My mountaintop Christmas
Published: November 18, 2010
“Are you OK?” mumbled the flat-headed kid in need of a shave and permission not to care. It wasn’t a question any more than it was sincere, his seasonal skis lashing my panicked 10-year-old cheeks with faux concern before pointing his ski tips south toward the nearest vacationing bunny. And no, I was not OK.
My family planted me at a ski resort in Alberta, Canada, for the Christmas to end all Christmases in a town called Banff, a mountainous mart of middle-class pheromones and magic that sounds like comic-book onomatopoeia (Pow! Bang! Banff!). I assured my little sister that yes, Santa visits Canada too, only here he uses the front door – these people actually burn tinder in their fireplaces, after all, and they’re a trusting lot. Amid the wide-eyed wonder, I felt like a man. I’d long since come to terms with the big Santa secret, and had been invited into the clubhouse of grownups that keep its charge. I was reading The Langoliers, an actual novel that didn’t necessitate a grade-level number on its cover, and on the flight over, my uncle Bill, a farmer with a seen-it-all bemusement that I had been trying on for size all year, gave me my first sip of beer. “Things are changing,” I thought. “Take me to the mountain.”
With all of 15 minutes of intensive training – “Make a pie with your skis,” commanded our commissioned head cheerleader. “Sit on your butt!” – and virtually an entire day outside of Florida under my belt, I hit the ski lift with my dad and uncle Bill, destined for an elevation just higher than the beginner’s bunny slope reserved for preteens and smug out-of-towners ready for a “challenge.” As we approached the off-ramp, I realized I had no earthly idea how to make the Errol Flynn-like leap from the swinging lift seat to the rickety half-pipe below, a seeming freefall suicide mission sure to end with my face in the ice and my dignity in the air. My guardians made the jump, grinning with Reaganomic success and hot cocoa in their mustaches. I stayed put.
As I watched several more off ramps pass me by on my way to the top of a snowy, billion-year-old coffin, I wondered with unexpected serenity where this ride would end. My mind indeed registered the straight drops a mile down on either side of me, but I assumed as long as my boots remained on crunchy land, I could always inch my way back down, clutching onto gravity and making a pie and sitting on my butt. It would have to be soon: The lift’s pulley system was coming to an end and I imagined the tangle of limbs and Jansport and Superman Underoos that the mechanical Mordor ahead of me might leave behind if I didn’t use the last ramp.
So I jumped, I slid, I face-planted. But I was alive, thank god, and only several thousand narrow, tragedy-surrounded feet from safety. In my self-imposed solitude of cowardice (one so removed that I couldn’t hear my dad and my uncle inching their way up, yelling for me to stay where I was and flagging down help), I thought, “The most direct way from Point A to real manhood is straight down.” (Sonny Bono was still a decade away from having the same realization.)
“Are you OK?” The cursory acknowledgement broke my daze. “Yeah,” I shrugged, but he was already gone. The only people who cared about me were farther south, much farther, it seemed. If there was no Santa, no lock on the liquor cabinet and no restricted reading anymore, then I was on my own.
I pushed off, tucked in and gave my family a collective heart attack that morphed into an anecdote that’s accompanied every Christmas dinner in the 22 years since.
Today, it’s my son who wants to go skiing, my son who still believes in Santa Claus and asks for books with numbers on them and tries to sneak sips of my coffee. I tell him we’re still saving up.
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