Going Downhill

Eager to commit metaphor, heartbreak, and other angelic mistakes
And ambitious for far more than grades, I decided to ditch school and go skiing,
So therefore briefly leapt into a number of dead-end jobs to fund my questions.
Julie couldn’t believe I cared so much about mountains,
So when he came to visit she threw herself on and off Cliff, my roommate
Although there were probably a lot of other reasons for it as well,
Including the fact that he was irresistibly charming
And I certainly had my flaws. But at any rate I decided
In the foolish, stubborn, unforgiving way of young people everywhere
That that was the end of that, although I thought it was funny
When Cliff explained what had happened by describing life as an eternally unfolding flower.
And yet how could I not now still love them both in that passion-tangled memory
Where in faith only love can sustain any arc of worthy meanings.
For who could ever give up such roots of the sea, such secret wounds.
Let it be a liability, let it be a blessing, let evening fall, let the gardens and jungles of the warm earth sigh.
I spent the summer living in Cambridge reshelving books
Deep in the mind of Widener, the trucks rumbling with knowledge,
Hiding in the stacks to read whatever struck my fancy for hours
And engaging in adventures to be documented elsewhere
With tremendous formal discipline and sprezzatura,
To include erotic alliances, drug overdoses, heat waves, long runs by the river,
Purple discussions about God and jazz, deep desire, and the beauty of C.,
Scholar, archer, unattainable Petrarchan moon, who taught both English and scotch.
Although one liaison that is relevant – working as a secretary and ghost editor
For an old woman who claimed she had been on the first attempt on Nanga Parbat,
The Naked Mountain of Pakistan, eighth highest in the world and deadly,
But was now beginning to lose it and living alone in a hotel apartment
Trying to write a novel based on her experiences, old, old,
Smelling and looking old, the pages confused on the floor
Forgetting what she had asked me to do from one week to the next.
Something told me that she had been strong and beautiful once –
Climbing in wool, leather, nylon, laughing and dangling from precipices,
And I could not imagine then what I know now – how every fair sometime declines
From the stunning vitality of youth and the beauty of dangerous places.
Then a few months back home managing a Cumberland Farms convenience store,
Stalking the cooler, filling out daily receipts, ordering milk, processing food stamps,
Before scraping my money together and jumping to Aspen
To tutor young, hopeful, racer charges at the Aspen Ski Academy
In return for room, board, lift tickets, training privileges and a map of the world.
Impossible to describe the joy upon that high arrival, flying in,
Enormous spine of the Rockies rising up to the small plane from Stapleton.
And then the high air, heart palpitations for weeks at night,
To admire that beauty while alive and also then and there feel so deeply part of it,
Even when coughing up pieces of lung, and to be strong and ready to work like a prime number
In the algorithm of my own unfolding life. If only there could be more,
More of everything, the way there was that year, forever.
More love, more happiness, more mountains, more snow, more days,
More friends, more music, more learning, more races, more poetry, more delight,
More gods, more girls. I need no well-wrought urn to know it,
It reaches out to touch me, in this tranquility it washes over me
And over this quiet evening like an ontological proof of something divine,
To wake every morning, the great mountains returned from their night,
And practice Tai Chi with Click, Mausner, Bill, Chris, Sally, Al,
Then to teach all morning, all of us digging in on chores at lunch,
Then up to the hill, Golden Horn at Highlands, skis glued to the snow
As we rode laps on the poma and tightened every line like screws,
Then off to races, like the time we piled into the van in a storm,
Humped over McClure in fuzzy blackness then had to navigate
The North Rim of the Black as if hunting for quasars in an endless night,
Human laundry lost in an enormous spin cycle, until we finally arrived in Gunnison,
Picked up the college radio station and limped into Crested Butte
With almost no idea of where we were, nerves scraped and rattled and rolled
At infinite backwash midnight, the snow banks as high as the streetlamps,
The race canceled the next day because the gates had almost forgotten themselves
In the fresh and so we all went howling and laughing off of cliffs into cold feather beds,
Then adjourned to Sunshine’s coed naked bathhouse like young, hopeful roosters
While outside the mercury headed for the interstellar basement.
And one day, after Rossignol had failed to come through with my new, first 220 downhills,
Forrest, for whom I worked with Vern and the boys tuning boards and fitting rental boots at Bell Mt. Sports
Got his old Austrian friend Willy, the Colorado Kneissl rep, to bring me a pair
Of the longest, sweetest White Stars you ever saw, just in time for the Sunlight downhill,
Presented to me like Excalibur over gemutlichheit in the tune room because Forrest and Willy loved racing,
Still hanging in my garage like a trophy rack lo these decades later,
And Willy had chosen well and those skis were like rockets.
I would put them on the snow and they would whisper like silk, wouldn’t even really turn
Until you hit about 35, and then it was as if a tiger had suddenly jumped under your feet
Crouched, and pounced and in mid-air you became the tiger,
Thinking only forward and down, steel claws sprouting, feeling the world unfold again and again
In a kind of slow splendor in which, surprisingly, nothing happened quickly,
Assuming you stayed upright, a good idea because as Klammer der Kaiser once pointed out,
When asked about falling, “Good downhillers don’t fall.”
And when the annual Town Downhill came around and was set on the course where we trained,
Racer’s Edge at Tiehack, 1700 vertical and a mile long in less than a minute,
Dude, I have to tell you in the only language I can that I was way, way stoked,
Like a sizzling woodstove in a cabin at tree line stuffed with logs until it has started to glow.
Willy’s skis were quick, quick quicksilver, brushed, prepped and waxed to train rails on fire,
They spoke in a whisper that would rise to a quiet roar at about 50.
Twelve turns, that’s all, nice rhythm back and forth, a great launcher at the first drop
Where you had to remember that the trick isn’t the speed, it’s the acceleration,
Line it up, hands forward, turn when you see the top of the big pine and go,
Then down, down the winding stair on purpose and free as a wave,
Like a primeval element, like a pure fact of mountain, thinking like it, transforming laws into play,
Until somewhere around 70 things would become quiet, calm, almost slow,
Nothing visible or mattering except the track, the line, where possibilities glittered
With the incorruptible structure of diamonds and the smallest articulations
Could move the earth like an enormous lever, or like what a hawk sees turning in his meditation
Of the distant boiling sun, almost outrun at last, everything passing by so quickly
That it has been forced to slow into silence and stillness, the world a statue,
Your body the fastest thing of any kind for miles around, your mind opened like a windsock
Or a naked eyeball, universal currents whispering along your edges
About a freedom, a liberation, an unleashing of every quantum wave’s options,
A moment that lasts forever in its purity, its utter touch and song,
Like a sequence of chords that opens a window somewhere, a woman singing…
Until suddenly time falls out of itself, bounces like an apple dropped on a hard wood floor,
You pull up and throw your skis sideways in a long sweet hockey skid and as the danger peels away
The world returns, comes back into the dull roar of becoming, as if you have stepped back down
Out of truth into a cave which is the same world but somehow more confusing
And your coach and friends come up to you and say “Nice run! You’re in 10th,”
And everyone else is standing around smiling and blissful as if they’ve just made love to the moon.
And then for the rest of the day it feels as if every hair on your body is singing, electric,
Every pore is aching to return to that province of transformation,
Every dark bud on your tongue claims to have tasted immortality,
No doubt the way they feel after a big day riding giants at Sunset, Pipeline, Jaws, Waimea Bay or Mavericks,
No doubt the way they feel after repairing bolts on the space station, or free soloing El Cap,
Or kayaking Lava at high water in the Grand or, as we all know it can be, making a new friend
Or falling in love or teaching a child how to add fractions,
When even in your dreams you are flying, flying, changed, alive, utterly in love with the world,
Utterly compelled in the grip of its necessary gravity yet utterly willing,
Every obscure forest in which you find yourself now merely a means to glide downward on extended wings into the wildest grace.

-- Reprinted from Mountain Gazette