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Forever Young

Fall Line
posted: 02/10/2003

It was there, at the top of the Mineral Basin lift at Snowbird, Utah, that I discovered eternal youth. The lesson came, as these things sometimes do, because a woman caught my eye. Everything about her was beautiful-the way she approached a turn, the way she came to a crisp stop at the end of a steep incline, the way she smiled in the March sunshine. She was Ruth DeSousa. She had just turned 72.

Of course, I had to meet her. We all did: my wife, two daughters and I. So we skied to the flat where she had stopped and did what we never do: We introduced ourselves to a perfect stranger. We're glad we did. Mrs. DeSousa was a special woman, and she had a special message for us all: Skiing is a sport for the young of all ages.

It turns out that Mrs. DeSousa had quite a story. She started skiing in Germany as a teenager, then emigrated to the United States in 1954 as a (cold) war bride. She found a home in New Jersey, but she was most at home in the mountains. That's where her heart was, and that's where she learned that she was a skier at heart. She taught her kids how to ski, and then her grandkids. Her husband died in 1969, but she kept on skiing.

About a decade ago, Mrs. DeSousa, who still works arranging focus groups for businesses, decided that her runs at the old Great Gorge (now Mountain Creek) in New Jersey and her forays into Vermont, mostly to Killington, weren't enough to satisfy her. She wanted to see the country. But mostly she wanted to ski the country. So every winter she gets in her car and drives west. At night, she stays in a Motel 6. During the day, she hardly stays still. At 72, she's a true ski bum.

She's also a one-woman ski club. Last year she stopped, as she always does, at Steamboat, Colo. It's her favorite resort, even though she can't ski for free there anymore, and then spent a week at Telluride. In Utah she hit Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Solitude, The Canyons, Park City, Deer Valley, Alta, Sundance and Brighton. This year she'll take basically the same itinerary, but will add a coda. She'll strike all the way west to Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

I asked her whether she ever gets lonely on those long drives, or even on the long runs down the mountain. Not at all, she says. "I go for the skiing. That's the thing. I love to drive and I love the radio. I listen to talk shows and music all the way. The skiing keeps me going."

And going. She says that skiing keeps her looking forward, that it actually prevents the onset of old age. I think there's something to that. "When you are on the slopes, you never think you are old and you never think you are about to die," she says. "It keeps your body young. But it also keeps your mind young. It refreshes you. My skiing keeps me alive and my plans keep me alive."

So what were the lessons that my family and I took away from our encounter with Ruth DeSousa of Perth Amboy? That the coolest skiers on the mountain aren't young hotshots. That skiing, even when it is not free for a senior citizen, sets you free. That there is something spiritual about our winter sport, something in the cool air and the snow and the rush of wind that makes us better versions of ourselves. All that we learned that morning from Ruth DeSousa.

All that plus one thing more. The skiing keeps you going.

The author, who is the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, has been skiing for more than four decades. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of American political culture.

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