each resembled, have a function.
We watched with pleasure as the aluminum bindings with their three stubby boot pins and simplistic, yet precisely curved wire toe clamps were mounted to the skis with short screws; and we cheerfully donned our comfortable new leather boots and slid the toes into the bindings so that pin pressure points could be registered, soles drilled and the steel hole-reinforcement plates accurately mounted. We were skiers of a kind now; our clothes and our equipment proved it.
Skis, poles, boots and bindings for the two of us came to $80, and besides these items I was advised to purchase pine tar, a waxing cork, six different ski waxes and a blowtorch. This latter object with Us disposable butane canister smacked not a little of the technological, but I reasoned that I could always use it come Armageddon to thaw frozen pipes, perhaps, or to heat survival rations.
That night, following our salesman's instructions, I sandpapered the skis' bases, then sealed them with the pine tar, slathering it on from the can with a touch-up brush, torching it into the sanded wood until it bubbled, then wiping off the hot excess with a rag. The scent of the pine tar ignited in me a host of personal pleasure referents—the hold of a restored whaling ship, Greece, a great-aunt's painting studio in summer, chewing tobacco, Scandinavia and cello interiors, to name several.
But more important, I liked the sport instantly—its Zen-like rhythms, its ease, its lack of pretension. You could go as fast and as far as you wanted when you wanted. I could tool the open meadows near our house and within minutes feel miles from the nearest lift line. I learned to read snow for the right wax, discovering that there are as many granular conditions to wax for as Eskimos have names for snow. I picked up an adequate snowplow, a respectable step turn and a functional herringbone, and my diagonal stride, when it clicked and when I used the correct wax, provided a euphoric experience akin to wearing seven-league boots.
There were weekends at the folksy touring centers that were springing up in the area; picture-perfect outings with friends built around bread, cheese and fermented drink; solo outings; tours on some of the area's remoter logging trails into realms of virgin beech and white pine; screaming runs down corkscrew chutes resembling luge runs; late-afternoon workouts as the setting sun turned the field snow from pink to glowing violet; and general immersion in the gospel of cross-country-skiing-is-fun as preached in the writings of John Caldwell, William Lederer and Joe Pete Wilson.
An ancillary bonus from all this wind-milling was that I was soon in my best shape in many a winter, a veritable engine of well-being. It seemed only natural to want to measure this newfound cardiovascular fitness. But where was I going to find a competition?