Ways to go

Learning to move is a task that comes along just a few times per life. As an infant you get two opportunities: first learning to crawl, then to walk. Four or five years later you jump in a pond or pool and learn to swim. Next you might put on roller skates or ice skates. Soon you’re taking the terrifying and exhilarating first trip down the driveway on a bicycle.

Once these are all second nature, you have to become more proactive about propelling yourself in new ways. Adding to your repertoire of locomotion now requires seeking new environments — mountains, rock faces, whitewater — or mastering new equipment — skateboards, surfboards, pogo sticks, or (boringly) cars.

I’ve always preferred the basics: I’m an outdoor walker. I’ve found very few places my feet can’t take me, and very little reason to try improving on the experience of marching up a mountain, scrambling a scree slope, or weaving through brush. Other forms of backcountry locomotion have too high an investment threshhold. Too much gear to buy and manage, too much screwing around and messing up before you get down to doing the thing itself (time you could have spent hiking and actually going somewhere). Maybe all this would be worthwhile if anything could be as free-ranging and versatile as foot travel. But nothing comes close. And by these standards of easy accessibility and high versatility, the very worst form of locomotion might be skiing.

Temperatures plunged, daylight crept away, snow fell. The trails were buried, though my desire to be on them was not. Quite the opposite. Even before we had snow, everybody talked about skiing. Some of my friends were experts, some novices. Appointments were made, lessons were given. The novices began collecting scrapes and bruises, but in the process also picked up a methodical competence. The trending conversations were about trails and grooming and how to get cheap gear. By the time December trudged into January, some of them were beginning to get good at it.

I was among the novices. I’d done a smattering of downhill skiing in other places, and spent a total of one weekend last winter wearing myself out on local trails with a pair of rented classic skis. I did not have a natural inclination, nor an enthusiasm, for it. But when a chance came to join the more experienced skiers in the hills above Homer, I didn’t remember the mediocrity of my experience last year. Instead I thought about the limited opportunities a person has to move in new ways, and how novelty waits for those who will chase it. He not busy being born is busy dying (Bob Dylan said that), so I rented the classics from Beemun’s again and headed down to Homer.

If you remember your first few ski outings, you know exactly how it went. You know the rest of the story, and I did too. I wasn’t surprised at how easily I could lose my feet on level ground, or at how often I killed my stride by gouging a ski into a treacherous patch of snow. I had expected frustrations, if not these specific frustrations. No, the thing that surprised me was how little the frustration bothered me, and how much greater was my enjoyment at learning yet again how to move. Solving a dozen small puzzles a minute until your nerves and muscles are trained, and then learning to get out of your own way to allow the smooth thrill of continuous falling — falling, and not catching yourself exactly, but somehow making the energy of the fall carry you not down but forward in an ideally frictionless way over the snow, a way that continues as long as you’ll let it.

I’m still not a convert to skiing. I might be, if it weren’t for the uncertainty. I still think of it in terms of investment, and it doesn’t feel like a favorable climate for investing in winter sports. I haven’t made the commitment of purchasing skis — would you buy a rather expensive swimsuit if every time you went to the pool, there was only a 50-50 chance it would have water? Several ski races scheduled at Tsalteshi Trails this winter have turned into runs instead — there is frequently not enough snow for skiing in Alaska in January. I’ll be watching the forecast, though, and will probably rent the classics from Beemun’s three or four more times before spring comes. I might even be a little sorry when it does.

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Nick Varney
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