A brief conversation with one of my heroes, Shirley, an 86-year-old senior athlete who resonates with what it means to be alive! I am honored to call her my friend.
I’m fortunate in my life to have many people I can look to for inspiration, but my friend Shirley is indeed one of the oldest at 86 years young. I only mention her age, because, well, she’s living proof that age, while indeed a marker of time of sorts, is a nebulous marker at best.
I met Shirley almost 7 years ago when I first started working out at the track. I had seen her and her friend Thelma (91) racewalking, and I thought; “Wow, okay, newbie or not, quadriplegic or not, I’m gonna have to bring it out here”. And, yeah, yeah, they were younger then — spring chickens — but these were some seriously committed hard-core, bad ass women.
But intimidating as their routine was (yes, they were and still are faster than me; a very humbling fact), they are truly sweethearts, always breaking from their workouts to chat, and we’ve become fast friends.
I’ve had amazing conversations with Shirley about life, loss, health, commitment, death, the politics of senior athletics (and you think FIFA and the Olympic Committee can be controversial), and all of them resonate deeply.
Again, age — for so many reasons — is a strange one, but undeniably there’s something very cool about being around on this planet as a human for 80+ years: engaging, accumulating and sharing the gift of life with others.
So if we treat ourselves right in mind, body and soul, along with a bit of good fortune, we will find, as I have in my life, that previously believed paradigms regarding age (and disability in my case) just don’t apply. We see this all around us, we read about it, etc., but having a friend like Shirley in one’s life is a great way to drive the point home.
It’s not often I get overwhelmed to the point of being rendered speechless, but as you can see at the start of this video (and why I made it over 2 days), as I began to tug at the threads that connected all the things that made this February ski trip of mine to Tahoe so mind blowing… well… it happened (oh, and BTW, my March trip went further out into the stratosphere!).
In my heart it all seemed so easy to formulate, so neatly linear, but once I tried to put it all into words, the nuance and minutia just kept unraveling and no detail felt as though it could be left out. I kept finding myself saying: “oh, wait, this led to this and this to this… and then this to this.” And so on and so on.
But in the end, it came down to 2 simple things: 1). In life you don’t always get what you want, but if/when you do, you’d be wise to celebrate and appreciate it with a ferocity that’s commensurate with such an understanding. And 2). It took me about 3 decades to get air and vert again (for those of you who are uninitiated in the world of board sports, fear not, if what I just said at #2 sounded like gobbledygook and makes no sense at all, see the videos)!
That said, there are many people who contributed to #1 and #2 (if they can even be separated) and therefore to the ultimate accomplishment of a pretty cool dream. And so, in no small way (as these things are with me), I must exclaim I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you.
I also know (and all those who’ve been privy to the miraculous assistance of others should know this too) these things don’t happen in a vacuum; one puts themselves in a position to inspire the collaboration of others. In essence then — or as much as they can be, I suppose — my own particular wild dreams have become a kind of group project. And I like that.
If you’re new to this mysterious bus ride, welcome aboard, and if this is old hat for you, yada yada yada… hello again. In either case, I think things are about to get a whole lot more bananas!
Yes, another video from my home away from home on the Cal track, but stay with me here, because this one has a little bit of everything.
Just before Christmas I experienced, or more appropriately, was slammed with (yes, slammed sounds right) something I’ve never experienced in all my time as a quadriplegic, something I’ve only been able to vaguely classify now as “dysreflexia perplexia” (not an actual medical term), and which hardly begins to describe the 6 weeks of head scratchingly bizarre symptoms I endured. And yet there I was, smack dab in the middle of something which was very intense, humbling and requested of me, yet again, to let go of some things which were very dear to me. In short, I had no idea whether this would be a permanent state, a transitionary one or something that would disappear altogether.
About 2 weeks ago I finally felt like myself again and began the arduous journey back to rebuild my muscles that were lost to atrophy. No easy task. It being California, however, the sun has shined warmly and brightly down on my endeavor and I’ve been able to rush my recovery along. Great. But it also being winter in California, and me having a certain affinity for a particular activity I like to do in winter, and wasn’t an option during the 6 weeks of the condition which can’t be named (and during some pretty epic snowfall in December I might add), I was in a more accelerated pace than I might have otherwise been to get myself up to a certain set of mountains to do that particular activity.
Cut to tonight (don’t worry, I’ll come back to a lot of this in a later video as there is much more to explore from an educational point of view) and I find myself posting this a mere 12 hours before I’m off to Tahoe to ski my brains out with my bro Travis and some other amazing people! Seriously, miracles never cease. No, really, they never do.
Big love to you all!
For more on this week’s quadriplegic related SCI (spinal cord injury) buzzword “dysreflexia”:
While there is no shortage of stoke and gratitude captured on the above video (hell, even pushing half a mile in a cold December rain couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Though, in retrospect that wasn’t the wisest of moves), I do feel the need to further explain — albeit briefly — why these grants have meant so much to me beyond their financial support.
When I applied for these grants, I put my heart and soul into them as much as anything I’ve ever written. In a limited amount of space, I’ve tried to tell the story of who I am and how my goals and ambitions further paint the story of Tony Schmiesing. But more importantly than this, I’ve tried to paint a much bigger story… a collective story… a story that doesn’t begin or end with me.
Sounds hokey? To some, maybe. But it’s the truth, and I believe these foundations, through their awards, have been able to see this. I have no allusions that these grants were given generously to me, Tony Schmiesing (the berkeley ginger quadriplegic bi-skiier), but I also know they were done so because they see how I connect to, and can relatively influence, the bigger picture… and for this I couldn’t be more honored, stoked and endlessly grateful!
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this mind blowingly beautiful life!
It’ll be 2 years this month since my ridiculously beautiful service dog, Shadow, slipped her mortal coil and chased the proverbial kibble filled tennis ball into the ether, and into her new role as my goofy spiritual shadow (yes, I couldn’t resist the play on words).
Why did it take me so long to spread her ashes, you may be asking yourself. Well, there’s no easy answer other than to say, I wasn’t in a hurry. The moment presented itself when it did and it was absolutely right.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her and smile.
Change is in the air (in so many ways) and I figure what better way to celebrate it then to… well… change. So in the spirit of this celebratory state, instead of writing blogs I’m going to video them for a while.
Now I know if anything has been consistent here on Fasterbarnacle, its been inconsistency, but I hope this slight medium shift will be the remedy… at least temporarily (how’s that for setting the expectation bar at an appropriate height?). My goal is to shoot, edit (if needed) and post something once a week, and I think — all things considered — it’s not an unrealistic ambition. We’ll see.
That said, I’ve been a bit under the weather this past week, so the actual start date for this whole transition thing is admittedly a little nebulous, but just the same, my intention is to have something up here — as well as the other requisite places — very soon. That’s the intention.
Anyway, I’m not abandoning writing altogether, I love it, I love sharing via this particular medium, and I’ll definitely be back to those magnum opus posts before you can say digression, but for now I want to see how another tool of expression will do at translating and sharing this adventure I call my life.
Until then, much love to you all and I’ll catch you on the flipside.
Having one’s head buried in sticky, Sierra cement snow, unable to breathe, after a heavy wipeout, isn’t generally what one would call a good ski moment. But here’s the thing, without that wipeout in the spring of 2010, my skiing trajectory wouldn’t have been the same, and my pursuit of the more extreme side of quad bi-skiing might’ve been a more convoluted path.
As it turned out, that wipeout led me to the introduction of an uber skilled ski partner, Brian Sheckler, who’s fearless commitment rivals my own, and the inspired Roy Tuscany, who’s High Fives organization has championed my out there ambitions. For me, there is no such thing as a good or bad session on the mountain, it’s all leading to something else. In this case, it led me from the dream of chasing vert to the execution of it again.
That first day at Alpine Meadows was about as revelatory a ski experience as I’ve ever had. When I originally scheduled the half-day, I saw it as a day of testing, tweaking and experimenting, and It was as much about what my skiing would look like in the future as it was a trial run for the Superpipe at Northstar a couple of days later. In particular, I was anxious to see if the seat design I’d pursued all the way to Colorado could solve the all important issue of pressure, and keep my bony butt on the mountain for longer than 2 1/2 hours without skin breakdown.
And while I was pretty confident it could, you never know how these things will play out until you’re actually out there going through the motions with intense bumping, jarring and a few spills that could throw off body positioning and negate the offloading dynamic that makes the seating system so effective.
But by the end of that first session, everything I imagined that might be true while I sat in my ski in that Aspen Seating warehouse back in November; comfort, lack of pressure, lack of pain, security, balance, performance, turned out to be spot on. No, not spot on, better — ridiculously so. In fact, my butt looked better after a hard day of skiing — terrain park charging and all — than it did before I hit the mountain!
Typically when I schedule my trips to Tahoe, I schedule my skiing in a staggered manner; where I ski one day (half-day), stay off my butt the next to let it recover, and then hit the mountain again the following day for another session… and so on and so on, depending on the number of days I stay. Or at least that’s how I previously had to deal with my ski and travel weary butt.
Given the way things looked after that first session, however, I probably could’ve ditched that lay day spent in a Truckee hotel bed altogether, and just ate, slept and skied through the next 24 hours in my new ski and had pretty much the same results. Things looked that good.
But as revelatory as that first day of skiing proved to be, it was still just an orchestra warm-up next to what I wanted to accomplish. Sure, I was stoked with how things had turned out thus far and was frothing at what the future held, but the winter, and why was in Tahoe that week, was about chasing vert.
Of course, as many of you California skiers know, and I wrote about it ad nauseam this year, the winter of 2011-2012 didn’t make that particular pursuit easy, especially for a quadriplegic. Due to the lack of storms, maintaining and keeping open a 22 foot superpipe turned out to be a difficult task… or at least with any sort of consistency.
Still, if there was a week to throw down on some dates to ski, I really couldn’t have chosen better. We just had the dump of the season, something close to 8 feet, and the tweets I’d exchanged with the folks at Northstar who had some sway with the pipe, seemed pretty confident about its availability and were stoked to have me charge it.
But again, this was the wacky winter of ’11-12, and if it reinforced anything within me, it was the ridiculousness of having expectations. But just in case I hadn’t fully internalized this Mr. Miyagi-like Zen lesson, around 3 PM, while Natalia and I were relaxing watching the ski report on an endless loop, I got a call from Roy Tuscany over at High Fives with the news that, “due to technical reasons”, Northstar wouldn’t be able to have the pipe open for us.
Roy was disappointed, I could hear it in his voice — he was as stoked as I was about this goal of mine, and helping to facilitate it — but in his typical can-do way, he said he would try to find us another pipe open somewhere in Tahoe. Even still, I wanted to reassure him that, pipe or no pipe, everything was all good — I was in the mountains, I was with a dear friend, I’d just had a horizon expanding session, and the next day, vert or no vert, I’d be skiing a full day with him and the rest of the High Fives crew.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I was psyched to crush the pipe, and that “horizon expanding” session only served to reinforce that it was absolutely doable. But the thing is, one can only truly be bummed out about something when what one wants is incongruent with what is. Which is to say, when one’s agenda doesn’t line up with life’s. This is something I deeply understand —- with or without the Miyagi Zen lessons of detachment — things are exactly as they should be. And besides, Natalia let me know if I wasn’t going to be bummed about the pipe, she’d cover it for me. How’s that for love?
Hitting the green wall
Early Friday morning we awoke to a fresh dusting of snow and unseasonably cold bluebird skies. It was a beautiful day, and for a winter that had cemented it’s dubious snowfall legacy by what it didn’t deliver, rather than by what it did, the snow served up for us that morning was cold and fast, and almost comically un-March like. Things were so lined up, in fact, it would’ve been a real challenge to feel anything was missing; there were good friends, we had great snow and, unlike any bi-ski session I’d had up until that point, I had a full day pass clipped to my pants.
Usually when I ski, I do something called tether skiing. Which, if you’ve seen the videos, means my partner skis behind me, holding onto tethers about 6 feet back, keeping me from crashing into trees, other skiers and, to the best of his ability, from killing myself. When I ski banks, like those found in terrain parks, we take off the stabilizing outriggers (at the front of the ski), drop the tethers and do something called bucket skiing; where my partner grabs onto the back of my ski and has direct control over carving, leaning and sliding. Because of my lack of trunk and back muscles, there is no other way to maximize the bi-ski’s full turning ability without utilizing this technique.
From an independence, and downhill speed perspective (and let’s face it, adrenaline infused risk), I generally prefer tethering — it’s closer to pure skiing as I know it. But because I really like to push things, and I’m currently about chasing vert and beyond, I’m totally at peace with letting go of some of my control in exchange for where bucket skiing can take me.
But if I’m really going to break things down, I don’t see any of the skiing I do as a “compromise” or “letting go” of anything; bi-skiing as opposed to how I skied before my accident or bucket skiing as opposed to tethering, it’s just the way I ski. Bucketing or tethering are simply different means to different ends.
As a fairly high quadriplegic, if there’s anything I have a grasp of it’s that I need a little help from others with most everything I do; getting up in the morning, catheterizing, showering, exercising, cooking, going to bed at night, etc. Pushing the boundaries of what a quadriplegic like myself can do on a bi-ski is no exception. Assistance is just part of the gig.
The trick, of course, as with most things in my life, is finding the right folks who “complement” me. In this, I’ve been blessed that it’s always come fairly easily and with little effort. I’m forever grateful for the amazing people who are, and have been, part of my life. And while it’s indeed a mystery, to be sure, the serendipitous entry of the right people at the right time, it’s just the way things are, and hooking up with Brian in 2010 was no exception.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great, talented tether masters/instructors at adaptive ski programs all around the world, and I’ve skied with a few of them, but I think one might be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s willing and able — or altogether comfortable — to go to the places I want to go.
This is an assumption, of course, and certainly not a slight on anyone, and indeed has a lot to do with the aforementioned serendipity, but Brian is one of those rare types whose pelotas (testicles for you non-Spanish speakers), and willingness to just f***in’ go for it, matches my own.
What makes him a perfect complement to my skiing, however, is that he also has the skills to assist me to the outer edges of my ambitions. Pelotas are great, they’ll take you far, but skill is how you manifest the creativity of your imagination into an actual experience.
So when I saw that inviting green wall in the terrain park that morning, and my skate DNA started tickling my imagination, it wasn’t a big surprise that Brian and I came to the same conclusion, “Let’s hit that!”. There was no question as to whether or not it was even possible; we’d go for it and sort it out in the doing. That lack of hesitation, that fearlessness, that confidence is something that’s at the very core of who I am, but it’s one thing when it comes from deep within oneself and quite another to have it shared.
By this I mean, I may be game for whatever, but it doesn’t necessarily mean my ski partner is. Which is neither good nor bad, but in order for me to push my limits, I need somebody who’s comfortable pushing their own. This is imperative, because quite frankly, at the end of the day, there’s more on the line for both of us as a team than there is individually… on so many levels.
As a terrain park feature, the wall presents some significant challenges for a bi-ski. Like most features in terrain parks, the wall feature comes from the street skate world, and is approached and ridden much in the same way, with two moves. The first being a kind of jump onto the wall (an Ollie), which is necessary due to the abrupt transition from horizontal to vertical, and the second a turn near or off the top.
In the snow, that first move is often less critical and abrupt than in skateboarding as the harshness of the transition is usually minimized by a gradual buildup of snow, but even still, there isn’t that smooth, rounded flowing transition you’d have with a quarter pipe or half pipe. And that, plus the difference in surface textures, is what makes the feature so unique and inviting — it still feels “street”. But it’s these two things which make it especially challenging for a bi-ski.
The transitions alone, both up onto the wall and off it, are harsh and jarring on my body, and require a lot of speed to execute. The bi-ski is heavy and any sort of jump onto the wall to initiate the climb is impossible. That first transitionary move all comes down to approach speed, the flex of the skis and the strength of my partner to huck me and the ski up the wall. But that’s just the preamble — the thing before the thing, if you will — it’s the second move, the wall ride itself, where things get interesting.
In order for a bi-ski to turn or carve, the parabolic shape of the skis need to dig their edges into some snow; ideally cold, fast, freshly groomed snow. A wall feature is constructed out of hard plastic and thus there’s no way for the skis to engage their edges, making it more of a controlled slide on the flats of the skis than a turn (a controlled slide on a near vertical wall, that is). Of course, this presents additional challenges for my partner, as we both have to get up the wall, slide a turn across the top and get down again before going over the opposite side. As a one move feature, the wall has an exceptionally small playing field for a bi-ski.
So our first crack at it was just to see if we could make it over the transitionary angle and gauge how much speed we’d need to get to the top. And while that initial run was jarring, to be sure, we got up about three quarters with no problem and had a decent amount of room to spare on the way down to avoid killing ourselves.
The ride back up the lift felt eternal. We were stoked with what we’d just done, but we knew it was nothing compared to what we wanted to do the next time through the park. In fact, it was really nothing more than a taste — a great taste, yeah — but now I was jonesing for the real thing. We’d proved it was doable, now it was time to get creative.
On our second attempt, we started further away, got more speed and hit the wall as close to the left-hand edge as possible to give us more room at the top for a slide across the coping. Up to this point, I had no idea how Brian was doing what he was doing, controlling my ski as well as his own, not on snow, but a near vertical plastic wall.
For my part, there’s no question I had to be willing to throw caution to the wind and go for something where there was no precedent or roadmap — there’s no ride without this — but so did Brian. And he had to have the skill, creativity, as well as the balls, to take the speculative and bring it into reality for both of us. This was some pretty mind blowing skiing.
As to the sensations of how it felt to get close to vert again, to slide along coping and feel that momentary sense of weightlessness, well, in a word, it was epic. Without a doubt. And while it wasn’t exactly what I set out to accomplish last winter — I’ll be on that again this year — it was pretty damn close, and about as satisfying a runner-up as I could’ve imagined.
But I’d be lying if I said it sated my appetite for pushing the envelope of my skiing. Quite the contrary. Rather it only served to further fuel my desire to find out what was possible for a high quadriplegic bi-skier like myself, to really see where the boundaries are, if there are any at all. For my own benefit as well as that of others.
Whether or not I’m the first quadriplegic to bi-ski a wall feature, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. In my mind originality can be misunderstood, and it’s often mistaken for the tail that wags the dog. What I love about originality, is not originality for originality’s sake, but how it endlessly expands our collective imagination. How it opens the doors of possibility and inspires people to see things in a whole new way, and how it liberates people to stand on each others’ shoulders and reach new heights that were previously deemed inconceivable or unimaginable.
So, yeah, through this perspective, originality, my own and that of others, has gotten me to where I am today — in life, skiing or otherwise — and taken me places I never would’ve expected. But if I’m ever lucky enough to do anything that resembles the above type of catalyst, awesome, bring on that particular spark of creativity and unleash the possibilities of stimulated, inspired imagination!
Crown Vic-ed: an epilogue (of sorts)
Just as dialing in my surf, ski and skateboarding equipment to maximize performance was an obsession for me before my accident, bi-skiing has been no different. From the beginning, I’ve been trying to find/figure out what kind of ski/tweaks would work best for somebody with my particular disability — a fairly high quad who tethers — and who wants to push the edges of what’s possible on a bi-ski.
Mono-skiers have it made, the equipment is beautiful, high-tech and ever evolving. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was envious and a little bit frustrated by the discrepancy in the two systems. I understand why this is, it’s an end use numbers equation; small production runs and the use of high-tech parts and materials make these expensive pieces of equipment to manufacture.
Mono-skis are marketed to skiers who can use them independently, and, like ultralight sports chairs, are designed exclusively with performance in mind. Bi-skis, on the other hand, start from a stability perspective and are meant to accommodate a wide range of abilities, and are mostly to be used with some sort of highly trained assistance i.e. it’s a team endeavor.
Like I said, this makes sense — in design you have to make choices — but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for something that combines the best of both these worlds and isn’t a compromise of either, and that there aren’t skiers out there like myself who’d be stoked to ride such equipment.
But the fact remained, until this past spring (see the photo and link below for the HOC Glide), this type bi-ski just didn’t exist. And it came down to the simple understanding, that if I wanted to ride something like the ski in my imagination, then I was going to have to create it myself.
And so a year and a half ago, I Frankensteined something together, starting first with what I figured was the most important part, the seating, dialing that in, and then tweaking a stock Mountain Man ski to better suit my own particular needs. And for the most part, it was a pretty successful endeavor — I felt much better on the mountain than I ever had before.
The ski still rode fairly heavy and tight like a typical Mountain Man, but there was only so much I could do with a stock frame and unmodifiable parts. And while my modifications weren’t the ultimate solution by any means, or the ski I’ve always envisioned in my mind, for a Ford Crown Vic style of a ski, I turned it from a company luxury cruiser to a moderately tweaked cop car… and for a big, chunky Mountain Man bi-ski, that’s really saying something.
The winter of 2011/2012 was a strange one for this Berkeley quadriplegic ski junkie. In fact, It was a strange winter for any ski junkie in California. Hell, why be specific? It was a strange winter period. From a sheer numbers perspective, it will probably go down as one of the driest on record in terms of snowfall in the Sierras. A dubious record from a skier’s perspective, but from a quadriplegic’s living in Berkeley, not being bombarded by cold, wet Pacific storms week in and week out, unseasonably comfortable.
But I’m not your average quadriplegic, I’m a quadriplegic ski junkie. And while the average quadriplegic in me was right at home in the 60° plus, cloudless days month after month after month after month after month, the ski junkie part of me — the larger of the two — was not. Fortunately, the Zen part of me — the part that makes up all of me (think of that particular math equation as a Zen koan) — is fine with whatever, so I wasn’t losing any sleep over either (that came later when I was actually up in snow country and my excited 5-year-old-kid-at-Christmas-morning part showed up). Bottom line, and parts aside — quadriplegic, ski junkie, Zen, whatever — I just f**kin’ love to ski. It’s not who I am, it’s just what I really, really love to do.
And that seems like the perfect preamble for this post on my tardy, anomalous, truncated 2011/2012 ski season.
Typically if my ski plans are ever going to be affected by the weather, it’s because there’s too much snow i.e. the drive over Donner Pass to Tahoe is gridlocked or shut down. In fact, I can’t think of a winter where I’ve ever been skunked by the lack of snow.
Which isn’t to say, there was no snow this season; they were making it as often as they could (when it actually got cold enough to do so), but it hardly seemed worth shelling out good lift ticket money to ski on man-made ice crystals, when I know what the good stuff is like. Don’t misunderstand me, I was frothing pretty hard by the end of February to get that new bi-ski of mine on the mountain, but this ain’t SoCal, it’s Tahoe, and we’ve got standards.
Of course, there were a couple of teaser storms that came through over the winter, but they were typically underwhelming and filled more with hope and promise, than pregnant, cold North Pacific ferocity. And while for some NorCal skiers less, well, quadriplegic than myself, a quick, short noticed surgical strike on these small dumps was quite doable, for myself — a full-blown quad — such spontaneity is difficult.
So all winter and into early spring, I studied the long-term forecast models, watched resort WebCams, listened to snow prognosticators, read the tarot, made offerings to the snow gods and kept my fingers crossed that La Niña would at last grow weary of pushing endless high-pressure systems over the coast of California and allow our storm door to swing wide just long enough, so that Northstar’s Superpipe could stay open more than 2 days at a time without needing to be rebuilt.
But as we hit the middle of March, both the high spring sun and rapidly approaching, premature closure dates for the resorts hammered it home that if I was to get any time on the mountain this season — Superpipe or not, man-made snow or not — I better take what I could get, pull the trigger and start making some hard plans to get up there. Because as much as I wanted to get vert, this season was really all about trying my new ski.
And so after conferring with my ski partner Brian Sheckler, Roy Tuscany over at High Fives and my amazing friend Natalia, who was absolutely invaluable to all of it, and letting my other attendants know I’d be gone for a week with a decent amount of advanced notice, all the pieces were lined up for a quad version of a surgical bi-ski strike on Tahoe.
The plan was to drive up on the 20th, test the ski out the 21st at Alpine Meadows to make sure it loaded on the lift properly and perform as expected, and use the following day — my butt day of rest — for any significant tweaks and changes that might be needed, and then hit the Superpipe with Roy and the crew on the 23rd — with or without mother nature’s cooperation.
Now whether it was my sense of detachment or brazen defiance of the conditions (which could’ve been mistaken by mother nature for taunting), or both, I don’t know, but the next day a nice big purple blob showed up on the Pacific forecast models with a legit 2 week winter cold front bearing down on California and the Sierras, packed with an anticipated 8 feet plus punch of snow!
Not surprisingly though, in line with other storms this winter, the snowfall didn’t exactly line up with what was predicted/hoped for. Nevertheless, it was the right kind of storm, both wet and cold, and dropped enough snow to make Tahoe look like Tahoe again and not some ski park in Dubai. More serendipitously, I suppose, was that our drive up followed immediately behind it, which meant no chains, no traffic delays, no road closures and fresh, cold snow to look forward to. In other words, from 3000 feet up, as we drove past snow dusted trees and roadside snowbanks, I had an ever present grin on my face.
All that said — the odd winter weather, the anticipation, serendipitous snowstorms, etc. — this trip was as much about people as it was about skiing, and the first thing I wanted to do when I got up to Truckee, was head over to the High Fives office to meet with Roy Tuscany and the crew and give the guys a soul deep high five in person for all they’d done for me.
I’ve always felt, and have expressed it before in the pages of this blog, that spaces take on the soul and energy of the people who inhabit them. In the case of the High Fives office, and the on site CR Johnson Healing Center, in a otherwise nondescript Truckee industrial park, this was a space of breathtaking love, commitment and positivity. The guys themselves felt like old friends, the kind of which you could not see for years and still feel as though no time has passed between you. They were kindred spirits who’d been carried through some heavy experiences by a deep passion for a beloved sport, and I felt honored to be part of the family.
The dynamism of Roy and the guys, Adam Baillargeon and Steve Wallace, and the Center itself, ran very deep. What they are doing there is in no small way of life changer, to be sure, but it’s also an important game changer. My connection with the place was rooted in the fact that what they’ve accomplished with the Foundation and the Healing Center, lines up directly with what my post injury life has been all about, and what I strongly feel is necessary for accelerated, successful, and sustainable long-term recoveries; complete access to physical therapy and a “back on the horse” facilitator like High Fives, where unfettered drive and imagination translate to limitless potential.
My own recovery was/is fueled by a will and athletic fortitude fused deep within my DNA, and while that’s endlessly important, it might’ve been worthless if I hadn’t had access to good physical therapy. In my case, I was fortunate, insurance covered not only 9 months of hard-core inpatient recreational, occupational and physical therapy, but an additional year of outpatient therapy once I was released from the rehab hospital. On top of that, I was blessed to work with an amazing sports medicine specialist at the local college, who helped me move even further beyond what was thought physically possible for someone with my level of injury; fusing my will and potential with expertise and environment.
But again, I was fortunate, because this is not the typical scenario for most people recovering from a catastrophic injury. In fact, it’s almost unheard of to find somebody who’s had 9 months of inpatient physical therapy, let alone three — no matter what the injury. Whether this is due to it not being considered important enough, insurance won’t cover that amount of time or somebody just doesn’t have the insurance to begin with, are all realities with the possibility for the same unfortunate consequence; limits.
And that’s where the Center steps in, and why it’s such a game changer, it picks up where the traditional medical institutions leave off, removing those aforementioned barriers by providing a space where expertise, equipment and environment intersect and can jettison one’s recovery into previously inconceivable directions. The participants at the Center are by and large already athletes who know the meaning of hard work to reach goals, so how incredible is it to have this drive fused with a place were those goals can be realized, regardless of whether or not insurance will cover it?
Being there with these new friends, in this magnificent memorial to their friend CR Johnson, surrounded by state-of-the-art rehab equipment, on site acupuncture, massage, training, and the vibes of so many changed and soon to be changed lives, was a profound experience. And as I said my goodbyes for the afternoon and got back in my van to head back to the hotel, I’m not going to lie, things got a little bit dusty.
You see, I’m forever in a state of wonderment over how things line up for me in this life, particularly the people in it. How I hooked up with Roy and the guys at High Fives is through series of seemingly random connections. And while I’d love to say it was purely chance how I happened to be skiing with someone who knew Roy and thought we’d have some things in common, while never saying anything specific about the foundation itself, I know better. Because the truth is, while skiing might’ve been at the heart of that particular afternoon’s connections, it wasn’t skiing that facilitated them, it was passion and a fearless openness to life. Skiing just happens to mix well!
Next up: Part 2; It’s all about the angles, kids. The mechanics and huevos of chasing vert in the bi-ski!
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if you got this new ski and there wasn’t any snow in Tahoe this year?” Travis joked, well aware of the journey behind the ski in my living room and how stoked I was to get it on the mountain.
Well, that was the beginning of December and as unlikely as it seemed then that there hadn’t been any significant snowfall, you can well imagine how loudly that ridiculous rhetorical question was ringing in my ears up until two weeks ago when we at last got a storm that brought some much needed white stuff to the Sierras.
Now whether or not that particular cold front (albeit not as cold as one might’ve liked) signals the end of our uber protracted summer and the opening of some tardy winter storm door, is yet to be seen (the following week’s heat would’ve seemed to suggest otherwise). But whether it does or it doesn’t, or whether or not some meteorological phenomenon keeps my newly stickered, modified ski out of the superpipe in 2012, or, just for the sake of an extreme example, whether or not I get to ski again—ever, isn’t going to kill my high. Not really.
Don’t get me wrong, I love skiing and I want to get on the mountain as soon as yesterday — stoke and adrenaline are as necessary to this quad body of mine as oxygen, sleep, organic farmer’s market veggies and my morning cup of coffee — but it’s not where my ultimate happiness comes from or what defines me (despite the number of folks who’d label me as a “surf/ski rat”. A labeling, mind you, I’d attribute more to my crazy hair than anything else).
No, skiing like the weather or the mountains or all that you can see and touch is situational and will come and go, and my true happiness, my joy, my love are not rooted in situations. And this understanding is tantamount to living this brief existence of ours on this planet with gratitude, fearlessness, wonder and peace.
I’ve written about this before, I know, but I look around me and I see a world that’s trying desperately to find meaning, happiness and peace in things that are situational. And none of these will be found there. Still, I believe the discovery of this understanding is inevitable for all of us, because we already possess it. But when one will discover this in their own lifetime, or what the catalyst will be, I can’t say, but it will happen — even if it’s with one’s last breath.
When Travis made the joke above, he pretty much knew where I was at with all this, which is why he asked it. We’ve been friends a long time and have been through a lot together. He knows me well, and he knows that I know that whether or not I get on the mountain this year is inconsequential in relation to what really matters. If it snows it snows, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. If I ski I ski, if I don’t I don’t. Whatever. It’s all good.
But let’s come back to this year’s whacky weather a sec. And let’s just say it doesn’t snow or rain again for the rest of this season, well, at the very least that’d be a story to tell, right? I mean, I’ve been in the Bay Area over 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Now I know the planet is some 4.6 billion years old – give or take a few days – and I imagine, relatively speaking, this dry spell of ours probably isn’t such an odd thing on that timeline, but for us, the inconsequential, myopically focused little hiccups that we are, it is. And for a myriad of reasons.
But just as last year’s La Niña had us all dizzy and wet from the ridiculous amount of snowfall that was dumped on us, it’s probably best to appreciate this particular La Niña for the phenomenon it is; an extra sunny, warm, high-pressure forming, winter scarecrow. Or at least, that’s what this jonesing, snow starved, ginger quadriplegic is doing… in shorts, in winter, in Norcal and with an awe inspired grin on my face every time I head outside.
It certainly makes one stop a moment to take a look at the silliness of expectations, doesn’t it?
She was without a doubt one of the most vibrant, alive spirits I’ve never had the pleasure of knowing. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, miss her or am forever grateful for the years I was able to spend with her by my side.
A teacher, a companion, a friend, a buddha, and the loudest, most steadfast furry creature of love. She is missed. She is loved. She is a gift.
Life is good. Life is very very good. I am blessed.