The Incidental Tourist
by Kerrin O'Sullivan
It was to be our first family skiing weekend - our destination, the Victorian snowfields on the slopes of Australia's Great Dividing Range. If the first mistake was to leave the city for Mt Buller in Melbourne peak hour, then the second was to include my husband, whose closest rendezvous with snow had been excavating a frozen wiener schnitzel from the depths of the Westinghouse.
As we wound our way up through the foothills, a roadside sign warned "Caution - Kangaroos next 10 km", so my chap rostered his passengers onto kangaroo-spotting duty, with shifts allocated by window access and speedo klicks. Perhaps the kangaroos saw us before we saw them, for the ten kilometers passed without a roo to be seen. Or perhaps as my son suggested, it was the kangaroos who had placed the sign there in the first place.
As we mounted the Great Divide, my husband dutifully took note of all new signage - "falling rocks", "icy on edges", "fit chains or die" - diligently reading each one aloud and some twice because he was driving so slowly. At one hairpin bend, a wombat passed us.
By nightfall, there was a long trail of headlights winding behind, and only blackness ahead.
Snow began to fall around us, big fat snowflakes, and our little bubble of a car began to feel like a child's snow dome, except that the snow was on the outside. At Merrijig, my man handed out a flyer he had run off entitled "Safety Tips in the Snow" and then tested us. (Not surprisingly, the next morning, we were the only family on the mountain all wearing helmets and each equipped with not only chocolate sultanas but a safety whistle and an organ donor card.)
On arrival, my darling spouse began to unwind from the drive, thanks chiefly to the discovery of a bar at a nearby chalet. The children and I opted for bed and a book. Hours passed and a blizzard blew up.
Their beloved father, having morphed into Snowman, was gone so long that I began to worry that he had, indeed, perished in the frozen wastes. When finally I had resigned myself to the fact that there would be one spare seat on the way back down the mountain, he stumbled in. His nose was a shade of red that would have made Rudolph proud and his pom-pommed beanie was at a most peculiar angle.
Relieved, my head hit the pillow. But no, Snowman proceeded to tell me about the many firm and lasting friendships he'd forged in the bar, and the tall tales of the mountain (alpine brand) to which he'd been privy. At long last, I discovered a use for those Siberian earmuffs I had bought on Red Square in Moscow in 1980.
When next morning we hit the slopes, the children all agreed that their father's vertigo could not be solely attributed to the height of the chairlift.
In spite of a facial hue fluctuating between ruddy and porcelain, by lunch-time he was schussing like James Bond and had collected a whole new bunch of friends including ski instructors, lift operators and people stuck in the snow with their skis askew, who he insisted on helping despite their protests.
At one stage I spied him slipping and sliding between the poma and the T-bar in pursuit of a grey-haired grandma on a toboggan, who he deemed needed to be shepherded to safety, despite the woman's adrenalin-charged whoops of delight. Not long after, I ski-ed past him attempting to referee a snowball fight between two snowboarders. Later, as the shadows of approaching dusk lengthened across the runs, I saw him line up an improbable jump (a gelandesprung, he proudly recalled later) - and stack it, tumbling in a drift of talcum-powder softness before being deposited at the base of a Weeping Snow Gum. On anybody's terms, he had had a big day on the slopes.
That night he bravely, yet enthusiastically, accepted an invitation to return to the bar, covertly whispering that it was out of courtesy, so as not to offend. The call of duty. Such sacrifice. Filled with bonhomie for ski folk the world over, and bar folk in particular, he trudged out into the snow resplendent in Fair Isle knit and après-ski mittens.
Checking the outside lamp was on, I placed the new thriller I was reading on the pillow, next to the Siberian earmuffs. I forget just how many Russian roubles I'd paid all those years ago but by gosh they seemed like an inspired purchase now. Who could know at what hour the (abominable) Snowman might return and with what pressing alpine news to be conveyed to the ones serenely sleeping?
© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan