Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Greatest Snow on Earth

Yesterday a guy took me in a back alley, beat my thighs, knees, shins, and calves with an aluminum baseball bat, then for good measure, rolled me over and gave me a few good thwacks on my shoulders and back. Afterwards, I handed him $100 and made plans to come back and do it again next week.

No, no, just kidding. In actuality, I went skiing for the first time since my sophomore year in high school. It just feels exactly the same as getting beaten up.

You know how method actors spend weeks "in character" trying to get a good feel for who their character is? Well, if they ever want to feel old and crippled, have them go skiing. I'm limping through the house, taking stairs one at a time, groaning a lot and I smell like Flex-all which is the quintessential old-person smell. I should apologize to my grandparents who, while technically in the "old person" category, are the youngest old people I've ever met, and could have skied circles around me yesterday, artificial knees and all. They could have been the ones with the baseball bat, for heaven's sake.

The day started out, as most days do, with me getting lost trying to find the parking lot. I had to park in the overflow lot, which when I drove past, had giant piles of dirt and a bulldozer, and no cars parked there, so I assumed that it was not the lot I was looking for. There were no signs, except for the one a little further up the mountain that said "No parking unless directed by an employee." Well, I had been directed by an employee, right? So on I went, and ended up in an unplowed construction zone, to which I can only say, thank goodness for snow tires. I turned around and went back to the bulldozer parking lot, and now I saw other cars in there, and shuttle busses. It's a lot harder to be cheerful about getting lost when it makes you late for something.

And late I was. The lesson was supposed to start at 10, and when I rolled in at 10:03 without having rented my skis yet, the woman threatened me with having to wait until the afternoon lesson at 1:30. But the person on the other end of the walkie talkie had her send me over, so it was all good.

I got fitted for my medieval torture devices, I mean, my ski boots, and clumped ungracefully over to the yurt where the lessons start. Could they make those things (the ski boots, not the yurt) any more painful than they are? I suppose they could be covered in spikes, or maybe full of molten lava, but maybe the most deceptive thing is that they start moderately uncomfortable and then by the end of the lesson, they have grown spikes that you weren't previously aware of.

My instructor was Steve, and I swear, they must pay these guys in confidence, because he acted like the whole learning-to-ski thing was just a piece of cake. And it wasn't too hard, the basics of it anyway. The sum total of my previous ski skills was the snowplow, but I picked up on the "how to turn" thing pretty quickly. The rest was all technique.

Which is too bad, because unsurprisingly, I have pretty bad technique. Steve was generous, though, and told me I was learning quickly and doing a good job for a relative novice. He showed me how to stand tall and crouch down, how to keep my torso straight and my knees bent, how to aim down the hill when every cell in my body is convinced that aiming down the hill is the fastest way to end up in a full body cast. When I told him that my thighs were cramping, he showed me how to keep my shins pressed against the front of my boots (you know, where the spikes are) and told me to pretend that my husband had tucked a $100 bill in each boot and in order to keep it there, I have to keep my shins pressed against it. That proved to be a distraction, though, because I asked myself, Where would Ryan have gotten $200? Did he go to the bank? And what am I going to do with $200 anyways? Shouldn't we be saving that for our trip? Shouldn't we have discussed this before he took $200 from our savings account? You see my dilemma - you can't throw a $200-in-your-boots analogy at me and expect me to keep going like before.

But somehow, it worked, and I tried hard to keep the bills in my boots and my hips forward and my weight leaning down the mountain. We skipped the tow area, which is the tiny beginner's hill, and went right for the main lift. My three primary fears were: a) Falling off the chair lift, b) Going too fast and not being able to stop before I crashed into a tree or flew off a cliff, and c) Interacting with other skiers. All of these fears were going to be faced right there, 10 minutes after my lesson started, and I was nervous. My falling-off-the-lift fear is because when I went as a teenager, I fell off the lift every single solitary time. There was not a time where I got off the lift and remained on my feet. This was true over the course of several trips, and I was afraid it would be no different 16 years later. Miraculously, I got off the lift and did not fall! I even said to Steve, "Hey, I didn't fall!" Maybe my luck had changed! (No, it hadn't - the other two runs I made that day, I fell off the lift both times.)

My fear of interacting with other skiers also stems from my previous ski experience. My very first time skiing was at Ski Liberty in Maryland, although I don't remember doing as much skiing as falling. And then getting up, and trying to put my dumb skis on again, over and over. It was so frustrating that I wanted to scream. One time I had fallen, and had just barely gotten my skis back on, when this crazy lady comes flying down the hill yelling "I can't stop! Get out of the way!" And then she barreled into me, knocking me back down. I somehow made it down the hill and then plopped down out of the way and vowed never to ski again. After about half an hour, though, I went back up, and I must have skied more than I fell, because that's when it started to be fun.

So getting in people's way was a major concern for me. Steve tried to assuage my fears by saying that the Rules of the Mountain dictate that the person in front has the right-of-way. I didn't have to keep craning my neck behind me to see if some maniac was flying down the hill like a heat-seeking missile with me in their sights. Instead, I could focus on my biggest fear - being the crazy lady screaming "I can't stop! Get out of the way!" and plowing into an innocent bystander (I mean, byskier) or right off a cliff.

Why is it that they don't put up concrete barriers on the edge of the mountain to stop people from falling off? I was so petrified of the edge that I hugged the mountainside (i.e., the side with all the trees) - I didn't want to get anywhere near the edge because I could picture myself shooting right off the side. Maybe a concrete barrier would cause injuries too, maybe a rubber padded concrete barrier, or some netting, or a giant pile of marshmallows. Anything to give me the slimmest hope that I might not die a horrible, painful death if I accidentally turn left instead of right.

For the most part, I felt in control of my turns and my speed, and I think I was doing a decent job. Any time the hill started to look steep, I would get intimidated and Steve had to coax me a little to keep me going. He had a great attitude, never got impatient with me and when one analogy didn't get the desired results, he'd switch to another one. (For example, leaning down to "pet the dog" in order to aim my body down the hill wasn't the best analogy for me, since I pretty much only pet dogs at gunpoint. Since no one there had a gun, he switched to having me point my arm downhill instead.)

Halfway through our second run, I told Steve that I thought I was keeping my shins against my boots, but that my thighs were still on fire. He watched me go down, to make sure, and then said, "It could be that your muscles aren't used to this." Ohhh, yeah. I forgot that I had packed the ski muscles in a box back in 1992 and hadn't ever taken them out to dust them off until today.

I went down with Steve twice. We still had thirty minutes of our lesson left, so he asked if I wanted to go back up for one more quick ride down. As they say, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. My legs already hurt so much that I asked him if it was okay if we just quit for the day. I was afraid if I went back up I wouldn't have the strength to slow myself down, and therefore bring to pass the whole flying-off-the-cliff scenario. He helped me take off my skis and directed me to the restaurant when I started down the path that led to, well, I don't know. But it was the wrong way if I wanted a snack. Would it cost Sundance so much to install a few signs, for crying out loud?

I rested in the deli area with a bottle of Fiji water (btw, I want to move to Fiji - their water totally rocks!) until I felt some strength returning. I didn't want to leave without trying it one time on my own. After all, Ryan had given me the whole day to ski if I wanted to. (He really, really wanted me to enjoy skiing so we could go together sometime. But no pressure.) I certainly didn't want to waste a whole day of freedom by throwing in the towel. So I clomped back up to my skis and strapped them on. Then I slid over to the chair lift, which I got onto with no problems, and I dangled up the mountain. When I got to my stop, BAM! I fell right off. But having been versed in falling-off-the-lift etiquette, I scootched over to one side so that the guy didn't have to stop the lift for me, then wrestled with getting back up.

Once up, I headed down the mountain. Somehow, the whole process is much, much scarier without someone there to help me, guide me, or at least, tell the search and rescue team where I fell off the cliff. I was totally on my own. So I went at a snails pace as much as possible. Well, a snails pace isn't actually possible - I went way too fast, then came to a dead stop, so that my average speed ended up at Snail. Maybe if I get good, I can end up going Turtle, but that's too much for me right now.

Any time the hill looked intimidating, I would pull over to the side. If anyone was coming up behind me, I was convinced that my s-turns would be completely unpredictable to them, causing them to crash into my back, so I'd pull over. At one point a swarm of 5 year olds came flying down the hill past me, like a kindergarten field trip gone awry, giving me the simultaneous thoughts of "Wow, they are amazing!" and "Why aren't they in school?" I pulled over once next to a stand of trees, and noticed the broken branch on the ground and bark scattered on the snow, and thought "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Comforting thought - there was no blood on the snow, and no tracks of a body being dragged away.

My other concern was, naturally, getting lost. There are all sorts of turns that a skier could take to make the run more challenging. Brad and Noah, who have gone skiing 5 or 6 times this season, are already pros, like the kindergarteners I mentioned. They have no fear, and take all the winding turns that go off through the trees and have jumps and the like. But I did not want to end up staring down some black diamond run with no way to get home but down. Why is it that kids have no fear of this? Is it a lack of imagination - they don't have the mental pictures of crumpled bodies with limbs bent the wrong way, of the phone call letting someone know there's been an accident, the knowledge of just how much pain surviving a ski accident could bring? So much for kids and their creativity - I can picture worst-case scenarios that they couldn't even dream of.

I inched my way down, terrified of losing control and going too fast, or finding the tree with my name on it. I was so scared that every time I stopped, I had to talk myself into moving again. The self talk would sound something like this: "You can do this. You can do this. Just go out there, and turn right. You won't go too fast. It's okay. It's okay. Look at all the other people who are doing this. You can do this." Then I would go out, get a little speed, try to turn, go a little wider than I wanted, then head back over to the side to regroup. The worst was the final hill, which was impossibly steep and so packed down that it was practically ice. I told myself that I could do it, that the end was in sight and it's not that big a hill after all, then I went down. I tried to snowplow, but my skis got no purchase on the rutted ice, and I flew down that hill. Finally, right at the edge of the course (and the bright orange netting), I turned, slowed down, and coasted to a stop only a few feet away from the chair lift.

I did it! I did it! I was so relieved I could barely function, but happy too. And proud of myself. I have a general dislike for not being good at things, and I am clearly not good at skiing. But there's a "yet" at the end of that - I'm not good at skiing yet. I had to call it a day then, because my muscles were sobbing and begging to be put back in the box, but I decided that I want to do it again. I want to go back, have another lesson, and get some confidence. I think I've got the basic concept, I just need to get good at it. I doubt I'll ever be fearless like my kids. I've had 31 years to come up with all of these horrible mental pictures (tree branch stuck in my eye! chair lift cables breaking!) so I don't think I can erase them quickly, if ever. But I'm no longer afraid of being jumped in a back alley and beaten within an inch of my life, because I already know what that feels like, and it's survivable. Expensive, but survivable.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Emily, I can SO relate to this! I laughed through the whole thing because I could totally picture it (and put myself in it!) Congrats on making down the mountain by yourself - that is more than I have managed so far. My favorite part, though, was where you were wondering where Ryan got the $200- you crack me up!