I'm about to get on the beginner's chair lift at Snowbird, Utah. My knees are shaking, even though I was a ski bum right after college for two full seasons in Zermatt, Switz., when there was nothing that I wouldn't ski. But that was 35 years ago: gas was 33 cents a gallon, the Beatles had recently landed on The Ed Sullivan Show and skis were long, skinny and wooden. I haven't been on a pair since.
Looking down at the short, fat parabolic Rossignol Bandit skis I've rented for the day, I wonder if I'm out of my 57-year-old mind-and if the ski shop gave me two water skis by mistake. I'm also surprised my rental boots are comfortable. I learned to ski in leather lace-ups, then graduated to rear-entry plastic boots that hurt my feet constantly.
"Ready?" asks my instructor Jackie, who was probably in kindergarten when I learned to ski. "Sure," I lie, praying to the chairlift gods that I don't fall off. Two snowboarders in front of us clump onto the chair ahead. I've never even seen a snowboarder before except on TV.
As we ascend, it's so quiet I can hear the wind blow through the pine branches. I feel the same peace and calm I did every time I rode a lift all those years ago. Beneath us, skiers and snowboarders carve graceful turns on the slope. I can't believe how long it has been since I've skied.
I probably wouldn't be here now if I hadn't overheard someone on my plane to Salt Lake say that Snowbird had an 89-inch base. For some reason-after more than three decades-I'd felt a yearning to ski again. And when I found out Snowbird was only 29 miles away, I decided to give the sport another try. If I hated it, I could be back in Salt Lake in time for lunch.
Tentatively, I ski off the lift and stand at the top of the run. Nearby, a man talks loudly on a cell phone. There seem to be as many snowboarders as skiers-that's totally new to me, and so are the clothes. In the Sixties, I wore in-the-boot stretch pants, a heavy wool sweater, and a ski parka.
"Let's go!" Jackie says. I feel my knees shaking again. Thirty-five years ago, when I was young, fearless and cocky, there wasn't a run too steep or a bump too big. Now, I'm terrified on the bunny slope. I take a deep breath and push off. Fine-until it's time to turn. My left ski refuses to meet my right one, and I'm forced to snowplow. At least I remember how to do that. As I warm up and gain confidence, I move my skis so close together the edges touch.
"Keep your skis about a shoulder-width apart," Jackie advises. Apart? That's the opposite of what I've always been taught. On the next turn, I plant my pole and slide around it, my skis separate slightly. "Good job!" Jackie cheers. I feel myself gaining speed-and begin to panic-then I start to snowplow again, but at the last minute turn instead.
Surprisingly, skiing on these stumpy boards makes everything easier, and by the time I get to the bottom I'm almost feeling comfortable. On the next run I go a little faster. We ski the bunny slope again and then Jackie decides I'm ready for an intermediate run with bumps. "You're doing awesome!" she says.
As we start down the blue run, I have the same feeling of terror I had on the bunny hill. But halfway down something clicks. I suddenly feel smooth, almost fluid-even on bumps-and I remember why I loved skiing so much. In fact, I think I'm enjoying skiing even more the second time around.
Unlike the old days when I always had to prove something, impress someone or either catch up to or wait for my skiing partner, now I have the wisdom to enjoy each run for the moment it offers. That's a lesson I should have learned sooner.