I wrote this story last winter and put it away for a while. Now when I read it I see it captures very well the way I was writing back then, certainly very much under the spell of Hemingway with the short, punching, enumerating pace of the sporting prose, and the direct, terse dialogue, and of course the iceberg-style backing, where the story is actually happening separate from the physical plot. It’s a ski trip, but it’s not about a ski trip.
I also see glimpses of Swim Bike Bonk in it, especially Part Four when I’m writing about the Ironman in Phoenix. I like the style, but it can be exhausting, both to read and write, so I think finding that balance is imperative. I think this story is a great example of me practicing in that manner. I spent many, many pages in the book writing about running and biking and swimming in narrative nonfiction, and here I try my hand at skiing in lit-based fiction.
Whether it was successful or not is for each person to judge – it may work better for some than others. Another comparable effort of the style would be the In Another Country piece about Patagonia (hoping to sort through some drafts of Part 2 over the holidays). Coup de Foudre utilizes this style in its first few paragraphs, but gives way to a much different story construction, flash fiction that relies on flowery dialogue, too flowery to have been spoken but reasonable enough if, as in the story, the two people are texting.
I wrote The Ski Trip as we see it today in February/March of 2019, but I’ve had a sketch of it lying around for years. I was doing quite a bit of skiing this winter, found the draft in my bin, and was able to build on it. I wrote some of it in Colorado, and some in Austria. The ironic thing is that I was reading a biography of Scott Fitzgerald, whose writing is pretty different from what I produced. Typically, it works the other way around, where whatever you are reading makes its way into your writing. I guess old Hem just has me in his grasp and won’t let go.
The Ski Trip
White is the color you want to think of, white against the baby blue of the sky and the brown trunks of the trees, the red siding of the lodges and the grey, ghostly smoke of the chimneys. The runs carved between the trees like snakes through tall grass, winding their way down the mountain from the craggy top through the trees to the doorsteps of the lodges, where the white of the snow met the red of the siding. A storm had come through last night and covered everything. The green pine trees were encrusted with ice. There was snow stuck to the top of the ski lifts and to the roofs of the lodges. It had snowed all night until the morning. In the morning the sky cleared and the clouds moved on beyond the peaks. In the air was the excitement of fresh snow.
I slid through the gate and stopped on the red line. I looked back and saw the chair coming toward me. I bent my knees and braced myself. I held my poles in my outside hand and found the edge of the chair with the other. The chair hit me in the back of the knees and lifted me off the ground. We rose up above the runs and were carried toward the trees.
“I wish we got up here more often,” I said.
Nick wiped the snow from his black pants and knocked his skis together. I reached up and pulled down on the overhead bar. When it was down we lifted our skis onto the foothold to rest.
“Yeah, but you know how it goes these days.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Sick powder day though.”
“Yeah, we got lucky.”
“It’s a shame Dani couldn’t make it.”
“That’s putting it nicely,” I said.
“Well, you know what I mean.”
The lift climbed up a narrow clearing in the trees. I brought my goggles down around my neck to clean the spray off the lens. I had to squint to keep the sun out of my eyes. It was reflecting harshly off the snow. I placed the goggles back on over my eyes and the softness of the snow returned. No longer did it blind. It glistened, and the other colors of the mountain exploded. The snow-caked pine trees stood like a forest of statues, each like an ice cream cone. The needles that stuck out from the snow were a bright, bold green. The sky was a bright, bold blue. The tops of the mountain a smooth, beige brown. The world appeared vivid, outlined and sharp. Nick pulled two beers from his backpack and passed one to me. I tapped on the top of the beer. It was still cold.
“How much time do we have?” I asked.
“I told her we’d meet at twelve thirty.”
“All right,” I said, “Should we hit the trees while we can?”
“Yeah, let’s try the left side.”
We looked up the lift as the chairs climbed toward the peak. Coming down on the other side were the empty chairs. I turned and looked back down the slope. I could see the grey poles and the black cables between them, bouncing under the weight of the silver chairs. I could see all the way down to the red lodge where many runs converged at the bottom.
“She’s not mad is she?”
“No, she understands,” Nick said, “It’s just a couple runs.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“Don’t worry. She wouldn’t like it up here anyway.”
“I promise I won’t say anything at lunch and you guys can look deep into each other’s eyes like I’m not even there.”
Nick drank his beer and laughed a little bit. Slowly the lift climbed higher through the trees. I leaned forward and rested my arms on the bar. It felt good to be back in the mountains. Things had not gone as I had planned and when that sort of thing happened it was always nice to get away. I tried not to think about what the trip could have been or what it had been in the past. I was glad to be with my friend. I had not seen him in a long time. He had been busy at home and I had not seen him.
We came out of the trees but the hill did not plateau. It kept going up the mountain. The craggy peaks framed the top of the view, the lift ending in the shadows below. The landing was not flat. The slope was very steep. When we got off we veered to the right and around and had to slam on the breaks to keep our position on the slope. From there we could see way out into the valley, the red lodge looking very small down at the base, the ridgeline painted on a canvas in the distance. The snow was excellent. There was at least a foot of fresh powder.
We traversed across the face, back under the lift and into the trees below on the other side. The trunks of the trees were reddish brown and they exploded with color. Once inside the forest all the sounds of the lift and the people disappeared. The powder was soft and silent. I could not hear my skis cut through the snow and I could not hear them grip when I turned. I weaved through the trees with my arms in front, my chest facing downhill, my hands taking turns planting a pole, plotting the course, my ski-tips following. There were drifts in the forest from the early-morning wind and some of them brought the snow up to my knees.
I leaned hard on my left leg and turned my ankles perpendicular to the slope. The hard stop sent the powder flying forward. It bunched up at the base of the next tree. From this point on the hill looking up I could see the outlines of the fallen logs I had skied over. I could not see anything farther up because of the big trunks of the trees. The trees were tall and they felt like a roof over my head. Soon Nick came down close enough for me to see him. He cut between the trees. He disappeared from my vision as he crossed behind a tree and reappeared out the other side. He was a good skier and he had always been a little bit better than me. He skied down to my side and stopped and the snow went flying.
“I love it,” I said.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, “We actually got snow.”
We traversed through the trees to the end of the forest and merged onto the cleared run. For me, it was a hell of a time for the snow to come. But when I was skiing and not thinking about anything else, the snow made me very happy. We kept our skis straight and gained speed down the middle of the mountain, leaning softly into the turns and using the entire width of the run. The skis cut quietly through the deep snow. It was deep enough that the kid in you wanted to fall, because you knew there was no danger in falling. The run brought us to the base of the mid-mountain lift. When we were on the chair we clanked the snow from our skis.
“There will be fresh tracks in the trees for days.”
“I could have predicted it,” I said, “We’ve been praying for snow for so many years and this is the year we get it.”
“You can’t look at it that way.”
“How should I look at it?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe the snow is a fresh start.”
I held the poles in between my legs and rested my arms on top of the bar, like a hockey player on the bench. Nick sat up straight. He put his elbow up on the side of the chair. We looked out over the runs below. I could see the snow flying around, the skis plowing through the powder. I took a deep breath and sat back in the chair.
“That’s not bad,” I said.
“It’s just a shame because if Dani were here they would be happy as hell together and we could have run around up here all day like old times.”
“Yeah, but to tell you the truth I don’t think it would have made any difference this year. She hates being away from the baby and never wants to sleep away from home anymore.”
“She would stay if Dani were here.”
“I don’t know man.”
“Don’t misunderstand, I’m glad she still came along,” I said. “She’s part of the crew now.”
“She’s always glad to see you man. And she understands. She’s fine by herself.”
“I appreciate it,” I said.
Nick looked at his watch. We needed to start making our way back down. We turned right again off the lift and went straight for the trees on that side. I leaned back to float on top of the snow, and I shot aggressively into the grove. The trunks were well-spaced and the underbrush had been buried. There was no chance of hitting your head on a branch and with simple, relaxed turns you could find gaps in the trees. Nick was ahead of me. I stayed behind to avoid his wake. Then half way down I skied up alongside him. Together we skied the grove and I could see him off my left side through the trees. When the trees became too tight we ditched back onto the main run and skied down to the base and right up to the red lodge.
I used my poles to push down the levers on the back of the bindings. I popped off the skis and leaned them against the side of the lodge. I sat down against the red siding next to the skis and looked up at the bunny slope. Nick took a cigarette and a lighter from his jacket pocket.
“Don’t tell her,” he said.
I crossed my hand over my heart. He lit the cigarette. We watched the people come down. Some of them were making a lot of progress. Others were still battling wobbly legs. There was a kid in a dark blue jacket who had been tied to a string, but it didn’t look like he would need it for long. All upon the slope were the different colors of the jackets and hats and we looked for the yellow helmet that made her stand out on the hill. It was a bright, bold yellow and it was a beacon on the hillside. I adjusted my upper back and black helmet against the red lodge. I still had my goggles on. It was an absolutely perfect day, the sky blue and the mountain white. Nick sat down in the snow next to me and rested his back against the lodge and smoked the cigarette.
“So when did it all go down?”
“Tuesday,” I said.
“What happened?” He offered me the cigarette.
“She took a knife and ran the blade across my throat.”
“Only you could come up with that.”
“That’s what it felt like,” I said. “Cold and quick.”
“Did she yell at you?”
“No,” I said. “But I wished she had because then I could blame her for something.”
“What did she say?”
“That I’m not seeing things clearly.”
Nick looked at me. “What does that mean?”
“She said I romanticize everything.”
He squinted his eyes. “What does that mean?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. She left.”
Nick looked down at the ground. “I’m sorry man. It can be awfully tough.”
His voice trailed off. He was distracted. We looked up and we saw her and her yellow helmet at the top of the run. She was resting on the lip of the slope, looking down into the run.
“How would you know?” I asked. “You’ve had it good for a long time.”
“Yeah, well, don’t think it’s been easy.”
“Tell me something to make me feel better.”
“I’ll tell you,” he said, “Next time we’re drunk.”
We laughed like no time had passed. Nick stood up when he saw her dip down into the run. We could see the yellow helmet coming down, making slow s-turns across the entire face of the slope, going back and forth in straight, angled lines between the trees like a game of pong. She kept her skis pointed forward in the shape of a triangle, the fronts angled towards each other. She plowed through the snow until she reached the edge of the run and then made a wide, sweeping turn to go back the other way.
“Looks like she’s mastered the pizza slice,” I said.
“She needs a side of fries.”
“Should I call her Papa John the rest of the day?”
Nick put his hand on my shoulder. He exhaled the smoke as he talked.
“Dude, how many women do you want to piss off this week?”
“I’ve missed you a hell of a lot, you know that?”
Nick put the cigarette out in the snow. He offered me a mint, and I took it. We walked past the racks of skis to the end of the run. We saw the yellow helmet coming our way. Nick put his hand in the air. Together we sat down on the patio at the lodge and we ordered a pitcher of beer and some sandwiches. I unzipped my jacket, took off my gloves, and pulled the goggles off my eyes and onto my forehead. We could see back up the same hillside she had come down, and the taller, craggy peaks beyond that where Nick and I had been. It looked different without the goggles. The light was harsh off the snow. It hurt my eyes and I had to squint.
We drank the beer and ate the sandwiches and caught up on everything we had missed the past year. They showed me pictures of the baby. We did not drink very much. In this way it was not the celebration it had been in previous years. When the pitcher of beer was gone Nick told me that they were going to take off. He sprung for the bill when the waitress brought it over.
“It’s the least we can do,” he said, “If you won’t take anything for the cabin.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “I paid for it months ago.”
I took out my credit card but Nick would not take it.
“Let us pay for lunch. I feel bad about it.”
“All right,” I said, putting away the card, “It’s on me next time.”
We stomped down the patio stairs in our boots. Before we collected our skis from the side of the red lodge we said our goodbyes. They were going one way, and I was going the other.
“Keep your head up,” Nick said when he hugged me. “Fingers crossed for another storm next year.”
“I hope to see you before then,” I said.
“Of course,” Nick said. “We’ll find a time soon.”
They picked up their skis and walked towards the parking lot. I adjusted my helmet and zipped my coat up to my chin to cover my neck. I laid my skis flat on the ground and stepped into them, one at a time. I pulled the goggles down over my eyes. The world exploded again. Baby blue. Pine green. The soft white of the snow. I looked back and saw Nick, and next to him I saw the yellow helmet. They had their skis over their shoulders, walking away.
I pushed with my poles and crossed in front of the red lodge towards the lift. I took the lift to the top of the mountain. On the way I saw the snow-caked pine trees and found myself forgetting about everything. I skied for the rest of the afternoon, until I was sweaty and tired. The snow was very good. Afterwards I sat at the bar and had a beer and a burger. I did not start to feel lonely again until I checked into the cabin and set my boots by the fire to dry.