Crossing over

A city girl moves to the mountains for love

  • Shaun C. Gibson

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.

Winter Park
Apr 26, 2010 09:14 PM
I was carried away by the story as I pictured the pull of two lives. And the seduction of the mountains, away from Denver. A new life in some frozen high mountain burg. I was thinking about where it might be. Frisco? No, too close to I-70. Gunnison, No, too far from Denver. Maybe Buena Vista. Although Winter Park must feel a world away from a full life in Denver, I have come to think of it as practically a suburb of Denver these days. The ski area, is even owned by the city of Denver. But then love brings transformation to all things associated with it, and Winter Park for a weekend, could masquerade as Chamonix, after a week in the city. But only for a while I supsect.
great article
Apr 27, 2010 05:55 AM
wonderful article about what is really important in life.
the girl out of the city
Apr 27, 2010 09:49 PM
When I got to the part where she lost her job, I feared she'd lose her husband too--Big relief! No way.
Gina London
Gina London
Apr 27, 2010 06:53 AM
You can take the girl out of the city .. but apparently you really can take the city out of the girl too. For the right reasons, of course. Eloquent and elegant.
McDonald essay
Bill Croke
Bill Croke
Apr 30, 2010 12:46 PM
Only the shallow know themselves.---Oscar Wilde.
Your essay
Patty LaNoue Stearns
Patty LaNoue Stearns
May 01, 2010 12:19 PM
So well said, Cara. I'm glad you're at peace with your situation. I am still yearning for more occasions to wear my good shoes and city clothes in Traverse City.

Crossing Over
Alvin Warner
Alvin Warner
Dec 03, 2010 12:54 PM
I sincerely hope that HCN is collecting literary masterwork such as this for a future book.