Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emotional Speed

I think everyone is fascinated with speed. Not the raw form of speed that gets measured in miles per hour, but its emotional side that is measured in memories. Case in point, you are currently moving at a very high rate of speed. Each day the earth completes one turn on its axis, and while it varies slightly depending on your latitude, you’re moving about 1,000 mph. That’s almost nothing compared to the yearly flight of the earth around the sun, which clocks you in at about 67,000 mph. And that’s dwarfed by our entire solar system spinning around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at nearly 500,000 mph. None of that matters because you can’t feel it or be thrilled or terrified by it. So the following three stories, from my personal vault of stupid, will not amaze you with gaudy numbers, but hopefully displays speed’s emotionally scary side.

The Skiing Story

Beaches, golf courses and ski slopes are, to me, the most beautiful places in the world.
I’m not a great skier, maybe not even mediocre, but I love the view from the top of a mountain on a clear sunny day. I learned to ski, like all sports, by trial and error, more a fan of figuring it out than have someone teach me how. I struggled more with skiing than the others, and spent years muscling down slopes on the strength of my legs. A typical day was 5-6 runs down the mountain, taking frequent breaks, and then a day off in between ski days to rest sore thighs. Then one day I watched an older gentlemen effortlessly glide down a double-black-diamond run as I ascended a ski lift and it struck me that I was simply trying too hard. I decided to stop making my skiing a weight-lifting exercise and shift to a dancing metaphor, positioning my frame to maximize leverage as I carved down the mountain. Almost instantly I was transformed into making a few dozen trips down the mountain each day, with just a break now and then to enjoy nature’s beauty, and skiing every day. No sore legs or burning lungs. It was a glorious moment when I finally “figured it out”.

The upside of being a much better skier was I could go much faster than before. The downside of being a much better skier was I could go much faster than before, and of course who wouldn’t want to push fast a bit farther at some point? My point occurred at The Canyons in Utah, on a perfectly groomed, very wide, dark blue run with no bumps or curves. I went to the center of the run and got some speed going, but not thinking about anything other than enjoying the ride. But at some point I tucked myself into the skier’s position with my thighs parallel to the ground, hands tucked, poles pointing straight behind and sought to reduce as much air drag as possible. Speed was the reward. Faster I went and my focus intensified with the velocity. Then my skis began to vibrate and chatter, an experience I had never felt before and I knew I was going where I had never been. I can only guess I was going between forty and fifty miles per hour, not fast compared to professional skiers, but the actual number wasn’t important, only the feeling of raw speed. Giddy, a bit of fear began to make itself present, as I had never fallen at this rate of speed (of course), nor had I tried to slow down from this point (of course). My normal couple of cuts, always to the left first, followed by a sharp right, that would bring me to a dead stop delivering a shower of snow, wasn’t going to be possible. My first action was to carefully come up out of my tuck, letting the increasing air drag begin to reduce my velocity, but not knock me backwards. Skis still vibrating I attempted a very small right, my more confident turn, the fear of a high-speed tumble lasting hundreds of yards staring me in the face. But my balance was still there, so a small left turn was next, followed by several more, back and forth. Successful, but I wasn’t slowing down. I needed sharper turns and I needed them now, for no slope goes on forever. Falling was a far better outcome than would greet me if I ran out of slope, with trees or worse somewhere ahead. Placing more weight on my skis during the cuts, I carved wider curves, back and forth, over and over, and my speed began to return to a comfortable range. A few harder cuts and I was in complete control again, giddy over the memory of speed and overcoming the fear and most of all, happy to still be in one unbroken piece. A great memory, but an experience I’ll never repeat, as I think I burned a great deal of luck that day, and I’m not getting any younger.

The Motorcycle Story

The first motorcycle I rode was a Yamaha 400 2-cycle a friend owned. I learned at that first experience that motorcycles possess incredible acceleration which can throw you backwards in an instant. I also learned that when you’re thrown backwards, with your right hand firmly on the throttle, it twists the handle to make you go even faster, with your only resort to hold on even tighter with your left hand and let the throttle slip back to idle with your right. But I survived that introduction undeterred, and bought myself a Yamaha 400 4-cycle. I rode super careful, always anticipating a car not seeing me and getting ready for the worst, which saved me on more than one occasion. The thrill of a motorcycle’s acceleration, the wind rushing over my skin, leaning into curves on country roads and the sense of freedom are uncomparable. I rode to college, rode to family reunions, Indian Lake and Cincinnati, although interstate riding on this small of motorcycle is not really that much fun. I gave up riding after my daughter was born, realizing I was putting too much risk into my new reality.

During a ride one day on Frederick Pike I just needed to find out my Yamaha’s top speed and that stretch of road was the right place to gun it. I came out of a curve to a long stretch of perfectly straight road, no other vehicles in sight. I crouched down, head behind the fairing to reduce drag, and opened up the throttle. The Yahama shot forward faster and faster until it had nothing more to give. I just knew I had never gone this fast in any vehicle before and it was getting scary as the motorcycle vibrated and the scenery clipped by. A quick glance to the speedometer revealed 100 miles per hour, but my heart was beating even faster. Time to back it down and I promised myself never, ever again, a promise I most certainly have kept.

The Great Leap Story

I grew up at a swimming pool, which in Dayton, Ohio means Memorial Day through Labor Day, with my mother bringing her five children, most every weekday, to the Trotwood Aquatic Club. I’m sure Mom enjoyed the relative peace and quiet as we wore ourselves out swimming and splashing for hours, only occasionally indulging our begging for money to buy an ice cream cone or hot dog at the snack stand. I would see how far I could swim before tiring and challenged myself to swim underwater across the width of the pool, which was pretty wide, thrilled each time I made it. But as I grew towards my teen years, the diving area became my focus, with its pair of five foot, and single fifteen foot, springboards. I always dove head first, not a fan of jumping and having water rush up my nose. Diving was a bit hard on the top of my head at impact from the high board, but it allowed me go all the way to the bottom of the pool, pivot, place my feet on the bottom and push as hard as possible to return to the surface. There’s no better way to grow up than at a pool. I content myself now with jumping into ocean waves, my favorite being Daytona Beach, and the occasional snorkel in the warm waters of the Caribbean or Hawai’i. But mostly I enjoy frosty rum drinks and absorbing the sun’s rays around a pool.

Back in my college days I found myself at Glen Helen where there is a waterfall overlooking a small natural pool. The friends I was with encouraged me to join in the great fun in jumping off the ledge of the waterfall into the water below, which I’m pretty sure was illegal, and now entirely sure was just stupid. And, of course, there were girls involved, which is a sure way to get any guy to do stupid things. But I was sure, given my aquatic history, that the jump would be okay, I confidently climbed up the rocks and to the edge of the ledge. After one or two others plunged safely into the pool, I pushed off, and that’s when the real story starts. My back foot slipped slightly, resulting in less a push than I intended and consequently changing where in the pool I would enter, not in my favor. A slight panic started and I feared entering at too shallow a spot, resulting in either broken bones or worse, stuck feet first in the mud and drowning. But what I hadn’t thought through before jumping was how acceleration due to gravity really works, and I was jumping from a height at least twice as high than ever before. So while the first half of the plunge was consumed with the fear of the pool, the second half was consumed by how much faster I was heading towards planet Earth. Scary fast and getting increasingly faster as the milliseconds slowly crept past. Combine unfamiliar jumping with being off target and the exponentially increasing velocity, you can imagine that speed felt even faster than it probably was. My memory fails to recall, for sure, if I jumped again, but I think I did, since I think I mentioned there were girls involved. But much of the thrill, and the chills, are never as intense as they are the first time around. But I never attempted that kind of jump again after I survived that day. Stupid really shouldn’t be repeated too often.

Just recalling all the details behind these tails of speed makes the hair on my arms stand up, realizing that I’ve survived my share of foolish stunts. I hope I don’t make any more memories like these.

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