My sledding video from last winter was such a success, I thought I’d try it again this year. The conditions were pretty icy and scary last winter, so I stopped at the half-way point, not wanting to risk the video camera any farther. (I hold it in my right hand as I ride — this isn’t a helmet cam.) But this winter, given all the wonderful cold weather and regular snow, sledding conditions have been exceptional, and with the January thaw imminent, yesterday afternoon I went ahead and shot this video of a sled ride clear to the bottom, a mile-and-a-half-long run. It isn’t quite non-stop, as you’ll see: there are two places, slight uphills on the way down, where I had to get out and walk for a few yards. (The first is the half-way spot where I stopped in last winter’s video.)
Since I was on hard-packed snow rather than ice this time, the ride was relatively quiet. It’s the quiet that I love about sledding, as much as the speed, so I decided to dispense with rousing music on the soundtrack and go for straight realism. (Actually, a little less realism might’ve been nice, but unfortunately my camera doesn’t have image stabilization. I also apologize for all the sniffing — but that too is the sound of winter, isn’t it?)
I’ve been sledding for a long time — since at least the age of four, I think. My mother remembers watching me sled the hill below our farmhouse in Maine, trudging up and flying down over and over at zero degrees Fahrenheit. We moved to Plummer’s Hollow in 1971, when I was five. We did a lot of sledding as a family in the early 70s; my mother’s back still permitted her to go down a gentle slope sitting up. I remember sledding by moonlight, the five of us, taking turns on a shifting assortment of runner sleds and wooden toboggans, our whoops strangely not out of place in the silvered landscape. We never had anything plastic, nor even an aluminum saucer. We were arch traditionalists.
Winters were serious business back then, boys and girls. I remember our first brown Christmas, sometime in the late 70s, because it was such an exception. This winter so far has been like a trip into a time-machine (and given the option of going anywhere back in time, how many of us from happy families wouldn’t choose our own childhoods over the most stirring periods of human history?). January was always the best month for sledding because it was the coldest.
February, by contrast, was always the serious snow month, which brought its own excitement — snow forts, long walks on snowshoes — but it also meant we had to do a lot of tromping in order to keep the sled runs open. Dad showed us how to shuffle slowly along in a straight line, making several passes. But I don’t think anyone else had the patience for it but him and me, and after a few years it was all me. I was an inveterate day-dreamer, so it didn’t much matter what I was doing — I was always somewhere else, deep in a story. And you know, maybe that explains the attraction of sledding to someone like me, who never got into sports otherwise: going down a hill on a sled is one time I am fully alive to the present and nothing else.
After Mom’s back got too bad to permit any more sledding, Dad stopped too, and from the mid-70s on, his main contribution was to mow a sledding trail through the field with his tractor and brushhog each fall. Oddly enough, we didn’t otherwise keep walking trails through the fields mowed back them. We were still raising chickens and ducks and cutting hay, so I guess we viewed them more as hayfields than meadows for wildlife watching. We didn’t, for example, have the trail down through what we call the amphitheatre, where I start my sled ride in the video. The sledding trail Dad mowed every year went straight down from the upper edge of the field opposite the barn. We’d sometimes shovel snow into a bump at the bottom to make group toboggan rides more exciting: airborne!
It’s funny the way people look at me now, as an almost 44-year-old man, when I mention I like to go sledding. As I noted in last year’s post, even though lots of adults enjoy skiing and snowboarding, somehow sledding is for children. But is it? About a week before Christmas, I was joined by a couple of kids — my four-year-old niece Elanor and an older boy of around nine, I think, and the boy’s father, who’s my age, joined in as well. We had a blast sledding and tobogganing down through the field. But I couldn’t help noticing that both children seemed to regard the walk back up the hill as something onerous. Well, to be fair, their legs were a lot shorter than mine, but on the other hand, they were in way better shape than me. The walk up the hill is how you build up the warmth that makes the ride down tolerable, I told them, but they weren’t buying it. So maybe you have to be a grown-up to truly appreciate sledding.
One of the other things besides sledding that signals my permanent adolescence to most people, of course, is the fact that I don’t own a car and barely know how to drive. I am not a big fan of the internal combustion engine. But I’m not sure I’d enjoy sledding nearly as much if I weren’t so accustomed, as we all are, to the contrasting experience of riding in a car. It makes sledding feel like a magic carpet ride.
It helps that these days I invariably sled in a sitting position, which is a bit slower than lying down because of the way the weight’s distributed — the runners tend to bite in toward the back and it can slow forward momentum considerably, depending on the conditions. But it feels faster and more dangerous, especially the sharp turns when you risk tipping over. About ten years ago I started to notice dangerous twinges in my lower back whenever I went over a bump while sledding prone, so much as loved sledding that way I was forced to switch. Our neighbor Paula threw her back out a couple weeks ago while sledding with her grandchildren in front of their house (the third residence in Plummer’s Hollow). And she’s just a year older than me.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the real reason most adults prefer to leave sledding to the kids. But I hear there are an increasing number of publicly designated sledding hills, for example in Pennsylvania state parks, and given the tendencies of people in my generation to try and prolong childhood indefinitely if possible, I suspect I might even be part of a trend. But even if all the downhill skiers decide to switch tomorrow, forgo their lazy-ass ski lifts, and take up something truly physically demanding, I think I’ll still stick to the quiet and solitude of a Plummer’s Hollow sled ride.