Bringing us Home Safe
On the ride home Sunday evening, in the pitch dark, our skis back on the rack on top of the station wagon, I would sit in the back seat, longing for the warm air to make its slow way to the back seat. It would take me half an hour, sometimes, to undertake getting my ski boots off. First I had to lift the heavy left boot, still cold and wet, with snow-ice wedged between the laces, onto my right knee, which had only just gotten warm: always the cold water soaked the knee of my ski pants. Then I took my numb fingers and began working on the knots. There was all the time in the world. Another hour to home. Sometimes I'd take fifteen minutes, worrying at the knot for awhile, then holding my hands under my thighs to warm them back up for a while, then going back to it, and worrying some more. Eventually the laces would come untied, and I'd unwind them from their hooks (little slivers of snow-ice dropping onto the floor, onto the seat, onto me).
Finally I'd ease my foot out. Numb and stiff. Pull off the sock. Cradle my foot, as cold to the touch as the snow at first, in my hand. Such pleasure, to feel the warmth slowly come back, to be able to wriggle my toes. It hurt a little too. I'd stare out the window, watching the snowflakes appear in the headlights, gleam once, and streak over the windshield, back into the dark. Eventually I would lift the heavy right boot onto my left knee, and begin worrying that knot.
We never went into the lodge. We skied all day. That was what we were there for, after all. I had hot chocolate in a thermos. It wasn't very hot by the middle of the day, but it tasted wonderful. We kids discovered that we could climb down the snow-drifts and duck under the walls of the chairlift housing. There, in a secret, dark, hangar-like space, unheated but out of the wind, I would drink my cocoa. Except we always called it "hot chocolate" -- there was something vaguely self-indulgent about the world "cocoa." It was the kind of word people would use who would come up to go skiing and then hang about in the lodge with warm feet. Not for us.
(Not that my father cared about dignity. In town he held hands with us and skipped down the sidewalk. He would try to climb anything, appropriate or inappropriate -- bridges, fences, trees in someone's yard. He skipped stones across rivers with us; carried us piggy-back, as we called it; built sand-castles with us; taught us to yodel.)
All day is a long time to ski, when you're six years old. I was terribly proud, though. I skied with my legs shoulder-width apart, maybe, but the skis were parallel -- no snow-plowing for me. And by the time I was eight I took the chairlift clear up, and skied the most challenging slopes. People would remark on how little I was and how well I skied. (It never occurred to me that they were letting me hear them say that on purpose. And I would never look at them or show any sign that I had heard. But I would lift my chin and stand very straight.) And I was terribly proud of my father, in his huge baggy grey pants that fluttered madly as he swooped down the slopes. He skied beautifully. He always wore those absurd grey pants, and an ancient beat-up coat and silly bright-patterned hats with tassels, and his skis were unfashionably long and unfashionably wooden. (Short, fiberglass skis -- shorter than the people who wore them, for heaven's sake! were just becoming standard. I was crestfallen when he finally gave in and got a pair.) He was dowdy and ridiculous looking, maybe, standing still at the bottom of a slope. But no one would have thought that, watching him ski. Grace; confidence; sprezzatura, even.
Finally nightfall, and the long drive home. My Dad, no longer the dazzling skier, but now the cautious, slow-but-sure driver. Absolutely safe. He was the safest thing, the solidest, most reliable thing in the world. My confidence in him was boundless. Being his son might mean having achingly cold feet on Sunday nights, but it also meant that I knew I was safe. I didn't know, at the time, that I was lucky. I thought all fathers were basically safe. But my Dad was extra safe. He did mountain rescue and ski patrol. He did scuba-diving and spelunking. He could go anywhere, and take us anywhere, and bring us home safe. I spent my seventh birthday at the bottom of the grand canyon, having hiked all the way down. By the time I was eleven, I had written my name in the mazama registers at the peaks of half a dozen Oregon mountains, and rapelled down into the lava tube of little Belknap, and into Frog Cave, and into one cave we found once but could never locate again, on the far side of the mountains -- just an inconspicuous hole in the flat ponderosa chaparral, but it dropped into a big cavern, with tunnels snaking away in three directions. We explored them all. I gained a physical confidence that I see, with a pang, that my own city-bred kids have never acquired. I belonged in the wilderness. I belonged on cliffs, in the water, under the ground, on the ice. I might loathe and dread human beings, but nothing in the natural world scared me.
It sounds reckless, taking children into such places, but actually my father took his risks very carefully. He was endlessly patient. However long it took to get the belay just right, that was how long he took. He drilled us in what we had to know. How to fall down a snow slope. What to do if we got lost. How to make a fire. He never rushed anything. I remember vividly, still, watching him climb. He was deliberate, one-pointed. He tested every hold before he used it, and abandoned it at once if it didn't turn out as secure as he liked. There was always another route to try. There was always all the time in the world.
The contrast between the recklessness of the endeavor and its patient, deliberate, meticulous execution thrilled me, then. It still does, really. I've never left off admiring him. I still want to be him when I grow up.