Crossing the New Jersey-Pennsylvania state line at the Delaware Water Gap, I paralleled the muddy-appearing Delaware River near the Appalachian Trail, the interstate narrowing to two lanes and shallowly ascending into the brown-treed, gray shale rock-covered Pocono Mountains. The slender, finger-like white patterns representing the still-snow-covered ski trails of Camelback Mountain were now visible through the left car window. As the miles rolled by, I thought of the past two ski trips, trips which had been highlighted–perhaps “warped” is the better word–by the personalities of my group. Put them on skis and they excelled in more ways than you can imagine. Did I dare subject myself to them again? I could have turned round right now…
The descending, right-curving off-ramp led to my hotel, located four miles from Jack Frost Mountain, itself the converging point of my company’s third annual ski trip.
We had consistently attempted to overnight in a different hotel property each year. It had nothing to do with variety, mind you, but instead the inescapable fact that the group’s noise, rowdiness, and animalistic release had always banned their return. I had hoped that sufficient demand would prompt hotel construction in the area; otherwise, we would someday run out of locations–because, you see, they had not only shined on skies, but wherever we had stayed. Read on.
The setting sun released an orange bath into the dense, bare brown trees blanketing the area. It would not be long now.
At about 11:30 there began a series of uninterrupted door openings and closings down the hotel corridor which continued until almost sunrise, indicating that my “group” had arrived. I do not think the manufacturer of the door hinge itself had subjected them to such frequent testing before release to the public for sale. Oh, well, I had another look round my room, since it would be the last time I would see it. We would not be welcomed back here.
The night clerk quickly rethought his “nice” gesture of reopening the pool for the group when their excessive noise, the equivalent of a tribal, return-to-barbarism chant, had quickly forced him to oust them and re-close it.
The group had apparently collected numerous, hopelessly unmixable types of alcohol and proceeded to join their liquid forces together in a single glass under the collective name of “death”–with or without ice. It made no difference–except, perhaps, for those headed to a hot place on the way out.
Whaid, who barely returned a primordial grunt to my daily “hellos” at work, launched into an alcohol-induced, therapy-session-waiting-to-happen lament during the dark hours of the night in his hotel room, crying, “Nobody loves me” and followed it with a finger-pointing, broken-record monotone of “But I’ll be there for you…”
“I’ll be there for you…”
“I’ll be there for you…”
The following day he had slouched into a Road Runner position on skis and had wizzed by someone who had fallen and obviously needed someone to be there for him. He wasn’t.
Luckily, Munny, who devoutly lived by his “you need a hug” philosophy, had been in the room with him the previous evening to dry his tears.
Josue had apparently also “tasted” one of these liquid suicides. So intoxicated had he become, in fact, that Berqui had been forced to deposit him in the bathtub, where he had continued to sleep. It is a good thing that he had been the designated driver. I dare not look for adjectives to describe the conditions of the others.
Poor Dorit. The hotel’s front desk, apparently pegging her as Mother Hen, had called her in the wee hours of the morning as she had finally drifted off to sleep and warned, “If you don’t keep your boys quiet, I’ll be forced to call the police!” If she had ever dreamt of having children, they were not them.
We had agreed to meet for breakfast at 8:00 and bleary-eyed Dorit, Rocio, and Ronald had walked into the hotel’s breakfast room at this time. The other dozen, having only fallen asleep three hours earlier, would be lucky to make it by noon.
Completing the five-minute drive down deserted Route 940 from the hotel on that cold, clear morning after a brief pause to allow the night’s collected windshield ice to melt, I had been among the first to arrive at Jack Frost Mountain. The lodge, the same one used the previous year, had already taken on signs of our pending invasion, with food and drink lining the outside deck and the inside bar, and the fireplace having been recently stacked with logs and lit. There he stood inside it, the Mike, nucleus of the annual event.
The room had otherwise been quiet, a calm before the storm, although with the night the group had had it would most likely remain so for several hours.
Taking the opportunity to have a look round, I walked through the main lodge and out the door to the snow-covered slopes and rotating chair lifts, which echoed the events and the personalities of the previous year. Moving my head to the right, I saw it. There it stood, like a monument to a person who had discovered the most innovative use of an object connected to skiing, wind-swept and nestled in the snow. A small placard atop it had read:
PICNIC TABLE RESERVED FOR: SIDONIE
With all the time she had spent at it last year, despite her “splinter issues,” I had fully expected her to have run a line out to it and to have set up a computer–not to mention a small filing cabinet. I was sure that she had intermittently hired and brought an administrative assistant this year for her outdoor “office.”
A petite woman, releasing a low, staccato cough, skied by and the sound instantly transported me back to our first ski tip and little Moniquita. One should not be misled by a person’s small size. Lurking behind it can be a personality more powerful than an atom bomb, which, come to think of it, had been a pretty accurate analogy of her. She had, however, been like many other things:
Like a rocket on the launch pad in Florida waiting for someone to push her “take off” button.
Like the eruption in the core of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington.
Like the hot section of a high bypass ratio turbofan engine powering a 747.
Like the poblano pepper in every hot tamale.
Like the circular wind in every tornado.
Like the chaos caused by the universe’s Big Bang, played in reverse.
Like the fire in the earth’s inner core.
Like the nightmare from which one cannot awake, but if one succeeds in doing so, he only finds her in the room with him.
Like Leona Helmsley with a Spanish accent.
One day at work, one of Monica’s employees had walked into the office and explained, “Monica sent me to get some reports.”
“Sent?” I had intoned. “Monica never sends anyone! Shoots out of a cannon, maybe!”
People express their personalities differently. Ricky, for instance, who had attended last year, seemed to assert himself with repetition. Indeed, his two-word question of “What happened? seemed to replace the need for all other words in the English language.
“What did you eat last night, Ricky?”
“What time did you get up this morning, Ricky?”
“Are you enjoying your ski day, Ricky?”
I had once been cooped up with him in a small room when he had been a student in one of my classes and by the end of the third day they had taken me away in a straight jacket! I can only wonder what he will be like when he is 80 and his hearing begins to decline
I had regretted that some of our colleagues, whom we had known for so long that they had become virtual relatives, would be unable to attend this year, such as Uncle Omar, admittedly a slightly older, burpy type whose idea of a strenuous evening began with a strong laxative, and Auntie Omiamalie, whose frustrated desire for the nice things in life had often surfaced with the first words she had taught any maturing, aspiring young woman, that most important of all success-promoting phrases: “Daddy, I need a credit card!” In fact, if she had ever aspired to become a language teacher, she had once explained, she would make sure that these would be the first words her students would translate.
Making the short drive from the hotel to the ski lodge later that morning (I guess 11:55 can still be considered “morning”), the group arrived, carrying lipstick red-eyed Josue from the dirt parking lot to the lodge like paramedics (a stretcher is already on next year’s “Mandatory Supply” list) and depositing him on the couch in front of the fireplace.
Spreading his legs apart as if he had been about to give birth, he slumped into a virtual comma. He later confessed that the only thing he had remembered about the ride had been the wind returning his involuntary vomitary to him as he had poked his head through an open window. He had also expressed regret that Annie had been unable to join us on the ski trip this year, although she had sat across from him for two hours. (!)
By 2:00, the only ski-related accomplishment he had made had been to attach his ski pass to his coat. He had then lapsed into a second nap in order to recover from the effort. The slopes closed at 4:00.
After last year’s torture, I had decided to engage in that ski activity in which I excelled–instruct. David, who had never before attempted the frictionless dare, wondered, “Since you skied last year, I wonder if you could give me some pointers to promote safety?”
I paused for a moment and looked down, wondering if the other “ski” event he referred to could have been last year’s crippled careen between picnic tables, remembering the feeling of having stood on two flat, elongated, highly-polished pieces of wood which had offered less friction than a baby’s thoroughly-oiled bottom on a surface of frozen, white, nightmarish snow, my feet held hostage by two crushing, hard-sided, impenetrable boots which had severed all connection with the outside oxygen and my circulation. I had seriously needed to re-examine my life’s direction. He had actually wanted to volunteer for an activity like this, I had wondered? He would have had better odds with the drink called “death.”
“Well,” I had hesitated. “I do have some safety-related ski tips for you based on my experience.”
“What?” he had eagerly wanted to know, craning his neck toward me.
“If you want to ski in total safety,” I had slowly shared with him, “whatever you do, don’t leave the building!” Which is exactly what Sidonie did.
In fact, Sidonie had worked up more of a sweat walking between her seat and the ladies’ room in the lodge this year than she had on her skis outside of it last year. I love a kindred, although cowardly spirit, and I followed right behind her to the men’s room. This was a true “cross country.” It is a shame that the others will never know what they had missed!
I hope that Jenner had enjoyed herself. She had sat across from Sidonie, partaking of the “lunch” she had brought for everyone (the equivalent of a full aisle at the Stop-and-Shop and one which had induced me to dig for discount coupons), and did not utter a single “lovely” the entire day–the equivalent of a pulse for everyone else and therefore fully categorizable as one of her “vital signs.”
Damian, wearing his usual aloof, inter-planetary expression, frequently made shopping trips down this food aisle, constantly carrying piled-high plates. He had spent considerable time outside skiing, and had vastly improved over last year (for which I had hated him).
“My, you have quite an appetite, Damian,” I had observed.
“Well, skiing makes you hungry, Robert,” he had returned. “Besides, you know what they say: you should get your eight.”
“Those are hours of sleep, Damian,” I had corrected, “not meals per day!”
As Sidonie and Jenner ate, I could only think that they had clung to the picnic table on skis last year and would not leave the lodge this year. I wondered if they would actually get out of the car next year.
Ecaterinata, arriving in the early afternoon and remembering my undying love for the sport, caught me walking across the snow with a short set of skis in my arms for seven-year-old Julia.
“You finally found a small enough pair you’re comfortable with?” she had inquired. Even these I would not put on, I thought, but quickly grew angry that I had not thought of this option last year.
Adam, the singular source of the elongated drive because of his hopelessly inadequate ability to follow directions two years ago, had left the company, but had returned for this year’s ski event. He had intermittently trained for a position as a pilot specializing in navigation.
During the day on the advanced slope, he had sprained his groin and walked bow-legged for the remainder of it, as if he had carried some invisible basketball between his legs. (!)
Munny, only 20, had since turned into manager, father (of this staff), and workaholic, careening, like Adam, down the advanced slope, but with a pole in one hand, conducting business with his cell phone in the other, and projecting a smoke-puffing cigarette from his mouth in between. I can only wonder what he will be like when he is 50.
Andy (that is his last name–his first name is “Handy”) equally made his first foray into skiing, but had consistently experienced difficulty in stopping, and therefore often did so by means of the building in front of him. In fact, at times, he had appeared like a human pinball, bouncing from one wall to another. I had told him that skis were not equipped with brakes. If they had been, I may have put one on myself this year. (I said “one,” not “one pair!”)
Andy had not been the only one to use existing obstructions to his advantage, although I still cannot, at this writing, understand the reversed sequence of events. Most people hit a tree while skiing and fall. Little Lauralitta had apparently fallen into the snow and collided with a tree branch upon getting up, her ponytail bobbing behind her head like a spring-loaded doll. For the remainder of the day she walked round with a dazed look and the permanent imprint of an oak on her forehead.
As I had passed Ronald, I had found him virtually upside-down in a ravine, skis and poles dangling from him like the outstretched tentacles of an octopus, and yelled, somewhat in panic, “Ronald, are you all right?”
“I’m fine!” he had yelled back. “I think I’m getting the hang of it!”
I wonder if it had been an inflated ego or sheer delusion.
How, you may ask, could I have witnessed all of these events when I had, in fact, never donned a single pair of skis? Let’s put it this way: the love of short, stubby, concrete-gripping shoes. I had total freedom, running after everyone like Father Goose, instructing, warning, extracting from the snow.
As the sun had begun to inch toward the west on that crisp, blue mid-March day, the Jack Frost staff had equally begun to close the resort for the night, forcing the remaining skiers to return to the lodge, who had passed Josue walking in the opposite direction toward the ski rental shack.
Steam rose from the chafing dishes lining the bar, and the obligatory group photograph back-dropped by the company logo signaled the end to another ski adventure.
As the Pocono Mountains receded behind me during the drive from Pennsylvania to New York that evening, I had concluded that travel usually brought out the best in people. That concept did not seem to apply to my group–unless this had been their best! Ah, but I had breathed a sigh and thought positively, hoping that they would someday develop into fine, “normal” people.
Someday, I would also become a full-fledged, Olympic Gold Medal skier. I wonder which of the two should be given the better odds…?