Zen and the Art of Cross Country Skiing

We booked a short getaway at the historic Mount Washington Hotel a couple of days after the new year. There was holiday season stress to shake and a lukewarm agreement to give cross country skiing a try. As a general rule, I am pretty terrible at anything requiring even a hint of athleticism. Even mini-golf feels too daunting with all those angles and whatever it is that you’re supposed to do with your wrists. Strap a couple of strips of thin metal to my feet and put me out on a field of icy snow and it’s a guaranteed bad situation. But New England winters are long and notoriously punishing on your skin, your psyche, and your diet. I indulge in a bit too much hibernating that turns from restorative to Miss Havisham bleakness in the time it takes a banana to brown. Perhaps a tolerable winter-centric activity might help. A quick survey of available options–snowboarding (aka death on a shingle); ice skating (aka death on two blades); or snowmobiling (aka death in a supped up go-cart)—made cross country skiing seemed almost doable.

Built in 1902, the hotel squares its shoulders against the massive peaks of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast (aka death at six thousand feet, like, for real). It’s a beautiful beast of a place, bearing an unsettling resemblance to the murderous hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The long, white wings of the hotel stretch outward as if to embrace visitors, or if you’re still stuck on The Shining comparison, as if to smother them in some kind of supernatural rage.

Stepping inside the hotel is like falling back in time. Enormous white columns march down the length of the impossibly wide, grand lobby. Glittering chandeliers cluster overhead in bunches of exotic, glass fruit. Lush couches and chairs cluster around the towering brick fireplaces that look like they could have easily powered the Titanic. Standing out on any one of its expansive verandas overlooking the mountain range, you can almost see the procession of Model T’s snaking up the long, curving drive to the hotel, packed with steamer trunks and families eager to spend the summer months in the bracing fresh air and magisterial landscape of New Hampshire.

What is idyllic in June turns moody and foreboding cloaked in the snow and early gloaming of January, which is where we found ourselves, along with our instructor, Jim, an affable 60-something ski instructor with a sinewy body of a CGI Spiderman and the patience of a Buddha.

In the course of our lesson I have not managed to connect any of the dots to this practice.  I have slid and skidded, my feet rebelling underneath me, arms pinwheeling like Wile E. Coyote in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I have wrestled with my ski poles—“Okay, looks like you’ve got the straps a bit tangled,” says Jim smiling the entire time, his tone laced with Mayberry conviviality. I have failed to master the basic motor coordination that, off skis, powers me through my day as an advanced biped. The call to give in to hibernation mode becomes a siren’s wail.

After the basics of “staying mostly upright on skis” have been covered, there really isn’t much else you can do with someone other than deposit them at the edge of a trail with a wave and jaunty, albeit slightly dubious, “have fun!,” which is just what Jim did as he turned and deftly glided out of sight.

I am torn between wanting to already declare, “Well, I tried! I guess this just isn’t for me,” dislodge my boots, clomp back to the ski lodge to medicate with a mug of hot chocolate, and giving it a genuine chance. A loophole in the adulthood contract most of us don’t want to talk about out loud is giving yourself permission to quit, to bail, to take a pass on things without losing too much sleep over it. Few of us live a reality where we have someone like the coach from Rocky hurling spit-filled, caustic encouragement in our faces to not give up, to want it bad, and to pummel the bastard (metaphorically speaking, hopefully). We rise and fall on every decision we make with on one else to blame or motivate but ourselves. I do the math and decide it’s worth trying to shift my “give it a shot” numbers into the black.

The trail ascended in a gentle incline, and I was pretty skeptical that I could make it very far. However, a few paces along and suddenly it was as if my body and muscles put my brain in the infant seat in the back and took the wheel. Everything that Jim had tried to each me segment by segment (and which I mucked up piece by piece) almost effortlessly gelled into one, cohesive, self-propelling engine.

I skimmed along the silky snow barely registering what my body was doing, which left me free to enjoy my surroundings. Thick stacks of towering pines flanked the trail, the view broken periodically by expanses of clearing—prairies in miniature, the “happy little” provinces of a Bob Ross world. An ice-encrusted river chased us from about twenty feet below the steady incline. It burst open at intervals in riotous pools of water rushing so fast it appeared green with churn. Every so often bird call sounded, but otherwise there was nothing but the rhythmic slivering of our skis.

Each time I tried to unstrap my brain from its car seat to focus on bending my legs or swinging my arms the way Jim showed me, I would skid out of step. Each time I let my mind wander to think about anything related to the daily regular—obligations, responsibilities, return anxieties about the general, dismal state of political affairs—I lost the cadence and fumbled enough so that I was forced to slow down and begin again. It was if the entire enterprise gently, but firmly, requested my inattention.

After a while it became easier to shift into the interior white space that mirrored the exterior one. I felt the lift that comes with getting a vacation from the constant and somewhat pointless vigilance we bring to a thousand different parts of our daily lives. This is trapeze artists’ trick of catch and release without question or hesitation—raw faith, blind trust that there is something apart from and more primal than you with its hands on the wheel. I relaxed into all of it, happy to bail after all.


Leave a Reply