I was lying upside down, my head throbbing, my knees aching, my shoulder feeling like it had been dislocated. I’d just had a spectacular wipeout, cartwheeling halfway down Alice Avenue, a green (or beginner’s) slope at Snowbird, after flubbing a toe-turn as I tried to avoid a four-year-old who had materialized out of nowhere and schussed past me on skis. I’d somehow managed to plant my snowboard in a snowbank and was having trouble dislodging it. It was a beautiful day—cloudless, and not too cold—with some fresh powder still left from the day before. I looked up the mountain: The upper bowls beckoned. But I was determined to stick it out among the kindergarten set. It was a little humiliating. The kids were better than I was.
I took my first snowboarding lesson last year on a lark with two friends, Melanie and Noah. Snowbird offers night skiing on Chickadee, the bunny slope, and for $25 you can get a lesson, your rental boots and board, and a night lift ticket. It seemed like a good way to try to ride without having to give up a day on skis. The lesson was only two and a half hours, but that was plenty. We all fell about every 3 feet. There are two basic stances in boarding: the heel slide, in which you balance on your back edge as you face downhill, and the toe slide, in which you face uphill as you balance on your toes. If you let the opposite edge touch the snow at any point, it flips you over. One minute I was on my toe, sliding down, as I looked uphill; the next thing I knew I was flat on my rear, having just flipped backwards. I could feel the impact all the way up my spine and into my head. I felt like I’d been given a concussion: I was seeing stars. (My instructor unhelpfully informed me that when she was learning, she had broken her tailbone.) The idea is, in time, to connect the two stances—toe slide, heel slide—by turning. (Expert boarders rock from edge to edge, carving S-turns in the snow.) But only Noah, who had been a competitive surfer in high school—he was sponsored by Quicksilver—managed to connect his turns in those first two hours. Melanie and I worked up a different rhythm: slide, fall, stars; slide, fall, stars. Just picking yourself up, after a while, became exhausting. And I’m not even going to get into the terrors of getting off the chairlift on a board for the first time. The question is why anyone ever returns.
But you do. Or at least, I did. After Noah and Melanie left, I took another night lesson, and in some ways, splitting up the sessions probably helped. Fresh the second time out, I found I was suddenly much better. I could connect my turns. I fell less often and when I did, found I could anticipate my falls and break them. It was exhilarating—even creeping along on the virtual flats of Chickadee. The next day I was on my skis again, but on the chairlift I found my eyes drifting over to the boarders, marveling at their skill and speed. I wanted to shred the mountain! The last day of my vacation, I did the unthinkable: I voluntarily gave up a day of skiing to take another boarding lesson. I was hooked!
What attracted me most, I think, was simply the capacity for improvement—just being at the bottom of a learning curve again. In the rest of my life as I got older, I found it was becoming progressively difficult to get better at anything. In several areas, I feared I was actually backsliding. But on the board, pathetic as I was—and let there be no mistake, I completely sucked—I could see improvement with every turn. And there is something also perversely wonderful, in our success-oriented culture, about a pursuit in which expertise is defined as being a “bum.”
This is how I’d come to plant my board in the snowbank at Snowbird. My four high-school friends had returned to Dallas earlier in the morning. Unlike me, they were all married and stay-at-home moms, with 12 kids among them, and had to get home to relieve their husbands. It’s become a trope that a single, 30-something woman like me would view their lives with envy. But the yearning goes both ways. I moved back to Dallas last spring from New York to work on a book, and when I had them over to my apartment for the first time, they all oohed and aahed, apparently regarding my 700-square-foot place (which has all the charm of a dorm room—the only thing missing is the cinder-block bookshelves) as a kind of secret clubhouse they’d all like to escape to. They reminisced about their single years and long-lost freedom, remarked on the quiet, talked about what they’d do if they were just less encumbered with car pool, trips to the grocery, runny noses. When I go to their places, of course, I look with equal longing on the kids, the company, the chaos. But if snowboarding teaches you anything, it’s that there are compensating pleasures in any life. As my friends trundled off to their domestic duties, I can honestly say that I didn’t feel an ounce of jealousy. The sun was out, I was on my board, and the weather report was promising 15 inches of fresh powder in the morning.