Standing in line, in the freezing cold, I waited patiently for the red route bus. I had just rode the gondola down from the resort, having skiied for about four hours, pushing my luck on new terrain and I was tired. It wasn’t quite closing time, but Sunday meant weekend crowds, and there were quite a few people waiting. I was pretty sure that I would get on the bus, but the question on my mind was whether or not I would be able to take a seat and keep it for the ride. I’m an imposing guy equipped for a strenuous and dangerous sport, I wouldn’t feel right claiming a privilege to sit down, no matter how exhausted I felt. Appearances are a large part of our reality, something that I cannot deny.
I’m in luck. There are enough seats for everyone that was waiting. I sit, holding myself upright out of discipline and habit, although emotionally I am slumped over, head resting on the bindings of my skis, leg pushed out into the aisle. I had started the morning exhausted, finished, done – alarms that ring eternal about things being horribly wrong with my body, but this is a normal day for me. I did not ask my doctors if I could go skiing over two years ago because I knew that they would say no. I would have to ask them if I would be able to continue.
Out of habit, my eyes dart around, looking at each person on the bus – a quick assessment to see if anyone might be dangerous or in need of help – indeed who might be helpful in a situation. I caught the eyes of a young lady sitting across the aisle from me. She smiled, a reflexive response to arousal. No, not like that, the general, psychosomatic kind – a response to noticing when you’ve caught the attention of a potential predator. Remember, I am imposing, sitting upright, and taking notice. And a reflexive smile is usually a social mechanism to diffuse tension between people. She looks me up and down so I give her a slight nod – another mechanism to diffuse tension. Smiling back would be creepy.
The doors of the bus close and the vehicle lurches forward. Most of the riders have just finished a day of skiing and are tired. Even though there are dozens of people on the bus conversations are few and scattered. I take care to hold my skis and poles in front of me. Without much more to observe and without being able to do much to affect the outcome of the ten minute ride, I start to retreat within myself. I feel how cold my hands are, having left my gloves at home leaving me only with thin glove liners. It was dangerous to go without as my hands would not have been protected in the event of a fall, but I just accepted the risks.
I laughed at myself inside my thoughts. The Risks – as if I was manging any of them doing what I do. Pushing myself faster down rougher terrain. I have a passion for alpine skiing, but no talent. I’m missing the excellent eyesight, the cardiovascular endurance, the athletic reflexes, pretty much all of the secret sauce. Instead I throw myself down the mountain with a hamburger heart, a head full of bad memories, and no future that I could see for myself. So how did we get on this bus?
Halfway through our short ride, the young lady sitting across from me broke the silence of the ride with her eyes. They had found mine. I looked into her eyes and asked her: “beautiful day, isn’t it?” The day was cold and cloudly with flat light and fairly useless flurries. She responded “yes,” in a German accent. She asked me if I liked my skis. My skis are made by Völkl, a German company. I replied “Ja, sehr gut.” Another reflexive smile. Just then the light turned green and the bus pitched as it made its turn.
Some years ago, I swore to myself that I would never lose a fight between equals because I wasn’t willing to put it all on the line. I would never lose a fight simply because I didn’t have the balls. Sure, I could lose to faster, stronger, smarter opponents, but never because I wasn’t willing to take the risks. My boots felt heavy, especially because nothing off the shelf ever fits quite right. My facial expression felt wrong. You can’t carry the burden of chronic pain and focus on making your heart beat normally while you’re talking to someone else.
Not much else was said as the bus meandered through the piles of snow alongside the road. We eventually reached the parking lot and the bus made its wide turn into the bus stop. A flurry of minor movements and little activities ran through all of the passengers as they prepared to get up and get out. When the bus stopped, I was the closest person to the middle door, so I stood first. I looked to the young German lady and said politely, “auf wiedersehen.” She told me that she hoped I would have a good day as I clambered down the stairs and out into the icy parking lot world.
I like to think that I did have a good day. Maggie was waiting for me in the car, so I took a deep breath and pushed everything out of the way – my tiredness, my broken thoughts about risks, losing fights, and incorrect facial expressions. She would be happy to see me, and it’s just not right to return human garbage to your dog. We had plans. We’d hit the dog park and run around together. I’d buy potato chips at the supermarket. Then I’d have to drive us back over the pass in the snow. Hours later, I would drag everything that I didn’t want to freeze back into the RV and collapse into my bed even before nightfall – dog and all. Here’s to looking forward to another ride on the red route again.