The golf course was cold and its snowdrifts dark in the pre-morning hours. Around birch bluffs and up and down falling fairways curved a pair of parallel ski tracks. Pressed down by a machine, the tracks were the only contrast on the long straights of untouched snow. The birds were silent save for a lone raven, cawing as it flew from treetop to treetop. The birch and spruce lining the fairways blocked the highway from sight and muffled the hum of rumbling trucks. The whole place was noiseless and still and on freshly waxed skis I glided across the snow fast and effortlessly. Turning left and down out onto the open fairway I raced across it to the top of a small hill. Slowing to a stop, I dug in my ski poles and rested against them to enjoy the perfection of this place.
Each Saturday, hours before the sunrise, I leave my wife and children asleep at home and drive out here to ski. I’m the only car in the parking lot, save for the caretaker’s, and there in that empty lot, lacing up my boots and strapping on my skis, I feel strong and alone. Here I am, awake and active while the rest of the world is asleep, the one person with willpower to brave the cold and the dark. I live for this feeling.
My chest, heaving against my poles, lifted my body up and down slightly with each breath. Somewhere in the dark the lone raven cawed as it took flight. I closed my eyes and listened again for this raven. It was now silent, but I heard a different, unnatural sound. I held my breath and strained hard to listen. The sound was the quiet zip-zip, zip-zip of fabric rubbing against itself, the sound of another skier.
Around a corner of trees far in the distance came a small man, barely visible against the dark snowdrifts. Striding one-two, one-two, head down, he came around the corner and moved left along the edge of the fairway. In a rhythm, moving steadily, he had the upright posture of someone casually enjoying the act of skiing.
The man crested a slight rise in the earth and glided smoothly down the other side. The ski track at this point branched in two. Right led back towards the parking lot—this was the short loop, the route I hoped he’d take. Left led down and out across the fairway—this was the long loop, the one I had taken. The man, pausing in thought though not in motion as he glided towards the fork in the tracks, smoothly chose the left path. Skiing calmly and looking up to enjoy the crisp air on his face, the man caught sight of me and inclined his chin slightly to signal that he had. He reached the bottom of the depression before the small hill and began skiing up towards me.
Standing there silently as I was, leaning forward on my poles in perfect relaxation, I began to resent this man. He had broken the perfect solitude of my morning in a way that seemed almost on purpose. With each stride he took towards me my resent grew stronger until, when he was halfway to me, I was unable to watch him any longer. Pushing up on my poles to straighten myself, I turned away from him and felt my back and shoulders become tense.
He was here now, taking his last two strides and gliding to a stop. He came up just short of me, stepped about with his skis to look out in the same direction as me, and planted his poles in my same fashion. He didn’t speak or offer a greeting. The sound of his breathing was laboured and distracting.
I stood there listening to him, side-by-side with this man, waiting for him to say something, anything. It was overwhelming. This man had skated across two hundred meters of snow to a dead stop right beside me without so much as a hello. My resent for this man hardened and became permanent.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” he said so suddenly that I was caught off guard.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Yeah, incredible.” I had been preparing to break the silence myself with some biting piece of sarcasm which left me unprepared for his quaint nicety.
The man stared out for a long time more. He seemed perfectly content and this kept me uncertain as to what would happen next. Not knowing what to say to him other than something nasty, I found myself again not wanting to break the silence.
The thought then entered my mind that he might stand there forever. I didn’t have the patience to endure that. In my head I rehearsed a new sarcastic remark. I cleared my throat to speak, but at the last moment I hesitated.
“Out for an early morning ski?” is what I said. All the venom and resent in the world was there just millimeters under the surface of my skin wanting to spill out of my pores and consume this man. Yet I responded to his banal nicety with one of my own.
The man turned his head to me slowly. It was the first time I had seen his face. His hair was all salt-and-pepper and had a bushy mustache and bushy eyebrows to match both which seemed meant to protect him from the cold. On them clung frost and tiny icicles. He wore a plain black winter coat and a plain black toque, and his eyes sparkled out from all that blackness the same way springtime sun sparkles on freshly fallen snow.
“Yep,” was all he said. “You?” He kept looking at me with those sparkling, kind eyes. It was unnerving.
“I come out here every Saturday morning.” I looked away into the distance in part to get away from those eyes and in part to let him know I was a serious skier. I could still feel his eyes on me; he hadn’t looked away.
“Saw you when I came ‘round that bend down there. Thought I’d come over, say hello.” It was precisely what I figured he’d done. He either had no sense for the solitude a man wants by getting up this early in the cold and the dark, or he was mean-spiritedly out to ruin my morning. His eyes didn’t look malicious, though. I decided he was just dumb to how this all works.
“Your first time out here?” I asked, still looking away. The way he skied showed he wasn’t new to the sport; maybe he simply needed a lesson on ski etiquette.
He shook his head. “Seen you out here, though. That’s your car, red with the ski rack.” He said this as if it wasn’t a question, but still I nodded. Funny, I had never noticed his car in the lot, never noticed anyone else’s save for the caretaker’s. He must come and go all while I’m still skiing.
“Usually do the short loop,” he continued, confirming what I had thought. “It’s enough these days. Today, though, figured you’d be the guy with the car and wanted to come say hello.”
I turned back to him to see his face with the bright shining eyes. His moustache and eyebrows no longer hid his age; they were now mementos of it. I saw the creases and lines of many more years than my own. This man was older than I had thought. He hadn’t looked it from his skiing stride but his face now openly showed it. It surprised me that I hadn’t seen it before.
He smiled again at me and I realized I had been staring into his face for an awkwardly long time. I quickly looked away again into the distance and he also turned his head slowly and looked out together with me. The sun still had not yet come up, but it was beginning to grow light. The snow instead of being dark and shapeless was becoming grey just like the sky. The snow and the sky seemed to lighten together, blending snow and sky until the whole scene became one encompassing vastness. Something deep inside of me relaxed for the first time in a very long while.
The man turned slowly back to me. “I’m going now. Want to check on the pump house. You lead—you’re faster. Have the tracks all to yourself.”
I paused. I felt inside me tense up again. Then the moment passed and the something deep inside me relaxed even more. “No. No, you go on ahead. I’ll wait here awhile. Maybe I’ll see you on up ahead.”
The man smiled at me with those sparkling eyes one more time. Then he unplanted his poles, inclined his head to me, and pushed on along the machine pressed path, along the birch and spruce trees, then around a corner and out of sight.