Jan 312010

With another wakeup call that was far too early, Andy and I staggered around getting ready to leave for Boyne. After a quick breakfast, goodbyes to his folks, and packing up all the booze, we hit the road to Boyne Mountain for another day of snowboarding. I planned on taking another beginner lesson to reinforce what I’d learned on Friday and improve the basics as much as I could.

Honestly, I was dreading this rather than looking forward to it, and I had several moments where I just wanted to go home. Whenever I try to learn something new, especially something physical, I demand immediate competency at it from myself, even if it’s something I’ve never even attempted before. When that doesn’t happen as fast as I want (and it never does, of course) my frustration starts a slow climb, crosses into rage, then peaks with a “Fuck this, I quit!”, which is what happened on Friday after bouncing the back of my skull off the snow one too many times at Crystal. Once I hit that breaking point, though, I typically stop to cool off and clear my head for a bit, then go right back to it after I’ve “reset”. Even though this kind of expectation is totally unrealistic, and probably a bit unhealthy, the upside is that I really do learn very quickly, even if I don’t give myself enough credit for it because it’s not as quick as I think it should be.

So I was kind of dreading riding because I was sure I’d just continue to fall a lot, not be able to turn, or stop, and just generally continue to suck at it. Seriously, I’d had four hours of lessons and practice, I should be able to do the basics perfectly, right?!

Anyway, we pulled into Boyne at about 9:45 a.m., got to the registration desk at 10, and discovered that the class I wanted started at 10, not 10:30 like we’d thought; too late to get my gear rented, suit up, and get to the class. Oh well. I got my stuff anyway, my free lift ticket for the Boyneland beginner run, and went to the baby hill to practice. I felt kind of conspicuous among all the toddlers and kids, but ignored it and soldiered on.

After a while it became obvious that the baby hill was actually impeding my progress rather than helping. The slope was so gentle, and short, that I couldn’t really build up enough speed to practice any turns before I reached the end. On top of that there was usually someone in my way and, because I couldn’t confidently turn to avoid them, I’d deliberately fall to avoid a collision. After that happened twice in a row, I decided to brave the Boyneland run, which is about 1/2 mile long. As I got on the lift with another rider the attendant asked, “Are you having fun yet?”, to which I replied, “Not really.”

“What?! Why not?”

“I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.”

“We have lessons…”

The lift was pulling away so I couldn’t explain, and just parted with, “I’m kind of at the in-between stage.”

After a 5-minute lift ride, I pushed off the chair at the top and promptly fell over, scrambling to get out of the way of the next chair. I scooted down to the top of the fun and stared downslope.

And stared.

And stared some more.

“Alright, let’s do this. There’s only one way down, and you are NOT taking your board off and walking this time.”

I strapped my right foot in and started down. I fell a lot, of course, but made it down in one piece. I went back up and did it again. I even managed to stay upright coming out of the chairlift this time. One of the first problems I managed to overcome was unintentional rotation, by learning to flex my leading foot up or down to correct my heading. Then I made progress on braking by applying steady pressure on my leading edge, instead of “chattering”, which inevitably dumped me on my ass. I was still having problems turning, and just couldn’t seem to cross the slope, turn, and cross back. This was made worse by the fact that the run slopes to the left after a nearly-flat stretch about halfway down, so not only would I lose speed, I’d end up like a gutter ball. Everything else showed improvement but, even by the end of the day, I could not, for the life of me, stay off the left edge of the run, which was getting me all wound up and cussing like the sailor I once was.

Here’s a tip for anyone interested in riding: get step-in bindings. You really don’t have a choice with rental boards, but you will get really sick, really fast, of sitting down to ratchet your ankle and toe straps closed before every run. I envied Andy’s ability to just step-n-click and ride off.

Andy and I rode for about another two hours after lunch, then called it a day so we could get home at a reasonable time. A storm system had parked itself over the upper end of the state, causing near-whiteout conditions until we drove out of it near Roscommon. I was actually sorry the snow stopped, because I love watching it, and the roads weren’t all that bad yet.

Despite my little temper problems, I really did have a great weekend, and I’d definitely try snowboarding again, hopefully before I forget what I learned already. Big thanks to Andy and his parents.

Jan 302010

My subconscious was apparently still traumatized from having its cage rattled the day before, because the most prominent dream I had Friday night involved Andy pushing me out onto M-115, one of the two-lane roads we drove to Crystal Mountain, on a snowboard. I had to board down the road, stay upright, and dodge traffic in both directions.

The breakfast his mom cooked for us made it all disappear, however, and Andy, his dad, and I stopped in town at Don Orr’s Ski & Surf shop so I could rent gear for the Vasa Trail. The guys declared my skis to be surprisingly good for rentals, and a steal at $10 for 24 hours. I was out of there with skis, poles, and boots in about 15 minutes, and ready to exhaust myself in new and exciting ways.

After a brief lesson in the basics of skiing, we pushed off from the head of the trail and down the flat, straight path.

Where I promptly fell over.

Fortunately, falling on skis was far less punishing than falling on a snowboard, and I didn’t need a helmet to protect the tattered remnants of my ability to do math. The trail has a pair of narrow tracks carved into the snow on one edge of it, and for the most part you just plant your skis in them and push along, sort of like a slot-car track. The only times I needed to leave it were for hills so steep I had to plant my skis at an angle in order to climb it, and for turns at the bottom of hills so sharp that you’d fly off the track into an inconveniently placed tree.

What was especially fun was getting to the top of a high slope that ran straight out at the bottom instead of turning, like being on a really cold roller coaster.

After about the first 2 km, I was asked if I wanted to stick to the 6k loop, or continue on to the 12k. Giving in to my testosterone-soaked male pride, I voted for 12k, but I managed to not thump my chest as I did so.

I fell a lot (surprise!), and never really did figure out how to turn, so much as learn to gently suggest to the skis that, if it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience, would they mind terribly if we altered our course by a degree or two at some point entirely of their choosing?

By about the 7 or 8k mark, I started going through distinct levels of fatigue. At first, I was all about staying upright no matter what, by sheer force of will and latent telekinesis if necessary. I often failed, but eventually improved. That, or the telekinesis was less latent than I thought.

Then I reached a point where, as I started to topple, my intention to stay vertical was preempted by a sudden “oh, screw it!” It was less effort to just get it over with, fall, and get back up.

Finally, at around 10k, I came full circle, and the thought of picking myself up out of the snow again had me right back to staying upright by any means necessary. I also gave up using the tracks, for the most part, because I realized they were like training wheels, and I’d never learn to keep my skis under me if I kept relying on them.

Exaggerations of my clumsiness aside, it was a lot of fun, and gliding through a remote pine forest while fat snowflakes drift silently down around you is an experience I highly recommend.

We hustled to get home, shower, and change, as Andy’s folks were taking us to dinner at Tuscan Bistro before they attended a play. My penne alla vodka with prosciutto was great, but unfortunately the others were kind of underwhelmed with their meals.

Andy and I managed to find Left Foot Charley’s after some trial & error and cursing of Google Maps, and rewarded ourselves by sampling all five of their whites, the single red, and both hard ciders. The whites were great, but the red and one of the ciders bordered on nasty. Andy loaded up on bottles to take home, and I picked up three varieties of Riesling for his parents, my mom, and Aaron and I.

We went from Left Foot to Right Brain (Brewery), and some serious beer sampling. Conveniently, there were 12 varieties on tap, each sampler tray held six glasses, and there were two of us. Isn’t symmetry beautiful?

The only one we both agreed on was the Hearthside Stout, a very dark brew that tasted like chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, oatmeal, and (of all things) pipe tobacco. We each bought growlers of it, and Andy also got a jug of Wasabi Cream Ale. Blech.

After two glasses of water and an hour of sobering up, we drove back, guzzled more water, and called it a night, since the plan for the morning was to load up the car and drive to Boyne Mountain in time for a 10:30 a.m. snowboard lesson for me.

Jan 292010

After an ungodly wakeup time of 4:30 a.m., and I hit the road at about 5 a.m. toward Crystal Mountain Resort, near Thompsonville, MI. Four hours and an uneventful drive later, I was signed up, suited up, geared up, and ready to fall on my ass. Repeatedly.

There were only two of us in the class: me and a 14 year old named Kristen. The instructor was the beautiful Jessie Jones, a 23 year old woman from Traverse City. We started with the parts of the board, then how to “pedal” it: scooting it along flat ground with one foot out of the bindings. Once we practiced sliding down a short section of Totem Park, the practice slope, we put both feet in and learned the difference between toe- and heel-edging: basically which edge of the board to apply pressure to in order to stay upright, move, and steer downhill.

We practiced that for a bit and it started to make sense, until we chained heel-edging with toe-edging in order to make C-shaped turns down the hill. My initial early progress kind of fell apart, but I persevered until the lesson was over at noon. It was during the first lesson that I really appreciated having a helmet, after banging the back of my head on the snow a few times, and understood why Jayson recommended hip pads, which I didn’t have.

Andy and I regrouped for lunch, then he took me back to Totem Park to continue lessons, as he used to be a snowboard instructor himself. Things went along relatively well, until he dragged me up one of the lifts to the top of Main Street, the first slope above Totem Park in difficulty. In my initial terror, I expected he’d just send me down on my own, but he pretty much held onto me part of the way down and reinforced what Jessie had already taught me.

Things didn’t fall apart until he turned me loose, at which point I spent more time in the snow rather than on it. After a head-smack that really rung my chimes, I yanked off the board in frustration and anger and walked the rest of the way down the hill. A guy from Ski Patrol pulled up a couple minutes later and asked if there was some reason we were walking. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something to the effect of, “I can’t do this shit anymore.”

After I cooled off, I asked Andy to leave me on my own in Totem Park for awhile, so I could work on the basics until it started to click. I was overloaded with info, I just needed quiet time to process it all and start turning it into muscle memory. By the time we left for Andy’s parents’ house in Kingsley, I’d made a little progress, but it was becoming clear that the kiddie hill was so short that it was actually hindering me. I ran out of hill before I could really get a feel for what I was doing.

I met Andy’s parents (who are great folks, by the way, and perfect hosts) briefly before they left for the night. We took turns showering and, since I felt like I’d been beaten with a 2×4, I tried to nap before we went to dinner. I dozed off twice but when I closed my eyes I was back on the slope, and kept kicking myself awake.

Jessie had suggested we stop by the Firefly Cafe and Lounge, where she worked in the evenings as a bartender, so we took her advice and had a really good meal. They serve sushi and small-plate items, so I had to try a Leelanau Roll of salmon & dried-cherry cream cheese, along with an Empire Roll (Blue Crab and cream cheese), chasing it down with a pomegranate mojito. Good stuff.

After dinner we had a drink at the bar and talked to Jessie and her friend Keith for awhile, who were heading to Grand Rapids the next day to party. It says something about northern Michigan life when getting away from Traverse City means going to Grand Rapids, but everything’s relative I guess. I also swear Keith was gay, but Andy didn’t pick up on it.

We called it a night after one drink, since we were going cross-country skiing with Andy’s dad the next morning on the Vasa Trail. Shortly after we returned, so did his folks, and we talked for awhile as we put away a bottle of Riesling they had picked up from Left Foot Charley’s, a local vineyard/wine bar. At last I dragged my battered carcass to bed.

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