On a walk weeks before Thanksgiving, I saw it: the first lit Christmas tree of the year standing cheerily in a neighbor’s window. I’d never been so happy to see one.
This time of year, I’m usually grousing about how holiday deadlines and a busy holiday social calendar are depleting my alone time and work-life balance, and counting down the days to my family’s annual post-Christmas ski vacation in the Methow Valley, a tradition my parents started before I was born. This year, I’ve entered into a two-week quarantine so that I can spend Thanksgiving with family at all. (Don’t worry: We’re going immediate-family-only. I’m a journalist and an anxious person. There’s no way I’d do anything else.)
Just like the stoic March children in “Little Women,” our city faces a newly desolate Christmastime. And like Amy March, desperate for drawing pencils despite the Civil War, it feels more crucial to me than ever to gather what little holiday cheer I can.
In idle moments, inspired by a friend’s endorsement, I have found myself researching artificial Christmas trees online (pink! with lights!), and listening to the Christmassy Thomas Newman score of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation of “Little Women.” I’m seriously considering paying money to see a video recording of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” despite skipping the holiday divertissement in protest since the company switched to Balanchine’s version.
But after talking it over with my parents, it’s possible we may skip the ski trip this year. It would only be the second time, ever.
And it’s a sad prospect. Because my favorite thing about this time of year doesn’t really have anything to do with Christmas at all: It’s the first time I hear the sound of my skis gliding over new corduroy, a bright-blue sky above, as the collision between cold air and fresh sweat makes me feel like the joyful polar bear in a holiday Coke commercial.
For the most part, cross-country skiing is already a socially distanced activity. You’re dispersed on wooded trails, pursuing a sport too casually arduous and endurance-based to ever eclipse downhill in popularity.
This distinction was hidden from me as a child. I learned to cross-country ski before I could walk, and I didn’t know downhill skiing existed until well into elementary school; I just assumed whenever anyone mentioned “skiing” that they meant the good old kick ‘n’ glide.
Though I’ve jettisoned plenty of things from my family of origin — timing every run I go on, tolerating board games, playing the oboe — skiing isn’t one of them.
Every year without fail, the day after Christmas, my parents, my brother and I all pile into my dad’s Subaru, some of us complaining about the early hour (typically this is my role), others bright-eyed with anticipation of skiing (this is my dad, who for nearly 30 years has been our dedicated snow driver).
We make a stop at Fresh Flours for to-go coffees and baked goods, and my mom and I hope the cute barista is on shift. In the car, my parents will ask if we mind listening to NPR and my brother and I will pull the earbuds out of our heads with an undignified “Huh?” as if we’re still sullen teens, and not two adults in our early 30s.
My dad will drive us from Interstate 5 to Interstate 90, over Snoqualmie and Blewett Pass, through the apple country of Eastern Washington, and beyond into the glittering, snow-dusted North Cascades. We typically stop for more coffee at a bakery in Cashmere, and for gas at a station in Orondo that has an excellent snack inventory.
We will pull off the highway in Winthrop, where we’ll check in at a hotel replete with cowboy decor. If it’s still light enough, my dad will lead the charge to go on the first ski of the trip, having dreamed of this moment for the days he’s spent waxing our skis in my parents’ basement.
After we ski, we’ll sip beers and read books on the couch and designate a representative to pick up groceries to make dinner; we alternate cooking and dish duty. Eventually, I’ll crawl into my fluffy hotel bed and toggle between romantic comedies both dreadful (the Hallmark Channel’s inevitable marathon of made-for-TV Christmas movies) and beyond reproach (“When Harry Met Sally” is often on cable this time of year), punctuated by the weird delights of local advertising.
We spend the week skiing and reading and reading and skiing and eating cookies and drinking coffee and buying books we don’t need at one of the shops in town. We join the throngs of Seattleites at the general store in Mazama, where you’re lucky if you get a table during the trailside lunch rush.
This year, we will not be doing a lot of these things. In fact, we might not do any of them. Because travel advisories aren’t a joke, because COVID-19 is deadly and because here’s the thing about a family tradition: It’s something that requires acknowledging that a future exists at all. I want to be able to go skiing with my family in the Methow Valley for years to come. Not just this year. And not if it means endangering a community I’ve come to think of over the years as a second home.
The Methow Valley is where I learned to ski, on a practice loop near what was once the North Cascades Base Camp, now owned by The Bush School, though I was too young to retain any memory of this; it seemed I just always knew how. The Methow is where I gradually learned to ski farther and farther, where my dad taught me to go down hills in an aerodynamic tuck; you think you’ll fall, but if you breathe, you won’t.
It’s where I first learned to skate-ski, where I learned to go fast, where most years I give myself an arbitrary goal that typically involves skiing 20 kilometers alone through the woods, so I can remind myself of how deep my reserves really go. At a certain point, you realize you can keep going, and still further, you become too tired to think about much beyond the sun glinting off the snow, the row of pink flamingos someone set up beside the trail, the way everything looks like an illustration from a Barbara Cooney children’s book, from the bent-over barns to the light on the mountains.
It’s a dream, isn’t it? And it isn’t just for me.
When I started exploring the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv for a story earlier this fall, I was reminded of the moments this year when I’ve been able to look into the distance and watch a traffic light change color, as one subject of that story did. I thought of the rainy walks I’ve insisted upon taking with friends, bundled up in sweaters and boots. Under tree cover, the familiar pine scent is an insistent reminder that it is possible to see the horror and the beauty in the world, to hold both at once, to, as the poet Adam Zagajewski once put it, “try to praise the mutilated world.”
This is not an easy thing to do, but the idea of friluftsliv has reminded me that you don’t need to go to the mountains to have these moments away from the fresh horror unfolding around us. Though perhaps more obviously sublime from a pair of skis in a sun-brightened mountain valley, these flashes of transcendence are actually available to us wherever we are. All we have to do is step outside.
For now, that’s good enough for me.
For now, that has to be.
All I really want for Christmas this year is an effective vaccine and a coherent national plan for administering it. I’d like to be able to hug my family again, without the simultaneous low-grade anxiety I’ve grown accustomed to. I’d like to be able to sit across from a friend over a fancy rum cocktail at my favorite neighborhood bar without sanitizing my hands until the beginnings of eczema dot my wrists. I’d like to be able to dance sweatily with strangers, or to go inside or into a crowd for reporting purposes without needing to get my nasal cavities probed a week later. I’d like the possibility of travel to feel real again. I’d like to know that my friends and family who work in front-line jobs will be OK.
It’s impossible to know when any of these things will be within reach. In the meantime, we have to continue to do what we’ve done since March, when we put our lives on hold in the name of public health. We will self-quarantine if we want to see our relatives in person. We will order our groceries for pickup and do puzzles and continue to get to know the interior spaces of our co-workers’ homes via Zoom.
And someday, we’ll be able to stop.
That day is not today, but when it comes — when it’s safe or at the very least low-risk — I’m looking forward to the moment when I first round a corner on my skis, bomb down a steep hill and glide up the incline that follows on sheer momentum, and remember what it feels like to be exactly where I am, not shredded with worry about anything more pressing than the next curve in the trail. Amid a massive public health crisis, my fleeting, personal happiness is a small thing. I’m willing to wait for it.