Last December, the girls and I took a day off from the alpine scene and decided to go skate skiing. Younger daughter Cecily, who was 21, had never tried it. And Cloe, 24, was just learning. We needed one set of rental gear and some smooth track. We found both at the Telluride Town Park, down along the river toward the box end of the canyon.
The Telluride Nordic Center occupies a dollhouse of an old Victorian on the edge of the town's ballfield complex. In what used to be the parlor, Cecily laced up a pair of track shoes and then grabbed a set of head-high, stiletto-thin skis-and poles that were almost as long.
Outside on the track, Cloe, beginning her fourth day skating, already knew enough to help her sister with the basics. And Cecily, who may be the most natural athlete in the family, started stroking and gliding immediately, pushing off one foot to glide on the other, side-to-side, like an ice skater. A glorious, high-pressure sun peered over the canyon rim as we looped through cottonwoods, ghosted by the beaver pond and stretched out across the outfield meadows. Round and round we went, the track like a one-lane country road with no beginning and no end, groomed fast and smooth.
A tiny woman of indeterminate age shuffled in the twin grooves set along one edge of the skating lane. Other than that, we were the only people there.
I was transported to a November day in the early Eighties at West Yellowstone, Mont. My friend Jimmy and I were clinicing with the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team at a pre-season camp. Skating edge-to-edge on skis waxed strictly for speed was not in our repertoire then. We'd heard rumors, and of course everybody knew that Vermonter Bill Koch had won the World Cup overall title in 1982 with the help of a technique called the marathon skate. But Jimmy and I were still running straight ahead, still kicking-and-gliding in the grooves, our skis waxed according to the ancient algebra for both grip and glide.When out of nowhere a group of Teamers, led by Alaskan Audun Endestad, rocketed by us on the left-skating, grinning, flying so fast over the snow their tight ski suits made a rippling sound, like sails in a wind. They about blew us over in our tracks.
That sound, and the sight of them disappearing over the hill in front of us, spelled the end, for me, of what would thenceforth be known as "classic" cross-country technique. The diagonal stride was dead. All I wanted to do was skate. Back home in Colorado, at the graceful old Adams Ranch barn-Telluride's nordic center back then-a core of locals quickly picked up skating's rhythms and burned up the newly smoothed lanes. There was no comparison in terms of speed, of glide, of skimming across the landscape.
Skis got shorter and easier. Poles got longer. (The pole push became a kind of two-handed gazelle leap to complement the gliding.) Boot/binding systems were developed which greatly improved the precision of the foot/ski link. Nordic centers bought their own Pisten Bullys for laying down more perfect boulevards. And, not least, Lycra came along at just the right time to show off skating's lithe bodies.The bloom was on a branch of skiing's tree that seemed to have unlimited growth potential. And then it fizzled. I don't really understand why. But in the decade of the Nineties, I'll bet retailers sold more NordicTrack exercise machines than they did nordic skis. The image of skating was certainly sexy enough. Maybe the marketers succumbed to slight overstatement.Promoters said, in effect, "If you can walk, you can cross-country ski." Well, it's a little harder than that. But if you can roller skate or ice skate, and you've got a modicum of aerobic fitness, you ought to take to skate skiing like an otter to water.Maybe it was the cold. Nah. Engines running, the girls and I quickly stripped down to tights and turtlenecks on (or very near) the shortest day of the year. Might it have been a matter of heroes? True, since Kochie, our U.S. World Cup athleetes have not broken through on the international stage. But they are also woefully underfunded and underappreciated even by their own U.S. Ski Association. Maybe it was the difficult comparison to alpine skiing with its high-tech lifts and effortless, gravity-assisted float back down. To convenience-besotted America, self-propelled skiing probably appeared ancient (it is over 4,000 years old), primitive and too much like work.I don't know. I do know that at my home area of Telluride the effort has sadly gone out of providing guests a high-quality nordic opportunity. When I called ahead to see about renting Cecily's gear, I talked with several mystified shop people who said, "Skate skis? Do you mean blades?" They had ice skates and touring skis for rent but no skis for the nordic track. One shop in a dozen, it turned out, in addition to the Nordic Center, carried skate skis.A similar shrinkage has afflicted the local tracks themselves. In the last couple of years the number of groomed loops in the Telluride region dropped from four to two. And now, with the opening of new alpine terrain in the Prospect Basin area, a third track is going away.
On this sunny day with my daughters-a day when the early-season alpine sliding was scratchy at best-we now shared the town track with a spare handful of others. One woman we all noticed. She skated with beautiful economy, upright and fluid, moving fast without apparent effort, her straight blond hair like a flag, indicating her speed.We watched her, and we all got better. Cloe synchronized her double pole with her stride. Cec, by the end, was coasting a meter or two on each foot and climbing the hill toward Bear Creek entirely "without spazzing." Gliding uphill! I felt things with the bottoms of my feet I hadn't felt since my last foray on the feather-light sticks; I was a skipping stone on frozen water, an owl banking through the trees.We finished as the shadow of Needle Rock turned our white road blue. There were still only three cars in the lot. We threw our skis in the back, slipped into sandals for the drive home. We were tired, loose and glowing. We looked around for other faces to reflect our smiles. Where was everybody? What became of that nascent nordic nation?