Ski(d) Marks

A little pavement won’t stop Rob Pegoraro from cross-country skiing across his city. 

On those too-rare occasions where the Washington area is graced with a decent overnight snowfall, I wake up with the same thought: I hope they don’t plow our street right away.

I don’t need to drive the day after a snowstorm, but I do want to ski. And the one time I don’t have to pay for it with a usage fee, hours of driving or both is when the snow comes to my neighborhood—and cross-country skiing can start at the stop of the basement steps.

The Mall, February 2010.

The optimum scenario involves a foot-plus of snow accumulating, when I can delight in skiing in the middle of major streets—in the wrong direction. Or I can use Metro as a sort of underground rope tow to get me to the expanse of the Mall. (Ostentatiously boarding the train with skis and poles is a fine way to confuse or annoy people heading into their offices.) Unfortunately, this only seems to happen every six to 10 years around here.

More often, the snow stops falling after maybe half a foot of accumulation. I could stay inside and hope the next storm will deliver more, but in the mid-Atlantic, seasonal averages and daily temperatures exist in a state of quantum flux that encourages treating each snowfall as if it might be your last. So I have to kludge my way through the neighborhood until I can, maybe, reach a park or a bike trail and then x-country like a normal human being.

(Will I lose my cycling-advocate credentials if I confess that I don’t mind seeing trails go unplowed for a bit?)

Arlington, Va., February 2014.

Alleys represent my best-case scenario: They’re the last place to get plowed or shoveled, and their shade helps snow last longer too. There just aren’t enough of them near me.

But I can work almost as easily with unplowed streets that have already been traversed by multiple motorists. In the first few hours after a storm, their tire tracks provide the kind of hard-packed snow you can most easily glide along; later on, the snow between those paths, compressed and dirtied by their undercarriages, also makes for easier skiing.

If a plow has gone down a street, I can often find enough open snow on either side of stranded cars—along with the fear of getting a ski caught under somebody’s wheel or scraping the side of a car with a pole.

Sidewalks are generally iffy, thanks to almost-enough neighbors having Gotten The Memo about shoveling them promptly. And having given dirty looks to the houses of those who did not, I’m in no position to whine about clear sidewalks complicating my travel.

The one thing I don’t want to do is take off my skis more than absolutely necessary. That would be an admission of defeat, or at least of the impracticality of cross-country skiing in the realm of pavement.

Fresh powder. All three to four inches of it.

Because my skis cost nearly nothing (a friend who isn’t otherwise insane gave them away at a yard sale, leaving me to pay only for new boots and bindings), I’m willing to walk in them, exceedingly daintily, over short distances of asphalt or concrete. The trick here is not to move the skis anywhere but up once they touch the pavement—a skill which should qualify me for a plum position in the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Bridging longer gaps becomes its own little logic puzzle: which clumps of snow, piles of slush, and patches of ice lie close enough to each other to function as stepping stones?

Georgetown, D.C., February 2010

My least-favorite urban cross-country skiing scenario may be packed, jumbled snow piled up along the sides of well-plowed streets. It’s too rough to ski over, but taking off skis to walk leaves one stepping over boulder-sized, dirty lumps of compacted snow while also carrying two five-foot-long curved sticks. You’re stuck using your skis as skinny, pointy snowshoes.

That’s acceptable if you need to get over a mound of snow left by a plow at the end of a street. But if you have the rest of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and its sad little sidepath ahead of you in this state—yes, I was stupid enough to do that at the end of an otherwise wonderful expedition through the District in early 2010—the word for you is not “skier” but “loser.”

All these factors make urban skiing nowhere near fast. On my second-to-last expedition, I took an hour to go three miles and change.

But on these occasionally trying tours of the neighborhood, I may also spot the tracks of somebody else’s skis—and realize that I wasn’t the only person driven to venture into the cold to work too hard to go too slow.

writes about computers, gadgets, telecom services, the Internet, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He covers tech policy for Yahoo Tech, writes a weekly consumer-tech Q&A column for, and wrote “Feed Me, See More” for Issue 15 of The Magazine (April 25, 2013) about BuzzFeed’s habit of appropriating other people’s images without payment or permission.

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