Sunday, February 08, 2009

Jackson Ski Touring was like Nordic Graduate School

In 2000, when I first arrived at the Jackson Ski Touring complex, I knew a lot more about dodging trees and skiing with various kinds of load on my shoulders than I did about the laboratory-perfect skating and striding a facility of that caliber allows.

Faced with the need to serve a varied and as-yet-unknown clientele, I knew I would have to get up to speed in a hurry. I had enough familiarity with a broad range of Nordic technique and technology to get started. The touring center itself provided the depth.

Thrown in at the deep end with a variety of stressors, I also had a number of resources to draw on. These included a ready supply of gear and a trail network that ran right by the door. Convenience like that is hard to beat. In addition, the facility had some highly knowledgeable and accessible people on the staff or among the regular clientele.

The popular term for my learning style is "autodidact." This is a nice way of saying "stubborn jerk who doesn't do well in structured learning situations." I speak only for myself, not for the respectable body of admirable autodidacts out there. Given the wealth of experience and knowledge trailside at Jackson I was able to glean knowledge and perform my experiments in a continuous thread throughout each ski season.

In every case I try to share what I have learned unstintingly with anyone who hasn't encountered it yet. I don't care if they admire me for knowing it. I don't care if they even know my name. I just want them to know what I know so they know it themselves and can take advantage of it. So from that standpoint, Jackson was a banquet of experience translated into shared knowledge.

It was always about the skiing. Exposed on the sales floor it was also like improvisational theater. Under the spotlights, before a live audience, play your heart out. Many customers thanked me or members of my staff for the full, complete and honest presentation. We matched up a lot of skiers with carefully chosen gear. A number of them continue to seek us out. Sometimes this involved staying well after closing time. Our schedule hardly rivals the grueling days of the center's executive director or the brute labors of the patrol, especially in lean snow years that require a lot of shoveling, but in terms of hours awake and time spent thinking about how to make it work the job very soon expanded to consume a lot of life outside of official business hours.

In the spirit of cooperative enterprise, retail staff would often have to answer questions about the facility when Foundation staff were either overwhelmed by other customers or momentarily absent. It's like working in Walt Disney World: everyone has to know the layout of the park and the location of the nearest restrooms or snack bars. We did this without being asked.

Mind you I only lasted one summer at Disney World. I prefer my rides less structured and predictable.

I can be pretty blunt when sharing my opinions. Try as I might to be informative and entertaining, I have to face the fact that I also just piss some people off. Thrown on stage in a setting like Jackson, where the business structure can be confusing even to those somewhat familiar with it, let alone visitors from away, when I stepped on someone's toes it had a disconcerting way of echoing across miles and miles of New England, sometimes even rattling windows lightly as far away as LL Bean headquarters. I never did get used to that. Who really could? Even stranger, I often would not hear a sound until months later when I was knocked off my feet by a shock wave.

None of that has a single thing to do with skiing. When I found I could not control it, I ignored it, concentrating on what I could do instead. I remember a friend in college, a graduate student in French, telling me hair raising tales of departmental intrigue, politics and hostility. People get caught up in the importance of their own little universe and start playing all kinds of games with each other's heads. One grad student in that program committed suicide. Things that start out centered on something that's supposed to be light hearted can turn surprisingly poisonous.

Any season could have been the last. Because of that I always tried to value the experience of skiing there and experience it as often as possible. It's simple on the snow. Just ski.

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