I got out of the truck in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in Poland and the wind stung my cheek. It had risen to a steady blow after the sun sank behind the western hills. I spun around and saw the white truck I’d come to meet. I walked over and the man behind the wheel got out. He then produced the toboggan I’d come to buy. It was taller than me. I saw the lovely grain of ash wood underneath a layer of grime.
He told me it belonged to his grandmother’s friend as I handed him the money with the clandestine flair of a drug deal. He said if he’d known how many people were going to call about it that day, he’d have asked for more money. It’d been for sale online for days, but it only became a hot commodity as the U.S. National Toboggan Championships drew near. In fact, they were just two days away.
I competed in the toboggan races on one of the BDN’s two teams last year. It was fun, so I signed up again. Being a gold sponsor of the event, the paper got space for two teams. I’d assembled a team of co-workers and friends: Darren, Beth, Kaitlyn as well as myself.
It was all for fun until a week before the event. That’s when a deep rivalry emerged on the BDN’s internal communications system. My team was all from southern Maine and the other team was all from up Bangor way. Insults were hurled, gauntlets were thrown and shit got real — for me, anyway.
That’s why I was spending money on a toboggan of my own in a Poland parking lot on a Thursday night. In 2014, we used the slow, house sleds at the Camden Snow Bowl’s toboggan chute. This time, I wanted a custom sled, waxed for speed and the honor of my team.
I stayed up late on Thursday cleaning the lovely old sled. I spent Friday afternoon applying a coat of hot ski wax with an iron, followed by a buff of cream wax. Friday night, after arriving at my hotel in Rockport, I made a pad for our our behinds from an old rug. Then Velocidad de la Montaña was ready for action.
Yes, we called our toboggan “Speed of the Mountain” in Spanish because we were going as Mexican wrestlers — Lucha Libre. Our team name was La Verdad, la Libertad, la Velocidad, or Truth, Freedom, Speed.
Why Lucha Libre? Why not? Plus, the masks would keep our faces warm as we barreled down the chute at close to 40 mph.
On Friday night, Darren found a Spanish to English translation website for dentists and we all picked character names from it. I was El Procedimiento Breve (the brief procedure), Darren chose La Oclusión Defectuosa de los Dientes Inferiores (underbite), pal Kaitlyn liked La Muela Rota (the chipped tooth), and Beth went with Digame si le Duele (signal me if you have pain).
The scene at the U.S. National Toboggan Championships is truly Maine’s Mardi Gras. The chute, which was first opened in 1937, runs down the hill and spits toboggans out onto frozen Hosmer Pond. The landing zone is flanked by team huts and pavilions where folks gather round warming fires to watch the races. There’s food from vendors, a costume parade and a fair amount of beverage-induced merriment.
We discovered what would become a topic of amazement all weekend when the inspectors checked out our toboggan. The online ad said it was a nine-footer. It was, in fact, only seven and all the other four-person teams used 12-foot sleds. It was legal, they said, but they couldn’t wait to see how we were all going to fit on it.
Everyone marveled at its brevity as we waited in the hour-long line at the top of the hill. Think of a centipede and you can imagine how we all fit. Before we wedged ourselves into the chute, I managed to get folks in line to sing a song or two. A young man asked if he could play one, too, and he did. It was a scene of mirth, streaked with a communal sense impending doom as the air was punctuated with the primal screams of those going down the hill just up ahead.
We squeezed onto the sled to the amazement of the men running the hangman’s trap door that would drop us onto the ice-filled chute. They pushed us to the edge. The flagger down below waved his green flag, signaling the last team was safely off the ice. Time slowed down. I took big, deep breaths. The bottom dropped and we lurched forward.
We screamed, skidded and bounced down the hill at a terrifying rate, threatening to lift off our tiny toboggan at any moment. I found myself yelling. “Velocidad de la Montaña,” at the top of my range. The wooden sides of the trough screamed by, just inches from our elbows and knees.
It was awesome.
We hit 38 mph as we reached the pond. We also reached the end of our ability to stay upright and our formation disintegrated into a heap of snowy arms and legs. Friction did its job and brought us to a rest several yards later.We didn’t get up fast, but we got up and I’ll count that as a victory.
Our run beat last year’s by over a second. We were shaken but returned again on Sunday. It was snowing and much colder. We refined our entanglement technique for a little less wind drag and went even faster. We got even more amazed comments on our small sled. Our time of 9.02 seconds qualified us for the finals. After two more runs in the afternoon, Team Velocidad de la Montaña ended up finishing the weekend as the 37th fastest toboggan in the USA. We were, without a doubt, the fastest four-person, seven-foot toboggan in the whole country since we had the only one there.
And we didn’t crash again. My team showed amazing fortitude and resilience after the bad crash on Saturday. They were sore but braved the snow and cold on Sunday and tried even harder. I couldn’t be more proud.
Our BDN competitors? I’m not one to gloat, but they didn’t qualify for the finals and didn’t get a ranking in the end. But as I write this, I lift my sore body out of my chair, raise my cup of coffee with a bruised arm, face the north and salute them as worthy competitors.
I’m already planning next year’s run. We might even get a longer toboggan. Just maybe. Turns out, I’m kinda attached to this one.
La Velocidad de la Montaña!