A Year of Seb
Sebastian grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and until you really get to know him, he confirms every Midwestern stereotype there is. He smiles often, never boasts, always watches his table manners, loves fast food and particularly McDonalds, works harder than anyone I’ve ever met, and never misses an opportunity to grab a slushy (he calls them speedy freezies) at the gas station. In the nineteen years that passed between my birth and my meeting him, most of which I had spent in a beach town halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, I hadn’t met anyone quite like him. A couple of weeks into his first year and my second at Middlebury, he ran into me between classes and we exchanged a few words that, at the time, seemed typical of him.
“I don’t feel too great,” he said. “I had seven hash browns this morning. Might have been eight.”
One day after lunch later on during that first year, he asked me if I’m the kind of guy who wants a routine, who wants to know where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing at 10:00 am next Wednesday, or if I’m the kind of guy who wants every day to be an adventure, who doesn’t decide where he’s going until he’s halfway there.
“The second one,” I said without hesitating.
“Good,” he said.
The trouble with adventures was that we both raced cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track, and as such we were completely booked and thoroughly exhausted seven days a week for every week of the school year except one in November and two in May. No amount of talk could get us out of that routine, and to be honest, I don’t think we really wanted out at that point. So our first year together came and went, and I could count our adventures together on one hand: One powder day at the Snowbowl in J Term where I saw firsthand how good a skier he was; one bouldering day in Joshua Tree National Park and one mountain run in Mission Trails Regional Park, both during the Spring Break track training trip to San Diego; and two Vermont hikes in May, between the end of track and the beginning of finals. In as few words as possible: not enough.
Our second year together was even less fruitful. Cross country season was as busy as ever, and I broke my leg in mid December, limiting my J Term adventuring to a small, slow hike as soon as I got off my crutches. After that, I got on a plane, flew to New Zealand, studied abroad for five months, and didn’t see him again until the end of the following August.
I was in the middle of another adventure, an eleven-day California to Vermont road trip with two of my other friends that Seb hadn’t been able to join us on because of work and family, when he called me to talk about skipping indoor track. Sam, Chuck, and I had just finished our longest run of the summer, a two-hour beauty connecting the Navajo Loop, Queens Garden, Fairyland Loop, and Rim Trails at Bryce Canyon National Park, when Seb called to talk about logistics, plans, airports, and schedules. But once we figured that out, he mentioned something about skiing and hiking and adventuring in the winter, things that wouldn’t really be possible if we did indoor track.
“Seb, you know I’d quit in a second to do those things, but won’t you want to be racing?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, dude. Two days at the Snowbowl really hasn’t been enough.”
“You’d actually quit track?” It was strange talking to him without seeing his changes of expression, both deliberate and subconscious, that usually contribute so much to how I read his side of the conversation. I wondered if he thought the same thing.
“Indoor, at least. I’m thinking about. We’ll talk, we’ll talk.” I could hear the smile in his voice. J Term was six months away, but he made sure to plant the seed with that phone call, and he made sure to plant it in the head of the one person he thought might actually go through with it.
Two weeks after he called me in Bryce Canyon, he flew into Burlington and I picked him up on the airport curb on the eve of our last cross country season together; I was a senior and he was a junior. Our conversation seemed to pick up where we left it the previous January, and I caught myself finishing his sentence more than once during the fifty-minute ride from Burlington to Middlebury.
During our one off-day in pre-season, we took a team trip to the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury. Since there weren’t enough fifteen-passenger vans to accommodate everyone on the team, I volunteered to drive my car with four people in it. Naturally, Seb rode shotgun.
“Scenic route?” I asked rhetorically, knowing that we could take the App Gap and still beat the vans to our destination. When we passed Mad River Glen on the back side of the gap, I pointed out the single chair, the top of which was hidden by the mists that surrounded the top of the mountain, and reminded Seb about our phone call.
“Let’s save that for later,” he said with a grin, conscious of the presence of three other cross country and track runners in the back seat.
That all happened on a Monday. The first Adventure Monday of the semester, if you will. Six days a week, the team meets at designated places and times for workouts and races. But not Monday. Monday is the easy day. Monday is, run between four and eight miles, slow, whenever you want. If it’s a monthly ‘down week,’ take Monday off completely. Easy.
Seb and I made an agreement at the beginning of the season. We didn’t write it down or even really say it out loud, but it was an agreement, and it was binding. Every Monday we’d run somewhere different. We’d get in my car, drive ten or thirty minutes in any direction, park on a dirt road or at a trailhead, and explore.
One such Monday in late September brought us to Upper Notch Road, which winds its way up a crack in the western front of the Green Mountains just south of Bristol. Besides Seb and myself, two other teammates had come along: Kevin from suburban New Jersey and Chuck from an island off the coast of Maine. We parked where the road flattened out after a significant climb, and began our run on the well-graded dirt. Less than half a mile in, a forest road split off from the main one, and we turned right to follow it rather than continue along Upper Notch, which seemed only to head further uphill.
National Forest Road 90 wasn’t the sort of road you spent a lot of time on unless you lived next to it. A band of grass and loose gravel separated its two parallel tire tracks, one of which seemed always to slope at a different angle than the other. Kevin asked if cars were able to drive on this sort of road, and Chuck, whose driveway at home looked a lot like what we were running on, responded with a laugh, and the conversation then turned toward an argument about the benefits and drawbacks of growing up in the suburbs.
“They’re convenient,” Seb said flatly after a particularly sharp verbal jab from Chuck. “I got what I wanted growing up where I did, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
About a month later, we drove down to Shoreham in order to explore some unfamiliar turf. This time it was just the two of us, and he played four Van Morrison songs in a row. When we reached our destination, a dirt road completely unremarkable aside from the fact that we had never seen it before, we got out and almost immediately started to run. The peak of fall foliage had passed and we were surrounded by gray trees and a gray sky, which was a first for Adventure Mondays this year. If anything, it made us more focused on the run itself.
Less than a mile in, we found ourselves running down a hill that was steeper and longer than we had expected in the middle of the Champlain Valley. Seb let out a short, controlled laugh that I interpreted as: “See Derek, you didn’t have any idea this was here, and now we’re going to have to run all the way back up it on the way back. I don’t mind because we’re both in peak shape and we want a good workout, but I just want to make sure you realize that you don’t know everything.”
I smirked back at him, as if to say: “I’m not worried about the hill, Seb. I’m keeping up with you today. That may not be the case at NESCACs a week from Saturday, but it’s the case today.” He laughed again in response, this time longer and from the stomach.
We filled the rest of the run with the same stuff that fills any other run we go on: talk of the past and the future and, every so often, the present.
“Dude, you gotta go for it at NESCACs,” he said.
“Go for it?” I said. “Of course I’m gonna race hard.”
“No dude. You gotta go for it. You could be the alternate for Regionals.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”
“Why not though?” I laughed as he said this, and his next words were “I’m serious,” and he looked like it.
When we reached a fork, I was about to ask left or right when Seb said we should probably spin since we’d been running for half an hour already.
“Thirty minutes, you sure?” I said.
“Yeah dude. And you’ve been pushing the pace.” That laugh again. We turned around and ran back toward the car, resuming our conversation, and, as we discovered once we finished, picking up the pace even more. By the time we had reached the steep hill, our topic of discussion had entered particularly familiar territory.
“Maybe you just need to try a little harder,” he said as we started on the incline. “Ask someone out. Could be someone you know, could be a random girl. See what happens. Senior year dude. Nothing to lose.”
“What about you?” I countered. “Junior year, senior year, doesn’t matter.”
“Are you really though?” He didn’t say anything until we got to the top, which came sooner and easier than I had thought it would. We talked about cross country and NESCACs and the fact that our weekly easy run had just turned into eight miles in 54 minutes until we reached the car. As I grabbed the keys to unlock the door, he spoke up again.
“Guess we just have to do it.”
“Do what?” I said. Seb has a habit of continuing old conversations and assuming you know which one he’s bringing up again.
“Go for it.” He was looking me in the eye now, and I don’t think he was talking about cross country.
Neither of us “went for it” in the immediate wake of that run, but that is not what this story is about. Instead, we raced NESCACs. Sebastian ran well, I did not. Again, that is not what this story is about. Three days after the race, he and I had a conversation in the western stairwell of Munroe that, perhaps, is part of what this story is about.
“Last chance, dude,” he said as we made our way down from the top floor where we had been reading and writing and problem set-ing for the last few hours.
“I know. I can be better,” I said. We were talking about the upcoming ECAC meet, which would be the last of my season and my college career. He and the other members of the top seven would be resting that week in preparation for Regionals and Nationals.
“Than you were on Saturday? Yeah, I’d say so.” He was ahead of me, so I couldn’t see his face, but I heard something in his tone. I mumbled agreement, and he stopped on the third floor landing and turned around.
“You dogged it dude,” he said in his uniquely Sebastian vernacular, then paused, then spoke again. “I mean, you freaking dogged it.”
“I had a bad race,” I finally said. “I know that.”
“No, dude. You didn’t just have a bad race. You let yourself have a bad race.” His hands rose and fell with the cadence of his voice. “You fell off your pace, and when it got too hard to push back, you just freaking dogged it.”
Our coach emailed us the ballot for the conference sportsmanship award two days later. I voted for Seb.
The next five weeks flew by, and before we knew it, classes had ended, finals were upon us, and the snow was accumulating. We had made our decisions: I was not going to do track at all, and Seb was going to train on his own during indoor season so that he could ski as much as he liked and still stay in shape for outdoor track, which would start in March. We found ourselves a free day before we left for the holiday break, and put our Mad River – Sugarbush threesome passes to use for the first of many times. It was with excitement for the mountain and trepidation for the road that we piled our gear into the back of my car and made our way up and over the App Gap.
As I rounded the last corner before the parking lot at the bottom of Mad River Glen, the single chair came into view and three other things happened. First, I lost control of my back wheels. Second, a yellow light in the likeness of a skidding car, which I had not known existed until this winter even though I had been driving this Subaru for five years, appeared on the dashboard, as if I was not aware of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between my tires and the road. Third, Sebastian, who sat beside me in the passenger seat, held his breath and did not exhale until long after I regained authority over all of my tires and the redundant light turned off. We looked at each other then, and his expression told me that what just happened wasn’t funny and I had no business smiling about it, but that didn’t stop me.
It was early-season skiing, so the coverage wasn’t great, but the terrain looked like it might be. A few days later, we boarded separate flights to separate states and passed the next three weeks with our families, and then, sooner than we could believe it, it was J Term.
Poor conditions kept us off the slopes for the first week, and we occupied ourselves with the activities that, alongside skiing, would fill the next month and a half for us: running, settling Catan, drinking, and intramural hockey, the last of which was nothing if not a humbling experience. I had played roller hockey growing up on the streets of suburban Southern California and he had ice skated on the frozen ponds of central Ohio, but neither of us had actually played ice hockey before. In that respect, we mirrored most of our team, which was composed almost exclusively of cross country runners.
Three or four afternoons a week, Seb and I would find time to get out on the rink during free skate hours. Sometimes there would be other guys there, but when it was just the two of us, we’d usually resort to the one-on-one drill. Over and over again, he’d skate at me with the puck and I’d skate backward, stick outstretched, waiting for him to try and pull it to his backhand, and if he didn’t lose the puck on his own, I’d be there to poke it away. When it was my turn, I’d try the same move and more often than not I’d get around him.
On one such occasion, he slammed his stick on the ice after losing the puck on consecutive attempts. When we got back to the old cross country locker room which we had been using because the lock combination hadn’t changed and nobody else was in there, he verbalized his frustration.
“We could do that a hundred times, and I wouldn’t get past you once. I mean, what’s the point in trying anymore?”
“I don’t know about that, Seb,” I said. “I’m sure if we did that a hundred times . . .” I trailed off, knowing that my honest response (that I’d make a couple mistakes and he would get by me two or three times) wasn’t very encouraging.
“Don’t bullshit me. I could practice every day for a year and you’d still be this much better than me.” He punctuated each sentence with his hands.
“Seb, I’ve practiced our actual sport for eight years, one more than you have, and if we raced one hundred cross country courses you would beat me one hundred times. I understand that you’re frustrated, but I guess I don’t see it as that big of a deal.” I probably also punctuated each sentence with a gesture.
When the snow finally began to fall in worthwhile quantities, we made our way back to the slopes. We started out on Sugarbush because we had heard that Mad River needs a bigger base to be worth skiing, and because our pass worked at both mountains. On weekdays, we had Heaven’s Gate and Castlerock to ourselves. A local who shared a ride with us on Super Bravo Express said this was the coldest winter he could remember.
A horde of parked cars greeted us as we pulled into the Lincoln Peak base area at 9:00 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A survey of their license plates reminded us that this was a three-day weekend: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Mass again, New York, Mass, Mass, Jersey, Vermont. The line for Super Bravo was at least ten minutes long, but that seemed like a convenience once we got to Castlerock and waited more than half an hour for a chair. We both had class that afternoon, so we called it after a couple of disappointingly tracked-out runs.
I know it was a weekday when we finally made the switch to Mad River Glen because I remember never waiting for the single chair. If there had been a line we would have had time to sing along to the classic rock station at the lift terminal that was playing “Beast of Burden,” which was funny only because we had just listened to it on the drive up.
“That was awesome,” Sebastian had said half an hour earlier when the song ended while we were partway up the Appalachian Gap, which now bore very little similarity to the road we had taken to Ben and Jerry’s five months before. He said that after every song that he liked, which was almost all of them because he had the phone with the aux cable in his hands while I drove.
A minute after I got on the single chair, the music faded away and I found myself somewhat alone with the mountain in front of me. I stayed in this state of somewhat alone-ness until a few minutes later when Seb, who sat in the chair in front of me, turned around and yelled, “How about that?” pointing at some glades to the right of the chair.
“Looks good!” I yelled back. And it did.
“Groovy baby,” he said as the radio at the mid-station came into hearing distance. The liftie was singing along to a song I didn’t recognize as we passed him by. Just as before, the music faded into nothing while we continued our ascent. When we reached the top, we spent a moment deliberating before choosing a direction and heading for what appeared to be an opening in an otherwise dense forest.
“You lead,” said Seb, whom I had skied with enough to know that he doesn’t like looking back to make sure I’m behind them, which is fine by me because I get to choose where we go. I nodded and made my way down the slope, floating through some fresh powder from the previous night’s snowfall, letting out an obligatory “Woo!” while he followed and did the same. The sun poked through the canopy above us, illuminating parts of the glade and leaving others in shadow.
The glade eventually spat us out onto a marked trail, which we followed for a few minutes until it forked and we dipped back into another tree-filled run, this one with more space and consequently more moguls. There are few feelings better than that which accompanies a near perfect turn, and on the right side of this run, between a solitary tree and the forested edge of the trail, I made one turn in particular that was good enough for me to remember it distinctly, long after the turns that immediately preceded and succeeded it have blended together in memory.
That trail eventually funneled into a gentler slope, from which we saw several possible runs, and opted for another one in the trees, where we could still find some untracked. I dove into my last turns, floating through a foot of untouched powder between two birches before coming to a stop where the slope flattened out.
I don’t think we found the exact spot Seb had pointed to on the ride up, but it didn’t matter. When we reached the bottom, we took a moment to catch our breath and put into words the revelation that we had each made over the course of the last fifteen minutes, even if they weren’t very good words.
“Wow,” said Seb.
“Right?” I said.
Quitting indoor track and buying a season pass was supposed to get us out of our routine, but in a way it just gave us a new one. A weekday in J Term consisted of us hitting the slopes in the morning, going to class in the afternoon, and then either skating or going for a run after that. Weekends were less predictable. On one of them, we went to Dartmouth to watch our teammates compete in an indoor track meet. That evening, during the drive back to Middlebury, our conversation took a turn toward the long-term future.
“Just because you get a real job after you graduate doesn’t mean you’re done with adventures,” Seb argued. “Really, the sooner you get a real job, the sooner you’ll move up, and the sooner you’ll be able to afford to really see the world.”
“Depends what you mean by seeing the world,” I said. “Airfare is expensive, but after that, you can get by. But that’s not really my point. I mean, what kind of adventures are you gonna go on when you have a wife and a house and a couple of kids?”
“Oh come on, you don’t want to have kids?”
“Of course I do, just not any time soon.”
“I’m not gonna lie, I really love the idea of settling down a little bit, taking care of a family. I can take my kids out West during their spring breaks.” He said this last thing knowing that the only thing I would hear was “I’m not going to move out West.” I ignored the implication and pushed back against the part about settling down.
“Sure, but you have years and years and years to do that,” I said. “And once you do, there’s no going back.”
Seb smiled in a way that communicated frustration. It is one of his more subtle and rare abilities. Neither of us said anything for a while. I broke the silence by addressing the elephant in the room, or, as our mutual friend and former teammate Patrick would say, the amputee in the room.
“You know why I’m having this argument with you,” I began. He didn’t say anything in response, and in doing so made sure I was the one to say it. “Most of our guys are going to graduate, or have already graduated, and are gonna get jobs in Boston or New York or Atlanta or somewhere, and I’m gonna go West, and Chuck (another mutual friend and co-adventurer) is probably gonna come with. These East Coast guys that we saw every day for years, now we’re gonna see them once a year if we’re lucky, and a few years down the line we’ll hardly see them at all. That’s okay. It’s not great, but it’s okay. You know what’s not okay?”
“I get the feeling you really want me to move back to Columbus.” He actually managed to finish the sentence with a straight face, but a moment later he cracked, and we both started laughing. It was probably the only thing that could have made me realize I wasn’t doing him or myself any favors by trying to look that far ahead.
One day at Mad River we ran into Jeremy, a friend from the track team and local Vermonter, while waiting for the single chair, which we had to do because it was the weekend. We convened again at the top, and he led us down a trail we had not noticed before into an unmarked glade that we had not known existed. The snow was excellent, and when we stopped to catch our breath after we exited the glade, Seb had three words: “That was awesome.” We followed another trail for a quarter mile before darting into another glade, and this time I recognized it as the area that Seb had pointed to from the chair on our first day here. When we reached the bottom, he repeated his assertion that it was awesome.
People have a hard time asking Seb how he got to be such a good skier. They’re not sure if it’s a “how” question or a “why” question, but they know either way there is a “where” component to it. Given his Ohio background, it isn’t hard to understand why his skiing ability confuses people. I’ve heard him answer this question more times than I can remember, and every time he struggles with his Midwestern humbleness, the same way the asker struggles to phrase the question without insulting his home state. The short of it is that he spent a whole lot of time on his 200-foot-vertical slope back home, and every Christmas he’d visit his relatives in upstate New York and ski something steeper up there, while only occasionally going out west on a family trip to Alta. Does it bother me that this guy, who grew up skiing the Midwest and Northeast, can carve better than a guy like me who grew up skiing the Sierras and the Wasatch? Of course not. Well, maybe. But that’s not the point.
Winter lasted longer than usual, and among our circle of friends, Seb and I seemed to be the only people who liked it that way. Spring classes were starting to pile on the work, our IM hockey team had been predictably demolished in the playoffs, indoor track was coming to a close, and Mad River had saved her best powder days for now. It wasn’t as easy to find time as it had been in J Term and Feb Break, but we skied when we could, and that was enough. Before long, outdoor track was upon us, and Seb started working out with the team. In the weeks leading up to Spring Break, I began to spend more time running with him and the others and less time on the slopes.
When the track team made its annual training trip to San Diego, I flew home to Orange County and joined them on their off-day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. It had become a tradition among the distance runners to spend their Spring Break Monday climbing over rocks in a place that couldn’t look less like Vermont if it had been plucked out of a science fiction movie, and I did not hesitate to spend my Monday doing the same thing.
Seb and I had been before, and he will likely go again next year, but since this was my last opportunity to sell him on the West, I did my best to advertise it. The eleven-thousand-foot-snow-capped-mountain-next-to-searing-hot-desert-with-sculpted-boulders landscape spoke for itself. All I had to do was make sure that, when we got back to San Diego, we ate burritos at La Perla. If that does not sway him, my thinking went, nothing will.
“Pretty good, right?” I said with a mouthful of carne asada. Too preoccupied with his food to give a verbal answer, Seb simply nodded and continued eating, so I pressed on and said, “Can’t get anything like this in Ohio.” He laughed — which isn’t what you want to be doing while halfway through a bite of burrito — not because it was a joke, but because it wasn’t a joke.
“You know, I’m almost starting to get the feeling you want me to move out West,” he said before his next bite, in the same tone that he had used to give a similar answer on the drive back from Dartmouth seven weeks earlier.
Spring Break ended, the sun gradually returned to Vermont, and outdoor track season ran its course. We continued our Adventure Mondays on dirt roads and trails, and the day after Seb’s last race, we ran up to the summit of the Snow Bowl and in doing so stepped back into the dying gasps of winter while the valleys below us were flushed with resurgent green.
We have two more weeks together here. After that, Chuck and I will drive West and spend the summer working in Montana while Sebastian spends most of his in Ohio. In the fall, he will return to school for one last year, and I will hit the road again, hopefully with something resembling a destination in mind. I do not know when I will see Seb or Middlebury or Mad River Glen again. I can live without the places for a long time. It’s the people that give me something to think about.