Tuesday, December 23, 2003

I am not very good at being alone. Morgan just left. With her family, to spend Christmas at her grandmother’s house. We wove a few plans about meeting up before she sets off for Patagonia, but it is difficult to tell whether that will work out, and whether I will see her again before May. I know, at least, I will be able to talk to her for the next month. Come the end of January, she will be out of all sort of contact, completely disconnected and unplugged. For three months, I will probably only be able to send her one letter. That’s pretty tough to digest, and we made a point of not talking about it over the past days that we’ve spent with each other in Vermont…we only had a few days with each other, and we implicitly decided to focus on those days, and really sow all our intentions into enjoying them.
And these days have been marvelous. Days we filled with wintery adventures, and nights we kept things low key. We cooked latkes. We played scrabble. We watched some TV and The Two Towers. We made menorahs out of the most unlikely things. Like tin foil, and flower pots.
Shabbat afternoon, we read the New York Times magazine’s special issue on new ideas, and then we snowshoed out through Morgan’s neighborhood until we got lost deep in the woods. For several hours, we saw nothing but snow and trees, following whatever trails seemed most promising and exciting. Evenutally, the woods broke, and we found ourselves on a road. In front of us, were two college-aged guys in ski gear, standing outside their SUV.
--Could you help us? We’re trying to find Killington, and our Mapquest directions took us here.
--Well we just stepped out of the woods,
maybe it was Morgan who answered…and then maybe I followed up something like
--And we haven’t known where we’ve been for hours.
--Oh, wait. I actually think I know where we are. See that sign that says SLOW: SCHOOL ZONE? We’re right next to my elementary school. Go down this road and then take a hard right. That will take you straight to the mountain.

Sunday, we set out to Waitsfield, VT, home to the ski academy that Morgan went to for high school and to the famous Elizabeth. Elizabeth features as Morgan’s partner in crime in most of her stories. Two summers ago, they pioneered GPS mapping of health-care services in rural Haiti together. Now, Elizabeth is spending the year in Haiti, working on a solar ovens project, and we got to catch her on her brief stint home for Christmas. We arrived some 45 minutes late, and as we were approaching Waitsfield, I was worried that Elizabeth might be upset about us delaying the adventure she had planned for us. Morgan reassured me that Elizabeth was so often late that she would probably be pleased with our time of arrival, and come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t even be there when we arrived. Morgan called it—we let ourselves into Elizabeth’s house, which she and her parents had built over the past decade, and Morgan gave me a little tour of it until Elizabeth arrived. We had plans to climb Sugarbush mountain and camp at the top, but spent the rest of our daylight on talking, packing, and lunch—some wholesome dal-type dish that Elizabeth had cooked. When we finally arrived at the base of the mountain with our packs, the sun had set, and the mountain was closing down.
Lucky for us the mountain is part of a national park, and must be made accessible.
Lucky for us the ski patrol leaves a warming hut open at the top of the mountain.
Lucky for us Morgan packed her headlamp.
Morgan, Elizabeth, her dog Zimba, and I set off up the mountain on snowshoes (except Zimba, who plowed through with his paws), bearing backpacks filled with fleecy layers, food, sleeping bags, and a thousand other little pieces of snow gear. We started up the slopes that had been filled with skiers during the day, but which were now empty. Occasionally, a snow cat would prowl up the trail we were on, and we would pull ourselves and Zimba of to the side so the enormous machine could groom. It felt very much like a science fiction novel I remember in fifth grade, where huge weird machines (I think in the book they were called tripods) patrolled humans across a dark wintery landscape. We hiked for hours in the darkness. Occasionally we chose some gradual routes, but most of the time we were climbing some pretty steep slopes. It was exhausting, and I don’t think I would have made it if I hadn’t been in such great company. On this dark trail up a mountain in the middle of Vermont, we got into some really intense conversations…topics included sustainable development, microbe evolution, renewable energy and productive ecological change. Even so engaged, I was not used to this kind of intense climbing, and was about ready to collapse from exhaustion after a particularly steep moguled ascent, when the warming hut appeared around the bend. We found a (gas-fake)wood heat stove and a gas cooking stove, which we used to heat ourselves and some chili we had brought with us. I lit channukah candles in the window. We ate, and Elizabeth and Morgan talked about Haiti, and I kind of zoned out. I had pushed really hard at the end and perhaps not had enough water, and was feeling quite out of it. In fact, I was so out of it that I rested my head a little too close to the wood stove, and was started back into awareness by the crackling sound of my hair catching on fire. Luckily enough, we caught it before much happened, and I found a place to sleep that was a safe distance away.
I woke up many times over the course of the night to go to the bathroom (have you ever used snow instead of toilet paper? It is an experience like no other), but still somehow had a restful night. I had wonderful dreams. In one dream, Ari Kaufman and Sareet were debating the pronunciation of Hummus while spreading it on two full golden loaves of challah. Ari Kaufman settled the debate by throwing both challot high into the air--they hit each other, stuck together, and came back down. In the next dream, I had finally learned to do giants on the high bar—my greatest fear when I did gymnastics. I was doing giants on the high bar and my dad was spotting me. When I woke up from that dream, the sky was just starting to get lighter. I woke up Morgan and Elizabeth, and we watched the sun rise on the shortest day of the year. There was a long dark cloud resting just above and parallel to a long ridge of mountain on the horizon. Between the clouds and the horizon, there was a thin gap, that got bright red. Then, above that long dark cloud, another cloud became illuminated in bright red and then yellow. Then the red sun rose into the gap between the mountains and the long cloud, and immediately set behind the cloud.
After we had packed up, we found the Long Trail, which carried us from the mountaintop on the southern end of Sugarbush along the ridges and peaks that connected us to the northern tip of Sugarbush. Parts of the Long Trail had been recently traveled, but much of it was buried deep in snow. More than a few times one of us temporarily lost an arm, snowshoe, or foot into snow below us. More than a few times we had to judge whether the gap was bigger between trees A and B or C and D, and which one we thought might be the trail. But finally we came out on the north end of the ridge. We hiked a bit down one of the slopes, and ducked into an inconspicuous patch of woods on the side.
Sufficiently hidden from the ski patrol, we blew up our inflatable sleds, stuffed our snowshoes in our packs, and took off down the slopes. About halfway down, a ski patrol temporarily confiscated our sleds (He chastened us, “Do you know how many people have died on this mountain?”). We continued to make our way down, using our butts as sleds on the best parts. This was actually a lot of fun—fleece and snowpants provided enough padding, and the steeper slopes kept us going for a while.

Today, Morgan and I spent the day skiing down Killington, with new appreciation for the ascent the gondolas and chairlifts were handling for us. She is a wonderful teacher—I got a lot better. Best of all, I got to see Morgan ski…there are so many environments where different beautiful aspects of Morgan get expressed, and skiing is one of the most central ones. If your girlfriend was a bird, would you pass up a chance to see her take flight?

She left this evening with her family, to spend Christmas with her grandparents in Massachusetts. . And I am hanging out at her house now, typing on her computer with her cat Sophie in my lap. Tomorrow I will set off for Loon Lake, where I will spend another night alone in the new house, before my parents and Ethan make it up on Thursday. I really dislike being alone most of the time, but I realize that my plans for after graduation—travels and projects in distant corners of the earth—will probably involve a good bit of alone time. I think it is important for me to think about what it is like to be alone, to get comfortable with myself, and learn how to be more personally reflective. There is so much to consider.