Boardin' Dude

The question: Can a not-quite-young, semi-sedentary, formerly-kind-of-athletic person find happiness among the nose-ring-and-baggy-pants crowd on the snowboard scene? The answer: Dude! There's this myth that you have to have been born sometime between the Ford and Reagan presidencies to even consider snowboarding -- something about your body being too brittle if you're over 25 to handle the G-forces. Or maybe it's that flesh sags when you pierce it after a certain age. Whatever it is, I'm here to lay the truth on you. Lyndon Johnson was president when I was born, and I think this sport rocks. When you're on a snowboard, all those people on skinny little skis suddenly look sort of retro. And not cool retro, but back-to-ninth-grade-with-acne retro. So shelve the alpine skis, strap on a stick and hit the slopes (gentle ones first, please). Maybe I'm pining for my lost youth, but from where I'm standing snowboarding is tailor-made for the mature set. Forget about squeezing your hummocky shanks into a Lycra ski outfit in a vain attempt to look like Robert Redford in Downhill Racer or Picabo Street in the '94 Olympics. Snowboarding fashion dictates lumpy, loose clothing in beautiful shades of linoleum green and shag-carpet brown -- clothing that adds years to everyone's figure. Properly dressed, you'll look like a refuge from a Russian Gulag, and there's a beautiful kind of equality in that. And then there's the sport's famous learning curve, which by the way is tailored for muscles that don't have the elasticity they once did. For the first eight hours or so you'll be wet, your knees and butt will ache and you'll eat more snow than you have since you were two. Then comes The Revelation. Your perseverance pays off, and you're ready to try out for Mountain Dew commercials. You're carving beautiful turns, you're catching air off the moguls, you're cranking rail-to-rail -- in short, you're shredding bunky. So just hang in there. Age brings wisdom, and wisdom tells us that all good things take time. The young punks haven't learned that lesson yet.My intro to snowboarding came a few weeks ago at a ski resort that lets board-bound hellions tear up the slopes. These boear friendly resorts tend to have an area with a half-pipe to which you can aspire and a nice, gentle slope on which you can begin. If you've never been on a snowboard before, and you rent your equipment, let the folks at the ski resort throw in a free lesson. Don't skip it. No matter what other sports you've mastered -- alpine skiing included -- you don't know how to snowboard. And without a few pointers, you never will. Some of the techniques leading to the aforementioned Revelation run counter to common sense. Consider turning. No matter how many times you try it, you won't come up with the right answer on your own. It simply doesn't seem to make sense to shift all your weight to your front foot -- the foot pointed downhill. Your brain says "remember what happened that time we were cruising down a steep hill on our first bike with hand brakes and we grabbed the front brake really hard?" To have made it this far in life your brain has saved your ass a few times, so the gray matter automatically kicks into self-preservation mode and shifts the weight to the back of the board -- and you spin out and get slammed on your back. And here I must mention the one thing that truly scares me about snowboarding: Unlike downhill-ski bindings, snowboard bindings don't release. You fall, roll, tumble and flip with feet securely locked in place. There's a prescribed way to fall on a snowboard, and it looks a lot like getting down on your knees to pray. We were a group of two -- myself and my wife -- so we got what amounted to a free private lesson. Our instructor was Mr. Enthusiasm, a.k.a. Chris Stotesbery. I didn't ask, but I'd put his age right around 30. He said he was out of shape, then proceeded to hop up the bunny hill with both feet strapped in his board during a demonstration. Chris says "excellent" far too often, but I can't fault his patience or his technique. We were buckled in and sliding 20 minutes after the lesson began. I didn't fall for the first time until 23 minutes into the lesson. The first thing Chris did was order us to jump up and down in the snow, boardless, arms flailing. Then we landed with bent knees, shoulders squared. That's the snowboarding position. Next, with feet planted, we rocked back and forth, heel to toe. This is important. Stand with your board flat on the snow and you'll have all the directional control of a dog on ice. Put your weight on the board's edge (the "rail"), and you're in command of your own destiny. So we hopped about and swiveled our hips for a few minutes, then strapped on our boards. I was issued a very bitchin-looking model, a black-and-white, splatter-art design that promised more than I could deliver. But I looked good carrying it. My wife got an plain, khaki-colored board with red lettering -- something of a disappointment and, I suspect, the beginning of her distaste for the sport. By the end of the day she was ready to trade the board for skis. Before we ever got on a slope, Chris taught us how to fall. The most important rule: "Never put your hands out in front of you," he says. Why not? "You'll break your wrists" -- it's one of the most common snowboarding injuries. There's that common sense thing again. Speaking of falling, there's something entirely different about the way it happens on a snowboard. In alpine skiing, falls are cacophonous tumbles with skis flying and clanging and skiers rolling and sliding and coming to rest in a heap of limbs and equipment. A good snowboarding fall more closely resembles being body slammed by Mike Tyson. One minute you're surfing smoothly down the hill, the next you catch a rail and all your beautiful forward momentum turns into angry kinetic energy that wants your face in the snow and isn't going to argue about it.Finally we were on the slope, buckled in and ready to rock. But we didn't go straight down. The first time down the mountain (okay, molehill) Chris had us sliding down with the board perpendicular to the fall line -- that being the line a ball would trace when rolled down the hill. We needed to learn to control our progress by controlling the rail. So we went inched down and walked up, down and up. Then Chris said the magic words: "Bob, you're on your own." Clearly I was advancing quickly; too quickly for Chris to keep pace. Perhaps he felt threatened -- in another hour or two, I'd be the one giving lessons. I grabbed the tow-rope for the first time -- no more hiking up the hill -- got jerked about 15 feet, fell and ended up tangled in the rope. An inauspicious beginning to be sure, but there I was, gazing down the mighty precipice, ready to make my statement to the snowboarding world. I stood up, slid at a right-angle to the fall line for a few feet, turned my body downhill, put my weight forward and on the heel rail and picked up speed like a scorched hare. At perhaps 4 mph I decided it was time to turn uphill and scrub off some velocity. But I panicked, shifted my weight to the back and ended up on my butt. My fall got a nod of approval from Chris, though. Next time around, I flopped and flailed but remained upright on the tow rope almost to the top of the hill. On the way down, I successfully turned uphill and came to a stop, then headed downhill with the other foot forward. One the third try, I put a couple turns together and slid to a nice, controlled finish near the pick-up point for the tow rope. After an hour I was putting together some very nice turns and actually moving at a fast jog. I didn't stay long enough to experience the fabled Revelation, but I could see the pearly white light from my vantage point. Not to say there weren't some brutal falls -- there were. The next day I was too sore to sit for long, and oddly enough, two days after my lesson my neck stiffened up. But I'm hooked. Skiing I can take or leave. Sometimes I'll go five years between sessions. Snowboarding seems more elemental. It gets in your psyche and holds on. Now if I can only find a sponsor, maybe an agent who can get me on a few commercials.

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