BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
The woods are a study in washes of grays, the austere landscape of December woodlands under cloudy sky over new snow. It snowed the day prior, a soft, steady snowfall that accumulated through the dark hours of night and hazy morning. December snow. A White Christmas guaranteed.
They groomed the ski trail, an early Christmas gift. The ski trail snaked through the woods as all good trails do, sinuous and smooth, up hills and down, none of the boring straight, flat sections better left to blacktop highways. A good ski trail reflects the landscape, rising and turning and at the best resembling a small stream or a musical score. The best trails have a rhythm to them, a smoothness and a flow. Skiing a good trail is like paddling a small stream or riding a winding road; these things are all connected.
A good trail spools out in front of you like a ribbon. You can look ahead and see the trail running ahead and then it turns a corner, out of sight. You ski into that corner thinking you know where it goes but never fully certain. Around the corner, unseen, may be a surprise and you know what it is only when you round the corner and it rises up in front of you. All trails can run easy for sections then rise into a choppy stretch that you do not expect and in that they are as our lives can be: Smooth and steady, then rough and rocky.
Ahead, a splash of color. Skiers, three of them, paused. Red jacket and yellow and blue; the colors of summer and autumn come to the spare time of winter. I ski up to them and stop to visit. I know them all, have known them for decades. One local, two out of the area. Old skiers now, all of us. We’ve been doing this all of our lives, this business of skiing.
We chat, skier talk of skis and waxes and time on snow, of weather and ski trails. We talk of being fast skiers years ago and now being slow and how it does not matter. What matters now is the simple act of skiing and all that it brings.
We talk of the Birkebeiner; we all ski that event. We do a quick tally of how many we’ve skied; one skier at 20, two at 35, one at 39. Over 125 Birkies skied between us. The years add up. Old skiers can run up a tally.
Then we ski on, the four of us, lined out; kick and glide, kick and glide, marking out the rhythm of skiers on a December afternoon on a trail that weaves and turns, lifts and drops, that has corners that hide surprises.
At a fork in the trail we go our separate ways. I ski on alone and for some reason my mind goes to the Robert Frost poem of roads taken or not taken and on the day, on this trail, they have gone with one road, I another.
I ski slowly, working out the tempo as I go, telling myself I am skiing slow and steady because it is my first time out on snow but when I face the truth it is because I have one speed only today: Slow and steady. There is no extra reserve to draw on.
The winter woods are quiet and restful. I am alone on the trail now, the only sounds are ones I make, the only movements mine. It is a busy season; Christmas draws near, New Years to follow. There is much to do. There is a scramble of tasks, and days and nights fill with activity and bustle. It is a hectic time. There is no rhythm to the days, only a choppy, fragmented rush with too much to do and too little time.
But on the ski trail it all fades away into the winter landscape, the stark trees and the new snow and the heavy cloud above. There is only the simple, pure task of moving forward on skis. There is only the snow and the sky and the skis and the winding trail. In that time, all else fades away.
I think again of Robert Frost, odd in that I rarely read him, but I recall words of a snowy woods, and the woods being “…lovely, dark and deep…” That is where I ski, through lovely woods on trails that are musical in their flow.
After a time I ski out of the woods into an open area. The trail forks. To the left another loop of trail. To the right home to the bustle of holidays. I pause. Then I ski to the right, toward the truck, toward home, toward holidays and all they bring.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.