The origin of modern day recreational sleigh riding can be traced back to the late 1800’s when the first “sleigh” was invented in the exclusive Swiss resort town of St. Moritz as a way for the wealthy hotel guests to combat both winter boredom and what was perceived in St. Moritz as a rampant over population problem caused by the filthy plebes of the under class. Invented by famed painter of the Alps Giovanni Segantini, who ironically began his life as a member of the working class himself, the contraption was initially spelled “Slay”.
Armed with nothing but mugs of wassail and their disingenuous charity, the on-holiday over-privileged aristocrats along with local upper class influentials, nobility and rich folk would carol through the more impoverished neighborhoods with a “slay” harnessed to a gallant and trusty steed. Attracted to the hearty rejoicing outside their hovels, the less fortunate townsfolk would be pulled away from their dinners of a thin burlap and leek stew and accept the generous offer of a free ride on the one horse open slay.
Giovanni Segantini’s Winter Landscape Masterpiece “A Horse and Slay”
Once the Slay was filled to capacity, it was pulled to the top of the nearby Morteratsch Glacier where it was quickly unharnessed and pushed over the edge. By the time the Slay came to rest an hour later in the basin of the Engadine Valley it would be empty and the 30-40 passengers would never be heard from again. If, however, a rider was able to traverse the deadly path through the dense forest and survive the descent down the glacier it was called a Swiss Miss and he was given a steamy pint of hot chocolate as a prize. Today, the lethal path is commemorated by the world famous Cresta Run toboggan course and corporately sponsored by none other than the reward’s namesake; Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa.
Over time though, like most novelties used to thin the herd of Switzerland’s Resort Towns, the appeal to the Slay’s brutality waned, the excitement of a non-fatal slay ride nonetheless did not. Thus the spelling was changed to “sleigh” and the rest is history. You can look it up if you don’t believe me. Here’s a link that describes in detail the History of the Slay/Sleigh.
The tragic history of the thousands of proletariat (more like snow-letariat) souls lost to the affluent whims of European elitists was just one of the things I was thinking about as Jack and I sat in his black molded plastic toboggan (or was it a to-bloggin?) at the top of hill behind his elementary school earlier this week. I pondered not only what it was like for those unfortunate lower class St. Moritzians must have experienced as they hurtled down the icy face of the third largest Glacier in the Eastern Alps but also my earliest memories of sleigh riding.
I remembered the steep hill on the side of Sand Creek middle school that had at least a 75 degree grade (coincidentally my accumulative average in middle school) to the top of which Joshua Bushweller (of the Colonie Bushwellers) dragged his flexible flyer on a fateful cold and gray Chicago morning in the ghetto. I secretly coveted the Bushwellers flexible flyer; with it’s finely milled yellow hardwood, grooved steel runners and steering bar (Note: After this incident I went back to coveting my neighbor’s wife), but then Joshua hit a mogul-sized bump towards the bottom that threw him directly into the path of the unmanned sleigh. The steel runner that I had so lusted after sliced across his forehead and who would have thought Joshua Bushweller to have had so much blood in him? (Imagine the wood chipper scene in Fargo. OK …now imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. Alright now dig if you will a picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss. Come on, you know you want to. BONUS: I just showered)
I remember watching a documentary about a cave dwelling hermit who once tethered his dog to a massive sled then whipped him unmercifully until the dog pulled the sled into a neighboring town. The recluse then burglarized every house in the town, loaded the stolen goods onto the sled then again whipped the dog until it pulled the sled to the top of a mountain where the suspect intended to push it over the edge. (I’ve got a new song for all the Whos down in Whoville – start it off low but then start to grow “Ani-mal Cruel-ty Ani-mal Cruel-ty What You’re Do-ing Makes Me Sick, Ani-mal Cruel-ty Ani-mal Cruel-ty Still Not As Bad As Mich-ael Vick” I’m still working on the bridge)
I even remembered the horrible John Candy movie about a bobsledder embroiled in scandal who retires to Jamaica and ultimately trains a team of locals to compete in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. It was either called Uncle Buck or Up in Smoke.
But now here I was, crammed into a $10 sled at the top of a run that begins next to a chain link fence surrounding high-voltage generators and power lines and ends dangerously close to the side of the school and a precariously placed fire hydrant. Thinking of the St. Moritzians, my neighbor’s wife, Joshua’s forehead, the Atlanta Falcon’s logical draft pick and a rotund comedian who left us too soon I asked Jack if he was ready and he nodded Yes so I planted my gloved hands on either side of the sled and Luged us into oblivion.
On each run we just missed colliding with the fire hydrant and only once did we receive a shock from the chain link fence and after an hour it started to get dark and we had to head home. We went for one last run after which I let him sit in the sled and I pulled him behind me on our way back to the house. I suddenly felt the impact of a snowball on the back of my leg. I turned to see him grinning at me mischievously, flakes of snow in his eyelashes, another packed projectile in his hand. “Daddy, can we have hot chocolate together when we get home?”
Now that’s a prize worth risking your life for.