“Do I ski? Well, of course,” I’ve dismissed such questions with a pretentious chuckle. “I grew up skiing,” I’d say, hoping my haughty response conjured up images of me slaloming between moguls, skidding to snow-spraying stops, and mingling in Nordic sweaters around cozy lodge fireplaces.
They don’t need to know that my first skiing experiences were behind the YMCA in my rural Pennsylvania hometown. Two dollars provided my brother and I with mercilessly gouged rental equipment and unlimited rides on the slope’s only lift — a rudimentary rope tow with a sputtering motor that sounded as if it had been pirated from a lawn mower.
My 100% acrylic mittens not only failed to keep out the cold, but they made it nearly impossible to grip the ice-glazed rope tow. When I managed to clamp down hard enough, my body lurched forward unexpectedly, sometimes loosening my precarious grip and causing annoyed kids to stack up behind me like dominoes.
Eventually, our parents took my brother and I to the various local ski resorts: Hidden Valley, Seven Springs, Blue Knob, Laurel Valley. Having never heard of brand names such as Rossignol and K2, our family of four rented equipment and wore whatever we had in our closets, much of which was fluorescent orange or emblazoned with Pittsburgh Steelers insignia.
If we made it out of the slushy, clattering equipment rental rigmarole intact, we still had to get our skis on without making complete fools out of ourselves. Despite witnessing the experienced skiers pop their boots into bindings with minimal effort, I always seemed to find myself doing the splits right there in front of all the cool people.
It wasn’t pretty, but I persevered, getting up and falling down over and over again – putting on skis, getting on and off lifts, snow plowing, and sometimes, just standing there doing nothing. Besides knocking strangers over and forcing lift operators to stop the motors to clear my sprawled body off the exits and entrances, all that falling served to desensitize me to embarrassment over time.
One Christmas, my father outfitted our entire family in new ski paraphernalia. At first I couldn’t wait to finally be “legit,” but with the proper equipment and apparel came something I hadn’t anticipated: expectations.
In my brother’s old parka, no one batted an eye when I plowed into someone in the T-bar line. However, in my white Obermeyer jacket with the powder blue chevron and new Atomic Skis, people would actually expect me to know what I was doing.
In high school, my best friend, Patti, and I joined the Ski Club, boarding a coach bus to the ski resorts every Friday night. Other than rumors of who was making out with whom on the bus, Patti and I concerned ourselves only with the fake personas we would use to meet cute boys on the slopes. Even then, we understood the snobbery to which skiing lent itself. I became Brooke Taylor from a snooty town in Connecticut, and she, Claire Townsend, my rich cousin visiting from some stuck up prep school.
We never got to use our alter egos, but in the process of trying to reinvent ourselves, we finally learned to ski.
Recently, a friend asked me to go skiing with her in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A middle-aged Navy wife who has moved nine times in 20 years, I had gotten rid of my ski equipment many moves ago, and had not skied in years. “Do you ski?” she asked. Swallowing my panic, I chuckled my pat response, “But of course, I grew up skiing.”
Adorned with hopelessly scratched equipment I rented from the base’s Outdoor Recreation Center, I tried to quell my performance anxiety as the quad lift reached the summit. I felt out of place amongst the well-to-do resort families decked to the nines, even though I knew that, based on my appearance, onlookers were surprised to see that I could ski at all.
Later at the lodge, while nonchalantly sipping a plastic cup of hefeweizen and trying to look like a regular, I had a minor epiphany. Down deep beneath my faux-Nordic sweater, I knew that none of it — YMCA rope tow humiliations, borrowed parkas, high school insecurities, rental equipment — really mattered.
Just like everyone else in the lodge telling tall tales and walking like idiots in ski boots, I could ski. Snobbery was optional.