Skiing for life
It may sound strange to admire as a role model someone you’ve spent only a few anonymous minutes with — and will probably never see again.
And yet that happened to me last weekend on a chairlift at Sunday River.
The guy who joined us from the singles line was exclaiming over one of those perfect days on the New England slopes. He was 72, retired, and a winter migrant to Maine.
“All of our friends went south when they retired, but we came north,” he said. For the skiing.
No Florida for him. “I play enough golf in the summer,” he said. “Why would I want to be hitting a golf ball around in the winter, too?”
Why indeed, when one can be skiing?
Nor is my chairlift companion a lonely outlier. Last month, after a morning of amazing skiing courtesy of the Blizzard of 2013, my wife and I repaired to a lovely, large-windowed lodge for coffee and cinnamon buns. Looking up once my plate was scraped clean of the last drop of frosting, I noticed that we were two of the youngest people in the bustling mid-mountain eatery. Which is remarkable when you consider that, to appropriate (and update) a line from A.E. Housman, of my four score years and ten, 50 will not come again.
It was one of those moments when you declare: Wow, if this is what senior citizenship is all about, sign me up. Now, I realize that health problems frequently interrupt plans for an active retirement. Sometimes, instead of 70 being the new 60, it insists on acting like the new 80. The spirit may be willing, but the body isn’t.
But even there, attitude matters. A few years back, while riding a lift at Waterville Valley, I shared a chair with a 74-year-old who told me he’d been skiing 50 or so times that winter. When I expressed my envy, he noted that he was trying to make up for the winter before, when he’d missed the entire season.
Quadruple bypass surgery, he said.
A few weeks later, I was relating that story to a friend while on a lift at Mount Sunapee. I’d like to be like that at 74, I said. Absent the heart surgery, of course.
A skier who had joined us on the lift spoke up.
“I’m 80,” he said.
Wow, still skiing at 80, we replied. Good for you.
Perhaps he found our expressions of congratulation tinged with some unintended condescension. At any rate, as we made our way down the slope, the same skier came zooming by us at a speed that as much as said: Catch me if you can.
I encountered the antithesis of that doughty New England spirit last summer when a colleague and I did some talk-with-the-voters interviews at The Villages, the 55-and-up Florida gated community where residents tootle between quaintly themed town squares in tricked-out golf carts.
One fellow in particular sticks in my mind. To my eye, he was only on the near edge of senior citizenship, but he said he’d already been at The Villages for several years. The day he’d retired, he proudly reported, he’d packed up his car and made a beeline there from the snowy Midwest.
To each his own, I suppose. But as for me, I’d rather stick my hand into a can of annoyed spiders than live in a cloistered community like that. Talk about leaning into old age.
One who turned determinedly the other way was Emile Allais, the great French skier and pioneer of the parallel turn, who died last year at 100.
At 90, Allais broke his shoulder in a collision with (surprise, surprise) a snowboarder. But once it mended, he was back out on the slopes. Allais skied well into his 90s. He had even bet his doctor that he would beat him down a celebrated run at Chamonix on his hundredth birthday.
After only nine decades on skis, you can hardly blame him for wanting more. Sadly, however, a deteriorating sense of balance kept him from doing that race.
Still, his was a life well-lived. And well skied. Oh, to follow in his snowy tracks.
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for The New York Times.