Swinging my arms in fine helicopter fashion, I raised my right foot high in the air to ensure the long, slender ski attached to my boot cleared the snow.
For a nanosecond, I held the pose, balancing on my left ski before the entire circus came to a crashing halt at the bottom of the hill — or rather, mound; actually, it was more a slight incline — a few hundred feet from the Tie City parking lot about 10 miles east of Laramie.
Laramie Area Visitor Center Assistant Director Mike Gray chuckled quietly and said, “Well, at least you’ve gotten falling out of the way.”
Cussing out your teacher is considered bad form, so I whipped my cross country skis around, stood up, muttered a string of indignities beneath my breath, smiled and replied, “I’m alright. Let’s do this.”
The problem being that we were already doing it and had been for nearly an hour, yet I was no closer to an understanding of this confounding sport.
“With classic cross country skiing, you’re pretty much just using a walking motion,” Gray explained again. “As you put your left ski forward, use your right pole to help propel you.”
The idea was simple. The action should have been simple. But, the more I thought about it, the harder it became.
Eventually, I settled into a rhythm, scooting up a two track carved by other classic enthusiasts.
Gray kept a slow pace, but often, he still had to wait ahead of me as I struggled to keep up.
“I started coming out here with my father in the ’80s,” he reminisced. “Most of the time, my dad was a regular dad — he didn’t say much other than to tell you how to do something better. But, when we skied, he really got to talking, and we had quite a few good conversations out here.”
I nodded, saving my breath for the next fall. Pole Mountain’s allure was obvious — a bright, winter sun bounced gently off the recently groomed trail. The wind was all but absent, and while the morning air in the Laramie Valley dropped below zero, on top of the mountain, sweat rolled down my brow and steam spilled out from my coat.
“Let’s stop for lunch around this bend,” Gray said, pointing to a curve in the trail that looked three-quarters of a mile away, but was likely about 200 feet.
Clearing a pile of fluffy white snow off a log, we plopped down next to a communal coat tree. I was thankful to be free of the skis, but the final stretch had slipped by smoothly.
“A lot of people come here on their lunch breaks,” Gray offered, pulling a few snack items from his pack. “We usually bring chocolate, beer, oranges and cheese.”
Unaware of the traditional fare, I’d packed coffee, a braunshweiger sandwich and some elk jerky my father-in-law gifted us during the holidays.
Gray wrinkled his nose at the liver sausage, but the jerky caught his eye, and I traded him a few strips for a swig of his Wyoming Whiskey.
“This will probably help you loosen you up for the trek back,” he said pouring the flaxen liquid into a specialized glass.
Dubbed the Steamboat Special Edition, Gray’s whiskey bit at the back of my throat in the soothing way bourbon often does.
After struggling with the skis, I was thankful for the familiar sensation. Chewing our jerky and sipping whiskey, we chatted about the differences between downhill and cross country skiing, waved at passing skiers and patted the occasional dog sauntering along with their owners and overly curious about my braunshweiger sandwich.
Our bellies full and feet rested, we packed up our things and headed back the way we came.
Initially, I stepped into the skis, believing my years on the slopes prepared me for my first cross country expedition, but the first hour of the trip was extremely humbling. On the way back, I stopped forcing the skis to work they I wanted them to, and started letting them guide me down the trail.
It did not come naturally, nor was it easy, but as the conifer’s shadows grew longer, so too did my strides.
We took it slow, stopping to chat with a few skiers who wished me luck and advised I keep at it, and before I knew it, we were on the home stretch.
Confident I’d found my groove, Gray sailed toward the parking lot with me hot on his heels.
Everything was grand.
Then, my skis were again aimed skyward, and my face was buried in the snow. This time, I couldn’t help but laugh.
In today’s fast-paced world, there is an expectation all things will come quickly — fast food, two-day mail and a plethora of videos to help anyone learn anything 24/7.
And yet, it is the challenges in life that yield the fondest memories. And I promise you, Wyoming is one of the most memorable places you’ll ever visit.