The question of riding bicycles out of choice, necessity, or some mixture thereof was solved for this tandem couple this weekend. A friday night storm of snow and ice closed the roads and filled the fields, and persistent freezing temperatures have kept it all in place. We were forced, albeit happily, to hang up the Sidis in favor of the Bean boots and go frolic in the snow.
The unusually wintry winter we’re experiencing in North Carolina delivered the sort of snowy weekend that exists deep in the collective American sentimental memory of the season – this is real winter. Whether you’re from a serious winter climate (i.e. The North, like this Mainer) or an unserious winter climate (i.e. The South, like my honey), I bet we conjure up a similar vision of the perfect winter day – bright white snow sparkling under the sun after snowing all night, sound softened by the deep snow, meditative crunching of snow under boots, red-faced children on sleds, hot cocoa. This was exactly the scene in Saxapahaw this weekend, a scene that comes around perhaps once every five to ten years.
This being the South, it’s a given they don’t have the equipment to clear and treat the roads – and I’m happy for any reason not to get in the car. However, it also means that when the snow hits, we’re not prepared with the truly essential equipment. What to use for a sled? Luckily we live in a river town, so improvisation was easy. That which floats could also be used to go down a steep slope. We dug out our truck tire inner tub that we use to float on the Haw. It’s old, and had a couple holes. This is where bicycle skills come in handy:
Patch kit and pump, no problem.
My stoker’s enthusiasm for sledding, partly due to her geographic deprivation of snow during her childhood, is unparalleled. Long before I roused myself from bed on Saturday, and then again on Sunday, she had our warm gear pulled out, a lunch packed, and a thermos of hot tea ready for full days out on hills. These were to be epic days for us and our dog who’s built for this weather more than anything.
Recently I’ve been considering why Saxapahaw was a better place for a settlement along the Haw as opposed to any other stretch. It’s been continuously inhabited for centuries, mostly recently by the Sissipahaw Indians, before the Europeans migrated to the area with their mills and churches. Following the closing of the mill in the 90s, Sax has entered its latest state of transition, as the center of a community that is trying to be more inclusive of workers, farmers, foodies and artists regardless of race. Why all of this activity here at this point along the Haw? It has to be the tall hills that rise above the river, which provided enough high ground for housing and a water tower. The major landholders in the town, the Jordans, maintain a huge open field of rolling hills. These hills are of course perfect for sledding.
After a few runs to break trail, we were attaining some long runs and serious speeds.
At either end of the field where the hills were steepest and longest, neighbors gathered with whatever sleds they could find. I’d never met so many Saxapahemians. Even during the summer when the Saturday farmer’s market and live music draws a couple hundred folks, you’re never sure who of them actually live in the area. The snow was an event for the local community itself. It’s a tradition that goes back decades. We sledded with a family for a couple hours who’d been in the area for a few generations, who said they’d all come around to these fields every time there was snow.
A slope behind the mill houses off Hilltop St was by far the most popular. By the time we got there, the slope was completely slick, and jarring moguls had formed. It was teeming with children, and plenty of adults were joining in the fun. The slope went off the back yard of one house whose residents have been there renting for a few months. They had set up a stand of hot cocoa for everyone to enjoy. I said it was cool of them let people play off their back yard. They replied that they didn’t have a choice. This is just where the locals go whenever it snows.
Watching this group from afar, we’d seen some large objects going down the slope. As we approached, we realized we were watching the true merging of the river town with a snowy day. The older kids, by whom I mean the adult men, were running their canoes and kayaks down the slope.
We watched this crew launch downhill, hit a rut on the way down and turn full sideways before righting themselves, and finally flip over. No worries about drowning in that canoe, but bones have something to fear.
Our only lament was that we only had one tube to slide on, and that we didn’t have a sled we could ride on together. We’re a tandem couple, and we needed something like a classic toboggan (for the southerners out there, I mean the multi-person sled, and not a knit hat). On our very last run of the day, we decided to try it anyway – we both loaded onto our tube and set off down the hill. It was the wildest, funnest ride of the day. As a sort of turnabout, my beloved stoker sat up front and could watch the path down the hill and the quickly approaching edge of the woods, while I, typically the captain on the tandem, was on the back, laying back unable to see forward or control our speed or direction in the least. I was literally being being dragged along at epic speed, at the mercy of gravity and whatever control my partner had up front. It was the best run of the weekend.