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Cold Comfort

January 20, 2019 GMT

The trails stretch in opposite directions, meandering along the river and climbing toward the mountains. It’s just above 30 degrees, and though high winds weren’t forecast until later, the wind is already lashing its whip in the intervale. A mix of adventure and nervousness sloshes as we cross the street moving away from the ski center, Steve and I with our skis riding like X’s on our shoulders.

We’re taking the trail not taken, and a request that I’d rather take the gentle river trail remains silent. Just then, a small gust dusts up the transformed golf course in powdery sprays, pelting my scarf with tiny crystals, and that tinge of doubt and fear settles on the fringes of my ambivalence. Behind us, growing ever smaller, are families bundling their toddlers into ski cruisers to be towed along the friendly river trail. The wind gathers in white swirls across the snow, leading in switchbacks up ahead, opening a hingeless door to the mountainous wonderland.

It was midmorning. I can do this, I repeat into the cold air.

We stop off to the side to let the groomer pass. It grumbles and rakes the snow into a tandem swath of grooves and a fresh set of tracks, which beckons our party of four. I have little doubt that I can survive the trail, but I question my rusty skill and endurance. Will this challenge be worth it? The promise of a few downhill runs outweighs the uphill work (at first), and dreaming of lunch at the old inn along the way pushes misgivings of steep hills and sharp turns aside. I’d slipped and fell on my side a few weeks ago in my driveway on glare ice, so surely I was equipped in my ski gear on a groomed trail. We take on the first hill that pulls us upward into the snowy woods. A look back from a level spot leaves me impressed at what we’d just scaled. I’m encouraged.

Here’s the thing: Steve and I are no strangers to a sport that requires you to get from point A to point B (and every point of an entire alphabet) on a pair of flimsy boards on top of a slick surface. He grew up spending his winter weekends on a local hill. I got my first pair of Nordic skis when I was a teen. We skied for fun.

When we started dating in high school, Steve introduced me to the fast-paced world of downhill, and I got him into cross-country. We raised our kids in both intramural traditions, borrowing skis from family friends or rummaging at yard sales and swap shops for gear.

I recalled the nostalgic photographs back at the ski center of fit women and men in woolens from the 1930s, a tapestry of Nordic ski history that framed the inception of a winter pastime as an adventurous path to health and well-being, particularly at a time of year when the darkness of the shortened days can slow a body down.

The groomed way seemed to sanction our monthslong lopping and clearing of our own trails behind our home, and it felt good to be outside with friends braving the elements. But this trail was a challenge. I was already looking forward to hot chocolate and antics by the fire later on. The image kept me going.

I’ve always said to Steve, “If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.” That’s when he laughs with me because we know this to be true now that we are well into our 50s and could just as easily cozy up to a fire with a good book. We get that getting outside in the light during the shorter days of winter is one sure way to stave off those expanses of gloom that can make a body want to hibernate. And I know it’s not always easy with work and other commitments that can quickly fill a typical day. So without falling prey to the depressing cold or the early sunsets of the winter days, we have to make ourselves step into our boots we keep on the mudroom floor. We head for the door. We put on a head lamp if we have to. The work will always be there. Our bodies, not so much, especially if we stop moving.

Which is how we find ourselves on a cross-country ski trail, poles gripped and boot toes clicking into a pair of high-tech rentals, waxed and ready. Gliding along, cautiously at first, we find our stride (sometimes we find the ground), ever climbing a series of hills that knits the trail. We stitch our marks into the snow, hashes of herringbone patterns, stating a runic truth that shows us where we’ve come and challenges where we might dare go (even if we look like human snowballs stuck with skis and poles at times). At the same time, why I hadn’t taken the easier, more traveled path along the river tugs at my self-preservation.

Looking back is always easier. Perhaps I could’ve avoided a few bruises. Kept my ego intact. Am I a fool? Falling could mean serious injury. Was the glory of a story worth the risk of a sprain or, worse, a broken bone?

Each time we stop to look back and down across another mounted victory, I surprise myself that I’ve not only physically kept up, but that I’ve kept my spirits up as well. It’s amazing what a feat accomplished can do to move a person onward and upward. The fact that the trail wasn’t the easiest is going to make the tale even better, and a pair of sleek Olympians in Team USA jackets gliding effortlessly uphill without so much as a whisper is a testament to it.

On we push. Up. Up. Up. I bring up the rear of our pack, and in the afternoon, we reach an overlook that affords a view of an alpine slope, chairlifts looping in the distance, the skiers’ skis dangling and just visible. Taking in the sweeping views makes me realize, “Uh- oh, what goes up must come down.”

We down a thermos of hot tea and devour homemade ginger biscotti. I try not to let the last realization and incline, sharp and steep, intimidate. Fear can blizzard if you give it permission, so I follow my friends’ approach and point my skis downhill, relying on the snowplow to stave my fear -- not so much of falling (of that I am expert, sliding onto one hip like a pro ballplayer stealing a base), but of injuring myself. I’m not too proud to fall down when I need to. Most times, my biggest challenge is psyching myself out with all the possibilities lying in wait -- an unsuspected divot, a runaway ski, snow that becomes faster and harder as the temps drop, an unseen skier rounding a bend at a clip, a ski jumping the track or crossing a tip, a failed attempt at a stem Christie, body down, skis up and out at odd angles, the distraction of cold, wet gloves or a stray hair in your face or a pole placed precariously at precisely the wrong moment.

All that and more flies through my head just before I push off. Down at base camp, there are puzzles and fires and sandwiches to devour. There are stories to tell and laughs to share.

And here’s the catch: All throughout this snowy tale, if I decide to stop moving out of complacency, which looks like giving in or up or out (pick one!) or kowtowing to paralyzing fear or copping out through convenient inconvenience, or all of the loaded above -- all of those things become a kind of white-out for health and well-being. And, of course, no story, no glory.

I admit to my friend, whose enthusiasm is shining from eager ear to eager ear, that, yes, I am a bit out of my comfort zone. I understand now that we’ve one big hill left to brave. I calm myself by saying it’s a good thing to rattle one’s own familiar cage from time to time, to let loose and fly off, to take a leap of faith, and to return with even a smidgeon of insight.

Here’s my take-away this morning as Steve leaves for work nursing the shoulder he landed on when his ski caught an edge. His glasses are taped and back on his face, albeit a bit crooked. I know I have a purple badge on my thigh, though the last time I checked, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as I imagined. I’m sore for using muscles that fell asleep somewhere between last season and this, but I lived to tell my tale and that has made all the difference.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .