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Cross-country's alluring, simple pleasures

The snow was springlike, soft and pliable. A grooming machine had pulled a track setter before us, laying down two sets of tracks that beckoned our skis. So we left the golf course expanse surrounding the touring center and followed them toward the conifers and hardwoods of the White Mountain National Forest.

There had been a threat of rain, but the sun pleasantly surprised us - and skiers who wore heavy parkas were looking for places to stash them as the rays added to the heat already generated by striding through the snowy woods.

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The terrain was pleasantly ''novice'' - just right for an 8- or 9-km tour before lunch. The trail wandered near the banks of the intermittently frozen Ellis River, its gray-green pools set somehow in a haunting relief against the white snow.

On such a morning and in such a scene it's not hard to understand why cross-country skiing is one sport many people say they want to try. By the time you sit down to lunch, you know you have earned it. And in the process you may have found a certain rhythm that links mind, body, and the forest together. It's a wonderful feeling. Along with today's interest in physical fitness, it's probably one of the sport's most potent attractions.

To see people from many states heading out on some 80 miles of trails for every ability at a giant ski touring center like the one here is a memorable sight - a touch of Scandinavia come to New England. It makes you realize the only thing that's kept cross-country skiing from truly taking off in the United States has been the past decade's unreliable weather. As one aficionado observed: ''It's hard to get the sport off the ground when there's good snow about one out of four years.''

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