Driving to Greenland
Lyons & Burford, $22.95
"From my earliest memories I associated my grandfather with ice, and my father I associated with snow." With this image — two men leaping to mind in the form of Norse gods, beards rattling with frost, eyes blue and brutal, breath like winter wind-Peter Stark begins this sturdy collection of essays on a life spent largely outdoors in cold weather.
"I think to the north," Stark writes, for the book is in part an expression of temperament, of a largely inborn affinity to one of Earth's four moods. The feeling springs from too great a depth to be conditioned, like the terrifying sense of recognition — the rising in your ageless blood of something that is finally coming home — as you climb for the first time the stony hilltop of Mycenae.
Young Stark "collected the secrets of snow and ice the way that other boys collected snakes and rocks, and savored the power of ice heaves and avalanches like other boys keened after fighter planes and large guns." Now 40, Stark has retained his passion, deepened it, plumbed its limits as an athlete and outdoorsman in the media of ice and snow.
For the second essay, "Leaps of Faith," he ventures to Ishpeming, Michigan, to take a 30-meter flight from a Nordic ski jump: "There's nothing frilly or baroque about it. You go straight, you go fast. . . . The lingering impressions are of power, cold and metallic. Place names such as Ironwood, Iron Mountain, Copper Peak; the steel girders and frost-coated timbers that support the jump scaffolds; mercury-vapor lights and cinder-block warming huts; chain saws and snowmobiles. . . ."
Nor is there anything frilly or baroque about Stark's language. His style is clean and straightforward. In passages of memoir he manages intimacy — anxieties of youth, love affairs, his father's two suicide attempts — without a whiff of sentimentality. And his reflections on snow and ice can wax philosophical, can even enter the realm of the metaphysical, without alarming.
"Sliding to Glory" puts Stark on a luge at Lake Placid. "Steered true," he writes, "a luge sled runs nearly silent, its journey down that twisting tube of ice accompanied by little more than the low whir of polished steel runners cutting cleanly across the sculpted surface at 50 or 60 or 70 miles per hour.
"So when something goes wrong, you can hear it happen."
Dimitry Feld, Russian immigrant, former dog-grooming instructor and U.S. Luge Association coach, gives Stark the drill for beginners: "'Go get sled and helmet,' he said in heavily accented English, 'and I show you how to steer. Then I bless you,' he said making a sign of the cross, 'and off you go.'"
Then on to the next event in Stark's Plimptonian Olympics: downhill racing in "Fear of Falling." U.S. downhill skier Mike Brown "describes a 'little rise' that a downhiller must make: 'from the fear that 80 miles per hour is too fast, to the fear that 80's not fast enough.'