Adding Spice to the Slog: Humanities in Medical Training
The Blind Spot of United States History


By Howard Axelrod

A sign pointing to Devil's Fiddle and Outer Limits, some of the steepest trails at Killington
A sign pointing to Devil's Fiddle and Outer Limits, some of the steepest trails at Killington

This essay appeared originally on the Powell's Books Blog.

As a teenager, I didn't pay much attention to posted signs. I was a strange kid—both very confident and very lost. My façade, my own sign posted for the world, was a lie and I knew it. But I believed if I could just be patient enough, a kind of secret door would eventually open to a new land, one that looked more or less the same as the old—same streets, same school, same annoying older brother—but would include a sense of orientation, which meant a sense of the world with my place in it. So, what interested me was the other kind of sign. The kind that might offer a portent of my life to come, or an insight into the way things really were.

There was one sign that was both kinds of sign, though I didn't know it at the time. It was posted on a high black chairlift tower, about two-thirds of the ride up Killington's Bear Mountain. As I remember it now, the wind is whipping, the chairlift pitches and bobs over Outer Limits, the steepest mogul run in the east. The edge of the yellow sign is crusted with rime. Huddled below an imposing black pine tree, there's a silhouette of a man, his knees drawn toward his chest. "These woods will be as cold and lonely tonight as they were two hundred years ago. Do not ski alone."

Usually, I was skiing alone. My parents didn't know how to ski. My older brother preferred basketball and girls. At age thirteen, I'd joined the Massachusetts Ski Club, which meant setting my alarm for five a.m. on Saturdays, riding a bus through the predawn dark, and listening to Prince on my Walkman until we arrived at the mountains. My first year in the club, I had two friends to ski with. The following year, they quit. For two winters, through long afternoons of sun or snow, I skied alone.

This was in the '80s, long before cell phones, and I liked knowing that my family didn't really know where I was. Whatever crystal balls they looked to in their minds, they were bound to be wrong. Being where they couldn't picture me made a physical reality of how I felt as a teenager. And I liked knowing that all the roles I was struggling to play—as son, as brother, as high school student—meant nothing to the mountain. What was inside me had to respond to what was outside me, the same as back home, but what was outside me here was the natural world. Sometimes, it felt like the distance between inside and outside vanished. There was only the snow and the sky, only my body and its response to the trail. On the chairlift, the view stretching for miles, I'd feel as though I'd traded my teenager's life for an exotic and illicit sense of perspective, a kind of truth I wasn't supposed to know.

The Point of VanishingThe Killington lifts and trails had scores of other signs. Signs to ski with care, signs to beware of thin cover, and, of course, signs to obey all posted signs. I hardly glanced at them. They were pragmatic, just warnings and directions. They had nothing to do with how I felt, which meant they were superfluous to me.

But that one sign on Bear Mountain was different. It seemed to recognize a part of me that no one could see—a part that had to do with who I was alone. I studied it every ride up the chairlift. In just two sentences, it traveled back and forth in time. It opened a hidden corridor into the mountain, into "these woods," the woods all around me, two hundred years ago. The mountain had remained more or less the same, the sign was saying, as had the night and the cold. And being human, the sign implied, had remained the same, too—with the same vulnerabilities, the same longings. 

Which isn't to say the sign didn't frighten me. I didn't want to crash in the trees and find myself trapped overnight alone. But I didn't entirely fear the fantasy: the cold, the loneliness, the vault of the stars. The forced entry into something larger than myself. And, contrary to the sign's warning, it seemed to suggest that skiing alone, being alone, was the only way to have that kind of encounter.

As it turned out, in my mid-twenties, I lived in solitude for two years in northern Vermont. A freak accident in college blinded me in my right eye, and, afterwards, I needed to reclaim that sense of orientation I'd found while skiing alone as a teenager, that sense of myself that came unmediated from the natural world. My plan was basically just to spend my days paying attention—as I snowshoed, as I ate, as I tended the woodstove. With the loss of depth perception, the world looked physically different—surfaces less solid, more permeable. But I also knew there was something about the way I saw that hadn't changed. It had to do with who I was below surfaces. I needed to return to that depth of seeing, to the sense of myself that came from the quality of my perceptions rather than from others' perceptions of me.

Of course, I anticipated none of this as a teenager at Killington. There's no telling which posted signs will become portents. No telling how circumstance will open a trap door into other possible lives, away from the life you know.

And there's also no telling what signs might lead you back. The Vermont woods were, I'm fairly sure, as cold and lonely as they were two hundred years ago. But, more or less, the solitude worked. Returning to Boston was far harder than retreating had been, and my senses, which had lost their filters in the woods, took a long time to adjust to the speed and volume of modern life. But I did carry back with me a version of that orientation that I'd longed for as a teenager—a sense of the world with my fragile place in it, one that allowed for cold, loneliness, and time.


About the Author 

Howard AxelrodHoward Axelrod’s work has appeared in the New York Times MagazineShambhala Sun, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. He currently teaches at Grub Street in Boston, where he lives. The Point of Vanishing is his first book.