Kimchi, a torn knee, and being a koala bear

I started this batch of kimchi – spicy, fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) that supposedly wards off colds and flu if only because it contains so much vitamin C – with high hopes. I was itching to go on my trip and would be gone just long enough – 6 days – for the kimchi to ferment in my absence. So I coarsely chopped 2 pounds of napa cabbage, put it in a large bowl, covered it with a brine of 3 tablespoons of kosher salt dissolved in 6 cups of water, and let it sit overnight. I then drained it (keeping the brine), and tossed the cabbage with 6 julienned green onions, about 2 tablespoons of finely grated ginger, and 2 dried red New Mexican chiles that I had stemmed, seeded, and ground in a clean coffee grinder. I packed that whole mess into a pitcher my adviser from grad school gave me as part of a wedding present, covered it with the brine, and sealed it shut with a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the mixture and the sealable lid.

I set it on the bookshelf in my cool, dark study and headed up in British Columbia to ski with my dad, my brother, my Very Tall Cousin Sam, and two of my uncles.

To be a bit more specific, to heli-ski.

We are not insane. We do not, as one friend of mine thought, jump out of helicopters. Helicopters fly us to the tops of mountains and, with a guide who knows a thing or two about mountains and snow and skiing, we ski down glaciers and through forest glades. It is insane and fabulous and I’m eternally grateful that my dad is crazy enough about skiing that he thanks me for tagging along on such adventures.

As I glided down the mountain on the last run of the first day in snow the guys kept talking about being crotch-level but was up past my waist in spots, I turned around a tree and felt my right ski hit something deep under the snow – A rock? A tree branch hidden in all that snow pack? A snow gnome?

My ski twisted around, pulling first my knee  – pop! – and then my whole body down with it. I couldn’t stand, much less ski. The pity party was brief, but it was intense. My goggles – clear all day despite the falling snow – fogged up from the hot, concentrated tears.

“Do you think if we braced it you could just slide down on your left ski?” Todd, our guide, asked me. “We’d have someone ski right with you.”

“I think so,” I said as I packed snow around my knee to try and numb it as my eyes darted back and forth trying to make sense of this horror. I thought of telling everyone to ski ahead, not to worry about me, but I realized that it was completely and utterly out of the question. Not just this group, but all three groups of skiers out that day would now have their schedules re-arranged around my blown knee. We shared a helicopter.

Before long another guide, Jeff, skied up and unstrapped the leg brace from his backpack.

“So, Molly” he said in his Canadian accent, with that long “o” sound emphasized and my name pronounced with a slight, melodic lilt, “have you ever hurt this knee before?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Not enough to remember,” I clarified. I had hurt a knee five or six years ago, but it healed and I still can’t remember which one it was.

In several inches of fresh snow he tried to arrange a brace made for a large man so it would fit onto my 29-inch-inseam leg.

“I’m afraid this is one size fits all,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “they never actually do.”

After a false start during which snow kept the straps from sticking, he secured the bottom end around my ankle and strapped the section around my knee as tightly as possible. He then lifted me out of the snow and reached for my skis, which my brother had dug out of the snow.

“Just grab onto my back,” he said, “and lift your foot up as much as you can.”

My family jokes about skiers who don’t carry their own skis. We scuff at those who can’t tighten their own boots. We mock people who don’t seem to know how to put on their skis. And here I was, clutching onto a man highly trained in all things mountaineering as he bent over in the snow not just helping me get my skis on properly, but actually holding my leg in one hand and my ski in the other as he literally snapped my boot into the ski for me as I winced in fear of the possible pain.

To top it all off, this graceless snow-encrusted ballet was performed while 10 pairs of male eyes – I was the only woman in the group that afternoon – watched. I was embarrassed and grateful and resentful. Just when I thought I might burst into tears from the bitter combination of pain and shame, I found myself sort-of standing, skis on, poles in hand.

“So,” Jeff said, as though neither one of us should be contrite or bitter even though I was pretty sure we each should be both, “what we’re going to do is I’m going to slide down and you’re just going to follow me, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, ever the good student.

“Don’t worry about turning or anything,” he explained, “we’re just heading down and across. Just keep all your weight on that left leg, eh?”

We slowly went across and a little bit down. My heart breaking as we ruined a perfectly good line of fresh powder.

“You’re doing great, Molly,” he said as I stopped myself from running into him by angling uphill into the untracked snow around us. “That’s just what you want to do.”

After another across-and-a-little-down move he said, “You’re doing awesome.”

“Jeff,” I said, laughing, “your strategy is working. I respond very well to positive reinforcement and compliments of all kinds.”

He turned around and smiled.

“Most people do.”

We slowly continued across and down through and between the trees until we got to the bottom of the glade. Straight ahead was the long, bumpy traverse to the helicopter landing that we had been skiing to from different parts of the mountain most of the day. It included a few tricky turns to avoid a creek bed and ended with more trees to ski through but with much less snow left between them.

Jeff slid down a bit to talk to Todd.

I heard Todd say, “You’re going to do what?”

And Jeff say, “mumble mumble something something.”

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. It was bad enough being a problem and knowing that I couldn’t offer much in way of a solution, but being talked about as I struggled to awkwardly balance a few feet uphill made me acutely aware of the burden I was.

“We’re just figuring out how to get you to the helicopter,” Todd said.

“I thought I was going to just keep doing this,” I said.

“You can’t,” Todd said, shaking his head with a bit of disappointment, probably having noted the grimaces and sharp inhales I’d taken every time my right leg had come into play as I made my oafish way down the hill, “not if you can’t put weight on that leg. You’ll never get across the traverse.”

“You remember what it’s like, La” said my brother, standing beside me like a mother hen. “You really have to make those turns.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the guides, waiting for further info, picturing some crazy situation where I balanced against a fellow skier’s shoulder or was pathetically guided down between someone’s skis like a child learning to snowplow.

“So,” said Todd, “Jeff here is going to carry you.”

I looked around at my family and fellow skiers and noted, “Well, that’s not humiliating.”

They laughed. I then waited a moment, hoping they would tell me the real plan, the plan that didn’t play up what a feeble hurt girl I was at that exact moment. The plan – now sounding really good – that involved skiing me down the hill like a child.

“Even getting a toboggan in here is a real hassle and will take forever,” Todd said, sensing my doubt, “plus, it would be really uncomfortable for you on all this stuff coming up. This will just be easier and faster.”

I had hoped they were kidding.

“So, just slide down to me if you can, Molly,” said Jeff.

They weren’t kidding. They were handling the whole situation in a calm and humorous manner, but they weren’t kidding. As guides they had seen some serious shit. My knee was nothing compared to the injuries and accidents they had handled and trained for, but it was still their job to get me safely back to the lodge.

So slide I did. Jeff and I then engaged in the artless reverse snow wrestle of getting my skis off.

As Jeff took off his backpack I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to jump onto his back with the leg brace on. What with him still on his skis and me now sunk down into the snow without mine, he stood about 20 feet taller than I did. I realized someone would probably need to lift me up and I died a teeny bit inside. This was going to be really, truly, embarrassing. And awkward. And difficult.

“So,” he said, “how we’re going to do this is I’m going to carry you in front,” he patted the bottom of his rib cage with both hands, “facing me.”

I stared at him blankly. It ends up that I hadn’t really explored how humiliating things could get.

“With your legs around my waist,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said, because, well, that was simply insane.

“It’s way easier for me to balance that way,” he said, “trust me.”

When a Canadian with a big smile and a kind voice who has already shepherded you down through a forest you couldn’t imagine getting out of tells you to trust him, you do.

“So I’ll just hold you by your legs,” he said holding his hands out in front of him, “and you’ll hold on up top,” and he gestured around his neck.

I nodded meekly and said, with more than a touch of resignation, “Okay.”

“Okay,” he said, “so here we go. Ready?”

Like a sick and tired child, I reached my arms up and around the neck he bent down to offer me, hopped up as best I could, and I clung to him for dear life.

He started into the traverse. To the degree that I had been able to think about it, I had figured the ride down was going to suck. I assumed it would be jarring and jerky, as he struggled to maneuver on difficult terrain while loaded down with an entire extra person outfitted in full ski gear and, fearing low blood sugar above all else, with a fair number of dense snacks in her pockets. I figured he would strain and pant and I would generally feel guilty about making him suffer. But, in the words uttered with awe and a touch of envy by my brother that night at dinner, “that guy can ski.” I felt like I was floating. It was all the motion of skiing with none of the impact. It was, quite simply, awesome.

Perhaps he was trained to keep people calm or maybe you just can’t overestimate the polite in a Canadian or possibly he is just a nice guy who wanted to normalize the crazy vertical lap dance we had going on, but after we were a few yards down the hill, once it became clear to all that this crazy plan was going to work, Jeff asked, “So, Molly, where are you from?”

We engaged in cocktail party chit chat about hometowns and work as I looked up at the tree-covered mountain and gray, snowy sky behind us.

“I’m sorry I keep grabbing your ass, eh” he said, “but it’s the only way I can keep steady.”

“That’s okay,” I said, thinking that it was amazing how a perfectly placed Canadian “eh” could really lessen the pervy implications of that statement, “I have a kid. I know how hard it is to carry someone. Whatever you need to grab is fine by me.”

After I made it into the helicopter and out of the helicopter, into the van and out of the van, into the lodge and up to my room, into clean clothes and down to the bar – all on crutches as outsized for me as was the leg brace – the skiers in the other groups all wanted to hear what had happened. I took the beer someone ordered me, turned down the shocking plethora of painkillers that were generously offered up, and told my tale of the snow gnome and the collapsed knee. The men tried to deduce what my injury actually was: A torn ACL? Perhaps the meniscus was damaged? The women wanted to know if, as they had heard tell, Jeff had really carried me down the mountain.

“He did,” I said.

“Well,” one of the women said, “I wouldn’t mind being carried by Jeff.”

“Me neither,” said another, “he’s hot.”

The fact of the matter is that all heli-ski guides are hot. Male, female, young, old, they all have a general air of hotness about them. They are fit and really good skiers and have secret mountain knowledge and, at least to me, that makes them pretty hot. Is Jeff hotter than the other guides? Isn’t the firefighter who carries you out of the burning building by definition hotter than the other firefighters? I could have simply thought to myself, yeah, and he smells like skiing all day in the cold snow, too. But both the pot-stirrer and the story-teller in me kicked in.

“Yeah,” I said, “plus, he smells like pine trees and he likes to talk about feelings.”

The ladies howled.

“Seriously though you guys,” I said, back-tracking a bit, “he’s a really nice guy. He’s so polite that he actually apologized for grabbing my ass.”

A universal “he grabbed your ass?!?” was shouted through the bar and the die was cast.

Ass-grabbing jokes proliferated and I heard that at lunch on the mountain the next day Todd tried to auction off an afternoon ride with Jeff. I was happy to play things out that way because the damsel-in-distress role is not one I relish. I like to imagine that I can take care of myself, or at least put on my own skis and get down a hill. So I let the jokes hinting that the whole thing was hot or lewd carry on because it deflected attention away from me and onto him, and because that was the funny part.

The obviously true part is that I did need rescuing. I was hurt and slightly panicked as I waited for that leg brace. I may be more dame than damsel, but I was definitely in distress. I suppose that if I had been all alone I could have found a way to get down the mountain. I could have removed a layer of clothing and wrapped my knee up tight. I could have slid down, partly on my left ski and partly on my grab-able ass. It would have been slow and painful but possible. Yet whether carried like a koala bear or dragged out on a toboggan, I wasn’t getting to the helicopter on my own in any timely or graceful fashion.

The also true part is it wasn’t just my small stature, but the fact that I’m a woman that made carrying me both physically and culturally possible. I’m not so sure the plan to carry the injured party would have been floated had I been a man, even a small man. I’m also pretty sure that were I a man I wouldn’t have accepted the plan quite so quickly, if at all. Having been there and knowing my injury and seeing the terrain, carrying me really was the quickest way out. Being a small lady hasn’t always been the greatest when skiing, but this time it worked out in my favor.

The more true part is that when my son was a baby I became obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t remember being a baby. It wasn’t that I wanted anyone to push me around in a stroller or carry me in a Baby Bjorn, but I wished I could remember what it was like. Now I know. It feels like a layer of gravity has been removed. You’re not in control and you need to hang on and trust you won’t be dropped or thrown or fallen upon. It is oddly intimate. It is very sweet. And it is wonderfully, touchingly human.

But no one wants to hear about any of that over beers.

My ACL is torn, my meniscus wasn’t left completely out of the picture, and I’m looking down the nose of surgery and months of physical therapy. In the meantime ice and ibuprofren are my constant companions. That’s the cloud. The silver lining – and it’s not as inconsequential as I would have guessed if I’d ever thought about it – is that I know what it’s like to be carried down a mountain.

Plus, after all that, I came home to find a batch of perfectly fermented kimchi waiting for me. It was as if my pre-koala self had known my post-koala self would need something bright, something spicy, something full of magical, curative powers.