Wintertime Fun in Vail

We’re getting more snow.  The previous blast of snow and cold air a few weeks ago, left branches covered with wet, heavy snow, and very slick streets.  Once again, this month, I am reminded of living as an adolescent in Vail.  No, not Vail, Colorado, but Vail, Iowa.

Vail, Iowa, sits on a hill, a fairly steep hill.  Running through the middle of town, west to east, is a farm-to-market road.  A farm-to-market road is a county road that is of a better quality than the streets in a rural town.  Its purpose is to connect “rural or agricultural areas to market towns.”

The FTM road dissecting Vail, Iowa, was a smooth road.  Unlike the town’s streets that were tarred and covered with pea gravel, the FTM road was tarred and covered with sand.  The difference was noticeable, especially in winter.  During the winter, a kid’s sled on the FTM road would not suddenly stop because it hit a patch of pea gravel.

When we were hit with a good-sized snow storm, often the kind that would close schools for at least a day, the county maintenance crew (secondary road maintenance) would head out to clear off the rural gravel roads.  The first step in that process was to clean the FTM road.  The road grader would not reach down to the road surface since the result would be to tear up the road.  So, a decent layer of snow remained on the road.  Vehicles coming into town, driving down the slope, helped to pack the snow on the road.  Vehicles attempting to leave town would rarely get up the road, would spin and spin, and eventually back down the hill and take an alternate route.  The spinning tires would create ice.  Back in the day, most people had “snow tires” and thought they could go anywhere.  But not up the church hill.

The church hill was named appropriately because the United Presbyterian Church at the time was the prominent feature at the apex.  From there to the bottom of the hill was a three-block long slope that, according to my guess, rivaled a good hill in the heart of San Francisco.  I believe the 1st half of the hill was close to a 15% grade, leveling off as you slid into the last block.

Several kids would run around town trying to find the city maintenance man in order to ask him to post “the signs” on the road.  The signs were nothing more than a sawhorse with a message stating: “Caution! Children sledding.”  There were two signs; one at the first intersection down the hill; the other was located in the middle of the intersection after the second block.  People in town respected those words of caution, except the Nelson family.

The Kenny Nelson family lived on the north side of town.  I can’t recall one member of that family stopping at the caution signs, and rarely would they slow down.  It’s a wonder we all lived without getting hit by a Nelson car.

The hill was occupied by more than kids that lived in town.  I remember the Nepple boys bringing their huge homemade bobsled into town.  Other children were brought into town by their parents.  An occasional out-of-towner would join the fun, as well.

A few older country people would attempt to drive up the hill while there were scores of children sledding.  They never made it.  We were not nice to people who thought they had priority on the road while we were sledding.  We didn’t stand in front of them, but as their tires were spinning you can bet some kid would walk up to their window and ask some dumb question, or tell the driver something they already knew.  “Your tires are spinning.”  “You’re not going very fast.”  “I don’t think you’ll make it to the top.”  Likewise, there were so many kids on the slope it was almost impossible for a car coming from the country to travel down the road.  Sledders at the top of the hill refused to yield.

It wasn’t long after I became a teenager that the long, steep hill was sanded and salted after being cleared by the road grader.  I am going to have to guess that government bureaucracy became much more important than a bunch of kids having fun and staying out of trouble.  After all, this is a FTM road, and farmers needed to bring their goods to town.  Bull!  Never did they need to get marketable items to any town, particularly on a Saturday or Sunday.  I am sure church was a necessary factor for some, and the challenge of making it to town from the farm for the sake of making it to town from the farm was another buckle slot in the bureaucratic belt.  It was sad to see the weekend entertainment come to an end.

Today, I live at the bottom of a hill similar to the one I lived near as a kid.  It’s a residential street, and the road is not plowed for at least twenty-four hours after a snowstorm of 2 inches or more.  It is cruel entertainment watching the numerous vehicles attempt to get to the top of the hill.  Like a kid in Vail, I want to say inane things as I see them back down the hill.  Many don’t understand that trying to back into a driveway is the worst thing they can do.  The vehicle will slide off the pavement, off the driveway, and get hung up with one wheel over the curb and the other three seeking to find a predicament of their own.

I no longer own a sled, but if I did, I might want to try sledding down Lynner Drive in Des Moines.  Providing, of course, that no family by the name of Nelson lives nearby.

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