"Don't think" and "remember to breathe." Though they sound like meditation guidelines, the activity in this case is cross-country ski lessons. I'm spending the weekend at Royal Gorge, Northern California's largest cross-country ski resort, learning to use my new nordic boards and, as a bonus, getting a refresher course on how to relax, breathe, and live in the present.
What the self-actualization stuff has to do with cross-country skiing is this: It's a peaceful, meditative sport. I had this revelation after spending many years alpine skiing, blazing down hills kamikaze-style and impatiently standing in line between adrenaline rushes. As the lift lines got longer and tickets more expensive, I started to consider replacing my downhill skis with skinny ones. I'm not alone: The transition from alpine to cross-country is not uncommon, says Bill Sterling, cross-country skiing representative for the Salomon sports-equipment company and a nordic ski-team coach.
"People who were once die-hard downhillers often take up cross-country as they get older because they no longer have time to spend six hours on the slopes. With nordic skis, you can take just an hour to enjoy the outdoors and exercise," Sterling says. Plus, he adds, "These days nordic skis turn easier and grip better, which makes it easy for beginners to learn."
Indeed, the first thing that strikes me when I step into my cross-country skis is how light and agile I feel with them on. I even feel stable enough to jump up and down with my skis on, which is exactly what our Australian instructor, John Stoddart, has us do on our first morning.
Once we all feel comfortable on our skis, Stoddart talks to us about kicking and gliding. "What would happen if you were wearing woolen socks while bowling? You'd keep gliding forward. That's what we want."
With his Paul Hogan-like accent and graceful manner, he makes it seem easy. But each time I focus on using my poles to propel me, my arms and legs get out of sync. When Stoddart brings out his video camera, I try even harder - and end up even more befuddled.
"Don't think about it," Stoddart tells me. "Pretend you're walking, and instead, ski."
"The biggest mistake people make is that they concentrate too much," Stoddart says. "They expect to get it too quickly. I tell people they're here to have fun-lighten up."
Lightening up isn't easy when you're falling down, so snowplowing is one of the first things Stoddart teaches us. Even though the snowplow is familiar to me from my downhill days, it's different on skinny skis. As my husband puts it, "You feel like a newborn reindeer on ice." Just about everyone in our group falls at least once going downhill. But Stoddart turns our mishaps into lessons: If you need to pass a fallen skier, simply step out of one track and into another. I begin to find metaphors in everything Stoddart says: If you don't like where you are, change tracks; look ahead to where you want to go; learn to stop so you won't feel out of control; don't think; breathe.
I fall asleep that night with the light on, I'm so spent from the day's exertion. But in my dreams I can feel the hypnotic motion of kicking and gliding. As soon as the sun rises, I slip out for a pre-breakfast private session with Stoddart. Refreshed from a good night's sleep, I ease into a comfortable rhythm right away. "Good! Now relax your neck!" Stoddart bellows. "Let your shoulders hang! Swing your arms like a gorilla loping through the forest!"
I know I probably look silly in my forward-thrust position, my face barely concealing the elation of finally getting it right. But why hide it? I grin as I glide past him, thrilled to be striding, skiing, breathing, enjoying every moment.
NORDIC SKI SCHOOLS IN THE WEST
Though few resorts offer as comprehensive a beginners' program as Royal Gorge, mountain retreats throughout the West offer nordic ski lessons. The Cross Country Ski Areas Association ( www.xcski.org) provides listings of member resorts by state. Here are a few of our favorites.
BIG SKY, MONTANA
Lone Mountain Ranch. Weeklong packages (including airport transportation, meals, lodging, group ski clinics, trail passes, and educational programs) from $1,896 for the first person, from $1,148 for the second person, and from $746 for each additional person. Private or group ski lessons available for an additional fee. www.lmranch.com or (800) 514-4644.
LAKE TAHOE, CALIFORNIA
Royal Gorge. Two-day packages (including meals, lodging, ski instruction, and trail passes) $169-$179 per person per day. www.royalgorge.com or (530) 426-3871.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, CALIFORNIA
Montecito-Sequoia Resort. Packages (including meals, lodging, and trail passes) from $105 per person per day. Ski instruction offered for an additional fee. www.mslodge.com or (800) 227-9900.
Sun Mountain Lodge. Rooms from $140; or three-day ski packages (including breakfast, dinner, lodging, and trail pass) from $393. Group nordic ski lessons (offered daily) $20 per person. www.sunmountainlodge.com, (800) 572-0493, or (509) 996-2211.