Skiing -- and, of course, riding -- was created for this exact week in our lives. Just think how it started Monday, and what skiing can do about it.
The morning came up lusterless gray, with so little snow spitting as to appear stingy. Snow lovers want a ton of it, after all. We want to shovel. We're ready to snowshoe out to fill the bird feeders. We love to trudge over a surface that squeaks under our soles.
As if that wasn't bad enough. Monday morning you might have been just a little bit hung over from letdown after the Patriots' loss in Indianapolis. Oh yuck. That's right, the Patriots. Groan. Say it ain't so, boys! That train we've been riding since summer is now stalled somewhere out in the middle of a strange new landscape, dumping us out into the new cold light at the end of January.
The same time as the annual proof of the excesses of the holiday season arrive in the mail.
Not to mention reminders that this is the quarter we must pay our annual visit to the tax man.
And those daily gym workouts you signed up for with a sizable down payment and monthly nips out of your checking account . . . well, you've already missed a week and a half of them.
Does it get any worse than this closing week of January?
But now we are transformed. The scene we look down on could be from a dozen summits: Saddleback, looking out on the lake country of Western Maine; Gunstock with its expansive view of Winnipesaukee; Bretton Woods as the afternoon sun fades from orange to purple on Mount Washington's bulky western flank.
It is ski country and you are not just trying to shrug off the blues in winter's bluest week, you are taking breaths and blowing out the plumes of steam, coming a little faster as you make the last adjustment to your bindings, surveying the 20-mile horizon fading to violet, and punching off down the hill.
I don't care if you are Bode Miller about to nail a perfect 90-mile-per-hour course to win the Lauberhorn two weeks ago, or the middle-aged dentist who decided to take up skiing five years ago to fill his retirement years. The moment is the same.
Fun? No, that's not the word. This is the sensation that makes life worth living.
Down off the first shelf onto a flat that has been scoured by wind to a porcelain gray ice sheet. Let the skis run over this stuff -- you can always turn after the ice -- and then over the lip of the real descent and the pleasant discovery that down this first steep face, there's almost no one else present.
Off to the left, halfway down the face, is a whaleback, and you instinctively head toward the pinnacle, pre-jumping it so that you stay grounded and roll down its even steeper face, tucked, giving you the kind of acceleration you feel when you hit passing gear on the highway, but with a downward weightless looping that plucks out your gut and leaves it at the top of the roll.
Now you're lost in the speed and as you set up for the turn at the bottom of the face, your mind is doing two things -- trying to get messages through and trying to suppress them.
Message one: "Idiot! Do you realize what would happen if a binding prereleased going this fast, or you hit a berm you didn't see? Do you realize how old you are?" (Suppress! Suppress! Suppress!)
Message two: "Take deep breaths. Skiers making fast runs often hold their breath too long. It tires the muscles." (Let message through.)
This is a 2-mile run and it seems like a flash that, over the next rise, the base hotel is in view, and you're descending to the lift again with the knowledge that, however well the conditions come together for the next run, you may not feel that moment of perfection you just had for a long time to come.
Just to make us all feel better today, I've asked a couple of friends to describe a moment of near perfection on the slopes. Here's a sampling:
From Carrie Sheinberg, whom I met when she was a 19-year-old Olympic racer in Lillehammer, followed her career, and then saw her last year as she cruised down a hill in Sestriere, Italy, with former World Cup overall titleholder Luc Alphand. This woman, I concluded, could still be in serious competition.
"Yuh, I like to rip," says Sheinberg, now a reporter for WCSN sports network. "What I really love is to make some sweet turns, as I was this morning at The Canyons [Park City, Utah]. It was soft corduroy, perfect for those turns where you go 40 or 50 [miles per hour] and carve so complete that you almost turn back up the hill. You dig a huge trench in the snow, and when you're in the turn your butt is about 4 inches off the ground and your inside ski almost knocks out your outside ski. That's what I find sweet."
From Susan DuPlessis, former communications director at Sunday River: "It was about two years ago," she says. "There was one of those epic days we don't get enough of in the East, when the snow was piling onto our laps on the chairlift. We dropped into Ruby Palace on Oz Peak and, with the sky deep blue and the sun glittering on the new snow, we took off thigh deep through the untracked powder. It was just amazing. I was in my 40s, but that run made me feel 20 again."
From Ben Lukens, of Boulder, Colo., who has never met an out-of-bounds rope he couldn't ski under. "We were in the Maroon Bells [in the Aspen region] and on a run I had seen many times through binoculars, and we climbed all day to get to it. We stopped for a bite, packed up, and then, my God, it was like we were birds, just flying down through all that light powder and the powder pouring up off your chest, sometimes to your neck. And I remember getting to the lip into the steep chute I'd been waiting for, and lifting off at the ledge and getting this amazing hang time. We were birds. And even looking down 30 feet to the landing I could tell it was going to be real soft. Real perfect. It was. It was absolute flight that day, like we were flying into the sun."
Wintertime, and the skiing is easy.