Sure it's summertime now. But let's take a moment to enjoy the evergreen material that is laughing at all my wintertime mishaps. Whenever/wherever you're reading this, have an active day!
It takes a certain kind of person to snap one of her ski poles in half just getting on a chairlift. It was my first ride up of the day—my second of the season—and I was trying to feel good about it, and then I somehow planted my pole between my feet just as the chair was coming around. I figured I would sit down anyway—things would work out fine—but the chair and the ground and the pole all formed a bizarre love triangle that creaked and groaned and ground everything to a halt before the chair finally lurched forward. I looked over my shoulder to shout “Sorry!” at the lift operator and saw the sea of polar fleece hats in the lift line duck, taking cover at the noise of the metal and plastic and who knows what other kinds of space-aged materials fought the turning gears of that great machine.
“Great,” I said to my date, looking at the handle of my pole, “now what am I going to do?”
“It’s not like you need your poles,” he said, “you don’t use them right anyway.” He was pulling his neck gator over his face, either to protect himself from the wind that had kicked up, or from being recognized. Later, he imagined out loud that those who had witnessed my own special brand of clumsiness were turning to each other, reverently saying things like, “Wasn’t it nice of that girl’s brother to pick her up from the institution and take her outside like that?” He told me, with flagrant disregard for my feelings and everything else, that I was a skitard.
In my defense, the day that my trusty ski pole and I unknowingly jousted a giant, I’d already been through a lot with the sport of skiing. As someone who’s done nothing but watch TV since she was born, the concept of skiing as a nice, enjoyable, attainable sport didn’t jibe with the “agony of defeat” scene from the opening sequence of Wide World of Sports. My parents were never athletic or outdoorsy, and the thought of driving an hour each way over mountain passes and black ice in a 1975 Ford LTD was a little too much for people who eventually sold their season tickets to the Broncos because they refused to brave the traffic or sit outside in winter weather. Like the clichéd character in sitcoms and movies who’s terrified she will die a virgin, I vowed to ski, in a half-assed attempt at finding something—anything—that could whisk me away from our house on the weekends. I lived in a shrine to the NFL, where worshippers came in their Sunday best jersey knockoffs to baptize themselves in Velveeta and chili, and where “the host” referred not to the body of Christ, but to Howard Cosell.
The kids at school who could ski well were legendary to me; I watched them walk the halls in their two-toned powder jackets with lift tickets dangling from every zipper, and I wanted a piece of any identity based on gear that one straps to the roof of a car. When I mentioned this to my friend Linda, she couldn’t have been more supportive. I had to hand it to her; she knew how to sell it. Skiing was so totally awesome! Skiing was so totally easy! And, with the right sunglasses and hat, skiing was such a totally great way to meet cute boys! I also have to hand it to her for being my best friend during 10th grade, a year that shuttled me to the height of my awkward period, which, given the previous years, should have convinced the authorities to confine me to a padded cell for the sake of everyone’s safety. Either Linda had a lot of faith in me, or she was overconfident in her ability to teach me to ski. I didn’t care or know the difference. I skied in Levi’s jeans and my dad’s faux down parka.
I learned right away that Linda was a certified trainer from the Just Do This!® school of ski instruction, a method in which she would glide downhill, a gentle schussing rising from two perfectly parallel skis, and then effortlessly turn them into a full stop. “Just do this!” she would chirp after each maneuver. A mere half-hour later, I was effortlessly sailing down the slopes, under a wool blanket, in a ski patrol-drawn sled. She followed me down the mountain, sliding up every ten yards or so to bend down over me and shout, “I totally can’t believe this weather! It must be sixty degrees today.” As I drove us home with a cardboard splint and an ice pack bandaged to my leg, she said, “God, I totally can’t believe we have to leave.” She plucked her Night Ranger cassette from her pack and popped it into the stereo. “There’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“Can I borrow your sunglasses?” I asked her, “I broke mine in half hitting that tree with my face.” She squinted her eyes almost shut against the glare and said, “Just do this!”
After that eventful third trip to Winter Park together, Linda was still there for me, carrying my books for me while I negotiated the school hallway traffic on crutches. “I love the way your sweatpants totally match your cast!” she told me on my first day back to school. I told her that I was grateful I didn’t choose losing my virginity as my big project for the year. I told her, “I can only imagine what kind of cast I’d be wearing.”
A decade later, I’d lost touch with Linda, but skiing and I continued an on again, off again relationship despite the pain it had caused me. And because I’m nothing if not stubborn, I continued to refuse lessons in favor of cobbling together techniques that I’d read about in magazines, seen on how-to TV shows, and overheard during après ski. I realize that a little knowledge is dangerous, but if I’ve learned anything about skiing in twenty years—and I haven’t—it’s beware the boyfriend ski lesson.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a man in the great state of Colorado who doesn’t want to take his girl on a ski date. I’ve said a lot of things to a lot of guys to avoid such a thing, including, “Why take me skiing for a day when you could spend it chewing tinfoil?” And because boys will be boys, my date would say anything, too. I know this because if I’d taken a real lesson for every time I’ve heard a young man claim, “I can teach anyone to ski,” I’d have dominated the World Cup circuit by now.
I should have known that my college boyfriend, Curtis, had an agenda that had little to do with teaching me to ski when it took us a half hour of riding the lift to reach our destination. “Um, Curt,” I said, looking at the terrain below the lift, “I kind of like to warm up on my first run by doing something really easy.” He patted my knee with his glove and told me not to worry. We unloaded ourselves from our final lift ride—it had taken a few of them to get us to what seemed the very tippy top of the world. I looked up to avoid looking straight downhill, and saw the Mir space station hovering within my reach. To my right was a sign with a skull and bones following by the word WARNING! in large red letters. To my left was what would have been a spectacular view of the Rockies had I not been so focused on trying to keep my breakfast right where it was—in my stomach.
Looking up at the torrent of fat snowflakes that were pelting us at a speed and volume exceeding blizzard conditions was starting to nauseate me, so I looked down at the ground, taking deep breaths, half expecting to find a dead Sherpa blanketed in snow. “OK, here we go,” said Curtis, pointing the tips of his skis toward the lip of a cliff. He glided, floated down that sheer face of snow and boulders, bending his knees and planting his poles with perfect timing. The only way I could tell that he had stopped some time later was because the aura of snow around his expert demonstration settled down to reveal what he’d become: A tiny blue dot on a vast field of white. I prayed I would survive my descent, if only to live long enough to represent the scene on canvas. I would need a lot of white paint, a little blue paint. I would call it Big Mountain, Bigger Douchebag.
It took me fifteen minutes of pep talking myself to stare down what was surely my untimely death. I took inventory: Dense copse of trees to one side. Sheer drop to the other. Limited to no visibility. Acres of powder, almost untouched but for the ski patrol’s test run early that morning to test for avalanche conditions; the stuff “xtreme” ski movies and tall tales are made of.
Trembling, muttering “Stupid showoff,” and breathing in grunting ungh, ungh noises, I put the tips of my skis over the edge and felt the laws of physics raising their giant collective gavel.
“Turn,” I begged my skis a few yards later, “turn, damn it!” But the powder was too deep for me, and the skis I rented a few centimeters too long. Between gusts I could see the trees coming fast. I looked down at the tips of my skis, the only visible part of them, and watched one cross over the other. I heard myself say, “Uh oh.”
Just as quickly as I’d approached the trees, I was tumbling, tumbling away from them, toward the orange nylon net the ski patrol erects to warn skiers of deadly drop offs and exposed rocks. I’d heard once that, when unintentionally performing a gymnastics routine down a mountain, planting your boots and poles in the ground is a good defensive measure against the harsh mistress that is gravity. I’d lost my poles two thousand vertical feet ago, my gloves leaving ten little frantic trails in the snow. I kicked and stabbed at the ground with my boots when they could find purchase; when they were sailing through the air in a fashion my mom would have referred to as, “ass over teakettle,” I considered resorting to digging my teeth into the hill.
I lived to become older, but not that much wiser, realizing with resignation that there was no use trying to distance myself from the outdoorsy set. I might as well forget screening my prospects because amputees, the blind—everyone—skis. Even my dog, whom I had considered my best male companion yet, was a Siberian husky who would whoop and yowl when he saw the first flakes of the season.
Soon after conceding to skiing’s ominous grasp on the entire world, I had invited Alex to my house for dinner, during which he invited me to a Warren Miller film. “I suppose you love to ski,” I said, dreading the answer, and avoiding mentioning my so-called involvement with the sport. We made a date, because at the end of the day, I love Miller’s storytelling almost as I love his story. I know his movies are akin to ski porn, but he makes a good movie with good scenery, good characters, and stunning production values that grew up under the banner of the indie movement. I realize this makes me the kind of person who says she subscribes to Playboy for the articles.
I am also a multi-generation Colorado native who wants nothing to do with its winter weather. The coiner of the phrase "bloom where you're planted" was from San Diego, I'm pretty sure. But Alex has climbed three of the world’s tallest peaks, and when winter comes, he joyfully takes stock of his gear: the down jackets, the sleeping bags designed for sub-zero temperatures, the fleece pants and their waterproof shells. Wool socks, long underwear. When I see winter coming, I hunt for my flannel sheets and down comforters, fuzzy slippers, the satellite TV guide and any mention of a network featuring back-to-back showings of The Breakfast Club. It’s a cold weather salve I’ve applied since high school, when I spent whole afternoons in front of the glorious invention known as cable, clicking my retainer in and out of place and driving my mother out of her mind with the sound. Twenty-some years later, I'm still doing the same thing, minus the retainer, and spending the rest of the day marveling at how John Hughes shaped many of the conflict resolution tactics I still use today, and ruined the name Claire for an entire generation. But sometimes, when the stars aligned and the clouds parted, I went skiing. I went alone, and for that day only—if the weather was mild—and if I thought I could get close-in parking.
I wanted to skip all that hyperbole, though, and get down to brass tax with Alex about why I would break out in hives every time he made mention of outdoor sports. I put it off as long as I could. I was nervous; his friends openly complained that their girlfriends couldn’t keep up. “The next time I meet someone, I’m giving her a test on the bumps before we get serious,” was a sentiment I heard more than once. And then a mixed blessing made the whole matter moot: I badly injured my knee learning Tae Kwon Do, the best excuse ever for avoiding any possibilities of an awkward ski encounter.
Alex and I got engaged, moved to a little mountain town called Nederland, or “Ned,” as we liked to call it, and married within two years of our first date. We lived fifteen minutes from Eldora Mountain Ski Resort, a small, friendly collection of alpine and Nordic trails with front row parking just for skiers who drove Subarus. That’s where I spent the next six years quitting skiing.
If ever there was an old couple who fought bitterly but refused to ever part, it was me and skiing. We had been together too long and had amassed too much baggage to start over with each other, but hadn’t been together long enough to find relief in death’s merciful decree. Like a lot of the couples I had seen during my childhood, skiing and I stayed together; not for the children, but to torture each other.
For the first five years we lived in Ned, I made friends with Eldora, the little mountain on the Continental Divide with the cheap lift tickets and two seasons: summer and windy. In keeping with my philosophy that equipment does not equal skill, I refused to spend any money at all on good gear, and in an unpretentious place like Ned, my way of making do went unnoticed. For a while.
During our last year as residents, I successfully took the lift, poles unbroken, with a man my age who immediately hooted his amusement over my gear. There was nothing malicious about it, rather, it took him back to the era in which my skis were sold new. “Look at those!” he said, going so far as to poke one with his pole, “I remember those. We thought they were ‘totally rad’ when they came out.” He was mesmerized by the “sweet bindings,” in all their day-glow, “wake me up before you go-go” splendor. I had rescued the skis and bindings from a Dumpster long before my date with knee rehab, a fact I was proud of, in a thrifty, clever, conservationist way. “You’ve got to ditch those boots, though, dude,” he said. I had gotten them for free, and appreciated them for the front-entry, rear-entry hybrid they were, but apparently, the design was a miscarriage of design and function that even the manufacturer admitted to years ago. He wanted me to know that a new, cheap pair of boots—any pair—would be an improvement, and that continuing to wear the pair I had on could do nothing but bring me disaster. “I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn that those boots cause cancer,” he said, the deadpan expression on his face indicating either his seriousness or the freezing temperatures. Or both. I got this kind of reaction to my equipment always, but I came to enjoy the conversation that arose from my “skinny ski” shortcomings and “totally rad” wares.
“Well, this is my last season skiing,” I explained, “so there’s no point in getting anything new.” He looked at me like I’d just delivered him a huge personal insult.
“You shouldn’t even talk like that,” he said. “Why would you ever want to quit skiing?”
I learned that my short-term companion was a long-time instructor; he taught children usually, including his daughter, who at the age of nine was, as he put it, “scary fast.” He spent the rest of the ride to the top, no matter how deafening the winds, delivering his sermon. He wanted me to know that skiing is one of the most life-affirming activities there is, that there’s no way to do it wrong as long as you’re doing it. He was so passionate about his message that I almost expected a congregation of followers to gather at the top of the hill, to catch my fall after he palmed my forehead and cast out the evil that had taken hold of my mind and body.
But I give him credit. Warren Miller packs his pews with the choir and converted, but my fellow passenger was an evangelist of a different sort. I wouldn’t say I’d been saved, or reborn; I will say, however, that I went on to experience the most pleasurable day of skiing of my life.
I was willing, after that, to stop thinking of skiing as the thing I got to stop doing once I had conquered my fear of it, and that was the ticket to lightening up a little. It took me years after my martial arts-induced knee injury to approach the parking lot without breaking out in a cold sweat, trying to take off my coat and open the window just in time to stick my head out and dry heave. Once there was nothing to prove, things got better.
After enduring a relationship with skiing that lasted as long as it did, I like to think of that ski instructor as the priest that officiated the renewing of our vows, and I like to think of my friend Richie as our marriage counselor. Not only does Richie have a certain kind of wisdom and compassion about him, it’s a gross understatement to say that he’s into skiing. It’s not just his religion or a part of his identity, it’s an inextricable part of his character. Richie is into skiing like Bruce Springsteen is into New Jersey.
I retold some of my more painful memories of skiing with others, especially expert others, and he thought it was no wonder that I didn’t enjoy myself. “It’s no fun to feel like you’re trying to catch up to someone else all day,” he said, and he was right. He thought that was a real shame, because, “that’s just not what it should be about.” He spent a day with me at Eldora, happily, at my pace, without complaint. “What you need is a luscious mid-fat,” he said, referring to the modern, fatter style of ski that was supposed to be infinitely easier to command. I dug a pen and little notebook from my pocket later to write that down. Ritchie inhaled from a tiny wooden pipe he drew from his pocket. “And stop borrowing Alex’s parka,” he added, “you’ll be warmer wearing something that fits you.” We glided down the slopes together, hard ones and easy ones, icy ones and groomed ones. Richie let me pick them all, his colloquial tutelage behind me.
In 2004, we brought our daughter, Sophie, home to live in our little house ten minutes from the mountain. That was the winter we scored free passes to Eldora, and Alex gave me new skis and boots for Christmas. I decided to put all of it to good use, because although motherhood made me more fearful in some ways, and fearless in others, the cabin fever I was experiencing was terrifying. Who knew that motherhood would be the event that inspired me to, as my mother would also say, “shit or get off the pot?” Sometimes children do save marriages after all, even marriages that are metaphors.
There is invincibility in peri-pregnant women, at least there was in me. Maybe it’s the hormones, or the stark realization about what’s going to happen—or what has just happened—to your life. While I was in my 400th month of pregnancy, I was at work when a pushy salesman barged into my office. He was rude, intimidating, and used the threatening sales tactics he must have learned at the Al Capone School of Business. I had spent my lunch hour reading horrible birth stories on the Internet, an activity I don’t recommend to anyone at any time, and I stood up and stared him down. “In two weeks—just two weeks—I’m expected to push a human through my vagina,” I said, using all my restraint not to raise my voice. “You don’t scare me.”
That same conversation took place with nearly other facet of my life. My new perspective on what was scary and what wasn’t allowed me to shine a light on my story and situation that transformed the setting of skiing into something closer to White Christmas than The Little Match Girl. Around that time, I was imagining the arrival of all manner of things, not just a baby, and I’m still relieved and grateful that most of my visions of things to come were happy and positive, because I was almost unable to stop them. Maybe that’s why when a woman is pregnant, they say she’s expecting.
When I began skiing again three months post-partum, yes, I was uneasy. I knew I could injure myself again, an event that would prove disastrous to my new post as a nervous first-time mother living in a house full of stairs, but it worked out. And I had the perfect excuse for going slowly, taking my time, playing it safe, and quitting early. As I like to say, “xtreme” is just a word some marketing department made up to get people to drink soda. I don’t even like soda. And the only thing that has ever been wrong with me is that I have entertained the thought that there was anything wrong with me at all.
We took our Sophie skiing for the first time when she was two and a half. We lived in the ski Mecca of Vail then, a move that was temporary, but the winter that year seemed nothing less than permanent. While I wouldn’t say she was a natural right away, as some very young children are, I envied Sophie’s baptism into life as a certain kind of person. It looked painless; maybe even fun. I put on my skis that day, still unafraid, without heart palpitations or thinking wishfully that an Earth-sized meteorite would meet us for breakfast. And at the end of it, Alex asked her if she’d like to go to ski school when she was three and potty trained. “You could go to the Olympics,” he said. I interjected, “If you want to.”
“I want to take ballet, Daddy,” was all she said. He groaned, and as soon as he had left the room to put away our gear, muttering, I dished up some ice cream and served it to Sophie with my widest smile. “My girl,” I said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”