“So, what was the best part of your trip?” Our friend Kaiao squeezed the question between mouthfuls of bison burger and pulls from Second Street Brewery’s craft IPA as the four of us sat gathered in our top choice of Santa Fe dining options. His girlfriend, Amanda (to follow Kaiao and Amanda’s post-Air Force, trans-Atlantic sailing expedition, check out their blog), smiled and waited expectantly to hear what Joseph and I considered to be the culminating moment in our two-week outdoor, dirt-bagging adventure. I looked sideways at my boyfriend, busy downing mouthfuls of Second Street’s heavenly nachos. His eyes widened, maybe from the copious amounts of cheese entering his digestive system, but more likely because of the sheer weight of the question. How could we possibly narrow the past two weeks into one singular moment we labeled “the best”?
“Um . . . wow,” I laughed as myriad images of our trip flooded my brain. “You’re going to have to let me think about that for a bit.” Joseph nodded in agreement, unable to speak around the tortilla chips meeting their demise against his chomping molars.
The truly epic moments filled my mind first. Maybe the answer to Kaiao’s question came at Taos Ski Valley, when after a warm-up day of fast groomers and moguled runs with easy bail-outs, Joseph and I set out immediately for Kachina Peak, the pinnacle of Taos’s notoriously steep and rugged terrain. The sun baked my body through my black hard shell as I trudged behind Joseph, skis slung over my shoulder and sweat dripping from beneath my helmet. My lungs, accustomed to the oxygen-rich air of central Arkansas, burned in protest against the searing cold of Rocky Mountain altitude. For nearly an hour we climbed, occasionally stopping to gaze across the vast expanse surrounding us, mountain peaks poking through feathery gray clouds and snow-packed slopes plummeting into bottomless valleys. I recalled my college days, hiking to the top of powdered bowls and thick glades and carving my way through untouched snow to the bottom, before the military had ripped my unwilling spirit away from the mountains nearly five years ago. I was home, in the Rockies, with a wonderful man and a wonderful day of skiing ahead of me.
At the top, I peered over the lip of Kachina’s steepest chutes and felt the familiar flutter in my chest, that simultaneous rush of nervousness and excitement, a flicker of self-doubt quickly shoved aside by eager anticipation at flying down the mountain with gravity as my closest ally. Joseph plunged his poles into the soft powder and propelled himself forward. I followed close behind, listening to the faint swish of powder beneath my freshly waxed skis, the sound broken only by the mild crunch of my edges digging into the slope with each effortless turn. Pure, sweet freedom whistled across my skin as we chased each other across the snow, thighs burning and tears streaming from our eyes, perhaps from the wind, or perhaps because of the perfection of this moment.
Or maybe it was a few days later, just outside Ouray, Colorado, where Joseph introduced me to the at once terrifying and invigorating sport of ice climbing. We strapped dozens of sharp spikes to our feet and hands and clomped our way through the well-traveled paths along the top of the canyon that comprises the Ouray Ice Park. With a soothing voice and patient hand, Joseph helped me rig a rappel that I would trust enough to lean back over the abyss and lower myself into the canyon. From there, I concentrated on the firm swing of my ice tools, exhaling forcefully with every satisfying chink as the tips sank deep into the wall, sending tiny ice chunks flying into my face and down the inside of my winter coat. I planted each crampon-clad boot into the ice with a thunk before resetting my next ice tool higher, making slow progress upward. Thunk thunk chink, thunk thunk chink, rhythmic and reassuring, like a bizarre lullaby. Inch by inch, and under Joseph’s guidance, I climbed, and conquered a face of frozen water. Though I left Ouray with aching forearms and a bruise on my hip roughly the size of a grapefruit, I vowed to return for more gravity defiance the following winter.
As noteworthy, possibly even epic, as these moments were, I wondered if they really encompassed everything that “the best part of the trip” would necessarily include. I thought of our first evening, soaking at Ojo Caliente Hot Springs after a long day crammed into the cab of Joseph’s pickup, the steam rising off the water in smoky rivulets before disappearing against a starry mountain night. I thought of the preparation for our first day of ice climbing, which included renting crampons and ice tools and then sharing a beer at the Ouray Brewing Company across the street. I thought of changing into ski clothes in the bathroom of the Taos Cow after a vegan in a long, flowing skirt and hiking boots served us coffee and enormous breakfast burritos slathered in New Mexican green chili. I thought of lying on my back at the base of a crag in Diablo Canyon, snuggling with Amanda’s dog and soaking in the winter sun as we watched Joseph and Kaiao scale a multi-pitch sport route above us. I thought of peering over piles of snow as tall as the truck to see the towering peaks stretching in every direction around the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray. The harmonious majesty and serenity of the mountains infused every experience we shared, like the rise and fall of a movie soundtrack, transforming the merely entertaining into something deep and emotional. The essence of the mountains permeated our trip and made it unforgettable; answering Kaiao with a meager description of an activity without mention of the backdrop seemed wildly inadequate.
I racked my brain, seated there at dinner, wishing I could encompass my entire train of thought into a short answer. I glanced again at Joseph in the chair next to me, wondering which scenes were populating his mind as he contemplated Kaiao’s question. The image of his blue eyes and deep smile lines instantly transported me to still more moments within the past fortnight, moments that had little to do with adventure sports or wild mountain scenery, and everything to do with the very innate human need for companionship. I saw his face, barely visible through the cinched cord of his sleeping bag, gazing at me the first morning we awoke in his truck bed beneath its camper shell as the desert sun spread tiny flecks of light throughout our tiny cocoon. I laughed at the memory of our “February 13th” gifts to each other, the morning of our first day in the Ouray Ice Park: a belay device and daisy chain for me and a propane-powered backpacking torch for him. I remembered the evening we spent parked in a dirt lot in Pagosa Springs, sharing crackers and a block of cheese, sipping wine from a travel mug, music filling the cab. I had turned to him, thinking of that day’s ski runs and now simply enjoying the comfortable silence between us, smiled, and said, “This is really nice.” He looked at me like I was a ghost, an alien creature that had just uttered something unimaginable, amazed that any girl would want to spend two weeks sleeping in a truck, foregoing showers, and munching on raw vegetables out of a cooler for dinner. And then there was the night parked at a camping spot overlooking the dim lights of Ouray just below Red Mountain Pass, watching the snow fall softly on the windshield and listening to Joseph talk about how he always dreamed not just of bringing a girl here, but of actually finding a girl who would come alive here like he did.
The best part of our trip? The mountains, the snow, the adventures, the adrenaline rushes and thousand-mile views of rugged, awe-inspiring peaks were all incredible, and created memories to be cherished for a lifetime. But the best part was holding Joseph’s hand for those two weeks, standing beside a man whose soul also feeds on the mountains, whose lifeblood, like mine, is drinking in the crisp alpine air. I never thought it was possible, but his presence actually magnified the majesty of the mountains.
I looked at Kaiao as these thoughts formulated, imagined explaining to him the new ray of light that colored these mountains I had loved my whole life, imagined explaining the love I had found there.
“Ice climbing was pretty epic,” I told him, catching Joseph’s eye and smiling.
Some of the best things are better left unsaid.