Nowhere does the counsel of the years make itself more acutely felt than on the slope of a favorite sledding hill.
I am thinking about one hill in particular, not far from my home. Majestic enough to be seen from the interstate, it beckons all to come for a ride.
And come we do. During my recent visit, people were riding snowboards, "magic carpets," toboggans, cafeteria trays, and venerable Yankee Flyers. College students packed five to an immense inner tube, bouncing at Mach speed over the humps and hollows; children rode piggyback; others spun like dervishes on brightly colored snow disks; a little girl went down in an immense cooking pot; and a woman slid in a garbage bag. I even saw a grandfather stick a coal shovel under his experienced bottom and take off with a whoop, the handle jutting out in front of him like the prow of a Viking ship.
Although the hill is for everybody, it doesn't treat everyone exactly the same. The children, of course, endure it best: lightweights gently heaved and set down again by the inconsistencies of the slope. Their rides are so thrilling and without incident that the trek back to the top is nothing short of a fresh invigoration for the next go. Despite the avid participation of a number of adults in the fun, most of them sit in a line just short of the crest, sipping hot chocolate, content with the vicarious thrill of watching their young have the time of their lives.
At first blush this sitting business wasn't for me at all. I wanted to be where the action was. Despite having surrendered so many of the activities of youth, I wasn't yet willing to let this one go. And so I took my sled - an orange plastic trough - and set it down at the crest of the hill. Then I set myself in the thing, and we both teeter-tottered at the brink for long moments as I stared downhill, suddenly struck by how much steeper the hill appeared when one is about to become part of it.
A little boy of about 7 set his sled down next to mine. Like racers gunning our engines at the starting line, we eyed each other's conveyances. He had the same kind of sled as I, only blue and with two black plastic handles jutting from the sides. "What are those," I asked him, my breath steaming out through my scarf.
"Brakes," he said. "Don't you have brakes?"
I looked down at my sled and then kicked my feet up. "Only these," I said, but in doing so I had removed the last thing holding me back from a hill that suddenly looked more like a precipice.
I was off. From the start I realized I was going too fast. I passed everyone around me: the college students on their inner tube, the grandfather on his coal shovel, and a blizzard of screaming children. Several people lumbering up the hill saw me bearing down, gave a yell, and leapt out of the way. With no real ability to steer, I managed to hit every bump and hole in my path until I was rattling like a rag doll. Pretty soon I was turned completely around, staring uphill while rocketing down, the line of adults at the crest nodding: "He shouldn't a' done it."
I wiped out, as they say, well before the bottom. I think I veered into a snowbank. I don't know for sure. But I did have the presence of mind to lie there for a few moments collecting my thoughts and energies and feeling the snow that was down my boots, down my back, and up my sleeves.
I turned my head and saw the boy with the blue sled. He was shaking his head. "You should get one with brakes," he said.
I got up, brushed the snow off, and collected my sled. My friend and I began the long trek upward. "How long you been coming here?" he asked me, businesslike.
What? Didn't he know how old I am? That I rode Yankee Flyers before they were considered dangerous?
"Oh, a while," I told him as we trudged along.
I reached the top of the hill but didn't want to go down anymore. I was sore and tired. I took a seat with the hill elders, one of whom passed the comforting balm of hot cocoa to me, inducting me into the ranks of those who used to sled.
I looked on as another wave of survivors swelled over the brink, screaming with glee in sheer anticipation of downhill flight. And so they went, cascading on their boards and trays, in their pots and shovels, the students in their inner tube and the lady in her garbage bag, ululating. And I watched as the adults hit those craters and were summarily ejected from their conveyances, sprawled out on the hard-packed snow while their vacant sleds and shovels hurried on.
It was the great pothole test of youth. I sat there and before long was holding out mugs of hot cocoa to my peers as they limped back to their rightful places. And I watched the children as they glided and spiraled and rocketed down like a dream.