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President’s Day Blizzard
Caught for the Night
With Nothing But Our Skis
early 1970s, told @K. 2000 03 11
We had our first Presidents Day since the calendar turned to 2000 just a couple of weeks ago. Do you remember when Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays were celebrated on their actual birthdays? Two holidays, on whatever days they fell? In any event, it reminded me that I haven’t gotten to tell here one of my favorite adventures. First a little background.
When I was a kid I’d have fun in the snow for about five minutes. Then I’d be cold and miserable. It seldom took long for my mittens to be wet and worse than useless. The worst part is when, back home, feeling starts returning to your numb fingers. The parent file tells some of the ridiculous snafus of the first time I went skiing. I had asked the “friend” who’d invited me to spend the weekend at Sugarbush skiing and making a few bucks waiting tables ($20 a night he promised me) what I should wear.
Whatever you’d normally wear.
What? Wool slacks?
Don’t be absurd.
When we were ready to go skiing, there I was in my civvies.
You’re going to ski in those?
That’s what you told me to wear.
To wait tables, not to ski, stupid. Where are your gloves?
I told how I’d picked myself up covered with blood within my first two minutes on the slope, how my joints were swelling like I’d danced with a hornet’s nest. Did I mention how my knuckles were stripped raw by the ice crystals in the spring show? How my knuckles got so infected I couldn’t type the forms by which we processed draftees once back on my post at Whitehall Street Recruiting Station? All because I’d been told gloves would be absurd. I mention these niceties for a purpose. The lesson I’d lacked as a child was clear to me by the winter of my twenty-four year when I got to go skiing again: fun in the cold means proper equipment, proper clothing: long johns, clean dry socks, good gloves … You still need to work your muscles on the chair lift. Flex your fingers. Squeeze the bar. Work, work. And the cold is a joy.
Before long I dreamed of camping in the snow, spending the night on the mountain, ready to ski at first light.
You won’t like it, said the same friend who’d been so shocked to find “little indoors Paul Knatz skiing.” You’ll spend the whole time doing nothing but trying to get warm. He should know. This is a guy who climbs sheer rock faces above the Arctic Circle, spends days dangling below an overhang or from the ceiling of a cave.
I never tried winter ski camping till my classmate, skiing and fishing buddy, John, suggested we spend Thanksgiving weekend at Tuckerman’s Ravine. I didn’t know what cold was till I went out in the dark to fill the canteens from the stream coursing under the snow: gloves off of course. For a short trek without skis such as for water, we sank into the drifts up to our neck. Still, I got addicted to it. John and I had a few other mid-winter meetings on Mt. Washington. On one such I met Jerry. Jerry said that he had a share in a Vermont house with a bunch of other Revlon execs. He told me I could ski Bromley with him the whole week before Lincoln’s birthday so long as I left by Friday evening: the house would be full for Friday night.
Great. I show up with my downhill skis and my cross countrys. Jerry pooh poohs the latter but then changes his mind. He’s sick of going up and down hill like a yo-yo. He buys his own pair, and, after skiing the slick steep stuff through Wednesday, we leave the downhills behind on Thursday. Bromley Mountain in 1970 or so had just added a few cross country trails. Piffle. We breezed over them in minutes. Jerry had shown me that he was an accomplished downhill skier and he picked up the cross country technique so fast it was hard to believe it was his first time. But now what? Were we going to spend the whole day recycling the same few dinky trails? Like a roller skating rink? Screw this. I’m for heading off into the woods.
Jerry has a better idea. He’s heard that the Appalachian Trail crosses the back side of Bromley. We take a lift with our funny little Nordics hanging loose off our heel, a choice of waxes in our fanny-packs, and set off into the woods from the top of the mountain. Jerry’s directions were good because in no time we picked up the Appalachian markers. In another no time we were miles from anybody but ourselves, whooping it up on the back side of Bromley. “I’m never going to ski downhill again,” Jerry vows.
We had nothing but ourselves and virgin snow for the balance of the day and our plan for the morrow was clear. We take two cars. Drop one at Stratton. Motor to Bromley. The Appalachian crosses Bromley, then an intermediate mountain, then Stratton. We’d leave early. Pack a lunch. Depart Bromley. Picnic on the middle mountain. Take our time: only eighteen miles the whole trek. Frolic on the back side of Stratton till tea time, find the top — Man, where did those guys come from? Show off some Telemark turns. And be down at the Stratton Lodge by cocktail hour. Back at the house after a pleasant martini, pk says “Thank you, Jerry, and Good-bye.” pk and his faithful dog, Angus [Link to be restored], get out of the renters’ way and head for New York. Lincoln’s Weekend with the wife and kid.
We did. At least for the first several parts of the plan. And it started gloriously. We used Bromley’s shack to wax up. I offered Jerry my mink oil for his boots. “They’re brand new,” he said, shrugging off the offer. “Let’s get going.” Up the lift, and back over the same ground we’d covered the day before, but this time we kept going. All the way down the back side of Bromley. In the valley we had to cross a highway to get to the next mountain. Pain in the ass. Couldn’t wait to get out of sight of civilization again. There was a long flat stretch approaching the middle mountain. Hand of man, the trees lining up in ranks on both sides. Beautiful just the same. And did we glide. No real challenges, and we swung in harmony.
Bromley Mountain Skiing
On the commercial slopes Angus had to stay in the car but there were no rules to keep him off the Appalachian Trail in February. Angus had skied with me enough by then that he knew better than to keep running ahead and then doubling back. Angus was a fairly mature dog by that time and he trotted sensibly behind us.
Part way up the middle mountain we saw bear tracks. “Oh, yeah,” Jerry says. “It’s been a mild winter so far and the bears didn’t hibernate. They’ll be mean and hungry if we see one.” And Jerry’s ready for his sandwich.
I should explain. Downhill skiing you bundle up. Freeze on the lift (unless you follow my advice above). Sweat like a pig on the way down. At least you will if you work at skiing the way I do. Go, go, go. Jump my tails around. Land on the mogul to split it. Launch a spray. Pose in the rainbow. Cross country you sweat the whole time. Midwinter, you wear some pantaloons. Gloves, of course. Tee shirt and light wind-breaker. Coach prescribes a second tee shirt if it’s real cold.
This is of course where you’re leaving shelter and returning to shelter. A nice toddy. God help you if you have an accident while you’re out. It’s dress to sweat in; not lie in with a broken leg. Our trek planned pauses. So I’d dressed half-way toward downhill. I had my jeans but no long johns, my good Norwegian sweater, and my cheap parka that had had little stuffing when it was new. I started off with the sweater tied around my waist, but afraid of losing it, I put it back on. Always remove it again if I over-sweat. A huge amount of heat leaves through your head. A wool hat holds it in. So I went that day with just a cotton bandanna tied as a head band. For gloves I used my oldest, most worn pair: very little insulation in the fingers, worn surfaces so they breathed. To save weight (or to spare intelligence) we’d trimmed our selection of waxes. We were wearing a wax for corn snow: the conditions on Thursday. We had a spare for ice. “We’ll be in a lot of shade,” Jerry had said.
Jerry asked where my lunch was. I reminded him that I was a two meal a day man. Never mind. I’ll be fine. Jerry offered me a bite of his and I took it.
In the early afternoon we passed a shelter of sorts: one excuse for a wall for the wind and a tatter of shingles for a roof. Jerry said that we might be able to survive there if we ran into trouble ahead. Bad thoughts. Why have bad thoughts? No thank you, I want my martini at five. Around three we saw a sign: Some-Road-or-Other, Abner’s Way-Out-in-Nowhere Backwoods Road, so many miles, that way. Jerry, it appeared was worrying that we might not find the top of Stratton by dark. It starts to get dark in the mountains very early in winter. In Maine, on Sugarloaf, we typically felt the last of the direct sun light at three PM. But you could still see at five, five-fifteen. By February you could see a bit later. Anyway, Jerry was worrying. His earlier remark about the shelter revealed he’d been worrying for an hour or more. I argued that we weren’t going to see our goal coming. There was nothing to worry about until we hadn’t seen it by … oh, say four. We didn’t know what this road was. We wouldn’t know which way to turn on it. But most importantly: it wasn’t on the Appalachian Trail. Jerry’s girl, the people at the house, knew we were on the Appalachian Trail. And on the Appalachian Trail we should stay, no matter what happened, until we reached our goal.
Jerry didn’t like it. He argued that the road had to lead to somewhere, in either direction. Maybe a truck would come by. Sooner or later there’d be a farmhouse. The road would be on more level ground. It would be wide if we had to ski it in the dark. Somewhere there’d be a phone …
I was for sticking to the plan. I still pictured us emerging from the woods, making the downhillers look like pansies. If we didn’t keep on we’d never know if the plan had been workable. But Jerry was my host. Jerry also sounded like concern was close to fear. Fear can become panic. I didn’t want to stand too hard against my host. Neither did I want to be in the woods in a tight situation with a panicked skier. I yielded. We changed trails, followed new markers. Within a couple of miles the trail arrived a lake. Covered with snow and presumably ice, it’s not like we saw water, but the edges looked like shore, not the edge of an alpine meadow. But it didn’t matter what it was in terms of our purpose: all we needed was to find how the trail went around it. Jerry searched for markers on one side, I on the other. Nothing. The trail just ended at the lake.
Now we really were in trouble. We have to go back, later in the light than it had already been.
Long before in my life I’d decided never to second guess myself. Make your decision and take what comes. “If only”s don’t even make good fiction. I was against it. I yielded. Now fuck me.
We made the best progress we could back to the Appalachian Trail. It seemed longer returning than coming. Were we slowing down? I don’t think so. I think we were both still strong. Hell, we’d skied our asses off the preceding four days straight. Nevertheless, now minutes counted more than ever. I had thought we lost maybe a half hour with our wasted detour. As it turned out it was closer to an hour. I didn’t want to waste emotion regretting it. Now we really were having an adventure. Actually, whatever the consequences, I was glad we hadn’t pooped out on any damn road.
We passed more and more markings for other, crossing trails: colored ribbons tied to the trees. Jerry was ready to bet that they were cross country trails for Stratton Mountain, that they’d lead to the Stratton Lodge. That was a bet I was willing to side with hypothetically but not actually. The Appalachian Trail, Jerry.
There’s another thing I should explain. If you’re lost in the woods, you follow your woodcraft. I don’t have much. Do you? If you’re on a marked trail, you follow the markings. Already we had crossed any number of wide paths through the woods, some as wide as wagon trails. The Appalachian Trail itself was no where that wide except for the single flat lane described above. In fact that was one of the thrills of our skiing it: narrow. And sometimes a tad steepish for light skis not bound at the heel, no steel edge. Bring it ‘awn. There were plenty of places were there wasn’t any trail: except for the markers. It doesn’t matter: ignore the wide open spaces; follow the markers.
Jerry’s apprehension grew more evident and more vocal as time passed and, by four-thirtyish I was pretty thoroughly in agreement There was no way we were going to burst upon the marveling downhillers. We could already be right next to a slope and not know it. The ski patrol would already have swept the slopes. We wouldn’t hear a thing. If we managed to find a slope, we’d have to negotiate it without witnesses. We’d arrive at the parking lot unnoticed, two more guys in the crowd. With a dog.
The light was regressively dimmer and it wasn’t going to brighten as soon as we emerged on the other side of this thick of trees. Our uphill ascent steepened. The “trail” disappeared altogether in the thick o the trees, the worst place when we became wholly enveloped in darkness. Jerry stood holding a marked tree while I forged “ahead,” beating the snow off the trees with my ski poles till I found the next mark. Then I’d take hold of it and Jerry would search on.
We weren’t thinking well. A dozen such trees where a waste of time. We were gonna be out there for the night no matter how close clear trail might be ahead. We decided that if we abandoned our search for markers and just followed our own tracks back in the other direction, we just might reach the last wide crossing trail. We dig the best shelter we could where the two trails intersect. If we felt we were freezing, the broader snow just might reflect enough light for us to exercise on it. Where we were, moving a foot from the center of the invisible trail could precipitate unsympathetic contact between an eye and the sharp end of a dead pine branch.
Now we skied with a purpose. We’d run out of luck except in this one area: we did manage to find the crossing trail. We broke a branch off a tree to mark where the two trail crossed. It was more important than ever not to lose the Appalachian markings. The trail we’d make emergency shelter on was not the trail we wanted to stay on. I gave Jerry my Swiss Army knife and he cut fir boughs while I dug a hole in the snow. We lined the bottom and piled more snow up for walls. Jerry had cut a couple of bigger boughs for a roof. The snow wasn’t deep enough to build a real igloo. We shucked off our skies and planted them as supplementary markers for where we’d come off the Appalachian.
Jerry climbed in. I followed. Angus would be our blanket. I called him. He came up to the edge of the hole. For the first time I saw how distressed my poor dog was. He would come no closer. I commanded him. I barked at him. He backed further away. Angus. What’s wrong with you? Your loyal master and his nice friend aren’t gong to eat you. But Angus would have no part of our hole in the snow. I felt sure that we’d find him snuggled in with us latter on. Jerry started to haul the roof into place. “Just a minute,” I said and stood back up. I took my parka off and pulled the left sleeve to the inside. “Oh, right,” Jerry agreed. He took his parka off, pulled the sleeves in. “I’m leaving my right hand out,” I announced. “For one thing, something has to zip us back up. More important, if one of those bears finds us, the last thing I’m going to do with my life is punch him in the nose.”
I didn’t get a laugh. I don’t think Jerry was happy to be with me. Maybe it had nothing to do with me: he was just unhappy. Ever since his comment about the shelter a few hours back, our relationship had begun to change. I’d resisted his wanted to bail out at the sign for a road. It hadn’t seemed to me that we were far off the schedule he’d designed. Had we kept on, I wouldn’t have known we were in trouble until the trail disappeared going uphill. And maybe we still wouldn’t have been with an hour ealier’s light.
Now I’m not sure whether Jerry wrapped both his arms inside his parka or whether he or I got him zipped back up. I, I am I certain, left myself only half-mummified. Your arm in the same space as your trunk is going to stay warmer. So too is your trunk. I got the roof back on and we snuggled in the best we could.
We heard snowmobiles in the distance. We dismissed the possibility that it was our rescue team. We’d be missed by now but perhaps not for long enough for Jerry’s girl to panic and certainly not long enough to anything to get organized. (I’m remembering her name as Sheri.) When they came along the trail they’d have search lights for the markers. They’d be shouting for us. We’d hear and see them. If we were frozen solid, they’d see our crossed skis, find us, and dig us out.
It’s gonna be a long night whatever.
Try and get some sleep.
They say you wake up before you actually freeze to death.
We’ll freeze faster if we don’t rest.
What followed, the ensuing eleven and a half or so hours of dark, is as vivid to me as any night I’ve ever had. I can relive it as clearly today as I did when I relived it for my wife a couple of days later. In a word, it was dark.
As a kid I had visited the Lurray Caverns in Virginia. At one point the guard turned the lights off and invited us to compare the view: eyes shut; eyes open. Same difference. Amazing. Total darkness. first time I’d ever experienced it. Never thought I would again. But that night in that hole in the snow, there was no snow: there was nothing. Eyes open, eyes shut: same difference. If I’d gotten up, if I’d somehow struggled out of the hole, to make my blood circulate, to pee, I had to believe that I’d never find my skis. I’d stumble into one of those lethal, un-fire-trimmed dead branches. I couldn’t believe I’d see snow had I left my skis on and was standing in it.
In another word: it was cold. The week had been pleasant for February. I’ve already mentioned that we were waxed for corn snow. Corn snow is what you look forward to in the spring when it warms up. (Corn snow skiing is fabulous. It can get a bit heavy, but if you’ve the legs for it, it’s OK. The only thing more beautiful to turn in than corn snow is dry snow: mid-winter perfect (though I’ve had perfect mid-winter conditions as late as April thirtieth on Mt. Washington). The only thing even more heavenly than dry mid-winter snow is dry mid-winter light powder: bottomless, powder you float in, at thirty-five miles an hour, up to your chest! a twelve foot rooster-tail spuming behind you. That is supreme.) But it can corn up in any mild patch of winter. The moment the sun is no longer lighting it directly, so long as the mountain is frozen underneath, it ices right back up. We’d have rewaxed for ice at three PM had we not been pressed by Jerry’s fears.
There was no way I could see my watch anytime we were building the hole. But it can’t have been much later than six when we snugged down. Talk was over. I speak only for myself for that night. I did sleep. At least several times. One of them must have lasted more than a hour because I was aware that I had positively no feeling in either hand. They’d merely been very numb the previous awakenings. I beat my hands against my chest: a feeble beat from the parka-bound left; less constricted movement from the right. But could not feel my fingers. I sent instructions to my hands for my fingers to squeeze, hard, squeeze again. Make a fist. Flex it. I had positively no sense of having any fingers. I didn’t know whether they were there to obey me. I had an absurd sense of them having frozen so brittle they’d broken and fallen off. The day had been mild but it was ferociously cold now. I argued with myself that I might well be frostbitten, but that my gloves were not likely to be filled with finger fragments. You might loose a few digits later on, but you have to have something better than just stumps after just half of one night. People have been lost in colder places than this for a lot longer than a night.
I thought of what a waste of time it would have been, how utterly useless in the dark, to try to invent fire building. Rub two woody ice sickles together. What for tinder? Everything was wet. Frozen solid now, but wet at dark.
I couldn’t get rational about my fingers. Squeeze, dammit, squeeze. After a time a bit of sensation returned to my left hand, the one held against my chest. My right hand wasn’t responding at all. I had no idea whether my fingers were doing what they’d been commanded. Communication to that part of my body went out, but nothing came back. My only moment of panic through the whole ordeal came in the next couple of minutes. I tried with the left hand, through the parka, to feel that my right thumb was still in place. Nothing. Now of course my left hand, however I’d worked it, didn’t have much feeling. But it did feel that it was there. It could not however tell me that my right hand existed. I was feeling desperate. I raised my right arm so that my gloved thumb would pass into my mouth. I bit. Hard. Maybe I’d feel pain. Or, if not pain, something. No matter how much Novocain the dentist gives you, you still feel that he’s there, mucking around inside your dumb numb mouth. Nothing. What alarmed me most was something I hadn’t anticipated even as a nightmare: I felt nothing with my mouth either. My body had experienced maximum communicative entropy.
Fuck it. My hand is there or it isn’t. Maybe my teeth fell out too. I fell back asleep.
Did I dream that I was being mauled by my bear before I’d found his nose? Or did I dream that I ought to be having such a dream? Something woke me. I was sweating. I felt sweat dripping on my face. No, that’s impossible. But at least my face is feeling something. I know: I must be crying. Those are tears on my cheek.
No. Why would I cry? I wasn’t afraid of any part of this ordeal except for my fingers. I didn’t regret any part of it. I didn’t regret having tried it. I still wanted to emerge at the top of Mount Stratton. We weren’t lost. We just didn’t know where we were in relation to Stratton’s top or Stratton’s downhill trails. We were somewhere along the Appalachian Trail, somewhere on the back side of Stratton Mountain. I didn’t regret having an adventure I never would have planned but wasn’t going to not welcome once it came.
Of course. I’m not sweating, I’m not crying, it’s raining. Can’t be. Too cold to sweat, too cold to rain. Snow! Snow is filtering through the fir needles and falling on my face. It’s snowing!
Appalachian Trail in Winter
(some other guy, hiking, stock photo)
I report the sequence to show that my mind was working, but more, to show that my mind was not working very well. Snow should have been the first possibility to occur to me. But of course I wasn’t really awake. I don’t know about you, but I have dreams in which I can semi-think, exert control to a degree, but it’s semi-dream thinking, not on-your-feet thinking. (A great deal of my work, both critical and creative, is done in my demi-dreams.)
Of course I still couldn’t see. It was snow or tears or sweat or rain. Something wet on my face. If we were still alive at daylight, we’d probably see fresh snow.
Well, here we are on our adventure. However hard the ordeal aspect of it, what’s more beautiful than fresh snow? We’d been bitching all week about how shallow the snow cover was that year. We’d finish our adventure in a faery land.
The next time I woke there was a difference between eyes shut and eyes open. It was far from light, but it was not total darkness. Yes, it was snowing. I could see that our roof was snowed over. Clouds may have socked us in from dusk on. I wouldn’t have expected the woods to be totally dark at any hour but a solid cloud cover might do it. Must have done it. Now I could see whether my right glove looked empty or full of fingers. Who knew? It looked like a ski glove. But that panic was over. I might have been half dreaming it. But not the working my fingers or biting my thumb part: that was actual.
When I opened my eyes again, it was misty gray. I waited for the gray to lighten enough to give me hope of finding my skis. I said nothing to Jerry. Let him sleep till there’s reason to move.
Move? Ohugh. Whether I had fingers or not, my right hand wouldn’t work. I knocked the roof aside, tried to straighten up, tried again. Managed to crawl half out of the hole. Managed to get to my knees. Stiff isn’t the word for it. It was more like I had no joints: just bent, awkwardly, like a sausage. Or a Gumby. I nevertheless got to my feet, got my parka off, got my left arm back outside. I did have fingers. I even got zipped back up. Finding my fly, getting it open, finding my dick … was much harder. It hadn’t frozen or dropped off: just shrunk to the smallest I’d ever seen it. I don’t think I was that small lying in the bassinet. There sure wasn’t much pee. And I realized how dehydrated we had to be. Skiing the day without pausing for food or drink was my common practice. I was paying more than I could afford for the lift ticket. (Afford? Still in graduate school, founding the Free Learning Exchange, no expectation of income for I had no idea how long …) I’d wasted my youth without discovering the outdoors. Drink once the lifts close. Then guzzle guzzle. So I started shoveling snow into my mouth. As I did so I began to realize how very much it had snow. Faery land indeed. I still expected to be at the lodge for breakfast, only sixteen or so hours late, but if anything else went wrong, even if we died, this was the setting for a good death.
It had seemed so simple. Eighteen miles. The whole day to do it in. We’re strong. We’re coordinated. We’ll be working the whole time, keeping our heat up. I regarded the gamble as acceptable. A broken ski would have been a serious problem, but not disastrous until we both broke a ski. One guy could still get help for the other. A broken limb, ditto. No. Why should such heroes bother with extra weight for emergency equipment? Food, extra clothing, matches, water …
Some moisture from the snow must have gotten into my gullet, but it sure didn’t feel like it. My mouth felt every bit as cold as the snow. Couldn’t possibly melt it. All I was aware of was cutting the hell out of my inner cheeks with the part of the snow that was yesterday’s and crystallized.
Time to rouse Jerry. The way I’m moving, it’s going to take forever to get my skies back on.
I should also comment: downhill skis can be a bitch to get on. Especially if you’re perched on a slope as steep as the Tuckerman’s Ravine headwall. Downhill boots are inflexible. Even good ski clothes have some bulk (and I had yet to ski in any thing but jeans and crummy ski wear). (Except for my sweaters: Hilary had given me a gorgeous Austrian ski sweater. Her mother had given me the gorgeous Norwegian ski sweater I was wearing at the time.) But cross country skis are normally a breeze. I had bindings that clicked on as you just shoved your foot forward. But under these circumstances, nothing was going to be easy. Coordinating the foot with the binding, too frozen to bend over, was going to be anything but “just shove.”
I had no thought for Angus. He never had showed up in the hole. It had stopped occurring to me to expect him. For the moment, I’d forgotten he was with us. “Jerry.” At first I just called him with my voice. “Jerry.” I put one foot down in the hole and shook him. Again. Harder. “Jerry. Jerry.”
Nothing. Oh, shit. I’m out in the woods with a corpse. I’ll get back, but I don’t want to face his girl. or anybody else in that house. Worse comes to worst, I could always just turn around and ski back to Bromley. Not Bromley: start skiing that road we had to cross till I can flag down a car. “Jerry. Jerry.” I shook him really hard. Oh Jesus. There’s no way I can check for vital signs. I can’t find his pulse with no feeling in my hands. My cheek is so numb I wouldn’t even know warm breath from ice water. “Jerry, damn it: I going to start kicking you.”
This was going to be hard. How long do I wait before I give up and abandon him? I labored to my skis. I had to save myself. I had to ski up and down the side trail. I had to get my blood working, get my hands back, try to restore some movement, some coordination. Can’t ski without coordination. It would be hard work to get even 10% limber. Getting my skis on was every bit as hard as I’d imagined for the circumstances. But I did. I even managed to get the straps for my poles over my wrists. Too easy to drop something while this clumsy. When myself, I use the provided straps not because I’m afraid I’ll drop them but so they’ll stay with me if I fall. I’ve had falls where I don’t stop for hundreds of feet. Don’t want to trudge back up the mountain looking for my poles. But here I’d be likely to drop anything not tied onto me. Ugh. The first couple of strides were a labor. “Jerry.” I called as I tried to warm up. “Jerry.”
Success doesn’t always come. And it seldom comes easily. But very seldom will it come without trying. I labored at my body and I did get some movement back. I returned to the hole. Now I could squat a bit. “Jerry.” I thought his head moved a bit to the side. I don’t think it was just me nudging him. “Jerry. It’s light. We gotta go. It’s the devil just the get the skis on. Jerry.”
No question. He moved. It was him doing the moving. “My feet,” he said.
“Come on, Jerry. Move those feet. Crawl out of the hole. We gotta go.”
I was crushed marble at first. Now I was merely thick molasses. He was starting to move and I wasn’t going to stand there freezing up while he tried to thaw himself. I went back to my warm up on the side trail. Of course I talked to Jerry as I did so. Tried to encourage him. And I won’t try to recall all the dialogue other than to say that he hurt and his feet hurt the most. He can’t have meant pain. I felt no pain. Didn’t know if I ever would again. Precious pain. It’s not possible that he could either. We’d been side by side in the same hole in the snow. He “hurt” as in “recognized a liability.” I’d fretted about my thumb: his feet had “fallen off.”
But something was wrong with my skiing. Something beyond how heavy and awkward, weak and stiff I was. The skis were heavier than that. Ah, new snow. Glorious, fresh powder. More new accumulation than all the year’s accumulation through yesterday. We’ll warm up, rewax, and do the best we can.
Jerry was up and moving after a fashion and I lengthened my trek up the side trail we’d picked for the purpose of warming up on. Gorgeous virgin snow with a rock in the middle of the trail. The rock caught my eye each time I passed it. A rock with a bare spot. No wonder it worried my vision. Now can a rock have a bare spot while everything else is buried and rapidly getting more buried? I skied right up to the rock. “Angus?”
I will never forget what happened next. The rock stood up. It didn’t stand up as a vertebrate creature would. And certainly not like an invertebrate. It stood up like a freight elevator would rise from four telescoping legs at the corners, the telescopes operated by internal pistons. For all their uncanny extension the telescopes looked otherwise like German shepherd legs. The snow which covered the rock stood with it, not a flake straying. The bare spot had been its eyes.
Angus didn’t shake himself. Didn’t shiver. Didn’t wag his tail, nod or raise his head. Didn’t blink. He just rose. “Come on, Angus. Move. Warm up. We’ll be off the mountain and having breakfast in an hour if we move.” And I resumed my reciprocation of the trail. It was quite a while before Angus became limber enough to lose that crown of snow. Even his tail had kept its snow crown: like snow on a statue.
Almost Home? No, Sir
We can’t be far, Jerry and I agreed as he labored his skis on. And now we’ll be able to see where we’re going.
Then something very bad happened. No, not Jerry cursing the rescue party that had never come. The snow mobiles we’d heard must have been recreational vehicles, perhaps using lighted trails. All very civilized, then shut the lights off and go home to supper. No, the bad thing was we couldn’t find the Appalachian Trail. Oh, we knew we were at the intersection. We know where we’d crossed our skis, or more or less, now that we put them on and new snow, by now with a wind behind it, filled everything up. We couldn’t even be confident about our broken branch, so conspicuous even in the gathering dark of the evening. Everything was snow covered. We found more than one broken branch. Who knew what we broke as we beat the snow from the boughs with our ski poles. A broken branch wasn’t the trail: a series of trees marked with aluminum disks was the trail. And we couldn’t find a single marker. Forget about our tracks from yesterday: wind and snowfall covered them as we made them.
It had been full light for too long when Jerry spotted one gray disk nailed to a tree trunk. At this rate it would be dark again before we got back to the section where the grade had steeped and the wood thickened. And then what would we do? My skies were heavier than before and Jerry was starting to comment on his. Our skies were icing up. We decided to scrape and rewax before pursuing more markers. I had a steel bar for the purpose in my fanny pack. I was now functional enough to kick my skies off easily and knew I’d get them back on with only a fraction of the dawn’s labor. I started to scrape while Jerry deskied. Nothing not a molecule. “I can’t get a grip on it,” I reported. I took my right glove off, whatever the sacrifice to my fingers, to try a better grip. “Yaii.” So I was wrong about the no-pain part. Glove back on, I tried scraping the ski bottom against a tree’s bark. Not a molecule. I tried waxing the ice.
The bottom or running surface of a ski is flat (for low friction) with a central groove (for directional stability). The ice didn’t coat the bottom like the icing on a cookie; it was rounded like a decorative molding. Jerry gave up with the ice scraper as rapidly as I had. Yesterday was corn snow. This was fresh powder. We knew that. Yesterday’s corn wax had worked dandy but now it was attracting ice crystals like bleached hair attracts bar flies: and holding every crystal, locking the ice on. Like the Emperor Claudius’s wife. I’d been so big on saving weight. I’d left out the bar of wax for powder snow. Both the corn and ice wax bars might was well have been stainless steel. Even had we had the right wax we couldn’t have added a gram of it. We might not have had much success waxing even had we had the right wax and had we tried application before putting the skies back on for our warm up. We were simply going to have to struggle to safety with weighted, convex-bottomed skis.
I pause to say: My creative writing I wrote at whatever length seemed appropriate. Is it critical whether War and Peace is 1100 pages or 980? whether Hamlet plays to three hours or two and a half? The question is: is it efficient? Sonnets, sonatas … are other matters entirely. My modules at my home page are supposed to be bite-sized. You want a meal? Read several. You want a snack? Read one. But this story is running to fourteen pages and I’m nowhere near done. Of course it’s half of a first draft. I can’t know yet how much tighter I can make it. First I have to write it. Write first; revise second.
Then again it’s deep down in K.’s Chat section. You can read as much or as little of it as you want. Ah, but will you get the story then? Sure: it’s in the titles and sub-titles. Obviously, I survived. It was thirty years ago [47 years now that I’m here correcting a detail or two]. Now I’m jotting it down. I’ve told it orally before. I may have jotted parts in my journal. But this is I believe the first time I’m telling the whole thing, chronologically, beginning to end. I’m going to mount it, finish it … then see what next to do with it. Add little summaries for those who’d rather skim? Anyway: it’s not exactly modular: it’s a story: not yet edited.
We made progress to the obstacle that had stopped us the evening before: markings, but no “trail”. The slope seemed slightly less steep in the morning light: cloud cover, snow storm and all. Shadows, you know. The angle of light participates in determining how we see and experience things. We could see, but we still have the devil of a time finding the markers, now wholly obscured by the still falling snow. Everything was covered and recovered. Instead of one of us holding onto the last marker with both fanned forward beating snow off the trees with our ski poles till we found the nest marker: regather, refan “forward.” We were still fairly confident, correctly we hoped, that we were close. We had to be well up the back side of Stratton Mountain. [Whoops, editing necessitates new editing.] We just had to believe we were at the top, the trail going back down, not for a dip, but down to stay, and we’d “know” we were near Stratton’s summit, on the back (undeveloped) side of it. Poke to the left and find one of the groomed slopes. Near the summit, everything would be close: Appalachian Trail / commercial slopes. At least that’s how it had seemed at Bromley Mountain. We’d have all the remaining day to find it if we didn’t hit it immediately. And where the hell was our rescue party? We were never more than a few dozen feet off the trail with the single exception of when we’d gone for that phantom road on the trail that disappeared: no reason why anyone would be looking for us at that point — we weren’t missing yet. Our bivouac was right at the intersection of the two trails. No snowmobile could have gone by without one party sensing the other: since we hadn’t quite frozen solid in the night. Jerry’s slow wakening might have missed it, but not me. And the party should damn well have noticed our crossed skis. It would be our rescue party after all.
I’ve not iterated each of Jerry’s complaints about his feet. The day before we were both strong, both good skiers. I was smitten by the night’s cold, but Jerry was more felled by it. Why? Was I in better shape? Better constitution? Luckier? Better character? Maybe. More likel irrelevant. No two things are ever equal. But what we agreed was clear then I still regard as the main ingredient now: I had mink oiled my boots; Jerry had passed. Apart from my own sweat, my feet had stayed dry. Jerry had moisture from outside added to his own. I’d felt frozen. Maybe I had a little frostbite: no telling yet. But Jerry’s feet had really frozen. And they weren’t thawing. No feet takes away from everything else: mind and body.
Eventually the ascent diminished and the trail widened. Just what we had been praying for the evening before. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. We came out onto a level and the wind almost knocked us down. This was no beautiful snow storm: this was a full-fledged blizzard. A new difficulty added to our rate of finding markers. The day before, we’d breezed by them: snow cover on the ground, some snow on the trees’ upper branches, but bare trunks. The Appalachian gray tin markers didn’t stand out like the colored ribbons on the other trails, but we had no real trouble till dusk. Now we might have missed them had they been strobe lighted, accompanied by sirens. We rounded a bend, and the wind diminished momentarily. Rounding the next bend knocked us screwy. The forest had receded. We’d arrived at a meadow, a pond, a cleared area, something. We skipped checking markers as we saw a wooden bridge ahead. “Obviously” the bridge is part of the trail. Enough wood showed through the wind rearranging snow that we saw evidence of some kind of devastation. That wood was dead, killed. Maybe we were crossing the remains of a forest fire.
We started to cross the bridge and were instantly numbed the way we’d been in the night. We put our heads down and tried to forge forward. On the other side of the bridge the land opened very wide. The wind was worse still. If there had been a fire that burned a dozen acres and no new markers had been put up, we were totally screwed.
Understand. Jerry and I wouldn’t have gone off to Everest or Alaska the way we did this trip: taking a bunch of things for granted. We were in New England. These woods were regularly used by people. It was the Appalachian Trail! So, it was winter. We wanted that: to have it to ourselves. In summer, you’d be coming upon a troop of girl scouts every other minute. That’s why we hadn’t worried, anticipated undue danger. If we wanted to be safe, we could have stayed home. [Safe? No such thing: except comparatively.]
There were too many variables here. We needed to confer, and not while getting the life torn from us by the gale. We retreated. It seemed we had brought some of the wind back with us into the woods. We tried eating more snow while we decided that the next mile looked like it would be far more treacherous than anything behind us. Say we had come seventeen miles so far: half a mountain, going down; a whole mountain, up and down; a fair part of the last half a mountain, going up: and now stymied. However we told the time the day before — we both probably wore watches — that was over. Whether they had stopped or the crystals frosted to opaque I don’t remember. Jerry guessed it had to be toward eleven. Sounded reasonable to me. We were, obviously, exhausted. Seven or eight hours of hard skiing was what we did regularly. (Jerry probably wasn’t as driven as me there: he’d skied as a kid. I was trying to make up for lost time. Ski as much as I could till thirty. Pack a life time into what had remained of that shortened decade: I’d only started at twenty-four. Well, I was thirty. Thirty-two actually. Keep it up as long as I could. Other guys had had their outdoor adventures while I was sitting in Birdland or wandering MOMA.) Seven or eight hours of hard skiing was supposed to be followed by a nice bit of booze, a nice dinner, maybe a cuddle by a warm fire … at least a few hours of sleep before you do it again. The day before we got dehydrated to a degree we regularly allowed. But now we mixed hypothermia, dehydration, inanition … This skiing was no fun; we just had to or perish. However we were suffering, the snow-filling woods were still beautiful. Priceless. Worth some suffering. But the gale-gnawed burned area back ahead was pure ugly.
We had six hours to rescue ourselves, be rescued (we heard no snowmobiles that day), or be totally fucked. How was I going to get Jerry up tomorrow morning? How was I going to get up myself?! Sure, we’d make a better shelter this time, start earlier, maybe try to invent fire starting (hell, we had the advantage over our ancestors of knowing it could be done) … I think Jerry even suggested that we go back to the shelter we’d seen, dig in, and wait. But you can’t camp and travel at quite the same time. We decided that we’d grit our teeth and devote a half an hour to trying to relocate the trail. It would be very easy to wander into an open area and never again find where you’d been, where you knew you were on the marked trail.
We returned to the worst of our hells so far. Jerry followed one tree line, I the other. No markers. None either could find. And this part was additionally bad because we’d lost communication with each other. We must both have felt it because we both retreated well within the allotted half hour. Now we didn’t have as much time left as it had taken us the day before to travel from the public highway we’d crossed to where we’d been stopped. That highway had to be our goal. Could we reach it skiing on heavy ice sickles? We had to try. That’s all there was to it. At least we wouldn’t be slowed down by stopping to eat.
No more talk. Just ski. If you can call grinding forward on an ice sickle skiing. The day before, we’d stride and glide, stride and glide. Every glide outstipped several ordinary walking strides. Cross country skiers race fifty kilometers and think nothing of it. Some of the Finnish contestants are employed as border guards and run half the country’s perimeter in a night. Our glides were now only marginally better than a walking stride. The previous day, we could have taken our skies off and walked the same terrain (the snow was not deep and was hard-packed: not by traffic but by gravity, wind, and age). Not now. With the skis off we’d have sunk and stayed stuck up to our waist. This storm was dropping snow as fast and thick as I’d ever seen. Still, even the iced skies probably gave us faster transport than showshoes would have. No way we could snow shoe over one and a half mountains and make the road by dark. Just maybe we’d be able to see enough on the broad flat to reach the road. We had to at least reach that lane we’d so enjoyed as we approached our middle mountain.
Our grumbling about our absent rescue party was no longer shared out loud. But suddenly we did hear one! A snowmobile!
We had every right to be disoriented. And maybe we were a little. We had every right to be hallucinating. If we were hearing things at least it was what we wanted to hear. Disoriented or hallucinating, we nevertheless realized within a moment: the snowmobile was not on the Appalachian Trail! It was not going toward the Appalachian trail. It was going fast, it was going by, it was going away.
Trail markers or no, Jerry and I ran in pursuit, yelling and screaming, waving our ski poles and arms however the woods allowed. We hadn’t seen it first, just heard it. But there it was now, diminishing in the distance and about to disappear. The driver’s back was stolidly to us. A big man. Or least a body of some kind in a huge tent of furs and parkas and blankets, a huge fur and canvas hat on his head with their ear and neck flaps tied so he looked like a tepee with shoulders. It was hopeless. He was gone. But still we shouted, hoarse from it within moments.
The snowmobile stopped. We redoubled our hoarse caterwauling and dashed toward him again. This better be real or relocating the trail we’d left might become as problematic as anything else we’d faced. The guy stopped and sat: looking still dead ahead or meditating. The snowmobile rested only yards from woods he’d disappear into if he restarted. How we didn’t fall or break a ski tip in our mad dash after him was miraculous. Slowly, like a walrus, the guy did rotate toward us. He sat, staring.
Mister. Mister. Please. Help us.
We kept up our scrambling, but eventually, he turned the snowmobile and motored back toward us. When he spoke it was to affirm his look of disbelief. Were we real? Had he really found two guys in the middle of the wilderness during the worst blizzard in years? He’d thought he seen something but couldn’t believe his senses. That’s why he hadn’t stopped sooner. Then, bless him, he had to check and be sure.
“Mister, we’re just trying to find the summit of Stratton Mountain. All we want is to find one of the regular slopes that will lead us down to where we have a car parked.” We were on the Appalachian Trail. The trail markers disappeared. If he could just lead the way, we’d be fine.
He agreed. It turned out that he was a beaver trapper by trade. He’d thought he’d be crazy to check his traps in the blizzard, but then, there were some he already hadn’t check in a few days. It’s a good thing for us he decided in favor of business over comfort that day. Our rescue party was a fiction. This trapper was the only thing we could cling to.
“On second thoughts, Mister,” I said. “I’m OK. I’ll try to keep behind you. But my friend’s feet are frozen off. He’s really hurting. Do you think you could let him ride with you?”
The trapper asked how long we’d been out. Since yesterday morning. No food since yesterday noon. No liquid the whole time. “I think I’d better get you both completely off the mountain.”
We removed our skis. Stowed them aft in his custom snowmobile. Jerry lay down with the skis and the guy found a tarp to put over him. I’d ride on the back, like a dog sled: shelf to stand on, handles to grasp hold of. Angus would have to run behind. And we started.
|I want to insert something (else) important to me, something that happened to me that second day, but I’m not sure exactly when. It had already happened by the time of these events. But it was an internal thing, not directly related to external events. There are huge elements of subjectivity to it, so I can’t report it as a fact: rather as something I’m confident in the truth of. I felt my metabolism switch from eating to being eaten. We were in deep trouble. Fear is counterproductive: not only a waste but a danger. When you’ve no choices left, go, believing in your luck whether it’s justified or not: because there’s nothing better to do. Yet with the feeling that I’d switched from burning whatever was in my guts to burning body reserves came a serenity: a serenity I’d heard of but never expected to experience: the serenity of the starving. Poking around at home you can go for days, weeks, without food yet without actually starving. It might be days before your body was forced to kick over to body fat. Skiing three mountains every daylight minute, surviving the dark in the snow, God knows how many calories I’d burned. In those days I’d say I averaged twenty-eight hundred to three thousand-something calories per day. Skinny, but with a hugely expandable belly I liked to fill. After dinner, I’d look pregnant; in the morning, I’d be skinny again. That applied when I skied every day. It still applied when I sat in a chair reading for six months without exercise. My thirty year old metabolism burned and burned. It was only toward forty that a little fat started accumulating around my belly. Now, I do watch my diet. Then, my diet was to eat and drink as much as I could: make up for no lunch with a huge dinner. I’d eat whatever part of the whole pound box of linguini that my companion didn’t, drowned in meat sauce with mushrooms and everything else I could find, or clams: two cans of clams, whole bunch of parsley, and a third of a cup of olive oil. My above estimate does not include calories from booze, and having a series of martinis, scotches, beer (my own brew) or wine (sometimes of my own making) was routine for me in those days. Study my ass off, eat and drink myself sodden. Ski my ass off, ditto. I’d eat a three pound sirloin. I’d eat a half-gallon of ice cream. Not every day, but on more than a few occasions. I seldom took in much more than say a pint of hard stuff in a day but the occasions when I had that much or nearly that much were common. Till I was near forty and saw that I was getting a new body and a new metabolism: I needed and got new habits.
Feeling my body eat itself was an unlooked for benefit I now wouldn’t trade for anything. Even knowing the feeling, I wouldn’t go seek it. I’m not about to perch on a stile for weeks on end. I still like my food and alcohol-free beer. I’ll stay “normal” where I have the choice. But having the choice removed by circumstance — no, we didn’t plan to run into trouble, not subconsciously, not any way: take your damned psychology somewhere else. But I don’t regret it. That feeling was precious. A few hours of unsympathetic nature: priceless. Civilized man can’t properly imagine what he’s lost, given up, chased away, destroyed: for a “safety” that’s illusory, that’s gonna bite us back. Man’s finest hours preceded the Garden, took place prior to ten thousand years ago.
The guy took off. The machine was so loud I couldn’t scream to him that we where more naked than clothed under our parkas. Standing on the back of that sled was as bad as crossing the bridge into the teeth of the storm earlier. But even had he been able to hear me I’m not sure I would have been willing to fault our rescuer.
We were hoping the guy knew the trails. Better, he knew the mountain. He hadn’t been on any trail when we saw him. I wasn’t bothering with any trails now. At one point he went careening down a gully, smashed up the other side. I looked back at Angus, laboring to keep us in sight. Surprise, surprise, Angus was struggling in a miniature white water rapids. We’d broken the crust over a swollen stream and Angus had fallen in. I did make myself heard over the roar of the engine. “Your dog will find you. That’s what dogs do.” Either Jerry or I probably would have hated this guy under any other circumstances. Under what circumstances would we have been talking to a beaver trapper, a Neanderthal, a troglodyte? He knew we were a couple of pasty eastern intellectuals. He guessed correctly what we thought of his trade and later said he hoped that getting rescued by him would soften our judgments. A man who knew he’d been born into a changing world and felt, if not guilty, at least conspicuous for what he did. At least he didn’t tell us he was a part-time actress and model.
The cold in the night had been subtle. The cold on the back of the careening snowmobile was as subtle as a trick cigar. But finally he slowed. And there was his jeep. He said we was going to leave us there for a few minutes. He’d live with missing the rest of his traps, but there was one thing he had to take care of near by. We asked if he could at least start the jeep and turn the heater on. Oh please have a heater.
He did. A blast furnace of a heater. A few minutes was more like an hour. We waited. The heater was pumping hot air into the jeep like crazy, but I felt no relief from it. If I was still frozen, what was Jerry? Warmth was what we had prayed for. And here was warmth. But it was outside. I felt none of it getting inside. I resumed my practice of squeezing, flexing, making fists, squeezing. As we sat there, Angus found us. I’d forgotten I’d have to come back and find him.
I’m telling Jerry that the first thing we need is liquid: water, pop, coffee, beer, anything wet. We really should have asked the guy first thing if he had any water. Jerry was telling me that the first thing he had to do was call the house, assure his girl.
Now that we were in a vehicle some practicalities started to occur. Would the car start? Parked over night would they have plowed around us? or plowed us under? But the main thing was water and food in a warm place. All Jerry wanted was to find a phone and then get back to the house. Once the guy got us down the mountain and to the parking lot (no, he didn’t have any water), Jerry’s focus worried me. “Jerry, we gotta get something to drink. A lot of something to drink.” Wouldn’t you know Jerry finds a phone way off in a snow drift. “Please can’t you call from the lodge, from a restaurant? … Give me the keys to the car so I can get my wallet. Man, we gotta get some sodas.” Sheri was giving Jerry hell over the phone, scaring her like that. He finally gets off. He’s adamant about going straight to the house. “Please, Jerry. Just a soda. A dinky bag of potato chips.” How do you argue with your host. I was so occupied I didn’t notice. Stratton Mountain, on a premier Saturday, was closed for business. Too much snow. Couldn’t dig the lifts out in time. Too many problems with the roads and plowing for parking.
The car did start and we did manage to get out onto the highway. I don’t ski Stratton. I didn’t know that section of the road. I scan for signs of any kind of a store or restaurant. I’ll mug Jerry if I have to to get him to stop. If anything commercial existed over the next miles, I couldn’t tell. Everything was snowed over. The road was deserted but passable. The house seemed forever away. It gave me time to worry about what I’d do once we got there. I was sure they’d feed me, but I was supposed to have driven back to New York the night before: gotten out of everyone’s way before the regulars arrived. I’d broken the bank to come to Vermont at all. Now I’d have to spring for a motel. There’s was no way I could drive several hundred miles without recovering a bit first. At least Angus was with me. I had no idea how I would have gone about finding where the snowmobile had met the parked jeep. The guy had some private trail having nothing to do with the commercial part of the mountain.
I went into a lull till we reached the house. The house was full of people of people I hadn’t met and hadn’t expected to. “Water, water.” “Would you like some coffee?” “Yes.” “How about a scotch?” “Yes.” I guzzled the water, the coffee, the scotch, asked for more of all and also asked for a can opener. I opened two cans of Alpo from my car for Angus. He inhaled them and looked at me. I gave him a third pound of meat.
Back inside I took a more relaxed look at the hosts I was imposing on. Revlon had some pretty women on the payroll. The guys were probably better than all right was well. I don’t see guys. One of them was oriental with a great smile. I remember that much. “You must be starving,” one of the girls said. “Can I make you an omelet?” Jerry must have gone to his room. It was me she was talking to. “Yes, please, but I can cook if you’ll just let me back there.”
The rented house was ultra modern. Built like screw into the ground. From the road you saw some stucco and a great steel ribbed glass dome. The entrance opened directly onto a dining counter behind which was the kitchen. First step into the house, I was in the right place. “Please let me,” she insisted. “We can potatoes. I can make hashbrowns.” “Please.” “We have bacon …” “Yes.” “… or sausage.” “Yes.” “Both?” “Yes.”
A place was made for me at the counter. Jerry returned and a place was made for him. He too assented to an omelet. While we ate I got the story from the house side of things. Sheri had called the sheriff when we hadn’t shown up by five. The sheriff had said he’d handle it. By morning the sheriff was handling it by still waiting to see if we’d show up. If we weren’t back by noon they’d gather a party. “Don’t worry. They sound strong. Regular skiers, you say?” Jerry’s phone call to Sheri and hers to the sheriff saved him the necessity of leaving his fireside. We’d made the news throughout New England.
Jerry finished his omelet and went to his room. I had no idea that I’d never see him again.
The crowd was amused as I said yes to everything offered. Four eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, toast, more toast, jam, coffee, more coffee … “And could I have some more of that scotch, please.” I think even the men were alarmed when they saw the way I drank it down. The straight stuff tasted very dilute to me. I glugged double after double.
Stratton and Bromley were closed. The roads were unreliable. They’d come all the way up from New York to be snowed in. Nice place to be stranded. The house was round. The dining counter curved with it. Circling from the counter’s right led to the main social room: an amphitheater of a living room covered by the dome visible from the road. The pit of the amphitheater was a capacious fire place. Every inch of the rest was thickly carpeted: floor, bench, next level floor and bench, one part as comfortable as another. Thirty people could get tribal there.
But for the moment it seemed that I, with my eating and drinking, was the entertainment. Before I figured out how to make my exit or what I’d do next, the problem was solved for me. Soandso was bunking with Soandso which left a room for me by myself. I was welcome for as long as I needed. Stay through the weekend, stay the next week: everyone would be gone by then. Well, I couldn’t do that. My money was gone. But I’d certainly accept a hot bath and a sleep.
Wouldn’t you know it, everyone had played musical rooms so both Jerry and I could have rooms with their own bath. A very pretty, very slender Revlon gal led me down into the house’s underground. On first arriving I’d seen that only the living room, kitchen and dining area were above ground. I knew that a gang had rented the house, so it had to have a number of bedrooms and baths corkscrewing downward, but I’d been given one of the shallower room when Jerry and I were the only ones in the house. Now I was being led much deeper. The gal smiled me into my room. She could have had geisha training. Very
nice room. There was something to be said for employment. Later, one of the guys told me that not one in that group of execs was responsible for anything but Mickey Mouse stuff. But details counted and Revlon paid them very well to be careful.
When I was a kid the osteopath on the corner was my substitute father. He told me not to warm cold extremities with hot water (same guy who told me to run cool water over my wrists when overheated). I drew a hot bath but ran cold water on my hands as it was filling. The nice thing about freezing is that you know you’re cold but don’t know any details of damage. That knowledge will make itself painfully knows later. My hands were functioning. I’d been able to handle the table wear and hold cups and glasses at the dining counter. I’d manipulated the can opener for Angus (who was through that time being admiringly attended by the women). But I felt nothing in my hands as I ran the water over them. I got into the bath. What a blessing. It was big enough to lie back in. Soon I’d be able totally to immerse myself. The water seemed as hot toward the end of my filling as toward the beginning. So I had no qualms about emptying and refilling to keep it hot. Amazing house, powerful water heater. And Jerry was sure to be using plenty himself, had no doubt already run his bath.
I soaked for hours. I heard no sounds but my own. I wonder how much soundproofing you need underground other than the ground itself. The construction of this house seemed to have spared nothing. Still I wept soundlessly as feeling stole without anything like friendship back into my hands. I’ll tell you now: it was weeks before my feet started yanking on the alarm bell, days more before the tips of my toes made their tormented statements. Then I thought it was over. I was wrong. In a month I remembered my ears.
Out of the bath, I got into bed. I didn’t imagine I needed sleep so much as rest. Hell, we’d been in the hole, asleep a damn good part of the time, from dark to light: eleven if not twelve hours in February. But I slept. I slept like the dead. No. Much better: I slept like the not dead. I woke around 10 PM. I dressed and rose through the house. A bunch of these male and female bachelors were lounged around the fire. I was given free run of the kitchen and made good use of it. I was then welcomed by the fire where I failed to communicate the purpose of the Free Learning Exchange. They’d been to school. They had their degrees. What was wrong? Who needed anything else? The last of them turned in by twelve thirty. I went back to my room and slept like the not dead.
Sunday morning I and the whole house (but for Jerry) were up bright and early. I was told he was OK. He just wanted to sleep. I felt so great. Eleven or so hours of sleep followed by five or so hours of sleep followed by six and a half hours of sleep. I was alive. Rehydrated. Breakfast with these beautiful people was wonderful. A phone call confirmed that Stratton was open and would be fully operational by the usual time. The guys hoped I’d ski with them. How could I refuse. One last ski day to celebrate being alive. I was so alive. I’d drive home that night. I was bursting with energy.
It was the right thing to do. It turned out to be one of the greatest skiing days I’ve ever had.
By the time we got to the lifts skiers were already all over the lower slopes. It’s very hard to be the first one down a public ski area. But the machines were there even before the first: it was groomed. But I knew a thing or two. The topmost lift showed trackless powder. There were plenty of skiers ahead of me on the lift but no one yet up to the deep stuff.
What does an eastern skier do with deep powder? Long for it. Dream about it. And then, on that rare day when it’s there, avoid it. Who knows what to do with it? The same situation I’d been in only a couple of years before. I’d moved to Maine in part to teach, in part to find deep powder. I skied Sugarloaf for a year without ever seeing any. Ah, but the next year we had oodles. Like everyone else, I panicked. I knew all the theories. I had the right skis: Head 360s, flexible, soft tip … Fortunately I was skiing with the graceful, gorgeously coordinated Hubert Kueter, Colby Professor of German and weekend Sugarloaf ski instructor. We passed a virgin side trail. Hubert had the wrong skis: Rossingnol, fiberglass, hard edged, stiff tip … Hubert headed into it. Oh God! So gorgeous. Perfect turns, his tracks like a sonata. I stood there procrastinating. I’ll look like an ass. I’ll fall on my face. No. You’re gonna do it if it kills you. I followed his line. Oh heaven. My first powder. I did it. I did it well. Stay in the fall line and don’t chicken. Hubert was waiting for me where the snow was normally chewed. “I thought you said you didn’t know how to ski powder?” We looked back at our tracks. Both sets were pretty nice. I’ve never had trouble with powder since, even get compliments out west. For much of the duration of that year Sugarloaf had tons of powder. First you yearn for powder. Then you yearn for bottomless. For one stretch there we had twelve feet of pack, three feet of new, and then a fresh four feet dumped on top of that. And miracle of miracles: it stayed light and dry. But then I’ve already described that powder above. Stratton wasn’t bottomless after that one great blizzard, but parts of it were, and all of it was deep enough. It wasn’t as light as the powder at 1969 Sugarloaf but it was every bit as light as powder I’ve found in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming … I took off into and danced down under the chair lift.
I’ve never skied better. One thing I love about skiing is the element of fear. I’ll never recapture the fear I conquered as a novice where I truly didn’t know what I was doing. An accomplished skier can have an accident but he does know how to turn, how to stop, what to anticipate, what speed is comfortable, what speed is foolish. But fear is still there. This is a mountain after all. There are rocks. You’re going sixty, sixty-five miles an hour. There are moguls ahead. Some moron could come from anywhere. But that day, from beginning to end, I was totally fearless. Not crazy, I swear. Just perpetually ready to face the fall line.
Every decent skier knows that the fall line is your friend. Only by facing into it can you most effectively turn your hips and check against it. Face and shoulders square to the fall line give you leverage. Still, for an amateur, knowing and doing it are not quite the same thing. That day my body knew it. The civilized side of this mountain is a big pussy and all for me.
I’d had my first upper chair to myself. Second trip I had a companion. “Hey, did you hear about the guys out in the woods all night.” “Yeah.” “Man, I bet they’re hurtin.” “Jerry’s still in bed, but I’m OK.” The guy lowers his lids at me, then looks away. Shuffled his ass and got further to his side of the chair. God, the bullshiters you meet on a ski lift.
Now we’re over the upper slope. I see my tracks. They are still the only ones. Mmm. Rhythmic links, not a hitch. It gives me as much joy to see them as it gave me to make them. “KeyRist,” the guy says. “Look at the legs on that
guy!” “Those are my tracks,” I tell him. He turned away from me to fumble with his poles. We get off the lift and he skis to the side, head down and busy with his gloves. I plunge back to it. Whee.
“Hey. Hey.” I stop and look back after a dozen turns. “Can I ski with you?” And on he comes into the powder. I guess he saw that those were my tracks. Maybe it was me in the woods too! Nothing like a converted non-believer.
|Later thought: Competition elevates our own performance. I don’t mean competition with rules, for a purse, with a TV camera … I just mean plural is better than singular for some things. It was by daring myself to follow Hubie, that I first succeeded with powder. This day I was at my best ever: and this guy wanted to be stretched to his best by me. Sure, buddy. Keep up if you can.
Contrarily: there’s nothing worse for one’s technique than thinking back over one’s shoulder. Seduces you to deflect from the fall line. Even if you stop after a dozen turns, you still have to have your mind downhill.
Which reminds me of gender. Males look at what interests them; females deflect their glance: to be looked at. Different species.
Never forget the time driving down to the Keys that Dyan suddenly told me that the father of her son had blue eyes. “I can’t resist blue eyes,” she said, took her eyes off the road and looked straight into my blue eyes! It was only then that I realized: she’d never met my gaze before! Trained in a harem. note
Reminds me of a lesson I watched on White Face Mountain once. The instructor says, Now watch this. And boom, he’s gone. There was nothing to see. Just a bunch of confused lesson takers, clinging to the slope. But the real skier among them wasn’t hanging back.
Later that day I came across some of the guys from the house. They were laughing and having a great time but floundering a bit. “How do you ski this stuff?” “Like this. Whee!” And then they too skied it pretty well. Hubert showed me it could be done. Not in a book. Not in a movie. Right in front of me. The same snow, the same mountain, the same time. There’s just the one moment to get past: the moment where you take the plunge.
There was one plunge I took while skiing with the guys from the house I’ll never forget. I can feel the thrill afresh at this moment. I am or at least was a good recreational skier. Put me on a nice mountain today and I’d have my rhythm back within a few hours. My legs are still pretty good for a guy who passed sixty a year and a half ago but they’ll never again be what they were thirty years ago. For my sixtieth birthday I jogged half of the two mile loop through Highlands Hammock, but even just jogging I was heavy legged, had a stitch in my side within a couple of hundred yards (and I ran the mile for my high school, you know). You don’t ski for the first time at age twenty-three or -four and become a ski racer. I’ve run a downhill course at Sugarloaf set up for the Olympic team to practice on. I’ve skied with Olympic B teamers at Toas, played leapfrog with a couple of racers from the University of Colorado in the powder bowls on the back side of Vail, but racing a downhill course is another matter entirely. I made turns — a thousand extra turns, every one of them slowing me down. There were stretches where I may have achieved a speed of sixty-five miles an hour, but to race it you have to average that speed, carry as much speed as you can the whole time. A recreational skier skies a slope in stages. You negotiate a hairy part, you stop, you rest. You get up your courage for the next section. As you do so you may invent a dozen procrastinations: wipe your goggles, adjust you equipment … I don’t like to ski with too many other people because they stop too much. A really hairy skier wouldn’t want to ski with me for the same reason. I’m a skier who’ll ski a half dozen of the other guy’s sections as one, but I’ll still section the course. A natural section occurs where one chute turns blindly into another. Automobile drivers don’t stop at a curve, crawl forward, look around, see that there’s road there, and then proceed. Hairy skiers assume trail and plunge on.
Well that time, skiing with the guys from the house, I had my life’s only double plunge, the second blind. I let the guys ski ahead, well ahead. They paused and regrouped themselves at the turn. I came down the fall line at full momentum, hit the blind on its high side where the snow was deepest, turned just enough to direct myself into the new fall line, and kept flying. A real skier would have discovered that feeling by the time he’s fourteen or sixteen. Better thirty-two or -three than never.
How much do I have Hubert to thank for the courage to start Free Learning Exchange? Could anyone ever be couragous without having an Achilles or Jesus to try to emulate? Following a guy facing into the fall line didn’t hurt in getting me to be able to face it myself. Squaring my shoulders to face down kleptocratic pathology was more of the same. If it kills me, that’s tough. Trying to cure it and failing is better than being the deluded king of the lemming people.
To this day I don’t know if Jerry was really still sleeping or if he was ducking me. I still don’t know the final diagnosis on his feet. He never called me, I never called him. It’s too bad. Since he was friends with John, I presume I’d have heard if he lost any toes. I take no news as good news there. If contacting him were feasible I’d invite him to verify or challenge the details of this narrative. Who knows how many things I’ve gotten a little bollixed? I’m telling it the best I can. Maybe we did know what time it was the second day. (Added: To offer an actual example, I’d written that Sheri had told my wife that I’d be staying longer, not that we were missing. Hilary emails me now that she did know: just no details till I returned.)
Did Jerry somehow blame me for the ordeal? Or did he blame me for enjoying it? I felt that he was having a miserable time from midafternoon on. Maybe his feet were already freezing. Maybe he was embarrassed that his feet were freezing. Maybe he was embarrassed that he’d kept wanting to change course. Maybe he was mad that I wanted to stay on the course. Maybe he couldn’t face me because the whole escapade had been his idea. I was following his scheme, trusting his picture of what would happen, believing his confidence that we’d find the groomed part of Stratton from the Appalachian knowing perfectly well that there would be no lit sign: Downhill Trails, with an arrow pointing the way.
I’ve told parts of this story before. For years I still couldn’t account for the alternate trail’s disappearance. How extraordinary for the Appalachian Trail itself to have disappeared the following morning. The forest fire must have occurred since the previous September for no substitute markers to have been posted by the forest service. The Appalachian Trail is well used through the summer. Come September, people start dying. I’d heard of one woman who’d hiked all the way from Alabama to Maine. Just a few more miles and she’d have done the whole length of the thing in one season. She was warned back at Mount Katahdin, didn’t heed the warning, and disappeared in a September blizzard. If you don’t know mountains, you’re not likely to have any idea how cold it can be even in July or August. In the years in question, I spent a lot of time on Mount Washington. At Tuckerman’s Ravine it seems that you can’t go many steps without passing a marker commemorating somebody who perished on that spot: records kept only in recent decades of this century.
This adventure is important to me for a variety of reasons. One you might not guess is that it signaled the last of my great skiing orgies. I’ve managed to get in a day in Utah, three days at dinky Hunter Mountain … since then but little more. I never imaged that my education’s interruption of my working income — I was flush as a working kid — would be permanent. In the months and years following my return to New York I gave everything I had to the Free Learning Exchange, everything my wife had as well, and the Free Learning Exchange gave nothing back. (That means you, the public, gave nothing back.) You can ski when you’re poor, you can ski when you’re in debt, but you can’t ski when you’re dead broke with no credit, not even in the form of friends with ski houses and room in the car.
Anyway, my curiosity ate at me for years: how far had we been from our goal when dark, and the storm, and forest devastation foiled us? I left the curiosity simmer for years: at least seven. By 1978 pk Fine Arts, Ltd. was feeding me however little time, energy, or cash remained for ski days. (By 1979 I had four million dollars in inventory but still no time or cash to reach even New York’s pathetic ski offerings. I didn’t want to go to Hunter again; I wanted to ski places new to me: Montana, New Zealand, Chile … But there was something else I’d long wanted but had never done: to tour on my motorcycle. I used my first bike to slalom taxis in Manhattan. My current bike was just big enough to stay on the road, but all I’d used it for was local adrenaline rushes. A couple of fast vrooms and I’d had my fix. (I don’t give a damn about speed. I’ve done 106 (along Maine’s cliffs) but once you’ve seen the number on the speedometer, it’s boring. The scenery is nicer standing still. No: hard acceleration and hard-leaned turns are everything. In skiing too, it’s the turns together with the potential
for acceleration: let go, and gravity’s got you.) So. I packed my backpack, strapped it to the Yamaha, and rode to Vermont.
Never again do I want to ride a motorcycle for more than a mile or two. I had to stop every hour or so to let my forearms unjangle from the vibrations. Once at Stratton I wasted no time regretting no longer having a trail bike. I’d jumped enough stumps when I did and there’s no way I want to go a single mile on one over pavement. I headed into the woods. Had no trouble climbing on the lanes without knobby tires. So long as I was on the lanes I had no trouble with the street bike’s low clearance. Alone and without guidance other than my memory’s sense of the territory, I picked up the Appalachian Trail. I parked the bike, donned my pack, and set off to see what I could recognize.
On my way out, nothing. The trail was a breeze to follow.
Do you know the great Harold Lloyd comedy where he spends the long hysterical climax of the film falling off a building? At the end, he’s sure he’s lost, can’t hold his grip on the rope a moment longer, opens his eyes to meet death … and he’s surrounded at eye level by people starting at him? He looks down and sees he’s only a couple of inches off the side walk. He sets his feet down, looks embarrassed, tips his hat, and walks away. We’d spent the night so close to the highway it was ridiculous. (Couple of miles.) But not if you can’t see it. Not if you don’t know how to get to it.
I hiked well past all points in question, saw the sign to the back road, turned around, and tried to see that I was in the same place. But in summer, not winter. I had double back several times before I was sure I’d located where we’d dug our hole in the snow. It all looked so ordinary.
And what had happened to the trail was no longer a mystery. Nothing had happened to it. On the Appalachian Trail no trail is marked around a pond. The water is obvious in summer. The water is
the marker. The tin disks continue on the other side. Had Jerry and I looked on the other side of the first pond we’d come to, we’d have picked the markers up again easily. But we’d dedicated ourselves to following the actual, physical, tin markers. The Appalachian Trail is simply not designed for the disguises of winter. Had we know the summer trail, we almost certainly could have guessed the winter trail, blizzard or no.
What about my forest fire? There was none. We’d been stopped by the wind as by a wall at a very ordinary pond. The dead wood by the little bridge had been dead and felled because it was a beaver dam. In summer, the pond itself being the marker had been so “obvious” I hadn’t even noticed the absence of markers on my hike out, and watching the markers had been the purpose of my walk.
Jerry and I had only one problem. We weren’t trail walkers. We’d never hiked it in summer before trying to ski it in winter.
Visit a famous battle field, any of them. What is it? It’s a field, it’s a brook, it’s a road … It’s nothing. Yeah? Try visiting it while the artillery is going off. In the blind of the dark, of the storm, of the wind, a miss is as good as a mile. Jerry and I had vowed not to stray from the markers. Our mental map of the trail did not correspond to the actual trail. In summer, it seemed to; in winter, it didn’t.
Had we ventured to the other side of the pond of our alternate trail the first day, I presume we would have found whatever road that was and been able to get somewhere that first night, maybe before dark. Doing the same at the little pond on Stratton during the storm was another matter entirely. We didn’t know it was a pond. “Pond” was only one possibility. The wind was so penetrating, dressed for sweating, we truly didn’t know if we’d live to see the other side. In the storm we couldn’t see that there was another side. Had we reached that point the day before, we’d have seen the other side: just ahead. We’d have found the markers. No trouble. Had we bailed out to somebody’s backwoods road with the daylight of just one hour earlier, had there been no reason to worry about the outcome, we’d have inspected the other side without turning back. Had, had, had. Had … a lot of things. Had we been equipped for camping we could have waited out both dark and storm telling jokes around a fire. Had we been in Paris we could have visited the Louvre. Two guys set out to ski from one lodge to another knowing perfectly well that they had to get there within the one day. And that’s all there was to it.
Female’s Deflected Glances:
If you would like to see female eye mastery, watch Maribel Verdu’s performance as Rocio in Belle Epoque. Dyan was Greek. Belle Epoque is Spanish. Eh, they’re both Mediterranean, both normally dark haired.
Dyan was unbelievably beautiful: and so is Maribel Verdu.