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Chairlift Confessional

I shared a chairlift with an older guy shortly after the NFL playoffs started this season. He saw that the liftie was wearing a San Francisco 49ers hat and said to him, “I hope your team beats the shit out of the Cowboys tomorrow.”

Then he turned to me and said, “Fuck the Cowboys,” as we started our ride up the mountain.

He told me that he gets to the ski area at 7 a.m. each day and reads in his car until the chairlifts open.

“What are you reading?” I asked.

He said, “The Bible.”

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

A Church Not Made with Hands

It was the great Norwegian explorer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen who said, “It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport,” and the snowcovered slopes do lend themselves to spiritual revelations.

On the first lift I shared that same day, the woman beside me said, “I’m done with Christianity and organized religion.”

In the interest of going with the flow of the conversation, I said. “What are you going to replace it with? Paganism?”

She laughed and said, “Maybe some Middle Earth kind of thing. I am a bit of a hobbit. I just can’t stop thinking about what kind of knowledge that snake gave to Eve to have her kicked out of Eden.”

“I’ve got a different take,” I said, and this may well have been the fresh powder and anticipation of skiing talking. “I think we are still in Eden. We just don’t take as good of care of it as we can.”

The little lady laughed even harder. “You’ve never been to Detroit,” she said.

“Yeah,” the guy on the other side of her nodded. “Detroit is definitely not Eden.”

Something to Share

It’s my favorite reason for riding single on the chair—you never know what you’ll hear if you take the time to listen. Riding over the slopes below I have heard people talk about the toughest times they have faced and how they grew from the experience—or not talk at all, just staring off into the white wonder of the mountains.

That day I rode with a Nashville session artist and his wife, who gave me a playlist of country stars he’d backed up in the studio and onstage, and I Googled up a whole new storm of music when I got home.

I met a young couple who had just moved from Minnesota with their dog because they could work remotely and wanted better skiing. And their laughter and enthusiasm for the new life they had inspired me for the rest of the morning.

The truth is that other than sitting on a plane, or a barstool, the local chairlift might still be the best place to meet someone you would have never met and hear a story you never heard before and start to learn a new life lesson worth learning.

All the random things I would have never heard before and the people who share them­—and the way they tell their stories—makes me feel that as soon as I pull down the safety bar and settle into my seat, a new story is starting.

Keep Listening

In this column, I once shared the story of my great grandfather E. Austin “Skipper” Barnes, who lived to be 101.

Skipper was a lovely, talkative man, interested in everything anyone had to tell him. In a speech to his surviving Cornell University Class of 1899, delivered in April 1957, he said, “I look upon the years since 1899 as one long postgraduate course, majoring in human relations and the study of mankind. Being something of an extrovert, I have found that the yield has been substantial.”

On the chairlift now, I realize how I channel him. I offer the prompts and “then what?” support because of how fascinating it is to hear someone I’ve never met start to share a new—maybe not completely true—confession. Some breadth of beauty or drama or just some funny little story that, after that lift ride, might never be shared again.

It is living that is the miracle, my friends. The love and the laughter of being in this moment as it happens. Especially in skiing. The cold on our cheeks and the touch of a warm hand.

The calm, sure sense of hope that begins every time the chair starts up the mountain again. And how I can’t wait to hear you say, “What a great day!” Then, like the first line in a new book, begin some new narration. Whatever you want to say, I promise to try and remember what you tell me long after our shared chair ride is done.

See you on the mountain.

—Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of the God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Buy it here and read it now.

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