Mountain Man and I crossed the Utah-Colorado border on January 12th, 2016 at 7:23 AM. We stayed in Colorado until the 18th of January, but my most developmentally pertinent experiences occurred during the first few days of our visit.

One of the first photos I took in Colorado

The first important experience happened on the 12th. We skied Vail that day. I had been so excited to see the mountain through his eyes; I had fancied that it’d be like getting a private tour of Disneyland under the guide of Walt Disney himself.

Looking at the Vail resort from the parking lot

But Mountain Man had other plans, of course: upon our arrival at the bottom of the lift, Mountain Man curtly announced that he’d be skiing alone today so that he could “get the full Vail experience.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was crushed. I was also exhausted from our trip thus far, sleep-deprived, hungry, and feeling the altitude. So, I snapped. I screeched at him and he screeched back at me and we caused quite the spectacle. It was pathetic. I think we both cried. The war ended in stalemate, at which point Mountain Man did some kind of fancy 180-degree turn on his skis and the next thing I knew, he was on the lift, heading up the mountain.

I went back to the lodge. I sat down and, between sniffles, tried to get a hold of one of my parents in the hope that they’d lend an ear while I vented about my stupid boyfriend. The cell reception was poor, though, and it was a Tuesday, anyways, so my parents were at work and thus wouldn’t have been able to chat for long even if my calls had gone through. So, I gave up and began to mentally run through my options. They were looking pretty slim, and I was about to settle on a day of drinking alone, when my eyes finally focused on the sign that had been right in front of me since I sat down: “Lessons.” I was sitting right in front of the ski-lesson desk. A glance up at the prices set me to sniffling all over again, though, and it caught the attention of the girl behind the counter. She asked if she could help me with anything. Sensing opportunity, I dramatically dropped my face into my hands and sobbed. She quickly came around the counter and asked what was wrong. I said:

After listening to me blubber on for a minute, she said that she might have an idea and to wait right there and she’d be right back. She then hurried behind the counter and disappeared through a doorway beyond. In a moment, she returned with a middle-aged man in tow. He wore a red-and-black suit with a white cross on the breast—a ski patroller?

The man introduced himself, but I don’t remember his name. I do remember that he once coached a group of Olympic skiers, and that his daughter was about my age and on the Vail ski team. He was done with all of that now, though; hence, the ski patrol get-up. The man then asked me to repeat my sob story, which I did with all the same fanfare, and when I finished, he smiled kindly and said, “Why don’t you go get your skis back on? I’ll meet you out front.”

What ensued made me cry all over again, but this time, for joy. This man, out of the kindness of his heart, gave me a free, private ski lesson. He taught me how to turn in powder, how to turn on groomers, what to do when you hit an unexpected patch of ice, how to maneuver through the trees, how to go off jumps without eating shit, and even showed me around the mountain a little bit. What he did for me was probably closer to getting a tour of Disneyland from Walt Disney than anything Mountain Man would’ve done for me. I even got to meet the guy’s daughter afterwards, who did a few runs with me and gave me a few more pointers from a different perspective. They treated me to hot chocolate at the lodge afterwards, and as we sat around the fire, sipping our drinks, they almost convinced me to move to Vail and join the ski team. But, the magic was cut short when Mountain Man showed up and dragged me away, ranting about how he was done skiing for the day because a part of his binding had broken off and he would need to get it to the shop before they closed.

I don’t remember what became of Mountain Man’s binding, but that’s probably because I was still processing the earlier part of my day. That free lesson had instilled a self-confidence and definite hope for my future as a skier—two things that Mountain Man had yet to offer me.

Vail from the top of one of the easier runs

We drove that night to Breckenridge, where we would spend the next three nights, and where I would have the most meaningful Colorado experience of all. But I’ve written enough for one post; next week, I’ll tell you about my time in Breck.

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The credit for planning the eleven-day roadtrip to Colorado goes entirely to Mountain Man. Having gone to school in Colorado for a year, he knew people living in various locations scattered between Berkeley and Boulder and was able to set us up with a free place to stay nearly every night. Only from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada-Utah border, and possibly between Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, would we need to find our own accommodations. Mountain Man would be the driver for the entirety of our trip, of course, since I still didn’t have my driver’s license. He’d insisted that he didn’t mind because he enjoyed driving and was used to driving me around, anyways, but I think the bigger reason was that he was homesick for Boulder and didn’t care if he had a passenger or not so long as he got there.

On Saturday, January 9, 2016, Mountain Man and I left the Bay Area. We skied Kirkwood all day and headed northeast around sunset, stopping for dinner at a casino and checking into a Motel 6 in Reno, Nevada for the night. We left early the next morning, continuing East on I-80, stopping only for gas and a classic, country-diner lunch in Winnemucca. Our final destination for January 10th (day two of our trip) was Heber City, Utah. A group of Mountain Man’s ski buddies shared a house there. They all worked and played at Park City, only thirty minutes away.

This was my first immersive experience with ski bums and I was transfixed. These people wore baggy, stretchy pants, jean shorts with suspenders and no shirt, long underwear, tattered sweatpants, ski-brand beanies, bandanas tied around their heads, and/or ski socks. Many had hair down to their butts. Some of the dudes had a man-bun; others, a beard down to their belly buttons; and others still, no beard, but a thick, well-groomed moustache. I saw cigarettes tucked behind ears and joints or spliffs hanging loosely from the corners of mouths, some lit, some waiting to be remembered. Every single person in the room was made of nothing but muscle—six-pack abs flexed distractingly when the shirtless guys laughed, or coughed through a cloud of indica smoke.

A ski bum sample

The décor in their little bungalow was just as fascinating. Tibetan prayer flags and mandala tapestries hung from the walls. Carefully-tended bongs and other glass marijuana-related paraphernalia served as décor on side-tables and shelves. Though most were moribund, plants cascaded out of hanging baskets and huddled within their respective pots on windowsills. Tribal-patterned blankets and cushions were tossed across the living room couch; stickers, sporting topics anywhere from Bigfoot to Irish pubs, were stuck to every piece of furniture, bathroom mirrors, and some walls. Shelf units were lined with meticulously-organized and neatly-labeled jars of weed and tobacco, interspersed with books and magazines about hiking, fishing, skiing, rock climbing, backpacking, and off-roading.

The more I saw, the more excited I became. It wasn’t a happy, “these are my people” type of feeling, though; it was almost an “Okay, stop, I get it already,” antsy feeling. Sitting there as an outsider looking in, I concluded that these people were an entirely different breed. I had no doubt in my mind that Mountain Man was of their blood, and that I was not. I was going to have to “catch up” to their level of coolness if I wanted to be accepted by their community, I realized, and it was going to take a lot of energy. But, I was happy to put in the effort, because if I could be like these people, I could go above and beyond these people to the realm of Ultimate Badassery.

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After wrecking on the ski slopes in front of Mountain Man, I began skiing as often as possible so that I might get better at it, or at the very least, become more comfortable with my feet being glued to flat sticks. Mountain Man had planned us a ski-focused road trip to Colorado—more on that next week—from January 9th through the 19th, so I wanted to be as confident as possible by then.

When I wasn’t on the mountain, I was pretending to be a badass skier. For instance, I started telling people that I would be moving to South Lake Tahoe in May. It was all just talk, though; but perhaps I thought that enough talking could bring it to fruition.

But you can’t just delete the life you’ve already lived. Trying to do that without any sort of announcement to your friends and family results in an awful lot of questions. I didn’t consider this when I took off with Mountain Man to Colorado. Nope, I expected a fully-immersive, ski-bum culture shock, free from tethers to my old life. Instead, I was interrupted repeatedly by reminders of what I was leaving behind, mostly in the form of email.

Pieces of my old life, washed up on the shore

As I disappeared into the blue

Watch out, here I go

"St. Joan," Husky

Me disappearing into the blue while pieces of my old life wash up on the shore

The first reminder came on January 4th, before I even left for Colorado: my swim coach sent out an email to the whole college team to remind us that the 2016 season would start on the 18th of January. I didn’t want to tell her about my burgeoning interest in skiing and its diminishing effect on my interest in swimming, so I held my tongue, albeit guiltily, until a second email came in on the 12th, declaring that we were “less than a week away from the 1st DAY!!!” To my dismay, no sooner did I shoot off some “sorry-I-can’t-make-it” bullshit than she immediately replied, imploring me to come to the Athletic Department meeting on the 20th. I knew I could make it to that, but I said nothing in reply. I wanted to postpone making any plans until after I completed my eleven days of “cultural immersion” in Colorado.

But I was inevitably interrupted again. The very next day, January 13th, I received an email from my piano teacher, inviting me to a workshop in Berkeley on the 16th. This was a much more heart-wrenching moment for me than reading emails about swimming, because music wasn’t just a “hobby” or a learned strength that I once had—it was in my DNA. My father’s father was a musician, and my father had the gene, too, although he didn’t explore it nearly as much as his father did.

My dad's dad (bottom-left) with his band

When I met Mountain Man, I had reached a point in my study of music that I hardly had to practice. Each piece painted a story in my mind that always flowed forth through my fingers, through the keys, as easily as water from a spring. But my infatuation with Mountain Man had entirely removed piano from my radar. I don’t think I ever told him that I could play—it didn’t really fit, being a bum with a “renaissance” hobby.

In any case, I had to tell my piano teacher that I wasn’t able to come to the workshop because I would still be in Colorado on the 16th. I suggested that we get lunch when I returned and asked what days would work for her. She never replied. I think she knew I was slipping away.

On the 15th, my swim coach wrote to me again, seemingly impatient with my unresponsiveness. She reminded me that emails had been sent since November of 2015 announcing that the first day of practice was January 18th, so I should’ve had that on my radar already. I winced at this message, but again, ignored it.

As planned, Mountain Man and I returned to the Bay Area on the 19th. Sitting in the passenger seat on the way home, I received another message from my swim coach, saying that she needed my transcripts from last semester if I were going to compete this season. A pang of adrenaline shot through me as I second-guessed my choice to leave swimming behind. I’d been swimming since I was a kid, and what if this was my only chance to swim a second season in college?

Me doing my favorite stroke

Once again crippled by uncertainty, I didn’t write back to my swim coach. Instead, I did something that was relatively uncharacteristic of 2016 Xannie: something impulsive. I reached out to the coach of the women’s road cycling team I’d joined just before taking that nasty tumble off my bike in August of 2015. The following is what I wrote to her:

Hi [name omitted for confidentiality],

So I know this seems to happen once a year, but for REAL this time, I'm quitting swimming and plan to do skiing, cycling, and climbing instead.

Is joining [your team] a bad idea at this point, considering the following: 1) I'm moving to South Lake Tahoe in May, 2) I'm working almost full time and also taking 2 intensive classes (physics w calculus and computer aided drafting), and 3) I will be skiing nearly every weekend and I'm taking a sports fitness class in the evenings (though it's likely I can drop that class if I join your team and am riding most evenings and climbing on the evenings I'm not riding).

Let me know if you have any ideas for me! I am aware this is your racing season so I understand if now is actually a bad time to join...

Thanks! Xannie

I didn’t know it, but this email was a perfect illustration of a very curious development: impulsivity—one of the three defining characteristics of ADHD—was starting to make a comeback as I got closer to the ski-bum lifestyle.

Next week, we’ll explore the ski-bum culture and my immersive trip to Colorado. Then, I’ll explain how said culture impacted my neurology.

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