Matt Dickerson: Growing up Nordic

To be honest, I’m not sure how I got started cross-country skiing. I remember a local cross-country ski club for youth in my town, and I’m fairly sure I was in middle school when I somehow found myself participating in it. What I don’t remember is how I got involved. I was an avid Alpine skier at the time — not especially good, but addicted and willing to spend lots of money on it. However I don’t think I ever expressed any interest in cross-country skiing. Still, there I was one winter spending several Saturdays at youth clinics and races with my new wooden skies (that had to be pine-tarred every year), with three-pin bindings (whose point of rotation was some awkward place several inches in front of the boot).
It might be that my parents simply signed me up — conscripted me, to be more accurate — without any interest on my part. It’s altogether possible they did it just to get me out of the house, given that I was a newly minted teenager. Or it may be they hoped that cross-country skiing would become a new passion that distracted me from downhill skiing, since a fair bit of the money I was willing to spend on the slopes was my parents’ money.
Anyway, I arrived at high school, went out for the downhill ski team my freshman winter, made the mistake of admitting to the coach that I owned a pair of cross-country skis, and found myself on the cross-county ski team in desperate need of bodies.
And I do mean desperate. Though I was passably good going down a hill on skis with metal edges — good enough to score a few points even as a freshman — I was terrible at cross-country. The worst skier on my team, in fact. I was slow. I had no endurance. And at 5’3”, I was too short to have much stride that would make up for my lack of talent. About the only thing I had going for me was fearlessness down the hills. When I wasn’t going downhill, however, I just shuffled along. And unfortunately, at least 90 percent of the courses were uphill. Or so it seemed.
Our ski races had staggered starts. There were six teams in our league. Every 30 seconds, six racers would start together: one from each school. Most teams started their best skier first so that he wouldn’t be slowed down passing others, and so he could pace himself with the other top racers. My coach started me first, because otherwise the bus would have to wait an extra 40 minutes for me to finish before we could go home. (Even starting first, I sometimes held the bus up.)
By senior year I was somewhat more athletic, and at 6’2” I also had a longer natural stride. I was passably good, meaning that if I’d lived in Vermont, Colorado or Alaska I probably wouldn’t have made the team at all, but in rural Massachusetts I often came in first for our team, and somewhere in the top 15 or so overall. Still, downhill skiing remained my passion.
Until my freshman year of college in New Hampshire when, ironically, I gave up downhill skiing altogether and sold my slalom racing skis. And as a replacement, cross-country skiing filled the void of outdoor winter activities in my life. I got some newfangled synthetic skis to replace my wooden ones, some new taller poles more fitting for my taller, lankier body, and spent many winter Saturday afternoons just down the road from my dorm shuffling around the trails on the college golf course.
It proved a good move. When my wife and I got married and moved to Vermont, cross-country skiing became our favorite winter activity together. Our sons were born. We never took them downhill skiing or snowboarding. Cross-country skiing was the family activity. I progressed from hauling them in a backpack, to towing them in a sled with a makeshift harness, to towing them in luxurious rented pulks, to shuffling alongside them as they learned to ski on their own.
My natural pace slowed considerably in those 12 or 13 years pulling the pulk. My racing stride, impractical when hauling 20 pounds or skiing next to a toddler, disappeared. My sons grew. They all enjoyed the sport. One of them, as a 13-year-old, piled up 250 km of skiing one year at Blueberry Hill and was awarded a pair of skis for the effort. Before long I didn’t have to try to go slow to stay with them. Then I had to work to keep up with them (though I didn’t admit it).
And then — I think it was just a couple weeks after they were born, though maybe it was a few months later — my sons had grown up. One got engaged and moved off to the city. One went off to college. One is still at home but with a job and learner’s permit.
And now it’s just my wife and me again. I never did get my racing pace back. I’m happy to shuffle along, pausing now and then for some hot chocolate, hot mulled wine, and a handful of almonds or a bite of dark chocolate. We talk sometimes. But we don’t feel any need to. We are happy to enjoy the trees, the snow, the quiet, and the occasional chatter of birds.
Despite the long weekend of rain two weeks ago, the conditions up on the mountain at the Rikert Nordic Center has remained fantastic. The groomers have kept the trails from crusting over, and several dustings and light snowfalls since then have accumulated into a wonderful new layer. When the conditions are like this, we can’t get out enough. Any day we don’t ski feels like a day lost.
I know Vermont winter is long sometimes. This winter especially. But on ski days like these I don’t look forward to putting my skis away for the summer.

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