Life in winter is like a protein shake—the least amount of good flavor you can tolerate blended with the most amount of protein in the least amount of time. In other words, the most efficient, tolerable amount of work is balanced with maximum time on snow. Everything’s on a schedule. The ingredients are: planning trips and training sessions, developing pitches, time to write, time to edit, time to respond to emails, miscellaneous part-time jobs, more gym time for recovery, laundry, cooking, groceries, competitions, deadlines.
February 5: Copper Mountain, Colorado. Sometime after entering the air I think, Oh shit, there goes the landing. On impact, the second vertebrae in my lumbar region compresses to about half its original size against the concrete, early morning snow and fractures into a wedge shape. The Psoas major is like a suspension cable on a bridge. Oblique to femur, lifting your legs, pooping and a variety of other life functions are enabled because of this muscle, which is now partially torn. Cue the headboard with collar and the Lord’s Prayer on loop. It is both a good day and a bad day when ski patrol says, “You are lucky. You could have been paralyzed with that fall.”
We are now functioning at 50% capacity. A Medieval-era brace holds in the poor L2. Like the headgear one of my friends wore to bed in middle school. Netflix, physical therapy, ice, hot tub, repeat. There’s the new schedule.
Within two months, convinced I can still have the competition season I thought I was entitled to—traveling and (hopefully) standing on top of podiums—I ignore what Progress shows me. I believe this is called denial. I drop into steeper terrain lap after lap at Snowbird. A week out from competition, a knot on the left side of my back, above the fracture, hurts after an hour of doing anything. Stretching is a torturous chore. My lower back muscles feel so tight they could snap when I reach for my toes.
Another great word for acceptance is surrender.
A Trip for the Soul
Your siblings know when you need help. Maybe it’s in your shared DNA.
The inbox email’s subject read GET READY FOR THE BEST SIX DAYS OF YOUR LIFE.
In the body were details of my younger sister’s flight from Newark to Salt Lake, with a layover at Chicago O’Hare, and back. My sister, Meghan, is ten years younger than me, putting her in college around the time I am approaching 30.
A Great American Roadtrip with your sister is the kind of healing you wouldn’t consider. A sister knows your quirks, that you don’t like mayonnaise on your turkey sandwiches, for example. She also knows how to calm you down when you’re on edge, like when a group of British tourists insist on playing cricket till 11pm under a propane-fired torch at your otherwise quiet, perfectly dark and starry campsite. She can call you out on your general inability to plan and, without saying anything, shoot you a look to indicate you are being too uptight about how messy the car is.
The Grand Canyon. Still on the bucket list. Despite years of desert adventures. This will be perfect, the sort of life-changing event we both could use. Visions of driving barefoot in my bathing suit through Southern Utah canyon country compel me to look for cool places along the way. We can stop at Bryce, Zion, Lake Powell. This is going to be great!
The reality of a roadtrip is always different from the plan—this time, quite different. A week before my sister’s arrival, mercury rose to triple-digit temps in Arizona. Suddenly the 10-hour drive seems too long for the not-so-healed L2 (credit khaliffe). A 1970s picture of the Tetons hangs from my dad’s office, a man still in love with fly-fishing the Madison River in Montana. Suddenly heading north sounds like a great idea.
What ensued should read like a Beat-era list poem with a long title: A Trip to Yellowstone, charted via annotated itinerary of texts, hashtagged iPhone panoramic photos and Instagram selfies, describing destinations on the journey to and from the destination to a soundtrack by Justin Timberlake, Lana del Rey, Katy Perry, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
My revised, tentative plan read like this:
Day 1: Salt Lake City to Antelope Island and Crystal Hot Springs. Stay in Logan.
Day 2: Haul goods up to Powder Ridge Yurt in exchange for a free night’s stay. (There is the potential for either Day 1 or 2 to be skipped, depending on weather).
Day 3: Head to Bear Lake and, hopefully, secure a campsite and get in sailing or other watersport.
Day 4: Drive up to Jackson Hole and explore Grand Teton National Park.
Day 5: Get up to Yellowstone and camp.
Day 6: Head back down to Salt Lake from Yellowstone via Targhee National Forest, Idaho Falls and Pocatello.
Inching north, one short drive a day, we’ll avoid the heat.
The single most dramatic moment of any trip must occur at the airport. Whether it’s the pick-up or drop-off, it depends on what happens during the rest of the trip, but all the emotions are right there. Meg describes the various embraces she witnessed over the course of her day of travel. She is a great appreciator of humanity. I remember seeing a documentary on a war photographer who said during highly emotional situations, people are less likely to care about others noticing their joy or sorrow. The same rings true at Salt Lake City International Airport: idling cars, 5mph speed zone, pedestrian crossings, speed bumps, people crying or hugging or both.
After an obligatory dinner with our aunt and uncle from Sandy, in which we discuss college plans and life plans, we pack the car. We look over the plan and think it may be better to jet up to Bear Lake or Jackson immediately in order to maximize exploration of the Tetons.
Stocked with synthetic base layers and wool socks, our checklist begins.
Get new side view mirror at Pep Boys from sales rep with soul patch. Grocery shop. Buy 12 tent stakes for Springbar giant elephant tent at Kirkham’s. Take the Interstate north at 80mph to Jay-Z, exit in Brigham City so that we can borderline-stalk our cousin at work at the Wal-Mart pharmacy where she is too busy to talk. Snake up through the recently green spring of Logan Canyon to the first view of sapphire Bear Lake. This is a good time to change from sundresses to pants and real shoes.
It’s about 50 degrees in Garden City but still warm enough to eat raspberry shakes for lunch in a covered wagon. Walking the pebbly shoreline path to the swampy beach’s turquoise waters, we pow-wow about continuing on to Jackson. The Justin Timberlake Pandora station kicks out somewhere in the rolling, shrub-dotted green foothills of Bridger-Teton National Forest. Tragedy! The AM world of Christian rock and talk radio takes over in Idaho. The towns in Idaho are population 91, 113, 150, 1,100.
We stop in Alpine so I can drink a pot of coffee for the final push to Jackson.
The moment I saw the Tetons, I scream so loud my sister thinks I am yelling to warn her about a moose. We secure one of the last campsites at Jenny Lake. The firepit is still full of snow. Intermittently post-holing, we night hike along the lake under the cloudy sunset.
Sorority girls from Minnesota take a photo of us jumping in front of Jackson Lake abuts Grand Teton and Mt. Moran. In and out of the rain, we hike partway to Hermitage Point, then turned around to hike shoreline of Colter Bay. Meg lies on the rocky shore and says she doesn’t want to leave, or blink. It is hard to stop looking at the Tetons. Mesmerized, absorbed, intoxicating, they have not left me even when my eyelids are shut.
No kindling for fire. Flames get going reluctantly with a few editions of the Jackson Hole News & Guide and a lot of fanning. Thunder cracks in the middle of the night. We wear every layer we have to bed.
Yellowstone National Park has knee-high snow. A Winnebago transports a family from Nebraska ahead of us on the way to Old Faithful. We arrive running just in time to see it go off, before it’s done, Meghan is walking away. Selfies abound. Japanese tourists. Big cowboy hats. Toddlers running around in sandals. Old Faithful is perhaps more interesting because of the people-watching than the plume of water and smoke that goes off.
Geothermal pools have a strange psychedelic, almost radioactive collection of colors: rusty oranges, Caribbean aquamarine, emerald. Some are shallow. Their taupe mud is streaked with jet-black fingers, scraped by water moving downstream. As fast their steam billows skyward, the northbound Wyoming wind takes it away.
The Madison River swings its hips through the grasslands. Bison must have to graze almost constantly to feed such a giant body with only salad. Road-weary from the Jackson to Montana distance, we follow signs at sunset to West Yellowstone and splurge on a cabin for one night.
Meg sleeps in; I call in advance to reserve a campsite at Madison Junction. Putzing around in the morning is one of our family’s favorite past times and, frankly, I revel the opportunity. What’s the rush when you can have another cup of coffee and browse the web for nerdy geologically information about what you’re going to see today?
We begin the long slog through roadwork to Mammoth Springs, more of a village than an honest tourist attraction. Terraced pools fill chalky white pockets. Steamy water overflows each tiny pool, trickling down from terrace to terrace until there’s just moist rock. School buses of middle school science students are unloaded. Awkwardly tall and skinny teenagers with braces are everywhere.
A quick stop at the visitor’s center reveals the perkiest park ranger in history. Her high-pitched excitement recommends, “Norris Geyser Basin is a great break-up stop on the way to Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which is not to be missed.”
At the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, a Japanese tourist climbs over the fence to photograph it. The free fall of the frothing white water is so terrifying that I battle a daymare in which he tumbles 600 feet.
Twenty bison are calmly unaware of the cars piling up behind them. A Texan in the tank-like white Suburban behind us walks up to look and walks back saying, “Somebody better honk and get them to move or else there’s going to be twenty dead bison!” His wife sits, looking embarrassed and silent in the passenger seat. It takes almost an hour to reach Madison Junction.
“Look at us, we have our shit together finally,” Meg says as we quietly, on hunger-driven autopilot set up the Coleman stove, prep food and start the fire with recently acquired kindling. Meg experiments with a variety of s’mores styles—peanut butter, hazelnut butter, jelly.
Too tired, to set up the tent, we sleep under the stars.
I awake briefly at dawn to see orange glow of rock face across the Madison.
Winding through southwestern Montana, we turn south into Idaho. Rivers and streams braid the brunette potato fields and rolling hills on the way to Driggs. The bent, jagged Tetons loom. We drive barefoot, windows down, singing—sometimes I don’t know the words but still sing.
Before crossing over back into Utah, we agree Idaho is the most beautiful place we’ve been: pastoral, quiet and without any other tourists. And strangely, the Katy Perry music has grown on me.