Friday, January 19, 2007

The Family Ski Vacation

I have to admit that before I got married, I had no concept of what a family ski vacation was all about. I never had one when I was a kid. Other kids did that kind of thing, not me; and for all I knew it involved yodeling and lederhosen and big St. Bernard hospice dogs with kegs of brandy tied around their necks.

My wife, on the other hand, more or less grew up skiing, Every year, the family ski vacation, with Uncle John, Aunt Patty and the cousins and their kids, is penciled-in on next year’s calendar before they even start lighting the 4th of July fireworks. It’s serious stuff with these folks. My wife's father ran a ski resort, her brother used to work in a ski shop, and my wife herself spent some time as a ski instructor.

Last year, I managed to join the ski vacation without actually doing any skiing – but that was a gimme, and I could expect no such gift under the tree this year. We arrived at the house generously rented for us by my wife’s Aunt and Uncle on Saturday, and it quickly became clear that El Niño didn’t really want us to ski, at least not right away. It was 58° F when we arrived, and the slopes were brown-green. Perfect for a nice hike, something more my speed. We took advantage of the time, trudging up and down Mt. Minsi and then enjoying a wine and cheese tailgate party.

By Tuesday night, however, temperatures were falling and the wife and I found ourselves drifting off to sleep to the sonorous rumble of snow machines. On Wednesday morning, it was like waking up to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, and the kids could barely be bothered with something so mundane as breakfast.

No excuses now. There was officially nothing standing between me and the slopes.

DAY 1: With a mish-mash of borrowed skiwear, I fought my way through the rental shop and soon found myself walking around in a pair of rented ski boots. It was a most unnatural experience, and the posture it put me in made me feel more like J. Fred Muggs than Jean-Claude Killy.

Mercifully, at the first resort we went to, the lodge was at the top of the slope, meaning that I would not have to take my inaugural ski lift ride until after going down the slope for the first time. And, of course, under my wife’s instruction, it took me about an hour to make it down that first time. While my wife was telling me to bend my knees and, rather inscrutably, to “spread the peanut butter, then spread the jam,” little Cousin Jack, in his bright orange and black ski jacket, and his stylish sister Erin flew past me every ten minutes or so, possibly wondering where my wife could have found such a klutzy husband.

I became intimate with the snow on more than one occasion, and by the end of my first run I wondered to myself why I couldn’t just throw away the skis and just use the poles. They seemed so much more practical at that point. “Buck up, Ron,” laughed Aunt Patty, floating past on her brand new Silver Perla Elans. “Everyone skis in this family -- better get used to it!”

Getting on the lift was a piece of cake, but getting off required a better understanding of gliding on skis than I had mustered up to that moment. By the end of our quick tangle at the top, my wife was nursing a nice purple bump on her shin. But, then, of course, love means never having to say you’re sorry when you jab a ski into your wife’s shin. Right?

I made two more “runs” that day, if you want to call them that. “Flailing, Meandering Topples” might be a better descriptive term for them.

DAY 2: I went to ski school, taking a private lesson from Inga. Within minutes, Inga -- barking instructions at me in some sort of Alpine accent I couldn’t otherwise identify -- had me waddling behind her along the flattish surfaces like a dutiful duckling. There was no question that the previous day under my wife’s tutelage was anything but a waste of time – all I really needed was to get that first day out of the way.

Inga’s best advice came from watching me come off the lift several times and giving me a few pointers on how to avoid slicing the other skiers. These turned out to be invaluable, although I continued the practice of warning people about me before jumping on the lifts with them, giving them the option of going alone for the benefit of the public at large.

By the end of the lesson, I realized I had experienced a moment of conversion, in which I suddenly saw the poles as pointless and the skis as being the best thing going. I rode the lift a few times without Inga, tentatively skidded down the bunny slope a few times without Inga, my poles completely off the ground, and called it a day … the end of a good day.

DAY 3: I arrived at the mountain with everyone else, but I chose to ski alone for much of the day, consigning myself to the bunny slope while the rest of the family went on the higher lifts -- to practice making turns and avoiding the sullen snowboarders who collected themselves like manatees at the summit.

Late in the day, though, the bunny slope was basically acquired by our family. We took it over. While almost a dozen of us skied together, another few family spectators waited at the bottom of each run, cheering us all on. Even the youngest, our two-year old cousin, got into the act. While gliding down the slope between my wife’s legs, he paused for a moment to point out the summer waterslide that stood, snow-covered, at one side of the bunny slope. “Can we go on that one next?,” he asks, standing firmly in his starter skis, half way down the mountain.

All I can say is, this kid gets it. This is what the family ski vacation is all about. It’s about spending time with your family in circumstances of all-out reckless abandon. It’s listening to your Dad say, “Faster, faster,” and not “Stop that, you’re gonna get hurt.” Authority is abdicated, and everyone is intoxicated by the thought of it.

What I’ve come to discover is that skiing, among other family sports, is a uniquely spiritual endeavor. It involves Balance – not the Aristotelian-Augustinian ideal of moderation, but that other kind of balance, the kind promoted by that other noted philosopher, the late Karl Wallenda; it involves a good dose of Looking out for the Other Guy – if only, in this case, to avoid getting hit by the other guy; and it involves Faith. Faith in Newtonian physics, in the properties of white powder and ice, and ultimately, in the Lord Almighty. As in, "Lord Almighty, I hope I don't take a header."

Next year, I'm bringing the brandy kegs. No dogs allowed.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have checked with me first.


4:31 PM  
Anonymous Dad said...

Ron and Kerstin; You paint clear pictures with words. [What a talant]. Is that a picture of you at 10 years old and you now? It is your painting I know. That was a great adventure in the snow.Leave the brandy home and have the fun that you had this time. Don't give up . For the first sky time with a family of skiers you did fine . Love to you all.Mom and Dad

12:30 AM  
Anonymous Fathead said...

oh yeah...on my first ski trip (also my first time on skis) with this clan called "family," I was forced to enter a race sponsored by Newport cigs. I was dressed like you -- all borrowed gear, including a lime green jacket to match the Newport green. All was well until near the end of the race when I took out at least one small child and probably her mother. I immediately hit the lodge for a hot toddy and some humble pie. Welcome to the family, Ronnie!!

8:38 AM  

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