I was skiing in the Rockies above Boulder with the woman who would marry me. We were cruising through a tunnel of evergreens in the shadow of a hill. It was as dark as it can get in the middle of the day. We rounded a bend into the full power of the sun lighting a scene fit for a magazine cover: The white peaks surrounding Eldora Nordic Center, the brilliant, blue sky, and the vibrant green of the sunlit pines. I was expanding with joy. Then it hit me for the first time: I often feel that way when I’m surrounded with green, white, and blue.
During the following decade, like a recreational scientist, I would gauge my happiness on every outdoor excursion. Then I would see how much of the visible spectrum was filled with my favorite three colors. It turns out, there’s a direct correlation between how much my face hurts from smiling and the prevalence of those pigments. Sure, you can still have outstanding experiences on gloomy days. For example, it was epic to kayak with those three loons in the pre-dawn Memorial Day fog on Whiteface Reservoir. But it was a silent, contemplative, melancholy experience. By contrast, when I saw my daughter take her first steps on skis at Korkki Nordic Center in the blinding light of the sun, the three colors were there…big time. With the clear heavens, fresh powder, and evergreens gleaming, I was a supernova of happiness.
There are other visual treats while skiing. I remember looping Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth on a cold day when there seemed to be a fine crystalline mist in the air. The sun was just right and as I skated my way up a hill, there was a sparkling like a million diamonds. A flickering shower of sparks was in the air and in the snow. I couldn’t tell if it was in my eyes or in the air or in the snow pack. Fatigue makes me see this way at Bitch Hill during the Birkie, but this was just a regular ski. And no, I don’t take mind-altering drugs.
There’s also the phenomenon of alpenglow. The sun has set. When you look west at the fading light, there’s just the spider web of naked trees. In the east, there’s the pink-to-purple fade in the sky. I know it’s not possible, but somehow, during that sliver of time before true darkness, the snow looks like it emanates light. Striding along it feels like there’s a giant bulb a mile underground that’s backlighting the snow-covered forest floor.
Those are precious sights, but I keep coming back to green, white, and blue. Since my Eldora epiphany, I figured I’d better come up with a flag for my own cross-country ski nation. No offense to the Italians, but I wanted my own Tricolore; my own flag with three simple colors. I quickly Googled, hoping nobody stole my idea. There it was, already claimed, the flag of the West African nation of Sierra Leone. I won’t comment on their civil wars or poverty or blood diamonds. I simply like their flag: Green for their natural resources, white for justice, and blue for the water in the harbor of Freetown. I wish I thought of it first.
The beauty of their flag is that it works in the summer as well as winter. Think about it. Summer provides pleasure with verdant trees (deciduous and conifer), white puffy cumulus clouds, and blue lakes mirroring the azure sky. But winter is king. The low pressure system passes and dumps the snow. The high pressure settles in and erases the clouds. The flakes glisten. We rub in some blue wax under our heels and take to the trails. I gaze up through the firs and spruce, and smile.
My wife says I have an overactive imagination. She calls my brain, “the Fun Dome.” She’s right. When I ski down the trail, I imagine the sound of flags flapping in the breeze. God bless snow-covered America and Old Glory. And how about three more cheers for the green, white, and blue.