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I sled, you sled, we all sled for sanity | Maria Panaritis

When a snow storm sends people of all ages to the hills, you know 2020 has been a bruiser like no other.

Getting ready to tackle a formidable sledding hill at Green Lane Park in Montgomery County, Pa., on Dec. 7, 2020.
Getting ready to tackle a formidable sledding hill at Green Lane Park in Montgomery County, Pa., on Dec. 7, 2020.Read moreMARIA PANARITIS / Staff

Even the kid understood that this snowstorm on this day in this dreadful year was different.

Savory. Special.

I watched the 10-year-old slow-poke down a tiny slope of untouched white flakes. Her long, plastic sled carved a groove into a fresh patch of maybe seven inches at Green Lane Park. Her unremarkable ride down a 15-degree grade came to an unremarkable stop. And when it did, the child chirped: “This is the greatest day of my life!”

Really?” I said, throwing my head her way with the kind of grizzled skepticism a journalist carries even up the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the first snow day of the year. The kid’s sled ride, from my angle, had looked more like a 1988 Buick being angled into a rowhouse garage than an Olympic luge thrill ride.

“Well,” the kiddo quickly replied, “at least in this moment it is.”

This was a squirt who got it. Who seemed to realize that as 2021 rolls around, you don’t make it out of a bruiser like 2020 if you don’t get that the little things are sometimes the biggest things to hold on to for sanity.

The first snow day of bottomless-despair-pit 2020 also happened to be the first real winter storm in several years around here. It meant little ones like this kid and older ones like this columnist marched like zombie-burnouts to snow-covered hills across the area. With a relish made sweeter by the deprivation of this awful year, we pursued fantasy — whether on a death-defying slope where snow-cone ice shards shot onto eyelashes, or on a gentler hill where a smaller kid could feel like a race-car king.

Those who could abandoned Zoom calls, virtual classrooms, and the heartbreak of a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and devastated livelihoods. If only for a flash, between sled launch and wipeout, we pretended that all of this was maybe just a bad dream. Or, at least, a memory fading fast.

Worried about coronavirus? Bring your mask, leave your fears at home.

I didn’t have my notebook to jot it down exactly, but a glorious sign at the base of a steep slope at Green Lane bloodlessly warned: “SLED AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

It was a thing of beauty.

So were the laughable barriers to further injury right below: miniature hay bales lined across the bottom of that hill. Those baby bricks of straw were there to block high-velocity human projectiles from overshooting a flimsy orange plastic fence that separated the hill from a two-lane road separated by double yellow lines.

If you’re going to go sledding during COVID-19, this is how you do it — unless you live near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in which case a descent down all those concrete steps is the way to flick off fate.

And when you’re done with crazy, you hit the bunny slope nearby, as we did up in Green Lane, and watch a kid tell you there’s nothing greater in life at that moment than that bunny slope.

Just how emotionally beaten had many of us become before this snowstorm hit?

School superintendents — not normally public figures who draw gushing praise — were winning plaudits for calling snow days.

Brain-fried students, teachers, and parents alike, cross-eyed from months of remote learning to keep from spreading COVID-19 in crowded public-school classrooms, praised school leaders who jettisoned class with the kind of cheering you normally throw at a coach’s winning fourth-down Super Bowl touchdown maneuver.

Bondy Shay Gibson, head of Jefferson County schools in West Virginia, made national news for the way she kiboshed classes on Wednesday, before Nor’easter Gail had made its way up into Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“It has been a year of seemingly endless loss and the stress of trying to make up for that loss,” Gibson wrote in a letter shared far and wide online. “So, please, enjoy a day of sledding and hot chocolate and cozy fires. Take pictures of your kids in snow hats they will outgrow by next year and read books that you have wanted to lose yourself in, but haven’t had the time. We will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday, but for tomorrow ... go build a snowman.”

As I took Gibson’s advice and trudged up that giant hill in Montgomery County, one of my boys spotted a cell phone in the snow. It had escaped its owner most likely during a furious descent. I picked it up and wiped water from its case, decorated with flowers. There were unanswered text messages. I shouted up and down the hill for an owner.


Eventually, I got it into the hands of a park ranger. But not before wondering: You don’t lose a cell phone on a hill like that without taking enough knocks and tumbles to have it rocket out of your pocket.

The ride, let’s hope, was worth the loss. Because in a crushing year like this one, every moment of joy is the only lifesaver you get.