Previously published March, 2018 by Clinton A. Harris
Growing up in a small mountain town in Colorado spoiled me. There were some things that weren’t all that great. Some winters were very hard, with any of four roads in and out of the county either getting snowed in or buried in avalanche at any given time. The good part was that when we got snowed it, it just slowed life down a little bit. We either hunkered down and conserved our resources for a few days, or we took advantage of what we had on hand. Only on the coldest days or windiest nights were we discouraged. There is something about hearing that cold, howling wind blow against the side of your house for months on end that begins to eat at you. Some don’t come back from that.
Today, I can look outside my window and see green grass emerging from the brown of dormant lawns. In just a few weeks, the first leaves of Spring will be sprouting on the trees. The rains will come, bringing with them the rumbling crescendo of thunder. The soft patter on the roof as you lie in bed, as the streets will be slick and shiny, clean once again after the salt and sand of a pathetic Front Range winter. In the Front Range, it feels like we get four seasons. Winter is a periodic event, with only a few major storms leaving much accumulation. School is canceled for the kids upon the anticipation of a blizzard. I have only seen two or three in twenty years that would count as such in my book. A few days of the jet stream dipping down from Canada in December might be enough to put the mercury down to -20 or -30, but I remember days when as a kid, we sat in our classrooms, in our coats and snowpants, huddled around space heaters because the boiler had frozen.
Sometimes that wind would drift the roads over and kids out on the ranches would have to bunk with us townsfolk for a day or two, until the rotary plows cut new paths through the drifts. Even efforts to use industrial espionage to sabotage the possibility of school went unheeded, when some students unplugged the engine heaters on the school buses the night before a cold snap. The buses started late that morning and school went on as scheduled.
On days when it was so cold that even gasoline cars wouldn’t start, we headed to the local ice skating rink, a vacant lot that the Town would flood with a hydrant and we would skate on all day and sometimes well into the night. Broken telephone poles were our benches. A streetlight provided enough light to see after the sun went down. Shovels and a plow on wheels were left for anyone wanting to be their own Zamboni when the snow fell.
Outside of town, if you had the right toys, you could go snowmobiling. When I was older, I went cross-country skiing. Very few of my friends were skiers. Even downhill. For the most part, we were a poor town, and in spite of our snows and mountains, it was an hour drive to the nearest slopes. Instead there was ice-fishing, sometimes dog-sled racing, and for kids like me you could build snow forts in your front yard that would last until March.
My kids struggle with the school allowing recess. Then there is the matter of safety. Children are treated as fragile little eggs, and part of me thinks this is sweet because adults don’t want the kids to be hurt, but in reality it probably has more to do with litigation and insurance premiums than kissing boo-boos and wiping away crocodile tears for skinned knees.
I’ll spare you more of the walking to school uphill in three feet of snow stories (even though they are true). When I was a kid, our recess was three times a day of sliding down a 100 yard hill at 30 mph on a thin sheet of plastic. Sometimes we rode on our butts. Sometimes we flew down the hill face first. Once we got to the football field at the bottom, we ran all the way back up and did it again. As a kid, in the winter, I probably ran up that sledding hill forty times a day or more. There was the sting of icy powder on your skin, the teeth rattling impact of going over jumps we had made from packed snow, which turned to ice from the friction of hundreds of passes every day. There were glorious impacts, collisions with other sledders, a game where the elementary kids tried to take out high school kids as they walked up the hill to the lunch room, and enough concussions to make a sports medicine researcher giggle in anticipation like a kid at Christmas morning.
Any who know Walden in the winter know about the school hill. To this day, kids and adults still sled on it, though it is more regulated during school hours. The population of town has dwindled and the old elementary building has been abandoned. All grades fit inside what used to be the Jr.-Sr. Highschool building. A fair walk up the hill and across the football field and then up the main sledding hill again to find that exhilaration, now limited by rules of conduct, numbers of times you can sled, and other lists which just suck the life out of everything. It’s no wonder the kids use their recess to text each other instead.
I try to get my kids to the Hill at least once a year. We like to use truck inner tubes. Sometimes plastic sleds work if the snow is right. Coming up to altitude is about a 3,000 ft. difference. At 42 my body protests, but the muscle memory of hundreds of runs up that hill spur me on. Even if my lungs don’t cooperate and my heart races and my head swims, my legs are pushing me up that hill, eager for the next run down. Even my dad in his 60s will sometimes sled with us. My mom too. Times are different in good ways. When I was a kid, the idea of my grandparents in their 60s sledding down a hill was unimaginable. People got old younger and stayed there in those days. My kids don’t know what that was like, thank goodness. Or maybe it’s like my legs. Once you feel the pull downward and you are racing down the Hill, the years just fall away like chaff.
My youngest makes friends every time we go. He has never met a stranger it seems, and the local kids are welcoming. It’s the love of the Hill that binds them all. There is no rivalry or distrust of outsiders. They know only one thing, and that is the rush you get when flying down that hill, en masse or alone. They don’t even know each other’s names as they shout out to each other with every pass. Even my teenagers loved the Hill. They were pulled kicking and screaming from their devices and peer groups and their occluded teen worlds into an uncertainty of ice and snow and a blissful approach to terminal velocity. You are reminded you are alive because compared to your daily life, you feel one step closer to death. The phones don’t even compare.
Social media on the Hill is snow and gravity.