Cross Country Skiing: Flagstaff Nordic Center, Arizona

For all the years I have lived in Arizona, and trust me it’s been many, I have had this notion that I really want to go cross country skiing. As you might imagine, that might seem kind of silly considering we live in a desert, but in reality it is not, for nestled high up in the mountains just about 9 miles from Flagstaff there is a beautiful place called the Flagstaff Nordic Center where you can find many miles of groomed cross country trails.

Now we have good reason to be going cross country skiing. Last year my sister had arranged a hut to hut ski trip in Winthrop WA, and when she told me about it I asked her to sign me up for next time. Well, “next time” is fast approaching, and I need a lot of practice. And so it was that one fine January Saturday morning we drove up with a Groupon in hand to give the trails in Flagstaff a whirl. Lucky for us there is still some snow up here.

As I step out of the car I delight in the sound of the snow crunching under my feet. As I walk towards the lodge, a child’s hand presses into mine, and I hear Annika say “I hate the sound of snow when I step on it!”

I tell my little desert born and bred child that the crunching of snow underfoot is a most delightful sound, as it brings back a flood of memories of walking through snow drifts on the way to school – when the sidewalk plow had not yet passed by. Of how the Catholic school girls always walked three abreast on the sidewalk and wouldn’t move when we passed one another, and how the public school kids would have to get off the sidewalk and trudge through the snowbank to get around them. Sometimes we would sink deep in the snow and our boots would fill up with icy flakes.

One day I got fed up and pushed one of the Catholic schoolgirls straight into the snowbank, from which she emerged coughing and sputtering in a state of unveiled shock. That was the end of their snowy sidewalk domination. From then on the Catholic schoolgirls gave us a fair share of the sidewalk whenever our paths crossed.

Annika listens to my story with intense attention, as she loves to hear stories from my childhood, this one especially because it seems to have an element of surprise.

On that note we hand the cashier our Groupons and get started on the rental process. The Nordic Center rents out classic and skate style skis from this nifty yurt that is warmed by a big wood stove. This is the only place I have found so far in Arizona that rents skate style skis. They have a pretty good selection and even have boots for the big man with size 13 feet.

Of course we rent skate skis, because we are Finns and that what Finns do…..and that’s what we did when we lived in Finland. We loved the beautiful cross country trails there and we even had purchased equipment for the whole family.

I have these fond nostalgic memories of us cross country skiing on bright spring days in Finland on perfectly groomed trails….Aundrea was just five years old, and like many other kids her age wasn’t that keen on skiing. Her big sister Ashlee, all of 12 yrs old, would extend her pole into Aundrea’s hand, and with skillful strong kicks she would ski ahead of us towing Aundrea behind her. Ashlee’s enthusiasm and love of nature was written all over her face.

Eventually the trail would lead us to a warming lean-to, and there would be a ginormous roaring fire in a pit, with other likeminded nature lovers taking a break from their skiing. We would huddle around the fire and reach into our backpacks, pull out some tasty Finnish makkara (hotdogs) to roast and juice boxes to rinse it all down…..and maybe some coffee and pulla to top it all off.

Yes, those are some beautiful memories on my mind as we embark on our trip this day……I do some simple math in my mind to figure out how long ago it was since we skied in those beautiful Finnish forests…..some 16 years ago….has it really been that long since I had last done any real cross country skiing, I wonder?

Well, it doesn’t take me that long to discover that indeed it has been “that long” or maybe even longer! I am very wobbly on my skate skis…..and before long I fall on my rump with gusto. Well, there goes my tailbone that I had injured last summer…..

My backside is screaming at me…. “really…crazy woman! You think you can cross country ski? Ha ha! One more time falling on your butt and you won’t walk for a month!” I ignore the negative voice that is nagging at me. The intense beauty of the forest, the nostalgic memories, and the quiet passion for the sport of cross country skiing tugs at my heart strings.

Broken tailbone or no broken tailbone, I press onward…..and upward……dang there are a lot of hills here! We climb and climb. It’s slow going.

Kristoff is as slow as a snail…. I mean he purposely takes his time. At first I am patient because it covers my own inadequacy….no one is waiting for me because Kristoff is so exceedingly slow. After a while my patience erodes. I guess intentionally going so painstakingly slow is the teenie bopper way to make your mom boil over. And since I am not a perfect mother, I glance around to make sure there aren’t too many witnesses, and soon hear myself yelling down the trail, “Hurry up! Dadgammit!!!!!”

Now 16 years ago when I did skate skiing in Finland I was pretty good at it, or was I? This time whenever I push out with my skis they don’t glide, but rather want to slide out of control, which ultimately almost makes me do the banana splits, if you know what I mean! There would be nothing graceful about me doing the splits. In fact, if I did do the splits my pelvis would probably fracture in 5 places and my hips joints would become permanently dislodged, my knees would turn the wrong way around and I would walk like a flamingo for the rest of my existence. That’s not good, so I take it very carefully.

The elevation here at the Flagstaff Nordic Center is kind of a problem. At 8500 feet a city slicker is short of breath and lightheaded just standing still. My lungs burn as I make my way up the steep trails, and my heart pounds in my chest. I peer down at my new Fitbit and can see at a glance that my heart rate is pushing 140. For a person with a resting heart rate in the 50’s I am feeling this. If I were half intelligent I would turn around and call it quits, but I guess I am not a quitter, at least not yet. We press onward and upward. I won’t lie, I took my skis off for a bit and walked one incline.

Annika, on the other hand, has the hang of skiing right away. She skillfully makes her way down the trail, clearly enjoying every moment, even though she falls down about a half a dozen times.

Finally after 2 1/2 miles of painstaking climbing we crest the hill and we stop for a lunch break in the woods. The sun is warm and the woods are beautiful. A few other skiers glide past us. It is quiet and beautiful.

And before long a snowball fight ensues…..so much for the quiet…..

And a snowman is born….

Well, kids, shall we continue on our way? The afternoon is wearing on.

Bjorn is ready and willing. He is not the fastest skier, but he is persistent and does not complain.

As it is, the rest of the way is downhill. The kids disappear with Kristoff in the lead. I end up landing on my rebroken tailbone a second time, which didn’t feel too great…..that’s an understatement. It feels horrific. I have fiery pangs of pain with every movement.

Now I don’t know if you have ever tried to ski downhill with narrow little toboggans on your feet, but let me assure you it’s a bit of a harrowing experience. I snowploughed most of the way down, and soon discovered that I have a funny unused muscle on my inner thigh that doesn’t like snow ploughing. The last mile is sheer torture. As we get closer to the lodge there are people everywhere. The trail is worn down and melting in the sun. My resolve is waning.

Finally we are back at the lodge and returning our skis. I feel horrible! In just two weeks we are going cross country skiing to a hut in Washington, and I have no confidence on my skis! In fact, I am horrible at it! I am scared to go downhill. On the uphill I am pathetically out of breath. Well, I don’t suppose that 8500+ feet elevation might make it harder to breathe?

As we leave the Nordic Center we are shocked by the sheer volume of tourists from Phoenix who are parked alongside the highway trying to play in little patches of snow. Literally the road is a parking lot for 6 miles into Flagstaff.

We stop at our favorite coffee place called Macy’s in downtown Flagstaff where the wheels in my head begin churning….

Maybe it’s the superbly delicious Mediterranean plate the gets me thinking…..

I get online while we are enjoying our coffees and food. Hmmmmm….the whole next week is promising snow in Flagstaff. I wonder if the Nordic Center has any yurts available next weekend? And sure enough! There it is! A small camper cabin and a yurt! Next weekend we are doing it again, kids! But this time we will ski two days and stay overnight! I definitely need the practice!!!!

We make the 2 hour drive back home. My confidence level is sagging and I dread our upcoming Washington trip as doubts pester me….how will I be able to ski in 6 miles to the hut we have rented? Hopefully one more run at the Nordic Center in Flagstaff will help bolster my confidence and allay my fears!