My knee hit first. My good knee. Followed in rapid succession, like a drum riff delivering a bad joke, by my hip, shoulder and ultimately my face. The wooden boards didn't yield one bit as the impact glued me briefly to its surface before depositing me with a pathetic thud in the drifted snow.
I exhaled a combination of irritation and exhausted resignation in the form of an unsurprised grunt and looked up through the swirling cloud of wind-caught powder.
"Beyond this point," the sign said, in crisp, bold red letters. What exactly was, or wasn't beyond this point had clearly been taken out in a similar fashion by someone with a far more robust frame than mine, as only that much remained.
I worked my way back to my feet, wrestling with the one ski that had managed to reach the sign with me. I looked back up the hill for any hint of where the other had landed. I tried to look as if I were confidently considering my next stunt after what I hoped any onlookers would see was an obviously intentional and flawlessly executed emergency stop. Only a true professional knows the face is the most efficient tool for such an advanced maneuver.
The hill was empty. The air was quiet, despite the swirling wind. Strangely, I felt no less embarrassed through the lack of an audience.
I shifted my weight off my bad knee, winced as I realized that was my worse knee, and winced again as I shifted back.
I was utterly convinced that none of this was worth it.
I was fairly convinced that none of this was worth the hassle when I first arrived on this long-forgotten hill, with its uncomfortably friendly locals and rundown attractions. I became more certain when after enduring a bone achingly chilly night in a musty room I was greeted at the exit by several inches of snow and the promise that the disinterested January sun would melt it long before anything resembling a snow plow would be glimpsed in the area.
I had thrown on a second pair of socks and a pair of navy seal certified gloves, or so the commercial had claimed, and marched out into the storm with the confidence of an arctic explorer who had figured out what the kid in "Into the Wild" was doing wrong halfway through the fifth chapter. Twenty minutes later, I had marched confidently back into the dilapidated, yet now strangely warm bed and breakfast. My legs were both numb from the cold and on fire from the effort of repeatedly hoisting my feet clear of the thick snow blanket. I was convinced I had made it to the other side of the parking lot and back in record time. I was also further convinced that none of this was worth the hassle.
It was obvious to me that the problem was not that I was barely competent enough to hail a taxi in a light drizzle, much less face the ravages of a winter devoid of ice melt. No, the problem was all that leg lifting.
The obvious answer was a decent pair of snowshoes. Amazon had some great ones, with free shipping no less, and it said they would be here in two days. I suspected, however, that maybe the app was not fully updated on our weather conditions. I tried searching online for confirmation before deciding I really couldn't wait two days any way. I have to say, by the way, they had fantastic cell coverage. Couldn't keep a room much above temperatures that would make Siberian exiles thankful for their own lot, but their 5G blazed brighter than the most fervently stoked fireplace.
That was the revelation that was intriguing me when I noticed the shrill, upbeat chirping of Mrs. Templeton. Owner and proprietor of the "world famous" Elderbrook Bed and Breakfast, grandmother to a smorgasbord of innovators and history makers and possessor of the most annoyingly optimistic disposition this side is Pollyanna, Mrs. Templeton tended not to need much willing participation to engage in a lengthy, often meandering, discussion with anyone.
"Bertie is the stubborn one. He would never listen to his mother. Put her in the hospital with anxiety he did. I told her. Lizzy, I said, one of these days that stubborn streak will come good. I was right too. He was the one refused to get off the street when the police were clearing it. Said it was his right to walk where he pleased, it being America after all. After he came out the coma, he sued the company built that shoddy crane. Made his fortune. Course, he can't remember what happened last Thursday and the left side of his face never quite came back, but he made good. "
"Are those real?" I asked, pointing to what appeared to be a pair of skis propped high on the wall behind her.
She looked at me for a moment, clearly taken off guard that someone was talking back at her, shook herself back into the moment and looked over her shoulder.
"They look real enough. Been there since before I can remember though."
"Can I use them?"
"The snow?" I gestured towards the window and the uninterrupted whiteness beyond. Not entirely sure what other possible uses she had conjured for a pair of antiquated skis, I waited while she considered her options.
"I don't see why not. "
Getting the skis proved more challenging than getting permission to get the skis. This particular bed and breakfast was one of the bare bones, one with nature, only the necessities type and therefore did not come equipped with a ladder. Twelve foot ceilings in the lobby and no ladder?
There was a trunk. An impossibly heavy trunk. A trunk that probably contained family secrets best left unexplored, but it had a nice broad, flat surface to act as a foundation for two boxes and a chair from the dining room. As I balanced atop my hastily constructed scaffold, I briefly considered asking how the skis made it up there in the first place. I quickly realized the futility of such a line of questioning when Mrs Templeton returned from the dining room with a chair.
"Oh, you found a chair?" She chirped, surprised.
Mrs Templeton had brought me the first chair.
I reached for the first ski, just about getting three fingers firmly behind it. I jerked it off the wall. As I frantically clawed alternately at empty space and then pieces of chair or box that were accompanying me on my gravity driven journey, I considered the possibility that I should perhaps have tested the ski to see how securely it was fastened before yanking with such enthusiasm. I performed a limb soaked dance routine on my way towards the Turkish rug that decorated the weathered hardwood floor. Hardwood? Sometimes I curse the accuracy and simplicity of certain words. I absolutely cursed as I belly flopped with a bone welding crunch at Mrs. Templeton's feet.
"Are you okay dear?"
As I untwisted my body, I reminded myself that not all questions require an honest or detailed answer.
"I'm fine," I responded as I got to my feet just in time for the second ski to vacate its lifelong perch. It dove, like a bird of prey, glanced off the front desk and arrowed with astonishing precision into the side of my right knee.
I cursed again.
I had never worn a ski a day in my life, but I didn't let that deter me. That three minute YouTube video had made it seem simple enough. The fact that one of the skis had no bindings had been a minor roadblock, easily bested with a little duct tape. No, Mrs. Templeton didn't have duct tape. Jensen, the twenty-something survivalist with the multi-colored Subaru, had packed that in his worldly survival kit. The traffic flare and solar powered transistor radio may yet prove useful also.
Amazingly the long skis had allowed me to travel mostly above the snow. It had been a clumsy shuffle at first as I tried to balance. Once I abandoned the instinct to try and walk and slid instead things improved. By the time I reached the top of the slope I had developed a rhythm that had me humming tunes in tempo. Of course, this only fueled my belief that there was nothing I couldn't conquer with a combination of my sharp wits and google.
I leapt onto the hill with the confidence of an Olympic champion and promptly lost control with the grace of a giraffe on roller skates. I wish I could say my crash had been heroic or spectacular, but one look up the hill at the erratic zigzag in the snow with an abandoned ski sticking up about two thirds of the way down told the real story.
Like I said, "not worth the hassle."
I had at various instances performed a perfect triple axel, albeit upside down, and an impossible split, which, had I not been distracted by the many jagged rocks I was throwing my face towards, would have crippled me.
As I stood there feeling sorry for myself, one ski securely duct taped to my foot, both knees screaming at me in the same unsavory language I had used the entire length of that damned slope. As I stood there, I saw it.
I couldn't believe it. There it was. Exactly where my uncle had told my father it would be, in a letter so plainly encoded that it took years of elaborate mathematics to fail before it became clear. A single red maple tree, standing proud and defiant, ignoring the factors that had torn all other growth from this part of the slope.
I ran towards it. The ski I had forgotten immediately caught the ground and threw me face first into the snow yet again. I didn't feel a thing. Not in my face. Not in my knees. My excitement was so great, or was everything frozen? No, it was here. Twenty years since my father died giving me his half of the code and the letter my uncle had left him.
Twenty years of reading and rereading that letter, deciphering is clues. I dropped to my knees on the east side of the red male, unfolded my camper's shovel and started digging.
"A Chinaman in Canada?" It was ridiculous. The east side of the red maple. The last line of the letter my father had never figured out. This is where the locket is buried. The locket with my uncle's code. The second code that, with my father's code, accesses the bank box. The bank box with the stocks. Old school paper stocks. The ones which were worth hundreds of thousands then, probably millions now.
I dug in a frenzy. My uncle had been a market wizard before they even existed. He had predicted growth industries and my dad and him had rolled the dice and hit big returns. But my uncle got hit by a garbage truck and died before they could cash in.
My dad thought it was gone until he found the letter. One of those 'if you're reading this, I am dead' letters. He spent the rest of his life trying to decode its clues, but died unfulfilled.
The metal flashed, even surrounded by the bright snow. I dropped the shovel and scratched with my fingers, digging out the locket and chain.
I clawed at the clasp with frozen, wet fingers. It slipped and flopped much like a wet fish between the clumsy paws of an arthritic bear wearing boxing gloves.
Later, in my room, my fingers thawed, I pried the locket open. I literally pried it open. It had been so long buried it required a screwdriver, a hammer and several breaks to hop on one foot while I yowled holding the thumb I had just smashed to open.
The clerk walked me into the vault. I was just like in the movies, walls lined with shiny boxes. I was nervous. Terrified that someone would catch me, unmask me. Considering I was the legal owner of both halves of the code that had allowed the clerk to hand me the key soaking in my sweaty palm, it seemed I was making the whole situation unnecessarily stressful.
The clerk unlocked the door that held my box. She slid the box from its twenty year tomb, placed it on the table in the center of the room and left me alone. I pressed the key into its slot and turned its lock. I was inexplicably surprised when no sirens sounded and no steel bars slammed down to entrap me. This was followed by a mild sense of disappointment at the overall lack of fanfare for such a momentous moment in my life.
I opened the box and pulled out the thick sheaf of papers inside.
As I slowly lifted each paper share to look at the next, I first started to smile, then giggled nervously. Each paper an official printed certificate representing my net worth, my future. As I read the iconic names of each of the companies I owned a piece of, my hysteria grew.
It was an almost comprehensive compilation of every spectacular financial collapse of the past 15 years. Every headline I had read in the past decade detailing corporate mismanagement, leadership complacency or undeniable obsolescence. It was all there. Every page a cautionary tale of one time industry leading success deteriorating into unstoppable freefall. My dreams of early retirement could now collectively get me a happy meal, if I chipped in a few bucks.
I dropped everything on the counter. Not so life changing after all. As I left, the clerk spotted me.
"Sir?" She asked, fishing for any indication as to how else she might assist me.
"I don't want any of it."
"Sir?" She just asked.
"You know what," I paused to read her name tag, "Allison?"
"It really, really, really wasn't worth it.