Sunday, January 8, 2012

on the occasion of skiing down a mountain

The balaclava has fused to my face. It’s like my moustache and beard have conspired together with the driving snow, facial sweat and nose drippings to create a new frozen outer shell. I gingerly touch it with the finger of one gloved hand – I don’t want to break it.
I am lying on my back levitating a foot and a half off of the ground thanks in no small part to the layer of snow that blankets this mountain. I am staring up inside the cloud that is unloading white onto the slope. Crowding the corners of my vision are the ever-present mountains. They seem to know that this prairie boy is accustomed to the open horizon where the sky never quits. So these jealous mountains peek in on the edges of my sight. I turn to look. I am a sucker for their tricks. Peaks like the knuckles of a thousand fists poke out across the ridge – a giant from below punching out his frustration. I feel that remote sense that must drive thrill seeking adventurer types to climb these ridges. They call to something inside that I immediately recognize as sheer foolishness. Later, while driving beside a particularly alluring ridge, I off-handedly suggest that reaching the summit might be a fairly easy task. My son snickers, agrees reluctantly and, being the pragmatist that he is, reminds me of the effort and time it would take to scale that mountain. But in this moment on my back between the snow on the slope and the falling snow – I am smitten.
Our skis, speared through the crust of the snow beneath the powdery stuff I have been sliding on, stick up like the fence posts of a lunatic rancher. The three of us have done the same. The boys, anxious to re-establish the burning thigh effect that is a constant companion down this mountain, break the spell I am under. “Let’s go dad!” I am torn. I crave a few more minutes to soak in this slow-motion experience. But adrenaline is calling for another fix. Caught between control and disaster. Skis swing back and forth across the mountain, sitting back on my heels a little (especially in the powdery stuff) but always on the edge of plummeting headlong down an unsuspected icy patch. Its danger and beauty mixed. Who am I kidding? It’s not beautiful when I ski – unless in your mind beauty looks a lot like a short stumpy 40 year old atop an unbroken colt – without any stirrups. It’s ugly and dangerous – but fun.
We are the last off the hill. We convince the lifty to send us up the back side of the mountain just before she shuts it down so that we don’t have to hike the kilometer and a half back to the rental shop.
Later, as the body’s pain mechanism begins to register in the brain I am briefly conscious of curious feeling. As the lactic acid builds in every fiber of my legs, I wonder how we have come to consider this activity recreation. This rigorous exertion of energy to the point of…cursing agony – I am only trying to get out of the hot tub! How did this activity evolve into something we would deem to be invigorating and worthy of spending our leisure (dollars and time)? It is perplexing enough that we would willingly subject our bodies to torturous labor in the name of having fun. It is even more peculiar that we would choose to spend our time doing something that could endanger our ‘productivity’ in the rest of our ‘responsible’ lives. Stranger still is that we would take the financial advantages we have accrued to measure out ecstatic suffering upon our own bodies.
What we spend our leisure on is a signal to us and those around us. It is possibly a message about who we are. It is a descriptor of our vigor perhaps. Maybe it is a disclaimer of our relative wealth. It might not be much more than the sort of thing a dog does in marking its territory – a smelly reminder to us and others of what is our personal ‘territory’. As uncomfortable as these signals make me there is a more redemptive notion that seems important as well.
For me this sliver of time on the side of a mountain has given pause to appreciate the uncrowded spaces that we are afforded in our lives from time to time. These unencumbered moments in the splendor of this exquisite place and the pleasure of spending time with my sons remind me of just how alive I am. My body on the other hand…well…it just might prefer not to be so alive – right now!

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