Stillness on Skis

For this former downhill skier, family adventures on cross-country trails have led to more present and mindful living.

Bob Socci
Human Parts

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New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley on February 20, 2023 (Photo by Bob Socci).

Time, like our chosen path, was running out.

“Take this in,” my wife said, gazing at the meadow unfurling below to our left. “Save it in your mind.”

A field of snow white powder at least a foot and a half deep and freshened by several inches overnight gradually sloped Eastward, toward a distant treeline and farther-off hills and peaks silhouetted in a veil of clouds backlit by the climbing sun. Gaps in the gray, outlined in silver by the rays’ reflections, offered glimpses of blue sky.

The view was all ours. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Slowly inhaling, I let out a more deliberate exhale, as if cued by a yogi or mindfulness coach. On the last leg of a long weekend getaway to Vermont, it was our final moment of stillness on skis.

After a beat or two filled by another deep breath or two, we turned away to hurry back: to the kids we let sleep in on this Presidents’ Day morning, to the luggage soon to be loaded into our car, to the roads that would lead us back to Boston, and, finally, to the daily routines we came here to escape.

Sunrise over Stowe, VT on February 20, 2024. (Photo by Bob Socci)

Growing up in the center of New York state, I was a younger brother to a freestyling downhiller. Late to follow his boot steps into bindings, I didn’t take up alpine skiing until sixth grade, when I joined our middle school ski club.

Every winter Friday, if snow totals allowed — and they always did in those days — we bused about 45 minutes from my hometown of Auburn to Cortland’s 2,100-foot high Greek Peak. To me, very unlike my brother as a risk-averse novice, it might as well have been The Hahnnenkamm.

While others my age headed for steeper hills, I stuck to the bunny slope, locking my skis in a permanent V and snow plowing the short distance from top to bottom in low gear. Over the next two years, I gradually improved and grew more courageous, graduating from T-bar to chair lift and riding higher to descend no less (and no more) than intermediate trails.

Every now and then, an air of overconfidence blew at my back. Hiding my eyes behind red-tinted goggles attached to a white plastic face mask and wearing a dark blue-and-white knitted hat stitched on each side with a red “USA,” I’d fancy myself as a future Olympic champion.

I’d then thrust my poles into the mountainside and propel myself forward, straight downhill, before squatting into a tuck and gaining speed uncontrollably. Within seconds, an edge would catch. Limbs would splay every which way. My Olympic dream would die on the hill.

Survival being consolation, I’d soon retire to the A-frame lodge, sip hot cocoa and devour the salami-and-provolone sandwich my mom always packed for me. Stuffed but unfulfilled, I was done for the night.

By high school, I was done skiing — and with salami sandwiches — for the next few decades.

The nation’s first cross-country ski trail network was built at the Trapp Family Lodge. (Photo by Bob Socci)

Before meeting my wife while living in Maryland, I had never been on Nordic skis. She, being a native New Englander, however, loved cross-country skiing.

So, after getting engaged and settling near Boston, I visited an REI store holding a sale on cross-country gear, and left totally outfitted.

We initially hit some trails at a local golf course winterized as a ski track. A few outings later, we paid a weekend visit to New Hamphsire’s Mount Washington Valley. Like my wife, I was hooked.

When our children came along — son first, daughter next, 18 months apart — we didn’t do much traveling, much less skiing for a few years. But as soon as they were old enough, fitted with skis of their own, we were back to doing both.

We skied on my wife’s aunt’s property in Southern New Hampshire and a farm near another aunt’s home in Coastal Maine. We skied in a local park and, once, on our street, before city plows got to it in a blizzard. We also returned to Mount Washington, making Bretton Woods a yearly destination during February school vacations.

Access to trailheads and views of snow-capped vistas were accompanied by nice amenities and other activities. Dining and unwinding by a fireplace and, when so lucky, in an outdoor hot tub, were signs of living the good life. Skiing freely through woods, over brooks and into open pastures were ways of living a better life.

It’s how I feel whenever and wherever we’re cross-country skiing. Once past the initial huffing and puffing, I settle into a stride and experience the kind of high runners describe.

No matter that skilled skaters swiftly whoosh past, leaving me in their trail of X-shaped ski marks. Or that couples of septuagenarians routinely lap me in their classic skiing styles. Seeing them is believing: ‘That’s how I hope to be someday.’ It’s about the only ‘want-to’ or ‘what if’ penetrating my headspace.

I realize that well before paying attention to mindfulness, I was achieving it: while skiing, breathing in and breathing out the cold, crisp air.

Bretton Woods on February 21, 2020. (Photo by Bob Socci).

There’s a rhythm to cross-country. Each pole crunches into the compacted snow. One, then the next. Each ski rustles over the surface corrugated by a grooming machine. One, then the next.

Soon, those sounds fade, as the chirping of a bird or trickling of a stream catch your ear. Snow fluffs on firs and spruces, which filter sunlight into the forest, catch your eye.

Attention diverts from exertion, and skiing becomes an exercise in enjoyment. Distance and time (How much farther? How much longer?) become irrelevant.

If skiing alongside my wife and/or kids, we sometimes converse and occasionally stop. Someone may need a rest. Someone, having fallen, may need an assist. But, generally, we are quietly present; with one another and with nature.

It’s been especially enjoyable in recent years seeing the kids take to the sport. Increasingly, I’ve watched it from afar, after they’ve left me in their tracks. My daughter, in fact, wants to skate ski. That’ll be next year; I know she’ll be out of sight.

This year, we varied from past routine, choosing to try Vermont during Presidents’ Day weekend. We booked rooms at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, site of the nation’s first cross-country ski trail network.

Timing — the snowiest week of the season — and location — as beautiful as historic — combined to give us our most rewarding skiing experience yet.

We had perfect conditions: plenty of snow, and peace of mind.

Cross-country skiing allows for stunning views, and the time to appreciate them. (Photo by Bob Socci)

In the months preceding our latest Nordic-New England getaway, I devoted a lot of thought to changes I’m seeking in daily life. To conserve emotional and intellectual capital for what’s within my control. To ensure I’m in the same mental place as my physical space.

In other words, as reflected by reading and listening choices of late, mindfulness. And what goes with it. Who and what in life truly matters. Why I should be more grateful and less wanting. How to avoid past regrets, future suppositions and griping about first-world grievances.

When we made it to the woods and open pastures where the family Von Trapp brought their native Austria to the Vermont countryside, I found what I was looking for: stillness, sustained.

On the first morning there, we took a maple sugar tour on snow shoes. The guide, who goes by “Farmer Poach,” was performative and informative. He recited a poem by Robert Frost, the words of which were lost on me in the moment, and facts that stayed with me the rest of the weekend.

Breaking in new backcountry skis that afternoon, I was more attuned to specifics of our 2,500-acre surroundings. Like the cans at the base of trees, waiting to collect maple syrup to be boiled into sugar. And the sign on which Frost‘s words, the ones Poach knew off the top of his head, were printed. I paused to process what I had missed.

The poem is ‘The Birthplace,’ and it’s about connection to and inspiration from that very environment. As I skied away, and continued skiing the next two days, its meaning became clearer.

But lest I get too heady, I wasn’t meditating my whole time on skis. For one thing, I just liked being on those skis, literally. Made wider for backcountry, they glided easily, turned smoothly and obviously allowed for some off-road adventuring.

I also liked that calories burned before those skis came off absolved me of any guilt over later indulgences, including my first taste of salami in years, served on a charcuterie board with a Vienna Lager.

Despite changes since Frost wrote “The Birthplace,” this spot continues to inspire. (Photo by Bob Socci)

On our final night in Stowe, after enjoying several world-class chamber musicians in concert and eating a late dinner, we packed for our pending departure.

The morning after, my wife and I woke earlier than everyone else, resolved to log one more lap. Sun rising, we dressed, headed into the cold and pulled our skis from the car.

A half hour after setting out, we came to a stop. We had enjoyed a healthy few days. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. On skis. Off screens. Together. Everyone seemed so happy. The staff. Other guests. Other skiers. Our family.

I breathed it all in, knowing we had to go; eager for our return.

Bob Socci has been the play-by-play radio broadcaster for the New England Patriots since 2013. You can find some of his other works at www.bobsocci.com and www.985thesportshub.com.

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Bob Socci
Human Parts

Musings of a husband and father who makes his living talking about a game, but lives (and writes) with much more in mind and heart.