Getting to the Lift
By Thomas Biehl
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Copyright 2016 Thomas Biehl
Colorado was my getaway. The sun hid behind the mountains leaving us waiting to board the ski lift in the eerie near light of before dawn. Ski lift operators were the first ones on the mountain in the morning, before the guests and even the ski patrol. A heavy yawn escaped my mouth; I shivered against the cold. My eyes not yet completely open had remnants of the sleep I missed. The thought how did I get there crossed my mind; my getaway, from the only existence I had known for the first eighteen years of my life. After the first year of college, I had felt the urgent need to escape like some bandit on his way to Mexico.
I had no desire to go to Mexico, so I went to the only other place I did know. I had been to Colorado to visit my grandparents every summer since I could remember, so while it was an escape it still had some small measure of the familiar. I had so much to get away from, but mainly I ran from life not making sense anymore. Leaving it all behind seemed like the obvious choice. I ended up in Vail, Colorado working as a ski lift operator, which meant I had to get up at five in the morning to can catch the bus. Now, I waited in line to board the main lift and get on with the work day.
I set my snowboard down on the snow and moved it back and forth with my foot to cool it off. The snowboard had been inside and was warm; if it just sat in the cold snow, some of the snow would melt onto the bottom of the board. When the board did eventually get cold, the moisture would freeze again. Then when I tried to snowboard with it, the frozen moisture would catch and I would fall. So, moving it back and forth made sense in my half-awake state, because then it would cool off without getting the moisture stuck to it. It got a chance to adjust to the cold instead of being thrown into it.
I strapped my right foot into the board and used my free foot to ‘skate’, sliding up to the lift. The chair hit gently as I sat in it and got a little comfortable. As the lift chair left the ground, the cold air bit at my exposed face. Company issue snow pants, heavy vest, and heavy coat protected my body from the night’s lingering single digit temperatures. I had taken myself out my life long before I had decided to escape to Colorado. Going to school, work, sleeping, and watching TV were not what I would have called living a life, more sitting on the side lines and watching life go by. Wrapped in self-pity and even depression, I had been tired of things being so confusing. Like the cold air which found its way through my clothing to chill my bones, life was something I could have only avoided for so long.
The lift rose to about forty feet off the ground, high enough that the sun broke over the mountain peaks off to the east, and sunlight began to warm me. It seemed everything there was temporary, an escape from one thing or another. People came to Vail for the weekend from Denver to retreat from busy lives. The expensive houses that lined the bottom of the mountain were vacation homes, used only weeks out of the year. Friends made there were temporary; that was a bittersweet realization. It was a different kind of friendship when both people knew that in a couple of months they would more than likely never see that person again. In a way it gave people the freedom to break free, because there were no preconceived notions. They didn’t know my older brother; they had never been to my home town. All they had to go on was me. I could have been anybody I wanted to be, and they wouldn’t know the difference.
But then that was the problem I had hoped to solve in coming to this snowy playground, who was I without those preconceived notions. What was my life when all that I had known was on the other side of the country? The freezing wind was harsh as I reached the top of the mountain, so cold it stung my eyes. They watered, and moisture ran down my already cold cheeks. Frost bite was a big concern there; exposure to cold killed the nerves in the tissue. The nerves had to be able to regrow, that was the pain after I had been out in the cold a while. If I had been out too long, over exposure would have killed the nerves and then the tissue; and they wouldn’t be able to regrow. Red skin was okay; it meant alive, but once it turned white it was gone.
The chair reached the top of the lift, and as my turn came, I stood on my board and slid away from the lift. I found my group of lifties, the guys that worked the lifts around mine. We had to snowboard to our lifts together. We were the only ones on the mountain, so if one of us went off on our own and got hurt, it could have been hours before they were found. There wasn’t much talk as we were still mostly asleep. The drag foot was left unbound because the first thing we had to do was cross a steady grade from that peak to the next, and it required a push here and there. I tried not to fall in front of my coworkers as I was still relatively new to snowboarding. I didn’t want to be known as a gaper.
Pronounced ‘gay-per’, it was a snowboarder slang term for someone who shouldn’t even be on the mountain, had no idea what they’re doing, or was a grown adult male wearing a hot pink snow suit. Snowboarding was my one pure enjoyment in that escape of mine. Sure the mountains were beautiful, but I eventually got used to them like everything else. My first approach to snowboarding had been similar to everybody’s; that it looked like an intense and fast sport which at first glance appeared easy. Not true, trying to do everything fast was how most people learning to snowboard fell continuously on their butt onto rock solid ice. My first day taking lessons, half the class had quit by lunchtime. Snowboarding had been surprisingly all about subtle movements and realizing if I tried to over control the board, I would fall every single time. Sometimes it was about letting the snow take me in a certain direction. Reading the snow and/or ice was part of it, but something as little as moving my toes could set me into a turn. I couldn’t help but find it ironic that controlling something that seemed out of control was all about subtlety and letting go of some of that control. Also, it forced me to live in the moment because if my mind wandered while snowboarding, the ground came up at me, hard.
We reached the second peak and strapped in our drag foot. As we were about to shred steeper slopes, I realized that my moments of clarity in this escape came when I was snowboarding, because I had the thrill of not being completely in control. I thought perhaps I would adapt that philosophy to my life, living in the moment, not trying to control everything so much, and only pushing the ride that was my life in subtle ways. I smiled as I pick up speed because I thought for the first time in a long time that everything was going to be okay.