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Skiing & Booze: Does Colorado Have A Drinking Problem?

Centennial Staters love their après-ski almost as much as they love skiing itself. But has the thrill of the party surpassed the joy of the adventure? Inside the culture of drinking that permeates our great outdoors.

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Several years ago, in the C lot of the Mary Jane side of Winter Park Resort, I lost my son Scout. It was Spring Splash, the last-day party during which a large portion of those present drink substantial amounts of alcohol. I’d downed a couple of beers while half listening to a live band, and I was chatting with a girlfriend when I looked down to where Scout, who was three at the time, had been sitting in a camp chair. He was gone.

The reverie of the afternoon was immediately replaced by primal parental instinct. I tore through the crowd of skiers and snowboarders amid the smell of weed and booze. Some of the faces I passed may have showed concern, but I can’t be certain, because the beers I’d had—two Dale’s Pale Ales—each contained 6.5 percent alcohol (compared to the five percent generally used to measure a serving and the ABV you’ll find in a Coors). In many ways, it was more like I’d had close to two and a half beers instead of two, and at 135 pounds, I was definitely buzzed, if not a little drunk.

As I continued my panicked search, somehow Scout appeared at the stage. A band member hoisted him up and asked the crowd, “Hey, this little guy belong to any of you?” Still in my ski boots, I raced to the stage, grabbed Scout, and smothered him in kisses. Then, safely back at our home base for the festivities, I tucked Scout into his chair, keeping my hand on his head. When someone offered me another beer, I gratefully accepted.

That was in 2005, a year after my family had moved from Winter Park to Boulder County so I could take an editing job at Skiing magazine. Over the years, I’d learned how powerfully partying and skiing were intertwined. I’d always enjoyed drinking, but working inside the ski industry put me in contact with more opportunities to consume alcohol on the clock than any job I’d ever had. As a friend once noted, “In skiing, every story unfolds either on the hill or at the bar.” This was true at our yearly planning meetings, during which we skied, brainstormed, and drank every night; on press trips, during which we skied, schmoozed, and drank multiple days in a row; at skiing events, during which we skied and attended parties where people got drunker than anyone I’d ever seen; or, sometimes, at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, when, from the fourth-story windows of our offices on Pearl Street, we ordered margaritas from Bacaro Venetian Taverna to quench the thirst that came with editing yet another story about the season’s best skis.

Nowadays, when a few of us editors get together and reminisce about the “glory days” at Skiing, which ceased publication in the winter of 2017 and merged with Ski, one of us will inevitably say something like, “My liver still hurts from that period.” Grinning with a kind of reverence, we all nod in agreement.

After I left Skiing in 2007, however, my liver continued to sustain impact. By then, it was clear that drinking was not only present, but also often celebrated, in most outdoor sports, not just skiing. There were the beers we packed for the end of a big mountain bike ride and the ones we kept on ice for après-hiking. There were the giant coolers we put in our rafts—one for food, a whole other one reserved for hoppy libations. There was the booze in the daypacks we brought on backcountry ski tours, in the drag bags we attached to our duckies. And there were the craft breweries and distilleries and cocktail bars popping up in mountain towns—and so many other towns across the state. Alcohol was, it seemed, everywhere the outdoors was in Colorado.

For the roughly 20-plus years I’ve been drinking a couple of beers or glasses of wine every day of the week, I have spent a fair amount of time questioning my relationship to liquor. Then, this past summer, a new study on drinking, which spanned 26 years and was co-written by 512 researchers from 243 institutions, generated a lot of media attention. And it was no wonder: The report called into question what so many of us had been led to believe, and what I personally wanted to believe, about consuming alcohol.

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For years, the conventional wisdom suggested moderate drinking—two servings a day for men, one for women—didn’t cause major health issues and might indeed have small benefits. Yet this new major, multinational study, published in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet, stated emphatically that risk of health issues goes up the more alcohol you consume and that the only “safe” level of alcohol consumption is none. After the study was released, Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor of global health at the University of Washington and a senior author of the report told the Washington Post: “What has been underappreciated, what’s surprising, is that no amount of drinking is good for you. People should no longer think that a drink or two is good. What’s best…is to not drink at all.”

That seemed…extreme. And so rather than immediately becoming a teetotaler, I decided to take a closer look at my habits, both because I know how many times I have pushed my drinking to dangerous limits and because of what I see in myself and many of my Colorado friends and neighbors—namely, that some of us associate drinking with participating in our beloved outdoor sports. I wanted to investigate my own history of drinking, hoping to understand if, when, and how I’d gotten into trouble—and how I fit into the larger Colorado adventure/drinking matrix. I wanted to know if I had a problem and why so many people who live here seem to straddle this invisible line between social drinking and problem drinking. I wanted some answers, knowing full well that I might not like what I found. So I started where we all should start: with my first sip.

I was 12. It was spring break. My family lived in Twin Falls, Idaho, not far from Sun Valley Resort. Two of my cousins, both cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, came to visit. They either brought, or my parents had bought, a case or two of Coors. The beers sat in the basement until one day that week; a friend and I were playing Barbies and we decided we wanted a taste. We got drunk on two cans and later tried some of my mom’s cooking wine, which we’d found in the Lazy Susan in the upstairs kitchen. When my mom came home from work and discovered me wasted, I wasn’t punished—perhaps because throwing up was punishment enough.

According to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one of the biggest indicators of whether a person will develop a drinking problem is the age at which they start drinking; the NIAAA specifies that “starting to drink” means the age when respondents first drank alcohol, “not counting tastes or sips.” The organization further concludes that “those who began drinking in their early teens were not only at greater risk of developing alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, they were also at greater risk of developing dependence more quickly and at younger ages, and of developing chronic, relapsing dependence.”

It seems clear to me now, given how my drinking progressed, that I was affected by that earliest incident. But that almost certainly wasn’t the only factor for me: From my childhood through adolescence, I experienced ongoing physical and emotional trauma, a story I detailed in my memoir, The Source of All Things. (Studies show that victims of abuse are at an increased risk for abusing alcohol.) Doctors would also likely suggest I’ve been influenced by another factor—genetics—since several members of my family have shown classic symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD), “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”

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The NIAAA is clear, however, in stating that genes alone don’t determine whether a person is predisposed to AUD; rather, it’s a combination of genetics and environment. Whatever the case may be with me, I know that although drinking too much that first time had ultimately made me sick, I’d had a blast guzzling those beers right up to the point I stopped having a blast.

There’s another important part of the story. That same week, my cousins took me skiing at Sun Valley Resort, and I may have subconsciously put two and two together: My cousins were in Idaho to have fun, and their fun included skiing and drinking. Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the NIAAA, says it’s likely the two events acted as an “inciting incident” that imprinted the simple equation skiing + beer = a good time on my developing brain through a neurological pathway. These pathways form quickly, depending on the intensity of the experience. And they are incredibly difficult to rewire if the same message is imprinted enough times.

That seminal week, and the memorable euphoria surrounding it, also set me up to seek out more opportunities to drink in my early adolescence. There wasn’t all that much to do during a Twin Falls winter when you couldn’t go skiing, and I began drinking more often than I should have—because as a teen, that amount should have been zero. I made it through high school safely enough, especially after I chose to transfer to a boarding school in Michigan. But come college, like so many other undergraduates, I started drinking more. Whether it was a coincidence or not, that drinking would intersect with a greater interest in outdoor activities.

Photo by Sarah Boyum

I fell in love with the wilderness when I was in college, and after I graduated, wanting to get the biggest dose of nature possible, I moved to the tiny village of McCarthy, Alaska, which is located in the middle of the 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. During the start of my first summer there, in 1993, I established a daily routine any outdoors lover would covet. I’d do odd jobs for a family of homesteaders who paid me in room and board. When my work was complete, I’d explore the vast wilderness via running, hiking, or biking; then I’d head back to home base. There, the family patriarch would invite his “staff” (a ragtag group of workers) to visit his “cooler” (the crystalline mountain stream that ran past his cabin). We’d pluck cold beers from the water, sit back, and take in our surroundings. I remember with electric clarity the frigid, delicious beer quenching my thirst and the view of a glacier snaking down a nearby valley. For the first time ever, I felt at home in the world, thanks no doubt to the dopamine release associated with immersion in nature, but also from the alcohol that augmented those feelings. I also viscerally internalized this: that nature is great and cold beer is great, but that cold beer and nature together are exponentially greater than those two things on their own.

Fast-forward through the next few years, which saw me living in Alaska for a good chunk of time. Practically speaking, the bush can be a hard place to get a buzz. There are a few reasons for this: You might live eight hours (by snowmobile or car) from the nearest packie, where the price of a half-rack is exorbitantly high. There’s also the challenge of actually surviving in the wilds. After chopping wood all day or running a sled-dog team, your energy level might be such that you simply fall asleep after a single Pabst Blue Ribbon.

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As a result, for a couple of winters in the mid-1990s, I didn’t drink a whole lot. But in the autumn of 1997, I was in search of a new home closer to a ski hill. I found it in Winter Park, and on New Year’s Day 1998, I white-knuckled it through a blizzard over Berthoud Pass down to Fontenot’s Fresh Seafood and Grill. I had yet to experience the camaraderie of a true ski town, so I was shocked when, upon my arrival, I was gifted two items. One was a beer; the other, a free lift pass. I downed the beer and, a few days later, skied at Winter Park. That’s how it would go—drinking and skiing, skiing and drinking—with growing regularity for the next several years.

My ski friends and I were pretty cavalier about our consumption of alcohol and took increasingly big risks with our behaviors. We were classic ski bums: We worked as little as possible (often at restaurants), skied as many days as we could (at the resort and in the backcountry), and partied (mostly cheap beer). If this routine ever bothered me, I don’t recall worrying. On the contrary, skiing Mary Jane or hiking Berthoud Pass was never better than when topped off with a booze-filled night of recounting the boulder-pocked line we dropped into in Awe Chute or the avalanche conditions we’d had to avoid at Berthoud. “We [outdoor enthusiasts] are a Viking culture,” says Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “We love conquests. We conquer our objective, and at the end we often raise a glass. Celebration can take many forms, whether alcohol is involved or not. We’re accustomed to celebration because of the intense things we do. That’s never something you want to diminish.”

My social circle’s indulging, however, wasn’t just limited to après. We’d sometimes drink during ski days at on-mountain bars—because why not enhance an already perfect experience with a substance we believed would make it even more perfect? We’d also take risks driving after heavy après sessions, when we knew our blood-alcohol levels were almost certainly above the legal limit—a result of the sense that we were somehow impervious to both accidents and authority and of living in a county with limited public transportation options.

Dr. Brett Kennedy, a Boulder-based clinical psychologist who specializes in addiction, says that as “novelty seekers”—a group that includes people with an inclination to do dangerous sports like skiing—we’re inclined to search for dopamine blasts beyond what we get from risk-taking. “And culturally, we associate alcohol and drugs with celebration,” Kennedy says. “You do something really intense, and then you reward yourself with a dose of alcohol. I [also] think where you’re getting an absolute surge of dopamine and adrenaline with skiing a steep line, there might be a natural desire to recover from that through the depressant qualities of alcohol. That’s the paradoxical effect of drinking.”

White notes that Colorado has a higher rate of injuries or death related to alcohol than the U.S. average. He doesn’t pinpoint outdoors enthusiasts, but he does say that between 2011 and 2015, Colorado ranked sixth in the country for alcohol overdose rates. That’s no surprise. When it came to American counties with the highest incidence rates of “any type of adult drinking,” according to the American Journal of Public Health, Summit ranked number two and Pitkin number three.

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What’s in those counties? Ski resorts. Having lived in a town in which there’s a world-class resort, I know how it goes. I participated in the drunk side of ski-town culture long after I should have. For several winters in a row, I’d hit the slopes, do après, go to a bar, drink too many, and wake up hungover. Substitute mountain biking for skiing, and the routine was the same in the summer.

But with skiing, particularly ski touring, it was easy to convince myself that I wasn’t over-drinking. Rising early, heading to a trailhead, and exerting hundreds of calories per hour in the bracing air of a winter morning had the effect of making me believe I couldn’t be a lush if I was so motivated, fit, and passionate about such a physically intensive sport. And though I often felt dehydrated, woozy, spacey, and, to be honest, like crap, it never occurred to me that being hungover in a place like the backcountry was potentially putting both me and others in danger. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the negative effects of hangovers include “electrolyte imbalance, hypoglycemia, gastric irritation, vasodilation, and sleep disturbances,” all of which can affect your performance on a ski tour (or on the hill skiing). In August 2018, the journal Addiction found that a night of heavy drinking may affect people’s cognition the next day, including their memory, attention, and coordination.

Drinkers and their drinking buddies find convenient ways to justify their continued indulgence, and even after I gave birth to Scout and my second son, Hatcher, I was still drinking—and drinking and skiing (albeit far less often) and drinking instead of skiing (but never drinking and driving). I never once thought I should stop. Looking back, I’m not sure why. “It could be that years of drinking and skiing led to a strong association in the brain between those two things,” White says, “and in essence, the alcohol ends up becoming a cue for recall of the exhilaration of skiing.”

I was celebrating that exhilaration 13 years ago when I lost Scout. What I recognize today is that even temporarily misplacing my son should have been a wake-up call—but it wasn’t. We went home to Boulder County. I kept working at Skiing. I kept taking assignments during which I would ski and drink. And I met other parents who’d once been outdoor athletes and who now, happily tied down with children, were also imbibing as a way to keep ahold of their earlier, carefree lives of skiing and partying.

“I don’t know,” one of my old Skiing colleagues said to me not long ago. “I find I’m drinking more now that I have kids. Because I miss the freedom and the party.” I could relate, and I believe some other friends could as well, given our behavior earlier this year. Why else would we still be downing beers in the middle of the day while, say, watching our teens ski race? Why would we pack beers to ski tour with our teens in tow? And why would we keep doing all this despite the science that suggests even small amounts of alcohol can be harmful?

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This past spring, I was drinking every day. Not much (I thought): just a beer or two or a couple of glasses of wine after a hard day at the home writing desk. But come 4 o’clock, and sometimes closer to 3:30, I would start fixating on something hoppy. I’d do it sooner if I took time out of my day to go on a mountain bike ride (spring/summer/fall) or a Nordic or alpine ski (winter/spring). I’d often feel conflicted, but never enough to change my habits.

That is, until I finally decided to try a period of time without drinking. I was preparing to return to Alaska for the summer, this time so Hatcher, who was then 15, could work for the Youth Conservation Corps as a ranger in Denali National Park & Preserve. I was also planning on taking my six-year-old daughter, Hollis. In the far north, I hoped I might be able to explore the idea of establishing a new routine.

In late May, we left. On the flight to Seattle, I faltered. I was with Hatcher (Hollis would join us later), and I felt like I was on vacation. I ordered a glass of wine, knowing one should be enough. But I drank it and then ordered another. My mind became fuzzy, something you don’t want while traveling with your teenager. I felt guilty, and on the leg between Seattle and Anchorage I didn’t drink and my mind cleared. I was on to a new chapter.

In Denali, where my son would work and I’d spend my days exploring the park and surrounding area, I attempted to stop drinking completely. You can imagine how hard this might be, given all that Aaron White had taught me: Alaska. All-day adventure. Remembrance of things past. Expectation of reward. So I decided to try to instead “downsize” my drinking, taking some days off and letting myself have one beer or glass of wine on other days.

In the beginning, sometimes—maybe every other day—I was able to wake up, take my son to work, park my car at a trailhead, run or hike, wait for him to finish work, and get him home without stopping somewhere to order a beer. On those days, which were annoying (due to my cravings) but not as difficult as I expected, I had a sense of purpose throughout the day: making it without having a sip. I had a deeper connection to my son and more energy with which to get him to our rented cabin, make him dinner, and then head out on a wilderness run at, say, 8 or 9 p.m. in the near 24-hour light. I slept better. And I had the pretty much instantaneous sensation of losing weight.

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Then my daughter arrived, and I felt something even stronger. Without my regular two (or sometimes three) beers or glasses of wine each day, I had more patience, more presence, more clarity—which is perfect for spending all day, every day, with her in a more playful, more energized, mostly tolerant state. Here’s the beauty of what that brings: We were in a six-million-acre national park with nothing to do but explore. It’s true that when I was watching her do cartwheels on a river bar or when we were plunked down somewhere with a view of 20,310-foot-tall Denali, I wouldn’t have minded kicking back with a cold beer and taking it all in, just like I did years ago back in McCarthy. But when I didn’t drink, or when I allowed myself just one beer at the end of the day (single-parenting a second-grader while living in a 400-square-foot cabin is challenging—really challenging—after all), everything felt better.

Here is what I now know. I stopped drinking for part of my summer and significantly reduced my drinking for the rest. Throughout that time, in both Alaska and in Colorado, I connected to nature in a way I hadn’t for years. I had last felt this way on a backpacking trip—maybe 20 years ago—when no alcohol was available. Maybe without drinking, an outdoor experience is more rich in sensation. Maybe all of this adds up to a mother who can be more present to her children.

Making this decision was challenging for me. For those who work in the outdoor industry, attempting to be sober can be next to impossible. Just ask Stacy Bare. Bare came home from the war in Iraq and found himself struggling with drinking. In 2009, fighting undiagnosed PTSD, he turned to rock climbing as a means of coping. He moved to Boulder and eventually found a community of athletes who had the time and means to be outdoors.

Yet what he sought as an alternative to traditional pharmaceutical treatment, his friends saw as an opportunity to do the sport they loved followed by the celebratory Viking toast, “Skoal!” “The problem went beyond that,” Bare says. “In Colorado, you start drinking at lunch. Then you have a few at the end of the day; then on to a happy hour, over to a show, an after-party, and one final front-porch session before turning in. When I lived there, I got up most mornings to get back to climbing, hiking, or skiing—it wasn’t until I left that I realized how bad it had gotten, when I no longer had the climbs or skis to look forward to. Pretty routinely, I was having 20 to 25 drinks a day, more than that on weekends.”

Bare didn’t admit he had a problem until he moved to Washington, D.C., two years later, for a job with the Sierra Club. One night he partied until the morning hours and then, later, headed to work. In the D.C. heat and humidity, he poured sweat that smelled like liquor. His stomach roiled; his head felt like a toxic rain cloud. That day, he called a friend crying. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he said.

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Thus began a journey through which Bare—co-founder of Veterans Expeditions and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year—became sober. But when he told potential outdoor industry sponsors, he says, several responded along the lines of, “We love you, we think you’re doing great work, but that’s just too extreme for us.”

“I’m too extreme because I’m open about addiction?” Bare asks. “I’m not free soloing in Yosemite; I’m not dropping in unsupported to ski K2. You can get sponsorship for those kinds of things, but you talk about going on a sober journey and you can’t get one penny?” He kept telling his story and in February of this year left the Sierra Club to work for a sober active living community called the Phoenix in Salt Lake City.

By then, he and longtime outdoor industry insiders Shannon Walton and Paddy O’Connell had been having long, soul-searching talks about drinking in the outdoor industry. They wanted to create a space for the sober, sober supportive, and sober curious at the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show, which they believe, through its brands and members, is the largest outdoor industry promoter of drinking. (“The Outdoor Retailer trade shows are about bringing people together, and they’re a reflection of the outdoor industry,” says Marisa Nicholson, OR’s vice president and show director. “At the shows, we see a wide range of events to engage with the community and cater to the interests of those in attendance, from breakfasts to happy hours and everything in between.”) This past year, the show moved from Salt Lake to Denver, and the summer show attracted 25,000 people. Companies primarily come to sell goods to retail outlets, but it’s also an opportunity for industry folks to engage in brand innovation, marketing, and distribution as well as community building, leadership, and activism. Oh, and there’s a ton of partying.

“The show is the central nervous system of the entire outdoor industry, and it’s probably the worst place to be a person trying to be sober,” Bare says. The anecdotal evidence is there. The listings in an OR publication, which was produced daily during this past summer’s show, highlighted some 40 events that advertised beer or cocktails. Beyond those, every day starting at roughly 3:30 p.m. a significant number of exhibitors start pouring drinks. According to Centerplate, which catered the show, 155 kegs (and 960 bottles of beer) were sold.

Perhaps more important, say Walton and Bare, there’s no alternative if you want to join the community but can’t stomach the prevalence of alcohol or the culture of drinking. So the two brainstormed. The idea they developed was a sober happy hour, held across the street from the show. People could sip kombucha or sparkling water, eat small bites, and network—all without the booze.

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The duo advertised the event via social media, expecting 20 people to show up. Instead, about 120 OR attendees gathered at Aloft, a chic, boutiquelike hotel on 15th Street. They mingled, hugged, joked, and laughed. Then Bare, O’Connell, and Walton gave a group introduction, speaking about their different journeys with alcohol, from bottoming out and resurfacing sober to simply quitting to create more focus in life to supporting others on their own journeys with alcohol. Most memorably, O’Connell recounted a conversation he’d had the previous day when, at a booth inside the show, a brand representative to whom he mentioned the sober happy hour replied: “Sober happy hour? What the fuck is that? Who the fuck would want to be sober?”

“9:30 on a Monday morning at Outdoor Retailer,” O’Connell told the gathering. “My immediate thought was, I’m a man in recovery whose foundation is very firm. But I feel weird now, for him, for me. Then I got mad at myself for not saying anything. And then I thought, What if I were a newly sober person or someone who recognizes I have an issue? I want to ask for help. Everything inside my body is screaming for help. The first thing I run into at Outdoor Retailer, the biggest trade show in our industry, is, ‘Why the fuck do you want to be sober?’

“Is it the industry’s responsibility to make sure that I have a solid foundation? No. But it is the industry’s responsibility to open its ears and hearts to the diverse backgrounds and many different paths of life. Sobriety and recovery are part of our community. We need to be more open and receptive to that community.” And, Bare told me, the most common response from those in attendance was, “It’s about time—I hope we can keep this going.”

I was there at Aloft that day, one of the “sober curious,” and I noticed something almost immediately: It’s not any more or less awkward to make small talk in the absence of liquor. I also liked how people regarded each other with a kind of, This is weird, this is hard, but this is good unspoken reverence. And I relished the idea of a counterculture forming that will give my friends who do struggle with drinking a choice of environments at events like the OR show.

After all, I now know that people “who do struggle with drinking” includes me. Fortunately, mine is a story so far without tragedy and, according to White, my issues with alcohol are manageable. He suggests that based on my lifestyle, the fact that I don’t use other drugs, the amount I exercise, and my diet, my drinking habits aren’t all that dire, contrary to the warnings in the Lancet report to halt all drinking.

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In fact, he says, “it sounds like you’re in a middle ground, that you recognize your drinking might be unhealthy but you’re not really at a point of dependence.” I have to think about that—I still love the idea of going for a long mountain bike ride or punishing skate ski and then celebrating with a beer or a glass of Malbec. But since my summer in Alaska, I have stopped all day-drinking, stopped drinking after runs or bike rides, and stopped drinking after one beer or glass of wine on many nights. On some nights I skip drinking altogether.

White adds that if I continue my level of drinking for the next 20 years, even if I have just one serving of booze every day, research shows that I’ll increase my risk of breast cancer. “But it’s a small risk,” he says. “With two drinks, your odds go up a couple of percent.”

What he does encourage is for everyone, including people who drink at the same level as me, to take a good, hard look at their habits, to seek to understand them, and to pay attention to their respective relationships with drinking. “If you’re frayed and frazzled and just can’t wait to get a beer, I think that tells you something,” he says. “In that case, you may need to have your coping strategy tweaked.”

I’ll admit I still cope with stress in my current life—and I’ve certainly coped with all kinds of uncertainty, fear, confusion, risk-taking, and even joy in my past—by pouring a drink or, on more than a few occasions, too many drinks. But I’m grateful that the other significant piece of my coping mechanism is simply the wilderness itself and the trail running, mountain biking, alpine skiing, and Nordic skiing I do out in nature. Because—at least for now—those come before the drinking. And today, I know for a fact that I’d rather have the benefits of the first even if I don’t get to indulge in the second, rather than the other way around.

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