The Other Thing: On Adventuring Alone

Mud boots, rock skisThis is the other thing I wanted to talk about. But first, I’ll start with a kind of a disclaimer. To quote Haruki Murakami: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone.” This has been true forever. I enjoy the company of others, sure, but I need a certain amount of alone time to feel rested and complete.

For years, however, I was under the impression that this need for solitude was ‘antisocial’ and therefore bad or wrong. I worked very hard to suppress this drive for solitude, which meant that several years were more difficult than they had to be. Not in the sense that I was picked on or otherwise mistreated. Simply in the sense that I was more tired more often than I needed to be. Constant social fatigue wore away at my self-confidence, spilling over from the social sphere and into my adventure sphere. Fear of going out and doing something by myself (and fear of somehow failing or running into trouble in the woods alone) meant that I didn’t get out into the wild anywhere near as much as I wanted and needed.

It’s taken several more years now of practicing doing things alone again, but I’m finding joy in the rehearsal. It started small with going to cafés to work or quietly sip tea. Then, a few bars. (I love reading in bars. I don’t do it often because interruptions annoy me, but bar-reading is great.) Or the beach. Or driving to the resort alone to link a few turns in the lift-served playground. These places are as pleasant and enjoyable by yourself as they are when in a group.

Smiling in May on Snow at StoweAnd then there was yesterday – earning my turns in calm, satisfied solitude. The peace of walking upwards and the exhilarating joy of sliding back down again.

Of course, there were other people out enjoying the day – hikers with their children or dogs, other riders in small groups. We flashed smiles to one another and commented on the weather, but for the most part I was by myself. Then, when I finally arrived home, I hopped on my bicycle to ride to the beach and lay stretched out on a towel writing the rough draft of these two blog posts. Eventually, I headed back into town to join friends for dinner, drinks, and laughter.

This perfect day was all due to the realization that yeah, I got this. I woke up Monday morning with the confidence in myself, my gear, and my ingenuity to get up and have an adventure doing what I love. If I got hurt on the mountain, I had a plan. If I locked myself out of my car, I didn’t have a plan, but I’m sure I would have figured something out.

Maybe this is just a small thing, but like icebergs, even small-seeming things can be quite large.

Gondolier Stowe

Just as earning your turns lets you experience both the Uphill and the Downhill, so too does following what you love give you the opportunity to be both Together and Alone. There’s nothing quite like stopping halfway through a powder run to trade high-fives with your friends, but there’s also nothing quite like savoring a mountain that is yours and yours alone.

This is what I wish I learned years ago: whether you’re in the middle of a crowd or standing all alone, just keep doing what you love. Everything else will fall into rhythm.

You got this.

Go have an adventure.

Uphill People, Downhill People

For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Families roll out barbecue grills. Co-eds drink beer in folding lawn chairs.

Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your ski graphics.
Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your graphics.

Today, Memorial Day 2013, I went skiing.

Between Saturday night and Sunday, a beautiful nor’easter dumped 8″ on the summit of Mt. Mansfield (and 3 feet on New York’s White Face). The lowlands were pelted with rain. Monday morning had me waking up to sunshine and blue skies. Naturally, I threw my skis into my car and high-tailed it for the hills.

All day, two thoughts circled through my mind. One I’ll write about now. The other I will save for the next blog post.

The first: Brendan Leonard over at Semi-Rad wrote about a divide between Uphill People and Downhill People. He is of the former – finding pleasure in the journey UP, whether it’s sending a climbing route or skinning into the backcountry. As he describes, “I enjoy the Zen rhythm of methodically skinning up the snow, forcing myself to stay at a pace that I could hold for an hour straight without stopping…”

I have a deep appreciation for the uphill. Movement is my meditation, after all; the more all-consuming the better. This morning, I took a round-about way up to avoid the sight and sounds of other hikers (all four of them). In no time at all, I fell into a natural, steady pace. With no one to catch up to or slow down for, I simply walked forward. And up.

It was a warm day in the sun, but the wind flowing downhill was cold. It picked up the smell of the snow and beckoned me ever forward.

I stopped to eat lunch below the gondola summit and leaned again the pylon. Here, the snow lay inches thick and heavy with the morning’s warmth. I felt no need to walk any higher. The tops of things don’t interest me, particularly when I’m hungry and surrounded by snow. By the time I was done eating, the cold wind had picked up and drove me to my skis.

Clicked in and buckled up, I pushed off. The first turn wasn’t so good. Neither was the second. But, as I made my third arc, I hit the rhythm and my face exploded into a wide, open-mouthed grin. I turned off Gondolier and onto Switchback – which was perhaps not the brightest idea. Riding down Switchback meant navigating over ditches and large rocks while sliding on a fifty-fifty mix of snow and small rocks. I loved every minute of it. I was drunk on the same heady elation that overcomes me on long powder runs. It’s a thick, rich, sweet feeling of absolute thankfulness. (I imagine this is analogous to drinking Turkish Coffee.)

The most fun I've had since I discovered my brother's afraid of worms.
The most fun I’ve had since I discovered my brother’s afraid of worms.

See, I’m a Downhill Person. I love stepping down, then down again, then down once more, ever faster as momentum builds. I love the jarring shock of my legs absorbing the full weight of me with each step or turn. When I ski, I fly downhill. When I hike, I run downhill. When I am in the throes of a moment I want to savor forever, I run downhill. Even when I’m afraid, I find it’s best to take a deep breath and go downhill.

If the uphill is meditation, the downhill is ecstasy. At speed, I am released to being the child flying, arms flailing, as she runs into the arms of her mother.

(Aside: My love of the downhill is funny, because I am afraid of heights. But I think much of my fear isn’t fear at all, simply a horrified reaction to l’appel du vide. The call is strong in me. It stubbornly persists, insisting that I could fly if only I jumped. I long to fly. If I could, I would fly as high as Icarus, then drop like a peregrine, only to open my wings and climb once more. This is why I ski. It is my answer to l’appel du vide.)

The balance between Uphill and Downhill is the joy of earning your turns. By going both ways, reap the benefits of both motions and mindsets. The zen and the ecstasy – or whatever it is that goes through your heart as you get out there and enjoy.

How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend – going Uphill or Downhill? (Or relaxing around a grill?)

From Snow to Beach in 7 Days

In the span of a week, my photostream transformed from this:

Jay Peak Springtime
73º and sunny – April 28, 2013

To this:

It also comes in pints.
It also comes in pints. May 5, 2013

Now, my routine has turned to running and long bike rides along the water.

Running-wise, my mileage is low and the pace steady. It’s taking time for my body to re-align after a cold winter spent locked in to stiff ski boots. Monday morning’s brisk 2 mile jog was the first time I really felt myself hitting the perfect stride – forefoot striking with balance and energy.

As to the cycling, I confess. I’m not much of a biker. My dad and elder brothers are pretty into it, so I made a point to not be. But, after a 14 mile spin along the waterfront, I’m starting to see the appeal: the gratifying sensation of speed, the pleasure of exercising in the sun, and, more importantly… a built-in air conditioner! It’s no skiing, but at least it’s cool.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountains, though. First for hiking, then trail running, picking up the pace as I train for the Spartan Race. I did the 3 mile version last year, and am looking forward to the long form. Nothing sounds like more fun that running up and down a mountain through mud, under obstacles, over rope ladders… and through a gauntlet of gladiators.

There’s a lot I’m looking forward to this summer, but don’t expect the ski talk to disappear completely. I’ll be writing up a review of my new skis (Head’s Sweet Ones) in a few days, and I’m sure I’ll find some other way to keep the snow alive this summer.

How’s your spring going? Are you keeping the snow alive?

The next season

Have you gotten the sense yet that spring is not my favorite thing? My roommate certainly has. It must get tiring listening to my nonsensical rants against the warming of the world. Between the loss of snow and the rise of allergies, these months get me pretty ornery.

Musician on Church Street
But I ain’t turning back to living that old life no more.

But, there is nothing less constructive than raging against the weather. Instead, make the best of it. Focus on the seasonality of things.

This spring, I am grateful for:

What are you focusing on this spring?

Last Days, Blue Skies

The sky was blue, the sun was warm.

Bluebird at the Quad
I didn’t mean those things I said. I love you! Don’t let me go!

28 days doesn’t seem like very many.

28 days of new friends and old. 28 days of powder measured in inches and the distance between two gates measured in seconds.

28 days later, I want 28 more days of snow and cold and bluebird (and graybird. I am from New England after all).

Spring on Mt Mansfield
Before the crowd.

The inevitable thaw continues on, although it’s not over until it’s over. Jay Peak is holding on, as is Killington. Sugarbush, too.

28 days. Why not squeeze in a few more?

The drive along home

Those Green Mountains

Spring skiing at Stowe, VT
Oh, you’re taking a photo? Here. Let me ruin it.

Can you believe this photo was taken on Saturday?

24 years of skiing and this sport still surprises me. Mid-winter coverage all the way into April. Corn snow as light as powder. With every turn, the falling ssshhhhhhh sound of sand downhill. Only… it’s still snow.

Clouds hung on to the summit for dear life – like winter holding out against spring. The sun broke through in the lower elevations, however, baking the corn into wet, soft mush.

We spent the day in the trees. In April.

The next morning, I sat on a porch in a t-shirt sipping coffee watching the grass turn slowly greener.

Don’t give up yet. There’s still snow in those green mountains.

Contour lines

This is what I meant in my last post when I said “April in Vermont rubs the world down to its body.”

countour lines - country road

In the first few weeks of spring, after the snow melts, but before the grass really shakes itself awake… you find geography. The contour lines of the world.

contour lines rivier

I’m very interested in lines. I’m endlessly charmed by contours. The boundaries between river and earth and more earth and sky. Even the way telephone wires cross the sky, dividing the blue into parts of a whole. Or an overhanging roof against a gray morning.

roof/sky

April is the cruellest month

Look at this beautiful view!

March tree skiing with Craig

Two weekends ago, Craig (the snowboarder) met me at the mountain for a few Easter runs. We found still other friends and rode the gondola swapping stories and comments on the overcast sky.

The woods that day were certainly a happy surprise – untracked, empty, heavy with the best snowpack Vermont’s seen all season. After the first run, we were so hot and sweating that we both shed layers and got back out at it, our snowpant vents zipped open.

March is a funny month. Just as people gear up for spring, cabin fever driving them mad, winter delivers. Mid-week snow storms that make me dizzy with envy as I watch from work. Long days on the slopes with smaller crowds. Or even short romps – a few hours, a few runs to justify sitting in the parking lot with a beer and a portable grill.

Now, April. April plays tricks with hearts. Snowing one day, hot sun the next, rain yet another. Sometimes, two or three seasons in a single day. I think I agree with T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

But last weekend, riding to Massachusetts for my nephew’s baptism, I saw the earth and just the earth. If nothing else, April in Vermont rubs the world down to its body. It reveals the contours – the rolling hills, the glacial-worn cliffs, the geography – that all other seasons hide. And that’s a beautiful view, too.

Country vacation

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a peanut butter jar?All of them.
How many licks does it take to get to the center of a peanut butter jar?
All of them.

I’m in the country this weekend, dogsitting for a friend.

Springtime is  more noticeable here. There are songbirds at the feeder and a hawk circling the field, the buzzing of the clusterflies rising from the earth – creatio ex nihilo. But down the hill where the sun doesn’t shine, a layer of snow holds on to the ground like a lover.

My first act when I arrived this morning was to lay on the wood floors with my arms wrapped around the dog. Then, after stirring the fire, I sat outside in the air with the dog at my feet, her hounddog eyes tracking everything that moved. It was too cold this morning to sit like I was, on a bench in the front yard with only a t-shirt on, but my skin craved the light.

Then a hike up Mt Philo, a dog and a friend in tow. (Mostly for the fresh air, but also to check in on my knee. This is a test. If I can hike, then I can hike Mt Washington. If I can ski, than I can ski Tuckerman Ravine.)

All in all, the country day my spirit craved. The dirt road, the wood-fueled furnace, the cat asleep by the fire, the dog chasing squirrels across the yard. A few words on a page. That’s all.

My two-inch view

Sunset over Lake ChamplainIt’s so important for me to feel connected to the world. To the earth and air and sun and stars and water. I spend so much time tapped in to other things – the internet, books, music, the presence of others – sometimes it’s nice to just feel the sun.

I desperately want a porch. Somewhere I can hang my hammock. Somewhere I can just sit and breathe.

Right now, what I have is this two-inch view if I stand with my back to the mailbox. Good enough.