Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slip Slidin' Away

I grew up way Up North in Michigan, and snow was a major feature of my entire childhood.  In a typical year, the first snow came around the beginning of November, and it was usually right around Thanksgiving that the snow stayed on the ground, and didn't melt away in the next day's sunlight.  By Christmas, we typically had a foot or more on the ground, and all through January and February, the snow cover averaged around one-and-a-half to two feet.  The sidewalks were little miniature canyons, and the piles of snow left after the streets were plowed often rendered the street invisible from the sidewalk, and vice-versa.  One year (I think it was January of '71), we had a pair of freak lake-effect blizzards in the same week that dumped 42 inches on us, which, because of drifting, etc, necessitated digging tunnels to the entrances of the high school.

So, yeah. . . snow.  Which meant that snow-fun, such as sledding, was a main staple of wintertime recreation (we also enjoyed skating; our town was a hotbed of speedskating in my childhood, in the aftermath of Terry McDermott's Olympic medals; nowadays, they're more into hockey).

When our family first moved Up North, in the fall of '63, I went to a 'rural' school, since we lived on the lakeshore, 7-8 miles out of town.  The school grounds were expansive.  There was a small, blacktopped 'playground' close to the school building, with the requisite four-square and hop-scotch courts painted onto the blacktop, the standard swingsets and monkey-bars.  And there was a large, open field, surrounded by woods.  The woods were actually on school property; somewhere 50 yards or so into the woods, there was a wire fence marking the limit of the school grounds.  At the boundary between the large open field and the woods, there was a five-or-six-foot rise.  So we would cross the field, climb a little ridge, and be in the woods.  It's hard to convey how incredibly cool recess was at that school. . .

When the snow fell, the six-foot ridge was laboriously converted into a long row of ice-slides.  At the first recess after a big snow, dozens of kids would run out across the field to the ridge, form little teams of 5-10 kids, and begin stomping up and down the ridge, packing the snow down, and ultimately polishing it into an icy glare.  By the end of the day, there would be 10 or 15 icy chutes distributed along the ridge, and for the rest of the winter, we'd spend recess sliding down the ice-slides in every configuration we could think of - face-up, face-down, standing (surfing, if you will), two of us one-on-top-of-the-other, etc, etc, etc.  It was pure wonderfulness.

Even on the blacktopped playground, kids would stomp back and forth, creating a 30-foot-long frozen slip-n-slide.  So when recess came, we'd line up, get a running start, and slide on our bellies across the ice.  Or, some of the baseball players would practice sliding into second base.  We weren't supposed to slide standing up, but we always did, when we thought the playground-teacher wasn't looking.  And every once in a while, somebody would slip and whack their head on the ice-covered blacktop, and win a trip to the school nurse, and a few punitive lost recesses.  But, to my knowledge, no-one ever died, or suffered permanent brain damage (but hey, this was the early 60s; we still rode in the backs of pickup trucks, and seatbelts were just appearing for the first time).


The best, most excellent sledding action to be found in our area was at a place called Manning Hill, which was maybe 15-20 miles west of town.  I'm sure that Manning Hill has grown in my memory over the years, to where it is, by now, on a par with Pike's Peak.  But I've been by Manning Hill in the last 10 years, and it's still a pretty impressive bump; maybe a couple hundred vertical feet from base to top.  We'd pull off the main highway into a parking lot, grab our sleds and commence the long uphill trek to the top of the hill.  On a good sledding day (a sunny day in the 20s, so the snow wouldn't get soft and slushy), there would be a hundred or more kids on Manning Hill.  Roughly half of their parents would just bring a newspaper and sit in the car; the hardier half would accompany their kids up the hill, and occasionally grab a seat on a down-bound toboggan.  My folks were generally of the climb-the-hill-with-the-kids persuasion, although they didn't slide downhill much.

In linear terms, the sledding run down the front of the hill was somewhere between a quarter-mile and a half-mile.  If the snow was soft and fluffy, you might go most of the way down the run before you came to a stop.  If it was hard and slick, you might make it all the way down to the parking lot; there was a steep upturn at the bottom of the hill, so no-one would ever end up sliding into the parking lot ('cuz, you know, that just wouldn't be good. . .)  When your downhill run finally slid to a halt, you'd get up off your sled and begin the long trudge back to the top of the hill.  You might spend 3-4 hours at Manning Hill, and make 10 or 12 downhill runs.  Each run would last a minute or so; if you really managed to milk it, you might get two minutes of adrenaline rush.  Then it would take 10 or 15 minutes to climb back to the top of the hill (it only seemed like two days).

There were toboggans, which were cool, because you could get four or five people on the same ride, and you were (generally) sitting upright.  There were a few saucers (aluminum ones, not the plastic ones you see today).  Some kids just brought an old cardboard box with 'em, and I was always impressed at how much fun there was to be had from a simple cardboard box sliding downhill.

But by far, the preferred sleds were the vaunted old Radio Flyers - the steel runners with a wooden-slat surface on which to ride, and the wooden cross-bar to steer with.  The preferred configuration was to lie on your belly and steer with your hands, but some kids would sit upright and steer with their feet.  And of course, tandem pairs of kids would lie one-on-top-of-the-other.  The added weight meant you could go faster, but every bump and divot in the sliding surface meant that the kid on the bottom got the wind knocked out of him as the kid on top slammed down on him.


One year, I think when I was in junior-high or high school, we had an absolutely perfect sledding day - it was bright and sunny, with temperatures in the upper 20s.  So, as long as we stayed active, we weren't going to get frozen, and the snow would be hard, but the bright sun would make for a slick crust on the top of the snow surface.  Oh, the sledding was fast that day.  The first time I went down the hill, I flew.  I felt like I was an airplane coming in for a landing as I zipped down the hill at half the speed of sound; I could feel the pressure waves building up in front of me, I was going so fast.  I had to look far down the hill ahead of myself to plan my steering moves, and hope that no kids at the bottom of the hill decided to wander across the main sledding lane.  I didn't come to rest until I rocked up onto the incline at the edge of the parking lot.  It was incredible!

Our whole family was there, and my brother and I were quickly engaged in various contests and races.  It was the greatest day of sledding in my whole life.  I don't know how many hours were actually spent there, but I'd have been willing to keep going by starlight, if they'd let me.

At one point, in the later afternoon, my brother and I were standing on the top of the hill, catching our breath after our most-recent uphill trek, and preparing for our next high-speed descent.  As we huffed and puffed, we looked around, taking in the scenery from the top of the hill, from whence we could see a surprising distance over the surrounding countryside.  At one point, we were facing away from the front of the hill, where everybody was sledding, when we noticed, for the first time, the back side of the hill.  It was steep at the top, just like the front, but about halfway down, the slope became more gradual, and it continued on for a long way - MUCH farther than we could go on the normal run on the front side.  There were even a few sled-tracks running down the back side, so it wasn't like you couldn't sled back there.

My brother and I looked at each other, an unspoken 'You wanna?' passing between us.  We didn't say a word, just set our sleds on the brow of the hill, pointing down the back run.  This was gonna be cool. . .

We pushed off, and instantly, we were flying!  My brother would pull ahead of me by a foot or so, then I'd catch back up and nudge ahead, and we just kept going.  It was the most incredible run either of us had ever had.  At some point, I was aware that, if we'd been on the front side of the hill, our run would be over, but we were still flying, the wind peeling our cheeks back, adrenaline still pumping through our veins.

Our speed dropped off, just a bit, as we continued onto the more gradual slope halfway down, but at that point, it became a contest just to see who could keep going the longest, and run the farthest down the hill, more than simply who could go the fastest.  Even so, my brother and I were eyeing each other, one of us, and then the other, nudging ahead by a few inches as we continued downward.

After a certain point, I looked ahead, and saw a fence.  When we were at the top of the hill, the fence had seemed ridiculously far away, that we could never go that far.  But now, it seemed quite possible that the fence would come into play before our run was over.  I looked along the fence, and saw a gap, maybe ten feet wide, with two large maple trees marking the edges of the gap.  The fence went up to the maple tree on either side, and whoever had built the fence had decided not to fill in the gap with an extra ten feet of fencing.  So I began to steer myself toward the gap in the fence, just in case I still had some speed left when I got there.

My brother saw what I was doing, and quickly ascertained that he should steer toward the gap, as well.  And we continued sliding down the hill.  We were still going fast enough, though, that our 'steering margin of error' was still pretty comparable to the width of the gap, and I began to get nervous as to whether I would be able to actually hit the gap or not.  My brother's sled moved closer to mine, and we began to bump each other sideways with the realization that it was gonna be a pretty close thing for both of us to shoot the gap together.

Finally, we were in the last few yards, still moving at a rapid clip, and I smiled to myself as I realized that, yes, by golly, I was indeed going to hit the center of the gap.  I sailed on through, between the two huge trees, and found myself cruising across virgin snow at the back of some farmer's field, and I only made it 20 or 30 yards into the field before I slid to a halt.

But where was my brother?  I looked around, and then I saw him, lying face-up in the gap between the trees, but I couldn't see his sled.  I grabbed the lanyard on my own sled, and trudged back to where he was laying.  As I approached, he looked up at me.

"Are you OK?" I asked.


"What happened?"

"I had to bail."

"Where's your sled?"

He rolled over, looking toward the tree that had been on the left side of the gap as we approached.  There was his sled, a small dimple in the metal framework at the front of his sled.

"I was gonna hit the tree," he said, "so I had to bail.  The sled hit the tree.  I hope it still works."

We picked it up and gave it a quick inspection.  It looked like it might be slightly bent, so we torqued on it, to try and un-bend it.  Then we set it back upright.  It seemed to sit flat on the surface, so we pronounced it OK.

Then, we turned and looked back toward the hill, which was much farther away than we'd ever seen it, having never been down the back side before.  It was gonna be at least a half-hour trudge back to the top.

So, we adjusted our mittens and our stocking-hats, grabbed the lanyards to our sleds and began our wintry trek back up the hill.

"Coolest. . . run. . . ever. . ." my brother smiled.

"Yeah," I said, "and I won. . ."


  1. I remember many good times as a kid sledding, tobogganing, skiing, and building snow forts. I even still have my Radio Flyer. However, as an adult, I have zero tolerance for the snow, mostly because of the growing fear I have every year of driving in it. Glad your brother made the wise decision to bail.

  2. And the lesson here is... "Snow is for KIDS! ;-)

    In re: the blizzard of January '78 (at your linked post). I drove from South Bend to Westby, Montana in that storm, mostly out of necessity as the USAF did NOT look kindly on any of the troops overstaying their leave. Which was pretty damned stupid, as I COULD have called and requested a leave extension due to weather. I-94 was reduced to a single lane through most of Minnesota and all of North Dakota, but the REAL fun began when I had to leave the interstate and do the last 378 miles (I checked google for the exact mileage) on two-lane roads. That was an EPIC drive, lemmee tell ya... and the biggest part of the reason I say snow is for kids.

  3. That is such a great story and it reminds me of when...

  4. i have visions of calvin and hobbes flying off snow covered cliffs now....only it's you and your brother.

    in my college days we had a sled run known affectionately as suicide hill....and also it's big brother known as suicide cliff. lots of fun there. one year we carried a girl out who broke her ankle on a run.

  5. Bijoux - I know what you mean. To this day, snow is fun only to the extent that I don't have to drive in it. . .

    I bet your old Radio Flyer could be worth something, by now. . . And I forgot all about snow forts. . .

    Buck - I remember that Blizzard of '78. That would NOT have been a fun drive. . .

    These days, about every other year, or so, we'll get snow that will turn my hour-and-a-quarter commute into 3 hours or more. Especially if one of the counties I drive thru is getting low on their supply of road salt. . .

    Skip - Yes, yes. . . go on. . . Do I sense a blog post brewing?

    Lime - Not a lot of cliffs on Manning Hill, and we didn't go airborne much. But we definitely felt like we were flying. . .

    'Suicide Cliff' just sounds like a place not meant for sleds. Not, I realize, that that would necessarily deter many kids (college students most especially!) from checking out the experience. . .

    Broken bones can just be such a buzz-kill. A couple years ago, 6F got whacked in the mouth in the course of a sledding collision. Which kinda put her braces on an accelerated schedule (and added an implant to the festivities). . .

  6. Love the dangerous tale at the end, but I'm especially struck by the coolness (no pun intended) of all the kids at your school working together to make the most excellent sliding chutes and whatnot. It's wonderful when kids just all decide to work together, no plan, no gathering for volunteers or whatever, just knowing what needs to be done and doing it!

  7. A most enjoyable story! I might just read it again. :) Here in the Canadian prairies, we have no lack of winter snow, but a definite lack of sloped surfaces such as the epic one you conquered as a child. Oh, we went sledding to be sure, but a "run" was often a 15 second excursion... however I also never had to encounter a 30 minute walk back up!!

  8. Suldog - You know, I never thought all that deeply about that, but you're right - we all just knew what to do and did it. . . ('course, just stomping back and forth in the snow for long enough to slick down a sliding surface ain't exactly all that complicated. . .)

    Flutter - Yeah, that's kinda how it is where we live now. The biggest hill around here is maybe a third the size of Manning Hill. And our kids don't even like the 5-minute climb that that entails. . .

  9. The day I was born, Mom and Dad had walked up the hill almost 2 miles in the snow because the truck wouldn't make it only to have to later walks back down as I was busy knocking at the door, so to speak.

    It sounds as though you and I might have attended the same school, we were engaged in the same activity when the snow fell. if we got things slick enough the run ended with a jump off the edge into the woods.

    My favorite sled run no longer exists, unless you wanna nose-dive into the Red Lobster. The hill was steep enough that you had to loop around to the side-hill to get up it. the main slope was so steep you could not climb it in snow and the run was completely in the woods so ya kinda hadda keep control or count on a concussion. I 'only' witnessed 3 of those over the years out of the half dozen of us daring-dumb enough to challenge the hill. Pierce Hill, if that matters.

  10. You know, Jen & I used to joke about going on bike rides, or driving on a bumpy road, if one of the kids was staying inside too long. Sounds like yer folks kinda had the same idea. . .

    And yeesh. . . you guys were hard-core; we would avoid the areas with trees. . .

  11. A fun read - I'm visiting from Joeh.