Essential Sledding

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    sleddingIt is the day after a beautiful snowfall. The skies are clearing. The wind in the high pines unspools snow like tulle. I am supervising the outfitting of my two sons as they prepare to hit the sledding hill.

    “Have you got your under-layers on?” I ask Sam, the 9-year-old.

    Sticking my head in my 14-year-old’s room, I say, “Ben, make sure you wear the polyester ski socks, not the rag ones.”

    Back in Sam’s room. “No, no, no. You can’t wear Sambas. Where are the boots that Ben outgrew?

    In the attic, I dig through empty boxes and holiday decorations to find the polycarbonate sleds we were overcharged for during last year’s snowstorm.

    By the time I find the sleds, the boys are waiting by the door, having donned their heavy winter coats. An hour has passed since they began getting ready. Sam looks woozy. Inside his multiple heat-trapping, moisture-wicking, UV-ray-deflecting, anti-bacterial, internet-filtering layers of clothing, his ambient body temperature is approaching volcanic levels. If he sneezes, there’s a good chance the dog will vaporize in a pyroclastic flow.

    “Here,” I say as they bustle out the door. “Take these.” I rip open a couple of packages and drop air-activated hand warmers into their gloves.

    Finally, they tromp away into the snow, in search of reckless adventure in the uncharted back country of Richmond’s West End. “Text me when you get there!” I remind Ben.

    Naturally, it wasn’t like this when I was growing up. I was raised in Hampton, where it didn’t snow. Not ever. Except for the rare occasion when it did. Then the entire school-age population went wild, hitting the hills for some sledding.

    Hills, of course, being a relative term. Topographically, Hampton is like a slice of Kansas prairie dropped next to the Chesapeake Bay. The one hill in my part of town was a small bump that wouldn’t even buckle a contour on a Google map. But when the heavenly flakes fell, it turned into the redneck Kilimanjaro.

    Standard outfitting was blue jeans and a wool sweater, which, on the moisture protection scale, ranks just below dunking oneself in ice water wrapped in highly absorbent sponges. Some of us thought we were smart and added an inner layer of cotton thermal underwear, not realizing this would shrink-wrap freezing water into our pores.

    The little mound of earth was hardly up to the task of being a hill, much less a sledding hill swarmed with kids. The early sledders got the choice runs, but as the day wore on and the crowds swelled, the hill was quickly denuded of snow. Teeth were knocked out and noses broken when sleds stopped abruptly on bare ground, sending their pilots face-first into the frozen earth. But still, we sledded Determinedly on. We sledded away the snow and the grass below the snow. We sledded away the dirt below the grass. And still we sledded, until the rails of our Flexible Flyers sparked on bedrock. By the time we finally gave up, the hill was little more than a miserable heap in the weak afternoon sun, gouged into a muddy pulp and left to ooze mournfully until spring could repair some of the damage.

    And we, of course, were filthy, sodden, and hypothermic. Body parts that weren’t numb jangled as if being struck by psychotic acupuncturists. Lurching home like zombies, we wept with every torturous step, only to arrive and discover that our parents had locked us out until we removed our dirty clothing. Our useless hands clawed futilely at our garments, unable to grip, pull, or untie, until finally we collapsed, as wretched and helpless as the hill we had left behind…

    When Ben and Sam return from sledding, the brisk air has brushed their cheeks with a healthful glow. They shed their outer clothing, snow spraying onto the floor, and emerge, steaming slightly as the entrapped layers of heat radiate from their bodies. Still, they complain about the arctic conditions, and shiver theatrically. It’s a ploy, of course, and I fall for it every time. Soon they are in front of the fireplace, mugs of hot chocolate cradled in their hands.

    As they begin to tell me of their sledding adventures, I am, at first, distracted by a gnawing concern: Has their bubble-wrapped sledding experience – a metaphor, surely, for their entire childhood – robbed them of something important? By not suffering as I did, have they missed an essential part of the sledding experience?

    Then I begin to fall under the spell of the day’s adventures. The breakneck speeds. The massive jumps. The crashes, near-crashes, and miraculous escapes from certain death.

    Their stories conjure up a winter’s day long past. I am wet, cold, bundled up only in misery. But something magical happens when I begin to run, sled in hand. The poor excuse for a sledding hill tips up and stretches away like an Olympic luge run. I fling my body out, superman style, sled clutched to my chest, and there I go. Traveling faster than time, following the voices of my sons towards their sweet youth, their certainty of high hills and first tracks through new-fallen snow, until I am right there with them.

    There is no cold. There is not even the memory of cold. Just my boys and me – together in the joy of speed, the pure essence of sledding.