As we back the snowmobiles off the trailer, the couple in the car nearby is scowling. I can see their faces through the windshield, and I know why they’re unhappy: They have to share the trail with us. They’ll be on skinny, light skis, using only as much power as their muscles can generate, while we’ll fill the forest with noise, disturb the trail, and go as far as a tank of gas will carry us. A nagging guilt rises in me and won’t abate.
I don’t mention the skiers’ obvious dislike of us to Billy. He’s already complaining that nothing can go right for him today. In his mind, the world is always against him, even on this glorious bluebird morning.
I try not to look at the couple as they step into their Nordic skis. I try not to think about how I want to be them, how I want to feel the quiet protection of the trees around me, how I want to go slowly enough to discern patterns in the snow made by wind and birds. I try not to think about how I’ve been talked into putting a $3,000 snowmobile on my Visa card for the sake of spending more quality time with Billy.
On the trail, blue and red wooden diamonds nailed to the trees signify that we’re on a shared-use trail, and soon we have our first interaction. The skiers certainly hear us long before they see us, and they start high-stepping their long, flexible skis into the knee-deep powder beside the trail. As we pass them, leaving rough tracks, they only meagerly return my wave. I can taste my guilt now; it’s a bitterness in my throat that I can’t swallow. I see the disapproval in their eyes, their disappointment at having us come upon them. Long after we’re past them, they’ll struggle to pave the snow smooth again, as they stretch their legs over the gently rising trail and listen to their own labored breathing against the cold air.
I’ve never even stepped into a pair of Nordic skis, but I am certain they would fit me better than this machine.
We round a bend, Billy stops suddenly, and I almost ram my sled into the back of his. I hadn’t even noticed the cabin on our left, but Billy is already off his snowmobile, starting up the hill on foot. I hate it when he assumes I’ll follow him. But I am delighted to have an excuse to to be off that rumbling machine, to use my own power to get somewhere.
The cabin is only 50 yards away, but it takes a while to get through the deep snow. My skin dampens, and I realize how good it feels to sweat; it doesn’t happen enough on these rides. I’m trying to step into Billy’s footprints, but they’re long strides for me, and I keep losing my balance. I’m smiling, though, happy to have only my own feet under me.
I sit alone outside, underneath the boarded-up windows. From inside, Billy’s telling me dirty jokes about how some old miner and his burro kept each other warm here one winter. Billy’s pubescent sense of humor is probably his best quality, and somehow I’ve learned to both ignore it and appreciate it. After all, if he’s laughing, then at least he’s not angry.
There was a time that Billy inspired passion in me. I’d recently returned to the Rockies after a temporary stint in the South, and he was my mountain man, my savior. He taught me to rock climb, to snowboard, to kayak, and — most importantly — to question society’s rules. But I’d begun to rely on him too much for motivation, and his growing negativity was starting to smother my once-fervent optimism.
Billy is finally quiet, and the utter silence of the surrounding forest presses hard on my eardrums. Sitting by myself, I feel an impending sense of peace.
Today is different. The noise and the billowing smoke of the sleds, the semi-politeness of the skiers as we trample their twin tracks — these things bother me more than usual. Suddenly, I realize that I don’t need Billy in order to find and pursue my passions. It’s absurd that I’m not already doing the things that would make me happy. It occurs to me that if I’m compromising myself now, maybe there’s not much of a self left.
I know now that I will get rid of the snowmobile. And with it will go the guilt. In the end, I’ll get rid of the relationship, too. It’s unfortunate I can’t sell Billy with an ad in the paper, but I’d never get a decent return on my investment. At least when I sell the sled, I’ll have more than enough to buy a good Nordic set-up. And there will be plenty of days spent with only a backpack weighing me down. I might even venture onto a shared-use trail. And if I’m gliding along in arboreal isolation and have to step off the trail to let a snowmobile by, I’ll be sure to grin a little — I might even chuckle to myself — as I appreciate lessons learned from a past life.
Deanna Wittmer Clauson writes from Buena Vista, Colo., where she hopes all the local snowmobilers will one day have the same enlightening experience she had.