December 31, 2019: the last day of the decade, and an opportunity for me to conquer a fear: skiing. Elizabeth had elaborately planned a route down the slopes of Vail that covered my minor skiing flaws: namely, that I had never been on a chairlift and that I had no fricking clue what I was doing.
Starting up the gondola from Vail Village, we would go left down the “Trans Montane”, before turning right down the Northface Catwalk, going to Skid Road, taking the Brisk Walk to Mill Creek Road and ending on Gitalong Road and the Vail Village Catwalk (note: I found this map online and it might be a bit out of date). It was an elaborately planned route that threatened to fall apart the moment we got up the gondola.
Elizabeth chose a really good breakfast place, Joe’s Famous Deli. My breakfast burrito was excellent, and it was right by the gondola. The gondola ride itself was lit. It was a sunny day, and we shared it with some very nice people who liked the NFL, which allowed me to flex my first-ever fantasy football title. Pretty soon, we were at the top.
I started to lose nerve from the moment we got off the gondola. There were lifts going in every direction, multiple slopes near us, and people. Everywhere. Elizabeth tried to direct me to our slope, which was on the opposite side of the gondola area. I got flustered, and struggled to get down there. She told me to stop when I got to the top of the hill, but by this time I was in a full-on panic, and had a (very-low-speed) crash seconds later.
I wanted nothing more than to get off that mountain. Elizabeth came up to me and told me we could walk back up to the gondola and ride it back down. But anyone who knows me knows that that was never an option. I got back up, stepped back into my skis, and pushed on at a… cautious pace.
I’m going to guess that for the first ten minutes of skiing, my skis never left the “pizza” position designed to brake. I wasn’t really good at turning, so Elizabeth kept us to the inside of the catwalks and we stopped repeatedly. I assume we were faster than a walking pace, but it couldn’t have been that much faster. Gradually, I started to feel a little less terrified. It probably helped that the snow wasn’t fresh powder, so it was a little sticky and there wasn’t as much speed as otherwise. The view was incredible, as long as I didn’t think too much about falling off the edge.
Don’t worry, I’m only twice as scared as I look.
I fell again after a little while, but this time I felt more controlled when I fell into a snowbank. Gradually, I began to believe it might be possible for me to make it down the entire mountain (2,000 feet of elevation drop!). Here’s Elizabeth and me at the top of the Brisk Walk. If we look pale, it’s probably because the temperature was at most in the teens. My neckwarmer kept icing over from my breath.
Brisk Walk is an accurate name, by the way. The first part of it occurred deep in some shaded woods, and was frozen solid like a skating rink. I wiped out there. Elizabeth was kind enough to call it”graceful”. Once we emerged back into the sun on Mill Creek Road, which rides on a cliffside above a creek bed, skiing was actually starting to be pretty fun.
Wow look at him go
We rode under the gondola and I tried my darnedest to get people to wave back at me. The view was absolutely incredible, and I wish we had stopped to take some more pictures of it. As you can see from the video, there were giant snow-covered pines lining the trail – that makes sense, as the trails wound through the White River National Forest.
The last hitch came when we had to switchback from Gitalong Road to the Vail Village Catwalk with people coming flying down the mountain on the left. After waiting for traffic to abate, Elizabeth charted a slow, diagonal course to the other side of the slope and I screeched to a halt. One final downhill, and all of a sudden I was skiing into the village itself.
I had conquered Vail Mountain.
There was plenty of time to go back up the mountain for another run, but my creaky knees were absolutely killing me in my ski boots, so we ducked into the Mountain Plaza Express Lift Bar (conveniently right at the bottom of the mountain!) for a quick breather. We split a giant pretzel and watched a bowl game (if I’m reading this in the future, it was Kentucky versus Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl), and life felt pretty good.
In due course, Elizabeth and I headed up the gondola one more time and re-did the loop we had done before.
The second run was much quicker than the first, and much smoother as well. The one exception was the same slick spot on Brisk Walk, where I wiped out even more spectacularly than before. This time, I felt like dignity required that I get right back on the skis as fast as possible. I felt proud, thrilled, and more than a little relieved to once again ski down to the base of the mountain.
By the end of the second run, my knees were pretty much shot, so we walked back to Buzz’s and dropped off our ski gear. Elizabeth and I had time to ourselves for a little while – time we took exploring the town and gift shopping. The town may be full of rich snobs during the winter, but it is super pretty.
That evening, Elizabeth’s cousins hosted a large family dinner. Her family knows how to make an entertaining family meal. The potential highlight for me was when Elizabeth and I realized that the steaks, which were cooking in our condo, were in an oven that wasn’t turned on. Hadn’t been on for an hour, in fact. When Elizabeth’s cousin Chris saw this, his expression was hilarious. To the credit of him and the rest of Elizabeth’s cousins, once the meal finally began, it was well worth the wait. Excellent steak, excellent potatoes, excellent brussels sprouts… what more can you ask for?
The most surreal thing that really defines her family is that the entire extended family decided to ring in the New Year at a nightclub in downtown Vail. Everyone, from all of the parents right on down to Winston (who was “21”). I could never imagine my entire extended family going to an open-bar event with a live singer, but they never thought twice about it. I had a fun time at the club, too, just like I always do when I’m with them. The last few years with Elizabeth have really improved my dancing skills, and I put them to good use that night. The only negative was that Elizabeth’s cousin Michael got really drunk and kept trying to kiss me on the cheek. He only succeeded a few times.
(At some point when Elizabeth reads this, send me the nightclub pictures).
It was a memorable way to ring in the new decade. We partied well into the night, and by the time we caught a ride back to the condos, just about everyone except for me was hammered (after Thanksgiving, I was not repeating that mistake).
I woke up on the first morning of 2020 to snowy skies. It seemed like Vail was preparing a proper send-off to all of us, one that included near-white-out conditions on I-70. In predictable fashion, I had packed most of my stuff up the night before. In even more predictable fashion, Winston hadn’t, and spent the moments before our airport van arrived desperately trying to get his gear together. Most predictable of all, Elizabeth had a conniption about her family’s tardiness.
We did make it onto the van just on time. As nightmarish as I-70 had been heading to Vail, the return trip to Denver was possibly even worse. The only redeeming qualities were the view, and the fact that I didn’t have to watch Michigan lose to Alabama in their bowl game.
To save some money, I had booked a later flight back to OKC. Elizabeth, Pam, and Winston were off to New York so I would be returning alone that night. After realizing that I couldn’t even pass through security at the same time as the others because of my boarding time, I settled in for the long wait before my return home.
It had been a memorable New Year. My first-ever trip to Vail, where I conquered a lifelong fear of skiing. A beautiful town with gorgeous scenery all around it. And spending time with Elizabeth’s extended family, all of whom are unfailingly kind and fun. I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to ring in 2020 as well as I did.