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The day wasn't different from any other; same white hills, towering lifts, friends, and that always-lingering fear in the back of my mind. I leaned against my friend on the chairlift, about 40 feet above the snow-covered, empty “Advanced” ski runs. Looking down at a steep, mogul-covered slope, I felt them. They weren't the usual butterflies, but little angry caterpillars that fill my body when I'm about to try something new, tugging at my emotions. They say things like “You should go down the hill you're used to!” “Your friends can't force you to do this!” Or – the more feared threat – “You'll get hurt. You can't do this yet – or ever.”
“I don't know about this guys …,” I finally said, once the malicious caterpillars started winning me over.
“Tara, it'll be fine,” my friend said.
“Yeah, you're just psyching yourself out again. It's not that much worse than the other runs you've done,” another friend agreed.
I sighed and got ready to exit the lift chair. I angled my board toward a path I'd never taken. My friends and I inched to the top of the hill, or rather, cliff. As we reached the top I looked down – straight down.
“You can't do this! You'll DIE!” the caterpillars screamed frantically. I could almost feel their little legs eagerly attempting to steer me in the opposite direction.
I looked up to tell my friends I couldn't do this, I wasn't ready, anything to get me out of this suicide! When I looked up, though, they were almost out of sight, disappearing behind a wall of trees, black against the pure white blanket of snow.
I looked back at the other trails I was used to, more than 100 feet away. It would be a horrible walk in snowboard boots, and I'd feel like an idiot. I turned around, and saw my friends waiting behind the curtain of black trees. I took in an almost defeated, resentful lungful of air and skated toward them, one leg shaking in its prison of bindings, the other reluctantly pushing onward toward, perhaps, my demise.
Sitting in the powder that had yet to be smashed down by various sports enthusiasts, I gripped the sharp edge and strapped my snowboard on tighter than ever before. The path zigzagged in front of me, and in places it passed within inches of low trees and high logs. I was still full of resentful caterpillars, but knowing there was no turning back, I pushed off.
Thankfully, the powder slowed me down a bit, and I was surprised at how easy it was to swerve through the wooded obstacle course. Emerging into the open white of the run, I felt my fears lift slightly – I was still alive! I was so elated, though, that I let my guard down and didn't see the ground drop.
Where there should have been snow, air rushed under me, and for a second all thoughts of what could go wrong coursed though my mind. My heel-side could catch, then I'd be flying through a series of backwards somersaults down the hill! Or, I'd put too much weight on my toe edge, my board would slide out from under me, and I'd end up with a face full of snow!
My arms flailed like a bird trying to avoid the ground. But no matter what I tried, the ground rushed toward me. My muscles tensed, preparing for impact. Ideas of how to fall softly fluttered on the edge of my mind, but before they could form, another part of me took over. It was as if the caterpillars were suddenly entombed in a cocoon. And the part of me that did know what I was doing was in charge.
I hit the ground with a dull thud and a spray of powder. My board was flush with the placid surface of the snow, not too far on my toes nor my heels. So with mysterious balance that seemed to appear out of nowhere, I switched edges and zigzagged downhill to catch up with my friends.
Unfortunately, the worst was not over yet; I was only done with the intermediate portion of the hill. I followed them to another tree-lined path. This one looked like someone had literally pulled a chunk out of the side of a forest. The path was just three feet wide with a rock wall on one side, and a steep, tree- and rock-covered cliff on the other.
My friends slid through with ease, disappearing behind a veil of black curtains. I stood, digging my heels in, knowing that if I wanted to make it through, I'd need speed – something that I wasn't that used to. The cold, dry air beat against my face, making my eyes water. Fighting uncertainty, I leaned into the turn and flew toward the opening in the trees.
Suddenly the path turned completely flat. The extra speed, which was supposed to help me, backfired and propelled me toward the cliff side of the trail. I am not going off that! I thought, and tried to dig my heels in to stop, but the latest snowfall hadn't penetrated the tree canopy, and all I felt was ice. My only choice was not a fun one; actually it was rather painful. My backside hit the ice hard, and I slid a few feet and stopped within inches of a tree.
After pulling myself up, I tried to slide through the rest of the path, falling a few more times. Turns out, trying to go slowly backfired too, because when I fell it was hard to get up. My board tried to slip down the cliff while my back was menaced by the sharp rock wall.
My friends, having already emerged from the darkness of the path, sat impatiently in the whiteness ahead. I could feel something inside of me – the caterpillars trying to uncocoon themselves. “You should never have tried this … Good job!” they spat, sarcastically. Feeling defeated, I unstrapped one foot and struggled to the opening of the path.
I watched my friends bomb down the hillside with ease, like little rockets followed by a spray of white. It can't be any worse than what I just went through, I thought, as I inched to the top.
My stomach dropped, the caterpillars panicking so much I almost felt sick. In front of me, was a vertical drop. I started sliding down with my board horizontal, snowplowing. This looks absolutely ridiculous, but it's slow and controlled.
My friends watched from the ski lift below. I knew I had to be disappointing them, wasting the run like this. My legs started shaking, not with fear, but anger. You always do this! You always play it safe! You know what you're doing, so go for it! It wasn't the caterpillars talking this time. The side of me that had taken over when I'd landed the jump was talking now. What's the worst that could happen? I fall? Sometimes falling is the only way to learn.
And with that thought, I turned my board so the nose pointed downhill. I felt myself pick up speed, my body leaning one way and the other to arc my path and keep control. I cut through the snow with the edge of my board, spraying powder, until finally, on the last straight shot to the lift, I felt it: a strange new sensation where the caterpillars had once lived. A fluttering, elated, joyful feeling … like butterfly wings. I had done it!
My friends waited by the ski lift, sarcastically cheering me on, not because they wanted to be mean, but because they had known all along I could do it.
As we rode to the top to do it again, I looked down the steep, mogul-covered slopes. I could see the tree paths, and the jump at the exit of the first one, and the vertical incline of the last half.
“See? We were right. It wasn't even that hard!” my friends said. I smiled as I angled my board toward a new path, and the butterflies cheered me on.