It’s remarkable how much a horse is like a pair of cross country skis. At least in my experience.
Let’s start with the horse.
A number of my relatives have lived on farms, and one of the great delights of my childhood was visiting Uncle Sam’s farm on vacations.(1) We went fishing, picked blackberries on the way to the pond, gathered fresh eggs, used an outhouse (2), milked cows, played in haylofts, churned butter.
And occasionally rode horses. (3)
Mostly we rode them from the house to the barn, on a well-worn path alongside the cornfield. It wasn’t a long journey, or, truthfully, a very exciting one, but at the time, it was a longed-for thrill.
On one memorable occasion, it was even more thrilling.
Just as I was departing the front porch, which served as a mounting block, the horse took it into his head to start running. Galloping, technically. I don’t know why it took such a notion. Later we suspected a little dog had been nipping at its heels. Whatever the reason, it took off like a large, jouncing rocket.
Headed straight for the barn door.
Which was closed.
I could see doom impending, in the form of a horrible, splintering crash into a nearly solid structure of nearly impenetrable wood.
I had a few scant moments to make a decision.
Gracelessly, I flung myself sideways off the horse, landing in the cornfield.
The damn horse, of course, reached the barn door and quite sensibly stopped. I should have trusted it to be smarter than I was at that age.
I escaped with some minor scrapes and bruises, and was resilient enough that this episode did not end my attempts at riding horses. Luckily, none ever did anything remotely threatening to me again.(4)
Now we come to skis.
Much later in life, I was living in upstate New York in a log house on top of a hill. It was scenic as all get-out, with smoke curling up from chimneys, a few distant neighbors to wave to, trees which could be cut for firewood, and a winding road leading from bottom to top.(5) The road wound lazily through a few small towns. If you went far enough along, you encountered a fairly major lake, also very scenic.
Although the general area had several downhill skiing facilities, I was not then – nor am I now – known for my athletic prowess, so that was not an option for me.
Someone, however, convinced me that cross-country skiing was just like hiking, really. I had hiked in the Adirondacks a few years earlier, so that didn’t seem entirely out of the question.
I borrowed some skis and the expertise of the person lending them and went down the driveway to where it met the road. There I was strapped into (or technically, I suppose, onto) the skis and handed poles. Then like a bird being shoved out of the nest or a child learning how to ride a bicycle, I was released into the wild to make my way on my own. All I had to do, my instructor said, was begin moving forward.
Unfortunately, however, although I was facing forward, the road behind me went downhill. And so of course did I. It was one of the many times I noted that gravity is not, and never will be, my friend.
As I began sliding backwards, visions of swooping all the way down the hill, through the towns, and into the lake flashed before my eyes.(6) I did the sensible thing and panicked. Then my instincts took over. Just as I had when riding the runaway horse, I bailed.
Mostly I just fell over, landing on the snow-covered road, which was better than a non-snow-covered road or a cornfield (7), and waited for someone to come hoist me up.
Although you often hear people say that you should get back on the horse that threw you, no one ever says anything about getting back on the skis that dumped you on the road.
So I haven’t. And my life has been richer for it. Not to mention longer.
(1) Yes, really. I had an Uncle Sam. On the other side of the family I actually had a real Aunt Jemima.
(2) Okay, I can’t say that was actually one of the great delights.
(3) Once I rode a mule instead. My mule-riding tip: Don’t, unless you have a mule-saddle. Mules’ backbones are exceedingly, well, bony. I had no mule-saddle.
(4) Once one bucked, but by then I had acquired enough sense to hang on.
(5) Or the other way around, if that’s the way you were going. This becomes important later.
(6) I know you’re supposed to see your past, but I envisioned the future. I never seem to get these things right.
(7) Or a possibly-frozen lake.