Up on the mountain
I dropped out of college three times. The first was because of an all-consuming, newfound pleasure. The second, a Bible college, was because I learned how not to believe in god. The third was a tech school, where I was training for something I didn't really want to do.
The all-consuming pleasure that caused me to drop out of college the first time: skiing.
I was a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. I hadn't declared a major. I hardly remember the classes I went to. One was about critical thinking, I guess? Another was a creative writing course. Neither held my interest, particularly if I was in a classroom with windows. Fresh snow falling from a blue sky was my greatest temptation. I'd resist for as long as I could, then cave, cram my things into my bag, and leave the room mid-lecture.
I kept skis in my pickup truck, along with my snow gear. I'd drive to a small nearby slope called Hilltop, and shimmy into my gear in the parking lot, buy a day pass in the office, then stomp into my skis and tumble into a lift chair.
That was 1996, and I'd only learned to ski recently. Most of my friends in Anchorage had lived there most of their lives, and were on skis from age four or five. My family had moved away when I was seven years old. When we moved back, my junior year in high school, it took awhile to discover skiing. I thought I was too old to learn. A few friends dragged me to Hilltop one weekend, where I rented skis and clumsily rode the lift to the top. I remember forcing the lift operator to hit the red 'stop' button when my jacket got caught on the chair, dragging me past the dismount. That was fun.
Except it wasn't fun, it was mortifying.
That afternoon on the hill, my friends all shouted competing instructions at me, while I struggled to remain upright. I fell, I crashed, I wiped out. After a few hours of this, I face-planted into the snow at the top of a hill. Frustrated, I told my friends to go on without me, and catch back up on their next run; I'd wait here until I felt ready to try this stupid shit again. But when they took off, I decided to try on my own. It was a bit easier. I still fell, I still crashed, but I got up, and I started to learn by trial and error. By the time the night ended, I was sore all over, exhausted, and completely ready to try again.
After that, I went every weekend, skiing from the time the hill opened until the time it closed. Then I started college, and discovered that nobody guarded the classroom door like they did in high school. If you wanted to leave, you could leave. And the snow always beckoned me to leave. So I'd ditch class, head up to the mountain, and ski until nightfall. The next day I'd probably do it again. It didn't take me long to decide to quit school. I didn't have any grand ambition of being a full-time ski bum. I just wanted to enjoy the snow. I wasn't a proper Alaskan: I wasn't born there, and I didn't hunt or fish. But I skiied. Skiing made me feel very much like I belonged.
I was never a black diamond skiier. I didn't ski for the challenge of the steepest hill or the biggest jump. For me, skiing was about the quiet. It was about wonder. The first time I traveled to Alyeska, a mountain ski resort about forty miles from Anchorage, I rode the lift to the Upper Bowl. When I skiied to the top of the run, I paused before pushing off. There was a sea of clouds below me. I could see ridges and peaks poking through the cloud cover in the distance. It was like I'd climbed a staircase to some upper level of the world, one I had never noticed before. The path down the mountain, like riding the lift, was always best when it was just me, alone with the view, my thoughts. I'm very much at home when I'm alone, and with goggles and a face mask and a hat all hiding my face from the world, it's very easy to indulge that preference.
I read a year-old interview recently with the author Don Winslow, whose new novel The Cartel has been climbing the bestseller lists. In it, he is asked when and where he writes, and he answers:
I haven't been skiing now in probably nine or ten years, when I drove with some California friends to Tahoe for a few days. Before that trip, it had been five or six years since I'd been on skis. It came back in a heartbeat. I'm certain that it would now, if I were to click my feet into a fresh pair.
I like Mr. Winslow's answer to the question. I try to imagine what my answer will be in ten years, twenty years. I like to think that it might involve putting words on the page, then standing at the top of a mountain, looking down at the clouds below, then pushing off...and doing it again and again, every day, just me, the mountain, the cold air, the blue skies.
It's a nice dream.