Can You Appreciate Life Too Much?
This is the story of seeing behind life’s curtain.
It was early season in the mountains. I had my snowboard, a quick breakfast, and I was out the door. I was a ski bum in 2010 and I spent little time thinking of my future. I heard they’d just opened up the East Wall at Snowmass and I was pumped. For those less snow dorky, the East Wall is a reasonably steep ski run at Snowmass mountain outside Aspen.
I got on the lift and rode up with a semi-friend and someone they knew. I wasn’t here to talk — I was here to wait. All I cared about was getting to the top. I was driven, every day, to find that thrill that comes only from going fast or through something that makes you get a little shaky afterwards. I didn’t worry about rocks or trees or cliffs — I’d deal with them when they came. Oddly enough, I did worry about a lot of other stuff, but those worries weren’t really real. I’d always just worried about these what-ifs, never the realities. The East Wall run is considered a double black, but when it’s snowy it’s really just a big wall of soft fun. The difference was that this was early season, the run had literally opened that day, and apparently the snow had yet to fall.
I was always a solo snowboarder. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t occasionally ride with others, but my goal was perpetually to find the place as far from people as possible. Often, I hoped to get lost. I didn’t want to actually get lost (I think), but I wanted to experience the new and wondrous all by myself. On this day, I left behind the people I knew. They were headed to the same place, so they were still nearby, but I forgot about them. I just went and I went fast. The wall itself was fine. A section of fairly steep snow that held some fun, and I was feeling good.
It was the transition into the trees that did me in. I saw some untouched snow to my left and turned to dart towards it. Ahead of me were two trees and I planned to thread the needle. Thinking back I should have noticed that the ground was flat and maybe the snow was still shallow. Had I been thinking though, I would have remembered all the times I’d had friends tell me to avoid cutting through untouched where it’s rocky. But, what did they know — I’ve hit rocks and been fine, so who cares.
Ten feet from the tree, I hit something — a rock? I was in the air sailing a few feet over the ground. I was seated backwards, unable to see where I was going. I was able to turn a little, but never saw it. I came down on a rock though— definitely a rock. I actually bounced because I was in the air again. Except I felt my legs go numb — paralyzed? I hit the ground and immediately kicked my legs. They moved and I was immensely grateful except I was experiencing a sharper pain than I’d known before. I tried to move, but felt incredibly hot. I tried to get up, but was far too dizzy. A girl showed up — I think I’d ridden up with her. She seemed concerned. Was I passing out? My gloves were off and I couldn’t get them back on — my hands were too sweaty. I couldn’t stand — what was this? My entire back and butt just hurt.
I’d had many injuries before this, but they were different. I also have intense migraines that leave me writhing for hours, so I was familiar with pain, but still this was different. I was so completely helpless. I just couldn’t help myself. Standing was impossible for some reason and this girl who was next to me just kept asking where we were. After some time, I realized she was trying to call ski patrol, but she didn’t know the mountain well. And as much as I wanted, I couldn’t form the thoughts to figure it out either. An hour passed, maybe? I could finally stand — kind of. My whole spine ached and I was incredibly disoriented. I made it through some trees and finally found a run that was relatively smooth. The pain was still too much. A ski patrol guy was suddenly in front of me — wanting me to get on. I tried to explain I was fine and kept riding. I was so frustrated, I just needed to get away from where I got hurt. He rode next to me though and I found myself at the on-mountain health clinic. Suddenly, my left arm was completely numb. Except, I knew this was from a migraine(probably). I get these odd migraines called episodic migraines that happen once and a while. Sometimes I go a month, other times I go over a year. They make me lose my vision and sometimes I get symptoms that mimic a stroke. But they apparently mean nothing and don’t cause any damage other than freaking me the fuck out. Over the years, I’ve learned that staying calm through these horrible, wish on no one, situations will make everything resolve in a couple of hours. This is however, hard to do.
On this day, I was in another world. Somehow my roommate at the time showed up and tried to talk to the doctors. I had explained that I was really hurt, but that I was having a migraine and just needed to sit in the dark because I couldn’t think. Apparently, I had not explained this clearly. He later told me the only part of the conversation that I remember. They asked, “Has your friend done any acid?”
To this, he laughed which probably didn’t really sell it, but I was in fact Not on Acid. In reality I had gotten what was called a spinal concussion that had somehow caused a migraine. I don’t think they ever really believed me because they forced me to take an x-ray while being fully unable to move. I can recall my butt region being extremely large due to swelling and pointing to this region trying to explain that it would be impossible to lie down. The x ray tech just kept telling me I had to lie on this extremely swollen area to get the image. I think we settled somewhere in the middle, so I don’t really know if anything was broken, but I don’t think so. She was obviously an idiot, but I couldn’t have been making much sense, so maybe she took this as I was rude — I hope not… An hour after this, I left and drove myself home. I was not always a wise thinking individual.
The next day my entire spine was black and swollen. I couldn’t sit for a long time — it was really pretty horrible. But it was also an immensely lucky moment. I had no permanent physical damage and I was able to get back on my board a week or so later. I wasn’t tip top, but I made it down a hill.
But what had changed was my mentality on life. We are not invincible and we are far from perfect. In that moment, I felt so angry at allowing myself to be in that situation. What if I’d been hurt just a little more? When if I’d hit my head? While I still took risks after that, and I can still be known to go slightly too fast, it was never the same. No risk would be worth giving up the magic of life.
Now I’m older, with children and a family, and I see risk all around. I’ve become a pansy maybe, but I also appreciate life for what is and how quickly it could be taken away. As I’ve grown I’ve seen this vulnerability again and again. When my son lost a tooth, or when I flew off my bike (one of many times), or a thousand other situations. Every time I see that learning from my mistakes will actually make me do less, and I think this is alright. When I was younger, I believed good only came from risk. But after many years of risk, I know that risks most often provide only fleeting success. Even big risks are not made in the moment, but in the acts that follow.
But I see people, every day, who’ve never experienced these near misses. They’ve been lucky or they never had the obsession to push the limit, and they don’t understand my concerns or my fears. They shrug off the risks and mostly it all works out. But now I’m stuck, too aware of the significance that life is. I’d rather live a hundred boring days to be there for my children years from now then risk being alone in the woods, helpless and broken.
Perhaps this is how old grumpy men come to be. They’ve seen the shit unfold and they know it’s not worth it. The day is too nice, the sun too bright, and life is longer when in pain. Or on the flip side, maybe they are grumpy for the rest of us. Someone must point out the risks. It can be easy to mock the one who is afraid, but they might also be the one to grab your shoulder just before you walk off the cliff.
Life is wonderful and full of opportunity. The possibilities are right there, but appreciation for what is already here — that is a skill beyond all others.