By Camille Gasser
Vacations are planned and embarked upon with the purpose of exploring new places, diving into new cultures, and meeting new people. With plane tickets and suitcases, a family can flee daily cycles of work and sleep and immerse itself in an experience of excitement and fun. Vacations are the ultimate bonding experience—that extra push a child needs to revive his or her love of “family time.”
At least, this is what my parents told me as we planned our winter trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado.
I’d begged and plotted to drag along a friend—fearful of late nights spent with board games and G-rated movies—but my battle had been fought and lost. And so I expected the same old family vacatio­­­n: relaxing, fun, and simple.
It was the beginning of our third day of skiing down the Colorado Mountains, and my parents, brother and I were staring out the windows of a gondola.
Even though the amount of snow was small for the time of year, it was easy to lose myself in the sparkling fields of unblemished white. Not even the daunting altitude could spoil my appreciation of the scenery as the gondola carried us up to the summit.
When we were halfway up the mountain, the gondola stopped at a small station to let a single man inside.
He smiled shyly and nodded at us, but my parents had never been fond of silence; before long, they introduced themselves to the stranger. Little did I know that he would become one of the most fascinating people I’d ever met.
His name was Charles Alexander, and he was on a mission: to set the world record for the most downhill feet skied by a man in one year.
I thought of my own sluggish skiing pace, and how my family was lucky to make it to the snow three days per year. Charles, having retired several years ago, spent every possible hour up on the Rocky Mountains, racing down black diamond slopes with breathtaking ease.
The world record is currently held by Arnie Wilson with 4,146,890 vertical feet in one year.
With a confident smile, Charles informed my family and I how he had nearly doubled that amount the previous year, but since he had failed to document the experience, it wasn’t “official.” So he was back again, and victory was clearly in sight.
But it wasn’t this man’s talent that captured my attention, nor his devotion and commitment.
Despite all of his accomplishments—those already achieved and those waiting on the horizon—it was only one of his many sentences that truly stuck in my mind.
He told us: “I wake up every morning and think about what I’m going to do that day. I’ve got no living family, no job. Really, I have no life. So I think, why not go skiing?”
‘I have no life,’ he’d said. As my thoughts hovered somewhere between sympathy and awe, I struggled to figure out exactly what he’d meant.
He had skill, ambition, and a chance at fame; he spent his days on a beautiful mountain participating in one of the most exhilarating sports in existence.
He had a beating heart and working lungs. Yet, he claimed he had no life. What, then, was missing? What absent piece in his world kept him from having a “life?”
He possessed great talent and great opportunity, and yet it wasn’t enough. He just went through the motions—flying downhill, accumulating miles and steadily skiing toward a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Sometimes, I wonder if it was just a quirk in his personality, an inability to fully understand all that made his existence worthwhile. He’d become so good at something that it no longer fulfilled him.
But then, other times I look back at my time spent with Charles Alexander, and think again about our casual conversation. He’d told us that he had no family. Hobbies, passions and pastimes bring excitement and entertainment, but maybe without a loved one to share those activities with, they lost their luster.
In a way, maybe you couldn’t have a life if you had no one to live it with.
As I’ve begun to leave my youth behind and chase after the independence of adulthood, family vacations have become less and less exciting.
I love my parents and my brother with all my heart, but often I can’t help but prefer a movie downtown with a friend to a night-in playing Scrabble. Meeting Mr. Alexander made me realize that, first of all, my skiing ability will always be inferior to his. But more than that, it showed me how one can possess everything—a beautiful home, a thrilling talent, and a remarkable goal—and yet not have enough to constitute a complete, satisfying life.
Family, despite its tendency to intrude upon a teenager’s social life, is vital to happiness and contentment. Without it, having everything can quickly decay into having nothing at all. I may not have the skill of Charles Alexander, but honestly, that’s okay. I have a life, and I will always have people around me—my close friends and my wonderful family—to share it with.