When we were younger, and had more cartilage.
You only live once, so take note of your insurance deductible.
Once, when I was younger and had more cartilage, when I had no foreknowledge of all but one other family member blowing out their knee, when invincibility still seemed possible, I was an aggressive—though polite—skier.
But now, nearing age 50, I frequently make decisions about physical tomfoolery by calculating my insurance deductible.
Just two weeks ago I went ice skating at an indoor rink, still wearing the Lake Placid ice skates my parents bought me as a child (“We bought them bigger, so you could grow into them,” my mom told me that Christmas, 40 years on still proving her wisdom). All was fine until suddenly a young girl zipped in front of me and I couldn’t quite remember the toe pick and wiped out.
A young boy, seeing me as I am instead of as I think I am—old and round instead of in my 20’s—asked me if I was OK, his eyes huge. Perhaps memories of his grandma danced through his head.
I assured him I was OK, though it took two weeks to get the shoulder back. When you are older, you can throw your back out slicing chilled butter (true story).
It had been years since I’d skated, the previous attempt was as a chaperone for an elementary skating day, never falling once on the ice but instead, tumbling down the stairs of the bus in front of the school and terrifying the children. The last time I fell skiing was years ago when I went with my sister, my little nephew, and his friend to a modest ski resort. All was fine until evening, when my foot slipped on the ice next to the parked car and I slid to the ground, half beneath the car.
“Where’s auntie?” my nephew asked, realizing he’d seen me but suddenly didn’t.
Where’s auntie, indeed.
She was, just a bit ago, contemplating the very real decision of whether to get up from the slushy snow on Terry Peak in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, or just lie there and wait for the second coming.
Incredibly warm temperatures meant the snow was slush and ice. It was the most difficult skiing I’d done in my life, maneuvering that mess. We rode up the Surprise Express lift to go down the Surprise run, and they were not kidding.
As I carved large S-cuts into the slush, my legs and hips starting to shake from their lack of strength and the exertion it took to control the skis in the slush. I took a look down the hill and saw I had a long way to go. It’s not like a treadmill, where you can just step off. Gravity was going to get me to the end sooner or later. My prayers shifted from world chaos, wars in Europe, and the depravity of the times we live in, to something much simpler and selfish.
God in Heaven, get me to the bottom, not dead if possible.
Terry Peak had seen fit to put "Slow” signs on snow fences stretched between slender poles; these were everywhere, including in the middle of the runs, perhaps thinking they were encouraging safety while all I saw was a potential projectile.
A middle-aged man whizzed by me on his snowboard, oblivious to the “Slow” sign, and I caught a whiff of fear.
Down he went, the sound of bare skin sliding on slush. It was so warm we were skiing without mittens or hats or coats. He was soaked, and continued to be more soaked as he lay there. No sound came from him, nor movement.
I hope he’s OK, I thought, still slogging across the snow, nearing the vicinity where he went down.
I say slogging, not shredding, that dudebro euphemism tossed around by snowboarders and skiers with matching gear and season lift tickets. No, I was slogging.
I eased past the man, and my thoughts changed from wondering whether he was OK to wondering if that would be the best way to catch a breather, to simply sit down. I didn’t have to decide. Gravity did it for me. Quick-release bindings are the slogging skier’s friend.
“I’ve fallen twice this year, doing winter sports,” I told my friend later, who skates and skis beautifully.
Last week I bought several high-priced boxes of girl scout cookies from a young lady outside the grocery store. I wanted her to have sales success, and also learn to make change. I was slightly dismayed that each box was $5, both because of the sheer cost, but also the too-easy math. But it meant I had snacks for the little ski holiday.
“These cookies are my soulmate,” I told my friend at the cabin as we each munched on a tagalong. You really start to feel the age difference in a friendship when you’re the elder and in your late 40’s. The gap between the memory, joint strength, daring, and cardio becomes more noticeable. “I feel like I tagalong.”
We have an inside joke about my tagalong fear, and it involves a volcano in Nicaragua.
Barely 5’3” and not a person with a physical presence of great sportitude, most of my outdoorsy hikes and adventures have been done with a start that was enveloped in an almost crippling expectation of failure and bracing myself to be the last in the group with all attending accoutrement: not strong enough, not fast enough, not graceful enough, too heavy and out of shape.
Yes, I’ll try the hike, the bike, the ropes course, the zip line, the snorkeling (don’t know how to swim but sure), the skating, the skiing, but I’m struggling the whole time. Nobody goes on vacations to sit in libraries and bookstores, my favorite sports.
During one of my many trips to Nicaragua with the usual group from church, we got a chance to hike up a volcano. (I think it was Cerro Negro, which is much more touristy now than it was back then.)
One side was covered in massive boulders, while the other side was fine volcanic rock, sprayed down the mountain in a kind of shifting bulk of fine but sharp pebble. People now slide down it on a board, but back then, we carefully hiked down it. (One fellow slid down and, upon reaching the bottom, realized the sharp rock had eaten through his pants and, in some places, his shorts. Strangest missions trip ever.)
As we headed up the boulder side, I was quickly left behind. These were boulders that were higher than my hips in some places, and the path to the top waxed and waned; I was quickly winded and struggling, and trying to keep up the pace with the group made it worse.
For the few years that I ran 5Ks, I learned it best to not run with a partner, and to always run alone so I could enjoy my own pace and cross the finish line with a sense of personal victory instead of personal failure. That’s the odd thing here: you can cross the finish line and you can get to the top, but when you’re a tagalong, you still feel like you failed.
On the volcano, I was trying to keep up to not lose sight of the group. Taller, more fit people were quickly to the top, whooping and enjoying the view. I was hauling myself up boulders using my arms some were stepping up like stairs, sweat soaking into my T-shirt.
I was near tears. One member of the group was kind, and waited for me to catch up and we finally got to the top together just in time for the well-rested group already there to start down the opposite side. I quickly took a few photos of the view with my camera, panting for breath and never really having a chance to soak in the fact that I was standing on top of a volcano and to enjoy the Nicaraguan landscape far below me.
When you’re a tagalong, you see the back end of people, show up tired and last, and don’t get a chance to catch your breath and adjust before the next round. You’re always playing catch-up until you finally decide to just go it alone. This is more than just in physical activity, but it is easily understood in that analogy. We all like to operate in our strengths; operating in your weakness and having it visibly seen as such is tough. And, in a world that prizes fitness, physical strength, assertive personalities, and athletic prowess, it’s hard to impress with your ability to bake desserts and plow through a book and talk about the concepts therein.
Years later, when my friend and I were on a trip with others on a cruise ship around Cape Horn in South America, we had a few days in Santiago before heading to Valparaiso to embark. One of the places we visited in the city had a rocky hill to climb to get to some kind of old structure where there was a lovely view.
It was hot. The stairs were steep. I was fat. By the time I got to the top, I was in a foul mood.
“It’s like the f**cking volcano!” is all I could say gasp out to my friend who was galivanting around the top while I was trying to stave off a heart attack. That obviously ruined the happy experience up there on that peak. Tagalong moments are tired moments. You have to work hard to keep the joy, and if you’re tired, you fail a lot at that.
So there on Terry Peak, as I felt the slush from the ski hill soak into my shirt and compete with the dampness from the sweat running down my back, I imagined how wonderful it will be, in eternity, to experience Isaiah 40:31. There’s probably a reason the song based on that verse is often the one you’ll hear me hum.
They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. I would like to just lie here on this hill and wait.
I heard the sound of a ski cutting into the snow near my head. My friend began gathering my ski to me and trying to help round grandma back to her feet.
“Are you going to make it?”
Floundering around in the slush like a winter seal, I wasn’t sure. Bulky snow pants don’t help anyone reclaim upright status. I got my ski back on with a startling lack of grace, stood there with shaky legs, saw the bottom of the hill way down there, and sighed. No choice but to finish.
By the end of the day, with a few breaks for something to drink and a chance to give my legs a rest, we ended on a good note.
No torn cartilage. Knees still in place.
When I was younger, the tagalong thing was probably there, but youthful physicality provides a bridge and you are often with people of your own age. As you get older, your friendships aren’t as similarly matched and the bridge crumbles along with your ability to remember things and understand the latest movies from Hollywood.
“It’s good to learn things when you’re young,” I told my friend as we sipped our drinks and watched people coming down the bunny hill in front of the chalet.
Skiing. Skating. Riding horse. Playing the piano. I can’t imagine trying to learn them now; I’m kept from the precipice of shame and shattered joints simply through the muscle memory accumulated from my younger years. I got involved in karate for a few years at age 26 and while I managed to get to my purple belt, it took a lot more aches and injury than it would have had I been younger, and I do not remember it as well, 20 years later.
Just be aware that as you get older, the amount of cartilage and YOLO (“you only live once,” an attitude that, if carried to full extent, means you die young) you have is inversely related to the number of years you accumulate, and that Nicaraguan volcanos can be anywhere.