Just last night, I caught myself shivering and thinking, “No, no, not yet.” I wasn’t ready for the night to suddenly catch up to the day, filling in the evenings with darkness. I wasn’t ready for the way the wind nips through my jeans to prick my skin like mosquito bites.
I wasn’t ready.
Then all of a sudden…
I clicked through photos this morning of snow in the green mountains. My newsfeed came alive with white, and trepidation gave way to the hot pulse of excitement. It was like my mind flicked like a switch from off to on.
Winter, I’m ready to fish my gloves out from the depths of my cedar chest. I’m ready to run my hands along the edges of my skis, feeling for dullness and rust. I’m ready to wind scarves around my chin and scrape ice from my windshield.
For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Families roll out barbecue grills. Co-eds drink beer in folding lawn chairs.
Today, Memorial Day 2013, I went skiing.
Between Saturday night and Sunday, a beautiful nor’easter dumped 8″ on the summit of Mt. Mansfield (and 3 feet on New York’s White Face). The lowlands were pelted with rain. Monday morning had me waking up to sunshine and blue skies. Naturally, I threw my skis into my car and high-tailed it for the hills.
All day, two thoughts circled through my mind. One I’ll write about now. The other I will save for the next blog post.
The first: Brendan Leonard over at Semi-Rad wrote about a divide between Uphill People and Downhill People. He is of the former – finding pleasure in the journey UP, whether it’s sending a climbing route or skinning into the backcountry. As he describes, “I enjoy the Zen rhythm of methodically skinning up the snow, forcing myself to stay at a pace that I could hold for an hour straight without stopping…”
I have a deep appreciation for the uphill. Movement is my meditation, after all; the more all-consuming the better. This morning, I took a round-about way up to avoid the sight and sounds of other hikers (all four of them). In no time at all, I fell into a natural, steady pace. With no one to catch up to or slow down for, I simply walked forward. And up.
It was a warm day in the sun, but the wind flowing downhill was cold. It picked up the smell of the snow and beckoned me ever forward.
I stopped to eat lunch below the gondola summit and leaned again the pylon. Here, the snow lay inches thick and heavy with the morning’s warmth. I felt no need to walk any higher. The tops of things don’t interest me, particularly when I’m hungry and surrounded by snow. By the time I was done eating, the cold wind had picked up and drove me to my skis.
Clicked in and buckled up, I pushed off. The first turn wasn’t so good. Neither was the second. But, as I made my third arc, I hit the rhythm and my face exploded into a wide, open-mouthed grin. I turned off Gondolier and onto Switchback – which was perhaps not the brightest idea. Riding down Switchback meant navigating over ditches and large rocks while sliding on a fifty-fifty mix of snow and small rocks. I loved every minute of it. I was drunk on the same heady elation that overcomes me on long powder runs. It’s a thick, rich, sweet feeling of absolute thankfulness. (I imagine this is analogous to drinking Turkish Coffee.)
See, I’m a Downhill Person. I love stepping down, then down again, then down once more, ever faster as momentum builds. I love the jarring shock of my legs absorbing the full weight of me with each step or turn. When I ski, I fly downhill. When I hike, I run downhill. When I am in the throes of a moment I want to savor forever, I run downhill. Even when I’m afraid, I find it’s best to take a deep breath and go downhill.
If the uphill is meditation, the downhill is ecstasy. At speed, I am released to being the child flying, arms flailing, as she runs into the arms of her mother.
(Aside: My love of the downhill is funny, because I am afraid of heights. But I think much of my fear isn’t fear at all, simply a horrified reaction to l’appel du vide. The call is strong in me. It stubbornly persists, insisting that I could fly if only I jumped. I long to fly. If I could, I would fly as high as Icarus, then drop like a peregrine, only to open my wings and climb once more. This is why I ski. It is my answer to l’appel du vide.)
The balance between Uphill and Downhill is the joy of earning your turns. By going both ways, reap the benefits of both motions and mindsets. The zen and the ecstasy – or whatever it is that goes through your heart as you get out there and enjoy.
How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend – going Uphill or Downhill? (Or relaxing around a grill?)
In the span of a week, my photostream transformed from this:
Now, my routine has turned to running and long bike rides along the water.
Running-wise, my mileage is low and the pace steady. It’s taking time for my body to re-align after a cold winter spent locked in to stiff ski boots. Monday morning’s brisk 2 mile jog was the first time I really felt myself hitting the perfect stride – forefoot striking with balance and energy.
As to the cycling, I confess. I’m not much of a biker. My dad and elder brothers are pretty into it, so I made a point to not be. But, after a 14 mile spin along the waterfront, I’m starting to see the appeal: the gratifying sensation of speed, the pleasure of exercising in the sun, and, more importantly… a built-in air conditioner! It’s no skiing, but at least it’s cool.
I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountains, though. First for hiking, then trail running, picking up the pace as I train for the Spartan Race. I did the 3 mile version last year, and am looking forward to the long form. Nothing sounds like more fun that running up and down a mountain through mud, under obstacles, over rope ladders… and through a gauntlet of gladiators.
There’s a lot I’m looking forward to this summer, but don’t expect the ski talk to disappear completely. I’ll be writing up a review of my new skis (Head’s Sweet Ones) in a few days, and I’m sure I’ll find some other way to keep the snow alive this summer.
How’s your spring going? Are you keeping the snow alive?
Have you gotten the sense yet that spring is not my favorite thing? My roommate certainly has. It must get tiring listening to my nonsensical rants against the warming of the world. Between the loss of snow and the rise of allergies, these months get me pretty ornery.
But, there is nothing less constructive than raging against the weather. Instead, make the best of it. Focus on the seasonality of things.
24 years of skiing and this sport still surprises me. Mid-winter coverage all the way into April. Corn snow as light as powder. With every turn, the falling ssshhhhhhh sound of sand downhill. Only… it’s still snow.
Clouds hung on to the summit for dear life – like winter holding out against spring. The sun broke through in the lower elevations, however, baking the corn into wet, soft mush.
We spent the day in the trees. In April.
The next morning, I sat on a porch in a t-shirt sipping coffee watching the grass turn slowly greener.
This is what I meant in my last post when I said “April in Vermont rubs the world down to its body.”
In the first few weeks of spring, after the snow melts, but before the grass really shakes itself awake… you find geography. The contour lines of the world.
I’m very interested in lines. I’m endlessly charmed by contours. The boundaries between river and earth and more earth and sky. Even the way telephone wires cross the sky, dividing the blue into parts of a whole. Or an overhanging roof against a gray morning.
Two weekends ago, Craig (the snowboarder) met me at the mountain for a few Easter runs. We found still other friends and rode the gondola swapping stories and comments on the overcast sky.
The woods that day were certainly a happy surprise – untracked, empty, heavy with the best snowpack Vermont’s seen all season. After the first run, we were so hot and sweating that we both shed layers and got back out at it, our snowpant vents zipped open.
March is a funny month. Just as people gear up for spring, cabin fever driving them mad, winter delivers. Mid-week snow storms that make me dizzy with envy as I watch from work. Long days on the slopes with smaller crowds. Or even short romps – a few hours, a few runs to justify sitting in the parking lot with a beer and a portable grill.
Now, April. April plays tricks with hearts. Snowing one day, hot sun the next, rain yet another. Sometimes, two or three seasons in a single day. I think I agree with T.S. Eliot:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
But last weekend, riding to Massachusetts for my nephew’s baptism, I saw the earth and just the earth. If nothing else, April in Vermont rubs the world down to its body. It reveals the contours – the rolling hills, the glacial-worn cliffs, the geography – that all other seasons hide. And that’s a beautiful view, too.
It’s always to soon to leave the mountains and the cold behind – the white coating that erases the pressures and stress of life in the valleys.
Last week was the last ski race of the season, and with an old knee injury aggravated, I’m afraid it might just be the end of my winter. But it’s too soon. (It’s always too soon.)
I can feel my knee healing by increments as some combination of ice, ibuprofen, elevation, and gentle exercise combine. Minutes on my bicycle add up to a stronger joint, but the going is slow and I am impatient. I’m worried it won’t be strong enough in time the long hike up to Tuckerman Ravine, my favorite part of spring.
The knee problem has happened before. The last time, my knee gave out on Tuckerman Ravine, which gave me my first ever, albeit mild, concussion. I won’t be making that mistake again, but I want to be on that mountain. There is no better way to say hello to spring than standing on the ridge of Mt Washington, looking down on the green world emerging.
It’s cold again. I even biked through a Friday snow squall with flakes as large as quarters blurring my vision. But soon it will be warm. It won’t be long before I’m running outside, floating in Lake Champlain, and (if I conquer my fear) mountain biking.
I know plenty of people who say their favorite time to ski is in the spring, when powder days are interspersed with warm sunshine and soft snow. Smiles on faces and barbecues in parking lots. But I hate it. I hate watching the snow melt away. I hate emerging from hibernation, shedding layers in the heat until it’s me that’s melting.
For everything there is a season. But winter will always be mine.
Will you be missing winter, too? Or is there something special about spring that you can’t wait for?