Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate

Alison Berkley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I rode my bike up to the Maroon Bells the other day wondering why people say, “get in shape” as if it’s some kind of destination where you eventually arrive and you’re done.

That little push at the top almost killed me. You know that part I’m talking about, after you get to the point where you can see those boys in all their glory and assume that, for the most part, you’re already there. But, no.

For the next mile or so, you’re chugging up that steep, windy son of a bitch thinking it’s never going to end, dreaming about taking off your helmet and lying in the grass by the lake, letting the circulation in your toes return to normal, stretching out your legs, maybe having a little Luna Bar snack. I tried to “spin” as the roadie geeks say, dropping into a lower gear and pedaling faster, but all that did was slow me down to a crawl, moving inch by inch with an inordinate amount of effort. It felt like someone bigger and stronger held me at arm’s length while I helplessly swung punches that would never hit anything. The joke was so totally on me.

The thing is, I have always been slow. I’m a slow walker, runner, biker and hiker. It doesn’t matter if I do cardio seven days a week, run up and down the stairs at the Santa Monica Pier, do long runs at 11,000 feet by my brother’s house in Alma, or ride up Zig Zag in Steamboat to the top of Thunderhead without stopping. Some yahoo twice my weight will get up off the couch from somewhere in Iowa, come to Colorado to visit one of her stoner friends, get drunk the night before, and do it twice as fast as me.

I’ve always been slow. In junior high, my friends called me “Pokey” because I shuffled rather than walked, dragging my feet literally and figuratively. In my high school yearbook where they have the senior will and testament page where they try to predict where you’ll be in 10 years, mine says, “Alison Berkley is still late.” Hey, at least I’ve been consistent.

I like think of myself as a turtle, the animal that breathes long and slow and lives longer because of it. Some yoga dude said the length of your life is measured by how many breaths you take. Apparently turtles do have inhalation/exhalations as long as a full minute, or something like that. So I figure while I might not be able to keep up with the couch potato flatlander, I’ll probably outlive him by a long shot.

Like the other day Ryan and I were hiking up Ajax to go put the snowmobiles away for the summer and he goes, “When you go hiking with Amanda, or someone who is faster than you, do you pick up the pace?”

And I’m like, “What is that supposed to mean? Do you think I’m going too slow?”

“No, I’m just asking you a question,” he says, growing visibly exasperated, his brows knotted between his eyes like the folds of a Shar-Pei. He takes a deep breath and goes, “I’m just saying, maybe if you swung your arms a little more and took a bigger step, and pushed yourself …”

This is the point when my arms stiffen and my face pinches up, turns two or three shades redder and the scribble line appears above my head.

“Fine!” I say. (You know you are in big trouble when a woman says fine. It is an indication that everything is totally not fine. It is the opposite of fine). I start running up the mountain. I do that until my heart rate is so high that I’m afraid it might actually explode and go bursting out of my chest cavity like a balloon that’s been filled with too much air. I realize I look like a crazy person, bounding up the rotting snow as if I’m not sliding backwards with every step but I don’t care. I turn back every so often to make sure he’s at least 20-30 steps behind me, catch my breath, and then keep running as if someone is chasing me. We’ll see who can push it. We’ll see who can take a bigger step.

The next day I am resolved to conquer my slowness. I decide to start with a solo bike ride, which is where our little story began.

What I realized biking up to the Bells that day is slow is good. Slow is great when you’ve been in Aspen through the entire offseason and you’ve seen every single leaf bud on every little branch of every tree, watching the world around you turn from dirt brown to a stunning emerald green, blooming and opening in front of your very eyes. It’s like when the sun comes out just before the end of a rainy day, casting its light on beauty that was there all along just waiting to be seen. Those delicate, paper thin leaves on the quaking aspen trees, the carpet of grass on the valley floor, the sound of the rushing water as it makes its way from the peaks down into the rivers and streams like blood pumping from the heart into all those tiny little veins, bringing with it certain life that is spring.

They’re saying spring kind of arrived abruptly this year. The snowmelt was expedited with that layer of dirt that blew in from god knows where so the rivers are high and everything sort of happened all of a sudden.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, even if your life changes overnight, it was everything that happened before that which brought you there. Maybe spring has sprung but I know better. It wasn’t just-like-that but rather slowly, one tiny little bud at a time.