If God had wanted humans to ski, He would have given us lift tickets. Or, at least, Rossignols for feet.
Okay, so I can't ski. It's not a question of balance. I have done flips on a trampoline and walked many a fallen log across a wide stream. I'm athletic. I'm coordinated. I can juggle. I can punt. I can throw a 20-yard spiral pass and return a serve wide to the backhand and field a crisply hit grounder and occasionally drain a three-pointer.
I don't tell you these things because I'm proud; I tell you because I'm ashamed. I know I should be able to ski, but here in my late forties, I still can't.
Maybe it's the paraphernalia -- the boots and the bindings and the poles and the goggles and the inner gloves and the outer gloves and the suspenders and all the rest. Or maybe it's the cold weather. But the truth is, I can't water-ski, either. It's just something I can't do.
Wouldn't you know it? My wife, Jan, and two sons, Stone, 17, and Holt, 13, love to ski. And they are good. So we worked out a deal: They ski; I don't.
Recently I took part of the family to Wisp Mountain Resort in the wilds of Western Maryland. They love the more than 20 downhill runs and trails. Years ago the boys started on the easy slopes like Belly Flop. They now routinely ski down the expert trails -- Devil's Drop, Eye Opener. Rather than go for a hike at magnificent Swallow Falls or check out the taxidermied wonders at the Deep Creek State Park Discovery Center, I opted to spend the day around the resort's McHenry House lodge while they skied.
I soon realized that I was not alone. Here and there throughout the resort were people just like me -- non-skiers who had accompanied their skiing loved ones to the slopes. We eyed each other conspiratorially, we non-skiers. The man over there reading the Patrick O'Brian novel. The woman in the running shoes sitting by the door. The young guy at the bank of video games, moving among a grand array ranging from the Simpsons to Maximum Force.
We stuck out in this world of snowstuds and powderbunnies like left-handed violinists in a symphony orchestra.
Connie Myers, for instance, sat quietly in a blue sweater and jeans in the middle of the lodge's great room poring over a copy of Southern Living. She is from Short Gap, W.Va., and she had brought her avid-skier husband, Larry, and two daughters to Wisp. "I tried," said Myers, 45, when asked if she skis. "I wasn't real successful. I don't like being cold and wet."
But at Wisp and at other resorts she finds other things to do. She goes shopping when everyone else hits the slopes at Seven Springs. And she likes it when the whole family goes bowling in the evening.
Jane Applegate, in her late forties, was swimming laps in Wisp's capacious indoor pool while I was there. The Woodbine, Md., mother had brought her family to ski. "I like coming here," she said. "I like to see the kids have a good time."
Of skiing, she said: "I am tempted. But the bottom line is: What would I do Monday morning if I broke my leg over the weekend? Who'd take care of my family?"
So she swims. She explores antique stores. She takes long walks around the frozen golf course. She goes to church in Oakland on Sunday morning. She relaxes.
John Everett works. A fire-station captain from Fairfax, Everett, 38, was holed up in a corner of the cavernous food court. Though there are smaller, more intimate places to eat -- such as the Mountain Steak House and Shenanigan's -- he had discovered a quiet table near an electrical outlet. Everett, who used to ski but doesn't anymore, had plugged in his laptop and was toiling away on a new staffing and productivity program for the fire department.
(Bethesda writer Alice McDermott was interviewed recently on National Public Radio. She said that all three of her kids are skiers but that she is not. "I read," McDermott said. "I sit in the lodge and read while they all ski.")
Make no mistake. Wisp, which opened in the winter of 1955, was designed for skiers. But there are other activities available. A nice fitness center and two racquetball courts, for example. The resort hotel offers more than 60 rooms and more than 100 suites, including two fancy fireplace suites. Some visitors simply sit by the fire in the pub and wait out the winter.
"Our biggest draw for non-skiers," said Paula Yudelevit, a spokeswoman for Wisp, "is the snow-tubing. People sit in the lodge and watch their family ski and snowboard all day long. Then they will all go snow-tubing afterward."
She added, "Even those who don't like the cold weather."
Some skiing purists are concerned that snow-tubing, which requires virtually no athletic skills, will eventually dominate the slopes in our culture of immediate gratification. Yudelevit doesn't fret. Snow-skiers abound, and the more skillful ones are moving toward snow blades and snow bikes.
But, she added, "snow-tubing does allow everyone to enjoy winter."
So does boob-tubing. I don't watch much television at home, so while I was at Wisp I sat in front of a screaming big screen and watched two astonishing NFL playoff games.
At one point, I moseyed into the gift shop and bought Jan a birthday present: some lip protector and moisturizer for apres-ski -- but don't tell her. At other points, I read a while and worked a while and was filled with a serene warmth knowing that my kin were having an ice-cold blast. The skiing was great, Holt later told me. "The snow was powdery and easy to maneuver."
I stood in the great room and watched people speed headlong lickety-split downhill like torpedoes and, for a moment, was saddened by my shortcomings. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. I hurried across the room, handed over my money, set my feet in ski position, clutched pole handles and started down a treacherous mountain.
Okay. It was not a real mountain and I wasn't wearing real skis. I was riding the Alpine Racer, a virtual reality video game. Even worse: A guy nearby pretended to race 18-wheel trucks. To add insult, as I swept down my cartoonish mountain, I could look through the windows and watch small children -- who can't throw spirals or sink jump shots -- zigging and zagging down the real slopes with grace and abandon.
"Swing the step to the left," the machine instructed me. "You turn right."
I did as I was told. Intent on teaching myself to ski. I death-gripped the handles and went zooming through the animated snow. Yes, I thought. How cool it would be to do this for real!
Then, swinging the step to the left and turning right, I wiped out.