The cold is aggressive, almost predatory. Within seconds, any exposed flesh begins to sting and ache, go numb. Without goose down and Gore-Tex, you’d die in minutes. People aren’t designed to be in Hyalite in the winter. And definitely not at 11pm.
—Christ it’s cold. Where’s the schnapps? someone asks.
The last cross-country skiers have driven off in their Subarus and the last ice-fishing lanterns have been extinguished on the frozen reservoir. There’s nothing left but six friends, five sleds, and four thermoses of cocoa spiked with booze.
We brought nearly a dozen headlamps, but they stay in the car. Once the moon has crested the treeline, the entire field is bathed in pale moonlight.
We line up at the top of the hill holding old inner tubes and plastic sleds. Sarah eases into her rubber donut, swinging her arms to keep us from pushing her, then scoots toward the lip of the hill. She giggles down the snowy face, dragging her palms and heels to slow down.
—Aw, come on! Ryan yells out big clouds of steam, showing how big his lungs are. You can’t get any speed like that!
He sprints a few steps, then bellyflops onto the sled face first, kicking up a cloud of powder that floats after him. His yell gets quieter, and somewhere in the shadows of the treeline his sled veers left while he tumbles right. There’s groaning and laughing from both ends of the hill.
—He’s crazy, Brent says, taking a pull off the bottle, bubbles running past Mr. McGillicuddy’s smiling face.
—But he’s still alive, so that’s a good sign, Aaron says.
Ryan walks up, panting, reaching for booze, his handlebar mustache caked in ice and snow. —God that was fun. I think I can go faster. Let’s race.
The hooch flows, and each trip down the hill gets faster. Racers get tackled by onlookers, onlookers get cut down by racers. Hyalite Canyon sounds like morning recess in elementary school. Each barrel roll off the sled is cushioned by deep powder and the alcohol pumping through our systems.
The moon gets higher, brighter. The swish of sled on powder only happens every few minutes, and then not at all. By the time the moon is in the middle of the sky, the cold has won. We sit on the hilltop, circled around the remaining cocoa, leaning back to stare at the sky. Our breathing slows, and after the last few chuckles fade out into the night, it hits us: the unholy quiet some people go their whole lives without hearing. The cloudless sky, filled with fuzzy little dots representing planets and suns and galaxies, looms over us. The cold wants us to leave, but the scenery wants us to stay.
—Oh my God we’re small, Aaron says. Ryan nods, Sarah smiles. Brent tips back the cocoa.
—We’re out of booze, too, he says.
—Do you think anyone in a big city ever gets to do this? I mean, sit in complete silence and look at every star in the sky? And when was the last time you heard complete silence like this? Aaron says. Ryan nods, Sarah smiles. Brent tips back the cocoa and frowns.
—We’re still out of booze, Brent says.
We pack into our cars, rubbing our hands in front of loud heaters pumping cold air. We drive back into town without talking, just smiling and nursing our bruises and numb limbs, but eager to come back another time and enjoy our midnight playground.