Stories shape our view of what an experience should be. Oddly enough it seems like there’s no real literature about winter or skiing prior to the 19th century and outside Europe. Be that as it may, the following is a foray into our collective snow globe over time: stories of winter and skiing, and what they tell us about adventure, performance, and wonder.
Several years ago Adam Gopnik wrote a series of lectures for CBC, collected into a volume called “Winter: Five Windows on the Season”. His essays are very much a liberal arts (and hockey fan) approach to winter since the Renaissance. I’ll save that for the end of this post.
In the winter of 2019-20, The Atlantic magazine republished some pieces from their archives about skiing, for a longitudinal slice of on the topic over time. During the same season, someone on the AMCski NY/NJ Google group posted an excerpt of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cross Country Snow”.
A lot has gone into depicting the experience of fun in winter without delving much into what makes it fun or worthwhile. I grouped the books and articles below under terms that I think get to some of the essential or elemental values of winter and skiing, particularly cross-country.
Skiing is associated with freedom and escape. In 1924 Hemingway wrote “Cross Country Snow” featuring his alter-ego Nick Adams skiing in Switzerland. At the time leather strap bindings like the lovingly restored ones shown below were in use.
Hemingway’s story is about the transient freedom of skiing, and ends in a wistful note because it will likely be the last time in a while that the two friends in the story can ski together. The spare prose resonates with skiing. It’s also a story by a boy about boys.
Freedom often implies uncomplicated pleasures. Extolling the virtue of simple exertion in the cold is Henry David Thoreau. Some excerpts from his journal appeared in The Atlantic magazine January 1885 issue as “Winter Days“.
Thoreau’s entries have a whiff of moralizing, of motivated reasoning. He did of course famously reside for a time in a small cabin, albeit one within walking distance of town, and had dinner delivered by mom. Walden was the original writer’s retreat.
Purity has its opposites in a tongue-in-cheek review of skiing in New England from 1936. And if you think the 1936 article comes straight from a white-male-patriarchy point of view, an even more retrograde (maybe ‘dirtbag’) attitude can be found in this article from 1957, which includes a reference to how downhill skiing affected New Englanders like ‘firewater and the red man’.
The Nordic side of skiing has always been given short shrift, in part because cross-country skiing is harder to dramatize on TV. Books don’t fare much better, and I’ve never seen a book about cross-country skiing, fiction or non-fiction, described as ‘thrilling’. If there is a valor in Nordic skiing, it’s in figuring out how to keep going.
Momentum by Pete Vordenberg is an account of his career as a competitive cross-country skier and a US Ski Team member, striving despite the odds and well, less than stellar performance at times.
World Class: The Making of the US Women’s Cross Country Ski Team by Peggy Shinn tells the story of how the team built momentum bit by bit over more than a decade before winning the gold medal in Pyongchang.
I can’t let Hemingway’s Y-chromosomal influence on the perception of the outdoors go unanswered, so a bit of balance comes from Brave Enough by Jessie Diggins, an account of her life and a maturation process that is not all just sparkles and glitter.
Long Distance by Bill McKibben, is partly about his desire to undertake the training routine of a competitive athlete to see what he could do, and partly about the declining health of his father during that time. The two tales involve learning to pace energy and emotion.
Winter’s first snowfall brings delight and anticipation“What Captivates Children About The Snowy Day?” by Michelle H. Martin
Assuming winter isn’t a challenge to survival, we go out into the snow because it’s fun, or because it engages us more fully, or both. Snow alters our relationship to the land, and that’s reason enough to go out and play or explore. Sports is just an attempt to rationalize it.
It so happens the most frequently checked-out book in the New York Public Library is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It’s an unusual children’s book about winter in that it features a black child in the city. The prose and story are as simple as can be, related to interacting with the physical world, play, and wonder. As the article in The Atlantic says: “there’s something magical about a snowy day”.
I think a lot of people seek the outdoors and ski to feel refreshed. For some, established practices create an inertia that can feel like a straightjacket of convention. Experimentation, play and wonder can be drained out of the doing, making the activity feel like, well, a slog. There’s something quintessentially American about using an activity to express a lifestyle.
New Wave Nordic skiing by Jeff Potter is sort of a kitchen-sink book that falls into what you might call ‘alternative’ concepts of cross-country skiing; not necessarily on tracks but not exactly backcountry; less about a type of skiing than an approach to recreation.
The Cross-Country Ski, Cook, Look and Pleasure Book by Hal Painter, is a relic from the Age of Aquarius. But turning away from the constraints of convention and materialism sounds pretty on trend for today, as does its interest in things Scandinavian. The writing is a rambling mess, but probably appealed at the time to the wanderer looking to break away.
Several years ago, I bought the children’s book Cross Country Cat by Mary Calhoun and Erick Ingraham as part of a largely futile hope that my kids would pick cross-country skiing as their sport. It didn’t work, but it did put into my head that a good rhythm is important while skiing.
A quest is serious business. The story of Cross Country Cat is one of skiing out of necessity, and of the lost finding their way home. The story imagines a purpose for which a cat must learn to ski, and has strange and dangerous encounters on the way.
Hunter-gatherers like the Altai live winter as an everyday quest. Set high in the sparsely populated Altai mountains of Asia, they were skiers of necessity until recently. I can’t really find a great read about them, but the video below catches a piece of their life. The very idea that there are people today practicing an ‘artisanal’ approach to skiing that may resemble how people made and used skis thousands of years ago is really fascinating.
One thing I find especially interesting is that until proposed by outsiders, the Altai never skied competitively against one another. Nature presents challenges enough.
Finally, I turn to Winter, Adam Gopnik’s book of lectures/essays. It begins with him as a child on cross-country skis in Montreal, but the essays are less memoir than five prismatic views of winter as expressed in the arts, adventure, ritual, sports, and remembrance.
He begins in the 1700s in Europe, when winter for some is no longer a purgatory to be endured. In his first lecture the comfort of viewing winter through glass windows while warmed by an iron stove invites a more romantic interpretation of snowy landscapes. The second lecture talks about ‘radical’ winter, where adventurers seek the ends of the Earth to test their mettle. To them winter is a way to challenge their manliness. The third lecture, about ‘recuperative’ winter, deals with the symbols and spiritualism of the season. These are burdensome as well as hopeful. In the fourth he talks about recreation in winter as as a “social space in which we find ourselves alone”, and an energetic use for solitude, but mostly it’s an excuse to talk about his love for hockey. Finally, he talks about whether we can maintain the relevance of winter in an age when humans have changed the environment to suit our comfort.
All the ruminations and responses to winter that Gopnik talks about are about the transformational aspects of wintertime or winter activities. This gets closer to a truth underlying all stories of winter: the season is a blank canvas. Sometimes charming, sometimes challenging, it changes our world and pulls us outside our comfort zone.
What we get from skiing is guided by what we bring to it, as with Hemingway, Thoreau, or for that matter, any child does on a snowy day.