EVEN THOUGH I LIVE IN MANHATTAN, I'M AN OUTDOOR TYPE OF GIRL.
I've trekked through Nepal, gone on safari in Africa, and (in case things got too wild) learned kung fu from a Shaolin monk. I cook a mean coq au vin on a camp stove, and I don't wear mascara when I surf. But last November I turned 36, and I still hadn't met the right guyby which I mean a real guy.
I decided I was through playing barstool roulette and hanging out at my local Barnes & Noble. I was sick of dating fussy intellectuals and well-groomed metrosexuals obsessed with pedicures and designer jeans. It was time to find a mountain man, a guy who could chop wood, rappel down an ice face, and run a wild river. Why not hunt for him the 21st-century wayon the Web?
I certainly had nothing to lose: I'd run screaming from enough freaks I'd met the old-fashioned way. In the past few years, I'd gone out with a media exec who was afraid of the ocean and brought his mother along on our second date. I'd let myself get picked up on the street by a tall, handsome high school teacher who took me out for a drink, ordered red wine, and proceeded to sip it through a straw so he wouldn't stain his teeth.
Sure, I was worried about attracting porn addicts and other sleazoids. But friends assured me that dating online was cool, safe (if you're smart), andconsidering the numberscompletely logical. Today, more than five million singles are shopping in the U.S. digital meet market; Match.com, one of the largest online dating services, claims as many as 15 million members worldwide. Specialization is everywhere: There's TallPersonals.com ("Size does count!"), for the "height-blessed"; DateMyPet.com, if your dog is the center of your life; and AshleyMadison.com ("When monogamy becomes monotony!"), for cheating spouses.
And now, thanks to Greg Prosl, a backcountry snowboarder and competitive mountain biker from Seattle, there's also SingleAndActive.coma hookup hub for adventurers and athletes. Prosl, 41, says he launched the business in the fall of 2004 after suffering one too many online encounters with women who shared none of his outdoor passions. "Most of the generic dating sites aren't set up to let people talk about their sports and list the ones they like most," Prosl told me. "On SingleAndActive.com, you can."
The site isn't hugethere are only about 10,000 members, most of them located in major U.S. citiesbut the male-to-female ratio is three to one. I hit SIGN UP NOW.
The rest is easy. Membership is free. You don't need to take complicated personality tests or bare your soul about why your last boyfriend/girlfriend didn't like your cat, why you don't want to have long talks after shagging, and what celebrity you most resemble. All you have to do is pick an anonymous screen name, offer some statsage, height, and zip codeand, if you want, write a few sentences of self-description. Most important, you rank your favorite sports. If other members like your profile, they send you an e-maila "flirt" as the site calls it.
I pick "cosmocamper" for my name, because of my citified ways. I slice five years off my age (who doesn't?) and name surfing, kayaking, snowboarding, running, mountain biking, triathlons, and yoga as a few of my favorite things.
"On a walking safari in South Africa," I write, "I learned that I fall into the 10 percent category of women who don't run when face to face with a rare white rhino. When I was 21, I trekked to 16,000 feet in the Himalayas to bring my boyfriend a beer on his birthday." Next, I upload a photo of myself at the base of Snowbird Mountain, in Utah. Finally, to get the ball rolling, I scroll through the male profiles and send flirts to six guys who look promising.
Then I wait.
I GET MY FIRST E-MAIL THE NEXT DAY, from a Manhattanite who wants to know what I'd like to do on a date. I write back and list fishing, mountain biking, riding on a roller coaster, andas a jokeflying on a trapeze.
It's a reference to Trapeze School New York, a place where people with Barnum & Bailey envy can work on their aerial skills (or their approach-avoidance issues). I've never met anyone who honestly wanted to try it. This guy seems up for it, though, judging by his e-mail. And maybe finding out whether a guy can catch me flying through the air will be a good test of his worthiness.
"OK, sounds fun," I tell him.
"First, could I see a photo that shows a little more of you?" he writes back.
I take it he wants to check out the bod, so I send him a picture of me in a bikini on a beach in Costa Rica, holding a fishing rod. (How suggestive is that?)
Perhaps too suggestive. He never writes back, and I'm guessing it's not because he doesn't like fishing.
Next, a mountain biker drops a line and tells me to check out his profile page, which features a close-up of a gaping-mouthed striped bass where his own mug ought to be.
"Do you really think this will attract a woman?" I e-mail him.
"Doesn't that look like a moist (or very wet) and inviting pair of lips to you?" he replies. "If you look long enough, you may just start to develop affection for the cute little fishy!" (Ewww! Delete.)
I can't help but notice that several SingleAndActive bachelors post snapshots that Freud would have found intriguing. One dude shows himself in camouflage with a rifle and a fevered look; another offers a photo of a prairie dog wearing a wig.
The women are camera shy, too, but when they do post snapshots, they steer clear of animal stand-ins. A quick scroll-through reveals perky yogatistas, horsey chicks, funky boarder babes, and some serious adventure girlsthe ripped types who roam the aisles of REI, saying things like "I'm so stoked! I'm going to Guam next week."
SingleAndActive males, meanwhile, aren't just men of few pixels; they're men of few words. Maybe they're so busy climbing in the Alps or running rivers in Colorado that they've lost communication skills. Or maybe they're just delusional.
"U look interesting . . . but I'm far away in India," writes one guy, who adds, absurdly, "Are u planning to be here soon?"
Next, I have an exchange with a med student in Nepal. "Your profile is superb and it is the thing that pulled me towards you!" he writes.
I respondhe's so sweet, how can I refuse?and tell him that, during college, I spent a month living in a village in southern Nepal, studying meditation with a holy man. "You are my type!" he writes back. "I used to do simple meditation. Have you heard of the young man in Nepal who has been meditating in the forest for six months without food or drink?"
I suddenly picture myself in the Himalayan outback surrounded by yaks and a chanting, bony husband. I decide to stick a little closer to home.
ONE UNSEASONABLY warm morning in late fall, an e-mail arrives from a backcountry skier who's chosen an obscure vegetable for his screen name. "How about talking about adventures while having a martini?" he writes.
Vegetable Man sends two photos. One shows him tearing down a slope, knee-deep in snow. (I can barely see his face, but the action shot is sexy.) The other reveals a balding guy with a sweet, boyish smile and charming green eyes. I e-mail back and suggest meeting the next night at a SoHo haunt called Raoul's.
When I arrive, my date is waiting at the crowded bar, wearing a bright-orange shirt that screams "bachelor for too long." I'm already planning potential exit strategies, but I decide a drink can't hurt.
Veggie says he once worked as a Jackson Hole ski instructor; now he's a freelance film editor. He's got nice arms, I notice when he takes a swig. As the martini buzz comes on, I start feeling a faint attraction.
"There's nothing more romantic than watching the sun go down over the river and the lights come up on the Manhattan skyline," I say, suddenly inspired. "How about going kayaking on the Hudson at sunset?"
"Great idea!" he replies.
It is, until we actually do iton a November day when an Arctic front sweeps in and breaks the warm spell. By the time I show up at the Manhattan Kayak Company for our adventure, a mile-long loop in a double kayak from 23rd Street to the New York Waterway's ferry terminal on West 39th and back, the temperature is 30 degrees and falling.
Instead of gazing longingly into each other's eyes, Veggie and I are shivering in full wetsuits, life vests, and wool hats. I'm praying we don't capsize as we head north on the Hudson River under a chemical-orange sky, barely crawling against three-knot currents.
I'm up front. Veg is in the back, breathing hard and struggling to steer. Our guide, Kayak Company owner Eric Stiller, is ahead of us. "The double kayak has a long history of being the marriage boat or the divorce boat," he yells. "If the person in the front isn't setting a good pace, then the person in the back has a hard time staying on stroke. You have to work as a team."Super! Meanwhile, powerful currents are sucking us backwards into something that looks like Charybdis on crack. My date is barely speaking to me. I can't decide whether it's because he's the strong and silent type or because he's so scared he can't talk.
"I think it's too hard!" I shout.
"Let's not give up!" says Veg.
Stiller points us toward what he calls "the nest of ferries," a challenging 250-yard sprint across the main ferry thoroughfare between Manhattan and New Jersey. To avoid hitting the wakesor, worse, getting plowed under by one of the vesselswe have to carefully time our crossing.
"Only half a dozen of our regular clientele can successfully make it across at rush hour," Stiller announces cheerfully.
Veggie and I do our best, paddling furiously in an effort to achieve maximum cruising speed.
"Watch to your left!" Stiller shouts.
I look left and see a huge wavethe wake from a monster ferrycrashing toward the side of our boat. I momentarily panic, imagining the headlines in the New York Post: SINGLE WHITE KAYAKERS STRUCK AND KILLED ON INTERSTATE DATE. "THEY BOTH COULD HAVE DONE BETTER," WITNESSES SAY.
I paddle hard on the right, Veg does the same, and we turn just in time to face the approaching water and surf over it.
"This is getting fun," Veg says.
An hour ago, the ferry building seemed impossibly far away, but now we've reached it. We turn around, catch a swift-moving current, and effortlessly glide back down the river. The sky has bruised to deep purple; glimmers of light from the Empire State Building skip off the jet-black water. "You guys work well with each other," says Stiller when we arrive back at the dock.
On water, maybe. But after Veggie and I hit pavement and grab something to eat, I find out his conversation skills aren't half as good as his paddling. The spark between us fizzles.
The next morning I get an e-mail from him. "I don't think we have the romantic kismet that it takes to date," he says. "Can we be friends?"
I'm cool with that. At least until we meet again at Raoul's a month later, and he tries to pat my ass under the table.
IT's DECEMBER WHEN I HEAR from a high-powered business wiz who says he loves climbing and skiing and describes himself as "fairly successful, well-traveled, and cultured."
He's obviously pretty confident, but I'm more than willing to find out if it's warranted.
On a sunny Saturday, Mr. Wiz and I meet for a walk in Greenwich Village. He's a good-looking, angular man with blond hair, and though he's not my usual type, his interests make him seem pretty hot. We spend a few weeks figuring out what to do on a date. Then he e-mails and asks if I'd like to meet him at an indoor climbing gym.
"Absolutely," I tell him.
I also admit that the last time I went climbing was the only time. I was 11, at sleep-away camp in Vermont. At the critical momentwhen I was supposed to lean back and rappel off a 20-foot cliffI suffered a major panic attack. I stood there for an hour before I made it down.
"So you have trust issues?" Mr. Wiz asks.
"I'm sure you'll be fine under my mediocre tutelage," he goes on. "But start doing those pull-ups!"
We meet a few days later at a Manhattan climbing gym, a no-frills joint with a hipster vibe. The place booms with the sounds of industrial rock and the occasional Santana tune. Twenty-something yoga girls and climber geeks are splayed every which way on molded-plastic "rocks."
Mr. Wiz, who will soon be my belayer, gathers up our gear and hands me a harness. Once I've cinched the contraption around my waist, he grabs the front of it and yanks tight, causing my hips to thrust toward him. I suddenly feel like I'm in an S&M film.
"OK, climb!" he says, pointing to a 15-foot wall. I grab on to a rock and start moving, making it halfway up pretty easily. I smile down at him. There's definitely a kind of tension between us, but I'm not sure it's the right kind.
"Don't let me fall," I say.
"I won't let you fallI don't want to lose my membership," he replies.
"So this is about you," I say, stepping onto a tiny green foothold and hoisting myself to the top of the wall. Maybe I'm just in a kvetchy mood, but I feel like needling him.
"Life is about self-interest," he gibes back.
When I'm back down and untied, he takes me to a place where you practice upside-down climbing. There are floor mats and, close above them, a rock-studded pitched ceiling. If I decide to jump his bones, this is the place to go for it.
"It took me six months to master this," he says, scampering effortlessly up the incline. I look at him dripping with sweat. He's a pretty sweet-looking package, to tell the truth, but somehow I know the chemistry is missing. It's clear he feels the same way, and it's obvious to both of us that there won't be a meeting number three.
BY LATE WINTER, I'm suffering from outdoor-dating fatigue. I've responded to 15 e-mails and haven't heard from anyone I'd wantto belay me in the sack. I'm convinced these adventure men are too self-interested and care more about sports than they do about girls.
But in a last-ditch effort, I reply to a flirt from a snowboard bro, who writes, "I like to ride my motorcycle in the summer and snowboard in the winter."
Hi, I say. Got a photo?
A minute later, he sends a picture of himself at a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey, arm in arm with the most recent ultimate-fighting champion on the Spike TV show UFC Unleashed. He's cute in a baby-faced, townie kind of waytoo much hair gel. But I give him my number anyway. He calls within seconds.
"That was quick," I say.
"You wanna come boarding tonight?" he says. This guy obviously likes fast action.
"Um, maybe you could tell me a little about yourself first."
"I like to snowboard with my iPod on," he replies. "I like to jam tunes and go up and down the mountain without stopping."
"How are we going to get to know each other?"
"We'll talk on the chairlift."
I agree to meet him that Wednesday night at Mountain Creek Resort, in Vernon, New Jersey. He greets me at the entrance of the Hex Bar, one of the resort's watering holes, and holds the door open. The neon-tangerine jacket he's wearing makes him look like he should be directing traffic on a runway. We sit down and, almost immediately, he pulls up his sleeve and rips off a large bandage to display his new, still-raw forearm tattooa black skull with red eyes, surrounded by the words RECON SCOUT.
Rawhide explains that he spent three years on active duty at an Army base in Louisiana, which leaves me to presume that he did some reconnaissance work and scouting. It's hard to tell. Rawhide isn't the elaborative type.
Despite the tough-guy act, though, he's a sweetheart and a gentleman. As we walk to the lift, he offers to carry my snowboard; during the ride up, he compliments me on my jacket. At the top of the mountain, he flies ahead of me, showing off his style. He's recently gotten into extreme carving, a technique that lets you lean against the slope until your body touches the snow.
After the show, he lets me catch up so we can board the rest of the trail side by side. When we start to approach one particularly sharp turn, he speeds ahead, stops, and points the way, as if he's steering me in for a landing.
Turns out, he kinda is. When we get to the bottom, he grabs me around the waist and attempts a tackle, which strikes me as pretty funny. If seduction skills were assigned grade levels, this guy would be in junior high.
After we grab a few beers, I give him a ride to his Saturn. "Can I see you again?" he asks. I don't have the heart to tell him that the tattoo just didn't turn me on.
THE FINAL SCORE
AFTER MORE THAN three months of dating with SingleAndActive.com, I give up on meeting Mr. Goodthrill. So was it a waste? No. All the preening, prep work, flirting, and escapades with near strangers was like dating exercise, and it got me totally on my game. The experience also taught me some useful lessons.
Kayaking on the Hudson with Veggie showed me that a guy's strokes are critical, on and off the water. Climbing with Mr. Wiz taught me that people who tie you up can also bring you down. Boarding with the townie taught me that I like men who reveal their layers, as long as decorative skin wounds aren't involved. Most important, I learned that, sometimes, going off-piste in life is the best way to get back on track.
It worked for me. In the final stages of my SingleAndActiveness, I went out with a guy I met through some mutual college connectionsmy first offline date in months. He was a smart, ruggedly good-looking film producer. We agreed to meet at a pub.
When he walked into the bar, he immediately knocked over the chair next to mine, and laughed. I was charmed by his quick recovery and melted over his gorgeous thick hair. I liked his faceI liked his everything. The conversation was easy and relaxed. Even more amazing, he told me he loves to travel, ski, and go camping. He's climbed Kilimanjaro and wants to trek in Nepal.
In April, after we'd dated a few more times, I knew exactly what move to make next. I went to the home page of SingleAndActive.com and ceremoniously canceled my membership. The offline guy and I are an item now, hard as it is to believe. It's an awfully sappy plot twist. And I'm totally cool with that.