Diversion: on limits and an old, white van

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Back when I was in high school (in 2006), our local ski hill announced they were opening a day earlier than planned. This would have been heartening news, but it was a Friday. Which meant school. Luckily, my parents gave me permission to take, in my mom’s words, a “mental health day” off so that I could be there. Parking my minivan in the nearest lot the night before and getting up at 5:30am to line up for first chair was my natural reaction. Once up top, with not a single skier in front of me, I vividly remember how the drifts were so deep as to flip me over as I dropped into the backside, howling with joy.

Thankfully, the local newspaper photographer recorded the moments just before that first chair went uphill. Maybe it’s that we were so excited. Maybe the stoke carried through. If so, it was enough to land my friends and I on the front page of the Saturday edition. More than one of my teachers called me out when we trooped in for class on Monday—and most of them knew that things that make smiles like the ones the paper captured are worth ditching some of life’s responsibilities.

At least a small bit of the joy captured in those photos came from the fact that I was, in fact, not at my desk at school. And for those who come from a lift-served ski background, uphill skiing can be a similarly liberating feeling. Snow and partners have become my main questions, instead of waiting for opening day, spinning bullwheels, and purchasing passes or parking. An impressive widening of the ski “season” has resulted. It’s like knowing just one country only to realize that there’s a whole globe of other possibilities to play. Anything with enough snow is fair game, with the attendant extra questions of safety, experience, and knowing where and when to go.

Yet, there’s something to anticipation created by limits. Waiting for gifts parked under a Christmas tree makes unwrapping them sweeter. Rough conditions and dry spells yield a serious euphoria when soft snow returns. Maybe appreciating those waits is part of growing up; I don’t know. But the night before the lifts spin still feels like Christmas Eve to me—all that pent up anticipation cresting. The morning comes, likes this past Saturday, and it’s a release of excitement. Listening to the snow phone. Seeing friends in the parking lot. Loading up on a chair that deposits me a long ways uphill only to swoosh and swish back down.

That I remember it now, almost a decade later, demonstrates how much that day meant to me. There’s a stark contrast too—I’d put in over two weeks on my skis, all of that touring, before I sat down on a lift this past weekend. Because I’m not limited by lifts, because I’m not waiting anymore, it doesn’t mean as much: the low crescendo of anticipation, the megawatt explosion of joy don’t have the volume they once did.

A recent read helped to elucidate that people (like me) who are more progressive in their politics tend to see less value in restrictions or rituals or traditions. Instead, we tend to opt for freedom, for good or ill. Ski touring has allowed me to sidestep the constraints placed on lift skiing life. It has opened up so many more avenues to enjoy, explore, and grow on my skis. Yet in that new freedom, I’ve lost some of the intensity created by the limits I abandoned. Maybe this is just a case of finding a new lens for a feeling I’ve known.

Regardless, I want to mark it for myself. It’s also worthy of a Diversion, for me, because it typifies a particular vein of thinking I’ve found useful in examining my own life and those of my peers: what is being given up to arrive at an achievement? People have to make choices, and the things that seem so desirable in the isolation of social media or our own overflowing wanderlust take a bit of tempering from the experience of understanding sacrifices made. For the freedom to ski whenever, I lost some of the joy the limits provided. That kid who slept in the van isn’t waiting anymore, but he has the occasional twinge of remembering how much more the simple joy weighed before he set it aside to walk uphill. 

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