The first time I went X-country skiing was with the first-X. Our marriage was over, but we hadn’t divorced each other or even faced the reality. He was a terrible husband who hit and kicked me from time to time, but we got married young and never sought the help we needed. I was in graduate school in Denver and he, believing I would use his money to get my MA in English and then leave him (because an MA in English leads to SO MANY lucrative careers), left me for grad school in Laramie at the University of Wyoming. Up in that wild and woolly world, he started X-country skiing. When I went up to spend a weekend, he rented me skis and took me to the Medicine Bows west of Laramie.
I hated it like I’d never hated any sport before. I don’t know if it was just that I didn’t know how or the company I was with, but I ended up soaked to the skin (back then long johns were cotton waffle weave = sponge).
I vowed never to do it again.
A few years later I read about “skinny skis” in Outside Magazine and it struck a spark. I decided it might be fun if I had lessons. I found lessons in the flyer for Denver Free University and signed up. I bought skis from the LLBean Catalog (Karhu Bear Claws fish-scale skis) poles, boots and the bindings — 3 pin bindings — came with the whole thing. Strangely, the day they arrived, my X showed up at my apartment. His new wife was visiting friends and he decided to visit me. We had three or four such visits over the years and I saw — and he saw — that it probably should have worked. We just didn’t know how. I’ve known him since the 9th grade.
The first class met in a classroom and the teacher was great. He was friendly, passionate about X-country skiing. When the actual DAY came, we all got in a big Chevy Suburban and headed up to Devils Thumb Ranch over Berthoud pass and more or less across the street from Winter Park Ski Area. Devils Thumb Ranch is pretty fancy now, but back in the late 1970s it was a big one story wood and log building with a few motel rooms, a kitchen and a dining room. Out the back was a deck, a “bunny slope” where little kids could learn to downhill ski and a rental area. Behind it were miles of X-country trails, none of which were groomed trails (I never saw groomed trails until I moved here in 2014) but all of which were well marked. The trails wound around meadows, through aspen groves and pine clusters.
It was a crystalline clear Colorado mountain winter day with ice crystals in the sky and virgin snow everywhere. The teacher took us through exercises so we got used to the skis. We played tag running with those boards on our feet, falling, laughing and learning. Best class of my LIFE. Then we skied. We learned to kick and glide, how to do a stem turn and even had the chance to try the beautiful and classic telemark turn.
My dreams started there. The next class was in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area where I loved to hike in summer. That was the day I met the Good-X, but that’s not what this post is about. The snow was front range snow which isn’t really easy for me to describe other than to say it had been through more changes than the holy snow at Devils Thumb Ranch had been. It was a wonderful day.
I wanted to go all the time, and began experiencing the reality that most people I knew didn’t want to go all the time and NONE of them wanted to X-country ski. It wasn’t “cool” and it wasn’t fast. Most people thought Nordic skiing was just walking around in snow, but it’s so much more than that and it CAN be fast. Most of all, it can take a person into the “real” mountains away from the crowds. I’d been reading A Moveable Feast in which Hemingway decries ski lifts and lauds the times when people were strong skiers because they had to make their way up the mountain under their own power. I thought getting up the mountain under my own power was the definition of cool.
So, one Sunday morning I got up, looked at my 1970 VW bug with its low-tech ski rack (basically giant rubber bands stretched against a frame that held onto the car with hooks that went inside the doors) and thought, “Fuck it. I’m going to ski to *Lost Lake.” I got dressed (I had learned about wool long johns by then), put my precious Karhu skis in the rack and headed to Boulder, then up Boulder Canyon to Nederland, to the Fourth of July Campground and parked as far up the road as it was safe to park. VW bugs had very high clearance. I took my skis off the roof, put them on and headed up the mountain.
I’d hiked this trail dozens of times. I knew it well. At first it’s essentially a gravel road that turns into a stream in spring. It goes past a ghost town and an old campground. After the road, there’s a trail head and soon the trail goes up very quickly, does a little turn and then a person is on the main trail which is a steady climb, part of it up an old corduroy mining road. It runs beside then crosses a stream over a small waterfall. A little while later, there’s a fork — go straight to several glacial lakes or up to Devils Thumb. Turn left, Lost Lake, the lowest of this cluster of glacial lakes.
I made my turn and skied the sweet flat trail to the lake which was frozen and covered with snow. The mountains that held the lake as a cup holds tea were too steep to hold any snow themselves and the tracks of small avalanches were apparent on the eastern slopes.
There wasn’t much to do up there when it came to it. The main event was getting there. I drank some water, ate a granola bar, considered my adventure and turned around. The only challenge of the experience was getting down the steep little bit at the beginning of the trail, but I did it. I loaded my skis back on the top of my VW Bug and headed home to Denver.
It was my fourth time on X-country skis.
That winter there were more experiences on my skinny skis. My neighbor (guy in the photo above) and I headed up to Devils Thumb ranch one Saturday and had a blast that included me falling forward into four feet of snow and burying my arms. I laughed so hard I couldn’t get up. My friend came whizzing by, saw me, cracked up and nearly hit a tree before he crashed. BUT it also happened that day that in the stillness of the snowy forest a jay ate a bit of granola from my hand. I lived in momentary hope that this neighbor — newly moved into the apartment across the hall — would want to go ALL THE TIME but he didn’t. It was the first lesson I had that guys will do stuff with you not because they like what you’re doing but because they have a condom in their wallet. Dark times. 😉
My Karhu skis were not back-country skis. They were just simple and cheap waxless skis. I would own more appropriate skis as time wore on and ski some other dramatic places, but never that adventure again.
I’m not that girl any more — not physically, obviously, but in more profound ways. I understand where she wanted to go back in 1979/1980 and I’ve been there. That’s enormous. When I think of how long it has taken me to learn what anything actually IS I’m dumbfounded.
And maybe I still don’t know.
*There are at least three lakes named “Lost Lake” in Colorado which could explain how they got lost. This is the Lost Lake I’m referring to here. It was once fairly remote but a lot more people live in the towns around it now, so the trails are now sometimes closed due to over use.