For over ten years now, if I’m not away because of work (and by work, I mean “war”), I do the American Birkebeiner ski race and Grandma’s Marathon. Each year, I have some goals for each. Usually about five things I want to accomplish that day. My first three goals are typically the same: Finish, Have Fun, and Be Grateful.
I just added the last one a few years ago. Year after year, you hear about people, young and old, who face adversity and struggle through it to complete that year’s athletic event. Cancer. Financial struggles. The loss of a family member. I’m amazed at the strength of some people. I’m not winning my age group, but I’m able to complete these foolish events. My arms and legs keep on working.
This year, I had a six month period of unemployment. I’m between jobs, as they say. This six months coincided with an epic winter here in Duluth. Lots of snow. Record cold. And this year was the first year my son, a 7th grader, competed for the Duluth East Nordic Ski Team. I was able to ski with him a lot this winter. I went to see his races. I even helped wax skis for the team one day. My wife helped cook one of the team dinners. The season is over and my son and his ski buddies had a good time. And I got to see it all without a pesky job getting in the way.
But, sabbaticals like this have to end, just like any good dream. Tomorrow, my boy and I are going to ski in something call the Tour Duluth. It’s a cross country ski celebration here in town that starts first thing tomorrow morning. You ski on some or all of the town’s dozen or more trail systems. 120 miles of groomed trail to choose from within a thirty minute drive. Then you go to Hartley Park and have a big supper, some beer (me, not Sam), and listen to some bluegrass. The Duluth Cross Country Ski Club directors give a quick presentation about how the year went as a club.
As for me, it was a great year. The Birkie was a Viking saga of cold and wind and slow, deep snow. I got to share the local trails with my wife and kids. I just realized that my son’s first ski race and my first ski race both happened in the winter of our fourteenth year. My son’s was this winter in Ely at about zero degrees F. My first race was the North American Vasa near Traverse City, Michigan in 1981. I skied 25k in the classic style with my dad. Two hours and twenty-two minutes. Sam and I meant to go to Thunder Bay last weekend and ski a 20k. We were going to try to replicate the first race of my childhood: A son skiing a long way with his dad. But it was going to be ten below. I wanted him to remember something fun, not frostbitten. So, we skipped it.
Tomorrow will have to do. We may put in around 25k. After, this, I rejoin the rat race. The finish of this winter will make most people happy. Not me.
I happened to be at Snowflake yesterday with my dumb dog. George Hovland, 1952 Olympian, pulled in behind me and honked as I loaded Leo into the truck to go home. We talked in the sunny parking lot, near 32 degrees, and both shook our heads in sadness as the warmth foretold of the end.
“It’s all going to melt,” George lamented.
“Who wants summer?” I asked. “There’s no bugs now.” Spring is nice, but I think of it as an end instead of a beginning.
One of my favorite writers is David Quammen, who used to write for Outside Magazine. I just finished his article in the latest National Geographic called “People of the Horse.” In it, he describes a horse race called the Indian Relay. I really enjoyed the last paragraph. I’ll think about this while skiing around Duluth with my son tomorrow. And I’ll be thankful for that year when I had the whole ski season off.
You embrace skills and a passion that have come down from your ancestors; you learn the skills from your elders and make the passion your own; you become proficient, then expert, then generous with your expertise; you care for your animals smartly and lovingly; you pass the favor along to younger kin. You make your family proud and whole. That’s the ultimate Indian relay.
— David Quammen