Something old, something new
Afew years ago, right around the time Eisenhower was in the White House, I bought a pair of cross-country skis. It was during my first winter in Vermont, and the decision to make the purchase seemed like a good idea at the time. I was about to learn that the activity was much harder than it looked.
Growing up in New Jersey, all I knew about skiing was that it’s the sport that spawned masks used by neighborhood thugs when they were making unauthorized bank withdrawals. In the hills of Vermont when I first tried my hand at cross-country skiing I took many spills, twisted my legs in ways that they are not supposed to be twisted, and pretty much made a major fool of myself. And this was usually just trying to get the skis out of the back of the car.
In the beginning, attaching two 6-foot-long planks to the bottoms of my feet, going out in the snow, and trying to propel myself forward felt about as natural as walking over hot coals in bare feet.
It took me quite awhile to figure out the proper technique, but by the end of the winter I actually seemed to know what I was doing and enjoyed myself quite a bit. Then spring came along and I put the skis away for a quarter-century.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked if I wanted to join him for an afternoon of cross-country skiing.
I hesitated before answering. “I haven’t skied in years,” I confessed.
So what? So I didn’t want to embarrass myself or, more importantly, get hurt. Some of the epic spills I took when I was learning to ski 25 years ago could put me in the hospital today. I figured I might as well be honest.
“Well … the last time I skied … I got attacked by a pack of wolves. I still have nightmares,” I told him.
“No, I’m just not sure I’ll remember how to do it,” I confessed.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me. “There’s a thing called muscle memory. Once you learned how to ride a bike, you could take a few years off and get right back on couldn’t you? It’s the same thing. Your muscles will remember exactly how to ski.”
The next day we found ourselves on a local groomed trail, about to get started. I put my skis down on the ground and stepped onto the first ski, clipping my boot to the binding. Apparently, I was on a bit of an incline, and the second ski started to slide down the hill. I reached toward it with my free foot not thinking about the foot that was already attached to a ski. My two legs went in opposite directions and I did a split that would have made any Division I college cheerleader proud — and any guy in the world cringe.
“Oh man, you OK?” my buddy asked, his faux concern barely masking a stifled laugh.
“Of course,” I said, pulling myself up and assessing the damage. Fortunately the only injury was to my ego, and before long the skis were on and we were traversing the network of trails.
After a short period of time I realized that, while I was not breaking any speed records, I was still vertical and getting more and more relaxed. My muscle memory was really working.
Then I looked up and saw a sign posted on a tree that stated “VERY STEEP HILL.” Well, you didn’t have to be a geologist to make this observation. Before I could stop I was heading down the incline at a rapidly increasing pace. I looked for help, but my “friend” was just a tiny speck in the distance. I was on my own.
“Think!” I implored my muscles. “Try to remember how to stop!” But it was no use. Apparently my muscles were in the lodge enjoying warm beverages when the stopping lesson took place those many years ago.
I decided to accept my fate. As my speed increased, my arms started to flail, and my ski poles became two sputtering propellers. I began to fall forward, so I naturally overcompensated and leaned back too far, causing me to jerk around like a marionette in the hands of an over-caffeinated puppeteer. Eventually, I hit the ground, tumbled and slid to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
“Wow!” my buddy said, skiing over to me. “That was awesome. You OK?”
“Just great,” I groaned.
That night, bruised and battered, I carefully stowed my skis in the basement, wondering how much of this particular day my muscles would remember when I took the skis out again in the year 2038.
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.