Backstory: Release Me

At 0545 the phone rings. Dispatch has a one-vehicle rollover north of town. The driver might have a broken neck. “10-4. I’m on my way,” I say as I wipe the sleep from my eyes and turn on my bedroom lamp. Donning uniform and duty belt and patting the still-sleeping black lab on the head, I step out the door into a fresh dusting of snow on the back porch. Roads must be bad up north, I think as I switch on the light bar of my patrol vehicle and speed north out of this sleepy Montana town.

[Illustration] Andrew John Mullen

[Illustration] Andrew John Mullen

The red and blue lights of my patrol car reflect off the street signs and windows of houses that line my street. A moment later, I’m on scene with the ambulance and volunteer fire crew. It doesn’t look too bad. The victim is getting strapped to a backboard and loaded into the ambulance. He will be OK.

I’m back at the office with the latest Backcountry Magazine splayed open before me alongside a $4 coffee when my phone vibrates. “Stepping off at 0945. Snowing here lightly, I’ll send pics,” the text from my best friend reads. He’s off on his first tour of the season, a training run up Big Mountain, our nearby ski resort that has yet to open. I take a picture of my magazine, coffee and the various computers and radios in the dispatch room to show him just how far I am from skiing today. After a few years of resort skiing, this will be my first season skiing Montana’s backcountry. My friend understands my frustration as the phone vibrates again with a second text message: “Close your eyes and you can almost be here.”

Sitting in my chair at the Sheriff’s Office, I lean back and do as instructed. I feel the chill in the air. A light snow is falling, capping off the fresh four inches that arrived the night before. My eyes trace the line up the south face of Big Mountain to where the summit should be, but I can only see a quarter of the way up. Low hanging clouds dump their moisture as they continue eastward, up over the Rockies and out onto the northern plains.

Even in my mind, putting my new skins on my skis for the first time is awkward; getting them just straight is tricky. With a nod from Garrett, I drop my skis in the snow, shoulder my pack and, after a few tries, snap boot toes into bindings. Garrett nods again and without a word we share a look we’ve often had during our 14 years of friendship. It’s a look of shared adventure and pure satisfaction from being outside while pushing our limits and stepping beyond of our comfort zone.

As I nod back, Garrett grabs his poles and starts his gliding steps toward the summit. I grab my ear-buds and place them into my ears, hearing Eddie Vedder’s unmistakable voice thunder through the closing words of “Release.” I pull my hat down over my ears and fall in step behind Garrett, trying to settle into the rhythmic slide-step of skinning. It isn’t long before we’re steadily moving upward, away from the car, away from chatter of the work radio and away from the drama of car accidents and ambulances wailing. Snow-covered trees and low hanging clouds surround us.

Halfway up Big Mountain, almost to where the summit is in sight, I’m pulled away by the voice of my dispatcher: “Ian, the sheriff is on the phone for you.” With a sigh, I lean forward in my chair, brush the imaginary snow from my shoulders and pick up the phone. “Yes sir?” As the boss gives me instructions for a task I am to do later today, all I can hear is the long instrumental ballad in my ears…release me.

This story was first published in the February 2014 issue. To submit your reader essay, email subject “Backstory.”

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