6 Things I Learned Skiing with My Grandfather
Written by Alexa Owen • Oct 14, 2016
I have a lot of great memories from growing up in a ski family: a few very potent ones of skiing with my grandfather.
We were “weekend warriors,” as they call us folks who trek from the tristate area to Vermont every weekend. (“Flat-landers” is also applicable, but I prefer the former). On Friday afternoons, my brother and I would hop off the bus and into the car with my mom, dad, and two dogs and drive the three and a half hours from southwest Connecticut to middle Vermont. My dad instructed, my brother and I raced, and my mom split her time between skiing and snowshoeing. Come Sunday afternoons we’d pack up our weekend life and journey south again, until the following Friday.
Until I was 10 or so, we stayed at my grandparents’ house – an old-school slopeside A-frame off the Sachem trail at Okemo. You won’t see many of those anymore. It was 100 meters from the slopes – ideal for parents who had kids in tow. This also offered us all more time to ski together between lessons and training and races. It was often just a first run in the morning or a few runs before heading in for the day, but to be able to sit 3 generations on a chairlift with 60 years spanning between us was something special. I didn’t recognize it until decades later, of course, but I carry those precious memories in me now: they’re a significant part of my foundation in skiing, which is a pastime that has significantly shaped my life.
My grandpa is 88 years old, and would still be skiing regularly if he weren’t now kicking back in Florida each winter. Some of his friends call him “Dean the Dream,” because he just is that guy: the one who cracks the jokes, sees the goodness in things, and is unfailingly, unabashedly himself. And there’s no better way to hang with a guy like that than on the ski slopes, as his granddaughter. We skied together for twenty years. Here are 6 things I learned from my grandpa in that time about skiing, and life:
1. It’s okay to start late and end early.
Since becoming a ski racer at age 6 through competing in college to waking up in the dark to get first chair on a powder day when I moved out West, I’ve become accustomed to getting in early morning turns. But when I rolled with Grandpa’s schedule, things were a little different. Sleep was important; so was a breakfast of whole grain cereal with fruit and a glass of orange juice. We’d head to the slopes around 10, ski until noon, go in for lunch and (maybe) mosey back to the mountain for a few early afternoon runs. In retrospect, I see that we were simply adhering to the traditional European schedule of the sport – and on powderless weekdays, I find myself relaxing back into this flow as well.
2. Blue jeans don’t go out of style.
Grandpa didn’t rock blue jeans and ski boots too often – more so on the spring days in late March. I think he wore them because they were practical on warm days, and to this day I appreciate the tendency toward practicality rather than new school skiing flair. I’m a new gear junkie as much as the rest of you, but underneath that is the solid understanding that it doesn’t take a new outerwear getup every season to enjoy my time on the slopes. Grandpa got new ski pants or jacket once per decade – and that was enough. What’s more, those retro wool sweaters stocked in his ski closet are the new “cool” on the slopes. Go figure.
3. Skiing is a life long sport.
Grandpa was in his early 80s when he left skiing in lieu of winters by the golf course in Florida – and it took some convincing at that. Watching he and his friends meet up for a few runs every day showed me at the tender age of 20-something that this skiing thing is special: it’s one of the first ways I learned how to play, and could be one of the lasting pastimes throughout my life. For him – as is for me – skiing is more than just a sport, of course: it’s an entire culture, it’s a social outlet, it’s a way to enjoy winter weather. It’s embodied meditation, and delight. And if I allow myself to enjoy it in a physically and financially sustainable way, it can last my lifetime – as it has for Grandpa.
4. Chairlift rides are for singing.
Question if you wish why a grandfather would sing an old Buck Owens song on the high speed quad with his 6-year-old granddaughter, but sing we would. The same refrain, from the same song, every time: Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women, they’ll drive you crazy they’ll drive you insane. I still don’t know the origin of this tradition, but I do know that I belted it out with joy to pass the cold seven or so minutes to the top of the Northstar Express. I no longer sing this particular tune too often, but I do take advantage of chairlift rides to sing, or chat, or enjoy the time however I can – especially on bitter cold days.
5. It’s not about how fast you go.
I love skiing fast, and yes, most times I hit the slopes it’s to get some thrills. But the art of cruising is something I picked up from my grandfather. Granted, I wasn’t so interested in it as an 8-year-old-anxious-to-prove-herself ski racer – but I am now starting to appreciate the more laid-back aspects of skiing, including the pace. Back then I learned to slow down now and then to actually ski with grandpa; now I slow down really be with myself and with my surroundings on the hill. Sometimes that means taking a few laps on the groomers with delightfully big, arcing Super G turns; other times it means pausing in the backcountry to sink into the silence and solitude of the moment.
6. A day on the slopes is always a good day.
Life is so good. Life is beautiful. Yes, there are lift lines. And crowds. And sleet. And expenditures. But I kid you not: never once did I hear my grandfather complain about any of it (which should sound impressive to those of you who have also spent decades as Vermont weekend warriors). Grandpa appreciated every day he got out on skis, even just for a few runs. It’s easy to slip into the monotony of routine – even when that routine includes luxuries like playing in the mountains each weekend. I don’t remember to exercise gratitude for all the goodness skiing brings to my life every day, but I do thank my grandfather for showing me year after year that we can always feel happy for the opportunity to get out on the slopes.