Before I moved to Wisconsin, I’m not sure I’d ever even seen a cross-country ski. As a kid growing up near Seattle, winter was a destination, not a season. On Monday mornings, my classmates returned to school with creased lift tags dangling from the zippers of their coats, and their red, sunburned faces raccoonishly imprinted with goggles. But my parents, Chicagoans by birth, didn’t ski, had never skied, and certainly weren’t about to start downhill skiing in their late 30s. So winter remained more of an abstraction to me, a snowy realm I could see on the flanks of the Cascades – far off in the distance.
Things were different in Wisconsin. Winter was unavoidable, an elemental part of life. Even so, I often overheard people talking about how they “got through it” as if it were a messy divorce or a one-hundred-year flood rather than an annual occurrence. I learned to “get through” winter on cross-country skis.
Once you get the motion right – the kicking and gliding, riding the driving ski with your body floating above – you discover the grace of skimming through still air and snow. Sliding and poling your way along, cross-country skis make no more noise than a kayak slipping through flat water.
Even the first awkward tries can have grace. My first cross-country skis were rentals. Stepping onto the strips of what seemed to me unimaginably thin plastic, my feet slid forward and I fell backward. Three falls later, I was off, shuffling and jerking my arms and puffing the arctic air. Despite myself, I soon fell into a rhythm, sloppily syncopated but forward marching, punctuated by my growing elation.
With snow and skis, I can go anywhere, over a frozen pond and through the interior of the woods. In the spring and summer, I’d worry about my path, anxious to find a trail map to keep from getting lost. But in the winter, my ski tracks are reassurance, guiding me back to my start.
When Lake Mendota freezes, I glide out onto its surface, a wide expanse of flat, snow-covered ice that feels eerily empty yet magical before the packed shoreline of the city. Part of the spell is skiing past the ghosts of summer – boathouses, sections of dock, lawn chairs, a life preserver. The Memorial Union Terrace, the center of summer in Madison, sits unobtrusively under a blanket of snow. The bright paint of upturned boats now splotched with snow seem a bit more solemn in the stark winter light. Yet at the same time, the sky rarely feels so large or so vivid.
There’s peace on two skis. The muffled quiet of the snow seems to magnify every other sound. The rustle of dried branches, bird calls, the swirl of my thoughts. Now I’m the one with the weekend winter stories, of quiet wonders found skiing in snowy woods and fields. It’s not showy but more exhilarating than anything I could imagine.