The arched cliffs rising like an oversized, un-finished Parthenon south of town were an obvious visual focal point. Less obvious was the meadow to the east, the overgrown roof of the Parthenon. The cliffs, while majestic, were a no-go zone. The meadow, however, a soft gentle roll from a crown of spruce to a hem of aspens, presented itself only to the more careful observer.
In the decade or so that the redneck drilling town had become home to me, I had stared at the meadow from afar, observing it through the seasons: From the budding green of spring, to the lush fullness of summer, to the golden hues of fall, and then a beckoning blanket of white. The expansive bay window in the main room of the house where I was staying framed the meadow as a center piece. Lacking a television or furniture beyond a single folding camp chair, the meadow was my long-running daily feature of fascination.
The previous year, a friend concerned for my mental health finally broke my single-minded obsession with mountain bikes as being the primary form of outdoor recreation, by dragging me onto the slopes with a loaner snowboard. Like many passionate, talented snowboarders or skiers, his capacity for teaching was frustratingly paltry in comparison to his appetite for shredding. Despite the laissez-faire instructions, I finally managed to get to the level of being able to reliably make it down the mountain without too many crashes, eventually leading to a taste of the ethereal delight known as “fresh powder.”
It was just enough of a skill set to make me look at the meadow with new eyes. Instead of an abstract shape in the distance, it beckoned with a new immediacy, and accessibility enabled by my second hand snowboard, boots, and snowshoes. Prior to that winter, the thought of venturing into the backcountry had seemed about as achievable as re-creating Icarus’s wings. But with my new-found (if highly limited) abilities and equipment– weighed against the extravagant cost of a day at the resort– the meadow transforming in my picture window became a siren song that eventually tugged me out of the house, and up the freshly plowed road to the trailhead.
It was Christmas Day; I was navigating the dynamics of yet another holiday season alone, separated from family by the economic realities of being a seasonal worker in a valley dominated by the whims of billionaires. Instead of stewing in injustice, or wallowing in self-pity, I opted for the challenge of the unknown.
An energy development company kept the road more regularly plowed and maintained than most of the highways, and I was able to drive my 2wd Toyota all the way to the summer trailhead. Strapping my snowboard to my over-laden backpack, and hand-me-down snowshoes to my feet, I began my ascent powered by the zest of ignorance.
The snowshoes had been gifted from an elderly friend in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. As someone whose bright and inquisitive mind had been his most powerful tool and ally throughout life, the onset of the disease represented an especially cruel loss. He gave me the snowshoes just as I was beginning to think of winter as something other than a season of abomination, knowing that he was passing into the winter of his own life.
Swimming was one of his great joys. Approximately a year after our last visit, I was informed by a mutual friend that his car had been found parked on the banks of the Potomac River, where he had decided to go for one last, long swim.
I was never much of one for water, but as I tromped up toward the meadow, I marveled at the crystalline blue depths of the snow in the holes punched by my snowshoes. I felt an undeniable connection to the man who had shared with me the means for exploring water in another form. He had surrendered his mortal coil to the medium that is the basis for all life on this planet, and who is to say that some portion of his spirit had not ascended in the great cycle of evaporation, and precipitation to join me on this first foray into an unknown world?
The word “skin track” wasn’t even part of my vocabulary on that first postholing trip up the mountain, but I soon grokked that the indistinct path nearly obscured under the fresh-drifted snow was more supportive than blazing my own trail. It was barely perceptible as slight indentation; invisible if I looked straight down at my feet; revealed only by gazing far ahead for a slight disconformity in the alabaster surface. The feeling was akin to walking on the top plate of 2×4 wall to set joists. Only by looking ahead, and maintaining a certain looseness in the hips and sensitivity in the feet was it possible to stay on track. Any misstep to the side had me sinking to my knees; regaining the path required delicately balancing on one foot, and hoisting myself up with arduous dexterity.
In the upper reaches of the meadow, the path disappeared in wind-scoured drifts. I set my sights on the nearest grove of spruce, and postholed towards a fallen limb sticking out of the snow. I snapped a picture on my phone to record the moment, reveling the fact I had finally gained the meadow I had stared at for so long.
After resting for a few moments, and enjoying a brief snack, the gravity of the predicament I had ascended myself into settled in. I knew the slope in front of me was barely steep enough to rate as a blue run at any resort; I had been able to make my way down similar terrain. But it had been a year since I had strapped a snowboard to feet, and I had never tried navigating my way through trees, an unavoidable component of this zone.
No one knew I was up here, and the lack of fresh tracks made obvious that this was not an area that saw frequent traffic. With a deep breath, and deafening crescendo of butterflies in my stomach, I pushed off towards the break-over of the slope. Nothing happened.
I shoved again, rocking my hips in the particular lurch of people who have chosen to strap both feet to one board, and are unable to gain momentum. Again, nothing happened. I increased the frequency, and urgency of my hip gyrations, like an uncoordinated Elvis Presley trying to figure out his dance moves. My board made the tiniest of movements down the slope, then stopped again.
Here I was, with the board most definitely pointed downhill, well over the crest of the slope, moving with all the urgency of cold molasses. Apparently the tip I had gleaned somewhere about using furniture polish as a substitute for ski wax was more effective as kick wax (again, another concept I knew nothing about). The mosh pit of butterflies left my stomach as quickly as last call when I realized my predicament was the exact opposite of what I had been anticipating. Instead of having to brace myself for unintended acceleration, it would take all of my meager skill set to simply get the board moving.
Eventually, I gained enough momentum to creep down the slope, and manage a few slow, arcing turns more reminiscent of a sailboat in the doldrums than the magnificent, spraying rooster tails I had imagined.
At the bottom of the meadow, slightly terrified of the trees I was about to enter, I fell backwards into the snow. Ecstasy washed over me as I contemplated what I had just done. I had never been considered “athletic” in school; I was a dorky nerd in coke-bottle glasses, always chosen last for team sports. Skiing was the very example of frivolous activities my dad warned me against spending money on when I left home to go to college. And yet here I was, filling my baggy snowboarder pants with cold snow creeping down my buttcrack after having hiked myself up a slope completely removed from any resort experience to earn my ungracious turns by dint of sheer perseverance, reveling in liberation and empowerment.
My trip down through the trees was equal parts comedy and disaster. Having not mastered the art of turning my snowboard in less than a quarter acre of clear space, I resorted to a strategy of aiming for a slightly controlled collision with an aspen tree, then bear hugging it to pivot around into a new direction. Staying upright was enough to qualify as success, for the consequences of falling down in fresh powder with an overladen backpack and a snowboard strapped to my feet had me discovering muscles I never knew existed as I struggled to right myself (hopefully not falling over again in the process). All told, gliding, falling, and bushwhacking down took nearly as long as postholing up.
Despite how arduous the adventure had been, the satisfaction of transforming a season that had been one of hopeless misery and depression into a new medium of exploration while simultaneously bypassing barriers of access imposed by the economics of corporately controlled recreation was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life.
I drove back down the road feeling exhausted, but fulfilled. I was unaware of how many things I had done wrong on that first trip, but I did know that I would be back for more. The gift of backcountry that I gave myself on that lonely Christmas has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving, not just for the sheer bliss of powder turns, but for learning to see the world from a new perspective.