On January 31st, a beautiful thing occurred. I did not spend any time at the hospital. It was the only day this entire month that this occurred, so Ashley and I wanted to do something fun to take full advantage of the opportunity. We decided to visit our favorite regional retreat, the Catskills, and try cross-country skiing at Mohonk Moutain House. It would be the first time for both of us.
Mohonk’s grounds are surrounded by 85 miles of relatively flat, groomed cross-country trails (carriage trails, originally) perfect for novices like us. I looked it up on the web and found that as day-trippers, we wouldn’t have access to the house, but that the picnic lodge would be available for a warm lunch. And the grounds looked lovely.
It had snowed briefly on Friday, which meant a light dusting of powder across the land and a beautiful drive as we approached New Paltz. We had left early in the morning—no sleeping-in for this boy on his day off (though we did both manage to sleep through our alarms such that we left an hour later than intended). We wanted to get to Rock & Snow to rent our skis as soon as the store opened. The staff was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and so we asked them if Mohonk was a good place to ski. They whole-heartedly recommended it, but suggested that rather than pay the relatively expensive per person price to park at the hotel, we should instead go just past the hotel entrance and park in a state park parking lot for next to nothing. A brief hike up a hill, they explained, would put us onto the golf course that was also associated with the hotel and give us access to the same carriage trails we’d otherwise be skiing.
Armed with this local, insider information, we drove up the hill, past the hotel entrance, and continued down, down, down to the state park parking lot. Simple logic should have told us at this point that after all that down, we would have to go up—something I vaguely recall us acknowledging—but excitement to get started got the better of logic and so we parked, suited up and hit the snow!
With our skis on, we followed an ungroomed trail up in the direction which we had seen some others go. And by “up,” I mean up, up, and up. We alternated from duck-walking (this would be the “skating” part for a more experienced skier) to slip-siding our way up the hill. As the cold wind whipped through our thin layers (thin for when we worked up a sweat, right?), we began to wonder just where, exactly, this trail was ever going to connect to those relatively flat, groomed trails.
Finally, we met up with the groomed trails of the golf course—though I wouldn’t say it felt like much of it was “relatively flat.” At every turn, we expected the trail to flatten, or even go down a bit. But it was all still uphill. Slightly warmed by the extreme effort we were exerting, we set off with new resolve. At last the trail opened up onto hole 4 where a lovely meadow and creek seemed to wrap around rolling hills. And it was a particularly beautiful day: sunny and bright, and so quiet. For the first time, as we gained some speed and got some glide to our stride, cross-country skiing was actually fun! (Though at one point, Ashley did look over at me at one of the summits, laughing at the absurdity of both of us completely out of breath, with noses running like faucets from the cold air, to point out that this felt like all of the hardest, least-fun parts of downhill strung in a row.)
Still not quite sure how to connect to the Mohonk trails, we cruised around the golf course, enjoying its more gentle ups and downs. Coming around what would presumably have been the tee at hole 6, we saw the gate house, or entry point, for Mohonk and the bridge over the road that would take us there.
We got a trail map from one of the gate house attendants and plotted our course for the next stage. But we got some disappointing news: the picnic lodge house was closed for the winter. That left us—at 1 p.m.—with an apple to share, having not eaten since breakfast. But we figured we might be able to make it all the way to the Mohonk House if we followed the North Rim Trail. Ignoring growling stomachs, we pushed on. We skied along and made it as far as the North Lookout, about halfway to the house. We enjoyed the crisp, sweet apple and admired the view. We both agreed, later, that this was our favorite part of the day: as we turned the corner toward the lookout, there were bolders and icicles to our left, a beautiful rail of old logs to our right–past which was a vast view of the sun-filled valley–and the trail ahead gently bending. Ultimately, we decided that as it was getting later, and I was getting hungrier, we should turn around here and save the trip to the mountain house for a time we could actually go inside.
We made it back across the trails of the grounds, over the bridge, and back through the golf course to the long downhill stretch that we had both been looking forward to. But, as the guy who had rented us our equipment had told us, we would not be able to edge our way to a stop as we were accustomed to. Instead we would have to form a wedge, a pie, to stop. So, as I started down the first of many downward slopes to come, I found myself picking up speed rather quickly, and started to form a wedge. Before long, the inside of my thighs felt like they were about to explode! I managed to come to a stop where the trail split—a black diamond to the left, and a green to the right. Our path back to the parking lot, of course, was to the left. A hill that would have been boring had we been downhill skiing suddenly became a serious challenge.
With not a few tumbles—Ashley attributed hers to that moment when her leg muscles just gave up—we made it down to the base of the trail, across the solid field of black ice which the parking lot had become, and got to the car. Poor Ashley, so happy to be walking again, confidently started to stride down the road and took one last fall, hard to the knee (which still bears a reminder). Blasting the heat, we headed straight back into New Paltz and ordered ourselves lunch. We felt like we were in one of those cartoons where each of us is morphing into a leg of turkey in the other’s eyes as we sat for minutes that went by like years. When the French onion soup finally came, it was the best in the world. Or so our starving, freezing brains thought at that time.
The next morning, it felt like we’d been hit by trucks. Ev-er-y thing hurt. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Did we have the same rush as we get flying down a hill? No. But we saw the landscape in ways we could never do with hiking, or skiing, and it was actually very satisfying to struggle through a new sport together, and feel a sense of achievement when we were able to glide across the snow. Next time, however, we’ll skip the cheap parking lot!