One early spring afternoon in 1942, a young ski instructor named Norm Richardson led the way down a winding path for my first attempt to ride a rope tow. I labored after him clumsily. A snowy hummock rose in front of me, and my skis balked.
As I bungled along the path the roar of the tow engine grew louder, and by the time we reached the open level beside the tow, Richardson was shouting his instructions. To his commands, I walked forward, stopped, looped both pole straps over my left wrist and sidestepped cautiously to the right.
"All right," Richardson called ahead of me. "Now!"
I gripped the rope. It spun through my soaking mittens. Then I remembered to pull up with my right hand and press down with my left to gain traction. The rope caught, held and almost jerked me to the snow. I jammed my right ski hard against the groove worn by the other skiers and a moment later felt myself sailing up the hill with the sound of the tow engine retreating behind me.
"Off!" Richardson called at the end. I let go, stabbing at the snow with my poles to catch my balance.
"Well," Richardson asked, "how did you like it? It beats the old herringbone, doesn't it?"
It certainly did. I was blind and had never been on skis before my blindness. It was my fianc�e, Durinda, who had persuaded me to try it. We were still in college, and I was so dazzled by her that I would have tried anything she had suggested, but there was more to it than that. In my first year of blindness, I was beginning to discover a surprising number of physical activities that demanded little or no use of the eyes.
In ball games, of course, you had to keep your eye on the ball, but skiing was not a ball game. And a large part, even of ball games, is in feeling, rather than seeing. When a golf or tennis pro demonstrates a stroke the pupil watches with his eyes, but the real meaning of the visual experience lies in his kinesthetic—that is, the muscular—response to it. His grip, his stance, his stroke and the accompanying shift of his weight are all a matter of feeling. A skier needs his eyes for orientation, but it is his ears or, more precisely, his semicircular canals, the sensory pivot of balance, that enable him to stand at all.
Durinda had instinctively recognized the nonvisual elements of skiing. Her first eager question after my experimental run down a gentle slope was, "Did you feel it, Pete? Did you feel it?"
It was a feeling I have never forgotten. I had waited at the top of the hill, braced against my poles in a self-conscious and wooden crouch, until she gave the command to shove off. I heard the hiss of my skis on the snow and felt the gentle pull of gravity drawing me forward, slowly at first and then faster, with a rising wind in my face. The gradual acceleration seemed almost magical, for I had scarcely any sensation of steepness. It was not like flying, because the gravitational magnet held my skis firmly to the snow, but through their gentle bobbing rhythm I had an exhilarating sense of intimacy with its undulating surface. It was the smoothest, easiest, most graceful form of locomotion I had ever known.