"Thag you very buch," I croaked as the server handed over a steaming cup of tea. I tried to smile but my pasty lips barely moved before everything from my ribs up convulsed and one head-snapping, throat-scorching cough/sneeze combo ensued. Then another. As I wiped my eyes and sniffed repeatedly to retract any dangling effluvium, I noticed the server grimace and wipe her hand briskly against her apron. Yeesh.
I shuffled to a distant table, ensuring that no innocents occupied my 10-foot mucous-spray radius. (They fled before me like rats.) Gazing out at the slopes, I sipped herb tea and wondered if I was really up for skiing. I'd be a lot happier at a university entomology department, where I could get one of those African parasitic worms to burrow out of one eye's mucous membrane, cross the bridge of my nose, and drill into the other eye. It'd feel so refreshing to aerate the rubber cement that was my skull.
I decided to ski a couple of runs. The lowlight: hiking 20 feet up a mogul field to fetch a dropped pole. This left me gasping for air. The highlight: expectorating a remarkably round phlegm ball. It froze on impact with the snow, enabling it to roll away like a marble. Pity tropical surfers and beach volleyballers, for they will never know such joy.
As skiers, we view ourselves as hardy kings of winter, comfortable when temperatures plummet to depths colder than a witch's, mm, bosom. But pit us mano a mano against an upper respiratory tract infection (what my pharmacist calls an URTI) and those submicroscopic jihadists kick our ass every time.
Some of my neighbors liken ski-town dwelling to life in a petri dish. Watch the unwashed locals sweat one minute, shiver the next, and then gather to share a slobbery bong or a growler of ale. Once the ski season gets rolling, new tourists arrive every morning, spreading germs from all 50 states and even some remote and exotic foreign countries-like Canada.
Given that the rate of alpine ski carnage now stands at a measly two to three injuries per thousand skier days, while the average adult will catch two to four colds this year, one could argue that the cold poses the single greatest threat to skiers. It deserves its own entry in skier slang. Let's follow the lead of ski towns that already use a more appropriate-and ski-flavored-name for it: "crud."
Webster's definition of crud-"a deposit of refuse or an impure or alien substance"-fits nicely with the skier description: "an illness worse, when measured by pure volume of nose muck, than a cold but not quite as bad as the flu." Granted, skiers have long used "crud" to mean something else entirely, as an umbrella term for crust, mush, cement, sticky mank, and other undesirable snow conditions. But there's been no undue confusion: A mountain with crud and a human with crud remain easy to distinguish.
The way I see it, skiers pass through five levels on the journey to ultimate crud. (Yes, last month I was an anthropologist, and this month I'm an otolaryngologist.) Beware...
1. THE THROAT TICKLE: A minor irritation that can be quashed by a single Ricola or, given that it's always happy hour somewhere, a screwdriver.
2. THE SINUS-CAVITY GRIDLOCK: It happened to me one wet, snowy day a few seasons ago, causing unbearable pressure behind my eyes. Inserting contact lenses felt like stabbing my corneas with tortilla chips. I gave up and grabbed my prescription goggles, which fog if the built-in miniature fan fails...which it did, when three hours of Cro-Magnon mouth breathing at altitude overwhelmed the battery. Still, I followed friends to a dicey chute. Near its 45-degree entrance, I snapped a pole when my steamed goggles obscured a jarring compression.
3. THE SNOT FAUCET: Why, you must be dying to know, does phlegm clog your airways? To trap viruses and keep them from wreaking further havoc. Expelling snot removes these evil microbes and leavees them on your hands so you can spread them to doorknobs, and ultimately other people's schnozzes. Alas, all the charm of the snot faucet ceases upon arrival in the Alps, where the locals employ the harshest toilet paper in the free world. This tissue can perform light sanding.
4. THE VULNERABLE-IMMUNE-SYSTEM TANGO: You ought to be in bed. Ski only on powder days, and spend the rest of your waking hours gulping handfuls of zinc and vitamin C, chugging chicken broth, and ingesting enough NyQuil to stun a horse. Wash your hands like Lady Macbeth, but for God's sake, resist the SARS surgical mask.
5. THE MULTISYMPTOM DELIRIUM: Everything hurts. You sniffle, cough, drip, wheeze, hack, and paw at your face. You definitely can't ski, but if you're an idiot, you might try to fly to the mountains. The last time I boarded a plane while harboring parasitic stowaways, I grew delirious. In the haze I saw a glorious ending to my suffering, in which the android next to me unsheathed a three-foot-long scimitar and swung it at the soft meat between my collarbone and chin. The decapitation brought instantaneous, cathartic relief. Then fountains of green goo spouted from my severed neck.
The crud: It's just not healthy.