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The Reluctant Skier 

Helmets, hot toddies and the sport of staying upright

I'm not much of a daredevil, although that hasn't always been the case. When I was growing up in Eureka, I rollerskated down Buhne Hill and rode motorcycles around Trinity County. But somehow that all changed once I had children of my own. It took just a few mishaps — like the time I fell while wakeboarding and spent the next few months changing diapers with a broken arm — to teach me that my kids required a fully functional, uninjured mother.

Still, when my family developed a fascination for snowboarding, I tried my best to learn the sport. My "best" included a lot of falling. I fell while getting off the lift, I fell on the easiest slopes. I even fell over while standing in line for the ski lift. After several years, my family had become adept at the sport but I was still falling. After one particularly battering series of falls, I dragged myself to the lodge and struggled to put away my board. A couple of middle-aged women watched as they placed their skis in the rack.

"See that?" I heard one say to the other. "She's about our age and she's on a snowboard!"

I was tempted to play the part of Warrior Princess, to lean on my board and boast about all my winter exploits. But frankly, I was in too much pain. Instead, I confessed that I hated snowboarding and I hated the sleeting snow. Most of all, I hated that I had paid good money to put myself through this misery. To their credit, they didn't back away from the bitter woman standing before them.

"Maybe you should try skiing," said one of the women.

"I tried that in the '80s and I was horrible at that, too," I answered.

"Skis have come a long way since the '80s," she informed me.

Then she proceeded to show me her skis — how much wider they were now, how much better engineered. Plus there was the obvious benefit of the poles. I liked the idea of having something to hang on to instead of flailing through space.

The next day, I traded my snowboard in for a pair of skis. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from snowboarding but let's not forget that skis have been around for a long time. And if a Eureka girl like myself, who grew up hardly ever experiencing snow, can take up the sport in her middle age, I'm sure just about anyone can. Here are some tips to get you started:

Take the beginner lessons. Do not let some well-meaning spouse attempt to teach you how to ski. Unless you have been looking for a good reason to terminate the marriage and you want to collect some irrefutable examples of why you should, I suggest you shell out the extra money for lessons. Just ask any ski lodge bartender how many couples have sat down and ordered stiff drinks, only to consume them in stony silence.

Foster a sense of independence. You may have arrived with a spouse or a buddy with whom I assume you have things in common. But the rate at which you learn how to ski may not be one of those things. If one of your party wants to attempt something marked "Double Black Diamonds" and the other is more comfortable on the beginner slope, then you need to be able to go your separate ways.

Be realistic about your skill level. I was once standing off to the side of a ski run, minding my own business and listening to my ski instructor, when I was suddenly taken out by a rogue skier who was attempting speeds far above his level. We ended up 20 feet down the mountain, locked in an intimate tangle of limbs and skis. Don't be that guy.

Rent a helmet. After all, this is not the '70s, when we ran around willy-nilly, behaving like idiots. We put our children in car seats now, we apply sunscreen and we absolutely should wear helmets before hurtling ourselves off a mountainside.

Even though we don't experience a lot of snow down here at the coastal level, Humboldt has many ski resorts in drivable distance. Mount Bachelor and Ashland in Oregon and Mount Shasta are all beautiful. If you're lucky, you might even discover moments of pure pleasure: sailing over the snow-dusted tree tops in a ski lift, listening to the sluicing crunch of the snow under your skis and experiencing the blessed silence that steals over the mind when an activity requires all of the senses.

And if you manage to get through a day of skiing, you can treat yourself to my favorite part: putting the skis away. Then I retire to the lodge and search out a table on the snowy patio. Leaning back in my chair, I watch the more athletic types sweep their way down the mountainside, their colorful snowsuits cheerfully outlined against the brilliant white snow. I'm always on the lookout for the spectacular falls one sees at the base of a slope. Then I sip my hot toddy, wincing in sympathy for that brave soul stretched out flat on the snow — but also basking in the sweet knowledge that this time, it's not me.

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Peri Escarda

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