Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bi-- Sk-- Uh-- wha--?

If March turns cold and snowy after this fiasco of a winter so far, it would put the icing on the cake. I've been on the verge of resuming the park and ride commute several times, only to have just enough snow return to slather the path and reactivate our sputtering ski business.

After decades in New Hampshire, I can zig or zag as winter changes its moods. But the oscillations have been short and crazy this winter. Yesterday, the morning low here was minus 12 F. Today's predicted high is in the 40s, with rain. This is on top of two or three inches of snow and sleet that fell overnight. The high on Sunday was about 3. That's right: three degrees above zero was the high. Maybe 5 in the sun, but there was a steady breeze. Monday, the temperature crawled up through the teens as the day advanced, while clouds moved in ahead of the storm.

There's always pie. This is a clean-out-the-freezer berry pie. It's the follow-up to a chocolate chip dessert quiche I slopped together because I wanted to bake something to help warm up the house and I didn't want to resort to the default pan full of brownies.

Even in thaw weather, the house needs heat. There's a long, hypothermic span between sub-freezing temperatures and actual balminess.

Last night, the silvery patter of snowflakes whispered over the silent forest. It reminded me why I live here. For a few hours, no sound of human activity tore the peace. Even in our rural area, people keep having babies and those babies keep growing up to buy motorized things. When they all fall silent it is a blessing.

The next storm of predominantly rain is forecast to hose down the closing weekend of what should be our largest earning week of the winter, in the ski business. Most of the clientele starts thinking about boat shows and Caribbean cruises after the notorious Vacation Week ends. Dedicated skiers will take advantage of whatever they get, but they're few in number compared to the dabbling hordes that actually keep the industry going.

Cross-country skiing is the ancestor of downhill skiing. But its roots can be its downfall in a couple of ways. First, it takes more effort than downhill skiing. It started out as a means of transportation. Second, as a means of transportation, it was a free-range activity. In other words, a cross-country skier would get the equipment and then -- theoretically -- be able to ski for free wherever conditions permitted it. The 1970s cross-country ski boom promoted this idea heavily.

Some sort of grooming makes skiing easier. Traditionally, trails would get better as more people used a track and firmed it up. Touring centers would pack trails, using snowmobiles and various drags. Just as improved road surfaces led to vehicles that needed improved road surfaces, improved grooming led to ski designs that need really well-groomed trails. Touring centers have to charge more for trails that require more elaborate construction, maintenance and grooming, but skiers who have learned to like those things see them as necessary to the experience. And yet, deep down, the traditional cross-country cheapskate lives inside all of us.

This brings us back to the dabblers. Whether they rent or buy, the majority of cross-country skiers only go a few times a season. Some of them have to live where opportunities are rare or nonexistent, saving their ski jollies for one great vacation trip. Others just don't care about it enough to seek it out on a regular basis, even if they live where winter provides snow, and some sort of open land provides a venue.

This only matters to me because I followed an interest in human-powered transportation to an environment in which -- at one time -- one could expect to use skis to get around for a couple of months in the year. It's part of the physical and economic mix of our lives here.

Fat bikes might seem to fit neatly into the menu of options, but now you're talking about adding an expensive bike (relative to a stagnant, working class income) and all the costs that go with it. I already ride each bike in my fleet at least a little. So I would be unlikely to get rid of one to make room for another one. And fat bikes have no place on cross-country ski trails, regardless of whatever ill-considered experiments some beleaguered touring centers are trying. They really are not interchangeable.

Dabblers in cross-country skiing will not buy a fat bike. Fat bikes cost too much. If dabblers did buy fat bikes, they would expect to be able to go to the same place where they dabble in skiing. So now a touring center has to manage traffic control, in the event that ski and bike conditions exist simultaneously. That means investing in a shadow trail system and grooming it so the dabblers can play, trouble-free, with the least amount of thought and effort on their part.

I'm not ragging on dabblers here. They have chosen to dabble in what I do, out of all the other things they do with their lives. Many of them say they wish they could do more than dabble. We try to care for them. We're glad they get out as much as they do. But I still recognize the economic realities of our business. I try to see their point of view, rather than standing haughtily on some pinnacle of hard-core dedication and judging everyone else by how far they manage to scale it.

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