My cross-country skis are lovely, long, and light. Made of ash and imported from Sweden, they seemed almost weightless as I carried them down the spiral stairs from the farmhouse attic and inspected them in the kitchen. The nightlong snowfall had actually picked up with the dawn. Snow! We'd missed out on the stuff almost completely last year, as we do many years here in southern Indiana. I'd purchased the skis in the 1970s, shortly after moving here, fresh from New York's lake- effect snow belt. I was under the naive assumption that those glorious winters would follow me. I had downhill-skied in New York, but Indiana's more muted landscape seemed to whisper "cross country." And so I'd expectantly adapted.
Those first few winters were respectably cold and snowy, though horribly abbreviated to my way of thinking. Where were those April surprises - six or eight inches of sudden spring snow to ski in shirt sleeves? Why did it never seem to snow in November, normally well into the powder season? And what about powder that lasted more than a few days, anyway? In truth, I should not have complained, because those early winters were some of the best I've experienced here. As the generally mild 1990s unfolded, my cross-country skis spent more time in storage than on my feet.
But this year has started well. Snowfalls closed schools twice before mid-December. After the second storm, as my teenage son Tim blissfully slept in, I headed out on my cross-country skis. I couldn't find the poles, but on a farm that is hardly a concern. A quick forage in the open-air workshop yielded two rough staffs of cedar - sawmill refuse - almost identical in length. With gloves shielding my hands from splinters, they made perfectly respectable poles. And so as the cows munched their morning hay in the barn, I set off through the gate to 80 acres of undulating unbroken white.
Somewhere in the boxed archives of my past I still have the multicolored wax bars I once used on my skis for various snow conditions. If I remember right, the red bar was for sticky snow, orange and blue for faster conditions, silver for powder. But, like the poles, the wax was nowhere to be found when I needed it.
I did tour the farm that morning, but I can't honestly say I skied it. I worked up a fine sweat clumping about, snow plastered to my Swedish ash runners, gathering jerky speed only as it sloughed off down the steeper slopes.
Later that morning, I plied my skis with beeswax from the basement, waterproofed and softened my stiff leather boots, and would have been ready to go again but for the rising temperatures. You just can't trust southern Indiana.
Midday, I made a token tour up and down the front pasture, but the surface simply wasn't up to the speed I sought. What's worse, the cows, having finished their hay, were out looking for some kind of midday amusement. The first few began to amble through the white slush my way. One cow, Moonlight, spying the delicate curved tips of my would-be racers, stood stock still. Then she broke into a trot, hot to investigate this new look of mine. Betsy and Nellie were just behind her. I redoubled my sluggish pace to reach the gate before all those cloven hooves bearing heavy bodies got near my skis. I might need them again.
It wasn't the cross-country idyll I had in mind. Yet, thinking back on it, I can't complain. Even if I hadn't glided about the farm as anticipated, I'd visited its special places, which I don't always do on an ordinary winter morning. I'd come upon the traces of deer and smaller residents, whose tracks confirmed our land's wide-open hospitality to wildlife. I'd checked on our sugaring cabin, whose hearth was cold, but whose simple and sparsely furnished interior looked and smelled its rustic, patiently waiting welcome.
I embrace and miss winter - and grab at whatever white gifts it offers here in southern Indiana, however ephemeral.