Crossed skis:  lessons from the mountain.

This article was first published in spring, 2008.  It’s one of our favorites, and it recalls our last holiday as a couple before the adopted kids arrived!

By the beginning of March our yard was carpeted with patches of purple and yellow crocuses, snowdrops and mud, as winter retreated from the sea-level coast to the mountains and the forsaken prairies.  By the time this reaches print, the hummingbirds will be on their way, and we will be on the lookout for lambs and calves.  But as April approached, we were not ready to let go of winter.  So we did the opposite of what most people do about winter holidays; we fled spring and headed to the Rockies for ten glorious days of cross-country skiing and snow.  Our goal was to catch the tail end of winter at Nipika Lodge, an eco-resort off the grid in the West Rockies.


Packed with food, ski gear, snowshoes, our two dogs, and ourselves we set out in our t/rusty station wagon.  A West Coast Mountain car, it makes up in traction and reliability what it lacks in glamour and comfort.  Two very long days and very sore bottoms later, we arrived at the end of Settler’s Road between Radium Hot Springs and Banff where the resort was known to be.  Off-the-grid eco-resorts can be awfully hard to find in the dark.  We got out of the car and followed a faint light to what we hoped was the manager’s cabin, where we found (in order) Nahanni, the naturalist’s dog, and Gudrun, the naturalist, who cheerfully checked us in.


After a day of sleeping and tenderly caring for Serena’s sciatica with ice packs and eucalyptus baths, we began exploring trails along the Kootenay and Cross Rivers.


Being therapists and teachers by trade, we are inclined to find philosophical and practical meanings in just about everything.  We do not leave this inclination behind when we go on a vacation.  Skiing, it turns out, is full of metaphors and lessons for real life.  Being writers with a column due, we began a list of observations.


1.  If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.  Monika learned to ski as a child in Germany, and feels fairly comfortable on a variety of trail conditions.  Serena is a latecomer who learned to ski at the age of forty.  We won’t say how many years she has been practicing since, but suffice to say that she is more often described as a trooper than a contender.  Her most profound discovery in skiing was that she could fall down repeatedly without major injury.  This was freeing.  Perfectionism is vastly over-rated.


2.  Things go better if one is well prepared, and stubborn resistance has consequences.  Monika packs sunscreen, layered clothing, wind protection, snacks and warm drinks even for a short run.  Serena, impatient with the packing and organizing, refuses to stretch properly before starting.  “For Pete’s sake, let’s go!” she says.  She spends the next half hour teetering back and forth atop stiff joints, her body moving in a block and her balance precarious at best.


3.  There is, in any endeavor and on every downhill slope, a point where momentum takes over and you just have to say a little prayer (or curse), and try to enjoy the ride down.  It’s scary, in other words.  Having finally learned to snowplow, Serena now postpones this moment as long as possible.  She digs the sides of her skis in so hard that she grinds to a standstill half way down a fast slope (an amazing feat for her on simple touring skies).  But absolute control, like perfection, is over-rated.  Better to flex the knees, get really close to the ground, breathe, and let go.   The closer to the ground you get, the less it hurts if you fall.  And if you do make it to the next level spot still standing, it feels wonderful.


4.  When your partner is on the ground and her skis are in the air, it’s the wrong time to say,  “But I don’t understand…it was such a small hill.  It’s really easy.”


5.  If you cross your own skis, you have to sort it out.  If you cross skis with your partner, sorting it out is more difficult.   The metaphorical implications of this are obvious.


6.  Not everything is a personality test.  Monika on skis is more adventurous and hardy, confident in taking small risks and flexible even at fairly high speed.  Serena is physically cautious, with long moments of terror at the top of every hill.  “It may look small,” she thinks, “but what if I can’t stop?  What if this time I injure some part of me that I need, like my head, for instance?”  Monika sails down, while Serena debates whether to snowplow, crab-walk, slide on her butt or take off her skis and walk.  Watching us ski, one would be tempted to label Serena as cautious in temperament, and Monika as a devil-may-care, full-speed-ahead kind of gal.


But off our skis, and in matters, say, of the heart, it is Serena who will launch down a steep slope full speed, letting the consequences sort themselves out later.  In career, she is inclined to stop at the top of the hill and think too long before acting.  Monika is cautious in love and career, surveying the terrain long and well before committing herself to a path that she won’t be able to turn back upon.  The ski hills remind us that confidence is situational.  It’s good to cultivate empathy and patience with one another’s pace in love, business, and skiing commitments.


7.  We live on an astounding planet.  On our third evening, we sat on the front porch, a dog in each lap, watching the full moon rise from behind a mountain.  A patch of silver light backlit the trees, grew into a small glowing hill, got caught in the branches and finally broke free, a great ball moving toward the heavens.  Then, just when we thought it could get no more beautiful, a single bark became a chorus of coyote howls.  From the Northwest and the Southeast of us came the call and response of two packs, filling the long valley with music that seemed to contain every possible emotion, from ecstatic joy to a deep and haunted longing.  All night the cries came, separated by long pauses of silence, then echoing up and down the mountains.  We were spellbound.


8.  Seasons do pass.  Nothing stays the same for long, although all things probably do come around again in their time.  Spring is a subtle thing in the mountains, but it is in the renewed strength of the sun that melts the snow to a soft mush in the afternoon.  Night comes, and freezes the melted patches to ice.  We can’t hold on to much, really.   Seasons, holidays, our youthful bodies, our parents, our dogs; all of these things have their time.  Neither of us is particularly graceful in accepting this, but time makes reluctant existentialists of us all.


We hate leaving the mountains, but it will be good to see the hummingbirds arrive again, and to resume the work that we sometimes resent but mostly enjoy. Some changes and hills in the coming year are expected, and some will no doubt take us by surprise.  So if you see us teetering, inflexible and block-like, as we careen along, do gently remind us to bend our knees, get down low to the ground, let go of control, and glide, breath and pray (or curse) our way to the next level place.