Above Tree Line: February

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The winter world on Mt. Washington’s eastern slope was in black and white on Tuesday, when David and I fulfilled our intention to get above tree line for February.  We hiked into the alpine zone at the base of Tuckerman’s Ravine, on a wide well-packed trail.  Before we left on our hike we could see we’d be hiking into the cloud cover over the mountain.  The view above tree line was of snow, cloud, and dark spruce trees below, mounded with white.  The monochrome day reminded me of a poem from years ago.

Absence or Everything

Moon laced through cold
curtains, the world
in black and white
since the last storm.

Glass feathers freeze,
skin seeks skin, vision
blurs as if walking
into winddriven snow.

The bedroom pinkens,
yet still, outside,
monochrome
trees, fields, fences, sky.

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Jackson XC

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David and I have been staying in the White Mountains for the last several days, cross-country skiing at Jackson XC, “The #1 Cross Country Ski Area in the Eastern United States,” according to their tag line.  Jackson has long been a favorite cross-country ski destination for me.

Decades ago Eric and I came to Jackson to ski at least once a year, often with our friends Alison and John and often for multi-day ski trips, like the one I’m on right now.  In those days we looked for maximum downhill thrills, taking a gondola to the top of the Wildcat ski area whenever the conditions were right and skiing down the backside of the mountain, on a cross-country ski trail.  We were using long, wooden, Bona skis, which had to be treated with pine tar and then waxed, and we wore wool knickers and long socks, wool hats and mittens.  Yesterday at the Jackson XC center I walked up to a display of wax and the young man working behind the counter asked if he could help me.  “No,” I said.  “I just want to look and remember all those years of waxing.”  Now we’re on fiberglass, waxless back country skis, outfitted with wicking fabrics and soft shell jackets and the only wool we’re wearing is in our socks.

As we drove north on Saturday it started snowing, and kept up for more than 24 hours.  With over 6″ of fresh snow since we’ve arrived, the skiing has been quite fantastic.  Yesterday we skied the East Pasture Loop, following the tracks of several skiers before us, one of whom had cut graceful, sloping curves of telemark turns in the fresh snow.  Today we climbed a long, gradual ridge up the shoulder of Popple Mountain.  We skied the Maple Mountain loop at the top of the ridge, climbing to an area with sweeping views of Iron Mountain to our south, the cloud-shrouded mountains on either side of Pinkham Notch to our north.

While I’ve been fully present in the moments of the last several days, enjoying the fresh snow, the kick and glide of well-groomed trails,  and views of mountains whenever the snow clouds cleared off, I’ve also been remembering those ski trips from 30 years ago.  I’m beginning to understand that one aspect of aging, beyond less willingness to ski the steepest slope I can get to on my own, is how past experience enriches what is happening right now.  I can still go out and ski 20 kilometers a couple of days in a row, and I can still climb over 1,000 feet on skis and manage the fast sweep back down, and for that I’m grateful.  But I’m also grateful for how past memorable skis layered under today’s quick trip back down a hillside after a long climb up, and the realization that some joys can come again and again.

Once Again

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“Look at that tree,” David said.  We’d been following the snowmobile trail that runs past our house for several miles, the fresh snow well packed for our cross-country skis.  “It looks like a tree in England.”

The oak tree does look like many of the trees we saw as we walked across England last summer.  Sitting at the edge of a yard bordering an open field, the tree stands by itself, which is common in English pastures — a single tree with an unimpeded crown, standing grand and full, left to grow on its own for decades and decades.

I know this oak tree, and in fact have been so stuck by it I wrote a poem about it many years ago.  The poem asks a question I’ve yet to answer.

Once Again

If there’s an oak I recall
from year to year for the fineness
of its winter crown against dusk sky
as I climb from woods to cross
the Bailey’s fields, its branches a black
articulation against last light,
do the scars of the intervening year,
matter, all those months without considering
this simple view, now new
and long remembered all at once?

Blizzard

IMG_1176I couldn’t ski the winter after Eric died.  He had once said about me, “Grace would choose cross-country skiing above everything except her children,” and he’d been right.  Though I had started as a downhill skier (I cut insignias and racing numbers out of sticky cloth for my father’s sail making business as a young teen, 5 cents a number, saving to buy myself inexpensive downhill skis and skiing lessons at the ridiculously small, but still skiable, Blue Hill Ski Area outside Boston) from the first time I cross-country skied I was in love.

My parents gave me wooden Bona skis for Christmas in 1977.  Eric and I were living with friends in Williamstown, MA, and there was an abundance of snow and hills.  I went out into the sloping fields across the street from our house one afternoon and came home and told Eric he needed to buy skis.  He did, though he’d never done any kind of skiing before, and gamely followed me up and down hills, learning to snowplow, learning to turn, learning to glide.  That was the beginning of almost 30 years of skiing together.  When I was first faced with skiing without him, I just couldn’t do it.

Then the next winter came, and I realized that not skiing, because Eric couldn’t ski, wasn’t doing anyone any good, least of all me.  “Get over yourself and get out there,” I said to myself, and I did.

When the grand dump of snow blew in to New Hampshire at the end of last week I was delighted.  The idea of a blizzard, as long as people could be safe and warm and dry, was exciting.  Waking up Saturday to continued snow and drifts up to my hips all I could think about was getting out skiing.  Which made me think about Eric.  “Active with glide,” was how Eric described his favorite outdoor activities — skiing, kayaking, biking, swimming.

I was in touch with Adrienne and Sam Saturday morning, both of them wanting to ski as much as me, but too far away to join me.  And my sister, who loves to ski but can’t manage it right now due to health challenges, had told me to ski for her.  So I had a whole pack skiing in my head this past weekend, gliding along for the ride.