We flew over pancake-flat farmland, a wide expanse, flat and gleaming white under snow and mid-day sun. Farm buildings and the sweeping arc of irrigation systems anchor the squared off farms and ranches. It is high desert and the flatlands run to the horizon broken only by scattered farms, laced with an occasional road.
As we fly to the north the landscape changes. There is flatland under the plane but on either side the land is unsettled. As the plane starts to descend hills begin to rise up, gentle at first then more ragged along the ridge-line.
The plane rocks as landing gear lowers; the hills to the sides rise steeper now. There is a dark, sinuous river flowing north to south, black-blue against the brilliant snow. There are tracks and signs of activity and, just on the edge before we lower to tree level, the unmistakable mark of ski track.
Then we touch down and the pilot welcomes us to Idaho.
That afternoon I dress for skiing, take a pair of skis, poles, and walk 200 yards to an old railroad track, long abandoned but held for public use. Summertime bicyclists, runners, walkers take use of it. Now, come winter, skiers have their day. I clip into the bindings and point the skis to the north. It is sunny and mild; temperatures in the mid 30s.
The old railroad lines out ahead of me and I can see the ski tracks disappearing in the distance. I begin to ski.
The trail is very near flat as are all old railroad grades; there is only so much a train can climb at a time. I kick and glide, kick and glide, then mostly just pole along; the snow is very fast on this afternoon and the skis glide well and I can maintain pace.
I stop and talk to other skiers; nod to people walking their dogs for on this trail dogs and walkers share with skiers. But mostly I just ski, easy and steady, and the sun shines warm and I think to myself there is nothing I’d rather be doing on this day.
The trail passes houses and golf courses, businesses and developments where large homes stand, imposing and grand. The trail crosses several streets, crosses a road, continues. It runs for over a 20 miles, start to end.
It is, frankly, unchallenging in its flatness. Still, it is skiing and on a day such as this mid-winter afternoon under the high mountain sun it is near perfect. I feel my arms tingle with fatigue, tell myself that in three weeks the Birkebeiner will finish off with several miles across a lake, flat as this, and this is good training for that.
I ski out for near an hour to an old steel bridge that spans a shallow, fast-moving river. I stop on the bridge, look up at the steel arches against the blue sky; look down at the riffles and the moving water; look upriver, see small ducks, buffleheads, black and white, riding the stream.
Then I turn back and ski back to where I started.
To the west of the small town where I stay the land lifts up in a steep slope then eases in the rise and forms the jagged ridge they call Carbonite. The sun sets behind the ridge and for a few minutes the rough upper edge of the ridge is tinged in rose. Then the sun drops and shadows fall.
Later still the first star of the night beams bright above Carbonite. We stand in the room and look to the west, the black ridge, the dark sky the lone star. Behind me someone repeats the old rhyme: “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might…” And we stand silent and pensive.
The next day an old friend, Ted, picks me up and we drive, up the steepening road that runs to the north end of the valley, north and high to a place named Galena Lodge where he parks the truck. Ted is a long-legged son of the hills; years ago we hunted elk together, this time we will ski. When I tell Sally that he’s 78 years old she is shocked; had I told her he was 10 years younger she’d not have argued.
Ted and I step out and regard things, then I clip into the ski bindings and set out on the ski trail. It runs roughly parallel to the road for some distance to the south, down the valley. Ted drives back down the road a few miles, parks and begins to ski back up to meet me.
The trail twists and turns through pine and aspen. We are at altitude, or what passes for altitude for me; near 7000 feet above sea level. I ski easy because it is, for the most part, a long, gradual downhill and except for a few uphills I can handle it. On the uphills my lungs suddenly seem small and inconsequential and I lean on my poles, gasping for breath.
I ski for near an hour and then meet Ted. We ski together for a few miles then he takes a side trail back to his truck and drives down further where I will meet up with him again.
I ski alone, caught up in it all, the simple movement of skiing, the metronome-like rhythm of kick and glide and kick and glide, the familiar routine of skiing that once felt so alien, so many years ago, but now is second nature to me. I have skied some miles in my life; it feels as natural as walking.
And I think to myself as I ski that skiing is what unifies it all for me, that the familiarity with the skis and with the technique is for me a comfort and a familiar part of what I am and that it does not matter if I ski near home or slog through the upcoming Birkebeiner or ski on this day in high country that borders on mountain slope; skiing is the common ground on which I stride.
It is not just me and skiing. Skiing is the unity for me as the cast of the fly is for the angler or the swing of the club to meet the golf ball for the golfer or the wind-in-the-face freedom a bicyclist feels as they turn to the pedal and the road. The paddler leans to the same paddle near home as they do in far-flung waters; the bond between hunter and bird dog is the short span no matter how far the distance from home. In familiarity of purpose and effort and technique we find comfort and find a home even if we are not at home.
Ted and I meet up and agree it has been a good day, has been time well spent. We see each other rarely but consider ourselves good friends.
Then we drive home and I meet up with the rest of the group, all family members, my three sisters and Sally. The reason we have gotten together is for a family event, a birthday, a milestone class birthday; my sister’s husband’s 90th. For not only is the ski the unifier in my life as the rod and the gun and the paddle and ride may be for others; it is not merely activity that draws us together and in which we find common ground. Beyond that are friends and above it all, above activity and above friends, is family.
We stand, all of us, in the lowering dusk of evening on that day and watch the shadows draw down on Carbonite; watch the darkness fall. Then see the evening star; Star light, star bright… And stand together, alone in our thoughts.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.