Early season is a fickle thing; it comes with no guarantees. Early season skiers are opportunists; we take what we are given.
We ski the early season as we can, but we are wise not to expect too much. Last year comes to mind with just enough early season snow to spark hope. Then things turned sour. Temperatures hovered in the low thirties, the death zone for snow. Cloudy day followed cloudy day, all portending snow in false hope. No snow fell. After a week of marginal skiing, warm temperatures eroded the snow. Skiers turned surly, and optimism waned. The holiday season drew nigh, but with little joy in the ski community.
The words of the old Rolling Stones song echo: "You can't always get what you want…" They likely were not considering cross country skiing when they wrote those words, but you take counsel where you can. We want snow; we don't always get it. Still, we'd seen worse. Bad snow hurts emotionally, but it is not fatal; nobody dies. Life goes on regardless of snow depth. We are not damned for lack of snow. Perhaps we should see it for what it is—a lesson in patience and a study in the impermanence of everything.
We, indeed, don't always get what we want. Bad snow brings no satisfaction for the skier, no matter what life lessons may be learned. We want snow and good snow at that. We want days of crystalline beauty, snow pristine, air crisp. We want a postcard day and skis that glide like quicksilver. What we get is often far less.
Early last season, the snow turned gray with thaw. Dirt showed, and the track perilously thinned. Sometimes, though, you have to make do with what you have—you ski, good snow or not. In the grand scheme of things, skiing in bad conditions beats not skiing at all.
So on a day dreary and heavy with barren cloud, I skied.
Skiing did not go particularly well. I overdressed, a common early-season blunder. I was hot and sweaty. The snow was damp and unappealing, the day gray and humid. The snow stuck to my ski bases in scabrous chunks. Glide was a concept, not a reality. Without glide, you may as well be wearing very long, narrow snowshoes. Conditions as this give the sport a bad name.
I was too stubborn to quit. Cursing and panting, I lurched along on skis gone dead. I was ill-tempered in a way I find physically and emotionally draining. It was not what I wanted.
Eventually, I tired. I gave up any pretense of skiing with a joyful kick and glide. Finally, the fight gone from me, I stopped completely, looked around and took in my surroundings. I saw the woods for what they were, full of uncommon beauty. Snow weighed on the pines; the stately oaks stood tall against the winter sky. Slow and wonderful, the world was peace. On that gray afternoon, I realized my good fortune, for I was outside, on skis, away from rush and stress. I was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be.
I skied on, slowly, with no real glide into late afternoon. The sun sunk below the tree line. Then I saw an owl next to the trail. I rarely see owls, and when I do, they usually take flight in alarm. This bird held its ground. It regarded me from its perch in a tall oak. I skied closer and stopped. It sat calmly, head turned nearly completely around to look at me. It watched me without concern. I returned the look.
For a long moment, all that existed in my world was the bird and me. Then the bird grew restless, turned away and flew to the west, toward the setting sun. For just an instant, it silhouetted against the soft evening rose-colored sky. I watched the bird glide across the pinkish red sky and then disappear into the darkening woods. In that moment, I remembered once again that skiing is not about perfect conditions or pristine snow. There are rewards to be had far more wonderful than simple glide.
Skiing offers us large, expansive and spectacular rewards. So, too, it gives us small treasures, whose power is measured not by size, heft or volume. It gives us gifts that we can hold close where they warm us beyond the moment and bring us comfort that far exceeds their measure. Skiing brings us to unpretentious rewards that can sustain us and comfort us. We need that.
If asked, we often say, "I want to ski." Yet skiing is about more than wants. It is about needs. The refrain of the old song lingers: "You can't always get what you want…sometime you get what you need." Many times, skiing gives us just what we need.
But sometimes what you need is not what you want. We want days of beauty and skis that glide like silk. That may not be what we need. Sometimes the path you take leads not where you want it to but to a place unexpected. If you're lucky, the surprise that awaits at the path's end will be what you need.
There are times when what you need is a silent bird gliding across a rose-colored sky as darkness draws near at a long, tiring day's end. Skiing, at its best, delivers that.