The Tao of Pow: Learning to love winter

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Once, in midsummer, I stood in my garage with a buddy. We'd just returned from a hike near northern Utah's Cache Valley. He saw my snowshoes hanging on the wall and asked, "Where are your tellies?"

I thought he was making a "Monty Python" joke -- about a skit in which the actors discuss the odd fact that a penguin is standing on their telly.

He meant telemark skis.

I grew up in Indiana, I told him. I don't have telemark skis. Here in Utah, I snowshoe.

There is nothing sexy about snowshoes. Snowshoes are to skis as dirigibles are to jets -- bloated and slow.

That suits me just fine. I know I'm being a bit defensive here. If I had learned skiing as a child, perhaps I'd be happy to be a bishop in "the church of pow" -- the billions-of-dollars-a-year religion of downhill skiing and snowboarding. That's "pow," as in powder. Before I moved West, I might have guessed that "the church of pow" was an Eastern cult devoted to punching other people, or, better yet, a buffet devoted to serving especially vigorous helpings of Kung Pao chicken. But, no, the church of pow is just another religious institution, rather like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that I do not attend. When it comes to downhill skiing, I'm an atheist.

I tried to take the leap of faith, just once. I took a downhill lesson at Beaver Mountain, the local mom-and-pop ski lodge. And I sucked. Every motion expected of me seemed contrary to gravity and to evolution. I wiggled, trembled, slid, fell and cursed. It was humiliating, and the boots pinched my bad feet.

"Your teacher wasn't very good," my friends reassured me. "Try another," my partner, Kathe, said.

A Zen saying comes to mind: "In sitting, sit. In walking, walk. Above all, don't wobble." I had wobbled, badly.

A small part of me sometimes wishes that I had indeed gotten another instructor. But now, in my middle age, I hate trying to learn something new and physical, then feeling my childhood awkwardness reassert itself like a thicket of broken branches. The experience reminds me of when I took fencing lessons only to lose to an 11-year-old at a competition in the local mall.

During our first winter here, Kathe laughed when I told her I was sick of the season. Only a few inches of snow had fallen, but after a decade in Kansas, I'd gotten used to mostly snowless winters. I was doomed unless we found something outdoorsy to do in winter that required no expertise. Fortunately, the saying is true: If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

So to engage with winter and to escape the oft-polluted inversions over the valley, I go on excursions up the canyons -- Green, Smithfield, Logan, Blacksmith Fork -- into juniper, Doug firs, subalpine firs, spruce, the silent crescendos and diminuendos of snow heaped about, the world's only grace it seems then. In such places, cold air pours over my throat like water. Sounds are spare: wind, the calls of chickadees and eagles, the monotone tew-tew of solitaires. I snowshoe up to dolomite crags and nameless ridgelines, down through maple draws, beside the plum-red branches of dogwood lining Rock Creek. Going down slopes, I'll sometimes slide a bit, enough to give me a taste of speed. Often neither high nor far, though sometimes both, my snow treks remove me from the expectation of anything but ordinary movement in extraordinary places. I feel un-wobbly.

Before I began formal meditation, snowshoeing was one way to discover bliss by leaving behind the hindrances of craving, aversion, sloth, doubt and agitation. This step, that view, this breath, that landmark to get me home. On snowshoes, my body succumbs to topography. Sure, there are times I yearn to reach the top of a mountain. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don't. Lately I've been learning when to give up, which is a kind of victory in itself. Why do I need a summit every time, when everywhere is the poetry of snow, of graupel, cornice, aspect, of champagne powder and breakfast crust, of sunrollers and punk, of crust, slab and drift?

So it turns out I didn't need another teacher on the slopes. I've had them all along. Because I cotton to those sages who suggest enlightenment can come in flashes at any time, openings that don't require years of sitting on a hard floor staring at a wall. If "ordinary mind is the Way," so too is simply walking on snow.

Christopher Cokinos is the author of The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars and is beginning work on a narrative history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

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