My favorite skiing partner and I got off to a rocky start more than three decades ago. The former Lauri Zinn and I began dating after she swept me off my feet just before Memorial Day, 1989. We had a whirlwind summer romance, broke up on my birthday in October, and then reconnected on her birthday in November. Just in time, it seemed, for ski season.
Unlike many of my previous girlfriends, Lauri could ski. She wasn’t an obsessed powderhound by any stretch of the imagination, but she knew how to get around a mountain just fine, provided she avoided the bumps, and she enjoyed being outdoors in the winter. Though a native of Kansas, Lauri and her clan made a number of pilgrimages each year to Colorado. They would load up her dad’s cavernous Suburban and head west for the 13-hour, brutally straight shot across the flatlands of Kansas and eastern Colorado.
Sadly for Lauri, she quickly learned that there was little comparison between the velvety corduroy of the Rockies and New England’s somewhat, um, unpredictable coverage. Still, she was a gamer who welcomed a challenge, and we took the hills as soon as we could.
Since our ability levels at the time were fairly disparate, I took a page out of my brother Michael’s playbook. Mike, an exceptional skier, had started snowboarding with his then girlfriend, who was an absolute novice to winter sports. It was a stroke of genius, enabling the two of them to learn a new sport at the same pace. By following Mike’s example, Lauri and I were more evenly matched on the same terrain, her on two boards and me on a single plank.
Our first outing was to Loon Mountain, where my older brother Sean is one of the “Loon docs.” We had a blast, which was promising. Then, during a subsequent weekend escape to Sunday River, things went sideways. First I exchanged sharp words with an idiot skier who almost clipped me, saying I was in his “line” (yup, bad behavior from a skier, not a snowboarder). Then Lauri and a snowboarder collided at a trail juncture (a true accident, with Lauri inadvertently crossing on the boarder’s blind side). We were both frazzled and sore by the end of the day, with a long drive awaiting us. As we began the trek back to my apartment on Boston’s North Shore, we got into a rift of some sort. I don’t even remember what it was about. What I remember was Lauri’s response. As the argument got more and more heated, she promptly tried to stomp out the floor of my brand new Mazda minivan. I was apoplectic.
I pulled over, and told my girlfriend, in no uncertain terms, that she could find her own way home. It was not my finest moment, and I relented. We then spent the next four hours driving home through the snow, in absolute silence. I don’t think we spoke 10 words, other than a request to pull into the highway rest stop for a bathroom break. The stone-cold quiet lasted another four days.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. The holidays came and went, with Lauri completely winning over my clan (“You better not let this one get away,” warned my stepfather, who couldn’t understand why I hadn’t settled down earlier). We got up to the North Country as often as we could, our relationship improving along with my snowboarding and Lauri’s skiing skills. I loved spending time with Lauri, on the slopes, on the chairlift (where you really get to know people), and having fun after hours. During one memorable trip to Sugarloaf, I introduced Lauri to the resort’s communications director, who promptly asked her, “Want to do a shot of tequila?”
“Heck yeah,” was Lauri’s immediate response, and I spent the next two hours listening to these two wonderful women, as I fell head over heals again with my future wife. In the 30 years since, though we’ve had our ups and downs and our share of animated “discussions,” Lauri and I haven’t come close to approaching the post-Sunday River deep freeze that threatened our fledgling relationship. For that, I’m eternally grateful. Because I could not have asked for a better ski partner than Lauri.
Make no mistake, I’m talking about a “partner,” not a “skiing buddy.” Ski buddies are the best, enhancing any day on the hill or après-ski outing. A ski partner is another level altogether, usually a significant other, family member or best friend who adds depth and texture to your ski experience.
I knew from a young age that anyone who I committed to spending the rest of my life with would have to be a skier. Or snowboarder. One of those was mandatory. I was convinced it was in my DNA — my folks, who got married in Manchester, N.H., had honeymooned skiing in Quebec. Mom and Dad also were influential in cultivating a love for winter recreation in my siblings and me.
Likewise, Lauri’s parents nudged their four kids out the door early, every month of the calendar. During the third year of our growing romance, I even got to experience it firsthand, as Lauri and I planned a ski vacation with her folks to Breckenridge. Instead of having us fly into Denver, Lauri booked our flights to the Midwest, so we could drive out with my future in-laws.
“I thought it would be a great chance for you to get to know each other,” she said, as I pulled my hair out. We still joke about it to this day (well, I joke, while Lauri winces).
We married in 1994, welcomed Maddi in the fall of 1996, and then Brynne in the winter of 1999 (Super Bowl Sunday, no less!). We got the girls onto skis as fast as we could, knowing kids are more likely to buy in to any activity if it’s “just something you do.” We wanted to encourage the notion that winter only meant better preparation, not moving indoors.
It also meant less snowboarding for me, since you can’t hold a youngster between your legs on a snowboard. It was a sacrifice I was happy to make, because being out on the hill with my girls meant more to me than just about anything. Lauri simply got stronger and stronger on her skis, meaning we could ski more and more terrain together. And together was exactly where I wanted to be.
Eventually, though, a lifetime of team sports (hockey, soccer, basketball) and adventure pursuits (cycling, including mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, etc.) finally began catching up to me as I approached my 50th birthday. Lauri, and the girls continued to improve, which coincided with my own body breaking down. For me, a card-carrying member of the Peter Pan Society, it was a tough pill to swallow.
To be perfectly blunt, I’m a fortunate man. Lauri, an occupational therapist, has been remarkably patient not only in dealing with my many personality “quirks” but also throughout my numerous orthopedic travails. In the spring of 2012, I had my right hip replaced, and revised 18 months later to repair the original hatchet job that left me with a significant leg length differential.
Those surgeries spelled an abrupt and unceremonious end to my snowboarding career. But I could still ski, despite some discomfort, and I was thankful for that, especially since the girls and Lauri were really coming into their own as skiers. Employing her skills as a therapist, Lauri counseled me through these delicate times, finding yoga, stretching and exercise regimens that would help me cope. We also became dedicated fans of hot tubs and massage.
In March 2016, I had the left hip replaced, after a “last hurrah” ski trip to Utah. Then, that summer, I started losing feeling in my feet while coaching hockey. Initially, my hip surgeon thought it was the result of my pelvis “settling,” and my body adjusting to finally being back in balance. But my physical therapist was alarmed by the consistent loss of feeling, and sudden back pain. I saw another specialist, who ordered an MRI. The next day I was in the office of a neurosurgeon, being told I had two bulging discs and severe spinal stenosis in my lower back.
I was gutted. The last thing I wanted to do was go under the knife again. So I waited, had two steroid injections, and a handful of chiropractic sessions. Nothing worked. The pain in the my lower back would shoot down the backs of both legs, crippling me. In mid-October, a surgeon from the New England Baptist Hospital presented me with my choices: “I can’t promise you that you’ll get better with surgery. But I can promise you that you won’t get better without it.”
So, on a Wednesday morning in early November, Dr. Russell Brummett, one of my brother’s partners at Concord Orthopaedics, performed a high-tech Roto-Rooter on my lower spine. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve done thousands of these.” But Dr. Brummett also warned me, like the Baptist surgeon, that there were no guarantees regarding my recovery and a return to the slopes.
“This isn’t like a broken bone, where you set it, and eight weeks later, you’re as good as new,” he said. “You have nerve damage, and nerves are finicky little … nerves will decide whether they’re going to get better or not. Sometimes the relief is immediate, sometimes it takes months. Sometimes, certain nerves never come back.”
The surgery went smoothly, and the pain relief was almost immediate. That was the primary goal. But it would be months before I would know the extent of my recuperation. The nerve damage was extensive, and I would lose a significant amount of the muscle function in my legs, my left leg specifically. If you’re a skier, you know the worst thing that can happen is when your legs aren’t working in tandem.
My first outing the following spring was an abject failure. We went to Sunday River, where the resort had just received a nice layer of wet snow. While fine for most skiers and even better for snowboarders, the snow was just a little too heavy for my weakened legs. I suffered through two runs, got back to the condo, and, with legs shaking, fell into a fitful sleep.
The following three seasons have gotten progressively better, but I’m still a far cry from the skier I once was. And will never be again. The nerve damage is permanent, no matter how much I want to “will” it away. There is evident muscle atrophy on my left side, so I’m always cognizant of my left leg fatiguing too quickly. When that happens, the leg tends to stop listening to my brain and any remaining muscle memory that I have, and it’s far too easy to cross my tips and spill.
As a result, I ski in “blocks” these days, usually lasting no more than an hour at a time, with breaks in between. While I used to ski right through lunch hour, I now welcome the opportunity to click out of my bindings and stretch out my legs in the lodge. Every time, Lauri is right beside me, never once complaining about my frequent recesses.
So, why am I sharing all of this? For a couple of reasons, I guess. One, I wanted to shout out publicly, and in no uncertain terms, how much I treasure Lauri’s company, on and off the slopes, and how much I appreciate her support during the difficult years so I could keep doing what I love.
But, just as importantly, I wanted to celebrate all the relationships that not only survive but thrive during the long, cold winter months. Because winter, much like relationships themselves, requires the right attitude. That might take some work (just like, say, shoveling), but the effort is well worth it. Lauri and I are proof.