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  • December 28th, 2018

ME AND SKINNY SKIS

By Joel M. Vance

I don’t need Donald J Trump, that pus-filled boil on the body politic and his dimwitted acolytes to tell me there is no such thing as climate change. I’ve seen it happening for eight decades. Winters are getting warmer, no doubt about it—even though we still have the occasional blizzards to give the weather forecasters something to talk about.

 

When our first born daughter, Carrie, was one week old in the first days of January, 1960, one of the heaviest snowfall winters in modern recorded history, en route to a doctor’s checkup, we dropped her in a snowdrift. Cushioned by the deep snow, she was uninjured and we fished her out, horrified as new parents, but grateful that she was too young to be traumatized by the incident.

 

Although, you have to wonder. She chose to go to college at Bemidji State University, located in one of the coldest cities in the nation, and spent the first 35 years of her adult life in Minnesota, a state where ice anglers in the winter possibly outnumber normal wet water anglers in the summer. And when she finally moved with her husband, Ron, it was to the snowcapped Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

 

Along the way, Carrie and I both learned to cross country ski— negotiating snowy slopes on skinny skis. It’s known as Nordic skiing as opposed to downhill or Alpine skiing I was a pioneer cross-country skier in our home city and credit myself with bringing awareness of cross-country skiing to a town that previously had only known the occasional foray by the YMCA and a few others to Colorado to downhill ski at that state’s many resorts.

 

Before winter became as balmy in Missouri as it is in most of those states south of the Mason-Dixon line I had accumulated a cadre of skinny ski aficionados who haunted the local golf course with me on snowy days. I recall one such day, sunny and 13°, with a hefty covering of ski-able snow. After a couple of hours of the kind of exercise that everyone recommends and few practice, we retired to warm places and laced ourselves with hot chocolate. That was a quintessential good old day, not experienced since.

 

Some of us adventurous thirtysomething couples did make trips to Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, and Crested Butte in Colorado to downhill ski (once we got trapped by a Kansas blizzard on Interstate 70 and spent the night camped out in a Stuckey’s, sleeping under rock ashtrays and other detritus offered for sale by that defunct quick stop franchise) but none of our downhill ski group ever switched to skinny skis except for me. There didn’t seem to be any thrill in what , to them, amounted to a form of super jogging when compared to the excitement of “balls to the wall” downhill racing on black diamond slopes.

 

I was never comfortable on downhill skis which had a disconcerting habit of developing terrifying speed instantly that defied my ability to control it. It was like a 14-year-old boy sitting in the family car waiting for daddy and deciding that it would be delicious fun to shift into reverse and gingerly step on the gas to see what would happen. What happened (and I know because the 14-year-old was me) was that the car instantly lurched backward crunching into someone else’s vehicle. It only takes a moment of loss of control on downhill skis to turn me back into a 14-year-old, terrified of what daddy will find out when he returns to the family car and what he will do about it.

 

Only one time did I venture downhill on cross-country skis. I made it from top to bottom without breaking anything skeletal, but was not inspired to try it again. I did learn the mystery of the telemark turn and it came in handy when my skinny skis began to pick up far more speed than I was comfortable with. Until the summer before my venture downhill, I had no idea what a telemark turn was. My wife, Marty, and I were staying at a Colorado resort and met a young couple on their honeymoon. After we got back to Missouri, I read an article in Sports Illustrated magazine about a young man who had rediscovered something called the telemark turn. His name was Rick Borkovec and he was the young man who was honeymooning with his new wife. He had seen an old Norwegian using the telemark and he experimented until he mastered it in 1971 and introduced it as a member of the Crested Butte resort ski patrol in the 1980s.

 

Rediscovery of the telemark turn also is credited to a fellow named Dick Hall, a Killington, Vermont, skier who, back in the 1970s, read about the telemark in an old ski book which described it as a turn obsolete and not used anymore. Regardless of the credit for rediscovering the telemark, it is a useful if esoteric method of turning the skis from straight ahead to one side or the other, preferably before the skier hits an unforgiving tree head on (ask Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher about the results of that).

 

Anyone who has downhill skied knows that the ski boots are firmly fastened to the boards and turns are made by unweighting and leaning the body whichever way you want to turn. The telemark has to compensate for the fact that your heels are free from the skis which, of course, want to keep going straight when you want to turn. The answer is to thrust one ski forward of the other, arms akimbo, and crouch on the trailing ski leaning into the turn kind of like a plane banking for an approach to the runway. If it works as advertised, the skis obligingly will turn the way you want them to. If not, you will emulate the late Sonny Bono.

 

Or, you could be born and raised in Norway, and save me the trouble of trying to explain something that you either can Google, experiment on your own, a la Borkovec and Hall, or forget the whole thing because, with climate warming, you probably won’t have to worry about telemark turns anyway.

 

 One Christmas we visited Carrie and her husband, Ron, in Minnesota and cross-country skied at the Minnesota Zoo, gliding on groomed trails past timber wolves, moose, and incongruously a camel. The camel, which most of us associate with the searing heat of the Sahara Desert, seemed perfectly at home in subzero temperatures, which was more than we could say about ourselves and as dedicated as we were to cross-country skiing, it was a relief to shed them and head for a warm building and something hot to drink.

 

Visualize a cold winter night clear and shot with stars, the moon a pale fingernail amid the sparkle of the heavens. A snowstorm has passed, leaving 8 inches of fluffy white over Jefferson City. There is no traffic, the snowplows are not yet out, and the streets are silent—what few house lights show indicate that the inhabitants are holed up, watching television or probably asleep.

 

We lived halfway down a steep hill two blocks from a municipal golf course which was my personal cross country ski area. Given the new snow and the absence of traffic, I could ski up the hill negotiate the two blocks to the golf course and glide onto the top of a hill (Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, is built on a Missouri River bluff and is a series of ups and downs). I could spend as long as I wanted there in the night, skiing the hills and valleys of the golf course, sometimes with the family collie for company, mostly alone. It was peaceful there in the night, just me and the stars (and maybe the dog). The skis made little sound. My first set of cross-country skis required waxing to achieve grip on the snow, but later ones featured a herringbone bottom which grips the snow and allowed me to climb hills without sliding backward.

 

Thank God for this invention which obviates the necessity of waxing the ski bottoms so they will hold on upward inclines. Waxing involves coating the ski bottom with varying consistencies of wax, depending on the consistency of the snow.  It is done with the delicate artistry of a Renaissance painter creating a masterpiece for the ages. But as soon as you get this goo coated on your skis, the sun comes out, the snow softens, and the wax you applied so carefully does not apply anymore.

 

Waxing, in short, is a massive pain. I gave my wooden skis to a fellow who was a classic sociopath—the world revolved about him and he was a genius at absorption— he absorbed ideas and recycled them as his own,  anything that had the possibility of benefiting him, no matter whom he hurt in the process. I told him about waxing, enjoying the possibility that he would smear both the skis and his self proclaimed reputation for expertise in all things— but a day or two later he was pontificating about ski waxing to a credulous group and you would have thought he was born in Norway and had invented ski waxing all by himself. It was a happy day for me when we mutually decided never again to be associated with each other in any way.

 

I consigned my left over containers  of ski wax to the trash bin, bought a new set of waxless skis and headed for the golf course.

 

This is the way it used to be before we stopped having enough snow in winter to allow cross-country skiing in mid-Missouri. We still have the occasional snow and even more occasionally enough snow to call it a snowstorm— but we don’t have lasting snow anymore. It melts off in a day or two and we’re back to the rocks and red dirt that is the base of Cole County. A half-dozen sets of cross-country skis rest in a rack in our mud room, unused for years now.

 

They have seen their day and, I guess, I have too.  With my luck, if I ever have a chance to return to cross-country skiing on a star shot night with a fresh and trackless newfallen snow, and a deserted golf course calling to me, I probably will discover that Donald J Trump has bought the damn thing and is charging half a million bucks to use it .

 

That climate change is real is not in dispute, despite Donald Trump’s ignorant refusal to accept reality. Hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico and parts of the southern United States, the state of California is burning to the ground which Trump, with his typical massive ignorance, blames on poor forest management (apparently every citizen should be issued a leaf rake with his or her birth certificate so they can comb the forests clean of combustible material— a proposal that is so incredibly stupid as to make you wonder how Donald J Trump ever got past the fourth grade). Half of the 10 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred in the last year, the result of drought caused by climate change, not the result of poor leaf management.

 

But enough of the depressing news— better to remember those long ago snowy nights when the world seemed clean and glistened under starlight and there was no turmoil at least for a couple of hours when I could glide over the pristine hills and dales of the local golf course with nothing more portentous on my mind than whether we had enough hot chocolate mix at home when I racked up the skis at the front door and entered into the gentle welcome of home.

 

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