In my younger and more pliable years, I once spent five glorious days gamboling around a handful of ski resorts in Utah during a near-constant downpour of fine, fresh powder. I schussed Snowbird’s famed Peruvian Gulch; I bombed Alf’s High Rustler at neighboring Alta; I bought the farm trying to break some kind of personal land-speed record at Park City, then licked my wounds and took my time winding my way back down the mountain via the three-plus-mile Home Run, and at Deer Valley, I marveled at the then-novel concept of ski concierges carrying my kit for me—though frankly, I could have better used assistance trying to ski the bump runs. At Robert Redford’s impossibly gorgeous jewel box of a ski resort, Sundance, I began my days with the ritual intake of Tahoe speedballs, something I learned from some ski-bum friends in California—essentially, espresso shots and bong hits, consumed at dawn, before catching the first lift of the day to the top of the mountain—and ended my days, exhausted, with an enormous steak, a glass or two of Chateau Margaux, and an early bedtime.
Then I did everything again.
The trip ranks among the high-water marks of my adventurous life—though in looking back at the week now, the highlight of the week was, at the time, something of an afterthought. As a local ski-bum friend was driving me back to the airport to head back to New York and work and a long-term relationship that may have finally breathed its last breath during a late-night phone call while I was away, my friend casually pointed out something called the Utah Winter Sports Park (now called the Utah Olympic Park—it was built for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics) as we passed a sign for it on the highway.
“And how did you like the ski jumping?” she asked.
When, already preoccupied with thoughts of home, I mumbled something about not having time to fit that in, she pounced. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, genuinely bewildered, with a sneering kind of smile, as she instantly began turning the car around. I protested; she told me she’d book me on a later flight; and a few minutes later we found ourselves driving slowly along a frontage road, watching high school–age kids fly off the end of a 40-meter Nordic ski jump and soar into the air. “In an hour, that’s going to be you,” said my friend, before dropping me off and disappearing.
Reader, I panicked. While those who know me well would probably say I’m generally up for a challenge, provided it’s either weird enough, dangerous enough, or just dumb enough, this seemed to be something of an entirely different order. This seemed idiotic: After all, even Eddie the Eagle—the British ski jumper derided as a laughingstock for finishing last at the 1988 Olympics—jumped 60 times a day (that’s him, above). But before I could come up with a good excuse to get the hell out of there, a kindly older man whose name now escapes me (though he was the director of the entire operation) took me under his wing—yes, I know it’s like a winter fable, isn’t it?—and had me on skis and jumping . . . off a single snow-covered hay bale. Well, anybody can jump off a hay bale, yes? It’s child’s play.
And with that, we were off and running . . . er, jumping. Two hay bales? Not a problem. Three hay bales? Now we’re getting somewhere. The progression went slowly up, and up. Having landed everything with ease, I was feeling quite smug about it all until Kindly Older Man instructed me to grab the tow lift up to the “real” jump, the 40-meter monster. Propelled by little other than the fear and shame of exposing my cowardice, I grabbed hold of the tow and made my terrified way to the top.
Everything from this point on was essentially an out-of-body experience: I let go of the tow and shuffled my way over to join the lineup of teenagers sitting on a long bar at the top of the jump waiting their turn; with every jumper down the ramp, we shuffled one step closer to our own time in the barrel, as it were, and then when it was my turn—with every cell of my body screaming, Please no don’t do this why why why you don’t know what you’re doing what if you die you’ve had 30 minutes of practice you idiot, as I stared down the ramp at two very long single parallel tracks leading straight down the ramp and off into space, a veritable frozen road to nowhere—the kid next to me said, simply: “Whatever you do, don’t try to stop.”
I thought he was being kind to me—the next generation imparting some hard-won wisdom regarding first-time jitters, or form, or confidence, or something—and responded with an overly earnest and no doubt severely shaky, “Thanks—I appreciate that.” He responded: “No: I mean, if you try to stop, your skis will ruin the track for the rest of us.”
My cordial send-off now complete, but with the odd exchange taking me out of my existential terror for at least a brief moment, I exhaled deeply, summoned a kind of cosmic “fuck it,” and let go of the bar.
I had one job remaining: After gathering speed down the ramp, I was to push up and off the ramp at the last possible moment, just before essentially dropping off the end (I wanted to make believe that I was flying, not that I’d been thrown). This I did—perhaps not with anything approaching grace, but I did it.
Oops, two jobs remaining: There was the landing part. At this point, it wasn’t really something that could be taught, learned, finessed, or finagled: You land, or you crash. I landed. How? I don’t know; I just did. The elation that coursed through my veins, my soul, and my spirit had little to do with how well I’d performed the task at hand; it had to do with how I hadn’t broken a leg, a neck, a brain, or even a ski. But it was real, and it was big.
Then I did everything again. And then the Kindly Older Man drove me to the airport. The ski-bum friend lied—she hadn’t changed my ticket, and I had to sleep on the floor of the airport until the next flight, many hours away. There was no Chateau Margaux at the Salt Lake City airport bar—at this hour, there wasn’t even a Salt Lake City airport bar—and soon after I landed, I moved out of the apartment I had been sharing with my girlfriend for a few years.
For a brief moment, though—and I mean that literally—I flew.