Two twenty-something snowboarders are posted up at the bottom of Spacewalk Couloir in Jackson Hole Resort’s sidecountry, watching as ten-year-old Jax and I pick our way down the steep, narrow chute. They shuffle over and jubilantly raise a gloved hand to high-five us as we hit the flats and hockey stop.
“Dude—that’s so cool you took your kid down that,” they congratulate me.
“It’s not my kid,” I return to their disbelieving stares. “He’s a loaner.”
I don’t have kids of my own. But I love getting kids outdoors for experiences they’d never tolerate with their parents as guides. Sleeping on an open summit, searching for a kayak campsite by headlamp on a moonless night, booting into the backcountry in alpine gear to ski powdery chutes… It’s turned into a triple win for parents, kids and me.
I’ve known Jax since he was born. He loves to ski, but he was born to Southern parents. So, when Jax was eight, my husband Mike and I told him if he learned to carve and edge, not snowplow and sit down to stop, we’d take him somewhere cool when he turned ten.
That’s what’s brought us to Jackson Hole with Jax. He’s never seen the high craggy Tetons or experienced altitude, and he has no idea what it means to ski powder. It’s also the first time he’s been away from his parents for more than a sleepover. When we board the tram, which soars to 10,450 feet above matchstick-looking pines and miniscule action-figure skiers, we’re so high, his eyes are dinner plates and his face is glued to the tram window.
“Expert terrain only from the top,” says the tram operator as we dock. “If that’s not for you, you’re welcome to take this car back down.”
Jax is having none of it. He points his tips downhill and carves perfect “S” turns. We drop into a field of monstrous fluffy bumps in Rendezvous Bowl, and Jax has a face-splitting grin and snow in his teeth when he emerges.
We arrived in Jackson on Sunday. On Wednesday we ask Jax if he’s called home—he says no, and we tell him he has to check in with his parents.
“Hi, Mom and Dad, it’s Jax,” he chirps into their answering machine. “No need to call back. I am having the time of my life.”
We are, too. Take kids away from their parents, and they turn into different people—usually in a good way. Jax is off the preteen autopilot of getting shuttled to and from soccer, having his mom do his laundry, and cruising through schoolwork well enough to get by. When he points his skis into Spacewalk, he knows the consequences of a bad decision. He’s earned our trust—he knows there’s no option for autopilot here, and that he can’t make mistakes.
I also feel the trust Jax has put in me. I treasure it, and the opportunity to share this checklist of firsts with him.
The week goes too fast. We laugh, we ski, we eat our weight in pizza and burritos. When Jax gets off the plane back in Burlington, he runs to his dad and wraps him in a bear hug. “Daddy, Daddy guess what?” Jax pants. “I am going to be a ski bum.”
If skiing ends up being Jax’s passion, I hope he’ll build a life around getting to carve snowy slopes. But why his comment makes me smile is that I know that on our trip to Jackson, Jax became conscious of a little piece of himself that he probably never knew existed—he mustered up maturity he had never been called on to use. And he stepped it up from blue squares to black diamonds in confidence, while the world peeled back and showed him a little bit of what’s possible.