The first words are uncharged, measured. But the hitch in her voice suggests a fragility beneath the calm.
“Life’s… really interesting for me right now,” Laura says, taking a breath. “Things are… interesting, I would say.” There’s silence for a moment. We skip the discussion about the resilience campaigns that chronicle the days of COVID-19 with stories of can-do resolve and which now seem nearly ridiculous.
Laura is recounting what life has been like since the cosmos hit the pause button in March, when Vail and the rest of the ski areas in the state turned off their lifts and joined the struggle to tamp down the virus. She sees her work as a career ski instructor as the place where she connects and finds wholeness.
“It’s very spiritually deep what I do with people,” she says.
The big irony is that the very things that are now built into her job to keep her and her clients safe – masking, distancing and no longer having lunch or inside warm-ups together – are the things that are driving a wedge in their connectedness. Add the usual goggles above the mask and facial expression is gone. “As humans, we need to connect,” she says. “Visually and even physically. And we just can’t do it anymore.”
When asked if she’s okay, she says, “Not really. I feel fairly depressed right now. It’s hard to explain, but I’m really grieving. I grieve the distance that COVID creates. The changed contact.”
Despite her 20-plus years of experience on the mountain, she says her emotional bearings have shifted to the point where she recently reached out to the employee assistance program for counseling.
Long-timers in the ski/snowboard-teaching business will talk about going to hell and back with their clients’ struggles and the occasional existential crisis that rides shotgun. Over the years Laura has witnessed the same kinds of breakdowns and breakthroughs while guiding people on summer wilderness trips: Clients shed pieces of their self identity and sometimes find ways to start repairing the holes in their psyches.
But 2020 rewrote our narratives on wholeness. The toughest among us are not immune to melting away at the edges.
“I’ve actually been crying, ya know? It’s like nothing feels stable or secure, but I guess that’s all part of it,” she says. “I go to work every day and I’m scared. Scared that I’m going to do something wrong.”
By that, she says she’s worried about being able to keep her distance and about taking care of herself and her clients, about following the rules. “Everybody at the resort is trying so hard to create a safe experience, and yeah – the employees are trying really hard to be kind to each other.”
She says that by and large the visitors are in tune to being kind too. “I haven’t met anyone who’s like, a mask-hole.” She’s able to laugh at that.
Laura makes a point to say that Vail Resorts has done a commendable job with its COVID-19 protocols. But she says there are myriad unknowns with every person who turns up to ski: Were they tested recently? How did they travel to get here? Are they being honest about feeling well or are they soldiering through symptoms in order to have a badly needed day on the snow?
She says that for the most part, she has been living a self-imposed “semi-quarantine” since March, save for the occasional trip to buy groceries. Her long-running summer job didn’t happen. She returned to work on the mountain last month; unemployment was due to run out shortly thereafter.
In a typical year, the return to teaching is a return to family for Laura. But nobody’s congregating in the locker rooms, so the instructors’ lifeblood of bad jokes and shoring each other up is on hiatus. And she’s not socializing, as per Level Orange restrictions in Eagle County. The big collective push is to stay safe and keep the valley open for business, she says. Vail Resorts recently reported a 50 percent revenue decline for the first three quarters of 2020.
“It feels kind of lonesome now,” she says. “I get excited all year round to see my friends, and it’s really not the same now… It feels like being on Mars.”
That said, she recently ventured out to shop for a mask that allows her to talk all day from a distance and actually breathe. She came home with two that fit the bill and chalked them up as a small victory. She says little things go a long way these days.
She’s looking forward to the day when she can go out and have a slice of pie without the anxiety of COVID-19 following her through the door. She says she might even have two slices and there is considerable and hopeful digression about how they might taste when the time comes.
“We’ll get over it,” she insists. “But this? It’s like nothing I have ever really experienced.”
Featured image: Connection or safety? These days the former is sacrificed to keep the lifts and economy running. Slawek K/Unsplash photo.
Whatever you’re going through, crisis counselors and professionally trained peer specialists are available to help. Call Colorado Crisis Service’s hotline at 1-844-493-TALK(8255). There is no wrong reason to reach out.