Best day ever November 8th, 2007

For many people, the first and most obvious question following up a discussion on Groundhog Day is, “What was your best day ever?”  People ask me this all the time.  But the truth is I had never thought about it.  For me this was never the focus of the movie and it doesn’t relate very well to the way I look at my life.  Perhaps this indicates for me a forward-looking nature, or perhaps it’s a lack of introspection, or perhaps just a truly deficient memory.  Certainly I have had some wonderful days – and I’ve also had days that I know I would rather not revisit, even in my memory, even with the distance of time.

But there is one remarkable day that keeps floating to the top. 

As my mind trips back and back, I begin looking in obvious places – wedding day, birth of children, etc.  The big event days.  No doubt these were terrific, big, emotional times for me.  But I am choosing those days intellectually.  These are not the days that most easily return to my memory of their own accord.  But there is one day I realize that I have revisited many times over the years, one that visits me more than I visit it.

It was the winter of 1976, my first year of college, between semesters.  I was a Florida kid living for the first time in New England, and I wanted to do something snowy.  My pal Kenny, also from Florida, had been introduced to the notion of cross-country skiing and the two of us were invited on a trip to New Hampshire to give it a try.  Our teacher and guide was a classmate and long-time Nordic skier named Steve who took us out the first morning.  We waxed our skis, clamped them to our feet, and took off on an easy trail from the rental shop and into the breathtakingly beautiful snowy forests and foothills of New Hampshire.

The thing was, I kept falling over.

Glide, glide, glide, womp.  I couldn’t seem to keep the ski tips from crossing each other.  This was ridiculous.  Kenny wasn’t falling over at all.  Now, I’m no athlete, but I’m no klutz, either.  In fact, I had known Kenny since we were thirteen or fourteen, and to my mind he was a kid who grew tall very quickly and took a long time to understand where the edges of his body were.  If anybody was going to be klutzy in this situation it wasn’t going to be me.  But it was me.

As frustrating as the falling over was to me and to my ego, it was also becoming tedious to Steve and Kenny, as was this easy and unchallenging trail.   At some point Steve turned us off of the easy trail and we began to climb the mountain.  Why anybody would try to go up a mountain on skis seemed ridiculous and counter-intuitive to me.  I mean, who dreamed that up?  What a great sport – let’s climb an icy trail, but to make it interesting, let’s first strap long, flat, slippery boards to our feet.  Now that’s a good time!  If I had been falling a lot on the rolling level trails of the flatlands, imagine what was happening here.

At some point, deep into the forest, high onto the mountain, Steve had had enough.  “I’m going on ahead,” he told us.  “Just follow the trail markers, and I’ll see you back at the lodge.”  When he left he left very quickly, and I finally understood how much he had been holding himself back all morning for our benefit.

At this point I was not enamored of cross-country skiing.

To make things more interesting, there had been a mighty snow quite recently, and the snow banks off the packed trail were many feet deep.  And we were on a steeply sloping mountainside.  The result was that now when I crossed my ski tips and fell over, I landed upside down in a deep snow bank on the down slope of the mountain, so getting back up onto my skis and onto the trail usually took a few minutes each time.
Wait, there’s more.

Climbing a mountain on skis causes a person – or at least this person – to sweat profusely.  So every time I fell upside down into a snow bank the sweat instantly froze.  I not only was tired and dispirited, I was freezing.

We went on in this fashion for hours and hours.  It was starting to get dark.  It began to snow.  The trail-markers were getting covered up and difficult to find, and we soon realized that Steve our guide had disappeared with the only map.

Got the picture?  Cold, tired, lost, late, snowing.

I was NOT having fun.  I think I kept pointing this out to Kenny, which certainly would not have added to his joy.
I truly saw no way out of this.  I don’t remember panicking, but I wasn’t particularly hopeful, either.

At some point we saw the trail continuing to bend upward into the mountain, but a wide swath of non-trail was headed down.  We made a choice to leave the trail and trust that going down was a better direction for survival.  Neither of us had quite mastered various skiing techniques such as “turning”, so our downhill method was basically to point the skis down, keep going until a tree appeared, then fall over.  In less than an hour we reached a road.  Civilization.  We weren’t going to die on this day!

The temperature had dropped and we were shivering badly.  No cars passed us on the road as we walked in the direction we hoped was toward town.  Around a bend we came upon a cluster of vacation homes.  They were all dark.  Except for one.  There was smoke coming from the chimney.   We knocked on the door.  A woman cautiously answered.  “We’re cold and wet and freezing and tired, and may we just warm up for a minute, and we’re college students so we won’t hurt you.”

She sat us down by a blazing fire.  We took off our icy socks and gloves and scarves.  She brought us hot chocolate.  I’m almost crying now just to think of it.  Before us was a picture window with all of Mount Washington framed before us.  It may have been the single most perfect moment of my entire life.

Best day?  I don’t know if that’s accurate.  Depending on how you slice it, I could consider that to have been the absolute worst day of my life.  But it was a remarkable day, one that continues to mean something to me.  Would that be a day I would want to be stuck repeating again and again were I given that choice?  Not on your life.   But I find that it is at the end of unremarkable days, the ones I have sleep-walked through, the days with no highs and no lows – those are the days when my adventure in New Hampshire comes back to me, and very fondly.

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