I was on my way to Aspen Highlands for the first Saturday of what is to be an extra two weekends of skiing. The Aspen Skiing Company decided to celebrate the great late-season snow by reopening the locals’ favorite hill and generate some good will (if not big profits) among skiers who aren’t ready quite for the season to end.
Tooling up the Roaring Fork within sight of the lifts, there came Bob Dylan through the speakers singing “Highlands” (“My heart’s in The Highlands, gentle and fair…”), the talkin’ blues last song on Time Out of Mind.
The timing of this went beyond serendipity. And not just because of the name of the mountain looming there. The whole album, which won three Grammys, including Album of the Year in 1998, is one big, beautiful, incisive, indulgent mid-life crisis. And I’d been feeling kind of rudderless and low.
What was I doing going skiing on April 19 anyway? Driving three hours and 150 miles one way with gas prices the way they are? Just to ride lifts and have fun? Talk about your Canary-Initiative carbon-footprint selfish addiction!
I’d been guilting since the night before. I should have stayed home to help Ellen weed. Or prune the spirea. Perhaps I could have made myself useful up at the kids’ house as they struggle to finish the punch list and move in. Or try to figure out a way to generate some income. Or whatever.
Truth be told Ellen’s been down a bit, too, of late. We’re both of us suffering a sort of ill-defined malaise as we enter our sixties, a temporary – we hope – inability to see the future with the kind of energizing clarity we used to take for granted. Dylan described his own (or his character’s) ennui this way: “I’m in Boston town in some restaurant/I have no idea what I want/Or maybe I do but I’m just really not sure/Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her.”
This scene always makes me smile. The way Dylan finds humor and pathos in the absolutely mundane: “…She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs/I said ‘Tell me what I want’/She say ‘You probably want hard boiled eggs’/I said ‘That’s right, bring me some’/She says ‘We ain’t got any, you picked the wrong time to come.’”
The song is about more than boredom, it’s about essential loneliness: “I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound/Someone’s always yellin’ ‘Turn it down.’” It’s about death, too. Nearing the end of things: “My heart’s in The Highlands at the break of dawn/By the beautiful lake of the Black Swan/Big white clouds like chariots swing low/Well my heart’s in The Highlands, only place left to go.”
I’m not feeling near the end. Far from it. Though at times, like Dylan in his sixties, “I’ve got new eyes, everything looks far away.”
Aspen Highlands – as opposed to the mythical Scottish Highlands – was right there in front of me, and it was all about life on this day. It was an “actual spring day” as the ski patroller I rode with put it, noting that last year spring arrived in March in the form of a nuclear meltdown, and this year winter didn’t loosen its grip until well after most ski areas had shut down.
Actual corn snow – frozen granular, slush – appeared first on the east-facing slopes, then on the west. The steeps of Temerity and Olympic Bowl didn’t feel steep; in the soft, wet, forgiving snow everything was possible and nothing was scary.
A diverse clan appeared to join in the celebration: skiers from Telluride and Vail, the Front Range and Denver. There was a pond-skimming contest out in front of the Merry-Go-Round restaurant. And a local reggae band. And beer and girls baring their shoulders in the sun.
A supremely self-indulgent thing, I said to myself driving back west at the end of the day. No higher purpose, no worthy cause. But there was joy, pure joy in the grace of large forces: gravity, weather, the skill of years. That’s something you don’t find every day. Motion of one’s own choosing, ecstatic motion that has nothing to do, it seems in the moment, with fate.