That Time I Broke My Wrist In Colorado
My Aunt used to take her nephews and nieces anywhere they wanted to go when they graduated eighth grade. Why eight grade? I have no idea. She worked for American Airlines. Rather than go to the Caribbean, Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans, or anywhere known for short sleeves and relaxation, I chose Colorado. For some reason my classroom daydreams saw myself gliding down a mountain kicking up puffs of snow for a cape. Maybe it was because of the kids I started sitting with at lunch. They wore wristbands imprinted with the Misfits skull, and took their skateboard anywhere with a sign that read “No Trespassing.” I could stand on a skateboard so long as the asphalt was smooth. Snowboarding must be the same thing, look at the name; it can’t be too hard, right?
We flew out to Denver: me, my Aunt, my Dad, and two of my older cousins who haphazardly tagged along with their notorious partying antics. Every other sentence from them was about “going out,” followed by my Aunt’s “Oh, Jesus.” I was pumped. In my head I had this vision of shredding down the mountain, impressing a local blonde who’s snowsuit was a fit too snug. I was going to have my own lighthearted eighties comedy where a out-of-towner wins the love of the locals through perseverance and a sense of humor.
My east coast prejudice pictured Colorado as a state overflowing with mountains. Our plane would be swallowed by a beautiful valley as it landed, a scene you could staple to a calendar. One of those jarring growing-up epiphanies is when you step out of Denver International and discover the west is largely flat, brown, expanse with a couple oil wells bobbing away on farms. A vast stretch of emptiness. The mountains were just visible through horizon haze. That was the Colorado where I wanted to be. We rented a four-wheeler and drove out to Keystone ski resort.
The plane ride and elevation left us all tired but I begged Dad to take us snowboarding. Afterall, that’s why we were there. It was late. The sun was setting in Utah but flood lights bounced off the snow. We rented gear, climbed to the top of the hillock just outside the resort, and tried to make it down without falling. None of us had stood on a snowboard before.
It’s the fifth or sixth time I’m wobbling down the hill, digging into the snow back and forth with just enough speed to feel the cold cling to my cheeks. Lean in, lean out. Not so bad. Snowboarding is nothing like skateboarding — a lot more directional movement, a ship with toes and heel for sails. I got the hang of it pretty quick, and was feeling amped to impress the masses with my slick abilities.
Time to see how fast I can go. Pivoting the board so it’s parallel with the incline I lean in until the the wind starts singing it’s howl. And then there’s my cousin. Stumbling to kick her board back down, to escape her perpendicular trap. “Watch out!” Too late. She’s slicing across the entire slope, arms dancing in the air to catch her balance. I cut right to avoid a collision, outside of the floodlight safe zone, onto a patch of mirror-smooth ice, and I slam into the hill.
From the bottom, where my dad’s been watching us mimic gas station tube men, I hear, “Go again. You got to practice for tomorrow.”
“I really don’t know. That hurt.” I brush the mothball snow off my pants.
“Yeah that was a sweet fall. Bound to happen.”I looked on irritated.
“C’mon, we just flew all the way out here and you’re not going to at least go one more time? You’ve got three seconds to decide.”
“Go ahead Sean, you might as well,” chimes in my Aunt. “This is what we’re here for.”
I dragged myself back to the top of the tiny mound and went down in a straight line. I didn’t bother leaning forward or back to carve. I just wanted to be done. That was probably the most apathetic run in the history of Keystone.
“My wrist hurts so much.”
“You probably just bruised it.”
Unconsciously rubbing my wrist to make it feel better by some magical means, “I can’t move it.”
“You’ll be fine. It probably hurts because of the altitude.”
“Yeah, Sean. Remember what we said before we got here?” Aunt T. wasn’t helping.
We blamed everything that went wrong that trip on the altitude. My Aunt had a friend, whose friend had a cousin, whose husband went to Colorado every winter to ski, and warned the grapevine that altitude sickness is addicted to schadenfreude. We took that telephone translated warning and ascribed every misfortune to being nearly ten-thousand feet above sea level. My cousins both had headaches: altitude. Aunt T had a slight case of vertigo: altitude; Dad’s stomach was bubbling: altitude; Sean’s wrist might have a hairline fracture: altitude. Poor altitude. I think we might have been too harsh.
Since we all shared a hotel room I went into the bathroom to change into pajamas: yellow sweatpants with fat smiley faces beaming and a white t-shirt. I was taking too long. I could hear Dad made a joke about beating the monkey or some other euphemism for masturbation and I started to silently fume — he gets raunchy when my mother’s not in earshot. When you’re in pain and there are no opioids around to chug, anger serves as a second-best medication.
If I was him I probably would’ve said the same thing to my son. I was a pubescent boy, and grew up with the internet. The equation of one hand plus too much time typically points to the same sum when adding up teenage algebra. If I wasn’t using one hand to swap clothes he would have been right. Instead it sticks out in my memory as a sour case of misattribution.
That night I slept horribly. Tossing and turning, sweating. I woke Dad and said, “I think I got to go to the hospital.” He shrugged me off and muttered “Altitude, altitude,” before turning back to sleep. I mouthed “There is no God,” closed my eyes, and waited for sunlight.
The snowboarding lessons were early in the morning and I had to go. That’s what Dad said, “You got to go. We paid all this money to set up these lessons and we flew almost 2,000 miles to get here. Are you really going to back out?” While I was going to learn how to get gnarly on the mountain he and my cousins were going to take a tram or some other dirigible that didn’t involve chairlifts to the top of the mountain. We had to get breakfast first.
Dad and I went to a convenience store down the road. A corner store that had one of everything for nearly double the price. We’re scanning the aisles for whatever’s good while my wrist wears a wristband of thorns, each point is a scorpion stabbing into the bone. Cold sweat drops salt in the corner of my eye as I’m standing looking at donuts in aisle seven. I’m wavering side to side, one foot presses into the tiles and then bounces to the next. Blood keeps running to my head and pulsating behind my eyes. One moment I’m standing, the next I’m on the ground. It’s as comfortable as the hotel mattress.
“Hey what are you doing?” A big toe nudges my ribs. “Get up. What are you doing?”
“Ughhh,” I groaned.
A shadow is blocking the fluorescent light, staring at me. It has no features, just darkness. It’s Dad.
“Sean, get up. You’re embarrassing me.” I stumbled to my feet, using only my right hand to balance as I leaned on my heels.
“The pain. Oh, man it hurts.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. I might need to go to a doctor.”
“Look, we can go to a doctor, but then you’re going to miss the lesson. Isn’t the whole point to come out here and learn how to snowboard?”
I nodded. “Yeah…” and my voice trailed. He was right. I did want to learn how to snowboard. I was in Colorado, and I probably wasn’t coming back.
“So what do you want to do?”
“Alright, alright. I’ll go to the lesson. But I’m telling you this hurts.”
“I heard ya. Here, have a donut. You’ll feel better.”
I didn’t feel better.
I’m standing atop beginner’s hill two. It’s a bigger hill and you know it’s bigger because you have to sit on a chairlift to get to the top: the beginner chairlift — it hangs about five feet off the ground. Still too high for my acrophobia. My jackets puffy and I feel like a moldy marshmallow that’s been tie-dyed, while my glasses won’t stop fogging up behind the goggles. It’s a cold day. Even my braces are shivering. But not as bad as my convulsing wrist which shakes in response to instructor Chad as he tells us about another law of snowboarding.
“Alright little dudes, remember we’re all here to have fun. So, don’t worry if you lose your balance. Just remember to fall on your…” All the kids respond “Butt!” with enthusiasm, except for me. Butts aren’t funny today. He pauses. Chad’s cap has multicolored ribbons hanging and I can’t stop staring. It’s a snowboarder’s Tibetan prayer flag; I want one. “Alright, dudes, one-by-one I’m going to send you down the hill. We’ll meet up down there and go over some more basics. Alright little man, you first.”
It’s me. I’m the first. How did this happen? I’m never first. I took it as a compliment for looking like the strongest boarder up there on beginner hill two. I’ll show these chumps how it’s done. That local girls going to see me shred all the way to the bottom. Maybe I’ll do a backflip off that little nudge of snow there to make my point.
There were so many people on the hill that day: kids struggling to stand up on their skis or boards, a congo-line of nuns laughing and falling in-between one or two saying the rosary, a few pros weaving between the crowds showing off when they should be up on double-diamond-aces-whatever, families huddled and grabbing onto each other’s shoulders, foreigners yelling in languages I can’t quite place. Looking downhill it was as if some angry mother scattered a ball pit across the slope and yelled, “don’t you see! These things breed disease.” All the colorful jackets bunched together and variegated sounds were distracting. Not that I could pay attention to any of it.
As soon as I gained a bit of inertia my vision blurred. The blood again. The wrist throbbing. My body locked up and I couldn’t lean side-to-side to slow down. This wasn’t exactly a big hill but it only takes between ten and fourteen seconds to reach terminal velocity. I was terminal as I passed the giggling nuns. Then everything turned white, again.
At the bottom I learned I shot straighter than a bullet. “Little dude, you went faster than anyone else has gone down that hill!” I asked, “Did I stick it?” At some point my unconscious body tripped on another slate of ice or nudged some tightly packed snow and did a gymnastic somersault but botched the landing. They said I it looked like a ragdoll shout out of a potato cannon. Did I win? “Nah, little dude don’t move. Snowpatrol will be here in a second and we’ll get you to a doctor.”
Every single person on that hill was whispering about the kid who wiped out ESPN highlights style. Self-conscious thirteen year old me was not happy. My imagined hot blonde was stepping over me and walking on to the next kid with pubescent dreams. No, no. I’m good. I can still do this. The words weren’t coming out.
Two guys in tangerine jackets loaded me into a stretcher tied to a snowmobile. “Alright, little man you’re going to be just fine. That was the gnarliest wipe out I’ve ever seen.” Chad chuckled. “You should be proud of yourself.” He raised his hand for the high-five. I obliged and smiled to myself, “‘gnarliest wipeout he’s ever seen. Okay, that’s something.”
I told the doctor what had transpired over the last twenty-four hours and they said it was probably the second fall that cracked the bone, and then asked what color cast I would like. “Green.” My dad stood there with my aunt, with a half-hearted smile, happy to see I was alright. “I told you my wrist was broken!” He shrugged it off.
“Well ya know. We were here… Didn’t want you to end up in a cast on the first night. What kind of trip would that have been?” It was the trip that broke my wrist.
My yearlong preparation to head out snowboarding, the congratulatory vacation for surviving Middle School psychologically intact — almost — didn’t work out as planned. I didn’t learn to shred or jump off a packed snow mound. It seemed so easy in my head. We still had a week ahead of us and to make up for the lack of mountain-shredding my Dad and I explored Colorado. We had a great time: wholesome father-son bonding, as we drove through valleys and canyons, eating fondue, heading into moldy country record stores, blasting Rancid, Led Zeppelin, and even the Misfits off the valley walls — thankfully my Dad’s sub-par hearing never figured out the lyrics to Last Caress.
We laughed about what happened years after — including leaving my aunt with the troublesome twins. While my trip didn’t transition into a lifelong career as a park rat, I did fall in love with Colorado, and moved into the shadow of the Flat Irons last year. It’s clean and smart and beautiful, and I have no regrets about my trip or the past or anything. I even learned to appreciate the vast expanse east of the Rockies, and bike ride past corn fields in my spare time to keep up with the way-healthier-than-me senior citizens.
But I haven’t gone snowboarding.