On Sunday, Map Guy, my frequent cohort on outdoor adventures, taught me how to cross-country ski.
It only cost $20 to rent the skis, boots and poles, all necessary if I was going to investigate The Mystery of Cross-Country Skiing. I coughed up an additional $23 for an annual sno-park permit.
This was my first time ever skiing — alpine, skate-ski or classic. The only skis I'd ever worn before were of the water variety, and that didn't go so well.
As I filled out the ski-rental paperwork at Pine Mountain Sports, a Bend outdoor sporting goods store that also rents gear, I asked Map Guy if he wanted to sign on the parent/guardian line. He didn't like me implying he's old enough to be my dad, but he'd pledged to teach me how to ski, so I thought “guardian" was not too much of a stretch of our student-teacher relationship.
One of the staff members at Pine Mountain suggested we consider the groomed trails at Virginia Meissner Sno-park. Just 14 miles and maybe a 20-minute drive from Bend, Meissner is one of the lower-elevation sno-parks, at 5,350 feet. We'd heard there might not be enough snow, but he told us others who'd already returned equipment were reporting it was in great shape.
I did solve one mystery upon arriving at Meissner: It took my 12th winter in Bend, but I finally discovered where all the Subarus go on weekends. (I'm still not sure what's in those torpedo-shaped plastic boxes atop these cars, but a sleuth can only solve so many mysteries at a time.) Boy, did we ever feel conspicuous in my wife's minivan.
I couldn't wait to put back on the boots I'd rented. They're more comfortable than anything else I've worn on my feet, including socks. I'd have driven up the hill wearing them, but I was afraid the little bar at the front for clipping into the skis might snag on a pedal.
I slipped back into the boots feeling like Cinderella. We carried our gear across the full (of Subarus) parking lot, where clusters of people were coming and going. We wove through a cluster of young skiers, and next thing I knew, Map Guy clicked into his touring skis. There were far too many people around for my liking; if I was going to fall on my face or other part of my body, I'd have preferred to do it in a more private setting. No such luck.
Before I could figure out skis, I had to fumble around with the poles. Map Guy showed me how put my hands through the loops near the ends of the handles. So far, so good.
Snapping into the binding had sounded so easy back at the store. “Oh, OK, sure, OK, I think I get it," I had said back when it had first been explained to me. In practice, however, it was a little more difficult. After a few failed attempts, the toe of each boot magically clicked into place.
We were all set to go. Gulp. I slid one foot tentatively forward, then the next. Holy moly, I was sort of skiing, my face at a safe remove from the snow. At the speed I was going, it would be spring before I got to the shelter.
“You make it look so easy," I told Map Guy, who skied effortlessly ahead.
“It is easy," he said, exhibiting the cloying confidence of the experienced. “Easy" is a relative term, and my relatives come from Florida, where skiing is done on water or not at all.
We were headed north on the Tangent Loop, and went directly to the right side of the groomed path, where two grooves maybe a foot apart notched the perfect track for classic skiing, especially for a beginner. There were mirror tracks on the left side, for skier traffic headed the other way. I made a silent wish to survive long enough to experience them.
The groomed track made the going easier, but there was no glide accompanying my stride. I was taking what felt like baby steps.
“Am I supposed to be sliding at all?" I asked Map Guy.
“Yeah," he said. He suggested I think of it like ice skating, gliding a little with my weight on one foot, then the next. Great advice except for the fact that I'd worn ice skates one time more than I'd worn skis.
As we trundled along and up the first little hill, the “fish scale" patterns on the bottom of the skis did their job, gripping the snow and preventing disaster, defined here as going backward down a snow-covered hill.
My slow speed allowed me to people-watch as proficient skiers flew by in the other direction. These were some seriously happy people. Many of them, most skiing alone, wore grins that seemed almost inappropriate to the activity. Yet another mystery to be solved.
I went back to my death-grip on the poles and focused on remaining upright.
“Um, what happens when we have to go down a hill?" I asked Map Guy.
He gave two solid pieces of advice. Squat and lower my center of gravity, or “snowplow," which involves getting out of the tracks, going pigeon-toed and digging the outer edges of the skis into the snow.
To recap my downhill options: squat and enjoy the sensation of speeding toward my maker and/or a tree, OR snowplow and pop various required leg parts out of their sockets. Pick your poison.
Fortunately, the first half of our out-and-back trek had only very short, easily negotiated downhill sections. I'd deal with the real hills when the time came.
About 25 minutes into our trek, we got to the Manzanita trail, took a right and continued toward Meissner Shelter, which was built in 2008.
“What happened to my little tracks?" I whined. This part of the trail was still groomed, but the parallel tracks I'd enjoyed didn't extend past the top of the hill.
Ten minutes down Manzanita, we reached the shelter. I'd gone about a mile and a half without falling, as Map Guy pointed out, jinxing me big time. I stopped to take some photos and chatted with a group passing by. They were friendly locals who asked if I was getting some good pictures of the manzanita. Normally, this time of year, the trail's namesake plant is buried beneath snow, they told us. They've even had to crawl down through snow to the shelter's entrance.
Map Guy and I grabbed a bench in the shelter, where a warm fire was burning in the wood stove. The interior could have used some homey touches to offset the bullet holes in the windows, but otherwise it was a comfy retreat from all that outdoors business.
I'd brought along water, but had left my food in the car. Map Guy, a proud wearer of fanny packs, came through, sharing a couple of granola bars.
After maybe 20 minutes of relaxation, it was time to get going again. What had started to feel almost natural earlier — as natural as two large flat sticks strapped to your feet can feel — now felt odd again as I clipped back in.
Being Map Guy, he had studied the trail map that hangs on the shelter's wall and concluded we should go on the Manzanita Loop, another 1.5 miles that would bring us back to Tangent Loop and eventually the parking lot.
I said “sure," not realizing until a later map study that this stretch of Manzanita is labeled “intermediate." From the start, I was going too fast for comfort, and began falling like a true beginner, mostly out of cowardice, but also because I hadn't yet learned how to turn on skis and this trail had sharp turns.
For about five minutes, I spent more time lying or kneeling in snow than skiing. Map Guy wisely suggested we head back the way we'd come in, on a trail designated “beginner."
All was going well. Then we reached the large hill we'd come up earlier. I'd have to negotiate it if I was going to get back to the car. I'll spare you the details except to say that at one point and desperate to get down, I tried to sit on my skis and ride down toboggan-style, but they were too narrow — or I was too wide.
After yet another fall, I started to take off my skis to hike down, but Map Guy wouldn't hear of it. He showed me how to side step down, which was exactly as slow as hiking down facing forward.
I managed to make it down alternating between side-stepping and the most enfeebled snow plowing that hill has ever seen. The tips of my skis repeatedly crossed as though they were preparing to duel.
My proudest moment came shortly before the parking lot came into sight. I suddenly found myself whisking along, even skiing, gliding along on my left foot and right foot, feeling — could it be? — natural.
“You got it!" Map Guy said. I may have broken into one of those oddly big skier grins, only interrupted by the sight of a car roof with one of those plastic containers on the roof.
“Aw. Are we back already?" I asked. Map Guy suggested we turn back and go another mile, but three miles seemed like enough for my first day.
That's right, “first." The Meissner Nordic club grooms 40 kilometers of trails at Meissner and Swampy sno-parks, and I plan on going back.
But first I have to write to Santa. Hope he thinks I've been good, because I'm about to ask him for a pair of my own cross-country ski boots.
Also, skis. And poles. And some of those funny clothes people wear to ski (maybe).
And the courage to get down hills.