He was the quiet guy who managed the ski center -- with a faraway accent, hands that never seemed cold, and skin that smelled like sunscreen and wet snow. I was the hanger-on of mutual friends, a low-altitude girl up for a weekend ski outing, a little underdressed and out of her element.
It was my outfit that got him, he admits: A pair of thermal biking tights repurposed for a day of cross-country skiing. As I turned to leave, juggling an armload of poles and skis, he leaned over the rental counter to watch me disappear out the door.
You were funny, he says; my city girl. Soft and Slavic, it sounds like a title: My Seetygale.
I was a writer and editor in Denver, and my city was my subject. I roamed the neighborhoods and bike paths, grabbed coffee at the Brazilian restaurant. I found myself at theater district bars with inappropriate strangers. I'd come to identify with the city, and with this immersion came a delicious sense of belonging.
But I fell in love with this man, and he had fallen in love with the mountains of the Continental Divide. So for four years, I straddled it. Up on Fridays, down on Mondays. On Wednesdays I'd wait by the door of my Denver apartment, listening to the sounds of the empty house -- dishwasher humming, halogen lights buzzing, gas fireplace hissing. I'd strain to hear the sound of his feet on the stairs, the thunk, thunk as he kicked off his boots and padded across the floor to slip his arms around my waist.
We told ourselves we could have it all -- him with his dream job, me with mine, and the two of us meeting on either side of the mountains. And for me, it really did work. There was a luxuriant freedom in that part-time mountain routine. Each Friday, I'd swap my white dress coat for a down jacket. Ditch the heels, grab the jeans and a plain black turtleneck sweater. Remember the mittens. Toss the duffel bag onto the passenger seat. By the time I crested the top of the pass, work politics and deadlines had faded. In a tiny mountain ski town, I slept in a peeled log bed with the window open, the wind in the pines and the sound of a creek below us.
We married, I got pregnant, and still we drove. Even as I grew heavy and awkward, I'd wear my favorite shoes to work, a pair of fuchsia suede pumps. They were an emblem: Despite my divided life, I had not changed. It was still me, here, reporting for duty. In my mind, our commute would go on forever, each of us respecting our need to be in a place where we could be ourselves.
But when I returned to work after our son was born, the economic climate was stormy. Just weeks later, my job was gone. I felt a sudden, choking need to leave Denver. It wasn't just that economic prospects were grim; it was that I had endured so much separation to be that person who lived the city, who loved it, promoted it, immersed myself in it. My everyday life in the city inspired my work. And without my work, my life in the city lost its compass.
The mountains loomed not as my weekly getaway to recharge, but as my new reality. A funky old condo on a hill, Carhartts hanging by the door, a single bedroom, a crib in the corner, a woodstove. Home.
In the quiet of the Denver house, I cleaned out my closet, and in a large box I stacked shirts that required dry-cleaning, the dress coat, the worn but still beautiful fuchsia heels. I labeled the box "give away" with a Sharpie, and slid it onto the porch. Then I tucked the baby into the car and drove over the pass to my husband, the trees blocking out the lights of the city sky.
Unlike most of my mountain contemporaries, I didn't choose life up here at 9,000 feet. I couldn't; I thought there was too much of me to lose. Now, I see in the mirror a woman who could use a haircut, whose wardrobe is a rotation of hooded sweaters and jeans and a single pair of reliable clogs, icons of relaxation that seem so romantic on a weekend basis, and so ordinary day after day. When I plow into a headwind as I run from the car to the library or stuff my arms into a dirty down jacket for the fifth month in a row, I miss my city self.
Then I drop into the locals' bar for a beer with my husband and his mountain friends. I stop in the doorway for a moment to fix my hair, trying to put back what the wind whipped free. I meet his eyes, and they are bright with love. I make my way over to lift a glass with our friends, to clink in celebration of the end of a busy season, of time to spend together, and of the first sign of spring, the snow that is melting in joyous rivers beneath our feet.
Cara McDonald is a health and lifestyle writer living in Winter Park, Colorado.