I suppose there are worse ways to spend your 50th birthday than waiting for ski patrol to locate you on a barren mountaintop at 11,000 feet above sea level. It isn’t the first time I veered off path, neglected to read the map, took a leap of faith. But this time, the results of my inability to plan ahead could have dire consequences.
The Colorado sun is quickly melting snow around me. I jab my poles in just below my feet to break what would surely be a hard fall down a steep slope. Precariously pitched in uncharted ski territory, I dig in my pocket for my cell phone and dial 911. The operator patches me into Keystone Ski Patrol.
“I’m stuck below Gondola 13. Can you send someone to get me?”
"Don't worry. We’ll have someone there any minute,” the dispatcher assures me.
I zip the phone back into my pocket and hope my rescuer won't ask me how I got here. I'd have to tell him the embarrassing truth.
After veering off “Mouse Trap,” a treacherous, way-beyond-my-skills black diamond run, I thought I could ski down the mountain by following underneath the gondola path — at least there'd be civilization above me (funny how snow distorts one's perception). About a quarter of the way down my pure powder path, I came upon an unexpected vista. I'm now at the ledge of a steep valley, a forest below me that divides the gondola's path to the bottom of the mountain. As far as I can see, there is no way down, and there is certainly no way back up.
I sit down, unsnap my skis, and dig in.
# # #
My roommate Alicia found the big green binder in Career Services and dropped it with a thud on the table in front of us.
"Here it is, The 1980 Job Resource Guide," she said.
"I guess we should be happy that it's huge."
We sat under fluorescent lights and paged through the multiple job listings.
It was May of our senior year at Mundelein College in Chicago. Alicia was a psychology major with no plans to enter her chosen field, and I was a humanities major by default. Refusing to declare a major until the junior-year deadline, I simply kept signing up for classes that I thought would be interesting: Federico Fellini Film Study, Russian Literature, Music: In Search of Self. We were graduating in a month and up until now had made no attempts to secure a job after graduation.
Slouched over the desk, we paged through the book unenthusiastically until a small ad caught my eye.
Summer help needed. Keystone Resort — Rocky Mountains.
"Can you imagine?" I said, sitting up straight.
A sly smile appeared on Alicia’s face.
"There's plenty of time to work on those real jobs later, right?” she said. ”I mean, it's just for the summer."
For the next few days, we talked about Colorado in the cafeteria, in our apartment, in the neighborhood bar with friends. Another college friend, Evelyn, found the idea irresistible, too, and soon we had booked three tickets on Amtrak to Denver, leaving on Father's Day, one week after graduation.
# # #
I skied often as a child on family vacations, but as an adult, I lacked the money and time. My rusty style was apparent from day one on this vacation when I tumbled over my own ski pole disembarking from the lift. But my age-related clumsiness would not stop me from falling into a childhood habit of risk-taking on the slopes.
Now, as I sit under Gondola 13, I marvel at my sheer stupidity. Aren't you supposed to have a little more common sense at my age? I stick my gloves in my pocket and lift my hood up so I can rest my head in the melting snow. I don't dare stand up for fear I'll lose my balance and tumble forward into the deep abyss in front of me.
Two eagles soar by in a cloudless blue sky. I close my eyes and imagine the laughs my mishap will incur at my birthday party tonight. Alicia has booked a horse-drawn sleigh ride for our six boys and our husbands to a mountain cabin for a "cowboy dinner" and square dancing. It's not something I want to miss.
I sit up and look for signs of ski patrol.
# # #
The bus dropped us off at the Summit County police station, a single-cell facility five miles from Keystone. We didn't know where else to go after learning from the HR department that all summer jobs at Keystone were filled. Perhaps we should have called ahead.
Scraggly and tired after a 12-hour train ride and a treacherous bus ride up the mountain, we stared speechless at one other.
"I don't even have enough money for a ticket home," I told my travel-mates.
Surrounded by suitcases, we sat on the lobby bench, dejected and searching for our next move.
"What about that piece of paper your mom stuck in your pocket?" Alicia asked.
"Oh yeah," I said, remembering Mom’s last gesture before we departed Union Station.
"If you run into any trouble, call this number," she told us, as she hugged me goodbye.
I pulled the number out my pocket and headed to the pay phone.
Forty minutes later, Father John, a young dark-haired priest dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, pulled up to the station, his black Jeep churning dust from the unpaved road.
"Hop in girls," he said, in a matter-of fact voice. "You'll be staying at St. Mary's rectory tonight."
Elated by this happy turn of events and the kindness of this stranger, we hoisted our luggage in the back trunk and crowded in for a bumpy ride down the mountain.
# # #
At first, they look like two red dots on a white cloud, but soon I can see the stretcher sled that connects them. Relieved by the sight of my saviors, I sit up and slip on my gloves.
Before long, with an expert hockey stop, the athletic blonde sprays snow in front of me.
"You must be Mary Ann?"
I nod sheepishly. "Boy, am I glad to see you."
"Sorry, for the delay. My name is Jennifer, and this is my partner Sean. The dispatcher told us you were under Gondola 18. We had a hard time finding you. Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine."
"How did you end up here?"
Shading my eyes from the sun, I look up at Jennifer.
"Do you mind if I tell you that later?"
"Not at all. Let's focus on getting you down."
She surveys the scene with her partner and confers on our options.
"Are you able to stand and walk?"
"I can stand, but walk where?"
She points down the steep drop off in front of us.
"No way! I'm sure I would tumble straight down."
She nods and confers again with Sean.
"Okay, we're going to have to ski it then,” she says. “Let's get you on the stretcher."
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
"Let me get this straight. You are going to ski off this cliff down that steep drop with me on a stretcher?"
"Don’t worry,” Sean says. “This is what we train for. It’s going to be fun. You've made our day!"
This is not the kind of “fun” I had in mind when I booked this vacation last year. But I have no choice.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
# # #
It was later afternoon, when Father John showed us to the rectory’s guest room, a tidy, somewhat sterile room with three bunk beds, a desk and a lone crucifix hanging on a white wall.
“You three look awfully tired. You’ll find some snacks in the kitchen. Feel free to eat or sleep. We’ll get to work tomorrow.”
I immediately took a top bunk and was soon in a deep and heavy sleep.
We stayed with Father John for three days, earning our keep by cleaning the rectory and helping prepare meals. As the de facto Catholic priest for the resort — Father John offered Sunday Mass at Keystone's quaint chapel — our host was able to secure jobs for us on campus: two dishwashers and a janitor. As thanks, we promised to attend his Mass during our stay and visit him often.
I found a box of stick matches in the kitchen cabinet, pulled out three, broke one in half and handed them to Father John.
“Whoever pulls the short match gets the janitor job,” I said. My friends agreed, and we drew our matches. Alicia came up short and took the janitor job. Evelyn and I would be dishwashers.
After we set up our work and living arrangements with the HR office, Father John dropped us off at Keystone’s employee housing. We might as well have joined the army. A row of cheaply built six-story buildings would be our barracks for the near future.
After thanking Father John, we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and surveyed our two-bedroom, one-bathroom suite. It was dorm life all over again, with the bare necessities — twin beds on skinny mattresses, a single pine dresser in each room, curtainless windows.
Again, we drew matches, and this time I came up short. I’d share a room with another employee, a pleasant, plump girl from Vermont name Sheila, who worked as a landscaper.
Sheila shared her six-pack of Coors and a bag of potato chips with us, as she gave us the lay of the land.
“Just show up on time and do your job, you’ll be fine,” Sheila said. “But watch out for those Southern belles from Texas. They’re evil.”
# # #
I crawl over to the stretcher and climb aboard, folding my hands over my chest and laying flat on my back as my guides straps me in. Jennifer hoists my skis and poles on to a horizontal rack parallel to the stretcher.
Sean points out a course with his partner and turns to me.
“We’ll be heading straight down and into that forest over there,” he says as he readjusts his goggles over a sun-cracked face. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride between the trees. Jennifer will be behind you securing the sled with ropes. I’m in front, holding the stretcher poles and leading the way. Are you going to be okay?”
“I think so. But is it okay if I close my eyes?”
“Sure. Just hold on tight to the side rails and try to keep your weight evenly distributed.”
Wow, I think to myself. This will be the run of my life.
# # #
If our goal was self-discovery that first summer out of college, I quickly learned two things about myself. I was a pretty good dishwasher but a terrible waitress.
Our pale, bespectacled manager handed over the green slacks and white collared shirts and pointed to the unisex bathroom. Evelyn and I were the first female dishwashers in the Brassier Café’s history — Father John couldn’t be too choosey with his last-minute job requests. We emerged in our baggy, male-designed uniforms and took our place at the industrial Hobart machine.
“You rinse and load,” the manager said, pointing to me. “And you unload,” he ordered Evelyn.
It was easy to fall into the repetitive swing of dishwashing and we quickly gained our rhythm. Evelyn soon pointed out the advantages of unloading. The steam shot out at the end of the assembly line directly into her face.
“I’m getting free facials all day long,” she announced.
Staring at our patron’s leftover glop for hours on end and digging Swiss cheese off stubborn French onion soup bowls grew tiresome. Dishwashers were also required to mop the kitchen floor, a new experience for me, as I had never worked with a heavy string mop before. The manager corrected me a number of times.
“Look here, see how I make the figure eight? Around and down. Around and up. If you’re not strong enough, I’m sure we could find some young man to do the job.”
“No, no. I’ll get it. Don’t worry.”
Lifting that water-soaked mop over an entire kitchen floor was physically draining. Bone tired after our first eight-hour shift, Evelyn and I headed home to our barracks and dropped into our beds for another marathon sleep session.
One sunny afternoon, just weeks into our new jobs, Alicia popped into the kitchen in her brown khakis and name-embroidered uniform shirt, dangling a heavy string of keys.
“How’s it going girls?” she asked, as I poured her a free coke.
“Get this,” I tell her. “Just as I’m starting to like this dishwashing gig — I mean come on, I’ve lost five pounds – the manager promotes us to waitresses.”
“That’s great,” said Alicia. “Think of the tips. Hey, if they’re hiring maybe I’ll apply. I’ve had enough with fixing heating vents and unplugging sinks.”
“You’d be a natural with all your waitressing experience,” I tell her, remembering her diner stories from high school.
“Yeah. And believe me, anything would be better than this janitor work.”
Alicia applied that afternoon and nailed a waitress job with us. Before long the three us donned the Brassier uniform — beige cotton dresses and brown aprons — and stood at attention in our one-day training class.
# # #
“Do you have a final wish?” Sean asks with a smile as he hoists the two poles that will guide the stretcher.
I laugh out loud, but to myself I think, “Please Lord, just get me down this mountain safely.”
With this vacation, Alicia and I are keeping a promise we made one night years ago while celebrating our birthdays together — hers is March 17 and mine is March 26. We’d been reminiscing about our post-college Keystone adventure as we had so many times before.
“You know,” she said. “We ought to promise each other that no matter where we are in life, single, married, divorced, no matter how many kids we have, no matter where we live, that we spend our 50th birthdays at Keystone.”
I raised my glass.
“And this time, not in employee housing. We’ll do it up right! “
We reminded each other of that promise throughout the years.
By the time our 50th rolled around, she was married and the mother of four boys, living in Chicago’s western suburbs and working as high-level financial executive at large investment firm in downtown. I was also married and the mother of two boys, living in the Northwest suburbs, and retired from a 25-years career in public relations after a breast cancer diagnosis and successful treatment.
We started planning the trip in our 49th year. We’d take our whole families, ride Amtrak just like our first excursion, but we’d purchase sleeping berths this time for the kids’ enjoyment and our peace of mind.
Our Rocky Mountain adventure was splendid until now. Was I going to ruin this carefully planned trip with an injury caused by my own stupidity?
I close my eyes.
“I’m ready Sean. Let’s do it.”
# # #
“How ya’ll doin’ on this fine morning,” said LeeAnn to her eight-top table of parents and kids. “I bet ya’ll could use some blueberry pancakes this morning to keep you going if you’re gonna hike up that mountain,” she said with a laugh.
Wait a minute. This was one of the evil Southern belles Sheila warned me about? A short, cute blonde, she’d sashay out of the kitchen with an overhead tray of entrees, sides and drinks and engage in pleasant conversation while accurately matching each plate to its owner. She couldn’t be sweeter, I thought.
That is, until she stood by my side at the chef’s counter a few minutes later.
“I want those damn pancakes on a plate right now Sam,” she barked with no trace of a Southern accent, as she edged me out with her elbow.
“Excuse me, he’s working on my order right now?” I said as I moved back into my place.
“Your order? Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Mary Ann. I just started today. And who do you think you are?”
LeeAnn looked at Sam and they broke into laughter.
“You better understand how things work around here, girl. It doesn’t matter when I come in. The chefs take care of me first because I take care of them.”
She winked at Sam.
“You got it?”
“Yeah, I get it.” I said.
Maybe I should have studied that career services binder a little harder. This was not going to be an easy job, after all.
# # #
I try hard to keep my weight evenly distributed on the stretcher but with an almost straight vertical drop to the edge of the forest, it’s not easy to do. Sean and Jennifer are making rodeo sounds as though they’re riding a crazed buck. I hear laughing and Sean shouts back to me.
“You all right, Mary Ann?”
“I think so,” I yell as I grab tighter on the rails.
The safety straps feel as though they’re cutting into my flesh with each bump and twist of the stretcher. I refuse to open my eyes.
Suddenly we come to an abrupt stop and I’m somewhat horizontal again. I open my eyes. Sean and Jennifer stare down at me, breathing hard and dripping sweat from their foreheads. I can see pine trees and a clear blue sky behind them.
“That was the easy part,” says Jennifer. “Now we have to get through this forest.”
“I’m sorry I’m putting you guys through this,” I say.
“Are you kidding? We’re loving it,” says Sean. “I thought I’d skied every corner of Keystone, but this is new to me. The forest ahead of us will be like Level 5 Pacman.”
“I presume you’re good at Pacman?”
“The best,” says Sean with a smile.
# # #
One major advantage to our waitress promotion: pockets full of instant cash. Alicia was right. Four-star resort guests tend to be generous tippers.
On our days off, we’d hitchhike to Breckenridge for window-shopping and lunch. We were oblivious to the dangers of hitching. It seemed like everyone did it in the mountains and we’d never heard of any foul play amongst our growing group of friends.
I loved these short jaunts for their sightseeing value. In my three months in the Rocky Mountains, I never got tired of the snow-dipped mountain peaks, the endless blue skies, the tree-lined vistas stretching out for miles. We were young and free as birds in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Except when I was back at the Brassier. I was having a hard time fitting in to the waitress world. Not only was I on the Southern belles’ hit list for pouring coffee at their tables (“I don’t care how many times the customer waves you over — don’t go anywhere near my tables.”), but for some reason, I couldn’t balance a tray over my head.
In our training session, we learned that every item brought out of the kitchen must be placed on a large circular tray and hoisted overhead.
On my first day, a clean-cut, thirtyish-looking man, sat alone at a table on the patio reading the Wall Street Journal.
“Good morning,” I said cheerfully. “What can I get you today?”
“Just a cup of coffee for now,” he said.
I grabbed a pot at the heating station and filled his cup.
“May I have some cream please?”
“Oh sure. I’m sorry, it should be on the table. I’ll be right back.”
Heading to the kitchen, I placed a small cream decanter on a giant round tray lifted it over my head and headed back to the table.
“Here you go,” I said.
Just before grabbing the creamer, I tipped the tray slightly forward. The cream came tumbling off, bounced off my customer’s shoulder and landed in his lap.
He jumped up quickly, as I sheepishly grabbed a napkin and tried to dry his shirt.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, my face beating red. “You’re only my second customer.”
“I hate to see what you did to the first one,” he replied with a laugh.
Relieved that he took the splattering lightly, I offered to pay for his dry-cleaning and comp his breakfast.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just bring me another cup of coffee, please.”
Later, when I returned to the empty table, I found a $10 bill tucked neatly under the creamer.
It would be the first of many spills, before the manager had to let me go. I happily took another job as a resort landscaper where equilibrium played no role and the Southern belles dared not venture.
# # #
Out of respect for Sean and Jennifer, I vow to keep my eyes open for our run through the forest. They are clearly experts in their field and their youthful enthusiasm — laughing in the face of danger — reminds me or our Keystone exploits 28 years ago. Our goal back then was not to have a goal for a brief moment in time, to live strictly in the moment before we embarked upon “real life.”
Now, at age 50, I am putting my life in the hands of these young adults, who, like us years ago, have chosen to live in the moment. No doubt, one day Sean and Jennifer will leave Keystone for more promising career paths. But no matter where their lives take them, today they are at the top of their game.
Slaloming between clusters of aspen and spruce trees while maneuvering a loaded seven-foot stretcher is no easy task. Several times, I come within inches of a tree trunk but Jennifer’s hard tug on the ropes behind me sway the stretcher back to the path that Sean is expertly cutting in the snow.
“I can see the opening,” yells Sean as he guides us to a treeless landing. “We made it! We’re back on Mozart.”
Jennifer snaps off her skies and unties my straps. I stand up and shake the snow off my jacket.
“You guys are unbelievable. I can’t thank you enough.”
“We’re just doing our job,” says Jennifer, stepping into her skis. “We’re halfway down this intermediate run. Can you ski it yourself, or do you want us to follow you?”
“I’m fine on my own. But this time, I think I’ll stay the course.”
Jennifer and Sean laugh heartily, wave goodbye and take off with the empty stretcher still between them.
I start my slow and careful glide down the mountain.