ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — If I meditated — an indulgence I’ve deferred from one “to do’’ list to another the last 30 years — I’m sure it would be a lot like my recent Thursday afternoon here on a hill just south of Buffalo.
I went sledding. My wife, son, and even our dog came along, all of us shouldering in among some 250 others who came to Chestnut Ridge carrying sleds of all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. A foot of snow fell overnight and it flurried the whole time we were there — a sign, everyone agreed, that we were born for that moment and meant to be there. Or something ridiculously 1980ish like that.
Relax, the dog did not sled. Much to his chagrin. Brock was made to settle yet again for his “kid magnet” status. He’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and kids especially love him, in part, I suspect, because he is shorter than any standing human. His shortness, his sinful extra 10 pounds of girth, and his thick, furry coat make him a real package, the total affection hound. He also snores like a truck driver and begs unremittingly for treats roughly 10 hours a day (the only 10 he’s not snoring). I didn’t mention any of that to the dozens of kids who received his kisses.
There may be better, bigger sledding spots than Chestnut Ridge, the largest county park in America, covering some 1,200 acres, but I’ll let others debate that point. Our afternoon on the hill was splendid, didn’t cost a cent, and our gang (seven in all, ages 15 to 60 any hour now), repeatedly zipped down the hill until our cheeks were red, our boots and gloves filled with snow, and one of us (name withheld) murmured something brilliant about hot chocolate. Nothing changes focus, clears a hill in the middle of winter, like those two words.
Bumping along downhill at high speed on a large inflatable is probably not widely considered meditative or the least bit self-enlightening. Certainly not for my sister-in-law Nancy, who is now in her early 50s and hadn’t sledded since before the sport’s transition from Flexible Flyer to unbreakable plastics. Nancy began her day screaming wildly on every run, which I initially interpreted as fear, only to realize that it was her sign of pure enjoyment.
Nancy eventually stopped screaming, she said, because the large inflatable sleds most of us were using no longer provided enough thrill. Fiftysomethings can be like that.
“I’m done with those,’’ she said after about an hour, noting that she had switched to a small orange disk-type sled, its size and material roughly akin to a cafeteria tray. “I’m totally on the orange ones now. I mean, if you’re not going to go fast and you’re not going to scream, what’s the point of being here?’’
I leafed through my “Sled with Zen’’ handbook later that night in search of that answer. No luck.
Another of Chestnut Ridge’s joys is its oversized warming shed, built of stone and timber, and heated by two humongous fireplaces, a ready pile of logs stacked 10 feet high at the side. The Casino’s main room has a dozen picnic tables, while a small adjoining room, a few steps down, has another half-dozen tables.
All of it is a page out of Rockwell’s Americana. Parents and children, shuttling in and out from the hill, warm up by crackling fires. The snack bar serves up pizza, hot dogs, hot poppers, and, of course, hot chocolate. Snow-covered kids are forced to decide: another run outside, or remain in the womb of the warming room, dipping an order of chicken fingers into honey-mustard sauce? A clever method of controlling traffic on the hill.
There is, thankfully, no music, nor a single element of technology at Chestnut Ridge. The warming lodge and its sledding hill have been operating pretty much the same way since it all opened in the 1920s. Which is how, for me, the idea of meditation took hold.
Other than a doctor’s waiting room, a church, or a funeral home, our times of quiet and solitude rarely exist anymore. We are always connected, by the cellphone or smartphone we carry, or that constant hum of radio and/or TV that surrounds, suffocates our lives. The elevator plays music. The TV at the airport gate area stays tuned to CNN. We sit at our work stations with our e-mail dinging, Twitter tweeting, cellphones buzzing, and our streaming Internet radio connection dialed low, or streamed directly into our headphones.
Our ballparks and arenas no longer allow us a single thinking moment. The NBA is the lead offender, blaring some form of music or scarring beat amid the action. More and more, the game feels like an extended intermission. MLB, the NFL, and the NHL (when it’s in business) are somewhat more moderate, but they all deal in their ragged, annoying forms of audio-porn. Our senses are constantly under assault, our sensibilities desensitized by life’s incessant woof and hum.
Ah, but to be there atop Chestnut Ridge, with life’s volume turned low, its pace slowed, the world minimized to the pleasure and task of blending sport with gravity . . .
So simple, yet tremendous, as simple so often is.
The encompassing, intoxicating noise on the hill, beyond Screaming Nancy, was the sound of sled after sled skimming down the course and the delirious cacophony of sledders’ voices. Kids laughed and hollered and screamed, whether their runs were Olympic-worthy or spectacular wipeouts. Most of the parents just watched, but a few risked limb, ego, and pride, casting off their decades of rusted steel runners and memories of pruned and frozen fingers and toes.
The flakes continued to fall as we left the hill, the sound of the kids’ divine chaos fading in the distance as we hauled our sleds to the parking lot. I was left to meditate on how their lives eventually will become deferred “to do’’ lists, too cluttered for a hill, a fireplace, and a sense of simple peace on a snowy winter’s day.