Christmas was Going Down Hill (Then I hit a tree)

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As will be obvious upon reading our yet to be published memoir, Crystal and I grew up in totally different families. Oh our families had the same middle class, home oriented, Christian values. But that’s where the similarities ended. For Crystal, Christmas was all about visiting neighbors, church members and about two thousand relatives (possibly a slight exaggeration), in several states.

My family consisted, for the most part of my mom, my dad, and me. While pleasantries and an occasional glass of mom’s lethal eggnog, and a rum ball or two, were shared with neighbors (within walking or stumbling distance), to me Christmas meant going downhill skiing. Almost every year, from the time I turned ten until my late teens, dad would take Christmas week off and we would head north. This was a chance for us to connect and share an activity that we enjoyed together. We would spend the whole week, including Christmas day, on the slopes and get back a day or so before New Years. We would then celebrate Christmas on one day, including the all important gift exchange, and then bring in the New Year the next. We were finally officially back on schedule.

Our Christmas sabbatical destinations would vary from year to year. We went to upper Wisconsin, or Michigan, and even to Colorado. In the Midwest, my favorite destination was the upper peninsula of Michigan. It was a really long trip by car. The whole first day and last day were dedicated to the trip. It was worth it. The ski lodges like big Powder Horn and Indianhead Mountain (probably called NativeAmericanhead by now) boasted some of the longest and best varieties of runs in the Midwest. Also, you never had to wonder if there was snow. There was, and how. With Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south, it snowed practically every day. Someone told me that the average snow fall was around two hundred inches.

That brings me to my story. It was Christmas morning of around 1968. It had snowed all night. The weatherman said eight to ten inches. When we left the motel the streets were already plowed. They were always ready for another big snow. Plus, since the peninsula was only about five miles wide, there were only a few roads to plow up there back then. I couldn’t see the street from our room because of about five feet of plowed snow on each side of the road. I was excited and couldn’t wait for mom to finish breakfast. I think she was one of the world’s slowest eaters. Of course, I only complained whenever I was waiting for her. When we got to the slopes they were still shoveling the parking lot, but there were almost no other cars. Of course I had to walk with my parents to the lodge. We would formulate plans for lunch, occasional meetings, etc. Once on the slopes mom was easy to find. Dressed in her thick bright orange coat, she would be on an easy slope or back at the lodge, where she spent most of the day. She would rather sip something hot around the fire and watch people. If I wanted to, I could usually find dad. I was a faster skier and could go up and down until I finally caught up with him. But most of the day I would be on my own.

That day I shot out of the lodge strapped on my skis and was off. Going was tough. The new snow wasn’t the light powdery stuff all skiers love. It was more of the heavy, slightly damp type. However, I couldn’t believe my luck. It looked like I was the first skier on the lift. That had never happened before. Others had to be opening presents or still watching dancing sugarplums. I got to the lift and away I went, the only one on the lift. It was beautiful and serenely quiet. The trees were almost all white with the fresh snow. It wasn’t even that cold, by skiing standards. I remember almost falling at the top. I wasn’t used to getting off a lift into that much unpacked snow. The reality still hadn’t hit me. Heavy new snow presented problems until it got packed down. I’m sure the locals knew that. That was probably another reason I was alone. It didn’t matter; I was on top of the world. The air was clean and crisp. The whiteness was almost blinding, even with my tinted goggles. I kicked off to start my descent. Immediately, I noticed a problem. I had no control. Somehow, I leaned like I normally did but my skis went straight. I stopped to contemplate the problem. Of course, I just needed more speed. At a higher speed I would float out of the deep snow and regain some control. This was no problem for me. I loved going fast. Again I kicked off straight down the hill. The slope increased and I gained speed. At I would guess, twenty to thirty miles an hour I had some control. For a while it was great. Then about half way down I stopped, as I frequently would, to catch my breath and enjoy the scenery. After another minute, I again kicked off. Surely I would have maneuvering speed before I got to the next curve in the slope. The snow seemed somewhat thicker where I had stopped. I finally got some speed but now would need a rather sharp turn. I leaned but nothing happened. Just as I reached turning speed I also reached the edge of the forest and deeper snow. In an instant the snow went from a foot to two feet and then close to three feet. Whew, that was close as I missed the first tree on the left. Then one went by on the right. I thought what an adventure. I might get lucky and just dart through this section of trees and back on the slope. Just as my optimism peaked, you guessed it. I started heading directly toward a ten to twelve inch diameter thick Ponderosa Pine. I tried leaning to miss it. I had absolutely no control in the three foot drift. So I did the only thing I could, protected my skis, one ski to the left, one to the right, one stupid skier in the middle. I was able to shift my body slightly to protect my face and family jewels. My hands caught the tree first, then, smack, or thud, or some other noise from a Batman comic book. I literally bounced straight off that evil tree into the cushion of fresh snow behind me. As if to add insult to injury, the tree then dropped a huge pile of additional snow on top of me. I quickly wiped my face clean so I could breathe. For a while I just lay still. I looked up through the hole I had created in the three foot drift. Finally some color, I thought, as the tree now could, thanks to me, show off some of its green needles. The sky was blue and pretty. Wait the sky shouldn’t be blue with my tinted goggles. Oh good, they were right behind my head. I continued to assess the damage. Outside of having the wind knocked out of me, I was OK. The next order of business was to save my pride. I didn’t want anyone to see me stuck in the wood. After all, I was too good of a skier for that to happen. Over the years, I had helped numerous lesser skiers out of predicaments. But that couldn’t happen to me. The first step of the procedure was to stand up. This usually simple process was somewhat hindered by the tree, the slope, and the excessive snow. Fortunately my clever skis knew enough to jump off my feet to safety. I dug them out and started backtracking the nice path I had made back to more level ground with a little less snow. I put my skis back on and carefully skied down to the lodge.

The rest of that day I think I spent more time in the lodge than was customary. Mom was thrilled. That evening as we dressed for dinner, I showed her and dad the black and blue tree shaped marks on my chest and told them the story. The main topic at dinner that night was how intelligent I was (or wasn’t) and what a great decision maker (or not). I really miss family Christmas ski trips.

Winter 2013 024 - Copy


I can’t find a skiing picture, but at least this one from last winter has snow, a hill, and a tree.

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