There Are No Saguaro in Muskegon

"The start has three elements. Pull on these bars to launch. Position your hands-- no, curl your little finger underneath so the sled doesn't cut it off. Then lay back. Three distinct moves"

I sat at the top of the iced track listening to instructions from Larry, a volunteer coach at the Muskegon Luge run. It was my first run from the ramp. Formal instruction was minimal.

Kevin, the other coach, had presented the basics. "Place your butt here," he said, pointing to a cross brace under the canvas sling. "Your shoulders should press there. Try it."

I lay on the little sled. I couldn't see past my puffy down vest. My feet stuck out past the upturned runners. My head and shoulders hung off the back. I slid down so my rear end was firmly above the cross piece. "Good," said the coach. "To turn left, press here with your right leg and look to the left. To turn right, use pressure from your left leg and turn your head to the right."

My practice had gone smoothly. A gentle push started the sled down the hill. The sled moved slowly and turned easily. Now, with 60 seconds of instruction I was ready to try the real thing.

Actually I wasn't quite ready. I was wearing the motorcycle helmet. I was sitting on the sled at the top of the ramp, but I still wasn't sure about the whole thing.

None of my friends had done this. I don't know anyone who had even seen it-- except on TV between popular Olympic events.

I noticed luge during the Lake Placid Olympics. It caught my attention because the competitors were more amateur than the other athletes. Not just unpaid and unsponsored but also untrained and out-of-shape.

By the latest Olympics the US team was quite professional. They even threatened to win a medal. I remembered the days when someone with little experience and a paunch under their aerodynamic bodysuit could compete at world class levels. I had no experience and a beer belly; in my mind I was well qualified. When Dennis backed out of our planned trip to Arizona, I decided I'd learn to luge over Spring Break.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now I was less sure. The bearded coaches with their dark sunglasses had warned about pushing off the wall. Just hold tight and ride it out or you'll break your arm. As I waited, a guy lost the sled completely. He hit the wall on the first turn and fell off. He did walk away from it, but he didn't return for another run. I'd been told about a European coach hit by a sled before the Olympics. It cut his leg off.

Of course I wasn't on an Olympic track. The lower run at Muskegon is used for instruction and corporate competitions. It's a relatively short track built into the wooded dunes. There were only 3 turns to worry about. The upper run looked fierce, twisting through the forest, its start hidden by the trees. Olympians trained on the upper track.

The lower track was exciting enough for me. Spectators leaned over the walls. A TV crew from South Bend, Indiana was filming. Several inches of solid ice provided a high speed surface. The grey paint on the walls was marred by previous crashes. There was certainly a potential for injury. I signed two waivers before I paid my admission fee. It cost $12 to use the lower course, $10 of that for insurance.

"Track clear," called Kevin.

I looked at the wall at the bottom of the ramp. Turn left, another left, then right, finish on the straight-a-way.

"Anytime you're ready, you can go ahead," Larry said.

I pushed off. The ride was fast, much faster than I expected. I took the turns smoothly, staying in the center of the track. Before I knew it, I was flying through the straight-a-way. I sat up and grabbed the runners to stop. I lifted the sled from the track and shouted "clear."

It was fast. It was easy. It was fun. I wondered if I could upgrade my pass to the upper hill. Maybe I should consider the next Olympics. It was a rush.

I carried my sled up the hill. It was surprisingly heavy for such a little sled. Solidly built of wood and metal, it was red with polished steel runners. The sleds varied. Some were newer, some slightly shorter. One was beautiful: 35 pounds and $400 worth of shiny black fiberglass and steel.

I was much more confident for my second slide. I slid back and forth at the top of the ramp to gain momentum, released, grabbed the sled, lay back. BAM! I hit the wall hard and ricocheted into the left wall. Pinball! I hit every wall. This was a shock. I leaned back, struggling for control. My helmet wasn't strapped on securely. I bounced it off the ice, chinstrap in my mouth. I continued hitting walls. Finally the sled stopped. I dragged it from the track. "Clear."

This wasn't fun and it wasn't easy. I looked at my parka. The walls had abraded the tough nylon leaving brush-burns on both sleeves. I was too shook up to be sore-- the bruises showed later. I slogged back up the hill with the heavy little sled. No upper track for me. I just wanted to survive the lower one.

Why was I here? I could have been in Arizona enjoying shirt-sleeve weather. Dennis and I had planned to visit the Sonoran Desert: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Saguaro National Monument, maybe the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness. But instead of cactus, Collared Lizards, and dry mesas, I was standing in three feet of snow under Red Oaks and White Pines on the steep slopes of Michigan's dunes. Ahead of me was an afternoon on the abusive little sled, followed by a cold night in my tent.

The following runs were better, less harsh. I grazed the wall a few times but didn't make intimate contact. I took one run on the sleek black sled. Smooth. A very nice ride. Perhaps I will try the big hill-- next time.

Great chunks of shelf ice in the Lake mimicked the clouds overhead-- red and purple-edged clouds in a clear blue sky. Sunset colors-- I needed to get to camp. The campground near the luge run was closed for the season. During the 10 mile drive to PJ Hoffmaster State Park the sun dropped closer to the horizon, the stiffness in my shoulders and calves became noticeable, and the temperature started falling.

It gets colder at night. I'd been trying to ignore this fact all afternoon.

Winter camping is not my speciality. My equipment was designed for 3-seasons -- spring-summer-fall, not winter. Dennis had been trying to convince me, via email, to buy new gear for this trip. I'd waffled. A motel would be cheaper. I didn't buy anything.

There was still some light as I stomped down a patch of snow to pitch my tent. I had forgotten about the mesh. The entire top of my tent was made of mosquito netting. I was wearing long underwear, flannel-lined jeans, a fleece pullover, a down vest, 2 pairs of socks, Sorel pak-boots, a fleece hat, hooded parka and heavy ski gloves; mosquitos weren't going to be a problem.

I ate, by candlelight, directly from the skillet. The heavy cast iron retained enough heat to keep my fried potatoes and sirloin steak warm. Ice formed in my cup while I was drinking, then the cap froze on the water bottle. It was getting cold. I should have been in Arizona where the temperature was in the 70°s. In Muskegon it would be 5°. If I froze to death, I'd blame Dennis.

The night turned out to be comfortable. The temperature did drop but I was protected inside two sleeping bags, on top of three foam pads, with a stadium blanket and beach towel covering any open spots on the floor. (Travel light, freeze all night.) Of course, all my perishable foods and my water bottles were stuffed into the sleeping bags. A huge pile of clothes worked as a pillow.

The Lake was impressive in the morning. A pinging echo came from beyond the great wall of shelf ice like the sonar in a submarine movie. Almost musical, but a bit unreal. A herd of deer scrambled across the beach. Skiing down, I spooked a Red Fox on the dune above me. It ran parallel to the shore then disappeared in the trees. A young Bald Eagle flew overhead. There weren't any cactus. It wasn't warm; it wasn't exotic, but I wasn't complaining one bit.

Michigan 1994

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