Monthly Archives: March 2013

How To Ski An Unfamiliar Black Diamond Run In New England

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1. BEST OPTION: Be an expert skier.

2. FALL-BACK POSITION: Be a good skier.

3. WORST OPTION: Have your parents decide that if you’re going to learn to ski, you might as well do it on the most difficult terrain available so that nothing else will ever frighten you again.

If you’re in category 1, you don’t need this guide.

If you’re in category 3, you have my permission, and the permission of everyone else who actually belongs on black diamond runs, to sue your parents for divorce as soon as you’re old enough to operate a microwave.  We’ll probably even help you.  This kind of behavior – and yes, it happens, I see it every time I ski an expert slope is selfish, reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous.  It’s unsafe for the kids, it’s unsafe for the skiers who belong there.  Here’s a basic rule for you.  If your kid cannot make “french fry turns” all the way down any blue slope on the hill, you should not be escorting them over to the blacks.  If “pizza turns” are coming into the picture anywhere or anytime your kid does not belong on the blacks. I don’t care if you’re bored with the blues and want to ski something exciting.  Wait until it’s your spouse’s turn to babysit, or put those kids into ski school where they belong.  Don’t just drag them with you, you selfish, entitled jerks.

For the rest of us, in category 2, here are my valuable words of advice.

1. BEST OPTION: Ski the run with a buddy who is a better skier than you are and who is already familiar with the run.

2. FALL-BACK POSITION: Ski the run with a buddy who is as good as you are and who knows the run, or with a buddy who is better than you are but doesn’t know the run.

3. WORST OPTION: Do it completely alone.  This is how I do it, because, you know, you take what you can get.

If you’re in category 1 or 2, just go ski the run.

If you’re in category 3, this is for you:

Pick a run you can inspect from the lift.  Better yet, pick a run you can inspect from the lift and that has emergency exits (runs typically called things like “Bail Out” or “Escape” or “Second Thoughts”).  It is not advised to pick a run that cannot be seen at all until you are actually on it.  This is the Voice of Experience talking, here.  Trust it.

On your survey, make sure the run has actual snow on it, and is neither a sheet of ice nor covered with gigantic bumps (moguls). The bumps you will be able to see easily.  If it’s wavy and the current skiers on the run look like they’re playing in a bounce house, the run is bumped up.  The snow is more challenging.  Watch and Listen.  Do the skiers on the run kick up a visible spray when they turn?  Is this spray more than the span of your arm?  If so, then you’re probably good.  If there is no spray, and the primary impression you get from your ears is one of scraping sounds, then pick another day for your experiment.

Also on your survey, inspect the pitch of the run. Decide, from the vantage point of the lift, that the run isn’t that steep and tell yourself you can take it.  Keep repeating this all the way up on the lift.  Change your mind at the last minute and ski down an easier run.

Ride the lift back up and inspect the run again, this time telling yourself alternately that you can take it and castigating yourself for chickening out the last time.  

Make it to the head of the run.  Realize that the run is so steep the horizon line is 20 feet away and you cannot see anything beyond that.  Remember that the turning radius on your skis is 15 meters, which means that by the time you get the opportunity to set an edge and brake, you will be well beyond that 20 foot horizon and it will be too late to bail out.  If the hill is not crowded, buy some Thinking Time by chickening out again.  Wear a paper bag over your head on the next trip up the lift in shame for chickening out twice.  If the hill is getting busy, deter yourself from chickening out by envisioning the lift lines and how much extra time you’re going to have to spend with that paper bag on your head, and decide the commit to the run.

Once you have decided to commit to the run, it is extremely important to do two things:

1. Drop in as soon as possible.  Do not stand about blocking the top of the run for an extended period.  This will have two effects: 1) pissing off all of the skiers who are not having to summon up the courage to take the run, and 2) expanding the psych-out opportunities and increasing the risk of the paper bag.

2. This is the most important thing.  DO NOT LOOK DOWN.  DO NOT LOOK OUT.  While you were deluded into underestimating the pitch of the run by forgetting that your lift chair is tilted to keep you in it, you are not deluded in thinking that this bloody run is so steep it’s amazing that you’re not just falling off into thin air. DO NOT LOOK DOWN.  Fortunately, if you’ve done a good job with 1 (drop in as soon as possible) you will find yourself so busy, immediately, that you won’t have time to rubberneck and give yourself a dangerous case of vertigo.  DO NOT LOOK DOWN.

Once you drop in and realize how steep the thing really is, you will be sorely tempted to revert to whatever god-awful learning stage got implanted in your head as the Position Of Last Resort.  For some people, this is pizza turns (wedging or snowplowing).  For some it is traversing endlessly.  For some it is setting a hard edge anywhere you can get it.  Of all these three things, the most dysfunctional is the pizza turn.  If you’re still doing that under duress, you need to go back and grab some more time on the easier runs until you stop.  Or, better, take some more lessons.  Endless traversing and setting edges will get you down this run, but they will do it at the expense of anyone who is trying to come down the run behind you…so if there are other people around and you know you’re going to do this kind of thing, pull over to the side and wait for the run to clear, then go.  The best solution is to ski this run like you ski any other run, just…slower.

DO NOT LOOK DOWN.

TRY NOT TO FALL.

Ski the run one turn at a time.  Pick your turn, and make it.  Resist the urge to 1) hold your breath, 2) lock your muscles, or 3) scream WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING at the top of your lungs.  Although, come to think of it, #3 makes #1 impossible, so maybe it’s not so bad.  Relax.  Stay mellow.  Stay loose.

Do not stay so loose that you let your feet wander apart from one another.  That kind of thing may be all well and fine on the easy terrain, but you’re on the steeps now, and getting spraddle-legged by even 12″ may leave you with your uphill leg fully flexed and your knee practically in your belly, while your downhill leg is fully extended and stiff.  This is a disaster and you will fall if you do this, and because you’re on the steeps, once you fall, you’re going to just keep going and going and going.  Good luck trying to check that downhill slide before you get to the lift lines at the base.  Much better to keep your skis between your feet and the snow.

Knees and hips loose, core firm.

DO NOT LOOK DOWN.

Also do not forget about your poles.  If you carry them loosely at your side between pole plants, you will find them scraping through the snow on the uphill side.  Either lean the heck away from the hill to make space for the pole (BEST OPTION) or stick your poles in the air out to the sides.  This will make you unpopular with other skiers, so follow the rule for endless traversing/setting edges, above.

BREATHE.

When you get to the bottom of the run, tell yourself that wasn’t so bad after all, and then go do it again, and this time, help yourself to remember to breathe by shouting WOOOO-HOOOO all the way down the run.  This will be considerably less annoying to the other skiers than traversing endlessly or sticking your poles way out to the side. It may even make them smile.

Warning: steeps have been known to be addictive.  Start doing them, and pretty soon, you’ll want to collect them all.

We Are Big And Red!

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My rider came this morning when I was eating breakfast in my stall.  She said Hi Huey! But I did not say anything at all because I was too busy eating.

A horse gets hungry overnight!

Then later I said Where is my grain?  And there was my rider, with my grain, so I said Pour that grain in my bucket now, rider! But she said Huey you are not the boss of me.  Get back.  But I could not get back.  It was time for my grain!!!  She said I was not going to get any grain at all until I went back.  I did not believe her, but there she was, making that noise she makes when she wants me to go away for a little while. She was holding that grain bucket!  I could not get any of it!!  And she kept saying Get back you bossy horse.  You are not the boss of me.  This is MY grain and I will share it with you but not until you move away!!  Well, I wanted that grain pretty badly by then, so I backed up.  And then, she poured it into my bucket!!!  I stuck my head right in there and sucked up a bunch of grain with my lips.  It was so good I put my head up in the air and shook it.  My rider said Huey. When you do that you put grain all over the floor.

She is right.  I do put it all over the floor.  But you know what?

That means there is more grain later!  When I come in, there is always grain on the floor of my stall!  I am saving it for a snack!!!  That is because I am a Smart Horse.  Other horses just eat all their grain, and then later I am eating my snack and they are all saying Why is Huey getting to eat grain and we are not?  And I tell them this is because they are not Smart Horses like me.

Then I was done with my grain for now.  And there is my rider, so I said Hello rider!!!  It is being a good day!  And she is giving me a Stink Eye and saying Huey.  What is this I hear that you are racing around your paddock like a lunatic, and bucking?  And rearing?  You are rearing?

And I am saying Well, yes, that is right.  I am racing around and bucking and rearing.  That is so the other horses will know that I am the biggest and bravest horse in the barn.  Besides, those other horses have been going and doing some work and it has been too long since I have been doing any work, and I am bored.  The sun is shining and the wind is blowing and I am hearing the worms start to move around in the dirt, and that is meaning that grass will be coming soon.  And the ice is gone. I am feeling like being a racing around horse again.

She made the Stink Eye go away and said I guess I can understand that.  But you are not doing that to people or you are getting into Very Big Trouble with me!

I said Of course I am not doing it to people!  Just to the other horses! And to the sky, and maybe to some clouds.  And to a lot of birds, they are here now too, and they need to know I am the Wonder Horse.

Then I said So, rider.  When are we riding again? All the horses say it is being time to go riding.

She said We are riding after all the snow is gone from the ring.  It is only half gone now.  So I said I will go out in that ring and make that snow go away!!  But she said And there is one more thing.  You took your shoes off and lost them, and we cannot go riding when you are not wearing shoes.

I said We did that before.

But she said Yes we did.  And remember, it made a small leg owie for you? And then we had to do lots of poky riding around?  That is because you have to wear shoes when we ride.

She was right.  We did ride without shoes, and it did make my leg owie.  Not like the owie I had last fall.  A smaller owie than that.  But all that poky riding was very boring, especially since Elvis got to jump.  And you know how he is.  All I was hearing all day long was Huey! You old horse! Did you have a nice slow short walk?  Did you see me making huge jumps?  When are you going to jump, Huey?

I hate Elvis.  I am making sure that he is getting to see a lot of my rearing and racing around.  I will jump out at him soon, and scare him, and then I will be laughing.

But that is not yet.  My rider said So, Huey, guess who is coming today?

I said I know!  You are!!

But she laughed and said I am already here!  Someone else will be here!  And it is Mr. Randy!

Well, then I was excited because Mr. Randy takes care of my hoofs.  He is a farrier.  That is a special Horse Hoof Person.  Sometimes he just makes my hoofs look nice, like last time.  Sometimes he does other stuff.  And guess what that other stuff is?

It is putting shoes on a horse.  For riding!!!

Then I was very happy because I thought that maybe Mr. Randy would be putting my shoes back on and that would mean it was almost riding time.  And that is what happened!!!  My rider had some old shoes and they fit and Mr. Randy put them right on my feet!!

Then I had to paw the ground for a while because I was wearing shoes and they felt strange after not wearing shoes.  And then my rider said HUEY. STOP THAT.  And when I turned around I saw she was giving me a very big Stink Eye.  So I stopped pawing.

After that Mr. Randy left and I said We are riding now, rider?  But she said No, remember, the ice has to go from the ring.  We are going in the Round Pen.  I am wanting to see if you are remembering your lessons.  And you are getting some exercise, because you have been One Lazy Horse this winter, standing around waiting for food.

I do not mind the Round Pen as much as I mind lunging. I have to lunge in my bridle, and the lunging line pulls on my bit and I do not like that.  I am a Sensitive Horse and my mouth is sensitive too.  But in the Round Pen I am just a naked horse, usually, like a wild horse.  No blanket, no tack, not halter, no nothing.  Just me and my hair and my teeth and my hoofs.  Also, the rider.  She takes the middle of the ring.  Mostly that is OK but sometimes there is trouble because I feel like cutting across the ring, but she says This is my space and you better get out of it right now, Huey!

And she is right.  I had better get out of that space.

Today, I was being a Good Horse and not trying to make a mess in my rider’s space.  I was being a Respectful Horse.  And I was being a stretching and running horse.  I was not really running.  I was trotting.  But it was a feeling good trot!! And my rider was saying Yes, Huey.  And she said Walk Huey and I remembered to walk.  And she said Trot Huey and I knew that meant for me to trot.  And I did only one piece of cantering.  I do not like cantering in the Round Pen so much because it is not a big enough place for me to canter.  I have a very big canter!  My rider says it eats the ground!

Then I got a huge scratch and my rider said Huey! You are being Good and Smart!  You are remembering what you are supposed to be doing!

I said Of course.  I am not a dummy.  Not like some of the horses around here.

I got a big scratch and I got my blanket back on and when that happened I smelled something.  I smelled a German Horse Muffin.  I knew my rider had one!! And I said Rider! Give me that muffin!  But she said Huey, you have to wait.  And do a stretch.  So I did the stretch but she did not give me the muffin, she just laughed and said Please wait until I am done putting this blanket on before you make a stretch!  So I did.  And then there were two German Horse Muffins and both of them were for me.

On the way back to the paddock, guess what I saw?  It was in my paddock.  It was a huge pile of hay.  All for me!  I went to go get it but then my rider said HUEY! HUEY! GET OFF!!  And I said What? And she said You are on my foot, Huey! Get off it!!  So I picked up my foot and I said I saw the hay and it made me excited.

She said I know, but you need to pay attention to things Huey.  You have big hard hoofs.  I have small soft feet.  It hurts me when you stand on me.

I said You do not have small feet.  You are a big person, like I am a big horse!  And we are both red.  A big red person and a big red horse!  That is us! We are together!!

And she laughed, and made a crinkly sound in her pocket, and then there was a peppermint!  I have not been having a peppermint in a very long time!!!  It was so good I even forgot about my hay pile!  But then I remembered and went to eat it.

I hope we are going to be riding soon!

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That is me and my rider. See? We are big, and we are red!

They Call It Mud Season

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And rightly so. The snows come, they cover the ground and look beautiful, and then – when the temperatures warm and rain begins to fall from the sky – they melt.  Onto frozen ground, at first.  Frozen ground doesn’t absorb water well, so the puddles of melt fill up all of the low-lying areas.  And then they freeze.  And they thaw and they freeze and they thaw.  Eventually, the ground also begins to thaw, and when it does, it releases whatever water fell on it in the fall before the frost set in.  Usually, while this happens, we get the “March coming in like a lion” and “April showers” that sound so delightfully poetic, but really mean days and days of leaden grey skies dropping mixtures of cold frozen and liquid precipitation, and finally, going to all rain.  Which combines with the thawing earth and the runoff problems to create giant natural tanks of mud.

This isn’t the nice kind of mud that rich people pay bazillions of dollars to be covered with by spa personnel.  This isn’t even the nice kind of mud that small children make mudpies from and get filthy.

This is Special Mud.  It’s black and slimy and has the consistency of a well-chewed Jujube.  To say that it is sticky is an understand of grotesque proportions.  This mud…sucks.  It will suck your shoe off.  It can even suck your boot off.   Popular wisdom says it sucks the shoes right off the horses, although my farrier and trainer don’t agree.  If you’re unlucky enough to be wearing those ultra-comfy looking ragg socks under your wellies, or duck shoes, the mud can even suck the sock right off your foot.  Really.  I’ve seen it happen.  There’s nothing quite like  standing out in a sucking mud covered horse paddock with the March wind screaming right through your skin and tickling your bones before it leaves out the other side with rain and sleet sheeting down sideways, trying to halter a horse that is High On Life and doesn’t want to be caught because it’s bored and this?  To a horse?  Some of the finest entertainment available.  And then the horse slows its rodeo down for one minute, you step forward softly so as not to set the blasted thing off again, and realize instantly that while your foot has risen from the mirk, your shoe has not.  And the mud is starting to fill in the hole where your shoe was last seen.  And now there’s no place to put your sock-clad foot.

Those moments are when you really know you’re alive, I tell you.

So, yes, Mud Season works.  I just feel that it is so much  more, this season.

For instance, it is also Chuckhole Season.  We didn’t have this issue in Texas.  We had other issues.  But this one is the one where the snow comes down and piles up on the roads, and in order for anyone to get anywhere, like ambulances and fire trucks, something has to happen to get the snow off the road.  In Texas, we called that “waiting an hour”.  In the north, we call that “a plow”. Here’s the thing about plows.  They’re made of metal.  The truck part is metal and the big scoopy scrapy blade is also metal.  I’ve actually seen a plow blade throwing off sparks from contact with the road surface.  Talk about a seriously cool sight.

Having a massive truck with a gigantic metal blade scraping the snow off the road at 30 mph sounds like an awesome idea until you stop and actually think about what it’s scraping against.  Asphalt, up here.  And asphalt is a surface known for being pristinely flat and smooth for about 5 minutes, until that huge truck with the giant wheel that flattens the road when it’s being paved moves 10 feet down.  After that, asphalt is known for its artistic texture.  And that texture?  Doesn’t neatly match the bottom of that giant metal blade on the plow.  Which means that the plow has a choice:  either leave a layer of snow and ice in any low-ish or wavy spot in the road, which is 1,000,000 per square yard of asphalt OR it can scrape the hell out of the road to get all that stuff off.  The problem with option 1 is that the road still isn’t safe to drive on, which is kind of the whole point of the plow.  The problem with option 2 is that any edge, angle, or loose bit of asphalt, which is only 10,000 per square yard, gets ripped right out of the road.  And deposited on the margin, where it can be found 2 years later with grass growing up through it.

I once had an entire clump of chives relocated 3 feet away by a plow.

So the plows, in performing their extremely valuable service for the safety of mankind, chew up the roads when they do so.  And what that does, it makes more low spots in the road.  See above, under March Like A Lion and April Showers to grasp the enormity of this statement.  And the road crews can’t patch all that stuff up until it’s warm enough, or dry enough, or both…I’m not sure, but what I do know, is they don’t patch that stuff in March.  Or April.

The upshot of all this dynamic physics is that by this time of the year, every road in town has had every patch from last year’s road repairs ripped out of the ground, and those holes have expanded from freeze-thaw cycles, and then the plows have created a fresh crop, to boot.

Every thoroughfare becomes a slalom course.  Unless you want to blow a tire (which I’ve done) or blow out your suspension (ditto) by driving over the holes.

We have chuckholes on my street that could eat small children.  We have chuckholes that have extended families, and they’ve all come for a long visit.  We have chuckholes that could hide the national debt of Greece.

It’s Chuckhole Season every bit as much as it is Mud Season.

It’s also Maple Season.  The nights are freezing, the days are warm, and the sap is flowing.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with complicated arrangements of taps and hoses.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with vats and snowmobiles.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with metal buckets that wear pointy hats, and bringing it in with a horse-drawn sledge.  Farmers are staying up until 3am boiling the sap to make that maple syrup.  Farmer’s families are operating small seasonal restaurants and serving brunches comprised of rustic food like pancakes, waffles, and corn fritters, and bringing bottomless cups of coffee and pitchers of hot maple syrup.

Every country road features a small outbuilding with an oddly ventilated roof, huge stacks of wood, and steam pouring out through every hole in the building.

Maple syrup is expensive, no question…but if you’ve ever seen what it takes to get it from the tree into the plastic jug, you won’t blink at the price.  It would be cheap at twice the price.  This stuff was a specialty item in Texas, hard to come by and priced like an ounce of gold.  Here in New England, buying it from the farmer, it’s much less expensive, which means that one doesn’t feel compelled to “save” it for a special occasion, and one can cook with it freely.  I had a maple-brined turkey breast this winter that required the use of one whole pint of maple syrup.  This would have been unthinkable in Texas.  I might as well have filled a tub with 14K gold leaf to bathe in it, as use two cups of maple syrup for a single meal.

It was unbelievably good, this dish, I will say that.

So, hot farm breakfasts, boiling sap, and – of course – plenty of mud, and this is also Maple Season.

It is also Shedding Season.

The Wonder Horse doesn’t make much of a winter coat.  He makes some winter coat, but not like some of the horses at the barn who look like ultra-cute plush toy horses at this time of the year.  One of the horses that was at the barn last year?  Grew a winter coat four inches thick.  I swear it.  Huey doesn’t get a gorgeous fluffy winter coat.  He just looks…scruffy.  He gets a beard, which makes him look old.  Mysteriously, in the last month, he manufactured a beautiful set of curly strawberry blond feathers on all of his fetlocks.  Why curly?  Why blond?  Why now?  I don’t know.  I do know they are seriously cute, though, and I’m going to be sorry when they either fall out or have to get clipped off for a show.  The beard, I will not miss at all.  It makes him look like the guy who sits around under the railroad trestle all day with the bottle of Schlitz malt liquor in the brown paper bag.  I look forward to the disappearance of that beard.

This is the time of year, I read recently, when riders are covered in mud up to the waist, and with hair from the waist up.  True, because as the days quickly grow longer, it is the time to say “Adieu” to whatever winter coat the horse managed to put on.

A source of perennial amazement to me is how – despite the fact that Huey’s “winter coat” is barely perceptible – he still managed to shed like an over-stressed Persian cat.  It is a prodigious volume of hair that falls off of him.  And, usually, sticks to me.  This time of year, you can tell when I’ve been to the barn, because I shine red, all over, in the sunlight.

Of late, Huey’s coat has been notable mainly for the presence of large quantities of dirt, dust, and dandruff.  He is filthy.  Not in that fun photo op way of being entirely covered in mud.  No.  He’s just dirty.  It’s almost not worth brushing him, because the brush only brings up more dirt and then moves it around.  We are well past the point of brushes actually removing dirt.  The only thing that is going to remove dirt at this point is a large quantity of water, preferably from a hose with a squirt nozzle, a big bucket of shampoo, and another hose-driven deluge.  This, of course, requires temperatures that we’re unlikely to see any time soon, so I have to just remind myself that my horse really is red.

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This is the horse I was issued at the factory.

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This is the horse I have now. Note the scruffy beard, the filth, and the surly look in the eye. What you can’t see from this picture is the gummy texture off the mane.

One happy thought occurred to me this morning.  The dirty hair is falling out, yes?  And the hair that is replacing it clean, yes?  Then maybe he will be a Self-Cleaning Horse.

Yeah, I know.  I used to think if I lay out in the sun long enough, I would get so many freckles that they’d all blend together and make an awesome tan, too.  Spring blooms eternal in the hopeful breast.

So it is Shedding Season.

The last, but certainly not the least, is Spring Skiing Season.

Spring skiing is that bittersweet time of the year when the snow is at its absolute best, and the sun smiles down at the earth, and the cool breezes caress skin that has not been exposed in months…but it also marks the Beginning Of The End.  We have, at best, one more month of skiing, and then it’s back to the Ninth Hell of No Skiing for another 8 months.  It’s just so unfair.  It gets great right before it dies, just to make the sorrow of parting that much more painful.  I can’t dwell on this very long or I’ll go into a depression.

But it is also Spring Skiing Season.

Here are the goods.