Downhill Slide

On The Late Late Show Monday night, Craig Ferguson entertained the audience with a tale about his weekend in Vermont where the highlight was a skin-shearing accident on a seemingly benign alpine slide.

He didn’t really get into the specifics of what happened, but if it’s at all like the Great Winter Park Alpine Slide Wreck of 1994, I suspect that I can totally relate.

To put it euphemistically, Windholz family vacations were often wrought with challenges. Car trouble, questionable accommodations, squabbles over where to eat dinner, mother-daughter fights in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, misplaced tickets, coked-up vagrants at a table adjacent to ours (in retrospect that might not have been an entirely bad thing because as a 12 year-old, it freaked me out to the point that I never wanted to go near an illicit drug), my two year-old sister trying to hurl herself into the Royal Gorge, the list goes on. And there are three things certain in life, death, taxes and at least one profanity-laced argument over directions each day of a trip. My brother (ironically now a trained navigator) came up with the idea of getting my parents a GPS for their 40th anniversary last year (40 years too late). “It might not reduce the number of fights,” he said, “but at least now they’ll have a common enemy to blame.”

My brother graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Labor Day weekend at the Academy is Parents Weekend. After attending the Saturday football game, the cadets are essentially at liberty to spend time with their families until taps on Monday night. We always made the trip out to spring Chad from military school hell and did various touristy things together as one big happy family. In 1994, Chad’s junior year, we stayed in suburban Denver instead of the Springs.

That May I had graduated from college with a newly minted degree in Secondary Education and German. I had been searching for a job in a market where really no positions in my chosen field were to be had. After the lease on my apartment (and the parental subsidy that went along with it) expired in July, I was forced to move back home. Colorado was really where I wanted to land a job anyway so it got me two hours closer to that destination and I’d have the opportunity to gain some experience substitute teaching.

The process for searching for employment 15 years ago was vastly different from today. No signing onto company websites, no Monster.com, no CareerBuilder. I only started using e-mail my senior year of college and could really only message other students and faculty who were on the K-State e-mail system. My resumé was written on a computer than ran MS-DOS. I had to take it to my mom’s office to print it out on a laser printer because at home the only thing we had was a dot matrix printer (you may remember the printers where you threaded a long-ass stack of holed paper through a roll, then tore off the perforated edges when you were done). Then you’d run it through the photocopier on fancy paper and mail it off with a cover letter. And this was only after actually finding out about an open position. Once a week I’d get the Sunday Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News and pour through the classifieds.

Half the school districts within an 800 mile radius already had my unsolicited resumé since February and I’d only managed to land one interview, in Omaha, which did not pan out. My second interview, for a non-teaching position, was in Denver a few weeks before that and was also a bust. The third interview, I thought, sounded promising and happened to coincide nicely with our trip for Parents Weekend. It was at an insurance company that prided themselves on insuring a non-smoking, tee-totaling clientele. During the interview I learned that they strongly encouraged their employees to abide by those same principles. Really? I should have thanked my lucky stars that didn’t go anywhere.

So after my interview tensions were running high. I had the sinking feeling that I was going to end up as a Russell townie and spend the prime of my life in a place where either high school keg parties or Saturday nights at the Fishbowl bar with Cy, Tiny and the other oilfield workers were the only options for a social life.

On Sunday we decided to drive to Winter Park, a ski resort about 70 miles west of Denver. Among other things it is the home of the longest alpine slide in Colorado. Time has a way of anesthetizing bad memories so I honestly can’t say exactly what was festering that led to the outburst that resulted in my mom and me berating my dad through tears of anger, my sister crying along with us, my dad listening stone-faced, and my brother desperately trying to be the mediator and pleading for calm ala Rodney King, but I do know the straw that broke the camel’s back involved my mom giving my dad the wrong directions to Highway 6, and my dad uttering something to the effect of “Jesus Kee-rist, can’t you read a goddamned map?” I don’t remember how long the fireworks lasted, I know there was a long awkward silence afterward, interrupted by the occasional sniffle. I know there was nowhere for me to take refuge because I didn’t feel like looking at anyone in the car and I couldn’t glance outside because we were driving through switchbacks and steep grades through the mountains, which scares the bejeezus out of me.

By the time we were in line a couple of hours later to buy lift tickets for the alpine slide, we were speaking to each other again, if not happily, at least civilly. If you are unfamiliar with summertime ski resort activities, you should know that the alpine slide is a fiberglass track that winds down the entire length of the ski run. You ride a sled that has a throttle that controls the speed. You push forward to accelerate, pull back to brake. At Winter Park there are two slides that run parallel, one designated for slow riders, one for fast riders. As we decided who would go down first, Chad and I came up with the brilliant idea of timing each other with his stopwatch on the fast run. Kim, Chad and I all did a couple of timed runs. When the thrill of that wore off, Chad and I went up the chair lift together. During the ride up we agreed to each go down the entire course without braking. I imagine most suicide pacts are more well thought out than this ill-conceived idea. But we didn’t care. We had the need, the need for speed.

We got to the top of the run. I went first. I pushed off and accelerated through the first turn. I gained speed and opened it up, blowing through the straightaway, I let up, but did not brake through the next turn and came perilously close to losing control, but righted myself. Then came another turn and by this time I had so much speed that I knew if I didn’t brake I’d be airborne and as much as I love Colorado, I didn’t like the idea of leaving my face there without me, so I pulled up. Too late. I can’t say I watched my life pass by, but for a second I was pissed off about having put all that effort (and by effort I mean showing up to class at least once every two weeks) into college if my future after this impending crash involved being fed applesauce through a tube and blinking once for yes, two for no. My sled went up and over the track, throwing me off backwards. The sled bounced back onto the track, my left foot still holding onto the back of it. I had slid down about 50 feet by this time, my bare calf and wrist in direct and constant contact with the fiberglass track.

Suddenly a light went off in my head. I realized that Chad, unaware of my crash, would be flying down the hill behind me at any second. I struggled to stop myself and get back on my sled. I looked back and saw Chad coming down. As soon as he spotted the carnage he immediately pulled all the way back on the brake like a panicked engineer who sees a helpless car on the train tracks ahead. I couldn’t catch up with my sled and seeing that Chad wouldn’t be able to stop in time, threw myself over the side of the track onto the grass, where I finally stopped. A split second later Chad smashed into the back of my sled. The impact sent his sled careering off the track and he was flung in the opposite direction. He got up, saw that I had gotten to my feet, and jumped on my sled and continued down the track. I took his sled by the handle and carried it a few steps down the mountain. When the rider after Chad passed, I put his sled back on the track, climbed on and gingerly went down the rest of the way.

At the bottom of the mountain, Kim, who had gone by herself down the slow run as we were getting on, knew something was amiss when she saw Chad make it down the run first. By the time I made it down and caught up to Chad, my parents and Kim were asking what happened. As we went through the debrief, Chad and I were breathing and laughing so hard I barely noticed the blood running down my leg and wrist. Bent over sobbing and giggling, we explained what had transpired, the g-forces hurling my sled off the track, Chad’s frantic attempt to stop before making me fodder for the cattle catcher, my tuck and roll off the track, Chad regaining composure to grab my sled before it became a ghost rider.

Once we settled down we did a damage assessment. Chad had a scratch or two, but was relatively unscathed. I wasn’t as lucky. My wrist was scraped up pretty bad and the top side of my calf extending to the side of my knee had an abrasion the size of the Gulf of Mexico. My saving grace was that I had worn a windbreaker, which had taken half of the fiberglass track with it instead of the fiberglass track shredding my arm too.

After getting patched up at the first aid station I went to the bottom of the run with Kim. We saw a sled sliding down the track alone, abandoned by its rider. We looked at each other and knew. A few minutes later Chad came hiking down the mountain along the track. He had gotten back on the horse and was subsequently thrown off.

Nothing like a little blood and recklessness to get a family talking again. We ended up having a nice dinner in Idaho Springs. I’m assuming they probably forgot to serve my dad, which happens about half of the time. As we drove back to Denver the severity of my wounds began to manifest. Not only was my leg throbbing I was also having an asthma attack because apparently I’m allergic to fiberglass.

My giant scabs required extremely delicate dressing changes for a good five weeks. Showers were painful, as were pants. It took about five years before the scar was no longer clearly visible. So I completely understand when Craig tweeted after his accident that his mood was “neosporiny.”

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One thought on “Downhill Slide

  1. I laughed my ass off reading this. Brings back some good memories in spite of the fact that there was always some catastrophe that managed to put a ding in the vacations.

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