Monday, December 17, 2018

Why I don’t ski (a study of the laws of gravity)

Gravity is an interesting thing. It keeps your car in the driveway overnight without the need for tethers. That’s the positive aspect. In combination with a snow-covered mountain, gravity has no redeeming qualities.

About a dozen years ago, we decided to make the 140-mile trek into snow country from the desert city of El Paso, Texas. A few El Pasoans ski, but certainly not in the numbers that New Englanders do. For our family, skiing was just too expensive—starting with the fact that we had six kids. When you’ve got six kids, everything is expensive. Eating out anyplace other than a soup kitchen can break the bank.

So rather than deal with the expense of renting skis, snowboards and the associated accessories, we decided to go inner tubing. It’s roughly equivalent to going to a public swimming pool versus taking a dip at the country club. No one at the inner tubing facility is making a fashion statement by sporting $200 goggles that color coordinate with their $600 jumpsuit and $1,800 skis. No, the inner tubing crowd is jean-clad and arrives in a variety of vintage vehicles which share a common component: jumper cables.

Making the trip, however, presented a logistical problem. Our Dodge Ram 250 conversion van had broken down and, instead of paying the mechanic’s $1,200 repair bill, we signed over the title to him. That left us with my Dodge Intrepid (the worst car ever—and one I wished had defied the laws of gravity and floated away some night) and Mary’s Chevrolet Geo. With none of the kids being old enough to drive, we split them between the two cars and we both drove.

We arrived at the mountain in about three hours and parked among our fellow inner tubers’ oil-dripping jalopies. It was a perfect day. Sunny. Not too cold. Plenty of snow. As I recall, the admission was $8 for kids and $12 for adults. As ridiculously cheap as this sounds, it was still $72 before snacks.

We were all assigned inner tubes, ranging from car-sized for little Jeff to tractor-sized for me. Then we stood in a queue waiting for the tow line. So far, so good. The drag up the hill was pleasant and nobody had broken an arm yet.

At the top of the mountain, we were offered three choices: the beginners’ slope, the intermediate slope, and the death defying 88° sheer dropoff identified with a skull and crossed bones sign. We all looked into each other’s eyes and, without saying a word, moved in unison towards the beginners’ slope. Except for Gayle, that is. She was nine at the time and wasn’t thought of by the family as a risk taker.

After surveying the gentle grade of the beginner’s slope, I took inventory of our gaggle and noticed that Gayle was missing. “Where’s Gayle?” I asked. Our 7-year-old, Jeff, nonchalantly explained that she went down the slope back there. And, sure enough, there was Gayle at the bottom of the mountain, completely intact and unaware that she had just conquered the black, triple diamond expert run. Apparently she hadn’t read the sign.

Well, we weren’t about to be intimidated by a 9-year-old girl into changing our plans, so we proceeded to tackle the beginner’s slope. So slight was the angle that you had to paddle with your hands several times to get all the way down the hill.

After several more runs and graduating to the intermediate slope, I was building my confidence and decided I was man enough to take on Gayle’s Hill. Standing at the top, I watched several other people speed down the slope without incident, laughing and screaming all the way.

Okay, time to shove off. I laid down, head first, on my tube and one of the kids gave me a push. Which one, I don’t remember, but what happened next is 100% their fault.

I quickly gained speed. And what I mean by quickly is that I reached terminal velocity in about six seconds. The problem was that I was not aimed straight down the hill. Instead, I was on a course that would take me off the left side of the groomed portion of the run. There’s no rudder on these things, by the way.

About two-thirds of the way down, I was generating a series of sonic booms as I left the inner tubing area. I flew into a depression which, when I reached the other side, launched me airborne. I was hugging the inner tube as I flew by several birds and squirrels’ nests. This is when it occurred to me that gravity would soon make its presence known.

Then… BWAAAPPP!!! I hit the ground with such force that everyone on all three slopes turned to see what the heck was going on. You see, an inner tube is like a rubber ball and the bounce I experienced was unbelievable. I was back in the air, only this time my inner tube went one direction and I went the other.

There’s not much you can do at this point except to wish that you had never gotten to this point. My next contact with the ground was the first of at least three crushing blows, one of which involved a face plant. I finally landed on my back in a snow drift, staring straight up at the blue heavens, waiting for the light to beckon me to the afterlife.

In fact, it was so quiet I thought I might have lost my hearing, but I soon realized that the silence was the result of everyone staring with bated breath, curious to see if I was going to move. I imagined one of the facility workers in the background lowering the flag to half staff.

I first focused my efforts on wiggling my toes. They wiggled. Perfect, I thought. My spinal cord is probably still in one piece. I then raised each arm, checking to see if they were pointing in any unusual directions. Same with my legs. I couldn’t believe it. No bones poking out of my jeans. Head still facing forward. I had survived!

I discovered later that I had wrenched my back, bruised some ribs, and couldn’t turn my neck at all, but this was all pretty minor considering how it might have turned out. Driving home was a challenge. I had to query my kids whether there were cars coming from the left or right. And the next day we went to the Sun Bowl game. All I remember is that I could only see the football players when they were between the 30 and 40 yard lines. Never saw a touchdown.

Now you can understand why I hang around town on winter weekends and leave the slopes to the heartier crowd. Gravity is not my friend.

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