Perhaps it is the realization that my twenties are drawing to an end and I feel my youth slipping away, but awhile ago I made the conscious decision to lead a more examined life.  In the past I have abandoned the process of introspection, reacting instead on an ever-present feeling of urgency.  Acting without thinking, as if a certain opportunity would disappear never to present itself again.  My life thus far has been about throwing myself at various objectives: mountains, education, relationships, often without putting an adequate amount of thought into what I have really been doing and why.  I have very few regrets about the decisions that I’ve made, but only good can come from being more thoughtful and applying reason to action, right?

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When the e-mail from Luke Will popped onto my computer screen suggesting that we circumnavigate Oregon’s Crater Lake on skis, I immediately responded (without thinking I might add) that it sounded like a great idea.  After some more thought I made a list of reasons to cirumnavigate something.  It included such gems as “because it’s there,” and, “creating arbitrary goals to feel a sense of accomplishment is the most human thing we can do,” as well as, “why not?”  I left the introspection at that.

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Weeks passed until it was time to leave and when the day arrived Luke and I loaded up the minivan and drove quickly south through the surprisingly sun-drenched Willamette Valley.   Winding our way into the Cascades, closely following the banks of the North Umpqua River, we arrived at the park in a blinding snowstorm.

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The individual events of the next five days don’t matter much.  We skied and skied, we camped, we ate, we skied some more.  We cursed the winds that knocked us over.  We saw brilliant stars and shivered in our soaked sleeping bags.  We forgot the whiskey.

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I laid awake one night lost in thought and that’s when it dawned on me how unreasonable trying to find a reason for everything really is.  There is little evidence in my life that leads me to believe that our existence on this awesome planet is anything more than an evolutionary fluke.  Whether we spend all our time in the pursuit of money, trying to find meaning through adventure, or any of the myriad other things people do, does it make any difference?  Are they all merely pleasure seeking activities we participate in so we don’t have to face the reality of human existence?

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Thirty-two miles later I concluded that circumnavigating something is about celebrating the absurd nature of life itself.  It is about the feeling of pilfered Taco Bell hot sauce hitting sunburned lips after a quad burning day.  It is about ripping off your skins and bombing downhill as fast as you can, the added momentum supplied by your heavy pack carrying you farther and faster.  It is about the taste of twenty four ounces of celebratory Pabst Blue Ribbon beer hitting your stomach and feeling better than you ever imagined.  It is about letting go and not worrying about the why.

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Skiing

March 21, 2008

Chite

photo by Luke Will

The Midwest, void of mountains as it is, paradoxically produces a mad breed of skiing addicts. The “mountains” are nothing but gently rising knolls, laughable topography to the mountain dwelling folk. But there are souls who are born with the love of mountains inside of them and, cruelly fated to them through the unfortunate intersection of time and place, are born in the flatlands. To these people skiing down what was once a landfill makes more than perfect sense.

Upon receding the glaciers that created the Great Lakes eroded unevenly, leaving Wisconsin in a somewhat-more-hilly-than-Illinois manner. Residents of the cheesehead state often boast about their relative altitude superiority by referring to their neighbors as “fucking flatlanders”. I shipped off to a boarding school in Wisconsin at the impressionable age of thirteen. Two years before my journey North I had strapped on skis for the first time and was instantly fascinated by the whole experience. I skied a handful of times after that and when it was over all I could think about was the next trip. I joined my new school’s ski team. Very few specifics about those years racing are clear. I remember how it felt to ride the chairlift up, bright lights illuminating the dark midwinter night. I remember how cold it was and how little we cared about numb feet and frozen hands. I remember camaraderie and bus rides home. I remember crashing more often than finishing. Sometimes I insert friends that weren’t there into these memories and it feels right. Those days and nights were magical and during the tumultuous times of adolescence, skiing provided an escape.

My number one criterion for choosing a college was proximity to a ski area. I sought a real mountain, one with chairlifts and elevation gain measured in the thousands of feet. Autumn slowly turned to winter my first year in Southwestern Colorado. I thought I might explode with anticipation. In my dreams I could feel the snug fit of my boots, hear the satisfying click of my bindings as I pressed down on the heel. When rumor spread that a resort in the Front Range was opening in the early season, Brendan and I made the trek six hours North. We spent the freezing night in the parking lot, huddled in the back of the pickup truck. One lift was open and it seemed like half the population of Colorado was there, eager to get in their first day of the season. All of my anxieties floated away as I arced big GS turns down the icy runs.

As the seasons passed skiing took a back seat to other mountain pursuits. I would only get out a couple of days a season. My interests began gravitating towards backcountry endeavors, far from the crowds, lift lines and overpriced fried foods.

Luke and I skin up the trail. The day is already hot as we leave the woods and begin ascending an open bowl. The sun is intense and I wish I would have brought more sunscreen. My head pounds from a residual hangover, a remnant of my birthday celebration the night before. An old skin track weaves in and out of the pine trees until finally we are above the chute. We spend a while sitting at the top. Mt. Hood stands out, its infamous rime ice forming a wintry patina more rarely seen and more beautiful than its August incarnation. Finally we drop in and those first few turns…

I would like to say that all those days spent skiing amounted to something. That there is something tangible, something that I can show people and say, “look, this is why I do this”. But there isn’t. Maybe skiing is what it appears to be, nothing more than sliding down a snow-covered hill on two planks. Maybe it’s a waste of time, an escapist pursuit that distracts from what really matters in life. But I know that isn’t true, for the essence of skiing is nothing less than the essence of what it means to be human. It is so many things: sport and friendship, unfettered freedom and the pursuit of happiness. It is dedication and occasionally defeat. But perhaps at its core it is about love and landfills.