People pay good money to chairlift up a mountain in civilized fashion and then ski down for pleasure. I just paid to snowshoe straight up 2000 feet in single-digit temperatures to brave a gnarly descent. But, then, I’m not a mountaineer, I’m an island writer chasing a muse.
When I shuffled to the starting line of the Saddleback Mountain Challenge an hour earlier, racers appeared in a motley assemblage of equipment that reflected their strategy. Most wore Randonee skis adorned with “skins” that could be removed at the peak, allowing a rapid descent. A few people wore snowshoes with a snowboard strapped to their back; their descent would be swooping, graceful. One man wore two halves of a snowboard strapped to his feet, halves that would be reunited, presumably, once he achieved the peak. And then came the smartypants distance runner — one of two women in the pack and the only one outfitted with just snowshoes to wear, both up and down — that’s me. Halfway up the mountain, I reconsider the wisdom of entering this challenge; wind-driven ice cements to my hair and face, and bounces off my fingers, bare and hot from exertion. What was I thinking?
Reaching the peak, I pass a number of racers who stop to switch their fancy gear to downhill mode. One-two-three of them. I wonder: do they admire my strategy of using the same gear for the entire race? Nah.
I yank on my coat and gloves, pull up my face guard, and lumber onto the mountain’s shoulder. My left ear loses feeling to the flesh-freezing wind, no doubt casting me even more as the Bride of Yeti. Then I reach a point where the race route narrows to a two-foot wide shelf, little more than the ridge of a snowdrift. As if on cue, I stumble onto the precipice. A normal audience would gasp as my center of gravity plunges over and back from the edge, but the ski patrol sentry quips, “Nice catch.” That’s high praise up here.
Finally, I stand alone at the top of the designated downhill route, a narrow chute. It’s name: Muleskinner. I try not to take the name literally or conjure images of how it might apply to me. But, if this route were a highway, the sign would flash orange neon letters “Go back, 50-60% grade.”
Given the promised first-place prizes of season ski passes for the winning man and woman, the racers ahead of me are pushing hard; I just want to survive. Avoiding last place would be a bonus. Descent on snowshoes: my strategy faces a crisis. Facing this downhill reminds me of facing a blank page, or worse yet, a manuscript with extensive need of editing. I don’t want to do it. What am I afraid of? Falling? Getting lost in a snowbank? Those rank as givens today. I decide I’m most afraid of not finishing. I abandon all pretense of sanity and step over the edge, on purpose this time.
To my shock, the deep, fresh powder has been scoured away by wind, leaving porcelain-smooth white ice disguised as snow. My snowshoes respond by rocketing downhill, spinning me sideways. There is nothing to grab, nothing to stop me. Channeling my five year-old self, I sit down hard and push my snowshoes out in front of me. With buttocks serving as my snow-tubing device, I shoot straight down Muleskinner, stopping in an explosion of deep powder. Able to stand again, I run downhill until hitting another porcelain plate of ice. Repeat the sit and slide until powder impact. Stand and run. Midway down Muleskinner, a couple of the guys that I had passed on the peak, pass me–one of them with graceful swooshes, the other guy resembling a human snowball.
Why am I doing this? It wasn’t until after I crossed the finishing line (looking indeed like the Bride of Yeti), after I had driven back to Portland and reached home by ferry, that I read Mary Oliver. Only then did I find words for what I was doing on Saddleback Mountain–I was taking care of the “wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem [and, I would add, no writing] can exist.” Oliver describes this inner muse as a “mysterious, unmapped zone” that “comes before everything, even technique.” She warns that “It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.”
This is what I fear more than Muleskinner. That silence within.
In “Wild Geese” Oliver writes, “You do not have to walk on your knees, For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Seriously? Does this mean I didn’t have to grind up and down that flesh-hungry mountain on snowshoes to find my “mysterious, unmapped zone”? Mary Oliver would probably say that I could discover beauty in the everyday world around me. But, no, on this day, I needed the mountain to shatter a deep silence, to shake the silence apart the way the wind knocks rime ice from evergreen needles and casts the shards into the howling spit of the storm.
Thank you to Eleanor Morse and my fellow writers in the Sudden Fiction group for sharing Mary Oliver with me at the moment I most needed it and to the staff of Saddleback Mountain for running a first-class ski area with the biggest heart I know.
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