By Jill Davis | Photo by Sandra Salvas
Last year, my dad excavated one of my old ski jackets from his storage unit and kindly sent it to me. The jacket is a celebration of early 1980s garishness. It’s three fruity shades of purple and reversible, with stripes on one side and geometric cutouts on the other. Ski pins on the collar are little signposts of the places we’d been: Vail. Breckenridge. Park City.
I loved that jacket, and holding it after three decades apart was like flipping through a grainy photo album of the Davis family spring ski vacations of yore. Ski-in condo. Eating oily French fries in a warming hut. Whipping my brother with pine boughs. Pleasant memories. And then I started actually thinking about those days.
People often ask how I got into the outdoors. Why I am so enamored with hiking and lichens, camping and cold air. “I grew up skiing,” is my standard response. But that isn’t accurate, because honestly, we weren’t even real skiers. We were interlopers of the worst sort. We skied only once a year. We snow-plowed. We fell off chairlifts. We were from Texas.
Home was a subdivision south of Houston called Quail Valley where quails never roamed and valleys never dented the flats. Our backyard looked onto a golf course, and I expressed my love for nature by hauling a Styrofoam cooler to the artificial lake, where I imprisoned toads and whiskered fish eking out a lifestyle as uninspiring as our own.
I should have grown up consuming products by Titleist and married an accountant. By now I’d be wearing leopard prints with metallic shoes. Instead, while friends identified life-mates and bought couches, I acquired a used truck and vowed never to own more than could fit in the back. That wasn’t much after loading it with mountain bikes, tents, packs, and whatever else was deemed essential to my getaway.
How did I fall in love with the outdoors? Memory is a lazy narrator, and we seldom challenge the stories it tells. It’s easier to lock onto a simple life myth and let it masquerade as truth. But that purple ski jacket served as myth buster.
My tidy thoughts about family ski vacations, before reuniting with my jacket: Spring skiing was the only option for a family of Houstonites more comfortable with swarms of mosquitoes than cold toes. Instead of a hat, I could Aqua Net my bangs into a Texas-sized maul-claw, a frozen tsunami of bleach-blonde hair that neither wind nor wipeout could take down. In lieu of ski pants, I’d wear acid-washed jeans sprayed liberally with Scotchguard.
Post-jacket reunion, other thoughts surfaced: Once on the hill, my mom and dad would say, “We’ll meet you here at 3:00.” Then they would go. And I would not go with them. And at last I am gliding away from the dysfunction of the Davis family. It’s a great feeling.
And here is the truth: I fell in love with the outdoors because the outdoors allowed me to escape some pretty spectacular family crap. We were that family who, when a piece of forgotten equipment caused a public tirade, made all the other families uncomfortable. After a scene like that, riding a lift alone felt like a cleansing. I was a happy stranger among happy strangers, craning my neck to glimpse the mountains. And by the time the 12-year-old me got to the top and looked out at all of those white peaks, what I felt was a potent combo of exhilaration and freedom.
I didn’t have the words for it then, but I understood something about the nature of escape that some people don’t realize until a midlife crisis. Escape does not occur in the moment of departure from some unpleasant reality; that is merely the exit. Escape occurs when you reclaim yourself.
The Davis family did not hold. The paperwork was filed and we were set loose to do what we would. What I did was run—all over the world and all over the country. And every time I felt that situations, people, whatever, were taking too much of me away, I would run again until I found a wild landscape to get me back.
When a job at a San Francisco investment company started eating my brain, I decided to backpack solo into Lassen Volcanic National Park to conquer my fear of bears. During graduate school I took to the trails of Marin County with a band of mountain bikers. In New York City, I balanced a surplus of concrete, ego, and wine drinking by joining an adventure racing team—and spent many a night doing trail runs by headlamp with Type A Manhattanites.
I am not great at any of these sports. I lie somewhere on the continuum between “demonstrates adequate ability” and “shows potential to excel.” But then, excelling has never been the point. The point is just to go, to exit an imperfect scene and escape to a lovelier place. To discover that I am not my troubles. To find a truthful narrator. To remember I am here.
From the Spring 2012 issue.