Hardly anyone listens to Harold Putnam anymore, in part because he now cruises down the slopes in another world; he was born a few years before the last great pandemic. But in his prime he was one of the great Eastern skiers of his age and was the outdoor editor of the Boston Globe. But I knew Mr. Putnam glancingly — we were members of the fraternity of old-time ski romantics — and knew to heed his advice, generations-old as it was. This is what he once wrote:
“In order to obtain skis of the correct length … one should purchase skis whose tips just reach to the base of the fingers when the arms are outstretched above the head.”
Well, nobody looks for skis that size anymore. Nobody, that is, except for me.
Let me explain: Skis that size are, by today’s standards, gargantuan. They would be too big for basketball’s Steph Curry, who checks in at a mere 6-foot-3, but maybe appropriate for the great Shaquille O’Neal, who measures 7-1. (Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of boots and bindings for Shaq, sneaker size 22.) But skis that size are not for any of us.
So why do I look for skis that size? Have a look at my wall. Have a look at my office. Have a look at my obsession.
I’m a collector. I still have my press pass from my first NFL football game — 48 years ago. I still have my press pass from my first national political convention — 40 years ago. I have the wife I married — 42 years ago. I have the children I helped rear — 32 and 29 years ago. The latter — the wife and the children — will tell you I still have the clothes I had when I graduated from college. (These latter clothing items I consider less a collection than my wardrobe.)
But I also collect ski paraphernalia — and ski ephemera.
Like my framed ticket for the Skimobile at North Conway’s Cranmore Mountain; the Skimobile stopped operating a third of a century ago. Like the big red wooden sign listing the prices for riding the Skimobile; it cost $5 for a round trip to the summit in its last years. Like the huge sign that used to hang in Lyme, N.H.; it says “Welcome Dartmouth Skiway.”
Like the little vials of 1940s ski wax; and the mug in the shape of a skier; and the salt-and-pepper shakers that are replicas of the original Cannon Mountain tramway; and the ski regulations, in French, for a tiny hill in Quebec; and the chairlift seat I bought when Cranmore installed some new ones; and the playing-card box that says “Ski New Hampshire”; and the ski-repair kit that I’ll never use and never need.
The key here is in those last two words: never need.
I don’t strictly need any of these things, but I need them in another way, especially amid the COVID-19 curse that has reshaped skiing and my views of whether to stand in the singles’ line for the chairlift.
That’s the answer to why I get this stuff. Now I should tell you where I get it.
On eBay, to start. There you’ll find gobs of stuff other people want to get rid of and, once I acquire it, it becomes stuff my wife wants to get rid of. At antique stores, to be sure. They can be pricey but often the proprietors don’t know that there is some nutcase out there who will prize something that, to their eyes, is worthless. And — do I dare admit this? — in the discard bins at ski areas, which are a treasure trove for the collector.
Plus there is one other source. Look in the mirror. You have lots of stuff that will be valuable 20 years from now. If you have the room, and the patience, and a patient spouse, squirrel some of it away. It may be worth something someday. (I can hear my wife’s dissent: It wasn’t worth anything 20 years ago and it isn’t worth anything now. She is the one who thinks that mugs from 48 ski areas is a little excessive.)
Like so many of you, I am finding the 2020-21 ski season tough to bear. I love my car but I don’t consider it a ski locker. I am the guy who always suggests packing a picnic lunch, but eating it standing up in the snow outside the ticket booth is not my idea of fine dining. I love the feel of a crowd around the crackling fire in the lodge, but this is not exactly the year for that.
So my cold-shower antidote is to dote on my collection. For years, when I was the executive editor of a big-city newspaper, I had a pair of old skis in the corner of my office. They were a curiosity, to be sure, but also a salve. Now, in my home office, they are a visual lifesaver. Plus no one comes in and asks a stupid question in July like, “Expecting a big snowstorm tonight?”
Let me close by telling you a secret. The other day I found online a really great-looking set of 1930s ski poles, with the words “Dartmouth Ski Company” on the leather straps, and of course I bought them. For days I watched the mail so my wife — not a flatlander, but not a fanatic either — would not see the package. I opened it in a late-night moment. They were beautiful. I secreted them away in my home office, beside the old skis. They seemed to belong there — some old poles next to some old skis, what could be so natural? — so to this day she has never noticed.
But every time I come into the room, I notice. And as New England’s Robert Frost, who after all wrote of watching the “woods fill up with snow,” said in an entirely different context, that has made all the difference.