The temperature hung just above freezing. The sun lit up the woods in a blessed winter scene, a still snow globe of trees and untouched white ground and silence. Little could disturb the Currier & Ives setting, a state park full of deer and American Beech trees and less so of intruding humans, of skiers like me. There was nothing that could disturb the cozy feeling of walking through, of skiing through a Robert Frost poem. Nothing that could ruin a first winter in three years, a first winter month spent in the solitude of a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan, one so pristine, so idyllic.
Nothing except me lying on my right side, left knee pulsing with pain, voice uncontrollably emitting curses. Nothing except my hubris and surety regarding the safety of cross country skiing and my growing skills on the long sticks. Nothing except the forever fear of the uninsured, the fear of a serious injury with nothing to pay for it. For a few seconds, a minute, it appeared that somehow this beauty would receive its first major blemish, one wholly my fault and, let's be fair, apparent only to me, beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
And even then, rendered horizontal from my point of view and somehow responsible for my woes, the picture remained pretty.
|A Trail Sometimes Taken, Though Unclear If More or Less Often|
When I tell people that I'm spending a month in Michigan cat-sitting my girlfriend Amy's cat while she is not here, people, after laughing at me for a few seconds and trying out their lamest jokes about cats, pussies, being whipped, and so on, ask me, "What the hell do you do there?"
Wait, let me rephrase. Were I to actually talk to people, I imagine that the conversation above is close to what we'd have. What with phone connections and bad internet and cold weather and snow and my anti-social inclinations and all, I don't talk to many people out here.
But if I were to answer that question, the what the hell do I do here, in Ludington, Michigan, a small town on the coast of Lake Michigan known for being a summer vacation spot and for having a ferry that runs over to Wisconsin (the venerable S.S. Badger, bringing you into Manitowoc, about an hour south of Green Bay! That's Baahadger, with the flat Midwestern "a". And no, it doesn't sail in winter), I would say: "Oh, you know, about the same thing I do anywhere - use the computer, cook myself food, read a lot, write a bit, look for work, work out every now and then, listen to music, play guitar, and so on." Such is the glory of the Internet age, after all. It doesn't matter where you live, because there you are, wired and well-connected! And I'm a pretty self-contained person besides, easily lured into the labyrinth of infinite information available online that makes me know way more about way too many things than I need to know about.
I might add, "The only difference between being here and anywhere else is that I here spend time feeding, petting, playing with, and catering to a fat pussy. A fat pussy cat." I tell lame jokes too, sometimes.
|The pussy cat in question.|
I could, however come up with a list of a few things I'm doing here that I don't normally do. For example:
- Cooking soups. Hearty hot winter soups. Like french onion soup, sweet potato soup, or borscht, the famed Eastern European beet soup.
- Eating those soups. And when I eat the borscht especially, I take off my shirt, so as to not stain my shirt, which would only lead to Amy buying more shirts, offending my anti-materialistic sensibilities. Beets, as I discover when cooking them, are very messy. They easily mess up the counter, the sink, the dishwasher, the floor, the wall, and, eventually, the toilet. The beet tinge washes out of all of those places, but who knows if it washes out of clothes. So shirtless borscht eating.
- Studying French. Though that has nothing to do with Michigan, really, unless I decide to dig up Pere Jacques Marquette's diary and study it for good tips on where the best hot springs and cherry trees are in Michigan. But still.
- Cross-country skiing. Which brings me to this story.
Cross-country skiing is a very low-key, quotidian sort of activity. Best done in a relatively flat area with short hills to climb and, one always hopes, slightly longer ones to ride down, XC skiing is a lower thrilled, higher energy workout than downhill skiing. I believe the better one gets at XC skiing, the more of a workout it probably is; my level involved a lot of huffing and puffing, but felt more like hiking than running, say.
Including these past two days of skiing, I have strapped skis on 3 times since I was 14. Up until the winter I turned 14, skiing was an annual activity, mostly of the downhill variety. Some of my earliest memories involve family vacations in the Catskill Mountains - for whatever reason, the steam room they had at the resort remains embedded in my mind as some holy room of warmth and comfort. I could downhill satisfactorily from the age of, say, 8 or so, and enjoyed trying to keep up with my younger brother who was inevitably a faster, more reckless, and better skier than I. Good thing he switched to snowboarding before too long.
When I was 14 and a freshman in high school, I went with my family on a ski trip to the North Conway area in New Hampshire. Between Attitash and Bear Mountain, I had some of the best, most challenging skiing of my young life. We also went cross-country skiing at some trails nearby, my first time on the flatter trails. I remember my mother being fond of it from her Moscow childhood, I remember it being hard, and I remember liking it. That could be a false memory, the last bit, but it stuck with me.
After that winter, I didn't ski again for 8 years. The intersection between skiing season and wrestling season prevented me from skiing for two reasons - more legitimately, that I had no time to go skiing; more spoken though less importantly, the risk of injury from skiing. Not that there's no risk of injury when skiing (I'm pretty sure the Michael Kennedy death happened around the time I was 13 or 14, as an exaggerated and morbid example), but I never really had any good chances to go skiing in the winter, so why bother with the threat? And, as I thought of it last week, cross-country skiing probably would have been a good way to cut weight and a low injury risk anyway. You can't get hurt if you're not going very fast or very much downhill, I figured.
This abstinence ended in a rather ironic way, then: my college coach Clar insisted the team go skiing on our trip to Reno my last season at Duke. My last being, as the final one, my most important season, and this trip marking my return to competition after my time in Russia. As Clar always says, good athletes don't get injured, so I guess I was to prove my athleticism.
Even then, ever cautious, I suggested that maybe I go XC skiing instead of downhill. This didn't fly with the relentless abandon we were supposed to display, and I headed out for the downhill slopes. After a bunny run or two, I realized the enormous intelligence of the body (and believe you me, my body is dumb as rocks as far as bodies go): my muscles remembered how to make it down a mountain upright, even if I had no idea what they were doing. Naturally, I quickly advanced from blue square intermediate hills to following a teammate, who had spent some time as a kid in the Swiss Alps, weaving down off-trail paths and past short trees, rocks, and other natural obstacles. I came out of this with a few falls, at least one instance of splitting a tree (i.e. straddling it with my skis; I'm not sure if there's a technical term for it, but splitting it makes sense - fortunately, the tree was not waist height, or rather, not slightly less than waist height), and a new appreciation for the process of finding a path, of going fast for two seconds downhill and then stopping to consider the next turn, and of earning a route. Blitzing downhill for a sustained time is fun once or twice, but the rush gets old; this sort of bit-by-bit downhill skiing really appealed to me. I hope to do it again.
In the meantime, there was at last the option of XC skiing again. Michigan, and the Midwest in general, is not known for its hills or mountains. Stranded here by the water in the middle of winter, with little to do and time on my hands as ever, I was free to try this old hobby out and see if it still suits.
After a day where I didn't leave the house or dress in anything sturdier than pajamas, I took the long walk of three blocks through Ludington's downtown and dropped in on the local sports equipment shop. I inquired as to whether one could rent cross country skis, and if so, how much it would cost. "You certainly can," the woman working there told me. The price was reasonable. I left the store and trudged another giant block to the local fresh foods store (this was the day I cooked my borscht).The next day, I saved my energy and drove to the ol' sports shop. The same woman helped me along in picking out my skis, my boots, and my poles (all for one low price), and within ten minutes I was back in my car and on my way out to the park.
Ludington State Park, home of sand dunes and ranked #1 state park in the Midwest, lies near the Lake Michigan shore, in between the great lake and a more local one, Lake Hamlin. Driving there, an 8-mile trip or so from the center of town, involves taking Lakeshore Drive, a.k.a. Michigan Route 116. The first half mile the driver can see the lake, then the shore juts out and the road runs over a bridge traversing Lincoln Lake, a lake now frozen; looking to the left, the driver will see a beautiful home perched upon a hill overlooking the bridge, and on the left just past that is a golf course, suggesting this is the more affluent part of town. Past the golf course, one takes a left as Rt. 116 splits off from Lakeshore Drive and goes more coastal again, and this is where things get interesting.
|Lake Michigan's Wintry Shore.|
On the right, dunes of eight to ten-feet height vary with a little outpost home and flat territory. On the left, an eight-foot tall or so sand dune covered with snow and patches of sand sticking out like missed shaving spots stands as the only barrier between the eye and the lake. Dunes of course undulate, and so the careful eye can spot Lake Michigan in all its glory. Its winter glory is an interesting brand, with a six to ten foot layer of ice stretching from the coast outwards; six to ten feet from the coast I mean, a width measurement, the length stretching as far as the coastline goes, and I can't tell you the depth. Then there's the steady water, clean and chilly even in summer's peak, when the savvier beachgoers get out of town and drive these extra ten minutes for relative seclusion compared to the downtown beach, surely hypothermia-inducing at the end of February. But the shoreline is beautiful, and one looks out due west to watch any number of technicolor sunsets, with a bluff sticking out to the south to add to the picture.
I visited Ludington State Park to ski four times in the past two weekends; rentals go for 24 hours at said local shop, convenient enough to ski immediately after taking the skis and immediately before returning them. My first trip involved a lot of blundering around to find the trail and, in the end, about an hour and a half of skiing. The next day I lasted about 3 hours, skiing on the trail, getting lost and losing track of the trail, and then finding it again at the mystical #6 checkpoint that I had sought so desperately while being lost. A week later, after a new, light snowfall, I went back out to the same trail, the LSP South Ski Trail, and blazed my own ski tracks on the trail, mostly without getting lost.
|The accursed signpost #6.|
|A Split Stump Fall, the Aftermath Of.|
My skiing had improved too, despite the falls. I progressed from arrhythmic strides, terrible downhill-to-straightaway transitions, and overall slow movement that was more akin to hiking with really long shoes (the ski coming off the ground much to often as I tromped through the snow) to occasionally on rhythm strides, the ability to maintain downhill momentum some of the time, and more frequent ski to ground coverage. In other words, a slight improvement; by my fourth day, I knew just enough to be dangerous to myself.
On a fine Sunday, cold enough to preserve the snow but with a surplus of sun and a surfeit of wind that makes for ideal winter sports conditions, I trekked out for the fourth day. I decided to seek out the North Ski Trails, employing the unfailing logic that if the trails I took the first three times were known as the LSP "South Ski Trails", there must be a North Ski Trails set (I learned this from Encyclopedia Brown books). After an initial trip along the roads, I found my hypothesis to be correct and landed upon those North Ski Trails.
The North trails were simpler, a little shorter, and less exciting to observe on a map. Where the South Ski Trails had three or four loops over 11 checkpoints, the North Ski Trails featured a straight shot from checkpoints 1-4, then a loop around a 5th checkpoint, #9; hiking trails intertwined with the ski trails, adding many checkpoints for paths not groomed for skiers.
Despite its limits, the trail offered plenty of its own beauty, with a wooded forest that felt both more dense and more open, somehow, maybe due to the presence of the sun falling on my head. In addition, my legs' energy and general enthusiasm both ebbed a bit; I had skied about three hours the day before and didn't feel much of a need to repeat that feat as I cruised along, again alone and surrounded by nature's low volume. The trail ran at least an hour and a half without interruptions, especially at my slower than usual pace. There was no need, I'm saying, for me to branch off trail.
And yet, there I broke off from #3 to try the Lighthouse trail, plenty long and most certainly a hikers' trail and not a skiers' one. I figured that out when the trail led me to the top of a dune, and then gave no indication where to go on the other side of the dune. Later, after backtracking, backtrack being one of the most defeatist verbs there is for the masculine mind, I saw on the map that I was indeed meant to continue across the dunes to get to the Lighthouse. I conceded that my backtracking was not only practical but the only realistic option.
And yet again, when I got back to checkpoint #3, I decided to go a different way back to my car. I decided to take a hiking trail again, the "Coast Guard" trail, thinking it wouldn't be much longer, and would offer fresh territory. I noticed that somebody had skied there before me, as there were grooves to follow. I presumed that I would be fine.
The trail ran fairly narrow; wide enough for one person, but hardly a lot of room for error. Scattered trees lined the trail. I began going up, and anybody knows that what goes up must come down. I came to a bluff as it were, a peak in the trail before a short downhill, a little left-breaking curve of about twenty meters. Nothing special about this curve except perhaps the combination of the elements mentioned in this paragraph, combined with my dangerous knowledge and my wearied attention.
In any case, I started down the short slope, hesitated as I didn't have great control, feared hitting a tree, leaned to my right either to fall or to stabilize myself, fell, and left my left ski behind, catching either snow, ground, or a root and wrenching my knee and ankle. Which brought me to the cursing.
My first thought as the pain shot through my knee was that a ligament had gone. My second was that I needed to take off the skis and straighten my legs to assess. I poked the buttons on the skis off and began feeling around the damaged area. I found all three ligaments known to me to be in place. Relief washed over my uninsured joints. I had dodged a bullet, considering.
The next step was to get up, test the knee, and get moving. I stood and found that I could bear weight. My initial reaction turned out to be my most overdramatic response to pain since I thought I needed arthroscopic surgery on my knee in 5th grade when I woke up and couldn't bend it; I had been reading about Mary Lou Retton and her similar injury, which explains my fears over missing out the LA Olympics (the solution to this "injury" was to take a few pills and wait a few days; it's something of a mystery to me when I think about it). All in all, it looked like I would live without need of helicopter rescue.
|After a more mundane fall, the only pain to the ego.|
I plunged forward, first on boots, then on skis slowly down a stupidly placed downhill trail (seriously nature, what gives?), and then trudging along through the hiking trail. The trail dragged on. I wondered why it was so much longer than it looked like on the map. I wondered whether eating an apple instead of candy helped or hurt my energy levels as the trail kept going. I wondered how I ended up in the campground cabin area and whether that man walking out of his truck was going to follow me and abduct me for reasons unknown and best not speculated about. At last, much to my wonder, I came back to the initial, roadside trail that would lead to my car, the trail where earlier I had seen someone riding on a sled pulled by three dogs. Ahh, Michigan. I limped on in.
So ends my overdrawn, not quite as dramatic as 127 Hours story about skiing. A week later, I still ice my knee and ankle and take aspirins and wait to see if the weather and my body will cooperate for me to go out on the trails for one more two-day stretch. I promise to myself that I'll stay on the trails. Or at least, I won't hesitate when I veer off.
At least, if I don't get any more skiing this winter, I hear Luxembourg has a few trails, so it won't have to be a 12-year wait till next time around.