Backstory: Dawn Patrol

It’s 5:37 a.m., and I’m in a gas station.

The woman behind the counter has tiny feet and an underbite. Small wrinkles fracture her shadowed face in ways only years of cheap tobacco and regret can form. I look into the copper stillness of her eyes while placing food on the scratched glass surface. Memories from the past six months rip through my mind. The heaps of debris pull like thin sheets of snow until there is nothing left to expose, leaving me raw.

“That’s $4.56, hun.” Her rasp, pushed through stained teeth, lifts me from the darkness.

[Illustration] Pat Kinsella

[Illustration] Pat Kinsella

Outside, the black sky is broken with flecks of white; the large chips of innocence dance in the gentle wind. This seemingly simple yet ethereal substance is my salvation. To glide in soft arcs upon its surface is an escape for me, if only a temporary one. The weightless space between turns offers acceptance and release as though all that is beyond my control crumbles and sinks beneath the surface, trapped by its own accumulation.

Above sharp lines that twist and collide, the sun pushes its heft upward. Pre-dawn tones settle as I pull into the empty parking lot.

None of my failures are noteworthy. They are typical things, things that haunt only those involved. A broken family, a train-wreck relationship, watching the woman who, in part, raised me, who set the blueprint for my life, deteriorate. Sitting at the side of her bed in the nursing home, the smell of shit, piss and drool permeating the 20 minutes spent with her. It takes every ounce of me not to run. I think about never going back. The halls lined with lost eyes scare me in ways that I cannot contain or steady with reassuring breaths.

My skis thwap, landing side by side at the base of the mountain.

I click in and push against the nylon fibers of the skins. Bite, release, glide, repeat. The freshly groomed corduroy makes me think of when I left Wyoming and moved back East, back home. About how I hoped the Adirondack winters and bone-piercing cold would break me down, leaving a stronger base upon which to build.

I chase the beam of my headlamp in the glittering twilight. I think about how we had collapsed, about fighting with her in a parking lot at the village, about slurred words dissipating into space and about how I haven’t talked to her since.

My muscles burn from the relentless grade. Frost forms on my hair and eyebrows; it’s cold and gray.

My parents just signed the papers making the divorce official. It shouldn’t bother me. It was a long time coming, but it does. My father has already found someone. He is happy and talks about her often, and I feel myself pulling away. I don’t answer his calls. I hope my mom can now be free, that all of her layers can now exhale. I want good things for her.

I climb.

Along the edge of the trail snow guns roar. It is too loud to think. Life starts to disappear. I assure myself it will get better, and some part of me believes it really will.

Fingers of daylight steal the last of night’s darkness. I climb harder.

The trail breaks left and mellows to the summit. At the top, loose, yellowing Tyvek on the unfinished exterior of the new patrol lodge vibrates in a dull hum. The snowfall eases. Early morning light envelopes the opening before me, casting shadows in the shallow contours of the groomed trail. I strip my skins and fold them. I find comfort in the click of boots and the zipping of jackets.

My skis glide, gaining speed until the first carve. It is effortless packed powder. I’m learning to enjoy it all, to expect less and appreciate small things. I’m learning patience.

At the bottom of the run I skate to the edge, where snow meets pavement. Flocks of skiers, gear shouldered, clunk to ticket stands, ready for the first chairs. I remove my skis. I smile. I feel stronger, clearer, if only temporarily.

This reader essay was first published in the September 2014 issue. Got an essay you want to see published? Keep it to 700 words and e-mail it to, subject titled “Backstory.”


  1. Beautiful! I thoroughly enjoyed and can relate to the thoughts wondering. Thanks!

  2. Really good reading,
    it kind of describes how skitouring is way more than “just” skiing

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