It was my birthday. The date had snuck up on me so fast that I’d nearly forgotten about the streak. For the past few years, I’d made it a point to go skiing on November 15—a luxury, I recognize, but the closest thing to a birthday tradition I had at this point in life. This year, though, I found myself in Madrid, studying for a master’s degree hours from any early season snowpack.
My last hope was Xanadu. Practically another planet, the megaplex mall on the deserted outskirts of Spain’s capital city was home to a 750-foot-long indoor ski hill and, whatever, it counted.
That morning, I schlepped my ski boots to class and tucked a puffy and gloves into my backpack. My classmates laughed when I asked to be excused early, but as I stepped into 80-degree desert heat, their incredulity was lost on me.
I’d moved to Spain for a relationship. A visa denial at the Spanish consulate in San Francisco should have been the end of it. So too, the exhausting yo-yo in and out of the European Union while I waited for immigration papers to come through. Instead, I’d enrolled in grad school to stay on Spanish soil (asking friends back home to write me recommendation letters), lived for a few months in a closet in Barcelona and was in the middle of six moves during a single calendar year. If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way.
Today the way was a subway and then a bus. I sat with my ski boots on my lap as the metropolis gave way to arid countryside and the herd of sweaty commuters slowly dissipated into the late afternoon sun. Xanadu was the last stop, nearly two hours of public transport from the bright lights of Gran Via. It rose like a mirage from the desert, a garish collection of colorful billboards highlighted by a singular, and supposedly snowy, ramp in the sky.
Tucked between a tapas bar and a mini-golf course, the hill hid behind a thick layer of Plexiglas and a shroud of mist. A pair of women in knee-length peacoats and high heels stood squealing and waving vigorously at the glass, presumably at a child lost somewhere in the refrigerated abyss.
Twenty-seven euros got me a pair of 150-centimeter skis, poles, goggles and arguably the worst two hours of skiing of my life. Every one of the slope’s 750 feet was frozen solid; the edges of my rental skis, apparently made out of rubber, did little to gain any semblance of purchase. Within minutes, the complex’s frozen fog sent a Siberian chill through my puffy, unceremoniously freezing my pant zipper to my boxers. I double-ejected twice in as many runs, jabbing my ski pole into my rib and sending snow down my T-shirt. And yet, I smiled.
Skiers are a stubborn breed. At one point or another, we’ve tasted the joy of sliding on snow and ever since, we’ve poured ourselves into moving figurative mountains just to ski the literal ones. Ask the Turns All Year crowd hunting patches of August sun cups. Or the mom getting not just one, but three kids into ski gear and car seats to score a couple of laps on the T-bar.
It’s the kind of love that leads you to a mall in Madrid. Here I was in a foreign country, far from home and the comforts that came with it. It hadn’t been easy to move away from the mountains, from the life I’d built there. I worried that I’d lost a piece of myself in the process, a part of my identity that I’d never really get back. But as I thawed out my frozen zipper and munched patatas bravas by a mall mini-golf course, I knew that when it came to going skiing, I would always find a way.
This article first appeared in The Ski Journal Issue 14.3