appears in Stanford Magazine, March. 2021
A gleaming hulk of a thing, smacking of horsepower, the PistenBully is all brawny elegance. It’s a boxy contraption, loud and cumbersome, but in the right hands it can finesse snow into glittering cross-country ski trails. Mine, I was sure, would be such hands.
Grooming trails is a solitary pursuit, executed at night, when temperatures fall. While skiers sleep, groomers coax various attachments fore and aft on the PistenBully into sculpting trails into the silky, ribbed platform skiers call corduroy, for skate skiing, and parallel tracks for classic skiing. Then they ghost home to sleep off the satisfying exertion of performing magic.
For years, my husband, the trails manager for North America’s largest cross-country trails system, had been nudging me to join him on a grooming stint. A kid-free date night in the cozy cabin of a PistenBully? Sign me up. With a midnight start time? Not a chance. But turning 50 the year before had made me more open to new experiences. Aging, paradoxically, had rejuvenated me. We put it on the calendar.
On a cloudless night on the cusp of the vernal equinox, I arrived at the storage shed thinking we would climb into the PistenBully, put on some tunes and knock out perfection for tomorrow’s skiers. But first, my husband said, there were a buzzkilling number of fluids to check. I nodded and mm-hmmed as we checked the gauges, and then I sprang into the cab as soon as he gave me the go-ahead. All that time I had wasted playing Pole Position in the 1980s was about to bear fruit.
Inside, I got a crash course in heavy machinery, as my husband demonstrated the joystick, used for steering, along with switches, levers, dials, pedals and other thingamajigs, and gave me specific instructions, like “When you want to blah blah blah, you switch the mumble-jumble to (indecipherable word).”
“Got it,” I told him, and practically pushed him out of the driver’s seat. Less talk, more action.
Thirty seconds later, I found myself in a battle of wills with the joystick, struggling to wrestle the PistenBully into submission as it fishtailed across the trail. The tracks behind the machine were parallel but squiggly, like I’d been laying rubber on asphalt, but white. Riding shotgun, my husband held his tongue. I carved a kilometer of serpentine, unskiable tracks before throwing myself at the mercy of his expertise. Humbled, and with guidance, I repaired the S-curves and finally laid down respectable tracks and serviceable corduroy.
Early the next morning, I skied on my handiwork, feeling both self-congratulatory and self-critical. At one point during my ascent, I crossed paths with another skier, who remarked, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Unsure whether he meant the condition of the trail or the bluebird day, I beamed, as if I could claim credit for both. With uncharacteristic restraint, I resisted blurting out “Thank you!”
But when I slid into the tracks to descend, I gave my thanks: for the day, for the place, and for the good fortune that allowed me to enjoy them. In the warmth of the spring sun, the tracks wouldn’t last long. But my gratitude would.