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Chasing - Big Sky, Montana

12 March 2021


Dreams during pregnancy are so vivid.

There was one, when I was pregnant with Keira, that, to this day, hasn’t faded. It was the dream that told me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, my daughter’s name would be Keira.

It was a crowded space – maybe indoor, maybe outdoor. Tables full of people. So many people.

Faces blur – they were unimportant. Explanations, likewise, irrelevant. Perhaps there was food. Mostly, there was chaos, movement, bodies in flux – and an unsettling sensation of social anxiety (my reality in most crowds). My hands rested on the table in front of me; the stool beneath me, attached to the table by a hefty metal post that made the table one large foldable contraption, was a cool, hard plastic. Uncomfortable.

Although people milled all about me, I recognized that I was alone – and that I should not have been alone. Apprehension spiked within me. Someone was missing – where was she? Suddenly, that anxiety turned the corner toward panic. Where was she?

“Keira?” my eyes darted about the table, then beyond, to tables nearby, searching for the most important thing: “Keira!” My head whipped side to side like a beacon in the night – like Sauron’s eye – focusing on this table, that one, here, over there: Where was she?

Then, with near infuriating calm, five-year-old Keira stepped out from behind a stranger just next to me, within arm’s reach. She was so close that I should never have missed her. Laying my eyes upon her was a balm: she stood waist-high with chin-length blonde hair cut in a feminine bob, a fleecy teal hoodie, patterned leggings, and pink flashing sneakers.

Her bright blue eyes met my green: “I’m right here, Mommy!” Her face was clear, calm, and joy-filled; open and ready for knowledge and life.

It still bamboozles me that this dream infiltrated my mind before Keira’s birth. The representation of Keira’s physicality and character in this dream are accurate to the most minute detail, as you shall see…

We started out so early yesterday morning that the sun had not yet obliterated all hoarfrost from the pine trees’ upper boughs. As the Swift Current chairlift carried us past one craggy tree, we watched the frost, in the sun and gentle wind, lift weightlessly off of pine needles. It sparkled as it floated, like Tinkerbell’s pixie dust, off into an azure sky.

The breeze was cool but not frigid. The chairlift was slow but not tedious. As we clacked and clambered up the mountainside, 14-year-old Keira and I bandied back and forth about plans for our first run of the day.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten how to ski. It’s been over a year,” she said.

“There’s no way, kid. It’s like riding a bike. Don’t worry – it’ll come back really fast.”

“Ok, but I don’t want to start on a difficult slope. Just in case. No blue. No black,” she insisted.

“Of course! Let’s pick an easy green and take our time. We have all day…”

As anticipated, we exited the lift and Keira quickly found her legs on the shuttle-trail, Jay Walk, between the lift drop-off and the easy Mr K green run.

At the top of Mr K, in the base of the bowl just below Lone Mountain Peak, we stopped for photos.

Come on, mom! Let’s go,” Keira moaned, impatiently.

“Ok. Ok. Let me put my phone away, and we can go.”

At the upper edge of Mr K, a crowd of people waited, gazing down the mountain. It was the usual top-of-the-run congestion; Keira and I weaved through them without effort, and then, without hesitation, Keira launched herself down the slope – and I followed.

Greens are effortless. Greens, for me, no longer require poles.

Halfway down the slope, Keira slid to a stop – paused – and looked at me: “You were right, mom, I didn’t forget!”

“I know, baby,” I smiled at her under my sugar skull mask…proud.

She took back off down the long green, and I followed, shifting both poles to my left hand, pulling off my right glove, and digging in my pocket for my phone. I slid my finger up to access the camera, adjusted it to take video, and then began recording Keira’s first descent: her turns were wide but sure. She had exceptional control on this green run.

Big Sky is enormous, and over the course of the day, Keira and I rarely skied the same run twice. As Brian was trapped at home during final exams and Grant spent the entire day in a Level 5 snowboarding class, this day was for the ladies – and we made the most of it!

Ambush looked scary, so we avoided the Ramcharger 8 for our first few runs. Instead, once Keira was ready to advance to more challenging slopes, we took Swift Current up again, crossed over Jay Walk down to Powder Seeker 6, which took us up to the top of the mountain’s bowl, where a girl on the lift had told us that we could snag our first blue and ride it back down to Mr K, then to Mountain Village.

We followed the signs for the blue run but quickly got lost in the various trails. The run was pulling us further and further north, away from Mountain Village. As we passed a pile of signs indicating different slopes, the bottom board displayed a fork and knife image, Mountain Village, and an arrow back toward the south; I indicated to Keira, and we followed that path back south.

Unfortunately, this route back toward Mountain Village was a path, not a ski run. It did not slope down the mountain with sufficient grade; instead, it led to chalets, cottages, ski-in-ski-out vacation rental properties and the like. We were poling and skating, hauling ourselves, hot – winded – and tired, along the path, getting nowhere fast.

To the left of our path, just below, was another path with a steeper decline. This one more resembled a ski trail; it was tempting in its comparable ease.

Keira stopped dead: “Mom, we should go that way! I hate this!”

“Ok,” I said, contemplating, “…but…”

Keira took off down the steep strip connecting the two paths, her skis easily following within the two long, straight lines of a set of skis that had traversed it before her.

“Wait!” I yelled, “Keira! I wasn’t ready. I think that’s going to take us further away from Mountain Village.”

She hauled to a stop. “You said ‘OK’! So I went,” she protested, waving a pole at me..

My brain lurched. I looked at Keira on the path below me: it would be impossible for her to re-mount the steep grade between us without removing her skis. I looked at the path ahead of me: a sign just 15 feet beyond the tips of my skis told me that this was the path to Mountain Village – grueling and unpleasant as the path might be.

“Agh! Keira,” I relented; there was no other option. At least it would be our shared adventure, lost or found! I nosed my skis into the same divots Keira used to connect the two paths, and yelped: “I don’t know how to do this through powder – I’mma die!”

My skis did not falter or catch in the powder. There was no tragedy. Within seconds, Keira and I were gliding down this more prominent, more steeply graded path – wherever it might take us.

Minutes later, the path took us across a bridge. As we crossed, I inspected it quizzically: what ran beneath it was not a road – at least, not one for cars. “How cool is this, Keira! It’s a ski bridge over another ski path!” What a different world and space and existence this was from anything we’d ever experienced in our time on this earth!

We continued on until our path intersected with a road, at which point we both stopped and looked at each other. The road was mucky with dirt and gravel, but the expanse of snowless road that actually intersected our route was only about two feet wide. Noting that there were other ski tracks entering and exiting that brief expanse of bare road, I decided to gun it and see if I could get across.

I could not.

Halfway across, my left ski snagged on a piece of gravel and stopped short, throwing me off my feet and left, into brown slush.

Beside me, as I moaned, Keira glided past gracefully, then stopped: “You OK, mom?” She was smirking, giggling. The little snot!

“How did you make it across without falling?!” I howled at her petulantly from the ground.

“I didn’t go so fast!” she laughed.

I looked at her, deadpan, and said, “Of course,” then hauled myself up off my butt with much effort, laughing.

At the bottom of that path, beyond a dozen ski-in cottages with firewood piled chin-high on their porches, we located a lift: White Otter. It was our only option, but there was absolutely no line – no wait. We clambered on, and as we admired the glittery snow-topped cottages and noted that someone had shoveled the two feet of snow off the porch roofs (presumably to prevent their collapse under the weight), I hoped with a twinge of anxiety that the lift would carry us closer to Mountain Village – closer to our home base.

The lift did not bring us back to Mountain Village, but it did bring us further south, whence we could see Mountain Village. We went downhill toward the Explorer lift and then were secure of our location and our way home.

But none of this is the moment that inspired this piece.

Later in the day, warmed up and ready to rage, Keira found her flow – and then she was – gone.

It was Calamity Jane where it first happened: Keira disappeared.

At the top of Swift Current lift, we hitched and hauled ourselves 180* and to the right – an about-face to the top of a run called Calamity Jane. As we approached the top of the run, we slid our hands through our ski pole loops.

Keira was not one to hesitate at the top of a run, so as we approached it, I told her, “Ok. Just go. We’ll meet at the bottom.”

“Yep!” she replied briefly – then poled herself over the edge and was off.

My hip protested standing still, so I did not hesitate either. Just behind her, off her left shoulder, my skis tipped downhill – to my hip’s relief. The first 100 yards of Calamity Jane are quite steep; not Silver Knife steep, but moderate blue run steep. With my tips straight downhill, creating nearly no friction, my velocity skyrocketed.

Within 25 yards, my hip began to protest again: it needed more activity. My mind also protested: my speed was reaching the upper limits of my comfort and skill level. With a lift and a lean, my left ski dug in on the downhill side while my right ski lifted and reset to parallel with the left; a grinding roar – my left ski digging to create friction – accompanied a bodily pull to the right. A split-second later, with another lift/hop and lean, I switched skis: right dig, left lift to parallel, and turn left. Hop, right – grind. Hop, left – grind. Hop. Hop.

My hip sang with each turn to the right; pressing downward on the left ski activated angry muscles, and once engaged, they could no longer protest. My body, in these brief split-seconds, found peace and flow…relief.

Three quarters of the way down that first 100-yard steep decline, I let go, tips straight downhill, to gain momentum for a slower, more gradual portion of the run. I looked up to see that Keira had pulled ahead of me quite a bit; likely, she had not switched back as much as I had because she had no reason to – no whiny hip in need of activity. Perhaps I could catch her on the glide. My extra weight tended to carry me faster than her…

But before I could catch up, she had launched over another ridge into yet another steep section of the run – no hesitation. The girl had no fear! My eyes widened in surprise and a touch of concern: What if she didn’t look first and it’s steeper than she thought? Will she lose control?

This time, I paused behind her at the ledge of the drop-off to observe her.

Her turns were wide but secure. Her maroon-purple helmet blurred. Her grey goose-down jacket snagged the sunshine at certain angles and threw it back uphill toward me. Her arms, outstretched to provide balance, clasping wayward poles, seemed at once purposeless yet confident.

She was moving fast – too fast for the quality of her turns, I mused. Then my attention turned back to the more advanced descent before me, and I launched myself after her. With even greater velocity, fueled by a mother’s concern, I hurled myself down the run, employing a more rapid succession of turns: grind, hop, grind, hop, grind, hop, grind. My quads began to burn with the effort; my toes and shins rammed into the fronts of my boots, pressing forward – forward!

In this space, when leaning down into the mountain instead of up away from it, there is rhythm and flow. There is no resistance to the slope; there is only acceptance: acceptance of speed, acceptance of angle, acceptance of exertion, acceptance of risk and reward.

In this space exists the purest sensation devoid of reason: lean in, feel the mountain; lean in, feel your toes engage the tips of the skis; lean in, feel the downhill ski’s uphill edge grab fiercely – reliably; lean in, release the tension in your knees; lean in, acknowledge the burning muscles and push them to their limits; lean into the wind, letting it whip past your ears until there is only white noise; lean in, knees, hips, and shoulders moving together as one; lean in – and let go.

It is in these moments of least resistance to the mountain that I feel safest. Whether the visibility is bright and sunny – revealing each and every divot in my path, or whether the visibility is shallow and grey – revealing literally nothing of what lay before me – resistance itself is the danger; the danger is not in the mountain but in how we receive her.

Such, in truth, is life. The danger lies not in the changes life brings but in how we receive them.

Reaching the bottom of this section, I looked down-mountain again with concern: if Keira got too far ahead of me, would she remember to turn right onto Calamity Jane’s lower run?

She had now gotten so far ahead that her helmet no longer looked purply-maroon; it looked black. Her arms were a blur. She was in the center of the slope, on a level section, not turning; trying to maintain momentum. Would she remember to turn?

As I watched, I descended behind a small knoll that momentarily obstructed my view of her. Once I mounted the knoll, she was gone!

Did she go? Did she turn? Agh – what if she went the wrong way? Will I find her down at the lift? All of the mama anxiety from my faraway pregnancy dream descended upon me at the turnoff to Calamity Jane.

There was nothing to do but trust her. Have faith. I nosed my skis straight down the last of the slope and across the level area toward the Calamity Jane sign as quickly as I could. Just past the sign was the first drop-off, and as I crested it – without hesitation – I saw her far below, and relief washed over me: she made the turn.

The one comforting glimpse I had of Keira was brief: within a second, she was approaching the bottom of the slope, releasing out of her turns, pointing her skis downhill, and then crouching her body down over them to gain as much momentum as possible for the final long trek to the lift.

Flash – and then gone into the trees. But it was enough for me. She would be fine. I breathed easy and leaned in, extending my tips downhill with half of the slope to go, trusting the mountain. As the wind roared, I soared both physically and emotionally.

My clear, calm, joy-filled baby was ready to fly.

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