Skiing the Beach (Redux?)

categories: Cocktail Hour


We are getting senile here at Bill and Dave’s, and neither of us is sure if I have posted my movie  “Skiing the Beach” before.  I probably have……but here goes again anyway: Skiing the Beach.  (It’s about how I stuck to my northern exercise routine even after moving south.)

And then there’s the piece below, which, to the best of my knowledge, is the first essay inspired by a Youtube video….


            Over the last three months I have become the freak of my Southern neighborhood.  I am the guy of who skis the beach.

            It started one day when I was jogging.  At forty-four, running at any speed is not a joint-friendly enterprise, and I feel the slam of every step in my achy knees and partly torn rotator cuff.   For this reason, I was running, as I always do, along the water, hoping the sand would serve as shock observer.   But even with sand softening the blows, jogging was drudgery, and for about the hundredth time I felt displaced in my new Southern home, longing for mountains, for snow, for the north.  And for cross-country skiing, since its remembered velvety athletic rhythm, glide-push-glide, seemed the opposite of the trudge-slam-trudge of my present.     

            It was then that I glanced down at the sand close to the water, right where the waves licked and not ten feet from where I jogged.  The sand looked slick, slightly wet, flat—and invitingly snow-like.  Not heavy snow of course—that was higher up where folks put their beach towels—but packed snow like a cross-country trail that had been skied a few times.  And then I thought “Why not?”  My old skis were back in a storage locker in the north, but my birthday was coming up.  When Nina asked what I wanted, she was surprised by my answer, but went ahead and placed the order anyway.  While I was waiting for my new Atomic RC-8s to arrive, I did some on-line research.  I remembered that my fellow nature writer, Bill McKibben, had written an entire book on cross country skiing, and had many contacts within that world.  Through McKibben, I learned that there were other beach skiers out there, and that one of them was no less a name than Bill Koch, winner of a cross-country silver at the 1976 Olympics, still to this date the only American Nordic medal-winner.  I read of how Koch had moved temporarily toHawaiiand had drawn stares from the other people from his flight when he picked up his skis at the baggage claim.  For years, before moving back to his nativeVermont, he skied the Hawaiian beaches.  “The darn stuff has lots of glide,” he said.  Koch inspired other sand skiers, including the University of Northern Michigan ski team, who train on the shores of Lake Superior.  

            My own skis arrived and, as McKibben recommended, I waxed them with glide wax (the sort you would use for very sticky snow) and sprayed them with silicon to further cut down on friction.    For the next month, I would consult my tide chart, looking for the ideal low when the flats sprawled out, and then carry my skis over my shoulder the two hundred yards from our house to the beach.   Of course this drew stares, and I started to prefer the colder days when fewer people were out, but even on the relatively crowded days it didn’t stop me from plopping down my skis on the low tide sand, pulling the pole straps over my gloveless hands, and pushing off.   And there it was: the glide-push-glide I’d been missing so.  Sure, the glide wasn’t quite as glidey as on good snow, but not bad, and the rhythm was there, the exertion of pushing with the arms and kicking with the legs, and my old knees were happy to be pushing forward and not slamming down.


* * *


            Skiing the beach is a metaphor, of course.  But a metaphor for what?

            Adaptability is one possibility.   My unofficial ski coach, Bill McKibben, wrote his classic book on global warming, The End of Nature, almost twenty years ago, but the mainstream press and politicians are only now gradually, and reluctantly, beginning to admit that the threat is real.  When I sent McKibben the news that I was beach skiing he replied enthusiastically.   “We’ve had almost no snow inVermont this winter,” he wrote.  “So your news gives me hope.  Pretty soon we all may be skiing the beach.”      

            On a more personal level I see beach skiing as a way of trying to use my old northern tools to place myself in the South.  Those tools include walking, writing, and getting to know my neighbors, both avian and human.  That these attempts are only sporadically successful, and often comic, does not make the symbol less apt but more.    

               Beach skiing is absurd but so it seems to me is this whole uncertain process of being alive.  “For us there is only the trying,” wrote T.S. Eliot.   For a long time I was under the sway of writers like Wendell Berry and John Hay, and believed that if I found the right place to live on earth my life could have a new certainty, a new calm, a new magic.  These two writers spoke of the need to marry your home place, and of the rewards that could be won if we truly committed to that place.  But my life has taught me something different.  I rarely slow down, let alone settle.  I think I know where my home place is but I just happen to live a thousand miles away from it.   I don’t have much choice but to learn how, in Keats’ words, “to be in uncertainties.”  Uncertainty, it seems to me, is the lesson life pounds at you again and again.   The landscape never stops shifting.

            Maybe that is why over the years I have developed a philosophy that is somewhat at odds with my nature-writing brethren.   I am full of admiration for those who manage to root downward in this increasingly rootless world.  We live in a time of exile and displacement: and rootedness is a radical and exciting response to this modern crisis.  But I can’t help but hear a slightly ministerial tone in much of the literature of “finding home.”  It reeks of virtue.  Or to put it another way, I admire these writers when they stick to telling their own stories.  It is when the element of should slips in that they are on less firm ground.   Because the fact is that many of us find ourselves in places that are not home, many of us live in geographical turmoil, many of us have little chance to truly root.  And in this case maybe the better question isn’t “How can I get out of this uncertain state?” but “How can I exist in it?”  Or put another way: Rootedness is one answer, but accepting one’s rootlessness is another.   Or yet another way: I am happy for Wendell Berry that he gets to live forever in Kentucky.  But I, like most of us, live in a state of confusion.

 * * *

             Skis are not just metaphors.  They are also a means of locomotion.  The best skiing day came in February when sudden frigid temperatures hit.   The wind chill brought it down to about 5 degrees, which made it feel like home.  The beaches were completely empty: not a Southerner for miles.  The wind scraped down from the north, sending swarms of sand in front of it, giving me the beach to myself so I could ski without feeling silly (or too silly).  But for all that, with the sun shafting down into the suddenly darker sea, it was a beautiful day, and, even better, the birds were out in force.  I skied the beach for a couple miles, getting a good sweat going despite the cold, and then stopped to watch the birds. 

            What I saw was a true frenzy.  There must have been 500 gulls in the foreground, and hundreds of pelicans, and beyond, out over the open sea, thousands of northern gannets.  To watch a single gannet dive is a wildly impressive feat: a bird suddenly pulls in its wings and drops out of the sky like a spear thrown.   To see a dozen drop at the same time is to experience amazement: they look pulled from the sky toward some invisible underwater vortex.  But now, to see dozens dive each second was almost too much.  Boom.  Boom. Boom.  You couldn’t help but yell out loud when they hit.  I was caught up in the sheer electricity of the action, and in the day’s wild, wintry feel.  A new squadron of gannets flew in every few seconds, pure white with black wingtips, easy to distinguish from the gulls by both shape and color against the darker clouds.  They continued to dive in rapid succession, and not just straight down in their usual style.  I watched forty or so birds dive into the same wave at the same moment, angling down as if riding on the godbeams of sun that shafted down out of the blue clouds. Slicing in: boom, boom, boom, boom.  How did they manage to not collide with each other?  I know for a fact their necks are a weak point; I have seen them on the beach with those necks broken after storms.  But certainly on that day fear wasn’t slowing them down.

            The birds’ energy was contagious.  The sight left me jangling.  I felt renewed energy, renewed ambition, renewed passion.   I hurried home and up to my writing desk.  Ready to dive.


* * *


            I skied through the winter but with the spring the beaches became more crowded, and I began to feel self-conscious, especially once the heat forced me to ski in my bathing suit.  One day a friend walked the beach behind me and told me that when I skied past every head quickly turned and that cell phone cameras were held up high, and that when he passed by the same groups a couple of minutes later they were still muttering about “skiing” and “the beach.”   By April the beach had started to fill, and I had grown sick of the gawkers.  It turned out that I quit theCarolinabeaches about the same time the gannets did.  Around Easter I put my skis away for the summer and decided that, just as in the north, the colder months would be reserved for skiing.  I’m sure that by mid-summer I will be looking forward to next fall when the beaches will start to clear, anticipating the coming ski season.   I can’t wait to get out there again next year, to sweat in December as I slide over the sand and to watch the diving gannets and embroiled surf.  Since moving south, I have often longed for the North, and more than once I’ve thought “I don’t belong here.”  But, oddly enough, it was during those moments on the beach, while practicing my strange new sport–itself a perfect symbol of displacement—that I started to see that maybe this place wasn’t so bad—it has an ocean after all—and found myself thinking “I like where I am.”

            It’s not that simple of course.  You could make a good argument that skiing works better on snow, that there is a desperation to my attempts to place myself.  Still, I look back on that gannet day in February as a great one.  You could argue that après ski is the best part of ski, and I remember the after of that day as well as the during.  Once the exertion is over, once the cold and minor miseries are over, once you are safe and warm, face stretched tight with windburn, drink in hand, only then do the disparate, fragmented moments take on a cozy unified whole.  The past tense smoothes out rough edges.  Afterward cold hands seem merely romantic, not distracting.  It’s funny to listen to people speak glowingly of camping trips that they complained throughout.  Which is also one of my problems with nature writing in general.  The belief that heaven on earth is possible, that human nature can be somehow purified.  This is dependent on nostalgia (literally a “home coming”) for a time that never existed.  Maybe the belief that we all have one true home is a kind of pastoral masochism, like the follower’s belief in the ONE PERSON, here transposed into theONE PLACE.  Maybe the most important thing to remember about Thoreau’s cabin in the woods was that he left it, that he had his other lives to lead.  And it is also important to remember that he never owned that land to begin with.  That he was temporarily squatting on Emerson’s land.  

            But as I rested after my big ski I felt happy enough, sitting in my rocking chair on the deck in front of my unit in the woods, my hand wrapped around a cold Harpoon IPA (still clinging to theBostonmicrobrew).   That happiness was dependent not just on the much-hallowed “present moment,” but on the past—the adventure I’d just had—and the future—the anticipation that my daughter would soon be home from pre-school.  Earlier in the year I’d judged a nature writing contest and grew so tired of the phrase “being in the present moment” that I finally threw one of the books across the room.   I think that farm animals do a fine job of being in the present moment.  Humans not so good. 

              That day I took a break from my beer to walk downstairs and hose off my skis.  Sand in your bindings is one of the great problems with skiing the beach.  I carried the poles and skis back up to the deck and rested them behind me against the deck wall.   Then I plopped back down in the rocking chair on the deck.  If I squinted I could ignore the gold brick, elementary school-style building to my north and look out across the water toward Masonboro, the undeveloped island to the south.   There I sat in post-nordic glory, somewhat ridiculous, sipping my afternoon beer, my mind both leaping to the future and jumping back to the past, but also mildly pleased with the present, half in love with where I was.   It was not a perfect moment, not a pure moment, but it was a fine moment nonetheless.   It’s what I had and where I was.

            Perhaps all my worry about how to place myself has been for naught.  Perhaps next year I’ll get a job in the North and move back to Cape Cod and yell “Eureka!”   Perhaps Hadley and Nina will find true joy and peace in that new home, and perhaps I’ll stop my fretting and learn to be in the present moment, dancing Zen-like through my halcyon days.   Perhaps then I’ll write long letters of apology to my old heroes, John Hay and Wendell Berry, and settle our lovers’ quarrel over place.  I’ll grow my beard long and prophet-like and burn my cell phone in a solstice bonfire and build a cabin in a glade for my girls.  Then perhaps I’ll retreat to a mountaintop (or a hilltop since we are talking about the coast) and return with tablets in which are burnt the eco ethics for the coming green century.   

            Perhaps.  Or perhaps not. 

             The truth is I have no idea what will happen next.     

            Until then I will keep skiing the beach.


  1. Rahul Dave writes:

    How did I miss this?

    I went to Crane beach (on the north shore of Massachusetts) this weekend with friends. Its been so warm up north, that we were able to go barefoot, hike, and even dip our toes in the water (ok, only for a bit). We did some yoga, and then settled down on the dunes for an apres-whatever Riesling. The lack of snow this winter was forgotten, the warmth thoroughly enjoyed.

    But I should have taken the skis!

  2. An Alewife writes:

    Loved the part about the “northern” gannets. You are not alone.

    You should do this piece on WCAI (Cape and Islands Radio) or WOMR.

    I’m sure that would boost your YouTube views.

    Bye for now from Dennis,

  3. Steve Himmer writes:

    Great timing! My students read “Sick of Nature” yesterday, and we watched “Skiing the Beach” to discuss how it functions as an multimedia essay. Now I can show them this piece to consider how the argument gets “translated” into another form (which they’ll be doing with an essay of their own later in the semester). Thanks.