Two weeks ago, my parents came up from North Carolina for Thanksgiving. Usually, they visit over the Fourth of July; this was their first experience in Boston after the leaves have fallen. With their South Atlantic-thinned blood, they acted as if their flight had been waylaid in the Yukon. "I just can't imagine what it must be like here in January!" "I don't understand why you want to live someplace so cold!" "I can't believe it gets dark so early!" Or at least I think that's what they said. They were bundled up like it was below zero outside, so it was tough to tell. But this much is sure: the increasing dark and cold made them question their son's sanity for ever wanting to leave the climatic friendliness of western North Carolina.
It's true that the rationale for choosing to live in a place that, to the Southern mind, is so clearly inhospitable for so much of the year doesn't exactly spring to mind. But my planned two years in Boston have stretched to 17 for one very simple reason: I've become addicted to skiing. And like any addict, I get a little tingly with anticipation as the air gets colder and the sky gets darker. My first fix in quite a while is coming soon. The first big dump can't be that far away.
Soon I'll be pulling on the boots again, wondering how I ever managed to get them on in years past. I'll be lamenting how rusty my edges have gotten over the summer, too, and smelling that musty Gore-Tex that was crammed - damp - into a duffel bag eight months ago. But mostly, I'll be as feeling as giddy as a grown man has any right to feel, especially before seven on a cold Saturday morning in the middle of nowhere.
When I first moved here from Dixie, I couldn't have labeled a New England map with absolute certainty. Was Vermont east of New Hampshire, or the other way around? (And before you snort at my ignorance, think about Mississippi and Alabama - it's all relative.) I certainly didn't know jack about skiing.
Nor was I interested. I saw the sport as an elitist thing, something rich white Yankees did to while away the time between glasses of cognac and practicing their affected clenched-jaw speech. This self-proclaimed Southern boy had better things to do with his time, thank you very much.
But then winter came along, walloping me like the evil twin of the hottest, dankest Southern August I'd ever experienced. And suddenly, the new friends I managed to make had all disappeared and headed north on the weekends, leaving me alone with Tower Records, a highly constrained music budget, and a remote control. That, and the darkness. Fed up with the solitude, I joined some friends for a weekend at Sugarbush in the middle of February that first year. I dutifully tagged along when my friends got up at the crack of dawn, and dragged ass over to the mountain in order to be in line as soon as the Super Bravo quad opened at eight.
I got to play keep-up and count-the-bruises all day long, on what seemed like an endless string of helplessly steep slopes, each one more fiendish than the last in its aggressive desire to punish the Southern boy with the temerity to try to keep up with the Vermont-born and -raised.
But I was hooked. And when it ended, we went to a bar that was full of happy, hard-drinking people. It was much better than sitting at home pondering the significance of the new De La Soul record.
So a week later, I wangled another invitation, got beat up some more, and discovered a favorite new bar (bless you, Hydeaway, my dear old friend). Of course, it took a while to really get the hang of the sport part of it. But I "worked" diligently at it, and over time, my Southern roots all but disappeared on the hill (it was another story in the bar). I became a better and better skier, eventually developing an intimate familiarity with the monsters of Vermont skiing: Sugarbush, Stowe, and Killington. Snowplow turned into stem christie turned into parallel skiing turned into steeps turned into bumps turned into trees. My developing ability helped at the bar, too. About two years in, I found that I could be that blowhard who talks incessantly about the subtle differences between Castle Rock and Mad River, about why Outer Limits is superior to White Heat, and on and on.
At some point that I can't pinpoint now, I stopped thinking of skiers as "they," and started to think of the whole concept in terms of my life, my time, my passions. I had assumed the lifestyle. I knew what it was like to spend cold weekdays straining at the corporate reins, just waiting for the moment I could jump in the car on a busy Friday night and start fighting the traffic headed north. I had come to know the peace of breaking free of the traffic, and the city, somewhere around Concord, New Hampshire, and the peace of being the first to arrive at the ski house for the weekend. The camaraderie of building that first fire, of good friends catching each other up on the week's work inanities, and arguing over when and how to start the ski day. Of quietly segregating the group by ability, everybody banging it out according to their own speed and tastes, and then meeting for lunch mid mountain, feeling totally justified ordering the chili with cheese fries and a large Coke. Wondering just how the new girl's face could actually be that flushed (and isn't she aware of that big crust of ice that's in her eyebrow?). Of being too tired to safely ski the stuff you just refuse to give up on in mid afternoon, and then offering up all your gear to your fellow skiers in a spontaneous yard sale just before the lifts stop running.
And that first Long Trail Ale. And then the second and the third, and ... hey, I hadn't noticed how good two guys playing CSN&Y covers could sound. And the big group dinner, and the plans to head back out in just a few minutes that inevitably end up with everybody sacked out in front of the fire by nine.
The exhausted-but-fulfilled feeling driving home on Sunday afternoon, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you squeezed as much as is humanly possible out of a cold, dark, snowy New England winter weekend.
I'd like for it not to be so dark outside already. But I know what that creeping darkness and the colder weather really mean. The very best thing about living in New England will soon be upon us. My drawling parents may not understand, but after all these years, I do. The time has come. Let it snow.