In 1871, a young journalist by the name of Henry Stanley traveled to Africa in search of Dr. David Livingstone, a missionary who had disappeared while trying to find the source of the Nile River. I imagine his departure reeked of ominous doubt as the chances of finding the doctor were about as high as those of him surviving the dangers of the African jungle: not. He did succeed, however. After months of travel, and several bouts of malaria and dysentery, he stumbled across a man surrounded by Arab slave traders in Ujiji. If relief or emotion overcame him, he did not show it, as he approached the man and nonchalantly dealt the now famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
A little over a year ago, I was the closest I’ve ever been to quitting skiing. I remember sitting on the plane to Bozeman, en route to West Yellowstone, talking myself in and out of continuing to race. The combination of social FOMO and a warming planet made me question whether the whole skiing thing was really worth it, whether I might gain more putting my energy into something else. But, like Stanley, I ignored the doubt and boarded my boat (plane, whatever). Like Stanley, I harbored a spark of hope that I would find what I was looking for, that I was doing the right thing. And, like Stanley, I was right.
The morning after that tumultuous flight, I took my first stride on snow and felt the smug relief that must have come with seeing that doctor from afar. My battles from the day before seemed almost humorous, my head said “Oh, yeah, that’s right. I freaking love this sport” (and my heart was all, “I told you so, idiot.”) That realization, that discovery, is one that I make every year.
On my first ski of each year, I encounter that moment of clarity. Alone in the woods, I meet a brief, wondrous feeling of knowing. Though spontaneous, it is never a surprise. As it creeps up behind me, I smile and turn, almost saying, “The love of skiing, I presume?”
During these first months, I embody more explorers than just Stanley. Sometimes exploring involves making mistakes. After all, it’s not an adventure unless something goes wrong. Robert Peary thought he’d made it to the North Pole all his life, turns out he’d missed by a margin of five miles. Magellan probably has a thought or two on things going wrong. First expeditions almost never go as planned, which is what makes this time of year so glorious. Results don’t matter, feeling crummy doesn’t matter. We’re all out here, rediscovering our pre race mantras, layering techniques and passions.
As a junior skier, when I adventured the western trails for the first time, I gained a relationship with the terrain that only a true explorer can have. Based on how I met them, certain corners and climbs gained character, they gained a story. Most of all, they gained a name. “Pokorny Punisher,” and “Kill Korner,” are examples of Annie original names for obscure ski spots. Hey, if Magellen could name straights and penguins after himself, teenage me had full reign over whatever she found.
After a while, though, you realize how much of what you discover and claim for yourself belongs to others as well. The minute you think you’ve taken something, or somewhere, and made it entirely yours, another person exploits your best-kept secret. Especially as a young athlete, I’ve come to realize that most people know more about my own explorations than I do, which shows how much more I have to discover.
After all, all the greats needed their guides. If you think Road Amundensen searched for the Northwest Passage without a flashlight from the Nattilik people or that Cortez could have navigated Cuba without the Aztecs, you’re sorely mistaken. Edmund Hillary would never have topped Everest without Tenzing Norgay. What’s more, he wouldn’t have made it much farther than the first crevasse past base camp. Today, as I re-embark on my yearly adventure in a seemingly more independent fashion, I become more and more aware of those who have guided my past escapades and those who accompany me now.
Two evenings ago, I went on a long ski through the Rendevous trail system with Erika and Gus. For two hours, we traipsed the trails of winters past, unearthing on each turn a new appreciation for the area, for the sport, and for our luck. We were Lewis, Clark and Gusajawea. On those trails, we searched out the Northern lights, greeted the indigenous peoples and tromped through the jungles. We strode, glided and overtook the track, making it our own (although sometimes it overtook us, leaving us in the snow). We emerged from the trees accomplished, proud of our discoveries.
Nowadays, it seems as if nothing is truly left uncharted. We convince ourselves that knowledge can be accessed through the online oracle, that the world is altogether learned. Every November, I disprove those words. I remember to continually explore myself, and the people and places around me, because every year holds an entirely new discovery. What’s important, is finding it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some cartography to get to.