It seems to me that I have spent a large fraction of my existence longing to ski. Since childhood, I had imagined it to be nothing less than exhilarating, earthbound soaring. Poetry in motion. When I finally did start to ski—just last year at the age of 34—I was not disappointed. I was intoxicated. Despite wobbly starts and stops, and panicked knee-burning snowplows, my longing has turned to addiction. But it is a happy, willing enslavement.
Last week I listened to the weather reports with a grin: snow was falling in the mountains. For a skier there is only one thing more wonderful than fresh snow and that is the anticipation of fresh snow. In that sense it is very much like one of my other most cherished pursuits in life: drinking tea. We embrace in our minds the pleasure to come and it is delicious.
My husband and I spontaneously planned an overnight trip to the hut-to-hut ski trail about two hours from where we live. Early Friday morning we packed our essentials (for me, skis and tea) and ourselves into our little car and hit the road. Nat King Cole serenaded as the city trailed away. (‘L’ is for the way you look at me…). We traded Nat for Harry Connick Jr. and joined him in his exhortations to ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!’ It worked! We came around a corner and had our first view of snowy hills in the near distance, much sooner than expected. The snow level looked especially low on the hillsides. Twenty minutes later we turned off the main highway on to the access road and immediately had to stop to put on tire chains. We snaked our way up into the foothills and arrived at the snowpark where we stepped out of the car into a foot of fresh powder. We quickly shouldered our packs, climbed over the gate, and clicked into our bindings. The trees were heavy with white. The higher we skied, the more the landscape and the atmosphere seemed to merge until we were surrounded by a soft, white stillness. Layers of mist and snow and cloud enveloped us.
Two hours later we arrived at the hut. After staking out our corner in the upstairs sleeping loft we came down and immediately started bringing in buckets of fresh snow to melt on the stove. The hut does not have any plumbing, so all water, whether for drinking or cooking or cleaning, must be melted from snow. It is a long process, especially when the
snow is powdery and light, but the results are delicious. I am loathe to use any of it for any purpose other than drinking or making tea. I scold my husband for using what I felt was an unnecessarily generous quantity for rinsing his hands. Good grief. As if there wasn’t more where that came from!
Because the hut was only 42 degrees inside, and because we were desperate to get any hot liquid into us, I confess that our first cups of tea were made from Lipton’s tea bags found on a shelf in the hut’s kitchen. I added a drop of honey to mine. Its virtues were limited to its temperature, but at least the cups warmed our cold fingers. My anticipation for a proper cup of tea… snowballed.
We spent the rest of the day curled in the hut chatting with the ski patrollers, and making regular forays outside to bring in more snow for melting. We played a game of Scrabble and I beat my husband for the first time EVER. After almost 10 years of being pummeled at this game, I have finally, reluctantly agreed to employ some strategy rather than simply forming long, creative words with my letters. Although it’s not nearly as fun, it is satisfying to finally win. It was a momentous occasion and worthy of commemoration.
Time to break out the tea bao. Bao is the Mandarin word for ‘bag’ and it also the name of those Chinese steamed buns filled with any number of savory fillings. My fat little bag with a drawstring top reminded me of those humbaos, stuffed with delicious goodness. The bag was designed and made by my stepdaughter, Michelle, for my birthday last year. I am well known among family and friends for always bringing tea and tea pot with me wherever I go. Usually my supplies are transported, rather unceremoniously, in a paper or plastic shopping bag. Michelle felt I needed a more dignified and beautiful container for my tea. I couldn’t have agreed more. My tea bao is sewn from beautiful silver Chinese brocade. It has a sturdy square bottom, and is lined with soft dark green muslin. There is a main center pocket for my travel tea
pot (made from aluminum, so it is feather light and very strong), and smaller pockets around the interior to hold small tins of tea, a spoon, and other supplies. It is beautiful and practical and one of my favorite things.
As I watched the winter light fade from silver to violet I brewed a pot of Bao Zhong. The infusions tasted like spring: fresh and young and sweet. New snow has a way of making the world look pristine and innocent, and this tea, made from that snow, was an exquisite accompaniment to my surroundings.
The next morning we got up early and in preparation for a full day of skiing made huge breakfasts for ourselves. My husband treated himself to hash browns with potatoes and onions, fried eggs, bacon and coffee. I opted for more of a carbohydrate hit and cooked up a triple stack of pancakes. I ate them with sliced banana and some Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup. The hut had an enormous supply of artificial maple syrup, brought up by skiers and left for future occupants. I did my part to alleviate the glut. (The night before I had experimented with an old New England winter treat: ‘Sugar on Snow.’ It is simply maple syrup drizzled on top of fresh snow. The syrup freezes and becomes taffy-like. It is utterly delicious, even with imitation syrup, and makes you feel like a child of Charles Ingalls.)
I brewed a pot of organic Assam to have with my breakfast. Assam and Ceylon are my preferred breakfast teas. Fortifying and brisk with a malty sweetness that I love, I drink them English style, with milk. The tea cut through yet perfectly complemented the sticky confection of pancakes, syrup, and bananas and the salty succulence of the bacon. A breakfast like that makes one feel nearly invincible. I could hardly wait to get out on my skis.
After breakfast we stepped out into a world that resembled the inside of an oyster shell: pearlescent grays and pinks and lavenders surrounded us. The air itself swirled and gleamed. Mt. Rainier bared only her shoulders at first, beneath layers of pink and white morning clouds, but eventually revealed her dramatic summit.
The skiing conditions were perfect: an inch or two of fresh snow had fallen on top of the groomed track producing a soft surface ideal for gliding. We skied for hours and hours. I totaled almost 18 miles that day, the most I’ve ever skied in a single day. My husband had to cajole me to stop before I completely exhausted myself, like a child. Physical effort that is rewarded with gracefulness and exhilaration is divine. Truly, it makes one feel almost god-like. I was also energized by those cups of breakfast Assam, and the anticipation of more tea at day’s end—and for the rest of my life. I couldn’t decide which was more wonderful, the consumption or the anticipation, and I felt lucky and privileged in my indecision.