Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fresh air at the Birkebeiner

A theory on the cabin fever mechanism

"I am not a skier." There, I've outed myself, I thought, as I watched the woman sitting next to me contort her face in an attempt to understand.

"Well you must do something in the winter? Everyone's gotta have something to do in the snow," she told me as the bus rocked back and forth on our journey. At that I looked past the seat in front of me, across the aisle, out the foggy window. Cross-country skiing fanatics surrounded me.

The shuttle bus I was riding was packed to the brim with people garbed in all manner of winter clothing - from scratchy wool pants to puffy down vests, though most were wearing form-fitting, neon ski apparel. Everyone but me gripped skis and ski poles bound in bundles, and everyone but me had some crazy story to tell from past Birkie races, or training, or speculations about the snow conditions affecting wax.

"I've really gotten into ice fishing this year," I finally responded. I turned and looked at her then to gauge her reaction. It wasn't much. In fact she looked a little confused, or perhaps unconvinced that counted. Or, maybe she just didn't quite understand what ice fishing is. After all, she's from Milwaukee, I reasoned with myself.

Either way, I was prepared to talk her ear off about fishing and snow and ice until she suddenly piped up about people who grumble in the winter.

"If you can't find a way to enjoy the snow and cold months then you don't belong here," she said, and then I knew we were friends. "Not to be mean, it's just that you're going to be miserable for half the year, half your life." I nodded in agreement as this 50-something mother of three rattled on about how clean and pure the air is in the winter. About how getting out in the cold was rejuvenating.


The bus rolled up on Telemark Resort, and from my window seat I spied the lodge under siege. Brightly colored skis and ski poles were stabbed into snow banks, surrounding the entire building. Neon blue, green, orange, yellow, and red lances stuck straight up toward the sky, apparently some sort of tribute paid by their owners who crowded into the lodge to await their start times.

I shuffled off the bus armed only with my camera bag while everyone else tried not to stab each other with their poles. As we parted ways, I clapped the lady from Milwaukee on the back and wished her luck in the race. She smiled, and to my surprise finally responded to my mention of ice fishing, saying, "Maybe I'll have to try that someday."

Upon entering the lodge I was greeted by a massive bronze relief of a Norseman on skis, thrusting a shield forward and 'Telemark' etched above his head. The art hung boldly from a great stone fireplace, an effective centerpiece display for the hearth at the center of the lodge, with its sweeping, vaulted ceilings. 'Now there's a neat tattoo idea,' was the first thing that crossed my mind as I stared up at the fixture.

After the initial awe wore off, I realized I was standing in the way. People from wall to wall were hustling in and out, adorned in ski boots and race bibs, waiting in the warmth of the indoors before heading down to the start line. Some scarfed down last minute fuel in the shape of fruit and energy bars, others socialized with members of a group, and some were strewn about as individuals, quietly sitting on the floor, listening to music on their headphones to get pumped up. I was no skier.

In droves the competitors departed from the warmth of the lodge. I fell in line with them, down the hill, over a winding winter road was a steady stream of people heading to the start line. Upon approaching the staging area I could hear the rumble of the announcer on the PA system, speaking just over the jive of a funky bass line. He counted down from 10 to send off wave five of the classic racers. Ten seconds later, a gun sounded, the crowd roared with cheers, blowing whistles, rattling bells, even shaking a tambourine. I swear I heard a tambourine.

All the ruckus tied a knot in my stomach, and I wasn't even racing. The anticipation was in the air, like a fog of nerves you could walk through. These people were all about to depart in massive waves to ski 54, 50, 26, or 12 kilometers in the name of a medieval Norse legend.

"BANG!"

The starting gun fired again, and another wave of skiers took off. A few hundred people poled out as the gate lifted, choosing to either book it hard and take the lead right away or hang back and ski leisurely. Shouts of encouragement came from the lines of spectators strung out along the raceway. Friends, relatives, loved ones with cameras and motivational words.

I wasn't skiing though. I hung back and snapped pictures of people who were supporting them in that way. I stuck around for several waves, shooting locals, notably garbed individuals, and smiling faces. These folks were all skiers, but skill level was a wide range. In fact, according to the man on the PA, some of them were in their first year of the sport.

After I had a good collection of action shots, I hiked back up the hill towards the lodge. This time I was in the stream of people without ski bundles and neon clothing. The hike back was a steady stream of warmly dressed supporters in regular boots and normal snow pants. This time I fit in.

On the way back to the shuttle busses though, I started to think - the difference between those skiers down at the starting gate and these spectators I traveled with in the opposite direction was very little. Among my crowd I heard many people express interest in learning to ski, or renting, or taking a ski trip, or getting into the sport for something to do outside in the winter. At that I smiled.

It's important to try new things. Often it is much easier to brush off a new activity, a new recipe, or a new acquaintance in favor of the tried and true. We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. At our jobs, in school, with our inter-personal relationships - we experience winter in all these things - the low points, the grey days, the short periods of daylight and the cold nights.

Lucky for us though, cabin fever sets in eventually. This is the part of us that rejects the status quo and hungers for change - a change in scenery, a change in behavior, a change in taste. It's the usually timid part in each of us that works up the courage to shout every once in awhile, and it saves us.

It's a defense mechanism that refuses to be ignored. It says if you don't like something, change it. It says your body needs to move so get up and get going. Cabin fever is a kick in the pants, cold water in the face, fuel for the fire inside, and it is healthy. Get outside, get some fresh air, go for a change of pace. Now, does someone want to go cross-country skiing with me?

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”
- Marshall McLuhan

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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