Injuries change everything in Vail

Alan Braunholtz

Personal experience is always an eye-opener. This ability to grow as a person is the silver lining to most clouds that fate blows your way.

Early December in East Vail I took too direct a line and the extra speed and force pulled me out of balance on a fall-away icy slope. I took a tumble and broke my ankle badly (as opposed to goodly, if there is such a thing).

Well, that is the technically true, but a “selected intelligence briefing” designed to make my clumsiness at least sound cool. In reality, I slipped walking my dogs.

They surprised me with their “turnaround” acceleration, motivated by the pan scrapings in their bowls. If accidents are any measure, I’m a better skier than walker.

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Injuries are embarrassing in Vail. This is a town where we judge ourselves by our physical prowess as much as our jobs. Injuries diminish you as a person.

It’s like getting fired, laid off, downsized, restructured, out-sourced or whatever the fashionable sterile word for it is in the business world these days.

Out in that real world your career takes over your identity. Weird, I know, but ask the question, “What do you do?” Who will reply “Well, I’m primarily a father to two children I love and worry about all the time, I love laughing with my wife and any hours I get to myself I listen to music in the garden. Oh yes, to pay for it all I analyze balance sheets at a large corporation.”

No, you’re an accountant.

Here, it’s not quite like that. Many people moved here for the recreational lifestyle and being a good snowboarder-kayaker is a large part of our self-image. Few would see themselves as a career busboy. Our sports are more permanent than our jobs.

Injuries force you to step back from all this. Recreational friends and acquaintances let you slide away. You’re no longer a resource or collaborator in their hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure.

You apparently have a lot more time, but since everything takes forever and is exhausting, you’re lucky if you realize it. I now understand how frustrating and time-consuming being imperfectly mobile is.

Injuries usually heal, so there is light at the end of the tunnel. Rehab is the mantra for the return to normality and physical therapy becomes a new social and support group. Old age looms a little more worryingly, though.

The kindness of strangers can blindside you. Out of the blue someone will scrape your windshield, carry your shopping or shovel your decks. Crutches signal to this competitive world your “non-combatant” status. Few stare you down in the race for the checkout line or narrow doorways. It becomes a pleasant world of “you first,” “no you I’m slower” and thank yous. I hope not to forget to take the time to help the elderly and infirm as I get better.

I found out I can live without the short-term adrenaline of winter sports a lot easier than I can live without my wife, Gayle. She works in Denver and without skiing to distract me on my days off, the drive down (borrowing her automatic) became more warmly anticipated than a chairlift on a powder day.

I learned to be a good cripple and not drop into a “it’s so much easier for you do it for me” bossy invalid mindset. Not that it mattered. She showed no signs of care-giver fatigue, surprisingly.

Friends are more fun than TV. Fun implies control, interaction and the feeling of doing something. After the novelty’s worn off, TV is nothing but a filler for empty days.

Thank God and Darwin for dogs. Despite not living up to the “three long walks a day” part of my ownership contract, they haven’t held back any of the unconditional love they signed on to. Teeter tottering on crutches down an icy road while attached to 80 pounds of crampon-clawed, four-paw drive, exercise-deprived hounds is a good balance workout. Cars slow down now. They’re either amused at the sight or honoring my “non-combatant” status.

I’m cheating, though. In deference to Numu’s strength and pain tolerance (a choke collar won’t stimulate a synapse till 50 pounds), I’ve hobbled her with a device called a “gentle leader.” It’s basically a nose noose that twists her head backwards when she pulls. It works perfectly and she hates it with the tantrums of a 2-year-old. Every walk starts with a fight as I wrestle an 80-pound toddler with teeth.

Calvin’s new game is to grab her by this leader and shake her around like a stick. Amusing to all but her. Once in a midnight doze I put the leader on gentle Calvin, only realizing my mistake as Numu charged the neighborhood in the joyous frenzy of the free.

I can’t wait to emulate her. I’ve promised I’ll put the leader away with the crutches. It’s only fair, really, and freedom’s worth an annoying tug or two.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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