Just Sit Down

Carol Arvo

© Copyright 2005 by Carol Arvo

Photo of a skier crashing.

I was a big city girl who married a outdoors-loving small-town boy.  Our first ski trip to Upper Michigan proved that we didn't have too much in common when it came to skiing.

 As a newlywed, I was anxious to do anything with my loving spouse, so when he said he would teach me to ski I was ecstatic. He grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, lived two miles from the ski hill, and was considered an expert skier. I envisioned myself swooshing down a thunderous white mountain of snow in a purple and pink nylon parka, matching hat and ski pants, and dark purple goggles and gloves. Snow would fly off the edges of my skis as I sharply turned left and right, hardly noticing the looks of envy from other skiers as I passed them like the wind passed through the trees. I was eager to turn this picture in my mind into a picture on Kodak paper.

 In January we headed to Iron Mountain, Michigan for a weekend of skiing. Ray, my spouse of five months, assured me that skiing wasn’t that hard and I would do fine. He promised to stay with me on the ski hill and tell me what to do, step by step. I was excited to try the sport that he learned as a child and loved so much, and I was anxious to get started.

Our first stop was “Ski Rental” on the lower level of the chalet – a small, crowded, hot area where we stood in line for an enormous amount of time to rent skis, boots, and poles before we headed for the “bunny” hill for my first lesson. Renting skis was not fun, but Ray reminded me that once I strapped them on the fun would start. So far I was doing fine. I had learned how to carry the skis on my shoulder and walk like Frankenstein in hard high-top ski boots that did not bend at the ankle. This also was not fun, but Ray reminded me once more that the fun would start at the hill.

 When we reached the bunny hill my ankles felt like I spent the morning in shackles, but I ignored it in the excitement of finally getting started. The bunny hill was not exactly a white mountain. It was more like a white bump. “How can you ski on this?” I asked my all-knowing instructor. “It looks almost flat.” “It’s not flat. It just looks that way. There’s plenty of hill there for a beginner,” was Ray’s answer.

I didn’t argue. After all, he was the expert. “Okay. Let’s do this,” I said. I held on to my instructor’s shoulder while he helped me strap on my skis, explaining what he was doing so I could do it myself next time. No problem. So far this was great.

Now I was ready to become a skier. As I stood at the top of the bunny hill and listened to Ray’s step-by-step instructions for getting down the hill, I wondered why there were so many people on what was obviously a bump in the snow. Skiing didn’t look that hard. Why weren’t they on the big hill? “Okay. Push off with your poles and keep your tips from crossing.”

Fearless and eager, I tried to follow this first instruction very carefully. However, just as I started down the bump in the snow that little “bump” changed into a mass of whiteness heading straight down. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I didn’t think my feet, strapped to six feet of laminated wood, would proceed down the hill at lightning speed leaving the rest of my body behind. Less than ten feet from where I started I was introduced to the hill (I’ll never call it a “bump” again) in an unglamorous but rather intimate way: seat first.

Fortunately, I was wearing double layers of thick clothing in an attempt to guard against the cold Michigan wind and they doubled as a protective cushion. My point of impact was not hurt – the pain came when I saw children no taller than two feet off the ground whiz past me on either side as they went from top to bottom of that treacherous bunny hill obviously in full control of their skis and having the time of their lives. I seemed to be the only one sitting down at that point. Ray skied over to help me up, flipped his skis sideways, and stopped instantly just inches from me with a larger-than-life grin on his face and his hand outstretched – another twinge of pain. Impressing my new husband with my athletic ability would have to wait for another sport.

 “Are you hurt?” Ray asked. He knew I wasn’t. “That’s okay. Come on. Try it again.”

He helped me up; I brushed myself off and agreed to try it again. I listened to another series of instructions from my able teacher who was being exceptionally supportive to his uncoordinated wife. This time Ray concentrated his teaching efforts on the “snowplow” aspect of skiing. Snowplowing is turning your ankles inward so that the inner edges of the skis dig into the snow and the skis are pointed forward in the shape of a “V.” Snowplowing keeps your speed under control and allows you to go very slow if you choose to.

I was ready to try again. Several little children swooshed past me on either side like pesky little gnats on a humid day. I ignored their expertise and focused on my job at hand: getting from up here to down there over a slick carpet of white, frigid, unsympathetic snow without falling.

Ray coached me one last time: “Push off slowly, dig in on your edges, and don’t let your tips cross.”

A little less fearless and a lot more cautious, I pushed off with my poles, knees already bent. I turned my ankles inward as far as they would go. My skis were pointed downhill forming a “V” that wavered a little more to the left than center. My arms, with poles in tow, resembled an elevator in a busy office building, up and down, up and down, trying to keep my balance. Ray skied next to me shouting instructions and encouragement, “Don’t cross your tips. Bend your knees. That’s it. You’re doing great!”

 I was doing great. I was actually skiing. My eyes were tearing from the fierce cold that cut into my face like a Ginsu knife and my ankles ached from pushing against unbending ski boots, but the exhilaration of actually skiing somehow made it all worthwhile. My skis were directly under my body, my knees were bent my elbows were tucked in, and my weight was evenly distributed to keep me in perfect balance. I didn’t analyze what was happening; it just happened. I was in control. I was the master of the bunny hill. I knew this was the “fun” I had been waiting for.

Before I could fully enjoy the feeling, however, I felt as if I suddenly woke from a trance. I realized that I was nearing the bottom of the hill. Instantly, I also realized that my devoted but non-professional instructor had forgotten to tell me how to stop. Instinctively, my ankles turned farther inward, to the point of pain, digging in the edges of my skis almost crossing the tips and slowing me down long enough to send a shriek of panic to the expert by my side, “How do I stop???” I couldn’t look right or left. I was paralyzed in the forward position desperately trying to stop and live to tell about it. “Snowplow. Hard,” I heard from my side. How much harder could I do this? My ankles were about to break now.

I am! I am!” I screamed to Ray in a high-pitched, terrified voice.

I felt like I was out of control going ninety miles an hour on the Indiana tollway, about to crash at any moment. Snowplowing was not working. I would have to do something else and do it quick. But what?

Another instruction from my side, “Sit down. Just sit down!”

What an idea! Why didn’t I think of that? It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would stop me. I bent my knees as far as they would go and unfemininly planted my backside in the packed-down snow at the bottom of the bunny hill, just two feet from three little “gnats” who thought my stopping ability was quite funny.

As I slid to a stop I felt an icy chill race from my waist to my neck. The biting wind on my face was nothing compared to the snow sprayed under my jacket during my creative attempt at stopping. It promptly began to melt against my back. Chilled through to my chattering teeth, I reached for Ray’s outstretched hand and heard his words of encouragement to try again.

For that moment, coming down the hill in control of my skis with every part of my body in sync, I felt the exhilaration of conquering fear with ability and I understood Ray’s passion for skiing. I knew that I would accompany him on future ski trips. I knew I would turn to him for instruction and support, but I didn’t know I would reach for his outstretched hand over and over and over through the years, always hoping to eventually be good enough to wear the elusive pink and purple parka with dark purple gloves and goggles. Now on our ski trips I look forward to sitting in the chalet with my black jacket next to me, a glass of warm blackberry brandy in my hand, and my feet propped up next to a roaring fire. This, I have found, is the real fun.


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