Sunday, January 13, 2008
Photo taken at the time of the story.
This prompt compels me to tell my favorite dating story. It is one that makes members of my family cringe but I enjoy the story because I see it as less a story of a big mistake, than as a story of adversity overcome.
My senior year in college, I was lonely, in the romantic sense. The year before had seen the end of my first serious relationship and I finally over the heartbreak. I spent the first six months of my senior year living and studying in Paris. It was a wonderful time but it was a time when I was often on my own. I had been treated badly by the last two men I had dared to hope might want a relationship with me, one at the beginning of my stay in France and the other right after my return.
Then Louis (not his real name) showed up at the airport to pick me up on my return from France. I was expecting someone else but Louis was drafted at the last minute. I didn’t know Louis extremely well. He was a French graduate student that took his meals at my undergraduate dormitory. I was single and, as I said, lonely and Louis was clearly hitting on me. Unfortunately he also had an out of town girlfriend. Louis explained that they had an open relationship and I wasn’t expecting much since I was heading off to medical school in 3 months, so I convinced myself over the course of the next couple of weeks that I could handle the far away girlfriend and allowed myself to get involved.
There was pain associated with knowing there was a girlfriend in the wings but that wasn’t why Louis turned out to be a poor risk in the boyfriend department. See, it turned out that Louis was one of those individuals who is a born adrenaline junkie. At first that just made him fun to be around. He taught me to drive his stick shift car. He took my flying since he was an amateur pilot. He was a fantastic swimmer and taught me how to push myself in the pool and as a consequence I managed to lose the extra pounds that my lousy Parisian diet had put on me.
As an aside, maybe French women don’t get fat, but American women in France can and do. In winter (at least in the 80’s), fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t easy to come by on a budget. I didn’t have a kitchen and I didn’t have much money. That meant I ate a lot of croissants, baguettes, yaourt (French for yogurt) and camembert. I had no access to a gym, and I hated running (besides only crazy Americans ran in France at the time). Even though I walked everywhere, sometimes for miles a day, I gained around 10 pounds.
My real story begins when Louis and I went cross country skiing. I was a novice at the sport. I had been on skis a few times but was still a rank beginner. It was Memorial Day weekend (the end of May) and we had to get to a pretty high altitude to find enough snow to ski in.
It was a gorgeous day. We were at around 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. There were no groomed ski trails. We just put on skis and took off. The day was warm and very bright. Things went pretty well until my friend decided he wanted to ski across a frozen lake. I am as susceptible to peer pressure as the next person (or I’d never have been dating this fellow) but I pointed out that it was almost June and that I could see cracks in the ice on the lake and did not think this was such a good idea.
Louis accused me of being a wimp and took off across the lake. I went the long way around intending to meet him at the other side. However, somewhere along the way, I lost sight of him.
Of course, by this time, I had steam coming out of my ears. I thought that Louis had intentionally left me behind and decided to head back to the car and wait for him there. Instead of following our trail back, I took a short cut.
I found myself on a very large downhill slope that exceeded my skiing prowess substantially. Cross country skis are not intended for serious slopes and I was in over my head. I fell a lot but the day was warm and I was still doing all right. At times the terrain got a bit rough. There were places I had to walk sideways where it was too steep to ski and a couple of times I lost my footing, slid downhill and had to use my hands and skis in lieu of an ice axe. There were a few scary moments when I seemed to be sliding toward a tree. This late in the spring the snow around the trees had melted leaving a sort of deep pit in the snow around the trunksk. It occurred to me that falling in one of these holes could be painful and that it would not be a good idea to break an ankle. My feet got wet when I had to cross a stream and missed a step. This added to the overall discomfort.
I continued to hang tough even when I realized that I was lost. I had no food, no matches, in fact, nothing but my clothes and my skis. I have good wilderness skills and didn’t every truly worry about dying out there but I did fear that I would get hurt and have to be rescued with all the subsequent embarrassment associated with that. My worst moment was when I thought I had to be finally nearing the road and came out of the woods on the side of a large canyon and saw the road far away on the other side. I have to admit that I cried a bit then.
All in all, I was out on the snow for around 6 hours before I regained the road. I had never lost my sense of direction and I kept on moving which is what got me out of there. At last I was at the road and found the car. The bad news is that my friend wasn’t there and I didn’t have keys to the car. I was tired, hungry and very angry and decided to hitchhike back to San Francisco. I think I thought Louis was out having a good time at my expense and didn’t have the sense to wait around for him to return. I didn’t have any money or identification but I wasn’t thinking all that clearly.
The first person I asked for a ride was going the wrong way. Before I had the nerve to approach a second person, Louis showed up. Of course, we had a major fight with recriminations being exchanged on both sides. It turned out Louis hadn’t abandoned me by the lake. He had merely ducked behind a rock to take a leak. He was nearly as tired and frayed as I was after spending hours looking for me. We settled the fight long enough to agree we were too tired to return to the city directly. We checked into a small motel nearby and ate something.
It was at this point that the final complication of the day began. On the way home from our dinner, I commented to Louis on what a foggy night it was. He looked at me strangely and said that it was perfectly clear. Over the next few hours I progressively began to go snow blind.
I had heard of the phenomenon. Anyone who read Jack London stories as a kid had heard of it. If London mentioned that it was painful, I hadn’t noticed. It turns out that having both one’s corneas seriously burned is painful and frightening in the way childbirth is painful and frightening. I think I was probably delirious since at some point during the ordeal I decided that my pain was less severe while my contact lenses were still in place so I tried to put them back in while blind, in immense pain and with tears streaming down my face. Needless to say I wasn’t able to manage it.
The next day I tied a shirt over my face and barely endured the drive back home and straight to the student health center at school. By then the pain had begun to abate and there was nothing that needed to be done for my eyes except some drops for the pain. When I was finally able to see clearly enough to tell, I realized that my eyes had sunburn lines from where my lids covered them. I also had time to realize that if I had succeeded in hitch-hiking into town as was my first plan, I would have probably landed in San Francisco with no money or ID, blind and delirious. Lucky for me the first ride didn’t work out.
I have had no ill effects from the burn but if I ever get a melanoma of my eyes (it happens) I will know the most probable cause. I have also learned to wear sun glasses while skiing. Louis and I parted ways when I left for Medical School and I have not heard from him for years.
I learned something that day. I learned that while I may not have the foolhardy courage that Louis had, I do have the kind of courage that kept me going when cold, wet, tired and scared that day. So I still tell the story, even if it makes my family shake their heads in dismay.