The last time I came to this ski hill I was a 13-year-old eighth-grader on a field trip with my class. I spent the majority of the day in the chalet, buying candy, eating candy, and then feeling bad about candy on the bus back to school, which is the point when I remembered I’d allegedly given up sweets for Lent. To deal with whatever remained of my Catholic guilt, I pretended as though I’d only intended to give up chocolate-based sweets from the start. (I think it’s probably true for most people that the Lent in which you try to pull one over on God is your last-ever Lent.)
I remember little else of the trip itself apart from the anxiety: who to sit with on the bus, who to ride chairlifts with, how not to fall off the chairlifts, what would happen if I couldn’t get off the chairlifts fast enough, who to ski next to, whether it’s even possible to ski next to anyone at all, whether or not the barriers at the bottoms of the hills could really be counted on to stop me—whether I could be that first time for everything, which I’m always convinced I’ll be.
Never once did I enjoy a school field trip, and I don’t believe a soul who says she did. I might have thought I was having a little fun at the time—at least in comparison to what I’d have otherwise been doing, which was worrying about all the same things, but in the normal, familiar building—but I know now that I was mistaken. Kids who are having fun don’t hide in bathrooms or take quite so many trips to ask the teacher how much time they have left before heading back to school.
This is the problem with middle school, especially, and high school at a close second: if you are neither especially popular nor athletic, your time there will take all the games and sports you used to think were fun and make them awful. If I was ever made to do it in gym class—if ever I had to measure my meager, hesitant, unwilling performance in whatever it was against that of my evil peers, and they are all evil at that age—I don’t ever want to do it again.
So I’ll go back to Buck Hill, that adolescent site of crimes both Lenten and social. But it won’t be to ski. It will, instead, be to participate in perhaps the most democratic of snow sports, the hardest one to screw up, the one that asks of its participants not an ounce of athleticism but only the capacity to sit relatively still and, occasionally, to scream: snow tubing.
I DON’T KNOW WHY, exactly, but I didn’t expect so many of our fellow tubers to be tiny children. Of course I knew they’d be there (they make up the main sledding demographic, after all), but alongside them I had anticipated a fairer representation of those of us over the age of nine. But when we get to Buck Hill on a Saturday, just after it opens at 10:00 a.m., it’s mostly just the four of us: me, Rylee, and our friends Silvana and Jen. Parents are here, but on the whole, they prefer to just watch. They are either saving money or they know that tubing is beneath them. I tell myself that a third option is that they, unlike me, are too petrified to fling themselves down one of the 12 rows of icy pathways they watch from the sidelines, but it doesn’t sound true in my head. I might have been scared before I got here, but after watching a group of people coast lazily down the hill—it’s almost ridiculous how slowly they’re moving—the only thing I feel is childish.
After paying our $16 entrance free and casting a brief glance toward the posted rules and restrictions (The only one to be posted in all-caps, “TUBING WHILE INTOXICATED IS NOT ALLOWED,” is a shame, but my favorite is this item among the list of risks: “changing weather,” as if halfway down the hill an unforeseen tornado could suck you right off the ground), we each grab a red tube from the pile sitting next to the ticket shed. Then we step onto the elevated moving walkway, dragging our tubes behind us by their leashes, exactly like a wheelbarrow full of stuffed animals or a blankie.
At the top, though—after another brief blow in the form of a sign reading “No Adults Lanes 1-4”—it’s scary all over again. I can’t imagine how previous tubers looked so casual, because the hill I’m about to fly down is enormous. It’s so threatening that there is a metal fence at the end of it, presumably to keep those of us who would barrel to the bottom with such force that, without it, we’d fly right off and into the parking lot below. Nobody comes close to the fence once while I’m there, but it’s still one of those things you’d prefer not to see or have to consider.
BECAUSE WE ARE ALL too big to fit all the way inside the tubes, we lay across them in ways that reflect our varying comfort with what’s about to happen: Rylee and Jen are on their stomachs, Silvana sits with her butt in the tube and her legs flopped out, and I lie stiffly face-up on the top, gripping the handles. When they tell us to go, I can’t tell if I start screaming before or after I start moving. It’s reflexive more than it is deserved. Tubing is easy fun. That’s why so many little kids are here. Another reason: it takes 20 seconds to reach the bottom, and at least 20 minutes to get through the line. Only the very young can put up with that kind of fun-to-wait-time ratio without complaint.
Those of us in the 26-30 age group can only deal for about an hour. (It’s fun, but as a grown-up, don’t you kind of get the idea after trying it once or twice?) Toward the end, while waiting in line for a trip in which I’ll very bravely lie on my stomach and somehow stay onboard, I watch the sullen skater-teen boy with chin-length, dirty-blond hair and neon yellow sunglasses who is managing traffic flow tell a man in his late-30s that he has to move because adults aren’t allowed in lanes 1-4. “But I can act like a kid!” the man says, and then, embarrassingly, when the boy doesn’t hear him, he says it again. (What’s worse than having to repeat a joke you know was stupid in the first place?)
In response, the boy scoffs perfectly, mumble-yelling, “Yeah, if you lost, like, 20 years.” “SICK BURN,” I wanted to yell—suddenly and inexplicably defensive on behalf of that nerdy dad, who didn’t actually seem bothered and simply switched lanes as ordered. Wasn’t just being here hard enough? It was like the Fountain of Youth in that place, and not in a good way. Here’s the good news: the last time I was here I might have been trapped, but this time I can leave whenever I want, because I’m a very mature grown-up with a car. Well, a roommate with a car. In your face, teens! ... Or whatever it is you kids would say.