From The Spokesman-Review, March 17, 2019
If there’s a word for the opposite of “gearhead,” I’d be the dictionary example.
A diagnosis for a syndrome that describes the antithesis of loving to read about technological advances; of never wanting equipment that’s made from the newest, coolest, materials; of being unable and unwilling to chat about paraphernalia? I suffer from that.
Having the right stuff can make a difference. But I tend to think that, as with the Mercury Seven astronauts, it comes from character, not kit. I’ve powered my way through a five-day 100-mile race in the Himalayas. I’ve done marathons and longer races in Thailand, Singapore, Israel, and all over the U.S. I ran the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim three days after dashing up and down Mount Whitney. I’m tough, darn it. I don’t need no stinking gear.
Many of the men I’ve been in relationships with have owned more pairs of skis than they do shoes. Most had more bikes than neckties. Dating gearheads means that I let them point me toward what they think I need and then I whip out my credit card. Not for me to spend time online researching and comparing. Once something works – and if you’re obtuse, nearly everything seems fine – I stick with it and never think about new editions.
For several years, my friends have been skinny-shaming me. Not about my body, though being thin does not spare you from hearing hurtful comments. No, they let me have it when it comes to my skis. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “Your skis aren’t fat enough,” I could afford to get a whole bunch of new ones.
I grew up skiing in the East, on icy slopes, using tall wooden toothpicks. In the late 1980s I married a man whose idea of vacationing was driving five hours to Vermont on the weekends and flying to Italy and Switzerland over long holidays. He had played collegiate football and looked, on earth, handsome but lumbering. Put him on skis, though, and he turned into a super-sized Baryshnikov.
My future ex-husband would escort me up a chairlift or gondola and, at the top of a black diamond run say in a terrible Austrian accent, “Zis iz ze accelerated learning methzod.” Then he’d launch himself down the slope and expect me to follow, negotiating along the way moguls the size of Volkswagens.
When we divorced, I missed a lot of things about the marriage. Skiing was not among them.
After I moved to Spokane, a colleague who’d been on ski patrol for nearly more decades than I’d been alive invited me to come up to the mountain with him. I rented equipment and he gifted me a lesson. The snow was soft and fluffy, the runs empty, the lift lines nonexistent. I thought, Who knew skiing could be fun?
A few years later, I purchased gear at a ski shop in Missoula (no sales tax!). The whole thing took about half an hour and cost a fortune. I tried on a pair of boots that seemed fine and bought skis that looked obese to me and weren’t so crazily colored I’d be embarrassed.
A half dozen years later, having invested in a season pass at Schweitzer, I knew I needed better equipment. I tried for two years to buy new stuff, but every time I walked into a store and listened to incomprehensible jargon-filled patter, I left confused and despairing. Finally, a few days before this Christmas, my friend Mindy, a woman who knows how to shred the gnar, said, “Let’s go get you new skis. It’ll be fun.”
I assured her that it would not be fun. Not for me, and not for her. She laughed and said she’d call to see if TJ would be at the store. She, Mindy said, was the one to help me.
Warm and gracious and apologetically Californian, TJ had years ago married Micah Genteman, the third-generation owner of the Sports Creel, the Spokane area’s oldest independent ski shop.
When we walked in, TJ greeted Mindy with a giant smile and then turned to ask me what was wrong. She promised that the whole ordeal wouldn’t be as painful as what she was reading on my face. That’s what you think, I may have muttered.
First, TJ used an old-fashioned sliding foot-size measuring device. Then she had me stand on a gizmo that took a high-tech 3-D picture of my feet.
“You’re so tiny. You’re so lean,” TJ cooed. Numbers came up, many numbers, many measurements.
“Look at how symmetrical you are,” she said, making my fortunate morphology seem like I’d won a spelling bee.
Between apologies for having me wait while she performed miniscule adjustments to the insides of 67 different ski boots, TJ kept saying, “You are perfect.” It wasn’t that my feet were too bony or oddly formed, my instep too high. It was a question of finding equipment that would work.
TJ watched me walk in ski boots and reckoned that my legs might be causing problems when I skied. Might, in fact, be the reason I don’t love skiing. I’d told her, many times, I don’t love skiing. I do it because I love spending time with my friends on the mountain.
TJ kept saying, “You have struggled so much. It’s amazing that you were willing to keep doing it. It’s only because you’re such an incredible athlete you didn’t quit.” Was I a three-legged dog who had managed to outrun a wolf? I didn’t quite get it. Wasn’t skiing supposed to be hard?
As she was busy fitting me, a mess of rejected boots scattered on the floor around us, another customer kept asking TJ questions. He’d interrupt us to say, “She tried these” or “She likes those.” I thought he was talking about a wife or partner, but Mindy said, “No. Ski dad.”
“Those guys,” she added, with a sad shake of her head.
Oblivious and pushy, he didn’t care that she was already engaged with another customer. TJ answered his questions without annoyance, briefly, not brusquely, but never said, “I’ll be with you in moment.” I was her sole focus.
TJ praised every part of me, from my bony feet to my supposed athleticism. And then she called over her husband, Micah, the guru.
Micah put me on the “canting machine,” a platform with two metal yardsticks that hung down in front of my legs. Facing Micah, TJ, and Mindy, I tried to stand in the ski boots. They all went “Wow!” as I listed helplessly to the left.
Apparently, while my right leg pointed back East, my left leg wanted to go to AWOL to Canada. Micah, serious as Moses, nodded. He put a piece of plastic, a slim chock, under my problematic left foot. Suddenly, I heard angels singing. I could stand straight.
I said, “So the problem isn’t the skis. It’s my legs.”
No. Micah and TJ were both quick to assure me that I wasn’t the problem. My legs were what they were, and it was their job to make the equipment work for me.
Micah, who has an Old Testament beard, said, “I’ve never skied with you, but I bet you fall on the cat track. You fall in lift lines. You fall while standing still. You have a hard time poling through the village. You like to start at the right side of the run and only turn left.”
Was he a prophet?
In fact, one of my friends likes to keep track of how many times I fall. My pride doesn’t get hurt when I go down, though often my body does. I’ve bashed my rotator cuff and suffered from “skier’s thumb” three times in the last four years, spraining my ulnar collateral ligament when I slow-motion tumble onto the pole I hold in a death grip.
The gear-happy shredders who told me over and over that I needed fatter skis could not have been more wrong.
Micah said, “There are no skis that would have worked for you.” Fatter would have been much, much worse.
Micah said, “No way in the world you could get on that inside left edge.” The mechanics of my body explained why I could do a hockey stop only on one side and why I often picked up my foot while turning right. My S-curves were more like the tracks of a crippled sidewinder.
TJ said, “You are so amazing. You have worked so, so hard.”
Micah said, “We can fix this.”
There’s a great scene in 2017’s best movie, “Lady Bird.” Talking to the teenage main character about her college admissions essay, the nun in charge of the school says, “It is clear that you love Sacramento.”
What? The teen doesn’t feel like she loves her hometown.
She says, “I guess I pay attention.”
The nun replies, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
Three and a half hours later, I was shopped out and told TJ to pick whichever skis she thought would work for me. “You know me well enough by now,” I said. “Just point to them and I’ll pay.” I didn’t give a hoot what they looked like.
TJ selected two pairs and I told her to choose. She opted for the less expensive ones and reminded me that I could always bring them back. “We’ll swap them out,” she said, “whenever you’re ready.”
Later, I asked Micah about his gear. He said he owned maybe three pairs of skis and one pair of boots.
“You date skis,” he quipped. “You marry boots.” Plus, he said, growing up in a family of ski store owners, “I couldn’t get used to anything because if a customer needed it, it was gone.”
His dad, with the timing and practiced delivery of a Borscht belt comic overheard this exchange and chimed in: “I sold his first three dogs.”
When we stopped talking about me, my questions had, naturally, to do with language.
A creel, I know, is a fishing basket. Turns out the business was started in 1954 to serve all the outdoor sports Micah’s grandpa loved. But as big box stores moved in, the family decided to specialize. Now the Sports Creel sells downhill skis and boots all year, but in the summer they stock a collection of toys for the lake. The name lingers, as do the two older people in the store helping customers: Micah’s parents.
Skiing is a big markup business and unlike running, say, it’s one where technology really can make a difference. Skiing is also crazy expensive. Even my wealthiest friends shop around to get a good deal, and often those are found online. Owning a seasonal specialty store is not for the weak or the lazy.
I like to support local businesses and I also live on a college professor’s meager salary. I get a lot of outdoor gear from REI, a chain whose stated values I appreciate and whose generous return policy makes me feel less scared about making mistakes, though I rarely bring anything back. I’ve had wonderful service from the store in Spokane.
But shopping for skis at the Sports Creel provided a whole different level of customer satisfaction. Not only do they offer the same guarantee as REI, they also have a trade-in program, especially helpful for those with kids who won’t stop growing. But more important than getting the right stuff, talking to the Gentemans made me feel good about the world.
TJ approaches other humans (and animals) with a warm and open heart and it’s impossible not to feel embraced by her kindness and care.
Micah takes pleasure in telling stories about people he’s worked with – the teenage girl who DNF’d in every ski race, whose legs, he said, were more gnarly than mine. He shimmed up her boots and then, in her first race wearing them, the last of the season, she made it to the podium. The 60-something man who came back in to tell him, in tears, that after 40 years of skiing, everything had changed once TJ had fitted him for boots.
When he tells these stories, you see in Micah’s eyes a ministering wisdom. You see a willingness to look and listen and learn and think. Like his bubbly wife TJ, Micah is fully present when he’s doing his job.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the nun asked Lady Bird.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction. She writes a monthly column, “Everything is Copy,” for The Spokesman-Review.