In December of 1979, my parents planned a trip to Gatlinburg. We would leave 2 days after Christmas and we would be there for my birthday. I was on board with this trip, because I loved Gatlinburg, but they seemed to be selling it to me as if I wasn’t already a buyer. It was advertised as my birthday trip. As a trip for me. I’m smart enough now to know an obvious sales pitch. Back then, I was not. I bought the lines and began to think of the trip as a vacation planned for me and around me.
There’s no way that was true. It wasn’t even a little bit true. Because if it had been, this story wouldn’t be typing itself. There wouldn’t be a story here at all.
We headed north in a 1980 Buick Century that was the color of French Vanilla ice cream with a vinyl top like caramel. It was a 9 hour drive from Tallahassee. Unlike today’s spoiled brats (I’m including my own offspring in this…let’s not judge each other), the greatest technology we had was to twist the knob on the radio until a non-country station tuned in. The two songs I remember hearing over and over AND OVER were Sara by Fleetwood Mac and Longer by Dan Fogelberg. Longer was Number 1 on the charts, because it had just been released on December 8. Fortunately, I loved both of these tunes and was pleased as punch to listen to them 159 times in 5 days. When the radio got old, we made gassy noises with our arm pits. That was a hoot.
We stayed in a Best Western in downtown, located right above a quaint little babbling brook. I thought I was in the best place on earth. And as if it weren’t perfect enough, God sent snow. I woke up on my birthday to the sight of snow outside and a Snoopy ruler on my pillow right next to my head. My standards were fairly low, so I was excited about that ruler. Almost 40 years and 7 houses later, I still have it and it still gets used for homework. As with the Christmas gloves, the ruler was not my main gift. But it is the one I remember.
With the snow still falling and now gathering on a cold, hard earth, we began a chant for sledding that didn’t stop until we got a yes, followed by a solid plan. The plan involved a time of departure, which was 1:30, a destination, which was a hillside to be decided as we drove, and a sled of some sort. It was that last part where there was some discrepancy in the plan. We needed something on which to slide down a mountain. And it was my birthday, so I was thinking we could walk to any of 130 tourist traps on the main downtown street and buy a $5 snow disc.
My parents had another option in mind. They convinced us that there was a much better way to experience a snowy mountain.
A free way.
A cardboard box way.
So on my birthday, on a cold winter’s day with fresh, clean snow falling, we found ourselves in a forbidden corner of the hotel parking lot, pulling discarded cardboard boxes out of the dumpster to make our own sleds. My brother and I were too dumb to know all the reasons why this was a scientific disaster. We were too inexperienced to successfully argue for anything else. And we were too broke to step in and buy our own snow disc. We had no choice but to accept Plan B.
We drove around the outskirts of Gatlinburg looking for a hill that was clear enough for sledding but that wouldn’t empty out onto a road. There are a lot of spots that would be nothing shy of an Instant Death by Sledding. We didn’t want that. Even parents who put their children on cardboard sleds don’t want that. When we found the perfect hill, we parked our car, pulled our Dumpster Boards out of the trunk and began a long trek up a steep, snowy hill.
The farther from the road we got, the quieter it became. The trees and snow formed a silent blanket around us as we climbed. Our shoes and voices clamored against this hush that somehow it seemed we were violating.
Finally, we were at what we declared to be the top.
This was it.
We were going to sled to the bottom from here. Standing at the top, peering down on our path to glory, was my 9-year-old self, my brother, and my dad. My mother was waiting at the bottom. For what, I didn’t know.
Because it was my birthday, I was allowed to go first. At the time, it seemed like a winning lottery ticket. Now I believe it was a setup. This whole system was getting tried out on the little gal.
I placed my Dumpster Board about 10 feet from where I planned to begin and then I climbed back up to the starting block. I had it pictured in my head as something akin to backwoods luging. The Olympics we were not, but it would not be for a lack of speed and prowess.
I flashed a confident grin at my dad and brother. They smiled back at me and gave me the thumbs-up. Did they know? And then I took a running start. I whizzed toward that cardboard like a prize awaited. And at just the right moment, I leapt–sailing past birch trees, maple trees, maybe a couple of chestnuts–to land on the Dumpster Board.
My angle and velocity were stellar.
My aim was flawless.
I had decided at the last possible second to go for a head-first position, so I could maneuver through the trees on my belly, directing the cardboard with my outstretched arms.
I had just the right everything to stick the landing and I landed there on my belly. The impact of the ground and the cardboard knocked the air and the birthday arrogance out of me as I continued on my way, sledless, and careened down that hill on my belly. Because wet cardboard doesn’t slide. And I’m pretty sure we were the only people in the southeast that day who didn’t know this.
I went all the way down that mountain on my stomach gathering snow in my pants and wrath in my heart. When I arrived at the bottom, my mother greeted me by clapping with joy. She was all smiles. She didn’t read the expression on my face. This wasn’t a lack of fiber in my diet. I was mad. And I stood up and threw the rowdiest temper tantrum I could possibly muster with the energy I had left. Completely soaked, I had so much snow in my pants I looked like I was waiting in line for gastric bypass surgery. It was borderline grotesque.
I don’t remember anything else about that day except that fateful trip down SnowPants Mountain. I don’t remember if my dad and brother braved their way down, too, or if I ever went back up. I do remember crying. A lot. Over cardboard. And my wet, snowy underpants.
There’s a reason they don’t make snow discs out of paper products.
And I remember we went pretty much straight to a store to spend $5 on a bright orange plastic snow disc that slid just fine.
That holiday trip ended with a full day of successful sliding on the same hillside. At the end of it all, standing in the crunch of pure December snow, with my hands tucked into the warmth of my armpits, I remember thinking to myself, “If only I had a good pair of gloves.”
Oh well. Maybe next year.