The Old Man and the Ski


It snowed all night and into the morning. An hour past dawn I spoke to my wife. “I must go,” I said. She nodded, and I kissed her and the young girl. And the child said, “Daddy go ‘way,” and spilled her juice. I took my skis in my hands. I took my poles and I left the apartment. I rode the elevator to the lobby.

I got on the subway at 23rd Street. I felt the eyes flicker over me when I boarded the No. 6 train. The subway commuters were looking at my red anorak. They all wore black or dark brown coats. The skis were nothing to them, but the red anorak marked me. I looked like a tourist to them. Perhaps I was French. Or from New Jersey. The black coats surrounded me, the black against the red. We rode in silence, going north.

The subway emptied at 68th Street, and I had room to wax my skis. I used Swix F4, a liquid rub-on, for glide. My hand slipped as the train rattled along on its rough tracks. I noticed an old man in an ancient puffball Ellesse jacket watching me. When I began to rub on the kick wax he stood up angrily, swaying with the motion of the car. The man pushed at my skis and said, “Echh!” in a thick Spanish accent.

Clearly he despised my choice of kick wax. He wore thick post-cataract glasses and a mustache. Perhaps he had grown up in the Pyrenees. His circa 1973 jacket was powder blue, I swear it, with white arms. He sat down and said no more. I finished waxing, but I had forgotten my cork, so I could not buff the wax. The old man seemed to notice. He said “Echh!” again, still in Spanish, and began thumbing through a tiny, dog-eared copy of the New Testament.

The old man was wrong about the wax. I disembarked at 86th Street, and when I clicked into my skis at the Reservoir in Central Park, I could feel that the wax was perfect. There were other people skiing, and I skied along with them. One woman wore a fur cap. She carried a handbag slung across her chest and below one arm. Perhaps it contained a skin full of grappa. Perhaps it contained a croissant from Dean & DeLuca.

Soon I left the reservoir path in search of more rugged terrain. I was looking for verts, and I found them. There is no way I could list all the first descents of that epic day. No way I could enumerate every tree shot. I skied The Dakota headwall on the West Side, and The Playground Glades. I cut telemark turns through the trees to the west of the Great Lawn. I climbed above the 77th Street Crevasse and threaded my way between the boulders above The Path of Broken Bottles. Truly, it was sketchy.

Now I stood paused above the narrow entrance to Trash Can Couloir. I looked out at the swirling snow of the mid-morning storm. The light was gray and flat, like the light of a thousand other storms that I had seen and ten thousand that I had not seen. I took a deep breath and started down the chute. The first turn was sloppy, and momentary panic gripped my belly, but I made two more turns, three, and hesitated just for a moment above the two-foot cliff at the bottom. I launched.

I tried to stay tight in the air. I tried to jump in the style of the great ones, Kreitler and Morrison and the hero of my youth, Scot Schmidt. I stuck the landing and rocketed down the steep runout to the garbage cans.

I fought the skis for control and stopped, shaken yet exhilarated. Then I pushed on to the north. I passed 79th Street, 83rd, 85th, the parallel streets ticking off the distances. How far could I go? I reached the 88th parallel street and paused. I looked around me, at the swirling snow, the frozen snowshoers. A dog answered the call of nature against an iron lamppost, the snow steaming like mist over an icy fjord.

I pushed on, past the 89th parallel, past the 90th. Incredibly, I found that I could keep going north. I thought of Admiral Peary, Scott, and Amundsen. Now, I was headed where the greatest polar explorers in history had not gone before. Still further north, at the 103rd Street Barrens, where in summer baseball was played, the wind whipped across the open flatness and froze my eyebrows. I plunged into the lee of a hill to munch on the cinnamon-raisin bagel I had brought, and then continued north.

At one point I passed a pair of blue police cars, and saw a cop drinking coffee and munching a doughnut. Then, half an hour later, I passed the same cars. At least, I thought they were the same. But before, the cop had been eating a honey-dipped chocolate doughnut—I was sure of it—and now he was chewing a cinnamon doughnut. Was it the same cop or not? Was that the same Authorized Vehicles Only sign, or not? Was I going in circles in the white bleakness around Harlem Meer?

I thought of the early British explorers—particularly the disastrous Franklin expedition of 1845. The years when scores of men died miserably on the ice, and legions returned home with phlegmy coughs. They were victims of their own arrogance, using horses instead of dogs because that was the English way, using wool instead of furs because that, too, was the English way. Now, my only bagel was gone and my morning coffee was a distant memory. It was time to return to the world of men. I found tree runs at 96th Street, cranking out four or even five turns through the light powder, then striding and poling down the runout at full throttle, past the children on sleds, past the wrought-iron fence of a playground filled with drifts, thrilling to the speed as snow broke like waves over my boots.

I had been to the heart of the wilderness but now I thought only of home. I exited the park somewhere far uptown and walked toward Lexington Avenue. A man was shoveling snow, and I stopped to ask where to find a subway stop. The shoveler, a Russian immigrant, gave me directions and sent me off with a friendly wave. The encounter made me recall Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian explorer. Nansen abandoned his ship and spent two years on the ice before finding solid earth in Russia’s Franz Josef Land in 1895. We both had left our lives to fate and in the end had found solace among the Russians.

I reached the subway stop and boarded the southbound No. 6 train, clutching my skis. I returned home in time for lunch.