In Colorado the lowest point is three thousand, three hundred and seventeen feet above sea level, where the Arikaree River finds Kansas, and the average elevation is just shy of seven thousand. Spanning from the Great Plains to the Colorado Plateau to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado is a floating quadrangle in the mountain west. In my early twenties in the early aughts I moved to a small town in the north central part of the state and began working as a receptionist at a ski resort. I didn’t know how to ski, had never been skiing, but I liked the idea of living at elevation. I joined a friend who had spent the previous autumn working in the sugar shack of a winery in Sonoma, California, testing the chemical make-up of grapes. We shared a cabin that nested in a cluster of cabins at nine thousand feet, west of the Green Mountain Reservoir, in the valley of the Blue River.
Ski communities are transitory, dispersing as soon as the snow melts. I stayed for six months and became close with several people there who had names like Salty, Flyer, and Dishpan, who were always stoned but always competent, whom I never saw or heard from again after I left Colorado. My friend got a job as a prep cook in a Mexican restaurant and I worked as a barista in a cafe in addition to my gig as a receptionist. My friend’s boss was Flyer, and Flyer had a wonderfully gentle girlfriend named Stephanie, and together they took care of an Alaskan husky named Wolf whom Flyer tied up outside of the restaurant every night until midnight, when his shift ended. All of these jobs paid partially through complimentary or discounted season lift passes, which meant more to most people there than any kind of wage. They skied before work, after work, to work, sometimes during work, waking at three in the morning to get first tracks on the mountain if there had been a storm the night before. Depending on how much snow had fallen, dawn would be heralded by the distant sound of explosives, ski patrollers igniting dynamite to trigger avalanches before skiers did. Many expert skiers routinely skied high, but the prevailing atmosphere was monastic; people stripped themselves of attachments so as to focus more fully on the mountains.
I got a pass, but I never became a good skier. When I started to learn I was twenty-two and had been a long distance runner since I was fourteen. Running even at its most graceful is a different genre of movement than skiing, and years of running between eight to ten miles every day had shaped me at every level possible: chemical, muscular, cellular. Rather than hard work and effort, and then more hard work and more effort, skiing seemed to hinge on effortlessness, a kind of Daiost cooperation with gravity. Anytime I started to move faster than a trot, I made myself snowplow to a grinding halt. I seemed constitutionally unable to glide.
But no place was my awkwardness more acute than in the chairlift, at whose entrance and exit points stood two bouncers, usually young, sun-burned men in their early twenties, who had tousled hair and perpetual five-o’clock shadows, who invariably needed to stop the lift so that I had enough time to get on or get off without injuring myself or others. Ultimately, they seemed to be saying: this club is not for you. No matter how awkward or entangled the embarking and disembarking had been, however, the ascent between never failed to be obscurely moving: “appalling / Bungalows, goodbye! dark frames of mind, // Whatever’s settled into, comfort, despair, / Sin, expectation, apathy, the past,” all, according to the poet James Merrill, “subsiding into vertigo.”
I remember the habitual reaching up and back to pull the restraining bar forward, the sensation of the cable being redirected by the bull wheel, like a train switching tracks. I remember the lonesome sound of the wind, suddenly audible when the chairlift paused, gently swaying, and the apparent lonesomeness of the machine itself, without the company of its motion, creaking in its joints. I remember the deep, cheap blue of the western sky and the wave of tree line perpetually breaking against it. I remember staring at the immaculate tracks laid by skiers on snow—or piste, the groomed portion of a ski area—as I ascended the mountain on my throne before I was deposed. They were the tracks of turns executed so cleanly, so economically, they suggested the elegance of a Coco Chanel dress. The chairlift seemed to move at the exact pace of my mind.
Like a lyric poem, a chairlift suspends you in space while moving you through it. Arranged radially outward from a common base, or radially inward, meeting in a common summit, their names indicate their aspirations: Seventh Heaven, Skyline, Motherlode, Deep Temerity. But their ambitious tags belie an intention for the rides to be utterly banal. A chairlift is inherently suspenseful, but the drama is all internal. “A close circumscription of space,” Edgar Allen Poe writes, is absolutely necessary to the effect of the insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention.” A chairlift can provide what Edgar Allen Poe found in crypts and walls—a crucible in which the impurities of plot are burned away, and we are turned back on ourselves, perhaps to find nothing there, or to find that what is there much less clear than the landscape we are passing through. In a chairlift we look forward, anonymous in our breathable gortex jackets, our panoramic, reflective ski goggles offering one hundred percent UVA and UVB protection, carefully keeping our skis parallel and our poles close. Two, three, even six to a compartment, we are aloft yet constrained, insulated yet exposed.
Aerial ropeways existed in China as early as the fourteenth century, when travelers would traverse mountain crevasses using ropes. Eventually baskets were attached to the rope, and the rope was mechanized. Some of the earliest mechanized aerials were used in the nineteenth century to transport ore from mines to the mills, where it would be processed. They were the precursor to the elevator, soon beginning to move people. During World War I, Italy and Austria implemented military tramways in their combat, and in World War II the 10th Mountain Division, an American military unit that trained in Colorado, one of the fiercest and toughest divisions of the American forces, used a tramway to move wounded and munitions from the summit after they climbed a 1200 foot rock face in order to take the Germans on top of Capiano peak in a surprise attack.
Colorado bears scars from both mining and war. After significant amounts of gold were discovered in 1858, the state where the columbines grow went on to produce several million troy ounces of gold, silver, and copper, as well as uranium ores and rich veins of coal. Boom towns materialized overnight and could disappear just as fast. Some stayed gone, becoming ghost towns, and some assumed second and third lives, repurposed as ski resorts. In the 1940s, many members of the 10th Mountain Division, some recruited by the United States Ski Patrol, learned to traverse the difficult terrain of the Rocky Mountains on cross-country skis, and then, after the war, many moved back to Colorado and became active participants in developing both resorts and ski lifts, often asserting that they would never climb a mountain on foot again.
When I could, I commuted over Loveland Pass, a twelve-thousand-foot-high road that contours the Continental Divide. It is one of the highest mountain passes in the world and one of the only to stay open during the winter. Bordered by ski areas—Loveland to the east and Arapahoe Basin to the west—the pass itself is popular with backcountry skiers and snowboarders. On moonlit nights after a storm, the amphitheater formed by the declivities of multiple peaks would be speckled by lithe bodies gracefully cutting back and forth across the fall line of the mountains. This was the back country of the back country—steep ascents, narrow chutes, wide-open bowls, all without trails, lifts, or patrols. People who went out in search of fresh tracks had to herringbone up what they wanted to ski down, running the risk of destabilizing freshly fallen snow and triggering avalanches. I knew several avalanche survivors whose zeal was undiminished if not heightened by their close calls with death. Towards midnight stands of people would lounge by the guard rails of the pass, casually leaning against their skis and snowboards as if they were loitering on a city street corner, waiting for rides home, back to the lowlands.
“Skiing was not the way it is now,” writes Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “the spiral fracture had not become common then, and no one could afford a broken leg. There were no ski patrols. Anything you ran down, you had to climb up.” Hemingway was writing about his time skiing in Europe during the twenties just as, in the wake of the First World War, the ski resort and the chairlift were born, making skiing accessible to anyone with a passing interest and enough money. Before the world’s first chairlift was instituted in 1936, in Sun Valley, people depended on their own feet or rudimentary rope tows. “You could not buy it nor take a ticket to the top,” writes Hemingway of “unroped glacier skiing,” possible only late in the winter, when there was adequate snow. “It was the end we worked all winter for, and all the winter built to make it possible.” Described in this way, skiing seems akin to bullfighting, both primal and lyrical, accessible to only a few. For D.H. Lawrence, too, skiing suggested something wild and also transcendent. “Then he seemed to sweep out of life,” he writes of Gerald, one of the main characters in Women in Love, and a devoted skier,“to be a projectile into the beyond.”
Where I lived in Colorado the people who went into the backcountry were Hemingway and Lawrence’s descendants. They were looking for the point at which they felt most acutely alive, and finding it in the moments when they were closest to death. Many, most, were voracious readers. They kept journals, wrote letters home, the landscape inspiring if not self-reflection than near-constant accounting. Many, most, spent a great deal of time alone, and had grown to like it. Most of them, like me, were from east, back east. We were all hazy on our history and hungry for more, having crossed the country to find it, as if we had originated out west rather than out east.
One weekend Stephanie and Flyer invited my friend and I to join them at a secret cabin buried in the mountains surrounding Montezuma, an unincorporated town a couple of miles above the ski area where we worked. Montezuma had a church, a cafe, and a smattering of houses, but the outlying parts of the town were routinely buried by avalanches. People persisted in living there, though, rebuilding what was destroyed.
I couldn’t direct anyone to that cabin now. It was a communal building, built thirty or forty years ago for whoever else happened to find it. We parked our car at a gate to a fire road that doubled as the first mile of the trail. After that we were in Flyer’s hands, and Flyer had started drinking while we were still in the car. He made his way, however improbably, leaning heavily on Wolf, who broke trail for us through the freshly fallen snow.
Outside of the daily rounds of work and skiing, we couldn’t find much to talk to each other about. I remember Stephanie’s face as soft, freckled, empathic. She was bookish like me, more inclined towards life in the lowlands. I don’t think she and Flyer stayed together much longer after that winter. But that afternoon we were snowshoeing together through pine forests, rising higher and higher towards the ridge line while the mountains began to turn rose with alpenglow. We didn’t need that much to talk about for the day to be memorable. Flyer took us on circuitous, drunken route, and by the time we reached the cabin, which I had begin to suspect might exist a range over, or in the mountains above another town, it was dark.
Once we arrived my friend wanted to drink, helping himself to the bottles of port and whiskey Flyer had stowed in his bag. I don’t even remember eating, just passing the bottle of port around for a few rounds before I became too tipsy to drink anymore. John drank a lot, and now that I think about why it was probably due in part to the growing tension in our friendship, which was fraying at the edges from the pressure of realizing we didn’t know each other very well. John thought of me as essentially free and unencumbered before I came to Colorado, and when he found out I wasn’t, and then that he couldn’t free me from whatever real or imagined imprisonment I was enduring, it was a shock. Both of us knew our lives in Colorado were temporary, would be brought to an end less by the spring than by the pressures exerted by everything we had left to be there.
Stephanie and I made small talk, but she felt much older, much more coherent as a person. She was a sentence that said something clear whereas I was a fragment whose meaning was inconclusive. I could tell she was about to go, to choose a direction and follow it. In contrast, I felt as amorphous as the snow that drifted off the top of the mountains in the middle of the afternoon. My friend’s tolerance wasn’t high; he soon began to vomit, and he spent the rest of the night huddled outside the door of the cabin, regiftting the port to the snow. The next morning we walked blearily back to the car, not exactly unhappy but with a sense of having compromised something pure.
I had moved to Colorado from Ireland, where I had been traveling and waitressing, not making contact with anyone until two months had passed, selfishly (as I see it now) wanting to be unreachable. Though I was there to escape the confinement of my own mind, I was good at substituting one imprisonment for another, talking to the friend I ended up sharing a cabin with in Colorado for hours on end in a phone booth across the street from the restaurant where I worked. “Just come,” he implored. “I think you’re spending too much time by yourself.” Once I got to Colorado I wondered whether, if I devoted myself to skiing as I had once devoted myself to running, practiced every day, all day, I might not become good enough to refashion my identity, the skiers on Loveland Pass offering me a different kind of perfection than I had yet experienced, one that was more akin to how Elizabeth Bishop says we might imagine knowledge to be: “dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.”
And yet, I couldn’t. Couldn’t learn how to ski that is. I could barely even get off the chairlift. “You’re like Rapunzel and the witch,” my aunt wrote to me at one point, “the helpless woman locked in the tower and the malevolent being who put you there.”
I spent most of my time in Colorado ascending and descending mountains, sometimes on foot but most of the time in lifts. Up and down, up and down, I could see the blank tracts erased by wildfires and avalanches, the sheer falls of snow fanning out into debris deltas. Beyond the formality of tree line the sun exacted a vigilante justice, wiped out whole thoughts. When the trails were too difficult to ski down I would walk, or glissade. Sometimes I was with John, but most of the time I was by myself. “For now she need not think about anybody,” writes Virginia Woolf of her protagonist Mrs. Ramsey, in the novel To the Lighthouse. “She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All that being and the doing, expansive and glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” Woolf, like Hemingway was haunted by the First World War, a war in which a generation was lost, sixteen million killed, many in the trenches; in which aerial trams conveyed soldiers on combat missions and then, in the aftermath, conveyed tourists to vistas and skiers to trailheads.
The snow melted, the season passed, and we drove back east. Bare of snow, the ski mountains looked mined. I got a job teaching English at an independent high school in Utah, and my friend began working in a lab at M.I.T. He wrote to me of being in the parking lot of a general store up in North Conway, New Hampshire, getting ready to go rock climbing, when he heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center on his car radio. Better there than anywhere else he thought. A student I was teaching at the time would go on, years later, to be killed on a combat mission in Iraq. He had been a careless but thoughtful writer and I wonder if some combination of the same was the cause of his death.
I wonder also what happened to Flyer, to Salty, to Dishpan. They were all bright, all disaffected. They had read a lot but done poorly in school, or had done well but detected that it might not matter as much as they had been told it did. I thought about them recently when a friend of my husband’s recounted a story about a guy he knew named Kurt who had lived for a period of time in Mammoth, a ski area in northern California: “Every day he would eat Ritz crackers on his front steps at the exact same time. He had the same thing for breakfast every day, and god help you if you ran out of something, because he’d have a shit fit. So one day he goes with a group skiing. He’s paired up with a guy, ready for the lift, the lift comes, and Kurt sits in the middle and won’t scoot over. This other guy has half a cheek on the lift and he’s yelling for Kurt to frickking move over he’s going to fall. Part way up, sure enough, the other guy falls off the chair lift, and wham, into the snow below. It wasn’t too far. The group watches as Kurt continues up the lift, gets to the top, and there he is coming around again. Never got off. He took it all the way back down again. I guess he fought the dudes trying to get him off the seat as he got to the top. Maybe he’s still on it, I don’t know.”