Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Go West (Part V): Into Thin Air

“Too often…I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.” –Louis L’Amour

I don’t think my eyes were capable of opening wide enough to take it all in. I had never seen anything so beautiful and foreboding all at the same time. Intimidating. Inviting. Awe-inspiring.

I wasn’t even 10 years old, in the back of a white rental car my father was driving somewhere toward Park City, UT, my face practically glued to the window.

“Dad, are we skiing on those mountains?!” I asked, not at all sure whether I wanted the answer to be yes or no.

His blue eyes smiled back at me in the rearview mirror.

“Yes, we are,” he said, matter-of-factly, with a hint of eagerness to share his love of the mountain west with his uninitiated daughter.

I had so many questions, yet had nothing to say. I just kept staring out that window, trying to comprehend how my skis—not even long enough to put on the roof rack—were going to get me down such steep, powder-covered slopes. My East Coast skills and sensibilities were clearly of no use here.

At the top of our first run, I stood close by my dad, the tips of those tiny skis hanging over the edge of the trail. We stood there in silence for a minute or two, surveying a landscape beneath us that was beyond anything my young self had ever imagined.

“Gorgeous, isn’t it? Take it all in. Appreciate it,” he said. “And don’t be afraid. You can do this.”

With his quiet confidence, and a gentle nudge, I was on my way.


Anybody could try to throw out a bunch of words to describe running on Waterline Road. But they’d just be a bunch of words. No meaning. No context. No emotion. No regard to what it really is: an experience; and my guess is that it can often be a personal one, depending on what kind of day you’re having.

We stood at the bottom of the trail on Friday morning, once again feeding off the enthusiasm of our coaches, who have probably logged hundreds of miles on the dirt road before us and still can’t stop raving about it. We’d climb to 9,000 or so feet, depending on how far each of us went. On a clear day, you can see the Painted Desert. The thick Aspen groves, the views of Flagstaff below, the steep, rocky cliffs dotted with huge Ponderosa pines…all of it encapsulated in a solitary morning ascent, twisting up the side of the mountain.

It was the only run all week that I found myself alone, with a few people so far ahead, I couldn’t keep them in view, and some who were far enough behind, that I never heard their chatter. I had it all to myself, this ridiculous scene. It was as if somebody was kind and generous enough to let me in on a big, special secret—the type that you feel honored to keep.

Maybe it was the ever-thinning air, but my mind felt free to wander all over the place that morning, opening up to all sorts of possibilities. My surroundings were daring me to make decisions and be brave. Stagnation was not an option. I had to keep moving forward, keep climbing as far as my body would allow, so I could see it all.

There are times when life’s options suddenly become clear—and it usually happens during those rare moments when the noise in your mind is quiet and all you can hear is what your heart is telling you. These are the moments that can’t be forced—you have to be lucky enough to recognize them and simply listen.

There was nothing about that week or that run up Waterline that felt comfortable to me. Perhaps the physical challenges wreaked some havoc with my perceptions, but nothing I experienced in those six days that made Flagstaff seem like home. Nonetheless, as I neared the end of the first half of that morning’s run, something told me quite clearly that I’d be back.

For many years there had been valid reasons to push away a dream and an instinct to move west. Those valid reasons were beginning to diminish—the one still weighing heavily though was a desire to stay close to my grandfather for as long as possible. What I didn’t know on that Friday morning was in just few weeks time, he would unexpectedly be gone.

I discovered that when all those reasons no longer exist, all that’s left are excuses. Most of those excuses just boil down to nothing but fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Moving by myself, far away from everything I know and everybody I love would be scary. Perhaps one of the most frightening things I’d ever do. Moving back to New York, where everybody and everything was comfortable and familiar, would be the easy choice. Somewhere deep down I knew that it was time to take a risk, make myself uncomfortable, and stop being afraid of making a mistake.

I turned around to head back down Waterline Road, to find Mike and Vince running up behind me.

“Keep looking left all the way down,” Mike urged, as they continued on. “Enjoy that view. Take it in.”

“And don’t be afraid,” I thought, as I started my descent. “You can do this.”

With a quiet confidence--and a few gentle nudges--I was on my way.



wsxwhx603 said...
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Everett said...

Erin, thanks for putting the magic of that day into words. It was a watershed day for me as well, as I contemplated how I would shape my life after 50. I came back "down" to 8,000 feet to begin the journey.