The frozen, desolate, grey rocks shoot vertically from thick layers of untouched white snow making a majestic contrast. The bitter cold and howling wind give the peaks a deadly and isolated feel, while my proximity – just a few hundred yards away – give the tippy-top of the mountain an uncomfortable accessibility. The clear sky is a rich, dark blue reminding me how close I am to the edge of the atmosphere. The last thirty seconds of the ride on the Lenawee lift at the A-Basis Ski Area is one of my favorite places on earth. Getting so close to such uninhabitable beauty should not be so easy. The splendor is never lost on me.
The little bit of extra elevation affords its skiers a longer season compared to the other mountains in Colorado, and is one of the reasons I love Arapahoe Basin. But it is much more than that. The skiing is challenging, and there is a feeling of mutual respect among the skiers who seem to acknowledge that by choosing A-Basin, you prefer risk and adventure over the safety of the mundane and comfortable. There is no village filled with fur coats and wildly overpriced stores. There is no need for shuttle busses from various parking lots. If you get to A-Basin early enough, you walk less than a football field’s distance from the car to the chairlift. A-Basin isn’t about luxury or opulence. If you choose A-Basin, you are there to ski.
Or you are there to drink. What A-Basin lacks in amenities and frills it more than makes up for in party atmosphere. The parking lot tailgate starts as soon as the gates open at five something in the morning. The spaces where the gravel lot meets the bunny hill are are called, “The Beach,” and the smoke from the grills along with the music blasting from open SUVs and Subarus makes the mountain a secondary form of entertainment. It is a free-for-all party, and the skiers that make A-Basin a special place make no apologies for their gluttonous enthusiasm.
The old-school, hard-core, anti-audacious, live-and-let-live vibe is one of the reasons I fell in love with A-Basin years ago. It was always such a relief to reach the parking lot after a 70 minute drive from Denver because I knew I could crack a beer while getting our gear ready to ski and be in good company. A nod and a knowing smile at the strangers parked around us formed a bond of serious skiing and serious drinking that promised one hell of a great day.
And that majestic spot at the top of the Lenawee lift was euphoric when I had the alcohol of about three IPAs flowing through my body. I’m glad I don’t drink anymore. I’m glad I’m healthier, my relationships are better and I’m a better parent to my children. But I miss drinking and skiing at A-Basin in a deep and painful way. For a few short hours on a cold winter day, my mind and body would reach an almost heavenly peacefulness that I cannot replicate in sobriety. I long for that feeling. It is a reminder of the wicked persistence and power of the drink.
But even this feeling – this longing – will fade with time. It is hard to understand, but it is vital to prepare for the demonic twists of the alcoholic brain. I have been sober for over two years. I have long since dismissed the cravings to drink in the evenings or on the weekends. I no longer desire alcohol when out with friends – even heavy drinking friends – at a bar or restaurant. House parties and work events and neighborhood gatherings no longer scare me. I have defeated temptation in most settings. Time and repetition have grooved new neuro-pathways replacing desire with a sort of sober confidence.
But my family hasn’t skied much these past few years. Our kids are older and their weekends are filled with sports and social engagements. When it comes to A-Basin, the repetition is not there yet. So when we went skiing last weekend, I wanted to sit on an adirondack chair outside the Black Mountain Lodge and drink a golden-amber pint in the worst way.
The uneasy pull of desire was back, and I didn’t like it one bit.
The thing most of us don’t comprehend about our subconscious minds is the shear power of our patterns and traditions. My brain equates drinking and skiing with pleasure, and only many sober and enjoyable trips down the mountain will change that. I’m not going to exaggerate and tell you that I almost drank. I didn’t. I never even considered it. But I thought about drinking. I thought about beer. All. Day. Long.
We alcoholics call them triggers. Our non-afflicted friends are familiar with the concept, and they try to help us avoid them. But our triggers are insidious. They lay dormant for years, even decades. When we least expect trouble and are most confident about our recovery, that’s when we stubble into a situation that triggers the desire. It sucks. It is undeniable, and it will be with me for the rest of my life.
We will only ski a couple of times this winter. That’s all the family calendar will allow. I don’t know if I’ll think about beer all day the next time we are at A-Basin or not. I don’t know if the desire will pass this season, or if it will be with me for years to come. It will pass when the part of my brain that I don’t control relinquishes control on my beer-linked skiing memories. I don’t know when, but it will happen eventually. My confidence about it brings me comfort – a secondary sort of comfort. Do you know what brings me a primary sort of comfort?
No matter how long the temptation lasts, I know I won’t drink.
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Now featured on the Untoxicated Podcast: Ep5 – When Sobriety Ends the Marriage