I learned to cross-country ski from a student of mine about three years ago, on an excursion with a bunch of other novices and a few ultra-experienced daredevils who could launch themselves off the side of a hill, spin in the air — skis flashing like juggled knives — and land upright. I fell a lot and was proud just to shuffle forward on flat ground. But by the end of the afternoon, I was sold. As often as possible, that winter and the next, I rented a pair of boots and skis and poles from a shop in town and headed out on the winter-groomed trails and river bottoms around town. I do best on flat ground (once I stopped a downhill descent by just hurling myself into a snowbank), but it’s amazing how easy cross-country skiing really is. Now snow is something to look forward to.
Last month, after the first snowfall, I finally decided that since a winter’s worth of rental is the cost of a good used pair of skis, and since I am determined to combat the effects of too many hours at the desk, it was time to get my own skis — cheapskatishly, of course. I went to the shop I always rent from, where the owner remembers my boot size from year to year (that’s the kind of town this is). “You got anything you want to retire from your rental fleet?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, “I could let these ones go… and these poles, how about $10 for the pair?” And I took from the rack the same sturdy white and red and black skis I had rented every winter, thrilled with ownership: now they are mine. Even with my brand-new boots — which broke in like a dream — I paid half the cost of a whole new setup. Even when I’d only been on them a few minutes, I knew this was the best money I had spent all year.
Even aside from the exercise benefits, there’s so much to love about skiing, from the soft swish, swish sound to the mindless pleasure of the repeated motion and the changing scenery all around you to the haze of historical associations that come to mind: Norwegians fought the Nazis on skis. Your tracks are just a few of many in the snow – goose, turkey, deer, dog, coyote, human – but often you are the only moving person in the landscape. A hawk or eagle wheels dreamily overhead, slowly. You can watch a flock of geese bank and drop, wings high and still, down onto the water and think of Dante’s analogy in Inferno when Paolo and Francesca heed his call and turn back and drop out of the air with exactly that motion – he compares them to doves returning to the nest.
On a clear day the light is dazzling, working along with the cold air to blast the indoor, sedentary fog from your brain. Like yoga, skiing loosens up your knotted thoughts and sets everything running forward again. Forward and outward. Again I am reminded: getting outside and moving flips the switch that converts us back into our Best Selves. Things become clear, stress loosens its grip, problems edge closer to solutions, outlines of the life you want shimmer into view. And the possibilities become calm, specific, clear: I will do things differently in 2014: fewer late nights in the office and more time with friends. I will not worry so much. I will save more money and go ahead and switch the 403 b to the “aggressive” allocation. I will eat less sugar and try not to freak out in head-balance pose in yoga class because I know it won’t kill me and learning that momentary fear won’t kill you is the point of yoga – one of many. I will try a new haircut. I will not be afraid of the future because I am doing my best to shape it now. And I will definitely spend more time on skis.