Saturday, March 3, 2018

Winter Religion

On January 26 1978 a winter storm blew across much of the Midwest, the likes of which we have not seen before or since.  This storm may have been just the beginning of the extreme events of modern climate change but we didn’t know it then and just thought it was a another freak event.  It received little public media fanfare[1] since it was, after all, the Midwest.[2]  When it hit Boston the storm was prosaically branded as ‘Larry’, the ‘super storm of the century’.  That was like naming your favorite dog Steve.

The storm dropped 40 inches over a wide swath and shut down the region for several days.  From my cozy-cloistered dorm room at Notre Dame I watched it build by the weekend and close down the campus where 90% of the students could usually walk to school.  The normally bucolic, crisscross, quad pathways had disappeared under the drifting snows and, in places, became tunnels.  

I went out to find my 1964 VW Bug inexorably buried in the student parking lot.  Two weeks before I had driven 16 hours from New York, in another blizzard with my friend Fly[3], wrapped in our sleeping bags and too cold to drink the beers we had packed.   Students helped dig each other’s cars out, even though we had nowhere to go, and then we dug out some houses and apartments for people who were unwilling or unable to brave the storm.  We saw a cop, oddly ride by on a fury horse between the snowbanks.

Although CBS-TV and the Maryland basketball team had made it to campus for the weekend game, no one from town could make it to the arena and CBS was afraid it would look tame or lame on TV.  So they opened the doors and let all the students into the game for free.  We piled on coats and hats and boots and headed for the game and our free front row seats.  I don’t remember how the game went but we had fun.  It looked good on TV and in the end I think the weather won.

When the beer ran out and the excitement of school closure passed, we were left sequestered in our dorms unwilling to do homework on a snow-day but too bored to play another game of whiffle ball in the hall.  I had come west to school from the east coast to experience the real western winter so I put on my Christmas stocking hat, cotton waffle long-johns and hippy-engineer chuck-a boots as well as my New England monogrammed ski sweater and finally the heavy sheepskin coat, purchased lovingly by my mom excessively and exclusive for these occasions.  I headed out the door, into the jaws of the storm. 

It was below zero and the wind-chill-factor was kicking in but the quiet campus had become a new place for me to explore, like the north pole was to Cook and Peary.  I discovered some friends jumping off a geodesic domed, recreation center into huge snowbanks.  When I foolishly tried it, I found the snow too soft and not deep enough as I augured into the ground and heard my back or my neck crack painfully. ‘That’s not good’ I thought and I can still feel that jump today when the winter weather is changing.

I tired of this activity quickly and despite my sore back, I made my way alone to the edge of campus where it gave way to the woods and wilderness of northern Indiana.  Following game trails or faded footsteps, I slogged my way into a forest I had never even noticed, much less explored.  It was thrilling and exhausting, pushing thru waist deep snow and I reveled in the mass quantities of white that smoothed out the deciduous topography and all of the under-bush.  The tops of little Christmas trees stuck out of the snow like suspended conifer cones and the contrast of white on white was both confounding and comforting in its smoothness and purity. I imagined I was Father Sorin traipsing thru the 1842 wilderness to found the University in a little cabin besides twin lakes, or even Abe Lincoln braving the Spencer County Indiana winters in the 1820’s.  The extremity of Midwest winters became clear to me for the first time as something to love and fear but not to trifle with.

I persevered for a long time eventually wrapping around the large lakes towards the Golden Dome and the Cathedral steeple, so I wouldn’t get too lost or exhausted.  Still In the forest primeval but making my way towards civilization I happened upon an incongruous copper green construction sticking out of the snow.  ‘What a strange place for a statute,’ I thought.  When I swam my around in the deep snow to the front of the edifice I realized it was a life size crucifixion scene with half buried statutes of Mary and Mary Magdalen, crying in the snow and despondently looking up at the Christ.  I was shaken, to say the least, and although I was not a great Catholic or deeply religious man, I was moved.  ‘If this doesn’t give you religion, nothing will’, I thought. 

I sat in the snow and the storm for a long time contemplating what it was like to be crucified or watch a crucifixion of a loved one and what this meant to me and my religion.  I didn’t crucify Jesus and he didn’t die for my sins but the tragedy of this God-man dying for what he loved and believed in, was overpowering.  The meaning of ideas like ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ came to me in the snow that day as the intensity of the storm faded from my consciousness and the beauty of the scene overwhelmed me.  In the eye of the storm, I thought of the meaning of the Natural Law and the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that this country was founded on as we optimistically carved it out of the new North American wilderness.  God, Country, Notre Dame had a whole new meaning to me that day.

 I sat there for a long time and although I was cold, my back began to feel better and I promised myself, and the statutes, to try to be a better person and a more spiritual man.  I eventually walked away from that place truly moved by the power of nature, Natural Law and the influence of religion.  The combination of these ideas would formulate my spiritual outlook for the rest of my life.  God is love but nature is god and these inextricable ideas can not be denied or separated.  I became a nature worshiper that day and a winter lover in that woods when I realized the power, patience and persistence of Mother Nature and a loving God the father.

I have returned to that place many times since and find that its power has not diminished with time and familiarity or with the spring flowers, summer grasses and autumn leaves.  I’ve taken friends and family there and they have been noticeably moved and affected.  It was only six weeks after I found those statutes in that storm that I headed out west to where the real winds blow and the snows routinely stack up deep enough to bury a car or a man, on a horse.  It was there that I found my religion and love of nature, wilderness and God’s creations.  I think back on that statute and that storm as a progression or an inflection point in my life, to my true calling and my place in this natural world.  Amen.

[1] There was no social media back then, let alone personal computers or cell phones.
[2] Before Prairie Home Companion made it cool to be in the Midwest, for a while.
[3] John Irish.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Ski Wisdom

Ski in control, yield to the other guy, look up hill and above all, have fun.

It’s not about keeping up, it’s about showing up, with a smile on your face.

Go Big or go Home. When in doubt go higher.  Glory is forever.

Stay low, compact, go fast.  Speed is your friend.

Go early, it’s always best.  Except for Corn.

Ski the opportunity not the obstacle.  If you look at the tree you will hit it.

A poor skier blames his equipment.  Adapt, adjust, and improvise.  Make do.

Layer.  Use sunscreen, sunglasses, goggles, helmets. No blue jeans or shorts

Try to be a little hot and a little cold each day. If your hands get cold, put your hat on.

You can’t get hurt in the air.  You are never too high until you hit the ground.

Give me room, I need and appreciate space.  We have the whole mountain.

Be more, appear less, use your quite outdoor voice, keep your music to yourself.

Skiing is mobility, flexibility and versatility, snowboarding is dynamic and soulful.   Respect both

Release your heal and free your mind.  But nobody cares that you tele or ski Alta.

The backcountry is another world, quality over quantity, but in the end it’s just a hike.

Skiing is like riding a bike; you never forget how or how much fun it is. Don’t try, just do.

Look and think ahead, for best results.  Your feet and your legs will naturally do the rest.

Stay left for better snow.  We are predominantly right handed and drive on the right side of the road.  Zig when everyone else is zaging.  Resorts face north and storm winds blow from the west so powder deposits next to the wind break trees on the left.

Look around at nature streaming by in a whiteout winter wonderland. Embrace the storm, the cold and the weather.

Too much snow is like spare change, extra beer or Santa Claus.  It does not exist.

Keep your tips up in Colorado, California and the Cascades but not in Utah.  Powder skiing here is a centered three-dimensional pursuit in light dry snow.  Dive deep to slow down and get face shots.

If you can’t lean against it ain’t worth skiing. Lean down the fall line especially when it is steep.

Commitment takes courage.  Cowards hesitate.  He who hesitates, skis crud and moguls.

Skiing is confidence. Confidence is a muscle you must exercise. Scare yourself every day.

If you say you can’t, you won’t.  If you say you can, you might.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Put on your hat.

At a climate conference at USU last year it was explained that the traditional locations for the low and high pressure centers and the jet stream, during different seasons, are changing and these early cold blast are the results (as well as the California droughts, hurricanes and typhoons).  With wind chills below zero I thought I would share my Polar Vortex survival and fashion hints.

1     Raging breakfast fires.  Fireplaces are not just for night time, ambiance-snuggle fires.  Nothing starts the day like a blazing morning fire.   Keep it stoked all day.  It will keep you stoked.

2     Upgrade layering from the skin on up.  Use a long sleeve tee shirt to start your layering and then go to wool, fleece and down.  No cotton next to your skin.  Cotton cools.  Cotton kills.

3     Wear good socks.  Break out the ski socks.  Wear shoes or slippers indoors.  Warm feet = warm heart.  Wear good shoes and boots outside.  

4     Flannel Pants.  A friend turned me on to this years ago,  Nothing is colder than a thin pair of cotton blue jeans, nothing is warmer than double layered pants.  Also think about flannel sheets for your bed!

5     Inside hats.  Although it is an Irish insult, wear a nice hat inside occasionally.  You don't have to be a gangster, rapper or hipster to enjoy the benefit of a nice stylized wool hat around the house.   And you won't have to wash your hair as much.   60% of our heat is lost through the top of our head.  If your hands are cold, put on your hat.  Hats are cool too.  Join the trend.

6    Outside layering is critical too.   Pile it on.  Adjust to changing temps proactively.  Don't sweat, don't shiver.  Warmth is cumulative, take care of everything, neglect no parts.  Don't let it get away from you even for a short while because it can be hard to catch up if you have lost your core heat.  Your body will shut down extremities to protect the core and your critical organs.  Know how long you will be out.  Time and Temperature.  Know your vulnerable areas and take care of them.  Consider wind and humidity.  Being cold just means you don't have enough on.

7     Put gloves on and leave them on.  Mittens are warmer but you have to take them off to do anything.  Keep your wrists and ankles warm.

8  Consume warm fluids and foods.  Store fat.  It insulates, lubricates, protects and is the most efficient way to store energy.  Fat is underrated.  If you are too skinny and cold, have a hamburger.  

9     Embrace the climate and the cold, the drama of the extremes.  We can change climate, and we have, but in the mean time, go with it.  Half of life is our reaction to changes and adversity.  Think warm thoughts.  Relax.  Let the blood flow.  

10     Evolve, adjust, adapt and improvise to the weather.  Don't dress for yesterdays weather.  Dress for today.  It is what it is, the ultimate in 'take what we get'.  Pay attention.  Take care of the kids and pets, strangers, the homeless, your partners and yourselves.

If we all wore sensible clothes in the winter, inside and out, we could turn the heat down, save a million barrels of oil a day, burn less carbon, save the climate, establish energy independence, and realize world peace.  

Save the world, put your hat on.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Winter Recovery

              Itching to get away from our overcrowded - corporate ski resorts and regional effects of global climate chaos I packed up the car and headed north, adapting. I motored at a safe and prudent 84.5 mph in my modern Turbo VW wagon listening to satellite radio and talking on the remote, mind and hands-free phone, as the other cars and my baggage peeled away.  Nothing like a road trip to focus thoughts and dreams while resetting priorities and passions.  It is an indulgent 400 miles to Montana but only 5 hours.  The smoky Utah valleys cleared and my mind reawakened somewhere above the Idaho border.  It is so nice to come to Utah but so liberating to leave it.

              The sun flattened on the horizon to the south west while the Tetons played peek-a-boo over the local sepia-colored farmland hills to the north-east.  A closer view revealed countless small, shithole farms mired in the poverty of subsistence living and immune to the concepts of aesthetic, architecture, design, or maintenance.  The huge corporate-clean farms in the distance faded away eventually with their subsidized silos and seasonally stalled, center-pivot sprinklers bleeding the aquifers to the bone, until all that there was left to see were the dilapidated snow fences and a few miserably cold, lost cows.  Are they immune to cold and climate or just too numb and dumb to mind?  Are we?

              Finally, over the divide into Montana, the land and the farmers seemed cleaner, more organized and proud.  The men in the Co-Op feed store wore real cowboy hats and boots, not hay-seed hats with sneakers, with button-down shirts under their Carhartt that didn’t have shit all over them.  They took off their gloves when they shook hands and looked each other in the eye when they talked.  The houses I passed were neat and clean with one unflattering neon light on in the kitchen and comfortable smoke curling out of the chimney.  Montana is like a big clean, conservative, empty Massachusetts with huge mountain ranges floating everywhere you look and big water flowing in all the icy rivers.

              After filling the gas tank in a drippy muddy college-town that was feeling, but still denying, the warming winters, I headed off into the hinterland, the mountains and the wilderness.  In the fading light I shifted into four-wheel drive and turned north towards a small un-plowed canyon, past a small ski resort and up to a rustic hot spring resort where I found a small cabin with a wood stove and an old friend having a beer and an appetizer of cheese and crackers, shrimp and guacamole.  I expertly parallel parked my car backwards up a steep side hill.  When I got out and slammed the door proudly, the car began a driver-less slide down the hill and crashed innocuously into my friend’s truck.  I had arrived. 

              My old buddy and I told old stories and partied away the night.  We took a nice soak in the adjacent hot spring with a crowd of millennial Montana locals replete with modern mullets, omniscient goatees, beer-belly bikinis and tramp-stamp tattoos, who were, under their own admission, ‘hooking up for the evening’ - whatever that means.  I felt very welcomed and at home in that place with those people except my friend’s dog kept biting me suspiciously and instinctively in the hands and face.  It kind of freaked me out, just a little bit.  Bite me once, shame on you, bite me twice, shame on me.

              After a fitful night with several trips to the frozen, snow-blown out-house, where I wondered odiferously if it was the shrimp, the healing hot spring waters or the dog bites, we woke to warm Montana clouds and snow flurries.  After a hearty biscuit and gravy breakfast at the rustic log lodge, we headed down the road to go skiing at the local resort.  Showing up at ten on a Saturday was not a problem as we squeezed into the front row of the dinky parking lot and let the dog out of the truck to go bite other people.  Lift tickets were a miraculous $36, $28 if you had a season pass to another resort, so we felt lucky as we headed to the one small slow lift that served this cone of a mountain. 

              After a refreshingly long, slow ride to the top that allowed a snack, a smoke, a nap and a complete conversation[1], we disembarked to good views and better snow.  It had been a day or two since the last storm but there was still good powder everywhere.  We took a warm-up run down something we called ‘Death Cookies’ before heading to the trees, both north and south facing, that held plenty of ‘snippet’s’ of pow in varying degrees of ‘bakeage’ – from Crème Brule to powdered sugar.  None-the-less it was refreshing to ski at a place where there was more powder than people and more terrain than time.  There was no snow-making, minimal grooming and the only high-speed quads on the mountain were on our legs.

              We repeated these languid but luxurious laps all morning before stopping for lunch at the small, cozy lodge.  Unfortunately, it was packed with 20-30 kids from ski classes eating corn dogs and fries, running around randomly and using their outside voices inside the hot and humid, cramped cafeteria.  After immediately fogging up we decided this wouldn’t do and so we went out to let the dog out of the truck and eat lunch in the parking lot.  This seems to be a Montana past time since there were several pic-nickers eating on tailgates, letting their feral mutts run around to fight and bite, poop and pee.

              After lunch we returned to the slopes, exploring new angles and aspects, all good, all empty.  We adopted a European tempo we call Stop-en-Snacken where we would ski a few laps and stop at the pub for some Jalapeño Poppers or Greek Gyros, beers or bourbons, then go out for a few more laps.  We eventually closed the slopes and kitchen down and watched football on TV until the band finally showed up after five and began playing bluegrass jazz while the après-ski crowd slowly drifted home in the orange alpenglow of the northern evening.  It seemed odd to me that the kitchen closed when the people showed up and the band began to play while the people left.  When I tried to leave a healthy trickle-down tip the waitress chased me down outside and said it was too much.  It was a Montana business model I could not understand but I was going with it, at least for the weekend.  Simple ain’t easy.

              We went back to the cabin for a fire, a nap under down sleeping bags, hors-d’oeuvre’s, a warm soak, dinner with the band at the lodge and a great night’s sleep until the very next morning when the day broke early, sunny and clear.  We had another soak in empty pools and breakfast at the lodge before we said our good byes, each of us heading our separate ways to the backcountry or another ski resort. 

              I drove further west and north through cold valleys and one-horse towns, to the Continental Divide, where the gas station attendant said it was 'way below zero'.  I found a slightly larger, more sophisticated ski resort, magically enveloped in the fog-cloud that was streaming over the Divide like a wave of water over sand castles at the beach.  Here was more snow and more terrain but about the same amount of people and powder.  With the direction of an overly helpful, volunteer patrolman[2], I explored the Sacajawea trees and the Lewis and Clark chutes.  Everything was named after the Corps of Discovery here since this was where, in 1805 they hired an incompetent Indian guide named Toby and wallowed around in these woods for months before finding the Snake river and their ride to the sea.  I guess it was tougher seeing the forest through the trees back then, but with my trail map and chamber-of-commerce guide book, it seemed obvious to me the best way home. 

              I headed south after a full day of skiing and a few beers, to a nice hotel in a small town on the Salmon River.  I slept with the window open so I could hear the burbling rapids and the wind in the trees.  There was a brew pub and coffee shop to satisfy my every need and in the morning, I started for Utah.  The long cold mountain valley spread out in front of me with snow-capped peaks on either side and a lazy creek meandering down the middle.  The sparse dry subsistence farms gave way to the larger industrial-agriculture compounds replete with Quonset huts and large American Flags.  Other cars eventually appeared on the highway and I was soon jockeying aggressively for position on busy freeways with trucks and Travel-all’s, Tesla’s and Winnebago’s.  The snows melted away and the blue sky was replaced by a haze, imperceptible at first but then all encompassing.  Civilization.

              In a few short days up north, I had renewed my faith in winter and my love for skiing and the skiing lifestyle.  I had returned to my roots and discovered who I really was and what I really enjoyed about the sport and the season.  I wasn’t tired of winter or skiing, but of what it had become.  I found good, affordable, uncrowded, low key family skiing.  This new experience wasn’t a combat-corporate-industrial experience where I was treated like a widget to be manipulated and minimized or fulfill someone’s duty to the stockholders and bottom line. 

              I found good simple people, complacent with their modest, sustainable northern lifestyle, needs and ambitions.  I found a resilient régime that was simple and social, based on a brotherhood of people devoted to an extreme season and an athletic, outdoor aesthetic that doubted but still adapted slowly to the modern realities of the outside world and climate.  I found a winter environment that was cold and clear, brisk and bracing, snowy and satisfying.    The way winter used to be, the way it should always be. 

[1] Later, with a local Carhartt clad teen, conversation was like pulling teeth, but he finally loosened up and told me about rodeo.
[2] Almost all the Ski Patrol is volunteer, weekend warriors.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Winter Requiem

              I dropped the visor on my old truck to block the annoying midwinter glare but I could still see the local mountains: brown from the bad winters and the trees, red from Bark Beetle invasion.  Damn, I thought, this used to be some kind of place with snow stacked thigh high on the side of the road and the evergreen lined slopes covered in snow, spotted sparsely with locals and tourists in the endless terrain and powder snow.  Not anymore.  ‘What a shame’ I thought, I’ve devoted my life to this ski-town and this lifestyle[1], only to have it fade away from the lack of foresight and courage, or because it was inconvenient.   Winter was changing, fading, dying.  Greed trumps fear most often, but in the end, they are the same release.
              The day before I had woken up early on a huge powder day to ski with my step-son at a high profile local resort in an adjacent canyon.  The crawling traffic jam started 20 miles from the hill indicating a 2-4 hour get, so I apologized and excused myself and turned around despite the boy’s devotion to me and good family powder skiing.  I went to our local hill to find my friends and it was a similar cluster with a full parking lot, long lift lines and over-crowded slopes, while half the mountain still remained closed, waiting for more snow, the ski patrol’s approval or the management’s corporate fiduciary duty to open.  Despite my local knowledge of the weather, the hill, and its operation, another simple powder day was ruined.  I felt disenchanted, disenfranchised and downtrodden with my metaphorical First World issues.
              They told me it would take fifty years for this ski-bum lifestyle to fade away with the new climate and changing vegetation but it had been less than 30 years.  Unfortunately, since we spent the first 25 years in denial, so it is difficult for us to adapt.  In the early days it used to snow two feet every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night and we prayed for a break so we could rest our legs, weary from pushing long straight skis thru bottomless powder.  The latter-days were almost as good but not as reliable as slopes became more prosaic and predictable and we escaped into the back country.  They built new ski resorts and expanded the old ones into our side country despite the dwindling snowpack and the shrinking skier base.  Despite the rising expense, people still came and they still spent lots of money so our town kept growing, like a cancer, against all hope and reason, for a while.  Years ago, we hosted the Olympics and the ‘World Was Welcomed Here’.  Now, not so much so.  Various multinational ski companies took over after that, corporatized it, mechanized it and bled it dry before systematically taking the money and running. 
              Our mountain climate had gotten consistently warmer, despite the high elevation and prime mountain desert location at the top of the Colorado Plateau.  At first the ski seasons were shortened imperceptibly and incrementally, like boiling frogs.  Then it started to rain, first in March and October, then in November and February, and now in December and January.  A white Christmas is a thing of the past now and only possible with copious snowmaking, if it is cold enough.  As our carbon footprint grew, the town struggled and our property values plummeted.
              The trees started off with a tinge of red years ago that spread, slowly at first, and then much more quickly, until the hillsides were covered with ‘Dead Red’ Bark Beetle that killed all of the trees.  The sustained drought became the new normal and we didn’t have those long cold spells, below zero, that kept the beetles from decimating the forest.  There are places now where everywhere you look all you see is grey and red, in every direction.  Then came the fires that burnt fast and hot in all that standing dead and downed timber.  The trophy homes built in the wildland-urban interface without proper defendable space were threatened and several of them burnt to a crisp despite our best efforts.  Some of the wood was harvested but it was crap and only good for particle board and not really worth the trouble. 

They say that rain follows fire and it sure did around here, sparking mudslides and turbid stream flows that killed all the fish.  Related riparian species died out as well as the other indicator species such as the Pica and Potguts.   The bugs and bunnies as well as the mega-fauna, like the Moose and Lions, just up-and-left, voting with their feet.  We used-up all the available surface water and over-pumped the groundwater, lowering the water table and causing aquifer subsidence that forced us to go far and wide and import other people’s water to our basin.  Water flows towards money, weather doesn’t. 
This was a natural cycle, accelerated and exacerbated by man and ignored by the stewards of our lands, given dominion over all and responsibility for nothing.  As usual the poor suffere the most with mass migrations, famine, wars, pestilence and chaos.  What started as a First World inconvenience turned into a Third World disaster as we are encouraged to be sustainable, resilient and adaptable.  Whatever the hell that means.    Where have our winters gone.  What have we done with our planet.

[1] We didn’t invent this lifestyle but we perfected it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Winter Reckoning

          The day bloomed bright and blue with the winter morning sun streaming in the southeast window of my aunt's farmhouse bedroom.  Sunrise is late this time of year in the great white north so I hopped from my bed and found the family downstairs already eating their breakfast.  The previous day’s storm had stopped and the sun was baking the surface of the snow-pack, simultaneously thawing and refreezing in the stiff north wind.  When my brother and I dressed in our wool sweaters and cotton dungarees and went out in mid-morning arctic chill there was a stiff crust on top of supportable wind-slab.  We found an aluminum toboggan in the barn and headed out towards the lower pasture.  ‘Be home for lunch’ is all our mother told us.  We were raised in the permissive Dr. Spock manner of the early 60’s where we were free and allowed to fail and fall on our faces.
              Without a thought or a care or even a short test run, we piled on the toboggan and headed down a long steep untrammeled hill towards the lowest corner of the pasture.  We immediately found ourselves accelerating on this frictionless plane and our initial joy swiftly turned to horror as we realized that we were completely out of control and continuing to accelerate at an exponential rate[1].  We rolled over a few undulations but naturally found the fall line that led to the lowest point on the property and began screaming for our lives.  We started punching and pulling comically on each other, for lack of anything better to do, but we knew we were doomed. 
              The sled flew over a short wall and we were airborne for several minutes before crashing down into the snow without the sled.  We rounded the last corner sliding on top of the crusty snow as the sled crashed into the lower fence and bent into a perfect ninety-degree angle.  We continued rolling on down a thin slew cut into the woods that allowed the horses to access the stream channel below in the summer.  ‘Stream Channel’ we thought in the back of our little minds, ‘oh poop’.  We piled down the hill and into the icy stream, feet first, and came to a reclining stop in the cold water.
              Having not developed a sufficient self-preservation instinct we laid there for what seemed like minutes until we felt the cold-water seep thru our cotton outer layers and attack our clammy skin.  Our initial shock turned to wild surprise as we got up and shook off like wet dogs in a bathtub.  We looked at each other with wide eyes that said ‘We are so screwed’ and we started to run for the house.  Unfortunately, our little bodies could not punch thru the crusty snow and for every one step up we took two steps back and wound up back in the stream.  My brother began to curse his pre-pubescent curses, ‘shoot, doody, damn, #2’ and I sat on the stream bank and began to cry.  ‘Mom and Dad will come and save us’, I thought, ‘they always do’.  But our parents were on a second cup of coffee and enjoying the quiet morning away from the rock-em, sock-em young boys that so dominated their young lives. 
              By grabbing small trees, rock out-crops and exposed brush we were able to eventually pull ourselves up to the lower pasture.  My brother was doing well but I started to shiver uncontrollably despite the effort of our monumental climb.  We sat down and collected ourselves.  If we had a cigarette we would have smoked it.  My brother busied himself collecting the toboggan from the fence and bending it back into a flat sled.  ‘Dad is gonna kill us,’ he noted as we looked at the broken sled.  ‘Get on’ he offered heroically as we looked up the interminable distance to the house.  He bravely tried pulling me up the hill but the bad physics was way beyond our comprehension and he kept sliding back and I kept falling off.  He was starting to shiver and freeze.  ‘Leave me and the sled and save yourself,’ I implored with faux courage and he started up the hill on his own, kicking footholds as he went.  ‘Send help,’ is what I forgot to add but it was implied and should have been understood by any moron. 
              I watched him trudge up, step by step, breathing cold smoke from his lips and resting frequently to look back.  He disappeared once or twice over the undulations but finally shrunk into a dot in the distance as he crested the hill.  I tried to follow but the footsteps were too big and I could not break my own.  He had a tenacity and indefatigability that I had not developed yet so I just sat down and cried.  ‘This is it’ I imagine now what I might have thought then, ‘done in right before my half birthday, in the prime of my youth.’  ‘I will never learn to drive a car or ride a bike, do long division or read, write a book or drink whiskey, love a dog or kiss a girl’.  I thought then of Patty O’Rourke, sitting pretty in the back of our kindergarten play group with her bowed blonde hair, her billowing, silky-white blouse and her pleated plaid, short-short catholic skirt.  ‘She will never know’.  ‘My parents will never see me grow up and play sports, do well in school, get a good job and a fine woman and have a family of my own to take on wild winter adventures.  And I will never get to go skiing again, ever, after mastering it all in only one day.  No more Thunder Bunny, no more Black Diamond slopes, no Olympic gold medals’.
              Seeing no help on the horizon, after what seemed like hours but was probably only 10 minutes, I began to get angry and to look around for something, anything, to get me out.  I slid over to the side fence of the pasture and found it made of 6-inch wire squares that I could hook my hands and feet into and pull myself up.  Six inches at a time, I pulled and pried my little frozen body up that fence, one miserable step at time.  I cried the entire time, with snot bubbles coming out of my nose and freezing down my chin.  I got mad, I got sad, I got glad from the hopeless feeling of abandonment by my brother and my parents and my blooming self-responsibility and accomplishment.  ‘Don’t they miss me; don’t they know where I am and how much trouble I am in’?  ‘Screw them, I don’t need them, I can do this by myself and when I do they are going think I am the bravest, strongest, gnarliest kid in the world.’  They will probably let me drink a beer and drive home’.
              Finally, after what seemed like an infinite amount of time in my delirious little brain, I pulled myself up to the back of the barn and saw the horses watch me take a drink from the running water in the horse trough as I had seen my older cousin do once on a dare.  I was famished, starving, thirsty and frozen but I noticed, with my new, expanded perspective, the tiny rainbows glistening off the snowflakes on the horse’s furry winter manes.  The grain in the barn wood jumped out at me in perfect brown, grey and black patterns.  The sun seemed to be setting behind wispy high clouds and dark green, foreboding conifer hills lined with the skeletons of dormant birch trees.  I began to notice the details and colors of a place I had never seen before, and appreciate the world, not as a mere boy, but as a young man.
              The house was still a few hundred yards away and my feet felt like frozen concrete blocks, but I took my time getting there on the narrow horse path, taking in my new perspective, self-awareness and confidence.  I powered through the back door undaunted, meeting my surprised family around the warm fire where my Dad greeted me with a ‘well hello Junior’ and helped me off with my coat and found me wet and frozen.  We both tried to put a brave face on it but when he couldn’t get my icy boots off my frozen feet, I broke down into the apron folds on my mother’s lap and cried like the little boy I really was.  ‘They would never know and could never understand’ I thought.  ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
              After a hot bath and hearty meal of grilled cheese, potato chips, a dill pickle and hot chocolate, I settled into an afternoon of blankets and slippers, dry long-johns and I even wore my cool new ski hat inside since my Irish[2] Dad always said, ‘If your feet are cold, put on your hat.’  The terror of my experience quickly began to fade as we laughed and joked about it.  My brother apologized for abandoning me and for forgetting to tell Dad where I was because he was trying to warm up.  ‘You are a jerk but It’s ok,’ I said and we reckoned that this experience would have killed any lesser men.  I punched him in the arm but he didn’t me punch back.   We have that day to share for the rest of our lives and it made us closer than any dumb Disney Land road trip or family campout could. 
              I began to see winter in a different light that weekend; something beautiful and fun but a force not to trifle with or minimize but to respect and revere.  Winter can please and entertain you but it can also test you.  It can measure your mettle and preparedness, your tenacity and your smarts, your patience and persistence, like a good friend or lover.  Spring is an exciting time of new beginning while summer is soft, lazy and languid. Fall is full of color, death and decay, nesting and preparation, but winter is wise, strong and beautiful, will love you and test you and envelop you with its white blanket beauty and keep you honest, strong and clean.  I began my mixed relationship with winter that weekend and even though we have had our ups and downs, we are still hanging together after all these years, and probably always will.

[1] Newtons second derivative of acceleration, the change in the change
[2] The Irish usually consider it an insult if you leave your hat on in the house
Painting Credit - Lori Spragens

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Winter Retrospect

              I woke slowly, face down on the itchy burlap of the back compartment of the 59 VW Bug we rode in, the ‘way back’ as we called it in my family.  It was a small, crescent-shaped compartment, less than 2 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 4 feet long below the cold back window but above the warm engine of the small car.  It was a prized, cushy-cozy-comfortable, womb/tomb like place I fought my brother for, especially on long winter trips, and we claimed it and ‘called it’ hours or even days before the trips began.  My five and a-half year-old face was swollen red from the deep sleep of mindless-youth and imprinted with a waffle pattern from the burlap mesh as I poked my head over the back seat and asked my Mom, ‘are we there yet?’

              The small, black German car with a sporty red Naugahyde interior, probed its way down a snowy two-lane highway like an Olympic bobsled between high imposing snowbanks, somewhere in western Massachusetts.  In the early 1960s the new freeways were contemplated but not completed and the local roads were not effectively plowed or maintained, especially at night.  Heading north out of New York City was still an adventure into the wilderness and the great unknown.  From the cozy confines of suburban Long Island this was a big step out of our comfort zone, but we were a brave new modern family that made up with rugged resolve for what we lacked in real resources.  There was fear but we had courage.
              Dad drove slowly but steadily into the night as Mom death-gripped the dashboard handle with two hands and stared intensely into the night, looking for cars, deer or Big Foot on the edge of the highway.  ‘Turn your bright lights on Arty,’ she snipped nervously, looking down , on the gauges but he only quipped ‘Nancy, they are on’ as he pounded the floor button twice with his left boot to show her the vague difference.  Mom, a school teacher who was always teaching, fancied herself as the better driver, being a liberated, new-age woman of the 60’s, but Dad drove snowplows at his job in Public Works and he relished this kind of blind-braille driving and the imperceptible contrasts of white-on-white as we almost floated down the road. 
              My seven-year-old brother and nemesis Mark was asleep in the back seat under a pile of blankets and coats, stretched out the full length of the small seat, until I snapped him in the ear with my little finger.  ‘Maaaaa’ he moaned instinctively to no one listening in the dark.  Our baby sister Mary was at grandma’s house, safe, warm and dry but too young for this winter adventure. 
              The cramped car smelled like Old Spice, McDonalds and wet wool, and the side windows were iced up but translucent.  The 56-horse-power air-cooled engine did not have much oomph and the little heat it gave off was directed to the window defroster, but the engine was in the back over the drive wheels and we plowed on relentlessly through the night. 
‘Almost there Ginty, can you hold it’, Dad asked optimistically as we passed the striped concrete retaining wall that indicated our turn on to a snow-packed dirt road.  ‘Maybe,’ I said semi-courageously as we bounced and jostled onto the rural road.  It became even darker as we headed up the hill making random left and right turns on smaller roads based on my mother’s instructions and intuition.  We finally pulled up in front of a small dumpy farm house with peeling yellow paint and several non-descript outbuildings behind it with a small sign over the barn in the distance that announced alliteratively, ‘Herman Harris Horse Hotel’. 
            Dad hopped out and banged on the front door in the driving snow.  A barefooted man answered, clothed only in his waffle long johns, with a large pot belly and an unshaven face.  Herman Harris was a local here in Northern Massachusetts, born and raised in this house, and he had just finished his daily multi-tasking schedule of; driving the school bus and snow plow, feeding horses and shearing sheep, fixing snow-mobiles and harvesting maple syrup, chopping wood and poaching deer.  It was an increasingly specialized world in the 60’s but Herman hadn’t gotten the memo yet.
            Scratching himself quizzically in the doorway, backlit by the changing light of a black-and-white TV in a living room cluttered with cheap beer cans and dirty dishes, Herman tried to figure out who this stranger was and what we wanted.  ‘The key, the key – to The Farm up the hill,’ I overheard my Dad shout several times as he stomped his cold feet, until an actual light bulb of recognition went on over the Herman’s head and he invited my Dad in heartily while he searched for the key.  Herman dwarfed my Dad when he put his arm around him to lead him inside.  Dad is not a small man by any means, but Herman enveloped him and we wondered if he would ever return.  After an interminable delay, Dad finally came out and vigorously shook Herman’s large gnarled hand several times, thanking him profusely, and ran back to the car.
         Dad had no key but only the hope and a prayer that one would be cleverly hidden under the Welcome mat.  He dropped the parking brake excitedly and gunned the VW up the hill to a quick hairpin turn and up a final steep stretch to a ghost-white house that emerged slowly from the snowy mist.  The lights were on but no one was home.  Dad kept it floored until we crested the sill of the unplowed driveway, rammed into a snow bank and crunched to a stop.  We had arrived.
            The Farm, as our family called it, was a regal 100-year-old Colonial farm house with barns and breezeways, mud rooms and garages, that my uncle had bought in the late forties, for a song and a prayer - we imagined.  It was very rough for the first few decades with a stream-fed cistern water supply, a leach field in the lower pasture and an actual ice-box to keep food fresh.
            When my aunt insisted that they move the family out of gentrified suburbia to the country for a few years of ‘perspective’, my uncle had The Farm fixed up with modern conveniences such as a cozy white-oak library, a wine cellar, a washer and dryer and a good heater.   It was all done with such style and class that complimented the historic house so well that we couldn’t wait for our each invitation to visit.  To us it represented an escape from suburbia to a rural life that we never knew and a gateway to the New England wilderness of Emerson and Thoreau[1] The subtleties and luxuries of this place were not lost on my five-year-old sensibilities.  I loved it. 
            We dug out the door mat, found the key underneath and let ourselves in.  It was freezing cold out, not the Long Island dreary-damp, build a droopy-dirty-snowman kind of cold, but a dangerous artic clean-clear cold with a biting wind that put it well below zero.  Mom found the thermostat and turned the heat on while Dad and I went down some spooky stairs to check the water.  The cistern was flowing and ice free but my Dad plucked a dead mouse off the surface and threw in some chlorine while he winked at my astonishment and said ‘Don’t tell your mother.’  We came upstairs laughing and helped unpack food and tons of frozen luggage that emerged from the front boot of the VW like clowns from a circus car.  We waited for Dad to take us upstairs because there was that scary picture of an emaciated woman with bug eyes over the steep stairs.   We found our new separate bedrooms to share and my brother and I bounced on the beds with delight as we unpacked our plaid flannel pajamas. 
            After a snack and a story, we went to bed but not to sleep as we heard the large maple tree howling in the wind and scraping the window with an errant branch.  Every hour or so a snowplow would scream up or down the hill next to the house and it sounded like it was going to take the living-room wing off during its next pass.  The house was full of creaks and groans that we imagined were benign spirits in the night, or at least secretly hoped so. 
            We woke at first light to a blinding blizzard outside, the smell of fresh coffee and bacon cooking downstairs, the sound of my Dad tinker-fixing something in the library and my Mom singing along with Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, the only record in the house.  I jumped up and put on my waffle-white cotton long johns, dungarees and red, white and blue scratchy-wool Olympic ski sweater with matching hats that my Mom had knitted for my brother and I for Christmas for when we learned how to ski.  Today was the day. 
             After breakfast we drove down to a local Ma-and-Pa ski hill on the Deerfield River called Thunder Mountain that made up in quintessential New England beauty for what it lacked in size and sophistication.  There were incredible vistas in every direction but snow-making hoses and lift cables were scattered in the snow in the foreground.   After endless delays sizing rental skis[2] tying our boots and adjusting our cable bindings, we were ready to shred.   Mom applied some yucky waxy Chap Stick lipstick[3] to our lips and they sent us ski school.  My brother and I skied down to the Thunder Bunny hill, unsure at first but fully competent after 100 yards. ‘I got this’ I thought as we were introduced to our ski instructor, Pierre Hiver, from Montreal.  Peter Winters.
              I didn’t need lessons but this guy was so handsome and slick and had such a cool French accent that I thought I’d humor him for a while.  He taught us left and right turns, Pizza and French fry, how not to get killed on a rope tow and we were off.  I had a bomber-proof snowplow in no time that I employed at high speeds for the next five years.  I didn’t want to parallel yet and that Stem-Christy turn was just plain silly.  The weather was howling and we were sopping wet but we didn’t notice until it was time for lunch and hot cocoa.                                                      
          In the afternoon I skied with my family and they gave us horse blankets to keep us warm on the slow lifts.  My Mom and brother eventually went in for more mocha but my Dad and I braved the storm all afternoon while he continually shivered and asked me if I was warm enough.  I don’t know if he was staying out there for me or I for him but we were having a great time.  The chair lift usually hit me in between my shoulder blades so Dad had to lift and stuff me into the chair.  At one point he dangled from the chair precariously just to fix my loosened binding on a hanging ski.  This is true love, I thought.
              By the end of the day we were wet, cold and exhausted as we piled into the cold bug to head back up the hill to The Farm.  The gas pedal was frozen down so my brother had to crawl behind the shifter and pull it up repeatedly when my Dad told him to as we negotiated the hills and the hair pin turns.  Back in the warm house we lit a fire and danced around in our long underwear, just like Herman Harris, as the cold outdoor winter scene in the large kitchen window turned to a dark reflection of the warm, raucous family meal at the long kitchen table. 
              We ate ravenously, joshing and telling stories, bonding closer than we had ever been in the humdrum, everyday Massapequa life that seemed so far away.  Not long after dinner we went to bed early and slept the sleep of those who had just been reborn.  I dreamt of Pizza and French Fries, hot chocolate and snow, endless snow.  I had no idea that winter was so fun and so wild and that it led to activities and adventures that were so invigorating and liberating.  I was so glad that my family had made the herculean effort to introduce us to this new season, sport, experience and lifestyle, that I swore on the spot, I would embrace for my entire life. 

[1] Who’s first edition books graced the library shelves for evening consumption  
[2] An extended arms height over our heads.
[3] That still gives me waxy smell and taste-sensory flash backs today.