A young paramedic finds solace from post traumatic stress on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
It was our first date.
He couldn’t decide between the California sushi roll or the dragon roll. I stared at the menu blankly, unable to offer any input, thinking instead of the infant death I had worked a few days prior at my job as a paramedic. When all resuscitation efforts have failed and there is nothing more you can do, pronouncing a death to a distraught family member makes you feel like the worst paramedic and person possible. Lower than low.
With a “cheers,” I clinked glasses with my date, a nice guy from a small town in Ontario who worked hard at a power plant in the mountains. We shared a mutual obsession for an outdoor lifestyle and bonded over the need to disappear into the wilderness from time to time. I told him about hiking volcanoes in Central America; he told me about backcountry skiing in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. We promised to introduce each other to our respective playgrounds.
“Let’s eat,” Calvin said, as the sashimi, tempura and sushi rolls were beautifully presented to our table amidst a sea of tiny handmade pottery bowls filled with various dips and sauces.
One bite and the raw fish became a lump of cold, lifeless flesh in my mouth. I choked it down through sheer force, iced tea and East Coast politeness.
“You’ve got to try this one,” he said, pointing his chopsticks at the sushi roll drizzled with an orange, creamy sauce. I tried the shrimp roll, the avocado and then gagged. Everything tasted like death.
Despite my lack of appetite, we made plans for a second date trip to the Marmot Basin ski resort in Jasper, Alberta after my next work rotation, then he kissed me goodnight. The next morning I hopped a plane for a three-week work rotation to a remote community in Northern Canada.
Before I knew it, I was on date number two with the nice guy from Ontario — having some trouble focusing on second date fun. Images of first-hand sickness, death and gore from the emergency calls I had done paraded through my mind.
“How was work?” he asked.
“Oh you know,” I shrugged, “just another day at the office.”
I thought he could never possibly understand. EMS work is a roller coaster ride, and sometimes you’re riding that roller coaster alone, and just because your shift ends doesn’t mean the ride will stop.
The three-hour road trip was spent in the silence of excessively loud music. We were supposed to be getting to know one another. I was afraid of what horrors might escape if I opened my mouth to speak, so I didn’t say much.
We arrived at Marmot Basin, bought our lift tickets and hopped the Express Quad Chair up the mountain. A short ski from there and we arrived at the wooden two-seater Knobb Chair, which shook and swayed as a loud boom sounded off to our left.
“Ski patrol,” Calvin said casually as we hopped off the chair lift, “setting off avalanches.”
Off the lift, I slung my new powder skis over my shoulder, Calvin strapped his to a backpack, and together we began to hike to the peak. Before long, I was streaming cold sweat. Each step was a challenge as though the mountain was daring me to try and climb it. The wind and blowing snow shooed away the waking nightmares of my job: all that mattered was putting one boot in front of the other.
“Welcome to the top,” Calvin said as he pulled me into him with an outstretched hand, smiling like a six-year-old. The peak was sparkling with fresh, untouched powder as if it had been left purposely, as a second-date gift.
For a long time I had forgotten that the world is a beautiful place: the Rockies expanded in all directions to the edge of the sunny, cloudless horizon. I felt tiny and insignificant, and yet special all at the same time. The mountains reassured me, with just my presence amongst them, that I deserved to be there.
Carving down the mountain was like dancing at a rave in a fairy tale. I felt like Cinderella in a ski jacket ball gown, floating over fluffy powder with my glass slippers, gaining speed and excitement. Calvin zagged past me on the descent, a trail of “Wooooooo!” blazing behind him.
“Let’s play over there!” he said, pointing to the double black diamond runs of Eagle East. And we played.
“Did you see me? Did you see me?” I said at the bottom of a treed run, with snow crammed into my helmet, down my pants and up my jacket.
“I saw you,” he said as he removed a glove and gently brushed snow from my face.
When the park began to close down around us, we skied to the parking lot and began the lengthy process of removing our gear. That morning I had bought drinks and snacks at a gas station but had forgotten about them. Actually, I had forgotten about food, water and bathroom breaks altogether.
I popped the top on two beverages and handed him one. We sat on the bumper of his SUV, sipping our drinks in peaceful silence, like two kids after a day at Disneyland. A light dusting of wispy clouds turned pink as the evening sun began to set over Jasper, and I didn’t have to say anything at all. The mountains had said it for me.