Confessions of a Cross-Country Ski Junkie

As winter approaches, it’s hard craving powder in the inconsistently snowy South.

Listen, dear reader, as I give you some key advice: Don’t start cross-country skiing. It looks like such a peaceful way to spend a winter day, but trust me, it’s a trap. Cross-country skiing is a cruel mistress who will promise a lifetime of bliss, only to rip your heart out and leave you wanting more. I speak from experience. I write this from the depths of my own love affair with the sport, an affair that has me so head over heels I don’t know which way is up anymore.  

You can disregard that warning if you live in the Northeast or Rocky Mountains or even large swaths of the Midwest…really any place that sees a consistent amount of snowfall. If your winters are typically white, then by all means, get yourself a pair of skinny skis and shush away, as cross-country skiing can offer a lifetime of fun and exercise. Bully for you and your white winters. 

But if you live in the Southern Appalachians like I do, heed my warning. Because the typical winter in these mountains delivers just enough snow to get you hooked on XC skiing, but not enough to actually quench your thirst for the sport. Cross-country skiing is addictive. I’d put it right up there with caffeine and nicotine. They should put warning labels on the skis.  

Here’s the irony: I didn’t pick up cross-country skiing until I moved back to the South. I spent years in the Rockies watching people on skinny skis shush around town wondering why the hell they bothered, only to discover my own passion for the sport after I moved hundreds of miles from the nearest snowy peak. That’s like moving from California to Ohio and getting really into surfing. But alas, I am hooked. A mindless XC junkie who can only think of his next fix. 

It starts out innocently enough; a heavy snow falls and a friend or neighbor has an extra pair of skis they’ll let you borrow. Why not? You’ll just try it out once. What could it hurt? And it’s fun! Sure, it’s awkward…you fall a lot…but you can’t deny that skiing without a lift has its charms. There’s a moment on a slight downhill where you recapture that giddy joy of youth, just like the first time you rode downhill on a bicycle. It is new and exhilarating and as soon as you hand in your borrowed skis, you want some more. So, you order a pair of skis and boots and you wait for the next storm. And you wait. Your desire for more turns growing with every winter week that passes, every promising storm that fizzles out. 

Cross-country skiing starts to dominate your thoughts. Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t have it that makes you want it so much. Like those kids dancing in Footloose. If they could dance all the time, maybe they wouldn’t want to do it so much.  

You imagine the hill in your front yard, covered in snow, a playground for your skinny skis. Because Mother Nature refuses to cooperate, you’ll price out the cost of installing your own snow guns on your quarter-acre lot and weigh that against the price of college for your firstborn. He always seemed like more of a technical school kind of kid, anyway, right? 

You spend hours staring at your computer screen, devouring forums and Facebook groups that are dedicated to the fleeting joy of XC skiing in the South, looking for beta on your favorite cross-country ski hotspots. There are a few mountain peaks and high elevation gravel road systems that escape the scratch of the road plow. You and your fellow junkies all converge on these same spots when the snow does fall. You find yourself up late at night, messaging random strangers who claim to have skied one of those spots recently, asking about snow depth and quality and typing the most desperate question of them all: “Think the snow will last until tomorrow?” 

It doesn’t matter how they respond; you’re already planning to make that two-hour drive in the morning knowing full well that you might be skiing an inch of slush and ice over gravel. A bad fix is better than no fix at all.  

You’ll become a groupie of meteorologists, following dozens of them on social media. This might be rock bottom of your addiction. You’ll start analyzing forecasts, favoring “European models” that promise more snow than those pessimistic “American models.” 

You’ll comb through topographic maps, looking for abnormally high elevation mountains near your home, as if you (and the rest of the world) might have overlooked a 6,000-footer sitting on the edge of town that sucks up snow during storms. 

Long stretches of drought without any measurable snow will have you ready to kick the habit altogether. You’d sell your gear at a local used gear shop, but they won’t take it because, as the sales guy says, “winters just aren’t consistent enough anymore.”

No shit.

So, you hang onto your skinny skis and soft boots and then, out of nowhere, there will be a glorious dump of snow that hits your town hard, so hard that you can ski through your neighborhood, surfing the hills in the local park and kick/gliding right up to a bar on the edge of town. There is nothing sweeter in this world than cross-country skiing to a bar and ordering a beer. Nothing. 

When that snow does fall, you’ll find yourself skipping work. You won’t even bother to make up an excuse, you just won’t show up. Ditto familial duties. There is no family or work when there’s 4” of fresh snow on the local golf course for you to kick and glide! Your oldest kid is almost 6, anyway. He should be taking care of himself by now if he wants any shot at getting into that inexpensive technical school that’s in his future. 

And the addiction cycle starts over again. You’re fresh off of a hit and riding high, already tuning in to your favorite meteorologist for the next forecast, jonesing for the next storm, the next high. If you’re smart, you’ll heed my advice and steer clear of skinny skis altogether. Or maybe don’t listen to me. Maybe I’m just a junkie who wants all of the snow for himself.  

Photo courtesy of the author

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