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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Slayton: Kick And Glide

Vermont history is more than the heroic exploits of the Green Mountain Boys, more than changing modes of farming or the transformation of our political landscape.

It’s also about how we play – and, as “Kick and Glide,” the latest exhibit at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum makes clear, changing styles of skiing are a part of our history as well as a part of our present.

Cross-country skiing blossomed as a recreational sport in Vermont in the 1960s. Until then, downhill skiing had dominated the winter recreational scene. But about that time, several events coincided to help popularize Nordic skiing,

In 1964, Putney ski coach John Caldwell published his instructional guide, “The Cross-Country Ski Book,” which presented the sport as an easy, inexpensive, nature-based alternative to downhill skiing. “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski,” Caldwell declared. At about the same time, Olympians like Mike Gallagher and Bob Gray began attracting notice by training in Vermont, and several Vermont inns such as Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, and Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen began establishing ski trails.

Almost instantly, Nordic skiing took off. Its informal, beginner-friendly style and decidedly outside-the-mainstream ethos fit perfectly with the tenor of the 60s, and for a decade or more, it was the fastest-growing winter sport in the nation.

As the years passed, the sport gradually changed and matured. Wool sweaters, knickers and knee socks gave way to Lycra and nylon garments, low-cut racing-style boots got higher, stiffer, and more supportive, and wooden skis, beautiful as they were, were largely replaced by higher performance fiberglass models.

And as equipment evolved, so did technique.

Olympic racer Bill Koch introduced skating, which was faster and more athletically graceful than the classic diagonal stride. It became an overnight sensation – suddenly the fittest among us were going a lot faster!

Cross-country ski centers co-evolved along with the sport, widening their trails for skaters, adding more challenging trails, and purchasing sophisticated grooming machinery to maintain them. Equipment and clothing shops appeared to meet the burgeoning demand.

In some ways the development of cross-county skiing repeated the earlier evolution of downhill skiing, moving from an informal band of rugged outsiders to a mass-marketed sport, no longer done on the cheap, appealing to thousands, and emphasizing speed and technique.

All of this and more is evoked by the Vermont Ski Museum’s exhibit. Curator Meredith Scott noted recently that for more than a half-century, Vermont has set the standards for the sport’s growth. “It’s pretty amazing, really, for such a small place,” she said.

And though Nordic skiing has been transformed over the years, its core elements are still there to be enjoyed – the pleasures of exhilarating exercise on a brisk winter day, gliding silently through snow-covered hills and meadows, and at the end of the day, a cheerful fire in the wood stove, and the company of like-minded friends.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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