“Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” Helen Keller made the connection between Anne Sullivan’s spellings into her hand and the word itself in a mere month, but we are well aware that the young learn more easily than the old.
Several years ago, I bought a set of silver bells that hang from a black ribbon, designed to provide a dog the freedom to inform her person, with the slap of a paw, when she wants to go outdoors. For about a month I rang the bell religiously every time I let my six-year-old terrier out. She’d dash through the door without showing a bit of interest in the bell. After about a month, I gave up. Then last year, I tried to teach a six-month-old puppy who seemed smart. When it took her nearly 100 days to make the connection, I realized that I’d been impatient with my old dog. This winter, I decided to learn something new: snowboarding. The sport has been around in some form or another for hundreds of years, but its popularity didn’t start to take off until the sixties. According to the International Skiing History Association, a man by the name of Sherman Poppen first “dented the marketplace,” for the item that would become the modern-day snowboard. “Poppen created the Snurfer [=snow-surfer] on Christmas morning in 1965 by cross-bracing two skis together…Launched in September 1966, the Snurfer was a hit as more than 750,000 were sold nationwide during the 1960s and 1970s. More than any other invention, the Snurfer inspired a generation of kids to surf the snow.”Two teenage boys and I arrived at the Mt Baker Ski Area on December 22, 2017, at 8:00 am, early enough to land a parking spot just outside the entrance to the Heather Meadows Base Area, where lessons are available on weekends and holidays. We completed the rental forms, signed the waivers, and I paid for a package deal (snowboard/helmet rental/Chair 2 lift ticket/group lesson), which set me back about sixty bucks per person, about the same price as an all-day adult lift ticket. We put on our boots and helmets and headed outside carrying our snowboards (about a foot wide and 88% of a person’s height) with the awkwardness of inexperience. The snow was soft and powdery and the skies were cold and nearly clear with temperatures in the mid-30s. We spent the next hour at the short, steep hill adjacent the lodge and learned that for a beginner: rising from a seated position is difficult, as is fastening your bindings while standing, as is remaining upright for more than a few seconds. What’s easy? Flying down the hill at breakneck speed with the knowledge that you are likely to cartwheel out of control before you smack into the snow in an uncomfortable heap, sometimes hitting your helmeted head. At 9:30, my teenage son and I joined three other first-timers at the assigned (beginner) sign. A small, wiry guy I’ll call Jerry (because that was his name) inquired as to our footedness (Goofy or Regular), explained a few moves (like engaging the heel edge and the toe edge), demonstrated the moves, helped each of us to an upright position, and watched us all wipe out spectacularly…over and over again.After countless crashes on what could barely be called a slope, we braved the “rope” tow (not actually made of rope) to the top of the bunny slope a few times and, finally, traversed our way down the hill to Chair 2 where Jerry encouraged us to give it a try on our own. For me, it was a fall-filled trip from the top of the lift (fall #1) to the foot of a short, steep hill (fall #s 2,3,4) to the bottom of the relatively short run (falls #5 and 6), after which I was ready to go home. During my first 2.5-hour snowboarding adventure, I fell all told more times than I had during my previous 53 years. The most useful thing Jerry the instructor taught me that day: the area on which we attempted to snowboard is not located on its namesake mountain.A week later, we returned. I snowboarded while my son skied. I joined two other women in the beginner snowboard group outside the White Salmon Base Area where weekday lessons are given. Spencer, an instructor of instructors, led us to the flattest of slopes near Chair 7 and taught us two ways to rise from a seated position, toe and heel edge turns, the snowboard version of snowplowing (controlled, slow-going on either the toe or heel edge), and how to link turns. Before we’d mastered these skills, we hiked to the top of the bunny hill and attempted the maneuvers in scarier territory. I only wiped out about half as much as I had on my previous visit, which was an improvement, but still involved a lot of falls. The most useful thing Spencer the instructor of instructors taught me that day is: learning from an excellent instructor is much better than learning from one who is just okay. I’d heard that snowboarders tend to get it on or about their third try, so I made one last trip to Mt Baker by myself. On a crowded pre-President’s Day Friday, I made my way to the bunny slope near Chair 7 where I spent about an hour practicing what I’d learned previously. It was so full of students that most of my falls were self-initiated in order to avoid collisions with other beginners (no, really). Watching others wipeout more than I did and falling less often felt great. Next winter, I’ll be back. I know I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m on my way: living proof that with a little patience and perseverance, old dogs can learn new tricks.