Racing downhill on my Cheeseburgers

AS far as downhill skiing goes, the Midwest is apparently my milieu. I have never done the ``Ski Kansas'' number as the bumper stickers suggest, but I have snowplowed down slopes in Ohio and Wisconsin, the fall lines of those modest hills perfectly complementing my own inadequacies on skis. You see, skiing is just not a sport I'm sure I've nailed.

A childhood spent in the plains states fostered winter activities of the building-of-snowmen and downing-of-cocoa type. As I approached college age, however, the demand for these skills tapered dramatically.

To maintain a shred of social standing from December to March, I was forced to join those down-hillers who clattered off to the slopes every Saturday with the kind of fervor I reserved for sleeping in.

The first thing I discovered about the skiing devotee was his classification into one of two camps: those who attacked the slopes with a warrior-like enthusiasm and those who spent the day curled up by the fire in couture outerwear. I qualified for neither category. It wasn't that my down parka wasn't down, or even Thinsulate, or that my boots were last year's model and my ski pants not aubergine. It was my skis themselves that were unforgivable.

For some unfathomable reason (presumably fathomable to sports-equipment marketing directors) my skis were imprinted with the word ``CHEESEBURGER.''

When I was suited up, lying in the snow behind my boots were two orange (why orange?) fiberglass slats reading ``CHEESEBURGER'' for all the world to see. Waiting in the lift line with flocks of skiers whose equipment read ``Kniessel'' or ``Kastle'' or some name resembling a German sedan, I stood out like a fast-food ad.

I could not escape scrutiny. Not here. Not when the lift line was meant for assessing the day's runs and one's lift-line partner. The Cheeseburgers took the full brunt of the stares.

I tried to keep it casual. Just poked the snow with my poles and generally kept up a steady stream of gotta-keep-warm movements until I unobtrusively twisted 180 degrees and insouciantly tossed snow atop the offending print. I assumed no one noticed this sudden contortion which I also assumed saved me from outright dismissal by fellow skiers.

My skiing partner of late has, unfortunately, caught wind of this maneuver and insists I stand for what I am. With his pole, he persistently scrapes off my camouflage. If that doesn't draw sufficient attention, he bellows, ``Say, aren't those Cheeseburgers?'' Once, to my horror, a nearby skier, as huge and goggled as Darth Vader, said the same thing, adding, ``I used to have a pair of those. I junked 'em.''

I realize none of this would matter if I had full confidence in my skiing ability and knew I could outski each and every one of the couture clad. Such is not the case. Although I am now in possession of a stem christie and a reasonable facsimile of a parallel turn, I have not anted up on my equipment. I have stuck by the Cheeseburgers.

For one thing, I learned how to ski on the Cheeseburgers. One Christmas, I lugged them all the way to Austria to labor through a week of instruction via Hans -- ``Plant ze pole.'' Although I still don't remember to plant ze pole, the Cheeseburgers retain, in my eyes, their international cachet.

But my real reason for keeping the Cheeseburgers around is as a visual reminder of my own mediocrity. As in golf, skiing is not a sport that tolerates hackers. No room here for the dilettante, the taker of divots. I wear the Cheeseburgers as a kind of nose-thumbing at that professional insistence.

Sure, there are days when I hit my stride on the slope -- perfect snow, perfect temperature, the run exactly suits my skill and confidence and I actually forget how much it cost to fly to this slope and ascend it in the chairlift and I just settle back, or rather kick back, and enjoy it.

But my favorite time on the slopes came early in my skiing career -- my second time on skis. During my sophomore year in high school, my best friend and I blithely assaulted the toughest mountain in southern Wisconsin -- an admitted oxymoron but it looked steep to us.

We ascended the lift, laughing at the cold and the bumpy slope below. After colliding briefly at the top during our disembarkation, we launched, or rather careened, down the mountain. We met the ground only at the tops of the moguls. We were not the envy, but the object of amusement for a good quarter mile of the chairlift dangling overhead. Every goggled face was turned our way as the two of us, speechless in our hilarity, tumbled down the hill, spewing snow everywhere, when someone on the chair shrieked, ``Hey, those girls can't even ski!''

They were right. We couldn't, and it was great.

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