When I was a kid, I didn’t have many celebrity heroes. I never wrote to any rock stars or signed up for any fan clubs. I never even hung heartthrob posters featuring tanned abs or feathered hair on the walls of my bedroom. I read some Teen and Tiger Beat magazines, and I once thought Andy Gibb was something special—but throughout my life, celebrity fascinations have been both minor and fleeting.
With few exceptions, even sports heroes were only marginally more prominent than celebrities and heartthrobs in my life. My family didn’t attend professional baseball, football, basketball, or hockey games, so I find it curious that I owned a small autograph book with a yellow cover and multicolored pages. I have no idea how I came to own the little rectangular book with the word AUTOGRAPHS on the cover in all-capital, gold-embossed lettering; though, I’m nearly certain that the first and only time it ever got used was when the Waterville Valley Resort hosted a World Cup ski race.
I suppose I grew up in a family that was a bit more focused on doing than on spectating, and from the first, ours was a family that skied. My dad had been obsessed with skiing ever since he taught himself to ski as a teenager at a local hill, and skiing, it turns out, was a big part of my parent’s courtship. When I came along, my parents even named me after a little girl they had seen skiing before I was born. This other little girl had been skiing at a very early age, and I was meant to be just like her. Thanks to my parent’s slight obsession, I may have even beaten her; I was on skis at age one.
So by the time the World Cup came to Waterville Valley, I was a junior ski racer, and Waterville was our home mountain. I’m not sure exactly when we learned that the World Cup race would be coming to Waterville, but it was a Sunday night when my sisters and I pitched a huge fit, begging to skip school on Monday to watch the races. We were sure that seeing a World Cup ski race in person was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and we claimed that it was tantamount to child cruelty for mom and dad to deny us this opportunity—especially since they were the ones who had gotten us into skiing. But despite our histrionics, my parents proceeded to pack the car and drive us back home to Massachusetts—intent on sending us to school.
That night around nine o’clock—after the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Mass—my friend, Anna-Britt Coe, called to tell me that her family was keeping her out of school on Monday to watch the World Cup, and her parents wanted to know if we’d be at the mountain as well. Thanks to Anna-Britt’s family, my parents reconsidered. We then loaded the car back up, and the next morning, Anna-Britt, her family, my parents, my sisters, and I were all at the mountain before it even opened, ready to watch the best ski racers in the world compete.
Somehow, I’d remembered to take my little yellow autograph book; though, I can’t remember how I carried it with me as I skied. I must have had a big enough pocket because I know I had it the morning of the first race when we encountered our first two World Cup skiers in the small lodge at the top of the mountain. It was so early that hardly anyone was in the lodge. My two ski-racer targets were eating breakfast when I asked them if they would sign my autograph book. They did—though they looked somewhat surprised when I asked. They weren’t the biggest-name skiers of the day, and at the time, I didn’t know a thing about them—not even their names. I only recognized them as World Cup ski racers because they were wearing their race gear. Today I’m almost sure that one of them was a former U.S. racer named Dave Stapleton, who’s now a ski adventure guide. I think the other was a guy named Pete—perhaps Peter Dodge—who along with Stapleton became a U.S. pro racer after his World Cup days. It’s strange that after not thinking about any of this for decades, I can still vaguely see the script letters in my mind from their signatures. Of course, at the time, it didn’t really matter who they were; they were ski racers—World Cup ski racers—and that was all that mattered.
As the day went on, getting autographs became our quest, so Anna-Britt, my sisters, and I would hunt down ski racers in the lodge and ask them to sign my book. Phil and Steve Mahre, the ski racing twins from Yakima, Washington, were two of the top skiers at the time and were definitely the leading U.S. racers. Both were friendly and courteous when we asked for their autographs, but the other top racer—Ingemar Stenmark—just growled and waved us away. We hadn’t paid attention to the leaderboard, and apparently, Stenmark’s first run had not gone well. Anna-Britt and I reported to our parents that Ingemar had been grumpy with us. So, since Ingemar Stenmark was Swedish, as was Anna-Britt and her family, her mother returned with us and asked Ingemar very nicely in Swedish if he would indulge us kids with an autograph. The friendly request in his native language did the trick, so we walked away with yet another trophy signature.
The autograph thing was funny. I somehow knew that I was supposed to collect these autographs in my autograph book, as this was the objective. But I didn’t really know why or what it was supposed to mean to have these autographs once I’d collected them.
Years later, I would be ski coaching in Zermatt, Switzerland, when Pirmin Zurbriggen, the dominant racer of the day, would ski past my students and me leaving a perfect, deep, round arc in the corn snow beside us. The kids all reached out to touch the arc he left in the snow—as if his power, talent, and brilliance as a skier were transferrable, as if all we had to do was touch the arc left in the snow as he whizzed by, and we would be elevated somehow.
When I think back on how we choose our heroes and who we decide to admire, I’m somewhat pleased that I seem to have always gravitated towards valuing people for the amazing things they do and less for the way they look, which probably explains the lack of teen idol posters in my childhood. But I still wonder a bit about exactly what it is we hope to gain when we do meet those we most admire.
I’ve had a little bit of time to think about this since Saturday morning when I turned to see my newest literary hero, Cheryl Strayed, standing less than three feet from me. Getting to hear Cheryl Strayed deliver the keynote address at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat this past weekend at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, Washington had been a huge motivation for attending the event. I’ve read all three of Strayed’s books—twice. And her bold, powerful prose won me over from the first page. She is a smart, strong, seemingly fearless woman who writes with a candor and compassion that seems capable of disarming even the most jaded reader. And for these reasons, it seemed as if all of the attendees at the writing retreat—including me—were like giddy teens awaiting her arrival.
On Saturday morning, I was honestly shocked when I turned to my left and saw Cheryl—less than an arms length from me—looking for the start of the breakfast line. When she turned slightly in my direction, I said, “Cheryl, I’m a huge fan of your work.” She extended her hand and introduced herself, and I thought, “Oh, right, you’re supposed to introduce yourself before you start gushing.” Cheryl worried aloud that she was in the wrong place, and I was thrilled to inform her that she was in exactly the right place and that a man behind the counter would soon hand her a plate. She asked me about which class I was taking, and I explained that we were able to take up to five classes from the retreat’s writing instructors. She asked me another question about the event, and I said that the retreat was wonderful. I may have said that the food was excellent, but I don’t really remember. Then Cheryl started ordering her food from the buffet, and I saw Theo, the event’s organizer, walking up to greet her, so I left Theo to do the official welcoming and I wandered back to my seat thinking, “I can’t believe I just talked to Cheryl Strayed.”
Of course there is absolutely nothing in all that I’ve read that could possibly have led me to think that Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things, would have been anything other than a real, live, flesh-and-blood person—and an easy-going, warm, and courteous one at that. So, what was it that made actually meeting her, talking with her, standing right next to her seem like such a special gift? What made me so attracted to seeing her and to hearing her speak in person? And how was this attraction similar to how I’d chased after all of those famous—and in some cases not so famous—ski racers all those years ago, pleading for their autographs? And what made standing in her presence feel like touching the arc in the snow carved by Pirmin Zurbriggen? In what way is Cheryl Strayed’s brilliance transferrable?
Later that afternoon, I was walking back into the dining room, and Cheryl and Theo were walking out. Cheryl looked at me and said, “Hi. You spoke with me this morning, didn’t you?” Once again, I couldn’t believe that Cheryl was talking to me. I said, “Yes,” and apologized for accosting her in the morning. She said, “You didn’t accost me,” and I explained that I’d worried about having interrupted her by gushing and chatting her up before she’d even had a chance to have her morning coffee. But she assured me that she was accustomed to interruptions. “I have kids,” she said and indicated that she hadn’t been bothered at all by my interaction. Once again, I walked away with a warm feeling—something akin to having good news to share.
Cheryl’s keynote address was brilliant, and even if I hadn’t had three separate opportunities to talk with her, her discussion on writing would have had a supremely positive impact on my thinking about both writing and about life. She had sensational, grounded, earnest, and caring advice for us, and I hope that Theo will be able to make the video of Cheryl’s talk available to us; I’d love to review her wise words again and again.
But still I ask myself, what was it about actually being there, about meeting her, about being in her presence? Could I not have learned the same lessons had I seen a video of her talk? What was that warm glow we all took away with us? What did I, what did any of us, touch of Cheryl Strayed’s brilliance? What was transferred?
I suppose it’s unlikely that there really is any alchemy in proximity, but I can say that Cheryl’s presence, her poise and her caring, reinforced my belief in graciousness. With everyone fawning and grasping and trying to touch the magic that Cheryl—through her hard work, her tenacity, and her faith in herself—has created—she was supremely gracious. She lived her own words; she held us all in high regard. She was generous with her time, her energy, her leadership, and her patience for all of us seeking an autograph—and to know something of her—this exceptional woman who has defied conventional wisdom through her achievements.
That evening, during the book signing, I asked Cheryl to sign two books for me: one for a 62-year-old friend who hiked the Appalachian Trail last summer and one for my partner, Brian. I recognized that I didn’t need Cheryl’s autograph for myself. I have her words on the page, the advice from her keynote, and the example of her presence. I also have Theo’s introduction of Cheryl in which she stated that one of the most remarkable things about Cheryl Strayed was that she behaved like a wildly successful author even before she was one, working to build strong writing communities and to support other writers long before her own first book was ever published. These sorts of activities—helping to build the writing community in my own area and working to support other authors—these are tangible things I can do immediately. Whether or not I will ever write in a way that touches people as Cheryl Strayed does, I can’t say. How my writing evolves and improves depends on me doing the work—day after day. But being a good member of my community, being gracious, and being thankful for the opportunities I have—all of that I can do now. And I can be humbly grateful for the tremendous good fortune of being able to spend a couple of days in an exquisite location with interesting, inspiring, and like-minded people. And I can follow Cheryl’s example and act like the person I want to be, and I can do that today.