I bend down to clamp the cable to my boot, and only then see that my boot isn’t seated in the binding. Damn. Well, it was my decision not to wear the glasses.
Time takes a body on well-trod paths. Millions and millions of people have aged. So why do I still have so many questions? Don't get me wrong, I want to age. As they say, the other option… not an option. But how do I know when, for any given indignity, I'm a victim of age and not something else? Say, like being a mom? My new caution: age or motherhood? Physically weaker: the deterioration of age or the lack of freedom to escape the kid and train? My mind is distracted and elsewhere, more guarded, the planning and organizational me dominant: age or the novel demands of responsibility?
I start up into the forest, following a track left by some earlier skiers. The snow swirls playfully in wind devils around me. The deeply furrowed bark of the massive firs are shades of red and brown as I climb past, beautifully contrasted against the brilliant eiderdown of powder that fell in the storm last night. Bright green lichens are scattered in the wildly sculpted snow, offerings of the storm’s ferocious winds.
My thoughts wander up the track in front of me, following the predictable route. I’ll leave the forest for an open stretch, so steep that I’ll have to zig zag up. Past the aspens, the track will flatten, but if I turn I’ll get my first view of the skyline to the south: a horizon of mountains stretching into Yosemite, looking like an endless sea of storm-tossed and white-capped waves. I’ll continue upwards through a stand of fir and pine to a long, open ridge that bisects the view north and south. Northward the landscape heaves with hills and valleys, but is terminally dominated by the sharp relief of the Mokelumne Tetons soaring above the steep canyon of the Mokelumne River.
Emerging from the woods, I see three skiers breaking trail just a short ways ahead. Wide skis, plastic boots, bright clothes, they are bulldozing our path upwards through the snow. I catch up to them when they stop to breathe and talk, twenty-something backcountry enthusiasts, lively, self-confident and sweating. I greet them cheerfully and thank them for the trail-breaking. I see their eyes sweep over me and my equipment. They smile that familiar patronizing smile and return cool greetings. In their collective thought bubble I can clearly see the words “Quaint” and “Old-timer”. In the past, I used to get the thought-bubble judgement “Woman”, but I've discovered that the shortcomings of being female have been trumped by the disadvantages of age. I can see myself through their younger eyes, and flash back to my own past hubris. Ultimately I agree with them. I am an old-timer. My gear is dated. I left my plastic boots in the closet today - my unwillingness to lug them up this mountainside could be seen as either the weakness, or the wisdom, of age. I worry about the former, of course, but today settle for the latter. They add something about their plans for “dropping off the summit” and “yo-yo-ing in Bee Gulch”. They give me some advice about aspect and slopes they recommend. I wish them a great day, stop short of offering my own advice--tips for cooling hot flashes in the snow--and continue on.
Fricking smooth-skins, I mumble into my turtleneck. I apologize for their attitude to my leather boots and 15-year old skis. My homemade PVC-pipe heel-a-vators, bungied to my legs, are silent, sulking no doubt. I roll my eyes upward and soothe the hurt feelings of the alpaca wool hat I bought last year in Ecuador.
Now that I’ve passed the trail bulldozers, it’s me out front breaking trail. I have to climb out of their deep ruts and find my own level of trail. Light and unencumbered, I am Legolas to their, well…, cave troll. I smile wickedly and ascend gracefully and quickly. I know my “trail-breaking” won't help those behind me much. Meanwhile the snowscape around me recaptures my attention. I’m mesmerized by the movement of my skis in the untracked powder, and content with the mere inches they sink into the new snow.
Like the smooth-skins, I had also thought to continue up to the summit and swoop down into Bee Gulch, then do turns on the slope a few times before gliding home. It’s what is done, after all. But I surrender to the pull towards the forested north drops, less open, less popular and therefore suddenly more appealing.
A dark-eyed junco peents as I reach the edge of the forest. It flutters onto a twig at eye level, displacing a quick flurry of snow, the smallest of branch-a-lanches. The bird and I consider each other with perfect understanding. I glance below and behind me to see the more brightly feathered skiers stop at the place where I veered off the standard route. They look up at my tracks and consider whether to follow. Is it possible that the old-timer knows of some terrain they don’t, or is it that she’s not up for the demands of the summit and has bailed for an easier route? I watch their moment of uncertainty, then see their heads and skis turn collectively away from my tracks and toward the summit.
I glide into the shadowed peace of the old growth forest.