We loud people, perhaps more than anyone else, need silence. I have found silence while traversing vast stretches of whiteness on a pair of slim wooden planks on the cross country tracks of the Norwegian mountains.
Here, you can, on a windless day, find yourself miles away from the nearest source of soundwaves. There is no cellphone reception in the mountains, no unexpected encounters. For all its whiteness, there is very little white noise.
I was fortunate enough to be among those who practically went straight from the womb to the pulk, a type of toboggan meant for skiing. But I have often found that the pleasure of cross-country skiing is not easily explained. For those of us, who were on the tracks in the malleable part of our personal development, the enjoyment comes naturally. For others, the first aspect of learning how to cross-country ski is learning to enjoy it.
Some acts are valued because they are intrinsically enjoyable. We do these things because we enjoy every moment of doing so and need no deeper motivation for doing them. Eating chocolate is such an action, and so is riding a rollercoaster. The obvious opposite to such acts are those, which have no positive intrinsic value, yet are done to further a motivated goal. Now versus later, short term versus long term; this dilemma is one of the oldest of internal conflicts. But upon further inspection, one finds that there are acts that belong to neither category. There is something not between, but above these binary poles. Cross-country skiing is such an activity.
This three-part division of activities – the struggles endured for the sake of some reward, the inherently thrilling rushes, and that which is neither – is mirrored within the kinds of stretches that make up any worthwhile skiing route.
First there is the uphill climb. This is the only time when your skis should ever leave the ground. From afar, it might not seem dissimilar from regular hiking, but there is a crucial difference, known by anyone who has ever scaled a steep slope. The very same skis that allow you to glide smoothly along the tracks are now gravity’s best friend in its effort to heave you down from whence you came. To avoid this betrayal of the skis, we resort to the technique dubbed “herringbone,” a name derived from the V-shaped tracks left in the snow by upward climbing. It involves pointing the fronts of the skis in opposite directions such that the back ends meet, preventing you from sliding backwards. It is an efficient, but very incremental manner of climbing. Once, every so often, you will be tempted to unstrap your skis and sling them on your shoulders to avoid the hassle of sliding one meter back for every two forward. In the worst case, you will find yourself knee-deep in powdered snow, because you are the first one to foolishly test the footing at this particular spot. In the best case, you will simply mess up the track with boot-shaped craters – a cardinal sin among skiers, which should not be committed lightly. Going uphill is where you can find silence not in the absence of external noise, but in the absence of your own loudness.
The most easily explained reward for your incremental clambering will come with the exhilarating rides down hills and mountainsides. Many ski-routes either begin or end with one of these rides, and the choice of route on any given day often depends on whether one wants to have the dessert first or last.
When going downhill, the only way to brake is to angle the tips of your skis in the same direction, like lines leading to a vanishing point on a drawing. Children’s instructors will call it forming a “pizza slice” in front of you. By varying the angle of this plough formed by your skis, this technique gives you some control of your velocity going down. If you ever see someone speedily ascending with the skis still in the parallel position, you can immediately place them into one of two categories. Either they have mastered the art of skiing to such an extent that they are sure not to fall, or they are still so green that they have given up on controlling the moment, in which case they soon will find themselves head first in a pile of snow.
The ratio of work to reward may seem unfair, as you get to ride downhill just ten minutes for each hour you spent climbing. But as promised, there is a less explicable gift to be found in the part of the route that is neither inclining nor declining.
Along a flat track, the skis almost glide themselves. With no need for conscious physical coordination and no sudden sensory stimuli, thoughts are bound to wander freely. This act of cross country skiing is essential to the activity as a whole, and there is a certain rhythm to it. To me, it has always consisted not only of my own skis and staves, but also of those of my father. Sometimes side by side, sometimes just within earshot, we have practiced our rhythm year after year, for as long as I can remember. Once in a while, I will halt and come to a standstill. For a moment, I will hear only the rustling of my father’s clothes and the compression of snow beneath his skis and staves, until he too will stop in his tracks. In a non-verbal agreement, we will pause everything briefly, and fully experience our presence in the desolate landscape.
In this moment, you are left with the blood pumping through your veins and heart throbbing underneath your thick clothing. If you wait and allow your senses to get used to the vibrations of your own vitality, then you will be able to hear it: an absolute silence, a moment void of sound. Only after experiencing such absence of noise can one know that silence has an indescribable sound of its own.