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Confronting Mortality On The Slopes | At The Root Of Things

At The Root Of ThingsWhen I’m on the mountain, it’s like that dream where I’m flying—not like Superman—but more like The Greatest American Hero, from the television show in the 1980’s, always slightly out of control, but pushing my body to my own ultimate test.

I use every muscle against nature. With the waking wind against my face, the trees line the wide snowy path against the contrast of the sky so blue; it’s a reminder of the endless universe that stretches behind it. I take a breath, point my skis down, and soar off the edge of the next hill. Shivers travel up my torso—but not from the cold.

My skiing adventures may not equate Cheryl Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, or even my husband’s Ironman challenges. Me? I don’t even ski black diamond slopes but stick firmly and cautiously to intermediate blues.

Having broken both knees during powder conditions, I know my limitations and what skiing can do to my body. I am not a great skier, but this is my ultimate physical challenge.

So I concentrate on using the edge of my blade to turn, avoid the ice and bumps and jumps. My heart beats faster as another skier zooms past my right shoulder.

Then something changes, my body suddenly remembers to lean forward, relish the burn of my inner thighs, sit back uphill—deep-down, hugging the mountain with my hips. And when I’m in the groove, I’m one with the skis, the snow, the mountain, and the air moving past me.

Winter Wonderland by Vincent Locke_John Muir quote

 

Skiing gives me a unique sense of freedom, like dancing through a brisk wind, weightless, with more speed than I’ve ever produced. Into the woods, away from the world where no one can find you, an enchanted game of hide and seek where fairies and sentient wildlife could really exist.

Somehow no matter how crowded the slopes are, I can always find moments of silence where I go inside myself. All I hear is the snow. Not falling snow, not snow swishing under my feet. Just the quiet clumps sitting in the trees all around me. It’s magic.

But often times when I stop—after so much speed—my chest still pumps in terror. I never really know whether my legs or the skis will do what I tell them. Sometimes those long appendages sticking out in front and behind me that float on the snow seem so disconnected to my body. It’s like Dancing with the Devil. And you never know how long you have.

When I come to a steep section, point my skis down, and turn—throwing my weight over my feet with trust in all who’ve come before and taught me—each time is an exercise in faith, in fright, in defiance of gravity. I wonder each time if my body will remember, be supple and strong enough, if my knees will end up bent in the right direction.

And sure, I could get injured running or swimming laps, at boot camp or zumba. But typically not in the sudden, frightening, disabling way that skiers risk injury—in sudden paralysis or death.

But is the risk of severe or deadly injury what makes skiing attractive to me? Not exactly. I’m not a risk taker—thus the blue runs. I have no tattoos, don’t bungee jump or skydive. I like to be in control. In fact, my husband calls me a control freak. And yet . . .

There are places at Heavenly ski resort where you can see the arid desert of Nevada from the top of the mountain. I always think of my Nana, who lived in Las Vegas, when I look down from that angle. The scorched desert forms a sharp contrast to all the snow capped mountains and blue of Lake Tahoe, where she married, on the other side.

And since she died two years ago, I do think of her in a different way. But her death hasn’t made me more cautious. Because she lived so fully, her life reminds me to turn my skis downhill at every opportunity. I don’t think she ever skied, but I think she would have enjoyed flying.

Several times a year, I set myself free in the wild—by my own standards. I hike. I camp. I fly down mountains sliding precariously against the snow on wood, fiberglass, and carbon fiber, among the tall evergreen trees that look down on me like protectors, and test my body to its limits.

 

 

Photo credit: Creative Commons License “Winter Wonderland” by Vincent Locke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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About Amy McElroy (20 Articles)
Amy McElroy is the Essays Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee. She is a writer, freelance editor, writing coach, and yoga instructor. In a former life, she worked as an attorney. She has published her non-fiction essays in various print and online periodicals, and on KUSP radio in Santa Cruz, California. Visit Amy’s other cyber-home at amyjmcelroy.net. Amy is currently working on two books: Yoga for Writers and a book of essays linked by a tree theme. She now lives in yoga pants near San Jose, California, with her husband and two daughters.
Contact: Website

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