Faith Gong: The only alpine slide in Vermont
Vermont is a small state, so it’s easy to assume that after living here eight years we would be aware of all the attractions Vermont has to offer young families. But a couple of weeks ago, we were surprised when a friend told us about Bromley Mountain’s alpine slide.
I’d never heard of an alpine slide before, and for a good reason: There are only 37 such slides in the world. Alpine slides dot Australia, Europe, and Asia, but the United States’ slides tend to be located out West, and the Bromley slide is the only alpine slide in Vermont.
What is an alpine slide? Picture a long, curving chute built into the side of a mountain, which you descend on a small, wheeled sled. It’s the summer version of a bobsled, which is precisely why ski resorts install them: to attract visitors during the non-snowy months. The Bromley slide has three fiberglass tracks that cover an 850-foot vertical drop; at 2/3 of a mile, it’s one of the longest slides in the world. It was built in 1978; my husband noted with history-geek excitement that the manufacturer of the Bromley alpine slide was headquartered at that time in West Germany.
Once we knew there was an alpine slide a mere 90 minutes away, our daughters were anxious to try it. This past Saturday was a rare empty day on our calendar and the weather promised the best of Vermont’s clear and crisp peak foliage season, so off we went.
"Was it scary?” is the first question people ask when we tell them about our alpine slide adventure. The short answer is: Not at all. The wheeled sled that you ride, either individually or with an adult if you’re under four feet tall, comes equipped with a brake. You do not whiz down the alpine slide in a freefall; you are able to control your speed. In fact, as I discovered on my initial crawling descent, speed requires the additional effort of pushing the brake handle all the way forward.
And the descent is jaw-droppingly beautiful, especially at this time of year when it provides panoramic views of orange-tinted mountains.
So the alpine slide itself is not scary. But “scary” is a complex concept, isn’t it? Fear is in the mind of the beholder, and fear’s object is an ever-shifting target. In our house these days it feels like we are constantly waging war against our children’s fears: the things that keep them up at night, that prevent them from walking upstairs alone, that land them on our bedroom floor in sleeping bags. Are they afraid of monsters under the bed? Scary scenes in books and movies? Growing up? Death? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
As a parent, how do we handle all this fear? The monsters under the bed can be shrugged off as imaginary, but the monsters outside the front door are all too real. We walk a narrow line, trying to equip our children with strategies that enable them to acknowledge the darkness of the world without being overwhelmed by it.
The challenge is that most adults are still working out these strategies ourselves. I am constantly surprised to find new fears popping up in my life just when I’ve managed to outgrow or subdue old ones, like a terrible game of Whack-A-Mole. We release our children into the world aware that, like us, they may always grapple with fear.
Bromley’s alpine slide is accessed by riding a chairlift halfway up the mountain. As Nordic skiiers, the chairlift was a completely novel concept for my daughters. I hadn’t been on a chairlift since my (brief) downhill skiing days a couple of decades ago.
The chairlift with children was a different experience. I was acutely aware of how easily my six-year-old could slip under the bar and plummet to the rocks below as she sat beside me leaning forward to observe everything. I negotiated eight chairlift rides with one hand gripping the bar and one hand covertly grasping my child’s coat, while my eyes were fixed ahead on the feet of my ten- and eleven-year-olds, who rode the chairlift independently, as I measured the distance between their four sneakered feet and the ground below. I tried to mask all these feelings behind a calm exterior and a level voice, lest my children pick up my fears.
After our first chairlift ride, as we stood at the mouth of the alpine slide, my ten-year-old daughter had a panic attack. “I just can’t do it!” she wailed. “I’m too scared!”
We were stuck. Because of her height, she’d have to ride the sled independently. Meanwhile, my husband and I had to take our younger daughters with us in our sleds, and my oldest daughter was anxious to get started. We had little choice: Promising to report back, we left our frightened daughter at the top of the slide. If she still felt too afraid, we would walk her down.
Once we’d completed that first run, it was clear: Not only would the slide not be too scary for my daughter, but she would love it. She still required some convincing, though.
“Sweetie, you go faster on your bike,” I told her.
“I ride my bike really fast!” she wailed.
After a bit more prodding, she boarded her sled shakily.
The daughter who disembarked at the end of the slide was beaming.
“That was so much fun! I want to do it again!” she cheered. And she did, again and again.
“Would you have done that without the kids?” my husband asked me after our alpine slide adventure.
“Probably not,” I admitted.
But I’m glad we did it. For me, the alpine slide demonstrated how we handle fear as a family. Nobody, parent or child, is immune to anxiety, but if courage means moving forward despite our fear, then we all – parents and children alike -- help each other to be brave. Sometimes parents have to breathe deeply, stifle imagined worst-case scenarios, and board the chairlift so that we don’t raise fearful children. Sometimes we prod our children to mount their sleds and push off because we know the pleasure they’ll take in overcoming their anxiety. And when we do, the views are just beautiful.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.