Skiing Lessons

Avoid the barn, I told myself, squinting against the cold. Watch out for cow patties. The snow covered landscape slid past the corners of my eyes with increasing speed, and I could feel my heart pattering with an undercurrent of fear.


We had arrived at the Austrian ski town in the dead of winter, which, of course, is the logical time if you want to learn to ski – and my parents did. Trailing a horse drawn sleigh down the snow covered road, I looked at the thick drifts piled like downy blankets across the fields. Watching the horse drawn sleigh continue onwards, we turned into the parking lot of the local hotel where we’d be staying. After carrying our heavy winter gear to our room, we finally relaxed in the roomy restaurant on the first floor, watching the Austrians put on their version of what we here in the South call a “hootenanny” while the shadows of the mountains slide the valley into twilight. Broad chested women in richly embroidered blouses danced while men dressed in lederhosen and white shirts clapped their hands and slapped their thighs in unison. We sipped hot chocolate before the roaring fire as darkness descended. Despite the cold, it was warm and humid inside, and the noise was deafening.

This town we’d found ourselves in – a quaint little Austrian town known for its skiing – was beautiful in the snow. The timber framed houses featured intricate wood filigree patterned shutters and balconies, and the streets seemed open and wide. Beyond lay the Alps in all their glory – I had been amazed to see a cross planted on nearly every mountain peak, reflecting the depth of their religious dedication. We’d passed a church or two with tulip shaped towers; one, nestled in a valley was so beautiful it nearly took my breath away.

We started the very next day, meeting our instructor on the bunny slopes. A manly sort of Austrian woman, she started us out with the basics – how to side-step up a slope, and then snowplow back down. Mastering the rope tow was next on the agenda – I found myself riding that thing like a little kid’s merry-go-round. Flopping in the snow was a common enough feat, and one I seemed to master with minimal effort. As far as doing a “Stem Christie” down the slopes, carving deep turns in a spray of snow – well, that was something yet to come, and even though I tried, I was always a clumsy skier.


Don’t go near the barn, I reminded myself. The snow was packed, hard from the multitude of skiers whom had gone before me here on the “fast slope”. Off to my left ran the T-lift, it’s inverted iron tees pulling couple after couple towards the mountain peak. The first few times I rode it, it had thrown me down, leaving me with a face full of snow. The angle of the slope was increasing, and I could feel the wind whistling past my cold, stinging ears. Go left, I thought, seeing a gap between the sparsely scattered skiers ahead. Stay clear of the barn.


After ‘mastering’ the bunny slopes, our instructor had introduced us to the T-lift. We had practiced turning, cutting slow swaths on the mildly angled slopes below – our skis angled in sharp V’s, leaning forward, poking our poles into the snow until our thighs hurt from the effort. The T-lift was an intimidating beast at first – catching the inverted T-bar beneath your buttocks and letting it drag you towards the top of the mountain; the push-off-let-loose dismount, ducking slightly so that the bar wouldn’t hit you in the head. After that you were presented with a variety of paths to take – some easy, some hard. The intermediate path – soon to become my favorite – wound through some small pines, over a series of moguls, and had a small ski lodge set midway between the top of the mountain and the bottom. I don’t know why I preferred it – perhaps because it allowed me to control my speed, perhaps because of the moguls – but mostly I think it was because it was one of the lesser used of the paths, often offering a free run down the mountain without ever being passed – or passing – another person on the way. I recall skiing from mid-morning to twilight, seeing the yellow light from the small lodge windows spilling across the snow. Being mostly broke, I rarely stopped there, preferring instead to save the money my parents gave me for the ski lift instead.


Crap, I thought, spotting a brownish stain underneath the snow ahead. During the summer months this ski slope was a cow field, and underneath the snow crust lay brown hazards. For the most part you could simply ski over the frozen piles of poop, but beneath the warming rays of the afternoon sun, the top layers of such piles would become warm and somewhat sticky. Our instructor had warned us against them, and I had already found out the hard way a few times over the last few days. Your skis sticking, you’d find yourself catapulting forward, head over heels when you hit one. Cut right, I thought, my mind suddenly focused on the hazard ahead. I turned the points of my skis inward, trying to slow while simultaneously turning sideways.


My family had been amazed by the little Austrian kids on the slopes. Some, half my twelve year old size, seemed to have been born with skies instead of feet, and it was rumored that they began skiing before they started walking. I could easily believe it, having had swarms of them swoosh by me like a flock of darting sparrows, passing the clumsy American on the slope like he was sitting still. I’d watch them, gape mouthed, wishing I could do a Stem Christie the way they did, cutting sharp curves in the snow and racing at a breakneck speed down the mountain. For the most part I found myself sticking to my snowplow, easing into the turns and avoiding the faster slopes. And, believe it or not, one of those kids was to change how the world looked at me for the next decade and a half.

It happened on the T-lift late one day, edging in towards twilight. The sky was hung with iron gray clouds pregnant with snow and I was looking forward to another run on the intermediate slope. I had found myself falling in love with the moguls; the sensation of flying through the air between each one, and passing the dark wood planked lodge with its empty ski racks outside. Mounting the T-lift on the bottom of the slope, I found myself partnered with one of those young Austrian kids. Dressed in a form fitting black outfit, he didn’t look to be more than seven. Grabbing the center bar for support, we let it pull us up over the well worn trail between the pines, my long black overcoat flapping in the wind like a crow’s wings. I was enjoying the ride through the twilight, anticipating the fun ahead, when the little boy turned and said something to me. Not understanding a word, just I grinned and nodded – and then with a surprising abruptness, he suddenly turned, jumped, and swooshed away. The last I saw of him was his butt swagging back and forth as he cut sharp curves through the pines; the next thing I saw was the end of the T-bar, relieved of its load.

It hit me with a sharp crack in the mouth; thank God it was so cold, or else I’m sure it would have hurt. As it was I was too intent on maintaining my grip on the T-bar to care; thrown off balance by the sudden redistribution of weight, all I could think of was keeping a hold on the cold iron. As the bar tried to reel itself back into the sky, I grabbed its bottom, relieved that I hadn’t lost my ride. I was low on lift tickets, it was late, and I had anticipated this as being my last run of the day. However, when I opened my mouth to take in a quick gasp of the frozen mountain air, I felt a sharp pain – and a pebble in my mouth. Hanging precariously onto the bar with one hand while it dragged me up the mountain, I spat into my mitten. A tooth lay there. Probing my front teeth, I found a gap where there should be none. Weeks later, after we’d returned to the military bases, an Army dentist outfitted me with a stainless steel tooth – a temporary thing which, like all things “Army” and “temporary”, was to last for another fifteen years. When I was in my mid-twenties, people said I looked like a cross between a pirate and a biker, with a silver tooth shining in my grin and long hair trailing down my back. Some even thought I got it for vanity reasons, but the truth was I sort of hated it, and couldn’t afford to get it replaced with something more realistic.


The barn was approaching, the pile of melting poop safely past. I struggled with my skies, knowing I was going entirely too fast for my comfort or skill level. I had discovered on the “fast” slope that speed was not my friend. I’d get going down it’s wide open run, traveling across the hard packed snow, until the wind was pressing against me, slowing me down – and then I’d wipe out. It seems I almost always did – getting up to that nerve wracking speed, I’d attempt to throw the brakes on – snowplowing for all I was worth – and then everything would go to hell and I’d find myself sliding down on my side, my skies all tangled together, poles flopping uselessly in the snow. The barn wasn’t a big thing – just a narrow wood planked building hovering in the middle of the slope – and a concrete ramp ran into it. An old man – the Austrian who owned the land, I assume – often sat in a rocking chair by the entrance of the barn, watching the skiers go by. I guess when you’re a farmer and your meadows are covered with snow, there’s not a lot else to do. And after all, I’m sure us amateur skiers gave him plenty of entertainment – something to smile about as we’d go tumbling by. Right, right, right!, I screamed at myself, trying to aim past the corner of the barn. It was looming much too close for my amount of speed and skills – though the Austrian skiers didn’t seem to have any problem swooshing by, cutting sharp little Stem Christies – and the fear in my heart was turning into panic.


Despite its hazards, I found a love for snow skiing, especially on deserted slopes through the pines. Later we would visit the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain split by the countries of Germany and Austria, and I would find myself skiing down its wide flanked slopes (though the trails I was on, on that first mountain, were much more challenging). Later I would snow ski in Georgia, of all places (another story behind that), and later in the Colorado mountains (where me and a tree had a Bugs Bunny encounter.) But the first slopes I learned on, practiced on – those were always the best, for that’s where I discovered the enchanting sound of skies whispering across the snow, a cold wind blowing in my face, and the green, green pines sliding by. That was where I found a modicum of peace, away from the hustle and bustle of the ski lifts, the press of shuffling people, the feeling of buildings closing in on you. Twilight was my favorite time, for that was when the skiers would thin, the crowds on the slopes diminish, and you could feel like you had the whole mountain to yourself. The stinging of cold bringing tears to your eyes; the feel of wind rushing past half frozen cheeks – ears numb as frost – I would find myself transported over the snow, feeling my knees flex automatically, absorbing the bumps in the snow, my face thrust into the wind. What can I say? Its a feeling that goes beyond sensation, one of freedom, wonder and beauty that strikes you to the soul. And that’s a feeling that you cannot describe.


The barn was approaching rapidly – too rapidly. I knew if I put on the brakes – threw my skis into a full snowplow – I would go end over painful end, thumping in the snow. Around me other skiers were breaking to the left and to the right – effortlessly, it seemed. Watching the concrete ramp approach, the old man sitting there in his rocking chair on the left – watching me now, a slight smile frozen on his face – I did the only thing left to do.

I skied into the barn.

Up the ramp – past the startled old man – into the hay, my speed finally slowing – I found myself surrounded on both sides by bucolic cows who, pausing in mid-cud, looked up at me with warm brown eyes. Coming to a stop, I wavered, my poles swinging in wide circles as I looked around. The inside of the barn was surprisingly warm – warmer than I expected it to be – and I could hear the old man laughing hysterically behind me. Carefully gimping around on my skis, I turned as our Austrian ski instructor had told me – first flopping one ski to the side, then the other – and with loud flapping thumps, made my way to the door. The old man was doubled up in his rocking chair, his hands across his belly, laughing so hard I thought he was going to be sick. Looking up at me, his wizen cheeks reddened, he waved towards the slope and said something, his voice breathless – as though he couldn’t stand the sight anymore – as though simply the idea of seeing me would kill him with paroxysm of laughter. Flapping past him down the ramp, I couldn’t help but smile as well.

I just wish I could do it again.