I arrived at the small adobe apartment we were to share—two ambitious, 23-year-old strangers from opposite ends of the country who’d landed the same outdoors magazine internship in Santa Fe, New Mexico—to find a quiet girl in a sweater. Seeing how weary I was from the road, she offered me a beer, and we joked about breaking the ice, as we broke it while sitting on the floor of our empty new living room.
Hindsight is amusing, if not entirely cathartic, with its little boldfaced clues: I remember her watching me remove the rusty red Schwinn from the cheap rack on the back of the Jeep I’d driven across the country, from Georgia, locking it next to a fancy looking mountain bike and road bike in our small backyard.
“Is that your cruiser?” the California girl asked.
I had no idea what this meant.
It had never occurred to me that one might need two or more different kinds of bicycles. Lots of things, I’d soon discover, had never occurred to me before.
Slowly, the situation revealed itself. This unassuming girl let slip that she’d captained Middlebury’s triathlon team. She did mysterious aerobic activities before work, as I lay passed out. She disappeared for entire afternoons only to return on her road bike, pointing toward the top of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, some 10,000 feet high, when I asked where she’d been. She also drank a lot of tea. I was unnerved and, being a masochist, intrigued.
Eventually, after a long Tuesday night of wine and nicotine—I provided her first cigarette—I went on a short morning run with her at 7,000 feet to repent for the previous night’s excesses. It was brutal. I struggled to breath. I choked up strange fluids and dripped slime from my nose. It was painful, and yet exhilarating. It felt something like love.
A few months later—almost four years ago now—I found myself competing in a 12-hour mountain bike race in Gallup, New Mexico, on a cherry red K2 Apache that didn’t belong to the same species as any bike I’d ever owned before. I purchased it mostly so that I could spend more time on the trails around Santa Fe with this constantly active girl. By then, we’d crossed our own intimate Rubicon and consummated a secret office-roommate relationship.
I managed to surpass most reasonable expectations at this race, actually beating her time on one lap of the 13-mile course (she had one teammate and I had three). But the satisfaction of finishing the race paled in comparison to the look on her flushed, mud-flecked face when it was over. Endorphins, I discovered, are a potent aphrodisiac.
It was at that moment that I became an adventure sports enthusiast.
Two years before meeting adventure girl, I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail during a “break” from college. I thought that this 2,174-mile walk put me in pretty elite company, if not on a career path. But I was falling for a girl who, before long, would win the title of best telemark freeskier in the world. (I’m still not entirely sure what that means.) She respected my plodding achievement, but it felt like the sort of respect a tenured English professor has for a quirky student who has managed to read the entire dictionary.
Once ski season started, I saw less of her. At that point in our lives, she’d won more ski races than I’d spent days on snow-covered mountains. (This is probably still true.) So while she ripped, I typically stayed at home: reading, baking, and learning ski jargon online. Everyone prayed for snow but me.
Fortunately, our first winter together was a dry one, and adventure girl and I hiked a lot together around New Mexico. By summer, we’d tackled Wheeler Peak, the tallest in the state. Soon after, we argued our way up Mount Princeton, in Colorado, only to light-headedly make up/out on top—courtesy of those endorphins again—in the gathering clouds.
The argument was related, as I recall, to the difficulty of the hike, and how I marched ahead, without waiting. I was secretly proud of finding adventure girl’s limits. The role reversal, however, did not suit her. As I pig-headedly pushed forward, spurred on by the shock of being out front, she seemed to purposely slow down. The distance between us grew. She threatened to turn around. I said fine, cruelly calling her bluff. Looking back, I wish that I’d simply waited. Somehow, our relationship had become a competition. It didn’t help that we’d already competed against each other for a job at the magazine. (She’d won, and bought her own place.)
On that same trip, we said we loved each other—and despite the petty arguing, it was true—while camping outside Aspen. My sleeping bag ripped sometime during the night, and we woke up, laughing, under a layer of goose down. She made coffee on the backpacker’s French press she’d given me for my birthday, and we drank it together in our sylvan glade. If a relationship is a mountain, this was our peak.
The biggest problem we seemed to have as a couple was that I couldn’t ski very well. At one point adventure girl said to me, “If you were a skier, you’d be perfect,” and I pretty much believed it. I never asked to ski with her, mind you, and she never tried convincing me to come. We understood that our relationship worked better off the slopes than on them.
For her second birthday in Santa Fe, I gave adventure girl an antique cruiser that she’d been eyeing. I’d purchased it after weeks of haggling with an irascible bike artiste. It was, she said, the most thoughtful gift she’d ever received. It was probably the most thoughtful I’d ever given. Now we both had cruisers, and we cruised.
For my next birthday, she arranged a trip to Moab, Utah, where we’d planned to run a half-marathon—my first—along the Colorado River. The race was called “The Other Half,” and we’d trained for months, both separately and together.
The childish competitor in me wanted to not just break two hours, of course, but finish before my girlfriend. It didn’t occur to me, fatally, that we could finish hand-in-hand. We ran beside each other for the first 12 miles, and then I suddenly took off. The final mile was downhill and I let my long legs go, crossing the finish line a few seconds ahead of her. When she caught up, the look on her face conveyed none of the attraction I’d expected. Just surprise.
The next day, during the long drive home after a long night of dam-burst frustrations, we decided to spend time apart. A few months later, missing her, I asked her to come back. We’d broken up on that drive, she said. And she was just getting over me.
More than a year after adventure girl finally left Santa Fe for a job at a skiing magazine in Colorado, I went to see a telemark-ski-porn flick in which she starred. In a mass email weeks before, she’d written, with characteristic understatement, “Enjoy the film! You may even know someone in it….”
And so there she was on the big screen: smiling beautifully, carving endless, graceful turns down a mountain. I cheered loudly, unexpectedly, as she passed by one final time. And then the theater was quiet, and I left.
A woman scowled at us at the trailhead. Maybe it’s because it was nearly 1 p.m. when we left the car and started walking uphill toward 14,197-foot Mount Princeton—an unreasonably late hour given Colorado’s tendency for afternoon thunderstorms at high elevations. But we didn’t care. I was with my boyfriend at the time, a guy I’ll call Bread Baker for reasons that will become obvious later. The sky looked as blue and clear as a swimming pool, and Bread Baker was confident we could tag the summit and be back well before sunset.
By 4 p.m., we were still trudging to the peak. A long knife-edge ridge and a massive scree slope stood between us and my first-ever 14er. I was officially higher in altitude than I’d ever been before, and my lungs felt tight and choked.
“Is that a storm cloud over there?” I asked hopefully while pointing my finger toward a friendly looking cotton ball in the sky.
“We’re totally fine,” responded Baker. “Just keep moving.”
For the next 30 minutes, I pointed my eyes at the rocky trail below me. Occasionally, I glanced up, disappointed to see that the peak still looked like a faraway pyramid. I sipped water and nibbled on bites of a Clif Bar, but neither helped the fact that my breath felt as constricted as if I’d been a cigarette addict for a decade. And my head started to ache with the dull pain that I sometimes get when an airplane takes off from the runway. For a while, I kept pace with Baker, whose lean muscles and 6-foot-tall frame were built for this kind of task. But eventually, I lagged behind, getting crankier and more impatient. The distance between us steadily grew.
I wasn’t used to being the slow one. And the role-reversal put me in a foul mood.
The day of that hike, Baker and I had been dating for about six months. Although we both shared a passion for the outdoors—it’s the main thing that brought us together in the first place—we approached it differently. Namely, he liked things slow and scenic: He’s a long-distance hiker who took a semester off from college to walk the entire length of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I like my sports fast and action-packed: He fishes; I whitewater kayak. He plays Frisbee in the park; I enter triathlons.
On the trail, the gap would grow wider. All I wanted to do was hop on a downhill bike and charge back to the car. All he wanted to do was meander and smell flowers. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
About three months into our relationship, my grandmother had come to town for a visit. I wanted to introduce her to my new boyfriend, so I took her to the house that we shared. Bread Baker was in the kitchen, covered in flour and, you guessed it, baking bread. He was flattening the dough with a rolling pin. My grandmother was smitten, of course. I don’t know what won her over. Was it his poetry degree from an Ivy League school, his taste for fine wines, or his tennis skills? No matter, he is simply the kind of guy a grandmother loves.
And for many months, he was the kind of guy I loved. Initially, our relationship flourished through adventures we shared together. We drove eight hours to Phoenix, Arizona, for the weekend to catch a Michael Franti concert and spend a night camping on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We went to Moab to run a half-marathon by the Colorado River. We tried to appease our differing interests through compromise. He bought a mountain bike and learned to navigate the twisted trails near our home in Santa Fe; I practiced my berry cobbler recipe. But eventually our adventures created a riff that I knew we’d never overcome. On a ski trip to Crested Butte, he avoided taking a single run with me. He wore borrowed skis and stuck mainly to the groomed slopes. I made tele turns down the expert-only back bowls. I convinced him to sign up for a 12-hour mountain bike race—he on a team of four, me on a team of two. I rode for six hours that day, grinding out fast laps on a dusty trail in New Mexico. He rode for three hours, and drank beer and tailgated the rest of the time, and still said his legs were tired at the end of the day.
There was an obvious and painstaking inequality in our action sports performance. And it was the opposite of most mountain town couples, where the guy sets the skin track and the girl follows behind.
I’m all for women’s liberation—but the truth is, most men can’t handle it when women beat them at things. Especially sports. And even though Bread Baker was better than me at many things—including writing, which we both do for a living—there was an uneasy imbalance. He seemed stripped of his macho confidence when I’d beat him down ski slopes and singletrack. And I felt weird, too. Although Bread Baker stimulated me intellectually and emotionally, I wanted someone who could push me athletically, too.
And yet, on the trail headed toward the summit of Mount Princeton, I was the one lagging behind. For perhaps the first time ever, we had reversed roles: I was relying on him to lead the way to the top. Bread Baker’s style—methodical and tame—was so contradictory to my high-speed, adrenaline-junkie attitude that until that moment I’d failed to see the beauty of his ways. I scratched my way slowly and painfully into the thin air and eventually reached the apex of the mountain.
At the summit, my grumpiness lifted and I took in the 360-degree view of southern Colorado. I looked over at Baker—he stood tall with a regained sense of confidence. I knew he wanted to say “I beat you!” but he kept his mouth shut. I kissed him with every bit of energy I could muster. And you know what? It took my breath away.
Illustration by Jeremy Collins/www.jercollins.com.