gardner

The author says that cross-country skiing is as close to uncompetitive as you can get, unless you have your eye on the Winter Olympics.

GHENT, N.Y. — Take this pop quiz. I promise it has nothing to do with COVID-19 symptoms or vaccine eligibility.

Name an outdoor activity that’s excellent exercise, socially distanced, traffics in beauty, is carbon neutral and simultaneously lets you walk the dog.

I suppose you could come up with multiple correct answers. But, the one I’m thinking of, because I’ve been doing a lot of it lately, and because full-bodied recreational opportunities are few and far between these days, is cross-country skiing.

I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t have the thrill of downhill. But, it also doesn’t require fancy equipment, expensive lift tickets, extensive travel — especially if you live around these rustic parts — and, often, overnight stays and the rental of a pricy condo or hotel room.

And it’s not without its peril and excitement on those occasions you find yourself at the mercy of the laws of gravity as you plunge down hills with minimal control because whoever invented the sport neglected to include metal edges on the planks employed as transportation.

Put that way, I suppose I ought to wear a helmet.

And I haven’t yet mentioned the most attractive aspect of the cross-country skiing experience: the learning curve is minimal. It can take years and dozens of lessons to master the art of downhill, or golf, or tennis. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re chronically humiliated by people who are better at it than you are.

Cross-country is as close to uncompetitive as you can get, unless you have your eye on the Winter Olympics. It’s hard to hot dog while following a trail through a placid forest. Also, there’s not really an organized apres-ski scene. At least if you ski out your back door, as I do. The first time you don a pair of sticks, you’re good to go.

The one great imponderable — and the reason it makes cross-country an increasingly rare and precious treat, caviar for the soul — is climate change. After years of proudly skiing on the waxed boards I purchased in Vermont my sophomore year of college, a very long time ago, I decided last autumn to embrace the latest technology and purchase a ski package — skis, boots, binding and poles — from L.L. Bean. The cost was around $500.

That’s another part of cross-country’s appeal. Whereas the science of downhill skiing is ever-changing and equipment denigrated as obsolete after a season or two, there’s not a lot of breakthroughs, not a lot of dabbling in aerospace carbon fiber, on the cross-country circuit. At least, that’s my opinion.

The last great invention was waxless skis, and that’s what encouraged me to upgrade. I was simply getting too old and impatient to consult the temperature whenever I went skiing and then apply the blue, green or red wax or sticky klister, a cork to spread it, and scraper and blowtorch to remove it.

Not that I ever did. The underside of my skis developed a coating composed of Paleolithic wax, pine needles and gravel that seemed to serve me adequately in all types of conditions. Actually, my decision to leapfrog into the 21st century, equipment-wise, was made for me when my antediluvian boots, not my skis, disintegrated because leather, alas, isn’t immortal.

Yet, after my purchase, they sat in the garage, unvisited, all of last winter because there wasn’t any snow to speak of. That’s what I’m saying. At this moment, we’re experiencing meteorological cross-country ski nirvana. Frequent fresh snow. Next year or the year after that may be different. For all we know, we’ll never see snow again, though hopefully not. Is there any more magical form of precipitation?

So, seize the day.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a successful Nordic ski outing, assuming sufficient snow to shuffle across, isn’t wrapping yourself around a tree, though that’s never far from mind, but successfully inserting your boot into the binding.

At times, it feels as if it requires the combination of luck and the technological know-how of a moon landing. The margin for error appears minute as you aim the tip of your boot into the tiny slot typically crusted over with snow.

I failed when I attempted to do so with my shiny new L.L. Bean backcountry skis — my model not just waxless, but also boasting metal edges for greater, indeed any, control. No matter how often or hard I tried, the boots kept popping out of the binding.

I called L.L. Bean in a state of despondency and, as cheerful and compassionate as their sales representative was — he told me he was going cross-country skiing as soon as he got off work — he said it wouldn’t help to return the skis, because they were out of stock, so great was the pandemic demand. He encouraged me to take them to a ski shop at their expense.

I did, to the Steiner’s Sports outlet in Valatie, N.Y., where they quickly diagnosed the problem: I’d failed to remove the protective traveling pin secreted into the binding.

Since that issue was settled, things have gone remarkably smoothly, even though my stamina seems to have suffered since the last time I attempted the sport. I chalk it up to a combination of old age and the fact that I’m cutting fresh tracks through our woods. It’s probably not something I’d advise the abject beginner to do; the sport becomes infinitely easier if you can follow in someone else’s tracks.

But, traveling through the woods, with your dog crisscrossing in front of you, and pausing to hydrate with the help of a sweet mandarin orange, is to experience a snippet of paradise. I promise you that once you get the hang of it, it’s no more challenging than hiking and far more fun than snowshoeing. Whatever that’s all about.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.