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Both on — and over — the hill

August 13, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

In the Old Testament, Mt. Pisgah was the peak from which Moses finally saw the Promised Land, so what could be more appropriate for a mountain overlooking this area?

My acquaintance with Pisgah goes back to my childhood. Today, skiing's a pricey venture but it wasn't back then. For a long time, kids skied for free. Then when we started getting charged (which as I recall was in the late '50s), a season's pass went for a whopping $5, cash money.

As for equipment? There was no need to buy it new - instead, we went to the Ski and Skate Sale where we could get a full set - skis, boots and poles - for a pittance.

Of course, that old time stuff was nothing like today's high-tech gear. The poles were bamboo and the boots were ankle-high, square-toed leather clunkers. The skis were wood, often without steel edges and always with what we fondly called "suicide bindings," because they could only be released by hand.

The label "suicide bindings" was hyperbole - of course they couldn't kill you. But if you fell, your skis stayed on as if riveted to your boots and any sudden motion could generate enough torque to snap a tibia like it was a matchstick.

Not that any of us knew there could be a better way: A broken leg and its resulting cast, traction and months in bed were just the acceptable price for the philosophic, frozen-cheek hellcats of My Home Town.

I never got hurt skiing, but not due to my expertise so much as my lack of it. I was a lousy skier whose only technique was the snowplow, so I couldn't go fast enough or turn sharply enough to hurt myself. When I fell, it was with a soft "plop," rather than a bone-crunching bounce and roll that filled the air with poles, gloves, toques and all too often pain-filled shrieks.

I spent less time at Pisgah than I did at the skating rink. Then again, why wouldn't I? Though a failed skier, I was at least a mediocre skater. I was also a lad of immediate gratification. While there were always lines at the rope tows, to skate you only had to lace 'em up and head out the door of the warm-up shack.


Dope, slopes and spokes

After I got out of high school, I never went back to Pisgah ... at least not to ski. But a few summers ago, I came up with a project: I was going to ride a bicycle to the top of the ski slope without stopping.

I practiced my Pisgah assault religiously, which is more religiously than I practiced anything else, including religion. Every day I used my ride there to warm up, and once there, I'd stand by the lodge scoping out an approach and psyching myself up. Finally, when scope and psych hit redline, I was off.

No matter how I started, what route I took, or how I paced myself, I always ran out of steam, gas, breath and je ne sais quoi far short of my goal. Usually I made it to the top after four stops; a few times I made it after three, and only once did I make it after one. But it didn't matter because the real thrill was coming down the mountain.

The trip down was blindingly fast and those few minutes gave me more kicks than I'd had in the previous five years. Both the speed itself and the nostalgia of flying down that old slope of my childhood gave me a rush that wouldn't quit. Or at least I believed it wouldn't quit. But like a lot of things I once believed in - Santa, the Tooth Fairy, honorable politicians - my belief changed once it collided with reality.

And in this case, the collision was literal.

My first one happened as I was riding across the slope rather than down it and I hit the water pipe for the snowmaker.

It was Instant Isaac Newton Time, a perfect example of his law that a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

The external force was the pipe and once my front tire hit it, my bike stopped. Then I jackknifed over the handlebars and hit the ground head-first.

Not only were my stars aligned, but so were my vertebrae: My helmet absorbed the impact on my head and no body part got broken, wrenched, dislocated or sprained.

It was both a shock and a good lesson. I realized not all wipe-outs took place at high speed, so even going slowly I had to watch the ground for pitfalls, which after that, I did. The only problem was no matter how hard you look for them, some pitfalls can't be seen.

A few weeks after my first wipe-out, I was coming downhill, slowly, braking all the way, checking everything in front of me for potential danger when suddenly my front wheel dropped into a 3-foot pit that'd been covered with grass.

Again, the bike stopped, and again I kept going. But this wipe-out was the opposite of the first. While the first one was over before it began, this one lasted forever. First, time stopped. Then everything happened in slow motion and in clear, discrete increments.

I didn't fall off the bike, so much as get launched from it - up, up, up, till I was at least 6 feet off the ground. And there I stayed as if suspended by sky hooks - open-mouthed and goggle-eyed, The Grim Reaper breathing down my back, Ron Keough staring me in the face.

I hung there, helpless, petrified by fear and paralyzed from pupik to payess, about to be punished by the full extent of the law of gravity.

Amazingly, the punishment never came. Instead, I hit the ground with a hard "Whump," but on all fours and fully flexed. And there I stayed for a long minute, waiting to see if once the shock wore off, there were any pains, strains or unexpected expulsion of body fluids. Then, satisfied there were none, I got up and took stock of my situation.

Cliche has it the third time's a charm. But since my first two wipe-outs had been charms, I swore there would be no third time: Right then I promised myself my days of riding Pisgah's slope were over and I kept my promise.

I still bike up and down Pisgah, but only on the truck road. It's not as thrilling as riding on the slope, but it's a whole lot safer, plus the view from the top is just as spectacular.

Besides, regardless of what I've lost with my new conservative approach, I've still got it better than Moses.

While he got to see the Promised Land, he never got to go there.

For me, on the other hand, the trip's only five minutes by bike.



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