Over the Hill 

Sledding and one grown-up’s last grasp at childhood

Each year with the first snow come family plans, three generations old now, for stalking the wily Christmas tree as part of a day of outdoor family fun. But this year, I am solemnly reviewing my knowledge of the law of physics to avoid committing snowy suicide.

Last year I wasn’t that bright. I didn’t set out to kill myself a year ago, but I almost got the job done anyway. After tracking down a Christmas tree on Rye Creek, it seemed like the best of all possible endings to the day to take the grandkids over to the Two Percent Road for a two-mile sled ride to the bottom of the hill.

On the first run down the hill, I stayed in the pickup, following the flashing ski caps of the younger generations, listening to their whoops of delight and recalling the “fun of the run” from one of the first dates I ever had with my future husband more than 30 years ago.

That long-ago day was an endless succession of introductions to future family members—cousins, second cousins once-removed, almost-cousins and the occasional great uncle—interspersed with bouncing to the top of the hill in the back of a pickup and then flashing back down again on Flexible Flyers to the bottom where the older folks waited with simmering pots of chili and steaming hot chocolate at the edge of a roaring bonfire.

Memories can play funny tricks on a person. I remembered the speed, and the thrill and the fun—and our next run up the hill I talked my teen-age grandson out of his sled so I could relive all those memories. Big mistake. Actually, giant mistake. Precisely, monumental mistake.

I should have known the moment I plopped down on that skinny little sled. It seemed a lot smaller than I remembered it being. (It is possible I was somewhat larger? But what isn’t after 30 years?) Anyway, I was committed and I bravely pushed off into the now slick tire tracks. That was the second mistake.

As I started into the first switchback the definition for velocity (the time rate of linear motion in a given direction) flashed into my mind. With every bump and rut in that snow-packed road frantically telegraphing a message to my more-than-ample, 50-year-old body, I struggled to recall the formula for acceleration but couldn’t quite grasp it. I knew it had something to do with the rate of increase in velocity per unit of time based on the Earth’s gravitational influence. But there was more to it than that.

Oh, yeah, that formula dealt with free-falling bodies. That was it.

Suddenly, as I headed into the next deep switchback (named Suicide Corner) the message pounding up from the sled runners over-rode the philosophical gobbledy-gook my terrified brain had been trying to process and came out crystal clear:

“You are 50 years old and you are hurtling down a steep grade four inches off the ground on a not-so-solid wooden sled at more than 30 miles per hour and you are going to miss the corner and the sled is going to careen over the edge into space and your extremely breakable body is going to freefall toward the earth at 980.1 centimeters per second (Got it!) and the result will be messy and painful and involve extracting you from the top of a Ponderosa pine tree.”

Actually, that is probably a slight exaggeration. What I really thought was, “You’re going to die, Stupid!”

I couldn’t take my hands of the steering board but I did the next best thing and jammed the tips of my snow boots into the road behind me as hard as I could. There was no noticeable effect, other than excruciating pain from the tips of my toes to the top of my legs. However, the minuscule amount of braking let me swing around the corner with a good quarter-inch of clearance and only the briefest glimpse of tree tops and the creekbed far below.

I steered frantically for the inside bank and brought the sled to a shuddering (I was doing most of the shuddering) halt several hundred yards farther along as deeper snow, an easier slope and my dragging feet combined to help me halt.

Before I could celebrate the miraculous fact that I was alive, my grandson was tugging me off the sled. As I staggered to my feet, he dropped to the sled, shoved off and disappeared around the next curve, completely unconcerned about gravity, velocity, acceleration or the laws of physics.

I groped my way back to the pickup thinking back 30 years to all those older folks who gathered round the campfire and waved at us as we much younger fools headed up the hill. They obviously understood the theory of acceleration a lot better than I than I did—then or now.

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