• ashleylodato


Updated: 6 days ago

With snow dusting the hills just above my Methow Valley home, my thoughts naturally turn to my brief but illustrious stint as a groomer of Nordic ski trails: a single night spent in the cozy cabin of a PistenBully, laying down corduroy.

If you haven't driven a PistenBully snow groomer before--and why would you have?--the first thing you must know is that it isn't a machine that just any old 6-year-old can drive (although I know a local first grader who manages it quite adeptly). It's a gleaming hulk of a thing, boxy, lots of glass, lots of attachments fore and aft, and lots and lots of horsepower. Or so I told myself.

I arrived at the storage shed at what felt like the middle of the night, but was probably around 10pm, thinking I would step into the PistenBully, drop a lever, put on some tunes, and spend a pleasant few hours mindlessly creating perfection for tomorrow's skiers.

Instead, as I soon learned from my grooming coach, these PistenBullies don't maintain themselves; there are lots of fluids and gauges to check before you even get to set foot in the cab. Which is kind of a buzz kill, if all you are really interested in is getting your hands on the steering wheel--which the manufacturers call a "joystick," as if this were just a common video game. I nodded and mm-hmmed my agreement as "we" checked the fluids, and then sprang into the cab as soon as I got the go-ahead.

After a quick demonstration by my grooming coach, where he explained all the various switches, levers, gauges, pedals, and other thingamajigs, giving me specific instructions like "When you want to blah blah blah then you switch the mumble-jumble to {indecipherable word}," I was ready.

"Got it," I told him, and practically pushed him out of the driver's seat and onto the snow. It was time to seize control of the grooming situation.

Thirty seconds later I found myself clamping the joystick between my legs, trying to wrestle the PistenBully into submission as I fishtailed wildly across the trail. The tracks behind the machine were parallel squiggly lines, the grooming equivalent of laying rubber on asphalt, but impermanent. With the help of my grooming coach--to whom I was now humbly willing to listen--we smoothed out those s-curves and laid down some respectable, if not perfect, tracks, as well as some serviceable corduroy on the skate platform.

I skied that corduroy early the next morning, on one of the last groomed ski days of the season, a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic. (A few weeks into the US version of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is. The rest of the world had been acknowledging it for months.) The spring sun was just beginning to soften the air but conditions were fast, and I climbed up to the pass alone, seeing only two or three other skiers. When I encountered others, we held our breath and smiled at each other from as far away as we could get on a 15' wide trail, new at this social distancing gig.

"It doesn't get any better than this," one of the skiers remarked. Unsure if he meant the physical condition of the trail or the bluebird day--or the mere fact that in the midst of global shutdowns, we were still able to recreate outside--I only smiled with false modesty, as if I could claim credit for not one but all three of these happy circumstances. Exercising great restraint, I resisted blurting out "Why thank you!"

But as I slid into the tracks to descend, I gave thanks: for the day, for the place, for the good fortune that allowed me the luxury of enjoying both. With longer days and warmer weather, the tracks wouldn't last long, but my sense of contentment would.


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