Skiing for the Second Time, Howard Johnson for the Last Time

Before we begin, this piece has several companion files. You can see a picture of me and one of my instructors. You can hear for yourself how it sounds to ski. If you have Google Earth, you can download my .kmz file which contains all the GPS data, including the photograph. Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Google. I still consider them evil. Now with that out of the way we may begin this awesome journey.

Last year, I went skiing for the first time. As soon as I did, I knew I would go again the next year. And now I have.

Originally, another blind friend and I both wanted to go. We called and schedule parallel lessons. Unfortunately, her grandmother passed away, and she had to attend the memorial so could not go with us. I went ahead with my plans. My brother would take me again of course, and this time he got a bunch of his rowdy friends to join us. I say that somewhat jokingly of course, but when you get nine people together who all want to have a good time, unexpectedly funny situations always present themselves. This time proved no exception. Our group included me, my sister Audrey, my brother Ari, his wife Sarah, Mike and Kristy, Steve and Cat, and Jean. We all headed up in various ways and converged at Camelback.

We headed up the morning of the lesson. This time I had gotten one in the afternoon time slot, so we decided to stay that night rather than go up the previous day as we had done last year. Little annoying setbacks seemed to happen, but we overcame them. First, I stupidly left my wool socks and long underwear in the car. I also didn’t know who would do what or go where, and didn’t know wear and when I would get the opportunity to change. Of course, I should have known that they have places to change. Fortunately, they also have places to buy wool socks and long underwear.

That solved, we continued to register all of us. I had preregistered online, as had Mike, who I found out really knew how to ski. He ended up getting the most time out of all of us. He wanted to get started as quickly as possible, because his girlfriend had a lesson, and he figured that wouldn’t give him much time to ski down the more dangerous trails. She didn’t really go for it, so I have a feeling he got his chance. We encountered a little computer snafu. I don’t quite understand what happened, but they said they didn’t have us in the system, but they stamped mine from last year for some reason, and said that at the end it would say over due but that wouldn’t matter. I had no idea, so just agreed and stuck the ticket in my pocket.

Next, we got a locker, since my sister didn’t want to leave her purse anywhere. It requires inserting a quarter every time you open the thing. My sister put one in and the god damn thing promptly jammed. We had to get maintenance, who freed the quarter and fixed the locker. We apprehensively put our things in. I had put on my ski boots, so put my nice new snow boots into the locker of doom.

We then headed over to the cafeteria to eat and converge with more of the group and get lunch. It even smelled like an elementary school cafeteria. I got the classic ski resort combo – pizza and french fries. My pizza felt cooler in the middle which made me slightly nervous, but since it didn’t have any meat I at least felt a little better. And those fries sucked too. Whatever. I ate half and gave the rest away. It would have to do. Elementary school food indeed.

I showed up to the adaptive sports building at one o’clock on the dot. I felt glad to reacquaint myself with my skiing friends from the Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports, and with Isabel, who heads the program. I saw Peter and Pat, my instructors from last year. I would get different ones this time. I soon met Loretta and Rich. Of course as soon as I heard the name Loretta, I thought of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta.” That made me laugh inwardly and boost my mood even more, washing away the morning’s annoyances.

The three of us went outside, weirdly walking in our ski boots. I fired up Ski Tracks. We got into our skis and shuffled to the beginning of the trail. We reviewed some basics. You have to keep your feet directly under your shoulders. The beginner’s slope meant we had to shuffle some, but we began gliding and practicing stopping. I began to remember.

We started out without any special equipment. Loretta skied backwards in front of me and squeezed a hand to signal a turn. She decided to put on the bungee. This would hold the tips of my skis closer together, which helps get the right configuration. Rich connected it, and I met Loretta’s cute kid Rebecca. After a little more skiing, Loretta decided that she wanted to switch from hand signals to a tether. Holding onto her hands would alter my body’s position, and a tether allows freer movement while still giving the instructor control. A rope connects to each ski, and the instructor skis behind and holds onto the ends. This gives the instructor the ability to control and stop the student. By the way, sighted skiers use this same equipment.

At first I felt scared to ski without holding on to any support, but I quickly took to it and my nervousness past. I did some awesome turns. Both instructors felt impressed. Loretta likes the tether for this reason. It does take building a certain level of trust, but once you get over that it works well.

Rich had never instructed a blind student before, so we had to give him a little lesson. We talked about the best system for audio cues. For a beginner, something like “Weight your right foot to turn left.” works very well, but that can become confusing for the instructor who has to ski backwards. I would then recommend starting with “Weight your right foot.” then transitioning to “Turn left.” After getting this straight we proceeded to the lift.

As we approached the lift, Loretta and I made an amazing discovery. Since the area in front of the lift just has straight ground, you have to maneuver your skis a lot more. This means having to manually move them. She used the (we thought) familiar analogy of hands on a clock. The blind use this to describe a lot of things, for example food on a plate. I have always loved clocks and time machines since childhood, so always felt at home with that analogy. She felt impressed that I moved my skis to 2:00 then to 1:00. She said that she tried to explain that to a blind kid a few weeks ago, and the kid didn’t understand what she meant. It occurred to me that kids today probably don’t have analogue clocks! Why would they? They probably use talking clocks, or those STUPID crappy uncouth talking watches. They’ve never felt a clock or a watch with hands they can move with their hands! As a kid I had a nice braille pocket watch. Now I have an iPhone. Amazing. Blind kids: do yourself a favor and get a braille clock if only for reference. An abacus wouldn’t hurt either, but I digress. Instructors: have a braille clock on hand for demonstrative purposes. You need to now. Oh my heart.

“Some people are freaked out by lifts, but I think they’re kind of cool.” These words would come back on me later. Loretta and I rode up in one lift, and Rich rode up in another with the equipment. I need to remember to get some ski pants. Last time we skied during the last week of the season, with temperatures in the 50s. This time we skied with temperatures in the high 20s. Snow fell, and I could especially feel it falling down while moving up in the lift. It felt somehow fitting.

I now must make a comment about the music. Last time, they played a mix of primarily eighties pop. I can live with that. It reminds me of childhood. This time, we noticed a lot more pop music from the nineties and later in the mix. Too bad. I long for a skiing place that plays crazy psytrance.

We did the second run. Rich skied backwards in front of me giving me directions, and Loretta skied behind me with the tether. Before I knew it I had gone down the steepest part of the trail. I began doing some turns in succession. Then Loretta said what Peter said last year, and what I love to hear. “You have absolute balance.” It comes from meditation. I do have to learn not to pitch my body when going off balance. Press the shins into the front or inside of the boot. It all fits together. I really got into it, and made a nice big C turn.         I then made a few in a row. “Those turns were so nice I forgot you were blind.” said Rich. Wonderful.

Rich went up with me on the lift for the second time. Loretta went up in another with her daughters and the equipment. We reviewed the protocol for entering and exiting a lift. The instructor should say “3-2-1-sit” or “3-2-1-stand.” Ideally, this provides a smooth transition from the lift onto the small slope where you land. Life, however, does not always behave ideally. Something very freaky happened on this lift.

We rode up on the lift and discussed how to get off properly, since he hadn’t done it with a blind person before. We talked about landing with your skis straight or a little wedge, then going into the bigger stopping wedge. “If you go down I’ll pick you up. If I go down you pick me up.” Rich joked. That joke almost became true.

After all our talk, Rich forgot to give the countdown. As I stepped off, I felt the ground rapidly falling away. I panicked slightly, and just went for it and stepped off. I fell I don’t know how far and landed on my skis. I didn’t fall. I brought myself to a stop, holding onto Rich. “What the fuck happened?” I blurted out, my adrenalin pumping. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t give you the right command. Sorry.” I felt a little shaken, and I bumped my elbow, but I quickly recovered and felt fine. Loretta quickly joined us. “Well! That was interesting.” she said. “That was all my fault. We didn’t get off quickly enough.” I felt kind of bad for the guy, but not too bad – self-preservation comes first. At least I learned not to regard lifts with such a carefree attitude. A skiing buddy said that more people get hurt on the lifts than on the mountain and I believe it.

The time had come for a special Taza Chocolate break. I got this great cacao tin from Trader Joe’s. After going through the chocolate covered nibs in the tin, I replaced them with Taza’s. This makes an absolutely fabulous way to carry cacao on the go, while skiing for instance. Just pop open the top and pour some nibs into your hand and enjoy. No fuss, no muss. Yes, after that little freakout I needed some raw cacao. I explained it to both my instructors. It’s unrefined.

Loretta decided to start down with me using hand signals, and Rich would catch up. She had dropped a C-clamp, and I met her Black Diamond girl, who volunteered to go look for it. How cute. Loretta asked what had happened on the lift, and said it looked like I stepped off too late. She said that I have some skills to have righted myself like that. The fall had loosened a boot, which she fixed. We then took off. Rich caught up to us and we did more turns. We also worked on controlling my speed. It felt good knowing that Loretta could control my movement at any time, and that let me let myself go a little and improve. Rich continued giving me audio directions as well. It made a good combination. At one point, I alternated weighting my skis, so instead of stopping I made several nice turns. It looked pretty, but I didn’t stop. It worked out well though on the beginner trail. At the end of the run, Loretta and Rich switched roles, so Loretta skied backwards in front of me and Rich controlled the tether. I learned more about digging the edges of the skis into the snow, instead of just widening my stance. Bringing your knees together will make your skis go up on their sides. Not ideal, but it works in an emergency. “Textbook turns.” said Rich.

We reached the bottom once again. I checked out the progress of Ski Tracks. Loretta felt amazed that it could tell me that we go on a twelve degree slope. Note that since updating the app it now reports four degrees. She explained what a twelve degree slope meant to her kid. I disabled VoiceOver and screen curtain and let her daughter Jamie check it out. She quickly figured out how to take the picture featured in this article. That done, we continued to the lift. Loretta and I talked about how ten-year-olds can use technology better than their parents. She wouldn’t have known how to take that picture with my iPhone, but her daughter did. I joked about the sesame street song. It excites me to see kids getting into this technology.

We went down again with Loretta in front and Rich tethering again. I made some more nice turns. Loretta gave me a high five. I sometimes have to wait longer and not panic and just let the turn work. I also have to work on my left turn. We worked to a less steep part, and that started to sound good, as my knees had begun to tire. It had gotten to 03:15, and my lesson ended at 04:00. I figured I should at least get one last run in. We saw the guy who runs the sailing program. I went once, but forgot to write about it, because we got rained out. I’ll try again in the summer.

Loretta and I went up. “Rich is the equipment manager for the day, because the time he left me in control I lost part of it… But then again, he almost lost you, so… We don’t let things like that slide, we’ll tease him about that for a long time.” Now it belongs to the ages. Poor guy. We also talked of the expo she wants to set up in the West Chester area for adaptive sports. I’ll keep you all posted.

Unfortunately, my recording ran out at this point. I found it an extremely valuable aide to record my lesson, and would very highly recommend it to instructors and students alike. You can really go over things that you may have missed in all the excitement. I don’t really remember anything eventful happening in the last run, as I began to tire. We made it down and decided to call it a day. By the time we made it back up the lift and back to the adaptive center, it had gotten to 03:56, good enough. I switched off Ski Tracks and there you go.

  • Maximum Speed 6.2 MPH
  • Ski Distance 1.1 mi.
  • Ski Vertical 458 ft
  • Slope 4°
  • Duration 02:15:09

I took off my skis, but my boots resided in that stupid locker. I said farewell to my new skiing buddies, and my brother exited the building. We returned the equipment and I showed them the precious pass that indeed came up overdo, but it didn’t matter.

I felt good. Skiing reminds me of meditation. You have to maintain balance no matter what happens in your mind or on the slopes. And, like transmuting energy, you have to stand tall! If you don’t it will weigh you down and you will fall to your lower nature or to gravity.

Last year’s lesson felt like a good initial experience. We all held onto the pole for the most part, which let me have fun experiencing the exhilaration. This time had more of the feel of a real lesson. We spent the whole time pretty much working on turning and stopping, two essential and related skills. It just made me want to come back for more as soon as possible. My mind reflected the gently falling snow, and I enjoyed the tranquility. Too bad it wouldn’t last.

the Thirsty Camel did not seem like the ideal place to gather, but gather we did. Camelback… Thirsty Camel… get it? Neither did we. My senses felt overwhelmed in a sea of obnoxiously loud music from an obnoxiously loud band. I do not know if a sighted person can fully appreciate how this feels for a blind person. It causes a complete loss of orientation, and a lack of ability to identify anything. It basically makes it completely impossible to think or function. I know sighted people feel this way to some degree, but I think the blind experience something even more dreadful. Imagine the sensation of having a blaring fire alarm in a building. Imagine the panicked disorientation from that sustained loud noise. Imagine that happening for an hour after a peaceful afternoon. It felt kind of like that.

At least everyone agreed about the music. “This band is terrible.” “What a shitty cover band.” Seriously, I don’t get cover bands. In my mind, if a piece of art doesn’t produce a sense of wonder and novelty, then it just seems like crap to me.

I felt distressed. My head ached from the music, and my heart ached from having my tranquility blotted out by yet another cover of Brown-Eyed Girl. At least my headphones shut out things enough for me to use my iPhone to post a tweet to that effect. At some point during the cacophony, I got my boots back. After an hour, we headed out. Finally!

Some of us headed for a bus back to our car, and others remained to ski a little longer. The driver asked where everyone wanted to go. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” he said decisively. Of course I caught the reference to Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. Then, we met a real wise guy. When my sister moved to give his kid her seat, he said: “‘Ey! Never take a seat from a lady.” “I’m not a lady, i’m a woman.” my sister retorted, but the father would have none of it. Poor kid. His brother couldn’t make it today. Everyone in my family understood. I told him that I came up here to do the adaptive skiing program. “That’s good. That’s real good. When you come up here, take lessons first. It’s like counting 1-2-3. Don’t listen to these schmucks!” What a character. We thought about his kid’s fate for some time. We came to the conclusion that he will end up beating his girlfriend. How savage. We got off at our stop. “Live long and prosper.” I said to the driver. We then found our cars. I relieved myself in the parking lot, partially as a primitive male act of revenge against the loud bar. We then drove to the hotel where we would all converge to have dinner at Chilis.

When we entered the Howard Johnson in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, we noticed that they had a little party going on. DJ Swift (I hope I linked to the right one) had organized some sort of birthday celebration. A sign promised music and comedy. It seemed like a private affair and we had other business. Still, it had peaked our curiosity. Something would happen soon.

After taking a breather in one of our hotel rooms, we all converged and ran across the somewhat busy street to Chilis. I can only wonder what an alien observer would think of us. “It’s terrible.” “The food has this weird greasy property.” “It makes you feel so gross.” “All right! Let’s go!” I guess it had become a tradition of sorts by this point. I got exactly what I got last year, and everyone seemed to think I got the best thing then: the something-Bacher black bean barbecue burger without cheese and with jalapenos on the side. And yes fries, to hopefully make up for those horrible fries from earlier. “They should call this place Burgers.” someone commented. I actually took it pretty well, they say that hunger makes the best condiment, and I felt truly hungry. It did feel like a brick later on, but I survived.

We had to get back in time for people to go in the Safari-themed Heated Pool. My brother went on and on about it to his friends, getting them into the idea. Hotel pools kind of freak me out, so I never really had an interest. I confess that having an in-ground pool while growing up biased my view. You really can’t beat that as far as pools go. Anyways, the pool closed at 10:00, and they wanted to get back in time.

As we entered the foyer, we noticed that the party had started! We heard loud hip-hop music. Not only did they have a door closed to outsiders, but they also had a second closed door with a chair in front of it. We definitely did not feel welcome. More loud booming noise.

We took a break in a hotel room for everyone to digest their food and prepare to go downstairs. Ari took a power nap. Those things really work. We had some fun conversation. I have a feeling some of the alcohol had begun to take effect in those who imbibe. We made fun of creationists. Some believe that humans and dinosaurs lived together on the Earth six thousand years ago. An idea for a movie formed: Jesus vs. the Lizard! Cat informed us that she had explored all the vending machines in the hotel, and said the best one resides on the second floor by the main lobby. We laughed at her attempt to microwave a poptart on a piece of cardboard. No thanks! At around 09:30 or so we began to get ready to go. Most took off to go swimming, while a few of stayed behind for a moment, as we didn’t really care to go. At around 09:45, we decided to catch up to them and at least hang out in the pool room.

Mike noticed the hotel has an arcade. He said he always likes checking them out, just to see what they have to offer. Some “game rooms” just have a soda machine. As we reentered the foyer, we noticed that the comedy portion of the show had started. The comedian’s voice blared loudly. “Bedbugs! Have you seen these nothafuckas?” “Woo! Telling bedbug jokes in a hotel.” I commented sarcastically. “Man! This guy doesn’t care WHO’s toes he steps on! He’s like Bill Hicks!” retorted Steve. We could hardly contain ourselves. This scene just kept getting weirder.

We entered the pool room to find the others standing around in their swim suits and towels. Apparently, they didn’t turn the heater on, and nobody wanted to swim in freezing water. Some had also brought drinks for the heated pool, which they now held. I imagine we must have looked quite comical tromping into the arcade at closing time.

To our delight, the arcade actually had video games. They had a pinball game, a shooter kind of game, and one or two others. The group broke up into several conversations. I found myself by some pamphlets. The others looked through them and read them aloud so I could join in the fun. Paws and Claws: a depressing zoo. A snake and animal farm. Then the one that got our attention: a shooting range. Shoot four kinds of guns: an AR15, an Israeli Uzi, Clint Eastwood’s .44, or an AK47. I think some members seriously considered going to the range the next day. I wondered if they’d actually let a blind person shoot. Ari figured they’d feel proud of it and put it on their web site. Guns freak me out, but it would make a hell of an article. . At some point the security guard came over to tell us that they would close, but we ignored him.

I noticed nobody playing the games, and asked if they had shut them down. “No, we don’t have any quarters.” a number of voices resounded. “What? I have tons of quarters!” I got out my wallet. I soon had everyone around me, offering me $5 per quarter in jest. I excitedly handed out a few. “I want to play pinball!” I said enthusiastically. Of course I thought of the song by the Who. I also really did play it as a kid during summer vacations at the shore. As I said this, the security guard came up again. We clearly had to leave. “Don’t worry, Austin… There’s always next year.” said my brother. He played it absolutely perfectly, saying it with the exact right twinge of sadness to make it really seem like this doofus had shattered a blind kid’s dreams of playing pinball forever. From all accounts, the guy’s face fell. “You can come back tomorrow morning at 09:00.” We left, and as soon as we reached the other side of the door started laughing uncontrollably. We had all had enough, and went upstairs back to the hotel room. Some people needed to change, and we all needed to relax for a minute after that hilarious scene.

We had one last promised attraction on this trip: the Safari themed bar. By this point I really didn’t feel like dealing with any more bars and loudness. I wanted to reflect on the day and gather my thoughts. I feel glad I recorded the day’s lesson in retrospect. I figured I’d go for a little just for the fun of it though.

We ended up there, others talking and most drinking. I had cranberry and pineapple juice, pretty much the only thing someone who doesn’t drink can get in a place like that. We think the weird bartender wanted to hit on the girls there. The private party had switched back to more music. Loud bass drums boomed through the walls, shattering the fake Safari theme all the more.

I found out how others had enjoyed their day. Mike, Steve, and Cat all went skiing and enjoyed it. Kristy did not. Ari and Sarah went snowboarding and had a good time, even if they got a little bruised. Rich said he started out snowboarding. “The first time I went, my pads went flying everywhere.” “Oh, yeah, pads. That would have been smart.” said my brother. Now he knows for next time.

Audrey and Jean went snow tubing. I guess you just ride a big tube down the mountain. The web site promised an adrenalin rush, but “The web site promises a lot of things.” Apparently they didn’t really get that rush us crazy skiers crave. They went very slowly, and you don’t really control anything, just sort of go down. I don’t know that they really dug it. I told them to go skiing instead!

We started talking about marriage and relationships. Yes maybe I would like to get married one day, and yes sure I’d love to have a friend for life, but I really can’t think right now. I meant it literally. I really could not think. I had to rest and I could not deal with any more loud noise.

I went upstairs to one of the rooms where we watched some TV and just chilled. I listened to some stuff on my iPhone and went to bed. I tried not to think about who had slept in this bed previously. I wanted to try to get some meditation in, but it just didn’t happen. I fell asleep with the day’s many events and thoughts running through my head, and I attempted to order things in some sense for writing this article.

The next day we woke up, and I played a little on my MacBook Air. I had no trouble connecting to their network or to their proxy, which I now have even more mixed feelings about. We all met again in the hotel restaurant where we had a crappy breakfast and got the bum’s rush by the waiters. I got a ride home with Mike and Kristy, and made it back at around 02:30 in the afternoon. Not bad at all. Skiing rules!

Epilogue: A few days later, my brother Ari called to see how I enjoyed the trip. “I was thinking. That food sucked, and those waiters at breakfast were dicks. You know? We could get a cabin if a bunch of us go. We could all pitch in and rent it for the weekend. Remember my bachelor party? It would be like that but with snow.” So I think that settled that. Next year, we will rent a cabin and have even more fun. We might still drop by the Howard Johnson for a game of pinball though. I guess for now I’ll have to content myself wit the Jungle Style table from Pinball HD. Close enough.