Flying Air Nordic

If you can tell a man by his clothes, you can tell a skier by the boots he flies in.


Around the holidays, I fly from Colorado to Vermont wearing a fleece jacket, blue jeans, and… cross country ski boots. You spend 15 hours in ski boots? Yes, I do. You deal with layovers, delays, mad sprints between terminals, all the hectic travel crap, in tight, sweaty, goofy, boxy-toed ski boots? Yes, precisely. You ride escalators and—

Yes, ski boots!

The reason is simple: extreme frugality. Though I own two pairs of beater skis—freebies that I picked up in Colorado (where I’ve spent parts of the past three winters) and childhood planks that I keep in my kind mother’s Vermont basement (where the bulk of my gear stash resides)—I only own the single pair of boots. Furthermore, I refuse to pay 35 bucks or whatever to check a bag. That’s right, I’m the gentleman with sandwiches stuffed into his pockets and a carry-on that appears as if it might rupture. More to the point, I’m the gentleman asleep in seat 28C, his legs extending across the aisle, old black Alpina boots blocking the beverage cart.

So-called “sensible” people (after they finish chuckling) generally advise me to take Christmas and New Years off from skiing, give the boots a rest, leave ‘em in the Rockies. Sorry, I reply, not an option. One of the greatest pleasures in my life is touring the familiar fields that border Little Otter Creek, in Addison County, where I was raised and am (despite sporadic western wanderings) still most at home. For this elemental joy—the joy of wild turkeys and breaking trail and pastel sunsets and breathing hard and snowflakes whirling in ten thousand directions at once and cooling sweat—I’ll do whatever it takes, comfort and fashion be damned.

The first time I entered an airport wearing ski boots, sure, it did feel kind of weird. Among other things, there was the security line rigamarole (sidelong glances from TSA agents) and the slippery awkwardness of restroom floors. However, it also felt pragmatic, like I was hacking the system, and that felt good. Having flown Air Nordic three Decembers in a row, I’m slowly learning to “rock” the outfit. Sexy isn’t exactly the word. Confident is better.

This confidence received a boost recently, during (ugh) back-to-back-to-back flights on United. To relieve the airport boredom, I entertained myself by surveying the procession of passing feet. Such diversity! Such a pageant of styles and brands! Specifically, I was impressed by how often a specialized type of footwear was employed for… hmm, for what? Does that cowboy boot intend to stomp a rattlesnake in Concourse B? Does that Nike sneaker intend to run a five-minute mile between Cinnabon and Brookstone? Does that soft, supple moccasin intend to sneak up behind a deer before taking the quarry with a well-aimed shot?

Of course, nobody was wearing ski boots other than me. I was likely the only person in the nation, perhaps the world, flying Air Nordic that particular day. Despite my odd dress, it dawned on me that I was, nevertheless, just another regular American, i.e. a guy whose personality is expressed by his idiosyncratic kicks. The lady in dainty, glittery, cherry-red ballerina slippers values attention-catching glamour and, accordingly, that’s the foot (pun alert) she puts forward. I value extreme frugality and cranking laps in the back 40: wild turkeys, breaking trail, pastel sunsets, breathing hard, snowflakes whirling in ten thousand directions at once.

Writes my hero, the “self-appointed inspector of snow-storms,” that outdoorsiest and thriftiest of Yankees, Henry David Thoreau: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” I myself am renewed, somehow, each time that I explore the ever-dynamic terrain of home.

Okay, but here’s the best part, the most affirming moment of that transcontinental slog. In Newark (or was it LaGuardia?), an off-duty pilot settled onto the bench beside me and—ha!—I noticed that his black leather boots closely resembled my own. No, he didn’t have a little metal bar in the toe, but still.

“Nice boots,” I said, thinking that if anybody deserves to set the trends in aviation fashion it’s the captain, the boss of the skies, he who glides the clouds as a cross country skier glides snowy fields.

He looked at me, eyes on my eyes, not on my Alpinas. “Thanks.” Pause. “Where you headed?”

Contributing editor Leath Tonino of Ferrisburgh, Vt., is the author of The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont and Other Adventuresand The West Will Swallow You(October, 2019). A version of this essay originally appeared inCross Country Skier.

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