The incessant ring of a cell phone alarm breaks the silence of night like a ball to the windowpane. Alone, a skier rolls in his bed until his mental state is aroused enough to slowly slide his hand over and stop the noise. He wraps his hands around his head, half out of the sheets, and rolls slowly until he can fall off the bed. The only light penetrating through the blinds is the soft glow of a streetlamp broken by tree branches and a gently falling snow. Without light he cannot fully awake so he flicks the light on, shuts his eyes in pain and slowly finds his pants. The sharp sounds from snapping buckles and zippers on his clothing send a light tinge to the surface of his nerves as they break the silence of the room. He grabs his skis, grabs his coffee from the pot, puts on his pack and awkwardly rolls himself out the door and into the dark morning. There is not a soul moving in the homes around him, not a car on the street, there is only his thoughts and the gentle scuff of ski edges on pack material.
He slowly turns the ignition of his car; it hesitates under the seizure of frigid northeast temperatures, but eventually starts. He sits still, sips his coffee, turns the headlights on and rolls slowly away from the driveway. All movement still sends small signals to the tips of his nerves as his body attempts to full awake in the early morning cold. He points the car to the trailhead and lives in his thoughts as music gently plays through the cars speakers; a background soundtrack to early morning ponderings of his life. A subtle joy settles over him as he lives in his mind with no other souls to interrupt the complex workings of his emotions.
He drives slowly while working to find the yellow line buried under a fresh layer of unplowed snow. He lifts his coffee and slowly takes another sip. While momentarily blinded by the rims of his mug he spots a figure on the side of the road. He drops the mug rapidly and tries to catch a glance of what it was, but it he can’t find it. The situation broke all thought. He shakes his head to shake off the situation and carries on in his own headspace. Emotional toll builds up in his psyche as he rolls into the trailhead and begins to set up his skis. He feels trapped in his own mind, skiing his only release.
There is the tearing sound of skins being pulled apart, breaking silence outside of the forest. He lays them on his skis, clicks in the toe of the boot and grabs his headlamp. He puts it on his head and clicks it on, turning his head to scan the area. As the light floods the early morning sky he can hear his father telling him there is nothing there. He remembers distinctly the night his father pulled him out of the house and forced him to walk into the forest with a flashlight, in an attempt to kill his fear of the dark. He breathes, watches condensation chop the light of the headlamp, reassures himself and slowly begins to drag his skis through the snow on his way into the trees. Thoughts of more recent life events resurface in his mind, he feeds on them, uses them to push further. All the while lifting his head gently to scan the forests.
The weight of the skis and the drag of the skins slowly drains the energy in his legs. With every footstep and deepening of his breath his emotions are pushed from the top of his brain slowly down his arms and legs. They then escape out is fingertips and his feet and shoot out his poles and skis like lightning bolts into the powder snow. He keeps his nose down and continues to push. Feeding on physical exhaustion and the cold sting of January air.
As he skies he continues to lift his head occasionally. There is a nagging feeling of someone following him. The old childhood fear creeping back to him like it does every so often. He tries to put it behind him and savor the ski. The feeling persists, a slight tap on the back of the skull that forever keeps him checking all directions. There are the emotions, the fear and the ski track; all driving him forward.
The nagging sense of encroachment causes him to scan his surroundings once more. He sees a figure float behind him. It causes him to stop still. He breathes, replaying his dads voice in his head, “there’s nothing there. See!” Twenty-five years old, he still needs this motivation. He turns and sees the figure sitting against a tree.
He stares at it. It is a man, a haggard old man in old snow pants and a ragged down jacket. Duct tape holds together the jacket at the seams, years of exposure holds the skin together on his face. The man sits as a vague apparition in front of the skiers face. As he stares he sees words run out of the mans mouth like the condensation that runs from your breath in the winter cold. He reads the words, they say, “Don’t run.”
He shakes his head like he did in the car and the man disappears. The only explanation he can think of is early morning dehydration. He drinks his water and slows his pace. He carries on with the same nagging in the back of his skull.
Out of the corner of his eye he keeps seeing the apparition float gently behind him as he skis. He keeps shaking his head; the situation does not seem real. He sees more words float out of the mans mouth, “You can’t escape these problems.”
He shakes his head again.
The further he skis the more real the man seems. He skates softly around in the snow behind the skier and breathes more warnings out of his mouth.
“This is not an escape”
“The issues always return”
“The further you run the more they grow”
He keeps skinning up the mountainside as his mind tries to wrap itself around the situation. Emotions and fear ball themselves up and explode out of him in ways that emulate a grenade inside of his mind. The more he works himself up the harder he pushes himself. The masochist inside of him grows; it is the only thing pushing his mind out of his body. The whole battle makes him numb. He pushes on further.
As he nears the top of his run the man is following on his shoulder. It no longer seems an apparition to him, the whole situation has consumed him. He no longer sees words come out of the mans mouth but what he has already said hangs in a swirl around both of their skulls as they hike. It is constantly there but constantly being pushed away at the same time. They fight back in forth for control of the skiers mind and neither can fully take over.
They reach the top.
Once the skier stops at his destination he begins to breathe deep and drink his water. He stands still and takes in his surroundings, dead to all thought. The man stands as a full figure in front of him. They stare at each other and no words are said. The skier removes his skins from his skis slowly and folds them together. There is a tension between the two but neither makes any direct movements. The old man stares with crust in-between his eyes and gray hair sprouting in stubbles from the tough leather of his cheeks. He seems to have nothing left inside of him but the regret of his early decisions in life.
The skier removes his pack and tucks his skins inside all without removing his gaze. He removes his jacket from his pack and slides his arms inside, zips up the coat and puts his pack back on. They continue their gaze and the skier breaks the silence, “what do you want?”
The man replies, this time audibly, “you think this skiing you do is the only thing that will save you from yourself. Every problem you hate to face, you ignore it out here. The problem never goes away though. You cannot skin up a mountain fast enough to escape what you have created. Why must you keep living this falsity?”
The skier stares at the man and clicks his heels into his bindings. He stops and stares at him for a little while longer. He breaks the silence again, “Maybe that’s true.”
He pushes with his poles, and skis through the old man, off into the thoughtless abyss of fresh tracks, carved out underneath a Tuesday morning sunrise.