An old dog tries (and fails) to learn a new trick

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Here is a list of “North Idaho activities” at which I suck, am mediocre or lack experience in, and have tried but frankly don’t like doing (in some kind of rough order): swimming, felling trees, building things, playing a stringed instrument, piloting any non-human-powered watercraft, ax throwing, backpacking, adventure camping, strenuous biking, cornhole, golfing, hunting, fishing, identifying plants and animals, running for “pleasure,” court or field sports of any kind, ice skating, skateboarding, flying around in small aircraft and mud-bogging.

Having been born here into a family of multi-generational locals, this is a record of blasphemous incompetencies and outright failures. But perhaps the biggest among them is my almost complete unfamiliarity with any snowports other than sledding, snowshoeing and driving on the ice (the last one I’m very good at). 

That’s right: I can count on two-fifths of one hand the number of times I’ve been to Schweitzer with the intent to descend a slope at speed. They happened in the years 1990 and 1993, and I did not enjoy them — to say the least.

The first time was when I rode a bus to the mountain with all the other fourth-graders to learn how to ski. I remember that day as a series of terrifying, violent wrecks, followed by my decision simply to sit on my skis and slide down the bunny hill. That resulted in the most severe muscle aches I’ve experienced to date. The second (and I believe last time) was when a friend’s dad took us night skiing in sixth grade, and I ended up nearly concussing myself on a mogul somewhere near the top of Midway.

In the hope that my own kids won’t also miss out so thoroughly on the many joys of living in a “resort town,” my wife and I have encouraged their participation in many of these activities from a young age. This winter, they’ve become adept at cross-country skiing; and, 30 years after my rejection of anything involving waxed sticks on snow, I decided to give it a go.

I was even a little excited about it — it’s supposed to be an excellent beginner’s sport and akin to taking a walk in the woods, which I’m actually good at. I worked up the notion that I would provide a good example at the same time: “See, kids, it’s a good thing to try stuff you’ve never done before.” Also something about “old dogs” and “new tricks.”

We went up to Pine Street Woods, which is a fabulous place any time of the year, and rented me a pair of boots, skis and poles. I know how much my wife and kids have grown to enjoy cross-country skiing, so it felt good to let them take the lead and teach me the ropes — my 10-year-old son even clipped me in.

Things went OK for the first 30 minutes or so, until I started to feel the slightest bit confident and picked up some downhill speed. That almost immediately turned into a careening nightmare, and every rotten 30-year-old skiing memory came rushing back. Any attempt at stopping — or even slowing — failed. I started to flail left and right, just as a nice lady and her young son were coming up the hill. In an emergency effort to avoid plowing into them, I threw myself off the trail, directly toward a tree, and made peace with the fact that I was almost certainly going to break something.

They glided past as I lay there — looks of concerned pity on their faces — and asked if I was OK. I laughed it off and waited for them to pass, then struggled back up the hill to my family. 

By then I was full of anxiety, reactivated childhood trauma and middle-aged embarrassment. My son had disappeared, swooshing off on some trail by himself. My wife and daughter were compassionate and we turned back. 

I tried to regain some composure on my own, taking what I thought would be an easier route back to safety. I wrecked again. Then once more and another time. When we all met up again, I was in the middle of saying something about how I couldn’t figure out how to control my speed and fell over from a stationary position.

That was it. I took off the skis and started the walk of shame back to the rental center. It was a pathetic sight: a 42-year-old man huffing and wheezing through the snow on foot, while his 8-year-old daughter skied slowly alongside him, trying to cheer him up.

Both the kids were sympathetic and supportive all the way home, even as my hands shook with adrenaline and shame, reminding me that at least they’re something I’ve done right.

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