Backcountry Skiing with Dogs (or, I want to write about heaven)

“I want to write.”

Has your brain ever spoken to you so loudly that it feels like a voice external to you speaking?

Last night, in the dark, where just a moment earlier I had been falling asleep, came the not-sound, insistent.

“I want to write.”

I haven’t stopped writing. I write a dizzying number of emails. My journal is never far from my side. And yet, I don’t write.

Instead, the evenings and weekend hours when I would have written, I still write but I swap one language for another.



I’m sure I’ll talk about that more some other time. For now, suffice to say, even in this moment when I’m writing (finally), I feel the guilt.

I’m writing, but I’m not coding. I’m not studying. I’m not working toward something.

Am I?


Let’s not get distracted.


Nova is curled up, a tight bun shape, on the couch. She’s tired because yesterday she ran.

Oh, how she ran!

We – my boyfriend, my dog, and I – went to St Vrain. There’s less snow than when he and I went last year, but the snow that is feels surprisingly soft. No melt freeze crust to punch through, just snow wind packed.

When I got Nova, I resigned myself to having a dog that might never be allowed off leash. Huskies aren’t known for their penchant for sticking around. But there is something else in her. And this other side is what I wanted – obedient, responsive, a white shadow at my heel.

Granted, she doesn’t actually know “heel.”

She is a mix of these things. A snow dog that loves to run and wander. An independent spirit who checks back to make sure I’m still there. Who learns quickly to run behind the skier, just to one side. Who comes when called – eventually.

But who gets distracted and has to be gone back for, calling her name as I carry my skis back up the skin track until rounding the corner I see her, just at the next corner up, looking down to be sure it’s me.


Can I try to tell you what it felt like to see her running with me?

I have new skis, new bindings, new boots, and new skins. I’ve skinned up this path on St Vrain before, but never with such comparative ease. The pain in my knee that plagued and crippled me all last winter, gone. The weight of my old equipment dragged me down and held me back. The right, light gear seemed to propel me forward.

And a white dog ducking in and out of the woods. She alternated between trotting along on the skin track and wiggling through the deep snow on her belly.

We hadn’t broken tree line when we decided to turn around for the day, but discomfort in my right foot (the previously broken foot) and rising wind speeds made the decision easy.

My partner and I switched to downhill, and so did she.

We alternated, finding it best to keep the dog between us as we skied.

When it was my turn to ski first, she ran at my tails as if she knew the command for “heel.”

She ran just at my periphery. A tilt of my head and there she was, tongue out and charging.

When we stopped to let her catch her breath, she dove into deeper snow. When we started again, she was there, running at the heel of whichever of us was first.

In me, with skis on my feet and dog at my heel, the sense of Vonnegut’s heaven; everything is beautiful and nothing – not my knee, not my tweaked shoulder, not my mind – hurt.



Climb up with me

Climb up with me.

Let’s lay against damp shingles

On the rooftops of our most possible dreams.

We’ll stare at the anvils in the sky,

These great thunderheads,

The unreachable ones,

Radiant with their own suns.

You would rather wake with a cold nose in a cold car than this.

It’s been a while, and it will be a little while longer before I have anything new to share.

So, how about this instead. A note I just rediscovered. I wrote it after the events of this post.

That thing when you disappear into the hills with your dear and your phone dies but you have your dog and you let her eat bacon grease and lick the last of the soup. Then when you go back to civilization the car ride makes her stomach roil and protest. Then a fire alarm battery wakes you up at 3:00am and then her stomach wakes you at 3:30am and you don’t know what’s worse the beeping or the gurgling as you stumble, limping heavily with sleep.

But then on your back, your dear asleep, heavy with sleep, you can’t sleep. You can’t fall back to sleep.

So, you think of limping to the car with the dog and driving back and letting your phone die and sleeping through the sunrise. You would rather wake with a cold nose in a cold car than this.

Morning Rescues

I named my dog after an explosion – for the flash of light, a sudden brightness, that occurs when one of the stars in a binary system syphons matter off of the other. The rapid fusion of hydrogen causes the brightening of the star, visible light years away. This is called a nova.

I named my dog for a star, but Nova has given me the sunrise.

She and I went for a run. We went for a little over two miles before she started to lag and I turned us toward home.

Once we got in the door, I refilled her water bowl. I set out her kibble. Then I stepped through my morning. Small talk with a roommate. A hot shower, finger combing my hair. Through it all, I felt light, bright.

I never used to feel this way so early in the mornings. But I feel this way now.

Not every day, of course. Some mornings the sound of her tags jingling at 6 am elicits a groan as I drag myself, dizzy from sleep. This usually happens when an upset stomach or too much water has her waking me up at midnight, 3 am, 4 am.

But it’s anything, anytime for her.

Mornings aren’t so bad when I spend the first hour with no one but her. Her and me and the sunrise to the east and the alpenglow to the west and the neighborhood foxes glaring from the scrub line.

And the rabbits, of course. They are Nova’s favorite part.

Thank you, Nova Pop. You rescue me every morning.

A Better Way to Be Afraid (Or Mars in Retrograde II)

Above is the video. Below is the final version of my script. I did a pretty good job of remaining faithful to it. Enjoy.

In Utah, there is a place called Goblin Valley. It is a forest of hoodoos – pillars of sandstone and silt that tower above you.

My friend and I slipped into the valley as the park was closing and the stars were rising. We were looking for the entrance to Goblin’s Lair – a slot canyon, a crack hidden among the hoodoos. We didn’t find it. Instead, we got lost. For hours. In the dark.

This is important: When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. But lost in Goblin Valley that night, I took my friend’s arm and said – Look at the stars. That one’s mars. It’s in retrograde. Do you know what that means?

We found Goblin’s Lair the next morning, under the desert sun. It is a gaping hole in the ground that marks a drop of 90 feet from ceiling to floor.

And there I was, standing at the top. My back pressed against a hoodoo. Shaking.

My friend sets the anchor. He hands me the belay device – but it’s one I’ve never seen before yet alone used and I am shaking too hard. I can’t even focus my eyes. So, he sets it up for me.

He starts toward the edge and I am standing there, watching him back up and I can’t hold it in and I said – wait. I’m afraid of heights. You might have to talk me through this.

He looks up and without hesitation says: I will not be able to talk you through this.

I have learned something about being afraid, because I am always afraid. Fear stands at my shoulder, just beyond my vision. Or it stands before me, an ominous hole in the floor.

Here’s something else I know. I hate the phrase “face your fears.” It’s an old cliché and it’s a dick thing to say to someone whose fight or flight response has gone so out of whack that they are frozen in place. It’s not for anyone to say when you are frozen in place.

Besides. How do you face something you can’t see?

Remember. I’m afraid of heights, and I am standing at the mouth of a precipice.

I hear my friend’s voice shout off rappel, I’m looking at the pillars. I’m thinking – I could walk out of here. But I decide that the only way out is down.

I attach the belay device and I lock and unlock and lock and unlock and lock the carabiner just the way I locked and unlocked and locked the doors of my house when I was a child.

And I move toward it – I move toward the hole that is a metaphor for a thousand other fears.

But I do not face it. Oh hell – no I do not face it. I get on my hands and knees. And I crawl. Backwards.

I refused to look down. I refused to look away from the sandstone under my hands. Until I was no longer pressed against the wall. Until the rope took all of my weight. Until I was suspended in the middle of the cavern.

Hanging there, I looked up. I looked down. I looked around.

And it was beautiful. The light illuminated the cavern from above and made the walls glow as red as Mars.

There are things that you do not have to be afraid of, but you are afraid of them anyway.

Someone asked me recently if I had finally learned to avoid the things that make my heart pound and my head spin.

I had to laugh because the short answer is no. The long answer is of course not.

Because I can’t imagine what my life would be without dropping cliffs on skis, descending too fast on bicycles, asking him out on a date, or standing in front of a crowd, speaking my own words for the very first time.

Fear, I find, is as alluring as it is repelling.

Move toward it.

Not all of the time. Not every time.

I could make that rappel for the same reason that I can stand here tonight – because I appear to  retreat. I go home and I sit in my safe house and read my safe books and whisper safe words into the leaves of my plants for days. Weeks. Once I did this for months.

Then, when I’m ready. I go out. I do this as often as I can. Even if I have to get on my hands and knees. Especially if I have to move backwards.

Do this.

Because, as e.e.cummings wrote, even stars walk backwards. Even Mars, god of war, appears to move backwards. That’s the definition of retrograde.


To read the original blog post that inspired the talk, go here.

To read my initial post-Ignite reflections, go here.

(Photo by Ignite Boulder.)

That Time I Stood on Stage Talking About Being Afraid

I have done something remarkable – in the sense that it should be remarked upon. In the sense that I must remark upon it.

Do you remember the story I wrote this summer, What I Know About Being Afraid (Or Mars in Retrograde)?

Well. Now there’s a sequel. And it’s on video.

I was invited to speak at Ignite Boulder and share that story with the crowd. Because it was a crowd. 880-some odd people. A sold-out venue. Plus who knows how many tuning in over the live stream.

I am excited to share this with you. For now, I want to share with you some thoughts – both my experience and a small part of what this experience means to me.

(The complete YouTube video is up! Watch it – and read the script – here.)

Four days ago I stood on stage. It was my first time speaking on a stage. It was my first time speaking into a microphone.

I stood before a crowd and I began to speak, my voice quivering.

“In Utah, there is a place called Goblin Valley…”

Of course, it was scary to stand up there. As with most things, the anticipation is worse than the actual event.

Past speakers told me that I would ‘black out’ once I stepped on stage. That I would go into a kind of strange trance. That didn’t happen, and I’m glad for it. I was gloriously awake. Eyes wide open as I looking at the dark, featureless shapes that made up the crowd.

Thank goodness for the blinding glare of the spotlight. Thank goodness I’m no longer afraid of the dark.

When Justin volunteered me to be a speaker, my immediate reaction was to feel deeply flattered and a bit embarrassed.

Since when have my words held any merit?

Since when have my stories been anything more than a deflecting joke to tell at parties?

I thought about saying, no thanks. I thought about saying, no way.

Since when have my words held any merit?

Since when has a story of mine been anything more than background noise?

Then I remembered Mary Malone.

In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Mary Malone speaks what is, perhaps, the trilogy’s most important line:

Tell them stories.

This sentence inspires Mary to tell a story. And that story sets into motion the events that would save the world. You’ll just have to read the books. They’re really quite good.

When I was young and small and painfully shy, Pullman’s words told me that the most important thing you can ever do is tell them stories.

I am older now. Bigger. More confident, but still not the kind to try to grab the spotlight.

On that stage, I had five minutes to tell a story. Maybe, just maybe, someone in the crowd needed to hear it. Or if not in the crowd, then someone will stumble into it online. They will hit play and they will hear the quiver in my voice and it will echo something inside of them. Then we will shake together even though we have never and will never meet.

A career coach asked me how I wanted to be remembered. I said, “That I tried. That I tried really, really hard to make things a little better.”

So I stood on stage and told the story of Goblin Valley. I told a story of a small fear in the hopes that it will remind you (and me) that the same rules apply for the big ones. The micro in the macro.

And maybe… for someone… it helped.


The Personal is Political

The personal is political.

Each step you take, each breath you breathe.

Your actions will speak louder than you will ever be able to scream.

I’ll remember this, too. I promise this to you. I’ll scream, yeah. But I’ll do more, too.

For a long time, the Bukowski quote in my About page read thus:

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

Let’s do this.