The extreme sports idiocy my brother and I could get into would prepare us – little did we know – for the horrific magnitude of the trouble we would both know later in life. Not that we found trouble together back in the day. We created enough of our own trouble going our separate ways.
My brother was, in my opinion, perhaps the best thing to come near what I remember to be a four-stroke 500cc dirt-bike, not that he hasn’t had some pretty severe accidents. Mostly, he just had a bit of fun with the police. I hope he doesn’t mind me recounting this.
One fine afternoon, I remember making the two and half mile walk home from my summer job at the high school in north-central Minnesota. I heard police sirens squealing from miles away in every which direction, on every which road there was. This went on for about half an hour. The chase was on!
Later, I found out what it was all about. I thought it was pretty awesome, though I don’t recommend that anyone does this! Apparently, my brother didn’t see eye to eye with one of the campus police, who was lazily sitting in his cruiser alongside a gravel road. My brother couldn’t resist. He rode right up to the officer, who had his window rolled down, and then did a couple of ‘cookies’, spraying loads of gravel and dirt into and all over the cruiser. The chase was on. They didn’t catch him. An afternoon’s entertainment. It’s hard to catch someone on a dirt-bike, on dirt.
O.K., back to my own trouble. I liked sports as a kid, but I also had and have bad legs, and didn’t know anything about extreme sports, yet. I was into running for a while, but the legs wouldn’t hold up. I tried varsity football, but that was worse for the legs. I loved swimming and did quite a lot of that, always trying to push the limit with things. In junior highschool I think I remember swimming underwater for about five lengths of the huge pool. I did that because the coach bragged he could do two lengths of the pool underwater.
I had been introduced to waterskiing as a kid, always with two skis to please the folks. But as a teenager, hanging around the neighbors house (some miles away), guaranteed being dragged around the lake behind their boat. The first time as a teenager, I used only one ski. I then ditched that in favor of bare feet with no skis at all. That worked great. But those times were pretty rare.
Much more frequent was downhill snow-skiing during the long Minnesota winters. I figured that skiing wouldn’t be so hard on my legs. After all, the skis just stayed on the snow, didn’t they?
The university had a ski hill with a single rope tow that we kids ran for free. We just had to keep the rope spliced and knock down the tall grass and brush in the autumn before the snow fell. We kind of did that, but were distracted with building a huge jump out of old machinery and bales of hay conveniently before the snow fell on the ready made jump.
Once in a while my father would dump us two boys off at the local ski “resort”, which cost, I think, $4.50 on weekdays. It was here that I was introduced to extreme sports. I was soon better than anyone, I thought, on the steep walls of moguls, as they were called, flying straight down these impossible obstacle courses. I would also cut in between ski slopes where no one else dared to go, through deep, wooded ravines – complete with frozen creeks and snow covered boulders – all at breakneck speeds, come what may when exploding up and out the top of the ridge on the other side. I soon learned I could do any of these things only a few times on any given expedition, as this also was hard on my ever ailing legs.
There was, however, one activity a handful of us kids would throw ourselves into again and again… and again. And I was by far the most insane of all of them. Off to the side of “the ridge”, there was a hundred foot long jump that had been built up with bulldozers over the summer. In the winter, a mountain of hay bales was piled high on top of that to make the jump even higher. The idea was to approach the jump slowly, do a few tricks in the hang-time, then land smoothly on the steep slope constructed by the bulldozers. In this way, no one could really get hurt. People did get hurt, of course, doing extra flips and spins in the air that they weren’t prepared to do, thus keeping the ski-patrols busy with splints and sleds.
I could do plenty of tricks, but I thought all that to be boring. So, instead, I would take the chairlift to the top of the hill, five slopes over and (perhaps a quarter mile) way, way above the jump, which was itself as far down the hill as possible, just above the parking lots. I would pick up speed by launching myself off the chairlift, then skate on the skis, tucking down and racing like a bullet, barely avoiding people and trees, finally hitting the jump built on top of the jump at full speed, flying along the tree tops and far past the end of the landing ramp of the jump, far out on the flats below. Crack! The sound of the skis slamming onto the hard packed snow below could be heard like a 50mm gun shot. I would have just enough time to slow down and not crash into the people who were lined up to go back up the hill. I destroyed three sets of skis in this way… parce que je suis un enfant terrible! Buying second-hand skis was, of course, the order of the day.
Now, it would have been fatal, of course, to fall straight down from such a height, but I was going so fast that there was no danger of being hurt in such a landing, though it seemed like it would be certain death every time, which was the whole fun of it. I would almost be knocked unconscious as the rest of my body would slam down onto the back of the skis. On some days, cameras were everywhere, filming my antics, but that, I thought, was just annoying. They couldn’t possibly understand the exhilaration of hanging between life and death for seconds on end, which seemed much, much longer going through it, time and again.
If such an extreme sport had been a death wish – which some people said it was – this would have been manifested in activities that were actually a risk to life and limb. What I didn’t know is that, in all this activity, I was destroying my knees for life. Yet, I still don’t regret those adventures. I really was having a great time. Even after all this I could still run like the wind, but only for shorter distances. Now I can walk quickly, though after a few seconds that slows up too.
To the point! Let’s make an analogy: Death defying extreme sports sharpened awareness that I was, in fact, alive, and that to stay alive, I had to make the right choices all along the way, not only on the ski slopes, but in going through life. The analogy had to be repeated a thousand times on the ski slopes in order to sink into my thick skull. Crack! And then, Crack! And then, Crack! yet again.
On the ski slopes, I made sure to end up alive, however much all depended on me. But I’ve learned that throwing myself headlong through life necessitates depending on the Lord if I’m to stay alive. Only He knows the obstacles that we will find as we throw ourselves headlong into trust in His providence. Following His lead is the only way of coming out alive.
Right now, at this time in my life, as a priest-hermit in the middle of nowhere, far from the rest of humanity, on a back-ridge of Holy Souls Mountain in Western North Carolina, I find my experiences of extreme sports (of which I’ve only mentioned one of the many) are coming back to teach me their lessons in extraordinary ways.
The Surfaris 1963 Wipe Out! marked my childhood, and still does. This song would come to mind if I could foresee that in the next seconds there was going to be a cataclysmic wipe out (rarely, but it did happen!). I laugh now, when this song comes to mind, and I think of the way it seems that I have now, in the present day, catastrophically wiped out from a worldly point out of view – merely being a hermit – knowing, however, that I’m still flying through the air, at the level of the tree tops, crosses really. Totally awesome! This is what our Lord has provided. Death defying, really. Rather exhilarating this extreme sport of trusting completely in the Lord as He provides the circumstances and draws us through them, drags us through them to Himself.
By the way, did I ever mention that there was beatitude in the beatitudes? Hah!