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ON THE HOLINESS OF SKIING

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From 1972 to 1986 I lived in New Zealand. In the winter of 1981, this normally peaceful country was torn asunder by, of all things, a rugby match. The government of the day had allowed the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand. Never have I seen a nation so divided by a single event. — brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribal members against each other. People talked of nothing else; it was the Simpson trial and the Bush-Gore election rolled into one. After weeks of demonstrations, police baton charges and endless news coverage, we took our family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into the Tekapo Ski Club hut with a congenial bunch of strangers. During the week we never spoke of The Tour and never spoke about not speaking of it. When a jerk from Wellington broke this unspoken vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was promptly and firmly shut up. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how quickly the children were learning to ski.

Ten years later I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the War in the Gulf. Although every other topic was thrashed and trashed, although most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, although some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand, a decade before. Instead, we talked of the splendor of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer both examples as evidence of the holiness of skiing. “Holy,” Webster tells us, is “associated with a divine power; sacred, revered.” Sacred, divine, revered — all describe how I feel about skiing. But what forces lift this sport out of the ordinary and into the realm of the sacred?

The first step to holiness is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from croquet and Frisbee.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, even before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been sacred places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“Climb Every Mountain”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest thing on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred.

We also have a feeling of holiness about beautiful places. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that evokes the divine. Ever try to figure your taxes while telemarking? No? How about planning a meeting while running gates? Not that either? One thing that makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. It is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next turn. Often your focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis are carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. I’m writing these words on September 13, 2001, 48 hours after thousands of Americans were massacred in America. For all these 48 hours I’m wandering between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I do a lot of hugging. We speak to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice is rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — is weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillates between massive hurt and burning rage.

I know two things. Pretty soon, if I’m to stay sane, I’m going to need a break from these feelings. And nothing could give me that respite, that time away from trouble, like skiing. In New Zealand, in Utah, in Vermont; during division, disturbance and war, skiing is holy.

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