At 3pm on April 9, 2011, I added a walk-in closet to my mental landscape and stuffed the ski season into it. And then I locked the door. This, strictly, in pure self-defense. I made my last run at 12:45pm, and just as the snow was starting to move from soft to slushy, I stripped off my gear, dropped my slats in the shop for a summer wax, and hit the wake going on at the bottom of the hill in the form of the Brewer’s Festival, at which me and 2,500 of my BFFs proceeded to get roaring drunk on New England microbrews. And before I woke up from the post-beerfest coma, I’d locked the ski season away in a lead coffin, socked it into a vacuum, and hermetically sealed the door.
Because it was absolutely too much to contemplate the prospect of eight (8) months without skiing. And the thing I dreaded most of all was my subconscious rooting all of that out and tormenting me with dreams of flying down endless pristine slopes of white, curving and carving with the winter sun on my hair and tingly sprinkles of snowflakes dusting down from above. And waking up to the realization that it would be another six, seven, or – heaven help us – eight months until I could be there, doing that, again. No. It was just too painful to consider. And so I bagged my skis promptly and stowed them and my boots and my helmet and the other 100 lbs of gear and stuck them invisibly into the back of my bricks-and-mortar closet, and I locked the door on my memories.
And there, they have stayed, until today. Mercifully, the bonds held, and I was not tortured with ski dreams in the off season. The price of this is that I had nothing but the sterile recollection that I am passionately fond of skiing…devoid of the passion, as if it was something I had read in the New York Times. “I love to ski” I could say or think, but it had none of the immediacy or urgency of actually “loving”. And eventually, I grew to wonder if I did love to ski, or if the loving to ski was itself a dream. I couldn’t feel it.
It’s probably just as well. The suck weather that we’ve been burdened with all year – tornadoes, hurricanes, and freak untimely blizzards has carried through with its early promise of misery, and granted us endless days above 50 and nights well above freezing. These are not temperature ranges suitable for helping Mother Nature’s bounty out with a series of snow guns. On Wednesday it was 65 in Northampton. By Wednesday night, thank heavens, things were starting to turn around, and my BFFs up in Vermont were able to start blowing snow in earnest. And yesterday, my hill opened for the first day of skiing this season.
I did not join them in this. For one, I got a price break on my season pass because it doesn’t let me ski on Saturdays. This is fine, because Saturdays are a terrible day to ski. Way, way too many people. Way, way too many of those people are complete punters who thought to save some time and money by skipping ski lessons, and in consequence, waste both of them (as well as creating a hassle for everyone else on the slopes).
No. I ran my skis to the shop to get the summer wax off and the slope wax on and picked them up Friday night. Even then the closet was locked. I waited, giving them another 24 hours to coat the runs with snow (and this was a good decision, I am told). And I checked the live cam and saw that, yes, there was snow, and yes, there were skiers. And still it wasn’t real, and still I didn’t feel it.
Nor did I feel it this morning, running through the Ski Day Ritual: checking the forecast, selecting various and sundry layers, double-checking the contents of the boot bag, slugging down a dense hot chocolate in lieu of breakfast.
I didn’t feel it on the way up, and even the sight of the staties setting up for their Winter Ski Action didn’t make it real. The Massachusetts State Police is one of the most highly educated forces in the country, and it really shows in the creativity and skill with which they locate their cruisers when designing speed traps for skiers. No, really. I-91 is a straight shot from New York City to Canada, and is the route servicing the Vermont ski areas as far as drivers from the City, New Jersey, Westchester County, and Connecticut are considered. This is a truly impressive parcel of maniacal drivers with over-powered luxury vehicles and a fine disdain for the rules of the road. And the MA state cops know this, and they know that all of these egomanes consider Massachusetts to be some kind of Drive-Through Territory standing between them and their objective of the ski slopes. We’re not getting any tourist dollars from them, so it doesn’t cost us anything to write nice big fat speeding tickets. It’s a different story in Vermont, where state troopers are remarkable in their absence from the heavily-trafficked ski-area access roads. Consequently, in Massachusetts, the onset of Ski Season is characterized by a dramatic increase in the Police Presence on I-91, typically seen only in circumstances where informants have provide information about drug mules running giant cartloads of cocaine and heroin up to the international border.
You can easily tell the difference between the Major Drug Bust Action and the Winter Ski Action. The Drug Bust cops park their black-and-whites on the median, and wait for the drug-addled lunatics to scream by unwittingly. The Winter Ski cops hide their cars. They hide them behind bridge abutments. They hide them behind small bushes. They hide them behind work barrels. They hide them behind Jersey barriers. They hide them in places that don’t seem like they’d be big enough to hide a chopper, let alone an entire state police car. They’re clever. We have an artistic appreciation of this, because we know it happens, and we’re careful to keep the car close to the posted limit until we get into Vermont.
But even the sight of troopers working hard to line our state coffers with big fines for moving violations didn’t make it real for me.
That closet stayed locked and barred all the way up through the mountains. The locks stood fast against the last big turn down the mountain, the one that puts our ski area front and center in the windshield, and where I could see the sparkling clouds of snow crystals rising up through the air from the fan guns. They even stayed shut as I wrestled my boots on and worked up a sweat in the lodge simply getting geared up.
And they stayed that way until the moment I threw my skis down, checked the snow brakes, and stepped into the bindings. There is a sound and a sensation, a type of firm, solid, clunk, that happens when – and only when – I step into my ski bindings. And that tiny sound, and that small solid click, blew the locks on that closet wide up, and burst the hermetic seals, and let the ski season pour out in splendid, marvelous technicolor, amped up with the smell of Der Vaffle Shack and the smoke coming off the grill in the burger joint, and the grease on the lift. It was amped up by the crunching of ski edges in the snow, and the regular clack-clack-clack of the lift chairs cycling through the loading zone. It was amped up by the sun on my face and the cold breeze in my hair, and that utterly unmistakable wonderful slippery slidy feeling of the snow under my skis. And when the rush cleared, it was there, and it was real, and it was fresh. I no longer had an abstract recollection that I am passionately fond of skiing. I had, instead, an irrepressible and immediate need to get onto the lift and start sailing.
What I say is this: Thank God I Built That Closet And Locked That Stuff Up. It would have made me miserable through the end of April, into May, and June, and July, and August, and September, and October, and November, and the early part of December. My nighttime dreams would have been a taunting misery of ersatz sensations, dragged imperfectly from memory, and thrown at my awareness piecemeal. Waking would have been yet worse. Locking that door was one of the best decisions I’ve made all year, possibly as good a decision as buying Huey, even.
And there I was, lofting to the top of the mountain on the new lift, and hoping against hope that I’d actually remember how to ski. In April, I was ripping down the easier blacks, and skiing every blue on the hill. Today, I aimed for the long green run. My favorite blues have not yet been treated to a coating of man-made snow. The blue that was available is one of the most difficult blues on the mountain. Granted, it’s the same blue I bombed down at speed on April 9th right before stripping my gear for the season. But my self-preservation instinct directed me to the green cruiser.
A jolly good thing it did, too. For one, my spirit clearly remembered how to ski beautifully. My body, on the other hand, has spent the last eight months on a horse, and using entirely different muscles. It’s not that my body didn’t remember how to ski. It did. It was just running, say, about 30 seconds slower on everything than my spirit was.
I skied off the lift and without thinking, ripped a hockey stop to turn out of the disembarking traffic and geared up with my poles at the same time. In that small gesture, the last eight months folded up into a space approximately two weeks wide. They vanished. It was as if I had been away from the slopes for a matter of a few days, not most of the year. It was…remarkable.
Unfortunately, this was also a source of considerable frustration, because to my subjective experience, I was pounding down a black diamond a few weeks ago…
…it has been, in fact, eight months since any of these muscles were used.
And thus began the minor bickering and squabbling that one always experiences when the familiar runs head-on into lapsed time: My brain says “turn, turn, turn, edge, turn. pole turn pole turn pole turn edge some more turn.” While my body says “…turn…turn….turn….oh shit, caught that edge…recover…turn…pole…oops…turn….pole.”
And, thanks to the fact that there were loads of punters scraping the slope while major snowmaking operations were ongoing, the slope featured areas that were scraped down to hardpack by incompetent snowboarders…alternating with big stashes of powder, piled up randomly. Twice, in the effort to avoid noob skiers on their haphazard trajectories I would up with my own tails bogged down in a powder stash, and blam I went down. None of these were particularly impressive falls – not like the snowboarder who rocketed across the face of the slope in front of me, catching his forward edge and launching into an aerial somersault before landing twenty feet down the hill. Mine were tiny little pissy falls, hardly worth the term, and good only for reminding me that it’s not at all reasonable to compare my first day of this season against the last day of the last one.
I did hit the blue slope for a single run, and that was enough. The snow guns were operating at a furious pace, giving us a true powder experience on that run. And the “true powder experience” means “get there early, because after the first hour, it’s going to be one long field of massive moguls, heading straight down the face of the mountain”. Unfortunately, I arrived in hour three or four, well after the entire run had been converted to gigantic moguls.
My primary ski is a Volkl Tierra, and I love that ski. It grips the ice hard enough to make it scream. If I need to ski New England Ice Runs, this is the ski I want to be riding.
In powder, however, it’s a bust. Slush, too, which is why I acquired a late-season purchase last year of a pair of Rossignol S7W twin-tip powder skis. These are the boards I rode for the entire last month of the season last year – so in addition to recovering ancient muscle memory, I was also doing it on a pair of – by then – unfamiliar skis. Fortunately I had considered the possibility of running into soft snow, and had dragged my Rossis out to the hill with me. So at the end of that run, it was time for the Gear Change. And, as I thought, the Rossis turned out to be the Ski of the Day, and took me down the hardpack and the ice and the surprise powder stashes a hell of a lot more comfortably than my Volkls did.
By noon-thirty, it was time to quit. And that’s when I remembered the rest of it…Phase Two: Apres Ski.
There is nothing, and I am willing to stand by this and swear it on my granny’s grave, there is nothing that tastes better after skiing for hours than a nice cold beer. And nachos. Or possibly a burger, but the beer is not optional. I don’t care what kind of beer it is. Even a Bud Light would taste like the Best Beer Ever when you’re kicking it back while restoring sensation to your toes and watching the lifts. Nothing is better than a cold one after skiing. And while I wouldn’t turn down a Bud Light, I’m even yet more grateful when it’s a microbrew. Stouts and porters are fine, but what you really want is something light. A pilsner. Maybe an IPA. Maybe even a lager. It’s strange, but the same kind of beer you’d want after mowing the lawn is the same kind of beer your want for your first brew straight from the slopes.
I’ve unleashed the monster, and now I can only think of when I’m going next. Soon, I hope.