Noel taught me to ski when I was 43. When I tell the story, I always start with the line, “It was brutal.” When he tells the story, he begins by saying that I went down a black diamond run on my fourth day of skiing. Both statements are true.
He gave me skiis and poles for my birthday. As he was taking a picture of me with the poles I quickly leaned over and whispered in my son Joe’s ear, “Are those downhill skiis?” I still remember the sinking feeling when he nodded.
I’ve never considered myself athletic. I had knee surgery in high school and didn’t even participate in gym. I never liked organized sports, and the closest I came to skiing was a bit of cross country. I was always concerned about wrecking my knees so I didn’t do many other sports either. Well, here I was with new downhill skiis, a new man in my life and a new sport to learn. And I was worried.
So, just after Thanksgiving we went up to Big Mountain in Whitefish. This was where Noel learned to ski when he was a child. Back when he didn’t have the fear of falling. Back when his only goal was to keep up with his big brother Larry. Larry had told him, “You can ski with me and my buddies as long as you keep up. If you don’t, you’re on your own.” So, Noel kept up. He skied fast, hard and beautifully. Over the years he taught skiing, he’s been a ski patroller, and gliding down the mountain on two skinny sticks was second nature to him. Oh my goodness, I was intimidated.
The lessons started way before we reached the mountain, though. I was taught how to put on rigid plastic boots, how to carry my skiis without looking like a dork; how to bundle up against the cold. I had bags to carry my gear, double layer gloves to keep my fingers warm and a helmet to protect my head from the outside even though I really thought there was only something wrong with the inside. Before I met Noel I had never owned a helmet. Suddenly, I had a roller blade helmet, a motor cycle helmet, a bike helmet and a ski helmet. At this point in our relationship I was still wondering why I was keeping company with someone who required such additions to my wardrobe. But, I must admit, I was intrigued.
As we stood at the bottom of the beginner hill, I surveyed the other skiers. Most were two- and three- year-olds snowplowing their way down the slope. I was encouraged when I realized that there also were a few adults learning on their snowboards, so at least I wasn’t the tallest person there. But, when Noel had to tell the tow rope operator that I was a first time rider, I felt pretty small. Up we went, and I made it about halfway before falling down. All he said was, “This is a pretty good place to start.” And we did.
While Noel skied down I fell down. About the only thing I learned was how to get back up with those awkward boards attached to my feet, my hands encased in gloves that would not bend and two poles that seemed to be more trouble than they were worth. After falling my way down the beginner slope only once Noel announced that I was ready for a more challenging hill. “Are you crazy?” I said, “I can’t even make it five feet without ending up with my face in the snow!” But, off we went to a hill where I had to learn how to get on a ski lift. Again, I heard the term “first time rider”, the lift was slowed to allow me to get on as everyone in line watched, and up we went. Noel used the entire ride to instruct me in how to get off the lift without falling. By this time, my stomach was tied in knots and the higher we went up the hill the more I nauseous I became. And, of course, as I got off the lift I fell. I was incredulous when Noel said, “Good, you got off just fine.” I only wonder what kind of upbeat comment he would have made if I’d been hit by the chair lift as it went by. Perhaps, “Geez, it didn’t knock you out. That’s good….let’s go.”
Well, just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. Near the top of the hill, after I’d fallen about six or seven times and made it about twelve feet, I heard someone yell, “Hey Noel, how ya’ doin’?” I was sitting on the snow with my skiis headed in nearly opposite directions and I looked up through ice-covered goggles to see a man and his pre-teen daughter looking down at me. I was introduced as I was struggling to get back up, but to this day I have no idea who it was. Nor do I want to know because they proceeded to follow us down the mountain, chatting with Noel, giving additional advice to me, and watching my every move. Somehow, you just don’t want to meet new people and have them make comments like, “Wow, that fall was even better than the last one,” or “How is it that you grew up in Montana and never learned to ski?” But I made it down that slope despite my audience and all of their advice and gladly waved good-bye to them as they went off in search of steeper slopes worthy of their skill.
The rest of the day was pretty much a blur, as was the next. Noel insisted that we ski two days in a row so that I wouldn’t forget what I’d learned the first day. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t in danger of that. I’d pretty much learned only two things: Number one….my mind was willing, but my body was confused, and number two…the best thing about my helmet and goggles was that I was pretty sure no one would recognize me later. I really didn’t think I would ever be able to learn how to get from the top of the mountain to the bottom without spending half the time sitting on the snow. I was honestly in awe of Noel who skied with such grace and ease.
Well, the next weekend we went to Snow Bowl just outside of Missoula. To say that I was dreading it would be a terrible understatement. I felt humiliated that I couldn’t seem to learn this skill. I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of looking stupid. I was afraid of ruining my knees. But, mostly I was afraid that I would never be able to live up to Noel’s expectations. The day started pretty much like the Big Mountain days had ended. I fell my way down the slope despite Noel’s helpful advice and encouraging words. He truly had the patience of Job. I remember becoming so angry that I threw my goggles on the ground blaming them for my latest tumble. “These damned things fogged up! I can’t see where I’m going!” Noel just reached down, handed them back to me and wisely didn’t say a thing.
And then I think the angels intervened. I was going along pretty well and had linked some fairly good turns, so I was feeling pretty smug. I was headed for the left side of the run, but instead of turning I just kept going. Well, the wind had drifted the snow over on that side and what I thought was the run was actually a big drift. Both tips of my skiis augured into the snow drift, I released out of my bindings and went flying, doing a belly flop in a huge pile of Montana’s legendary powder. Of course I wasn’t hurt because it was like landing in a pile of feathers. Once I wiped the snow away from my goggles I looked back to see my skiis standing tips down, perfectly erect in the snow about six feet behind me. And I can tell you that was the most fun I’d ever had on skiis. I laughed and laughed until my sides hurt. It took forever to claw my way back and get my skiis on, because I couldn’t stop laughing. Noel said, “Wow, in all my years of skiing I’ve never seen anything like that! You really know how to fall!” And at that moment, something inside me just dissolved. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid of falling anymore, or looking stupid, or not being able to impress Noel with my athletic prowess. My attitude after that was more like, “What the hell! Full speed ahead.” Now I won’t say that I didn’t fall again or that I turned into a graceful skier, but somehow it was all just easier when I just let go of my fear. I remembered the little ones on the beginner hill and how they seemed to embrace the whole experience. Learning new skills for a child is an everyday occurrence. They don’t care if the world watches or if they don’t get it right the first time. They just keep plugging along and pretty soon they’re zipping down the mountain with a grin.
Thank you, Noel. Thank you for being by me side. Thank you for the adventures. Thank you for helping me to see with fresh eyes and for doggedly persisting in teaching me to embrace life.
I love to ski with you, too.
I've fallen for you.
Can you tell?