• Lindsay Way

Cousin Sledding

In the 400 acres of woods surrounding the small lake, we were given endless hours to experience boredom, and the freedom to explore. There was a television, but it picked up three channels. The magic of the VCR was reserved for rainy days only. Left to entertain ourselves, we’d return to my mom and aunt quite often with various wounds. They’d soothe our spirits and clean our scrapes, and when enough pity had been doled out, my aunt would repeat her tired phrase: “You can stay inside if you’d like. You won’t get hurt anymore, but you won’t have fun either.”

The only way to access the cottages where we passed the time was along a two-track dirt road that took a serpentine path over a half mile, winding in the narrow valleys around densely wooded hills and eventually settling out flat at 10 cottages dotting the shoreline of the tranquil lake. During the winter months, those places were vacant, save for one action-packed week during the holidays. The path remained unplowed, so we waded through knee-deep snow carrying our provisions and warm clothes for the week…

Once we were settled, we’d make a game of sledding, seeing who could be the first to traverse the entire half-mile down to the back stoop of the cottage. We’d carve out a path slowly over maybe 30 or so sled runs so that eventually, we had a well-worn groove not much wider than the plastic sleds we toted around. We called it The Luge, and there was only one rule: you get one – and only one – push to get started.

We’d perfected the stance that would get the most bang for your Luge run buck: sit on your knees in the middle of the sled, bending forward slightly at the waist for an aerodynamic posture. We were skilled at steering by making gloves fists and digging them into the crunchy snow beneath. Drag the left fist, combine it with a left lean, and you’d effortlessly bank hard to the left. I’d wake up the morning after a full day of sledding with forearms sore from the previous day’s steering.

I still have that road memorized: the steep decline at the beginning was crucial for gaining speed, which you’d need in the series of three tight turns just as the hill leveled off slightly. A hard right, left, right, where it was critical to stick to the outside of the turns. You wanted the sense of being sling-shotted through these turns to give momentum for the long straight of way that followed. Here, you had to lean forward, hold your breath, and pray your hardest. This was the quiet part of the run, where the plastic sled slowed and snow squeaked beneath you. Here, your body placement on the sled was critical. If you had thought to sit in the middle from the start, you could slide your body forward with a jerking motion and you’d gain a bit of speed. If you were still moving when the road split at the Marvin’s driveway, you’d made it to the home stretch. The road took a final plunge toward the lake level, delivering your plastic sled to the small cement stoop at the back of the house. If you made it this far, you were victorious. You also had a half-mile uphill walk ahead of you.

It seems laughable that we would have tired of that sled run. But the four of us lived constantly in those precious moments of boredom always marked with choice: what will we do next? Surrounded by forest and a lake that beckoned, the answers seemed limitless regardless of the season. On this particular day, the boys’ idea was to explore the densely treed hills that sloped toward the road. Sled under his arm, steps labored in the deep snow, Tom was the first to ascend. He turned around from his perch, angled his sled down the hill, planted his feet, and lowered his body. As soon as he lifted his heels, the sled shot down the hill, narrowly missing branches and small saplings along the way. He landed in a white cloud of snow on the two-track road next to us with a thud and a thrilled laugh.

The three of us, inspired by Tom’s successful run through the trees, waddled in our thick snowsuits toward the top of the hill. While the younger two took their first thrilling rides, I took my usual stance of watching the other kids, learning first from them. Where did they angle their sleds? What was the best path through the thick trees? Was this even a safe idea?

After Spencer and Liz had taken runs and were standing breathlessly again at the top of the hill with me, a familiar beat of silence came over the group. The moment asked, “Are you going or not?” I answered by taking a wide stance and a deep breath and carefully placing the inflated round snow tube on the ground behind me.

In one fluid motion, I plopped my butt into the tube and my feet shot up. I saw only sky, then trees trunks, then sky again as the hillside tossed the air-filled tube carrying my twiggy body down the hill. This felt so different from the controlled captainship of the plastic sleds that I knew and loved. As the speed and bouncing increased, all I wanted was for it to be over. I wriggled forward enough to give my legs leverage and planted my heels into the snow over the front of the tube. The tube’s momentum swung my upper body around my planted feet, and I slammed into a tree on the way to landing on my back, head pointed downhill.

My next memory is of my brother's face, framed by tree branches against the sky. His screams of my name over and over rose to meet my screams of pain, a symphony echoing off the hills. Even in the chaos of the moment, I was struck by how quickly he was next to me, how utterly concerned he was. Tom and Liz bumbled down the hill after him, Tom smartly kneeling next to me and calmly ensuring I could move all four limbs.

My back and left hip felt as though they were gripped by the too-tight hug of a giant tree rather than slapped around by it. The boys offered to pull me back to the cottage in one of their plastic sleds, and the only comfortable position was face-down with my knees bent at right angles to accommodate my body fitting on the sled.

The boys’ swishing snow pants and the squeaking of plastic dragging on snow drowned out the sound of my sobs, and my tears turned cold against the sled.


This next part makes so much more sense to me as an adult writing this than it did as a sixteen-year-old experience it.

Imagine, if you will, that you are with your sister in a cottage whose walls are made mostly of sliding glass doors. This light-filled place is perched high above the frozen lake, and the leafless tree branches are etched against white snowy hills surrounding it. Lunch is over, dishes are clean, and the red wood stove exhales a dry warmth, coaxing off your layers of sweatshirts and wool socks. The kids are in the woods entertaining themselves, and the two of you are enjoying a fast-paced but unusually quiet game of cards, reveling in the air-tight silence of the house and the largely uninhabited lake outside.

Then one of the twelve-year-olds bursts through the door, breathless and red-cheeked. She’s been sent ahead of the group to carry an important message: “Lindsay is okay but she can’t walk. The boys are bringing her home!” The card game is abandoned.

The driveway is long, maybe 200 yards from the point where it makes its final curve and angles straight toward the sliding glass door at the west end of the cottage. From that door, you watch your kids working together, being good to one another: your sons are pulling their older sister and cousin, whose face you strangely cannot see. Their steps are exaggerated and slow thanks to their thick winter gear and the deep snow. They give a hurried wave. You wave back, curiously. You’re already cracking a smile at the strange scene when the trio comes to a stop at the end of the driveway. The boys let the sled rope fall to the ground, and Lindsay, the eldest of the group, slowly lifts her head, tears rolling down her cheeks. You open the door a crack to the sound of her wailing, “Why are you laughing?” For years, this will be the most important part of the story every time she retells it.

For years, you’ll defend yourselves, saying you were laughing at the shocking nature of the scene. “Liz warned us you were hurt,” you will tell her, “but we weren’t expecting you to arrive face down.”


Face down, face up, did it really matter? We spent hours in those woods together. We created secret forts, and group alliances and hierarchies. We pushed our imaginations and our bodies, sometimes to perilous outcomes. Brought up on the beliefs that we should take care of each other and invent our own fun, the boys dragging their injured comrade up the driveway was the ultimate sacrificial offering to those doctrines. I was hurt, and I had months of physical therapy and years of back pain ahead of me. But more importantly, we were taking care of each other. And we’d had fun.

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