January 1, 1999
I will exercise regularly, even in winter.
I will write more letters.
I will balance my checkbook.
I will learn to love skiing in the East.
Argh! That last one is going to hurt. It's not just that I am soft and wimpy (which I am), but as a Western skier it was my duty growing up on the slopes of Squaw Valley, Calif., to chastise all things Eastern. Likewise, Eastern skiers were honor-bound to defend their territory and bred to suspect the inherent worth of Western skiers. As a consequence of such polarization, I was quite sure that had I been born in the East I would not have become a skier. But now, in a cruel twist of fate, I have literally married into the East, and am bound not only to New York City but to Eastern skiing as well. This has forced me to reconsider my occidental superiority complex.
In the world according to ski racers, the East vs. West arguments go something like this:
From the East-Westerners are wimps. They only know how to ski on soft snow, and they can't handle the cold. Easterners are technically superior skiers because they grow up skiing on blue ice, where no weaknesses are tolerated. The competition is much tighter in the East, which raises the intensity and the performance levels. Eastern skiers develop earlier and are better prepared to hit the big leagues in Europe if and when they get their chance. We'll put true Eastern technicians such as Barbara Ann Cochran, Diann Roffe-Steinrotter and Felix McGrath against the West's best any day, in any conditions. Westerners have it too easy-they can go weeks without filing their edges and have never had to conform to discipline. Basically, you don't know the big leagues until you've conquered Eastern skiing.
From the West-Easterners are uptight and they ski that way. They can hammer away on ice, but they have no touch in variable conditions, and can't let their skis run. Furthermore, Easterners are more into training than skiing. Westerners like to freeski at every opportunity, while Easterners would rather stay in the lodge after the race. Consequently, Westerners become better all around skiers. Easterners do everything according to a program mapped out for them, while Westerners-Picabo Street, Bill Johnson, Tommy Moe, Tamara McKinney and the Mahre twins, to name a few-do things their own way.
While elements of both arguments are largely true, the act of arguing takes precedence over substance. The real point was, and I'm sure still is, not to prove anything, but to mock each other.
I met my first batch of Eastern racers at a summer camp at Squaw, and can remember laughing as they roasted in six layers of clothing topped by a heavy wool hat. They had no sunscreen but did carry files in their pockets.
A few years later, I suffered a karma kickback on my first Eastern trip, shivering through a December morning of training in a cotton turtleneck and sweatshirt, never having contemplated how to dress for damp cold. The fact that we were staying in a "camp" in the wilds of Maine (an unheated cabin sans plumbing) added an exclamation point to the lesson.
Now that I am truly trying to understand and even learn from the Eastern skier, I see that many of our differences have deep cultural roots. Eastern skier behavior can probably be traced to the Mayflower. Yankee sensibility and the Puritan work ethic defined everything from their demeanor to their clothing and their general resignation that anything worth having is worth suffering for. Likewise, Western skier behavior is rooted in the pioneer mentality. They didn't like the conditions in the East, so they left.
Along the way, Easterners did figure out how to ease their suffering and they called it a ski academy. Westerners viewed academies strictly as torture camps, where everyone was rousted from bed at 6 am, forced on a group run and then pitted against each other in activities throughout the day. Nonetheless, Easterners were and are fiercely loyal to their schools and their lifestyle. Thriving in such harsh conditions creates bonds that last well beyond high school, and disciplinary skills that many of us Westerners could have benefited from later in life. Westerners, loners by nature, want none of that, and recall that self-motivation worked just fine for the stable of Western medal winners who adhered to their own program.
All chest-thumping aside, lurking in every Western skier's heart is a feeling of technical inferiority, a dread for that moment of truth when skiing in the East for the first time. For most it's an indelible memory, usually humorous and often disastrous. Terry Delliquadri, a top Steamboat, Colo., skier recruited to race for Dartmouth College, remembers his first Eastern start. Race organizers had paid his entry fee and expenses because Delliquadri had the lowest international ranking points in the field. All he had to do was have a decent finish, and the Eastern skiers could improve their rankings.
"I finished so far back they couldn't even use my points," recalls Delliquadri. He nonetheless went on to become First Team All-America, but his soft touch Western days were over.
When I set out to re-examine this argument it was with the attitude that it's a case of Bambi vs. Godzilla. Indeed, even the staunchest Eastern skiers admit it's pretty darned nice to ski in the West, and that most of us Westerners turned out all right. But in talking to Westerners who have moved East, I was surprised at their appreciation for things the East has that the West lacks. First, there are the trails-good old-fashioned windy trails cut to follow the contour of the hill, which add a dimension rarely seen in the wide-open boulevards or fall-line bowls of the West.
And the sense of history. At any Eastern ski area, you're not far from a quaint New England town, but a far cry from the strip malls and condos that populate most Western areas. To further ease the pain, the bare bones Yankee styling of yesteryear's Eastern resort has relented to modern conveniences such as detachable quads, better snowmaking and base lodges with heat.
Years ago, after stating my theory that I never would have been a skier if I'd grown up in the East, someone asked, "Then what would you have done all winter?" Good point really, and for the first time I realized I probably would have been suffering with the rest of them. I do have some things working in my favor. My mother is from Boston, so there's Puritan blood hiding somewhere, and my father's mantra has always been, "All snow is good snow."