During my ride up, I gazed back and below at the rolling valley landscape, lush as velour, and contemplated the ways by which we will get ourselves where we want to go. Above me, the thick cable hummed, and the chair clacked over the towers' struts. Below me, novice skiers gingerly picked their way down a mogul field. I felt I had blundered my way into someplace foreign and that there was no turning back.
The first 100 skiers had already been started when I arrived on the summit. Snow was falling fast, and a fresh wind kicked up little snow devils along the sunken ridge where the racers gathered—the narrows that intersect a trail called Bruce and the vertiginous trail called Nose Dive. The wind was roguish and sharp for this kind of day. I was glad I was wearing my Icelandic sweater. Some racers, dressed for the lower part of the course, were suffering. A few had taken shelter in a stone Forest Service hut in the trees above the starting line, but others, vulnerable in turtlenecks, were shuffling in discomfort, stamping their feet, doing whirlybirds with their arms, or hugging themselves with a desperate apelike repetitiveness. I saw resourceful types wearing windbreakers they had fashioned from trash bags.
Near the starting line, race officials, distinguishable by their parkas, clipboards and absence of skis, shouted above the wind for racers to group themselves by number and to pay attention. They needn't have bothered with the latter command. Nobody—not even the shiverers in the stone hut—was failing to keep an eye peeled on the starting line. At the line itself, the starter was chanting the last five seconds before each start, and the next racers, three or four abreast, were bent, straining over their poles, as fierce, for the moment, as any Olympians going for gold.
I took one last warmup run up the white road above Nose Dive to the snow gauge—a red ruler 12 feet long, it registered a base of 76 inches—then skied down to my place in the sketchy ranks. There were, besides myself, only two others in my starting group—a tall, bespectacled fellow in a black Steelers watch cap who gratuitously assured me that he posed no threat ("Just push right in front of me, sir; I won't mind, I'll be last") and a compact middle-aged hotspur whose inability even to grunt when I wished him good luck signified either hearing loss or acute single-mindedness. In truth, the guy had the look of a ringer.
The snow let up. Moisture from tense breathing hung in clouds around everyone's head, rose in the cold air and dissolved. We all rubbed our skis in the snow to keep them from icing, and I shook out the tension in my shoulders, adjusted the leather straps of my tonkin poles and blew warmth into my mittens to dry my sweating palms.
Strategy vied with anxiety for a piece of my mind. The idea, I told myself, was to let everybody else go, to ski your own race, to blot out everything except your own rhythm and pace.
And remember, this was, after all, only a citizens' race. The dentist who cleans your teeth and who just took off three waves ago, tomorrow he'll be a dentist again. The bartender off to the side under the hemlocks, the one still waffling over the best wax to use, he'll draw you a draft later this afternoon.