I kick at my borrowed cross-country ski with my spiffy borrowed cross-country ski boot, seeking the confirmation of the click.
The ski slides forward, I wobble one-legged, like a square dancer on a slip and slide.
My big brother — the source of the skis and boots and the plan for the day — puts his foot down deftly on my escaping ski.
“Just click it in,” he says.
I hop, step and click.
“Good,” he says.
I nod confidently.
Cross-country skiing — Finally something at which I can keep up with my Type-A, workaholic, over-programmed, ludicrously successful older brother. I mean, I ain’t saying I’ve got issues — just because he has his own law firm and the two ski condos in Mammoth and the ski boat. I mean, heck: I get into the movie theater for free if I write movie reviews. Who needs a ski boat?
Of course, Dave also likes to relax by running 10 miles on Sunday mornings. When I go to visit him, I ride alongside him on a bike because you’d have to bury me with my knees in a separate box if I tried to keep up with him on foot.
Biking alongside him worked pretty well once I got over the humiliation of the admission I couldn’t keep up. I just have to let him do all the talking on the uphill stretches.
But I do have more hair — and absolutely no issues.
So, when he said he was coming to visit I told him to bring some cross-country skis so we could ski along Forest Road 300 that hugs the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Nice, flat trail with the best views available in North America without taxing elevation gains. I figured we’d just be gliding along the snow-covered road, while I displayed my grace, stamina and knowledge of both ponderosa pine ecology and Apache Wars history.
Dave hops into his skis and sets off, with an effortless stride I remember from a Clint Eastwood movie where they blew up the heavy water dealy-bob at Telemark. Or maybe it was “The Eiger Sanction.” Anyway — Dave looks good.
I lurch along after him, hit a couple of chunks of ice at the edge of the parking area, get out of the track, ski down into a little gully and tip over.
Nice, soft snow: Very dry. Did you know that each snowflake is comprised of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules? Each flake starts with a single droplet of water frozen inside a wet cloud chilled to minus 31 degrees. The flake starts off with a couple of molecules, then gloms onto more as it bounces around in the cloud — often converting water vapor directly into ice crystals without going through all the bother of turning into water. Eventually, the flake gets heavy enough to head earthward so as to be available on short notice to cushion the fall of awkward younger brothers working on their issues.
So I bounce up. Well, maybe not bounce. But I got up quickly in case Dave happened to knock off his Olympic telemarking and look back in my general direction.
I set off on his backtrail, studying his weird little slide-step-arm-swing thing, falling steadily farther behind.
He pauses to let me catch up. By now I have a little rhythm going. I’m looking good. Arms swinging, snow schussing, hardly huffing. I can feel it.
He has stopped at the bottom of a little hill. I pick up speed. At this point, I realize I have no idea how to stop these things. I mean, my heels are all flopping around loose. No chance of a stem Christi — nor even a snowplow. So I drag my poles in the snow and kind of gyrate. This is visually interesting — but functionally ineffectual.
I run over the back of his skis and embed myself in a snow bank.
I’m impressed by how quiet it seems. Of course, that’s the snow. Melt a foot of snow and you end up with about an inch of water. All the rest of my snowbank is just air — separating each snowflake, which itself is comprised mostly of empty space between the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules. All that air sops up sound. So that breathless feeling you get in the snowy woods isn’t psychological — snow really does muffle sound.
Dave looks down at me curiously.
I laugh, like I am just fooling around.
“You OK?” he asks mildly. I think he was probably laughing, but the snow absorbed the chortle.
“Oh, yeah, great,” says I. “So did you know that we’re on the historic Crook Trail?” I add, sitting up and batting at my chin to flush the sound-absorbing snowflakes out of my beard. “General Crook developed a wagon route between Camp Verde and Fort Apache during the war of attrition with the Apache and Yavapai in the late 1800s. Very historic.”
“Oh,” says Dave, nodding. “Interesting.”
He sets off again, which I appreciate. I know he’s giving me privacy to stand up. Already I have decided that it’s best not to have witnesses for that particular maneuver.
And so it goes.
We shush for hours along the historic Crook Trail, from one stunning overlook to the next. Well, he shushes, I flounder. I pick up the proper cross-country ski stride only intermittently. This only leads to a cumulus cloud of overconfidence, often followed by a violent downdraft — and yet another chance to practice my landing technique in the increasingly wet, heavy snow.
This gives me lots of time for reflection. I contemplate the ability of snow to reflect three times as much heat as water and fret that the shrinking snow cover at the poles will hasten global warming. I appreciate how the insulating layer of snow keeps the ground from a hard freeze — so all those plants and critters can go busting out all over in the spring.
I congratulate snow on the way in which it stores up moisture and releases it gradually and so feeds the springs and streams that make it possible for so many potential money-generating tourists to live in the Valley.
I especially contemplate the happy serendipity of H20, one of the rare liquids that expands when it turns to ice, which prevents streams, lakes and oceans from freezing solid. I also gain a profound admiration for the Cavalry soldiers — and the Apache — who traveled along this road all those years ago.
And in between falls, I huff out to the extravagant treasure of viewpoints along the edge of the Mogollon Rim, which forms the southernmost edge of the uplifted Colorado Plateau. The 1,500-foot-tall escarpment exposes layers of ancient sea bottom limestones, whose sequences include at least two mass extinctions when 80 to 90 percent of the Earth’s living species disappeared in a geologic eye blink.
But mostly, I just try to keep up with Dave, who never falls and never tires.
We cover maybe nine miles before getting back to the van as the spin of the planet angles sunlight through the atmosphere, turning the sky red, then purple.
We pause at a final outlook.
His outfit never contacted snow: I have that Frosty the Snowman look.
“Man. That’s something,” he says, gazing out across 100 miles of snow-shrouded forest. “What a great day.”
I feel absurdly gratified. Only part of that is the view: I got the whole day with my brother. Showed him a good time.
Granted. He looks good — Clint Eastwoodish. I look more like comic relief.
But that would matter only if I had issues.
Which I don’t.