Fear and the Mountain

Growing up in Texas I missed out on a lot of winter sports, notably ice skating and skiing.  These skills I did not acquire until much later in life and while learning to skate and play hockey has been mostly a thrill, learning to ski was a most painful experience that nearly ended in divorce.

Luckily, my very patient and loving wife, Holly, was very patient and loving on the day she and her mom hoisted me up some ice covered mountain of death in Vermont and sent me hurtling over the sheer precipices they, having grown up with the sport, so effortlessly carved.  What seemed a long time later, as I nursed a pint in the lodge while they went and enjoyed themselves without a human boulder to care for I wished I’d had the opportunity to learn how to ski when I was a kid.  Kids bounce.  They tumble and fall, cry, get back up and forget they fell five minutes later.  I was sure I’d torn a tibia.  Not that it’s possible to tear a tibia but that’s what it felt like.

Luckily, I’ve gotten a little better since that day, enough to get down from the top of a mountain without major incident but I’ll never go very fast, I’ll never shred the glades or rip up the terrain park.  I’m too old to have the physical memory of tearing down a black diamond and too aware of the limits of my own body.  And, I know fear.

Zane and his buddies, Mac and James, seem to have forgotten this particular, very useful sensation.  They knew it last year at Saddleback, snowplowing their way back and forth, taking tentative turns and long loops.  But this year, this past weekend both hockey and fear took a holiday as we went to Sugarloaf for the weekend.  When, on the second day, I was finally able to catch up to them at the bottom of the Whiffletree lift and allowed to tag along for a run or two I was amazed at the shear abandon of their skiing.


James, Zane and Mac prepare to shred.

James, Zane and Mac prepare to shred.

Zane, in his black coat, neon yellow pants and blue zombie helmet was a colorful blur and where once he held a tight pizza wedge now he let his skis run and soon was far, far away and gone from me.  I thought Mac was taking things more slowly but it turns out he was just adjusting his gloves before curling himself into a tuck position, his poles extending back like jet fins, and I swear I almost heard a sonic boom as he ripped by me.

I was proud of the boys for how far they’ve come in the sport, one we do rarely and just for fun.  It’s doubtful they’ll be joining a downhill team though cross-country might be in their future.  I was proud of myself for managing to avoid injury once again.

Therein lies the fundamental difference in our experiences this weekend.  The boys conquered the mountain.  I survived it.  For them it is a time of firsts and an age, 9 going on 10, when they have come into themselves physically while in the prime of their youthful exuberance.  They are the daredevils and all the world is a playground.  Me, after three runs trying and failing to keep up I sent them on their way and headed to the Bag for one of those pints that seems to ease the strains and pains while once again wishing I’d learned to do this thing when I was little like Augi and his friend Colin.

Having made his first unassisted runs at Hermon a few weeks ago, Augi was primed to take on the Loaf and had made it plain and clear that he would not be attending ski school.  He wanted to be with his Mom and Dad and buddy.  Things were a bit rough with mom and dad, luckily he had his buddy.

We started with Augi on the learning slope which is not as much fun as the learning slope at Saddleback but good enough.  We went all the way down to the Birches, over a bridge and through the tunnel without incident.  Then he dropped one of his poles (Why did he have poles?  He wanted poles, what you gonna do?) getting on the chair – mom snagged it – then he fell getting off the chair – then we coaxed him on to the Landing and then he dropped his pole again getting on the lift again and then he seemed confused by all the wide open space but convinced us to take him to the Boardwalk lift and then things went downhill, very quickly and ended in a yard sale.

A yard sale is when a vast array of equipment – gloves, skis, poles, sometimes boots and helmets and goggles and underwear end up splayed over a wide area while the skier to whom the items belonged skids slowly into a crumpled heap.

Augi had forgotten how to turn, or he hadn’t quite learned it yet.  In any event, straight down the mountain he went like a tiny Bode Miller with his father trying desperately to catch up to him both of us caught up in our own fears.  Me for him, him for himself, and the fear that kept me from catching him, that I might wipe us both out if I did.  Boardwalk is not a steep run nor does it turn but there are little hills and dips and one of these caught the little guy.

It was like watching one of those NASCAR crashes where the car flips over and over and over, tires shredding and smoke billowing.  Poles, skis and goggles popped off amid a cloud of snow.  When I finally got to him he was raising his head in the silent scream that preceded a red-faced wail.  It took about five minutes and the promise of gooey donuts to get him back on his feet and, holding on to mom’s pole, down the last stretch.  Here is where fear and memory collide with a good buddy and a good doughnut.

We managed to rendezvous with Colin and his mother, Kasey, at the firepit and soon they had Augi talking about heading back over to the Birches run, to weave their way over the bridge and through the tunnel.  Often the reason we do seemingly stupid things, like hurl down mountains or jump out of airplanes, is we don’t want to get left behind – this is probably instinctive as, historically, the one who gets left behind is often the one who gets eaten by wolves or tigers or cannibals or whathaveyou.  And so, following his friend and fueled up on s’mores donuts, Augi took off again on his grand adventure.

Colin and Augi dance down the Birches.

Colin and Augi dance down the Birches.


Soon, he and Colin will be leaving their parents behind, racing to the lifts like Zane and Mac and James, bouncing impatiently in the chair and throwing themselves down black diamonds and over jumps in the supreme confidence that they will survive the landing.  And only the hopes and prayers and zombie helmets provided by their parents will go with them.

Travis Baker

About Travis Baker

Travis Baker grew up playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer. There was a brief stint with karate and a briefer one with fencing but he would not return to the glory days of youth sport until he moved to Maine and had a couple of boys, Zane (11) and August (7), of his own. Inspired by his lads, he learned to play hockey at the age of 35 and now plays every Monday night in Brewer. Thanks to a number of former students, he’s learned a wee bit about lacrosse, field hockey and track and field. When not helping out in his kid’s activities, is the award-winning playwright of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy, both of which premiered at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. Travis is the author of Night and the Texas Sky, and numerous short stories and essays. He is married to the founder of Maine Yoga Adventures, Holly Twining. Currently, he coaches hockey, baseball and serves on the board of the Maine Junior Black Bears as the PR Director.