Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rosebud

Snow plowing and shoveling and sanding: 5 hours. Dealing with bills, problems, people, quandaries and obstacles: 4 hours. Work done and a few hours of free time to do nothing: priceless.



Late Sunday afternoon the sun finally broke free of cloud cover and was casting a 'warm' glow on a freshly snow covered countryside as I shuttled myself north on route 5. My destination wasn't definite but it didn't really matter. It was the first few hours of freedom and solitude I managed to pry from the whole, rapidly disappearing weekend. Any destination was welcome as long as there was scenery on the way to help allow the mind to wander...



It was just me and the camera tooling along, listening to the radio and stopping here and there for pics as I pleased. I'm pretty sure free time is second only to health as the most important thing in this life. Time to play. Kids have it right. We adults forget how important it is, in our chase to 'make a living'...



This and other deep thoughts clicked away in my rapidly clearing mind as Route 5 north of Northampton blurred by, becoming progressively more rural and rustic the farther north I escaped. Old tobacco sheds and farmhouses became more and more abundant on the flat valley floor, which itself was becoming narrower and narrower...







The valley's edges finally began to press in close, as Deerfield skimmed by and I crossed the river into Greenfield.







By this time I had a semblance of a destination in mind; maybe the access road to the Poet's Seat Tower in Greenfield was open to traffic for a quick easy look around before the sunset.



But alas, it wasn't. There wasn't enough time to hike up the road before dark either, an option I milled about for a second or two...nah. Too cold today. I cruised back down the hill, ruminating that a younger me might have taken up that challenge...

The base of the hill the tower sits on is adjacent to a park, which is apparently a popular sledding destination.



I parked on the other side of the park and watched; thinking some more about the younger me, and free time, and the last time I was sledding. Suddenly, ancient memories came flooding into my thoughts. memories of the notorious Suicide Hill, my old neighborhood's sledding mecca.



Suicide Hill was probably a half a mile from my house, which at the tender age of 8 might as well have been across the state, but my cousin and I would happily tow our sleds up to the steep wooded hill, clamber up and sled down over and over, until we were frozen to the core or near starving. The sled run was a long system of snow-packed foot trails that zig-zagged through narrow openings in the forest and down a steep incline. It took masterful skill to maneuver through those twists and turns, since they were bordered on all sides by tree trunks and jagged pricker bushes. One wrong maneuver or a split second's loss of concentration...and well, that's how the hill got it's name.

One frosty afternoon, it was getting late and the sun had just set, and we decided we'd make our final runs for the day. My cousin had just shoved off. He quickly hit light speed and somehow managing to bounce in the right directions, disappearing around the first curve. Alone, I paused for a second and looked out over the neighborhood below, from the bare top of the hill. The air was icy cold and crisp. I remember the stillness of it all, and the sharp sweet smell of wood stove smoke lazily drifting up from the tops of the chimneys of the neighborhood below, and stinging my cold runny nose. My cotton gloves were crusty with impregnated snow crystals, my pant legs stiff with the same, and my boots were by now just loose containers for half-melted snow and soaked socks that had pretty much completely curled up around my frozen toes. I remember looking out over the silent, twilight landscape, thinking how great it all was...then getting down to the business of prepping for the final plummet to the bottom.

The sleds we had back then were those old, metal-runner types, with the slat wood riding area and a wooden yolk with which you could force the front of the runners to twist left or right; supposedly giving some modicum of control as you plunge down the hill. Mine was especially old, and heavy. It was a little rusty, the paint had mostly worn off of the wooden slats and runners, and the wood was a little bit sliver-prone, but overall it was mostly solid. She was in her prime, and she was mine. A stiff frozen rope was tied and knotted to either end of the yoke, so if one rode sitting up, one could direct the sled by pulling on either end of the rope, like guiding a horse. The rope on my particular sled was customized to be especially long, so I could actually lean way back, luge style, and peer down the length of my body, for maximum aerodynamic effect.

I gave one last look to the frozen skyline, grabbed the rope with one hand, and pushed off with the other. A few more strokes on the packed snow with my free hand, and I was soon attaining gravity take-over. Time to grab the controls with both hands and fly. This being the last run: it would also have to be the fastest. I picked up initial speed, burst into the woods and knocked through the first two turns handily. Child's play, I thought from the cockpit of my fighter jet. A little turbulence over the next well worn section of twisted trail, where my feet threatened to bounce loose from their positions in the center of the steering yolk. But a firm yank on the rope planted my feet back in place, the trail began to straighten, and the sled skidded back onto a stabilized course and plowed on. The dreaded straightaway now lay ahead. How much speed you picked up here was really just a factor of your courage and/or stupidity. I was armed with both; gritted my teeth and squinted into the frosty wind, hell-bent on achieving the raw velocity that I was sure would make this run the stuff of legend, and that I would relate to my cousin all the way home. The trees and branches accelerated into a seeming tunnel of dark bouncing streaks on either side and above. I at first kidded myself that I was still in control of the situation, but finally relinquished my fate to truth, and the forces of gravity, rocketing to the end of the straightaway now at near cosmic speeds. Through watery eyes and between my feet I made out the final turn, hurriedly lurching towards me at an unprecedented rate. I began to realize that twisting the old runners would probably give no control at these white hot speeds, and attempting to dig into the snow with my feet would only invite a swift cartwheeling disaster. No, I would have to take the turn at speed, twist the yolk with all my might, and trust that the burm on the edge of the turn would contain this fireball.

The world now became the turn hurling itself at me...With my head bouncing uncontrollably, I tried to fix my gaze on the burm between my boots, and calculated the timing...steady....steeaadddyyyy...TURN!!! I yanked back on the right side of the rope with everything I had. Nightmarishly my arm suddenly snapped back, and my elbow bounced off of the hard ice streaking by...the rope had snapped loose! It was was now flapping cold across my chest and flabbergasted face. I instinctively kicked on the yolk with my left foot, but it was too late. Launching over the burm, the sled crashed through low, half-buried thicket and young branch stems into uncharted hillside. Through the jarring chaos, whipping branches and my own frantic screams, I could just make out that I was bearing down on a big dark lump, straight ahead. Was that a rock...? A tree stump..? No...it was my cousin...! He was getting up from his own recent crash, and scrambling to get out of my way! "Look Ouuuuuuuuuut!!!!!!!!!!" I dug my left hand and left foot into the tangle. I could feel my glove rip away, a quick glimpse of my cousin's eyes opened wide in terror, the sled turning suddenly and unnaturally sideways, a brief spin of the horizon, and then the bright flash of impact.

Icy snow was in my hair, down my shirt, down my pants and all over the side of my face, as I lifted myself from the furrow I created skidding to a halt. It was a fantastic tumble of man and sled. My elbow and knee hurt, my face was numb, my palm was scraped and bloody. But yet, I felt warm with the heat of adrenaline. My hat had disappeared who knows where, and the left glove would also remain missing. The sturdy sleds were undamaged, and I fixed the rope back to the yolk. We walked down the remaining short distance of the hill, and limped home under the street lights, proudly trading the heroic details of our runs down Suicide Hill...

8 comments:

Mary E.Carey said...

Well-told sledding story; I was cringing reading it. THIS is why I don't like sledding. Great moon shot!

Tony said...

Thanks Mary. I wasn't intending to tell that story with this post, but it just ended up going that way...kind of like an out of control sled!

Mattenylou said...

Hey - we had a 'Suicide Hill' too! It put plenty of dents in my old aluminum saucer. That was a great story! We've been reminiscing about sliding and skating on the Masslive Nostalgia Forum this week.. lot's of fun memories. (visit us sometime)

VanDog said...

Great story Tony! It brought back many fond memories.

Tony said...

Hey Mattenylou, being a big fan of nostalgia, I do check out that forum from time to time (no pun intended)...

Van Dog, I figure you're close to the same age as me; so you probably understand what it's like to go from getting up to change the three tv channels, in black and white, to programming 1000's of songs and video into an ipod the size of a matchbook, in just a few short decades...

An amazing time we're fortunate enough to live in...

VanDog said...

I sure do. As a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were ever so sweet when we finally got a color TV.

TONY Q said...

being that cousin you spoke about It brought back alot of memories as a kid going down suicide hill in our old neighborhood. Thanks.
I haven't been back there in about 32 years and I'll bet if we go there now that "suicide hill" is probably a little bunny slope.

Tony Q

Tony said...

Yep, or part of a subdivision...

It's good to stir up old memories, isn't it? And that neighborhood is loaded with them.

(I might have taken a little creative liberty with that story, but I'm sticking to it..!)

Glad your checking out the site, Tony.