It's June . . . a blue June. We're only half-way through and I am coming undone . . . remembering how my year was supposed to go. I began it looking over the top of a mountain . . . in confident anticipation that I was more than ready for the journey down . . . and then spent the next three hours in a humble tumble to the bottom. I should have read the signs.
At the end of December, we gathered at Keystone, Colorado -- my daughter, two sons-in-law, my husband and me -- and rode the gondola so high up into the sun that our lungs ached and we were dizzy. And we were already a motley crew in terms of ski-ready. Three of us had never skied. Two of us imagined naively that a little experience thirty years ago might offset our age (one of us may have been slightly smug about it). We were in various stages of novice. A mish-mash of rented equipment. Ill-fitting apparatus. Not enough layers. One of my son-in-law's skis kept flying off. There had been no ski pants in stock that fit me, so I wore two layers of running pants.
Even so, the five of us spent the next five hours bonding and mastering the slopes. We found our ski legs . . . leaned into our happy places . . . perfected our S curves. We flew side by side, swooshing into the blue and squinting into the sun, exhilarated and impervious to the cold. We dared big . . . flew mightily off the snow into the trees and laughed one another back on track. We ventured off on our own and gathered back together to glove high fives and share victories. We wanted to stay in that feeling forever.
Indeed, after four hours, we had conquered the bunny hill.
Our ski instructor informed us then that, collectively, we were ready to advance to the gently inclined and easy winding slope that would lead us to our first lift and back around. We did this twice with no incident. We were rock stars. And then, with no warning, it ended. We looked towards the western sun sinking slowly behind the next mountain over as the instructor said good-by. She told us that her job was done and that this particular slope -- the very one that had turned us all into real skiers -- would be closing down. And also, she wouldn't recommend that we try anything else (cue the plunky-melodious sound of disbelief and disappointment -- but we were so good . . . weren't we?).
She took our picture and left. We stood there, the five of us, shuffling our skis, and looking sideways at each other. We were all thinking the same thought: we weren't done. It was my very own daughter who suggested it . . . it was one of my proudest moments . . . and there have been many . . . she pointed us toward a "green run" that ran parallel to the bunny slope. Green runs, we had learned, were the easiest. How hard could it be (even if the instructor, in her tutorial, had mentioned that there just might be a "few" blue sections involved)? United in our rebellion and lust for more adventure, we charged forward, ignoring the sign imploring us to think it over: Are You Ready?
The thing about a giant slippery hill is that once you've stepped into it . . . . . . you can't go back. Even if you haven't fully committed, but unwittingly put your body over the line to check out the terrain . . . it's too late. You can try to shuffle-claw your way back up, but ultimately you're only going to keep sliding back down in exhaustion. The journey down becomes your destiny. Looking back, I'm not sure any of us actually gave it that much thought. We just stepped off that ledge . . . one after another . . . like giddy sheep. It was probably better that way.
Because it was beautiful . . . lovely. We were all as good as we'd imagined, rocking that first gentle cotton wave from side to side . . .
for about a minute and a half.
I watched my daughter go down ahead of me . . . tumble tumble . . . and then my son-in-law . . . tumble . . . one ski flew off, sailing into oblivion. Poor things, I thought, just before I went pin-wheeling through the air towards them. As so it began. Ski Ski Tumble. Ski Tumble. Ski Tumble Tumble. For me, at least, my ratio of skiing to tumbling grew progressively worse. Stephen was doing considerably better than I was. Having had at least half a dozen ski experiences thirty years ago to my mere two, he was managing to stay upright most of the time. But being my husband and all (the children had long disappeared from sight, as children will), he was a dutiful hostage to my demise. The problem was that I simply didn't have the skills to sustain the speed that came with that green-blue slope that went down, down ever mercilessly for 3.5 miles. But it was too late. It was crash or ski. I crashed away!
It's how I live my life. I tend to jump into things . . . hard things . . . sometimes dangerous things . . . without thinking them all the way through. I might be okay with that. Overthinking, I reason, tends to kill spontaneity. It might just kill me someday . . . but dying in a freefall and learning as I go is a much better prospect than dying on my couch. From this I cannot be dissuaded.
And so I went crashing down, down the mountain at the end of a December. At first, I was undeterred, popping back up into the beauty and exhilaration of the mountain and the moment. By and by, though, I realized that my upper body strength had not kept up with my running legs. Each time I went down, it became harder and harder to get back up. I could feel my strength waning in every struggle. I was not alone . . . that meant everything and nothing at all . . . everyone who knows anything knows that you're on your own when trying to upright yourself after you've gone over the side of a mountain. Anyone who tries to help you risks being pulled down with you. I began to question my decision to be where I was . . . question my wisdom . . . my sanity. Until I got up again.
Up was glorious. Up was powerful and beautiful and could make me forget. Over and over, in a mighty effort to Just. Stay. Up. I'd find myself splashed across the snow again.
Once, as I managed to pull myself up and was well on my way to forgetting again . . . I heard a whoosh and a thud behind me. When I looked back, my husband was lying flat on his back where I had just been. He had been taken out, legs blasted right out from under him by a reckless snowboarder who come up over the last slope like a bat out of Hell frozen over. All because he wouldn't leave me. I was horrified. He lay there, eyes glazed over, staring up at the stars, the snowboarder peering over him, repeating Dude . . . Dude . . . You okay, man? and me unable to slide back up to him. Was he dead? I think we were all wondering. He was not.
I imagined that would be my lowest point until what happened a few minutes later when I skied sideways right into the netting that served as marker and barrier to the edge of the slope. And this time, my skis became tangled in the netting. In my thoroughly exhausted and recently traumatized state, I struggled mightily in what seemed like a hopeless endeavor. As soon as I would manage to extract one ski from the netting, I would foolishly and instinctively try using the other skied foot as leverage to kick the remaining foot free thereby tangling both skis all over again. In my defense, it had been at least seven hours since I'd had anything to drink . . . longer since breakfast. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and bordering on delirium. And here my lack of ski pants chose this exact moment to haunt me. I realized I could no longer feel my ass.
And that's when it happened.
Like an angel of light, we heard first . . . and then watched the headlight of an ATV coming up over the ridge to illuminate the night. It was a four wheeler pulling a wagon . . . with a little boy happily riding inside. And as I watched from my vertical position and it slowly began to motor past us . . . descending almost as in slow motion (my brain was fuzzy) . . . it began to dawn on me . . . THAT'S a rescue vehicle. And I need to be rescued! And it slowly came to a stop and I heard voices as if from inside a bubble. One said Everything okay? And the other said, Yeah, we're good. Just resting. And before I could gather my wits about me, I watched the back of that little boy's head . .. all safe and warm and happy and rested . . . chug away in that wagon and disappear around the next snowy bend in the road. You bastard! I screamed incredulously in my own head . . . I could have been safe and warm . . . resting . . . and headed down the mountain right next to that little boy . . . YOU BASTARD (I was LIVID in my head and would have screamed it out loud if I hadn't thought I had killed the traitor a few minutes before) . . . YOU LET HIM GET AWAY!
And then I came to my senses. I forgave him. I found my perspective . . . my resolve. I watched the lights of that four wheeler disappear around the next bend and I realized THAT was not the story I wanted to be telling on some distant December. THAT would not be my story. . . the safe path . . . the easy way. I was coming undone, but I was coming alive again. I untangled myself. Got up. And saved myself. I would do it as many times as I needed to climb down that mountain.
And to be sure, there were moments of redemption in the deepest parts of the struggle . . . bliss, even. Stories I want to tell and moments that supercede the doubt, the exhaustion, the pain . . . In a moment of struggle bordering on sheer panic . . . Will I die up here? Freeze to death in the snow right at my husband's feet under a million stars and God? I heard a divine voice as close to anything audible I've ever heard.
Stop. He commanded. Just STOP. Be still. Look UP. Listen. I could do nothing else. I sat up, my skis askew, resting on my frozen ass, and I looked up. I hadn't noticed a mountain peak looming over the curved path just above me, purple-black and outlined against the distant celestial lights. It was so close I thought I might reach up and touch it. The throngs of skiers had long since thinned, stretched to create a desolation . . . a quiet serenity all around us. It was so still, I could hear the gentle winter at my ears. In my frantic struggle, I had been missing the most ethereal beauty. The snow beneath me glistened. The darkest hunter green of the pines crept to the very edges of the sea of white expanse to insulate the way down. The very sky above reached down descending in a Heavenly whisper. Everything suddenly felt safe. I heard it . . . breathed it in and felt my strength begin to renew. Be still and know that I am God.
Around that curve, a final stretch of narrowed path glowed under green lights, throwing shadows of the majestic pines that reached upward to the moon. The run had plateaued to just a slight decline, and for the next fifteen minutes, I perfected a flowing S curve, my husband so close behind me I could almost hear him breathing. We glided along like that, together, silently, toward the lights of the ski village where our children waited for us.
And just as we approached, me in breathless exultation and anticipation of the victory story I would tell . . . there was a dip that dropped down suddenly into an open expanse . . . and I went tumbling and crashing down again. When I got up, we made out under the stars just beyond the lights of the city.
My daughter and I compared war stories a few minutes later . . . and we both agreed. Some sadistic bastard had built in that last dip on purpose. We're pretty sure there's a camera somewhere with a notched pole for tally marks.
In this blue June I will remember a day at the end of December when I climbed down a mountain and rescued myself.
ps I went back to Keystone a few days later with my brother and overheard a rumor that Schoolmarm is the longest ski run in the entire state of Colorado. Hey, I did that. Just saying;)