My hands and knees hit the ice of Cedar Lake through a foot of snow, my right ski torqueing my leg into an awkward sprawl and my left popping off completely. I glare back at my dad, as if to say, “this is all your fault.” Flakes of snow fall between us, and we share silence.
I’m the first to break it: “That was practice. Let’s start now.” I find my way back to standing, facing away from him again. Now, I imagine my dad’s thoughtful face light up with humor as he watches me awkwardly shuffle forward, making maximal effort for minimal movement. Without making eye contact, he glides past me on my right, his strides long and graceful. His arms are pendulums, and his knees are springs. I step over into the tracks he plowed and mimic his motion. I am moving.
Like a good Minnesotan, I have been meaning to learn to cross-country ski for most of my life. I am reminded of this one night each February when skiers circle the perimeters of an interconnecting web of lakes on a course illuminated by giant ice lanterns. It’s dark, and I usually have trouble picking out my dad in the herd of athletes. As they move in unison, one collective entity, each and every one of the skiers blurs together with the natural environment, until it is all one inseparable image. They are the reasons the lakes freeze and the snow falls. Their communal spirit is the force of winter.
My dad is a hyper-social being, with a deep and unusual faith in the goodness of humanity. He is the kind of person who strikes up conversation with a stranger in an elevator or a cross walk with such facility that I usually assume he and the stranger are longtime acquaintances. To accompany my dad anywhere in public means that you will likely need to stop every ten minutes to catch up with so-and-so who he has known from such-and-such context, on one occasion even to extrapolate on the conversation with his “elevator friend” from earlier that week. He is gifted at making people feel close to one another, to find and cherish any common experience that holds a community together.
Today, as we travel across the lake, we cross paths with an elderly couple in snowshoes, an ice-fisher, and an ice biker, and a group of young people lounging in hammocks they string between trees on the shore. My dad does not speak to them, but it is understood that we all know each other on some level. I feel like part of a perfectly composed, good Minnesota tableau. It’s so perfect that we must all be posing. “Oh I’m not actually a person who cross-country skis,” I want to admit to people we pass by, “I’m just trying it out for the fun of it.”
These last words were what I told Tara when I sat next to her on a couch in the Rikert Nordic Center of Middlebury, Vermont, where I found her fastening her cross-country ski boots, her eyes cast down at her fingers. “Lernst du auch Skilanglauf?” My voice broke through her trance, “Are you also learning to cross-country?” She looked up at me blankly, taking a split second to register my face and make sense of the German interjection into her personal bubble. Her eyes widened when she remembered me, and her self-deprecating expression answered my question more articulately than any words could have: yes, she was learning, but the story is more complex than just that. My face must have mirrored hers, because there was an immediate, unspoken solidarity between us.
We knew each other from German class the previous semester, where her blunt, I-don’t-care-what-people-think attitude manifested in her unabashed evaluations of Angela Merkel’s leadership style, Germany’s recent spelling reform, and the stress-inducing, rule-bound German recycling system. She called out all of these on being willfully difficult to deal with. Here, at Rikert, she was just as transparent and upfront about her true thoughts. “I’m going to fall many times today,” she omened, “probably in the double digits.” Tara is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; she is just honest. She will laugh easily (often at herself), but will never feign a smile to adhere to a social convention. When she rode on the U-Bahn in Berlin during her semester abroad, she felt a sense of belonging standing amid the masses of reticent urbanites whose cold, dead-like faces warned against frivolity or displays of boisterous fun. She fit in there, she said, and until she spoke and revealed her accent, no one would have suspected her to be foreign. It was a different story back home in Vermont, however, where she still sticks out among her friends, neighbors and family as the only person who prefers luxuriating in the comforts of the indoors to reveling in nature’s elements. “Whenever I do anything athletic,” she realized, pulling on her gloves with an inquisitive, far-off gaze, her eyebrows furrowed, “I feel like an imposter.” Tara’s eyes met mine, and without a word we walked outside together and fumbled into our skis. Tara is an imposter.
We joined in the circle of other beginner students, all huddled around clumsily gripping at their poles and stuffing their thickly gloved hands through the safety loops the wrong direction: from underneath up, instead of from above down. One of our instructors, a fellow Middlebury student, took two steps into the center, welcomed us enthusiastically and divided us into three groups. Tara and I skied off in opposite directions, and began learning the fundamentals. This is when my attention faded. The sound of the howling wind in the crevices of my west-facing ear and of the crush of snow beneath my skis overtook me and became more intriguing than the white noise of instructions, however thorough and helpful they likely were. The faces of those around me grew faint, and in their place the Green Mountains came into striking focus. And then, for a moment, I had the feeling I was alone outdoors, and not in a class.
This tendency to depart from the group mentality is nothing new for me; since I was a toddler in circus classes (yes, my parents signed me up for circus classes – and it stuck), I’ve always rejected structured learning when it comes to physical activities. As a young, aspiring circus artist, rather than following the didactic process of waiting my turn, stepping forward to try my hand at the same trick that everyone else had just attempted, and waiting patiently again, I preferred to invent new movements on my own and learn through trial and error.
Towards the end of the lesson, as my pace evened out, I started to feel the muscles in the arch of my foot working. I couldn’t help but think that this whole cross-country skiing thing might do wonders for my toe point. While I’ve never before identified as an athlete of any kind, I am a circus artist. Like a dancer, I must be concerned about the lines I create with my body, and those lines finish with a strong, well-arched foot. I turned all my attention to my feet, my mind abuzz with the way this new sport can augment my real craft. I stopped in my tracks. And I briefly acknowledged that I was alone in doing this. I was surprised by how much this upset me. I look out at the parking lot, where my car was waiting for me to escape the lesson and indulge in the respite of solitude. That is where I saw them.
I recognized them right away when they stepped out the car, skis, poles and boots in hand, and made their way inside. I stood far away unnoticed, blending perfectly into a crowd of other students just as amateur as I am. They emerged moments later with full-day Rikert passes. Andrew is the tall one with wavy, shoulder-length hair and curious, green eyes. He expertly threw down his skis in the snow and clipped in without looking. Matea held her gloves in her mouth, her careful hands free to pull on the zipper of her jacket. She took her time putting on her skis, as if this action had been the main event. They pointed in my direction and moved their mouths quickly. They did not see me wave. Instead, Andrew raised his pole in front of him and drew lines in the air, plotting their path, which lay behind me.
Jeremy, my teacher, pulled my attention back to the upward hill in front of me. “Your turn, Nick,” he said. It was the last segment of the lesson. I lumbered up the slant, trying to combine all the techniques I had learned that day. My eyes fixed on the few feet ahead of me, until finally I leveled off at the top, where Andrew and Matea had been standing. They were already gone.
This is not the first time I have encountered them as a power outdoor team. One night this year, I was walking slowly on a campus path, and became aware of my growing shadow, cast by the beams of two headlamps approaching me from behind. When they reached me, Andrew and Matea explained that they were going on a late-night run. Their voices were warm and intentional, their breath still calm and even. An hour later, our paths crossed again in the same place. While I had been relatively unaffected by the hour, now stealthily wiping pizza grease from my mouth with my jacket sleeve, they stood before me red-cheeked and dripping in sweat. “You should join us next time,” Andrew suggested. This was one of the more conventional invitations Andrew had ever extended to me. Over the course of the year I’ve known him, and lived with him as my roommate, I’ve been impressed with his ability to come up with such bonding activities as creating a scavenging club, hiking Snake Mountain at 4AM, and going swimming in Otter Creek, in spite of his geology professor’s warning against sewage contamination.
Andrew hates to be indoors, and given the way he decorated our room, he clearly saw no reason he ever really had to be. Over the course of our first week at Middlebury, he framed the wall behind his desk with fallen twigs. Next, he hung up his only poster: an identification chart of the most “well known” apple varieties, which to his science-oriented mind were supposed to be common knowledge. He returned from spring break with a three-foot tree in a pot. When soil spilled over the edges, water leaked through the bottom, and dead leaves began littering the ground around the pot, we simply stuck it in a corner and let nature take its course. That corner was also home to our makeshift compost, the container for which was itself decomposable. Anyone who walked in the room for the first time was shocked to see (and smell) fruit flies swarming around a mound of rotting peels and hair clippings.
Andrew and Matea are scientists at heart, equally fascinated by theoretical and experiential encounters with nature. They are the type of people who know (and care) how to apply different waxes to the center and radial lengths of their skis in order to maximize the efficiency of their movements. They might take note of the temperature of the surface snow, and use this information to make choices between yellow, blue or red – distinct types of kick wax with nuanced bonding properties. To me, on the other hand, these are just colors. What for them is an enthralling scientific undertaking is to me a nuisance, too complex and involved to wrap my mind around.
The class was over. I absentmindedly unclipped my skis and rid myself of them in the rental room. A quick change of footwear and I was ready to walk back to my car, without exchanging a word with anyone. But before I did, I caught a glimpse of Tara. She was sipping intently from a cup of hot chocolate, starring into it deeply as she curled up on the couch and gave into a private moment of reflection. She had the comportment that one might have when alone in a room: inwardly focused, low profile and anonymous. It was in stark contrast to the rest of the lodge, which bustled with newly initiated skiers, loudly debriefing their experience and laughing at their feeble, first-time attempts. The light-hearted feelings were not lost on Tara, though, who clandestinely smiled to herself without looking up and then erupted into a full-on chuckle. I decided not to interrupt her then. Instead, I slipped back to my car and down the winding roads through the thick Clayplain forest to Middlebury.
I passed by Andrew and Matea at dinner that night. “Hey did you two go skiing at Rikert today?” Matea twisted her shoulders to face me. Her eyebrows perked up and she smiled with her mouth closed, still working on a forkful of sautéed spinach. Never in a rush, she took a slow sip of tea and asked, “Were you there, too?” The conversation went as I expected, and this time I accepted their offer. We would go skiing, but not on trails.
Finally, I sat completely alone in the dining hall. This is my guilty pleasure. People swarmed around me; the outdoors still lingered in white specks on their coats, in the redness of their cheeks and in the numbness of their fingers. I lifted a glass of cool water to my lips and raptly sipped in the moment. I said that I have always meant to ski, but it was never out of a great intrinsic desire to learn the sport itself. If I am to blend in to an environment, to merge myself with a landscape, I’ll have to be not just a tree, but part of a forest. I’ll cast shadows for skiers to hide under, amateurs who step out of the trails well before they master them, and who know that they’ll never be a tree if they don’t root themselves out of the path.