Smoke Signals

The Dark Shadow descends, or: Downhill skiing Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country

Author’s note: Since March 2016, I have been working on a long-and-winding memoir titled, “Back East: A Topophobic Road Trip Down Memory Lane,” which deals with a two-month journey I took to reconnect with the places of my youth, mainly Frankfort, Kentucky; Plattsburgh, New York; and Gloucester, Virginia. This is the first time in a long writing career that I have birthed a book via pencil. I then utilize a Dragon voice-recognition software program to translate those scribbled words into pixels, which takes a lot of time, though it is time well spent, as, since I like for my writing to resemble, as much as possible, the way I speak, this tedious technique allows me to add vocal-ish inflection to transcriptive communication. As it stands, I have finished four of six sections, totaling between 150,000 and 200,000 words. When completed, “Back East” will likely contain between 350,000 and 400,000 words. I have pulled myself off this project for a month, at the behest of my literary agent, to work on a formal book proposal centered around my recently completed quest to hike every day for a solid year with my dog, Casey, who was also with me on my “Back East” journey. I hope to be done with the first draft of  “Back East” by the end of December. This snippet, which is not yet polished into final form, marks the first time I have exposed a segment of “Back East” to public scrutiny. 


The house in which I lived during my sixth- and seventh-grade years, next to which now lies the state headquarters of the Kentucky National Guard. During my tenure, there was a house on that site.

On the other side of the imposing Kentucky National Guard facility that now stands next to the house in which we lived during my sixth- and seventh-grade years lies an unassuming side street leading from the north into a well-tended subdivision called Westgate, which consists of the smallest single-story brick ranch-style houses I have ever seen. It’s as though Westgate was conceived back in the Eisenhower era by a development company owned and operated by Hobbits both geographically and temporally misplaced.

During those rare occasions when it snowed in Frankfort, I made extra cash shoveling driveways in this subdivision — at a quarter pop. Decent money in those days. I was one of the few kids south of the Ohio River who had access to a genuine snow shovel, which we inexplicably brought with us when we moved from the Adirondacks and, having apprenticed in the North Woods, my technique was the envy of my flailing competitors.

Another side street — Spring Hill Drive — accessed Westgate from the east. Spring Hill Drive consisted of one long gradient heading downward into the heart of Westgate, which consisted of about 70 or 80 houses on postage-stamp-sized lots, all of which were, and continue to be, meticulously manicured. It was upon Spring Hill Drive that I downhill skied for what turned out to be the last time until I moved to the Colorado High Country many years later.

A snowstorm of what locals considered monumental proportions — about eight inches — hit Frankfort in mid-January, pretty much closing Kentucky’s capital city down. Smelling economic opportunity, I raced over to Westgate, shovel in hand. After having cleared a few driveways, I noticed that Spring Hill Drive sported a captivating coat of untrammeled snow cover. No footprints, no paw prints, no tire tracks. Virgin territory. A light bulb illuminated. I ran home, pulled out my old skis, poles and boots, returned to Westgate and ascended Spring Hill Drive on foot, followed by a line of curious pre-pubescent onlookers who had never seen such a perplexing array of recreational equipage, downhill skiing not being a common activity in the heart of the Bluegrass Country.

I removed my sodden sneakers, tried to slide my feet into the old leather, lace-up boots, purchased brand new when I was 10, and found them to then be a bit on the snug side. I had grown substantially, though, from my perspective, imperceptibly, in the two years we had been on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nonetheless — with an audience gathered around me — I could not back out because of something as trivial as tootsie discomfort. I crammed my hooves into footwear that at one time was as much a part of my life as was my skin, attached that footwear to the primitive bindings which adorned all downhill skis in those days and turned to face Spring Hill.



Spring Hill Drive. It used to be longer, higher and steeper. My blood might still be visible.

This was not the first time I stood looking down from the apex of this particular section of steep pavement. The prior summer, many of the same kids who were watching me lean into my early-generation Head steel-edged skis conspired with me to construct a gravity-powered vehicle that might charitably be called a cross between “The Road Warrior” and a last-place finisher in a Soap Box Derby competition taking place in an Appalachian town ravaged by the Oxycontin epidemic. Our claptrap conveyance was constructed with salvaged and stolen parts, offered minimal maneuverability and zilch in the way of built-in braking power.

A gaggle of classmates whose names, like mine, did not often appear on the honor roll happily hammered and sawed for several focused days. We adorned the vehicle, which we proudly named the “Dark Shadow” — more or less after a campy vampire-based television show popular at the time — with a mostly decomposed eight-point deer skull we found out in the woods, which we spray-painted bright red and placed on a bowsprit designed to look like a medieval battering ram. Not surprisingly, we painted the rest of the Dark Shadow jet black.

When completed, the craft could hold seven of us if we sardined ourselves in. Steering was achieved via two pieces of rope attached to the front axle like reins to an English bridle. At the rear sat, bobsled style, our breakman, a corpulent kid named David Springfield, whose only means of slowing our forward progress consisted of a piece of 2×4 he could drag along the pavement in the almost certain event things started going sideways.

I was drafted — probably by myself — to pilot the appropriately named Dark Shadow on its maiden voyage into the very imminent hereafter.

We pulled the Dark Shadow up Spring Hill, aligned it and took our positions. We decided it would be a good idea for David Springfield to give us a running push in case a 200-pound wooden vehicle filled with another couple hundred pounds of soon-to-be-deceased morons barreling down a quarter-mile of a six-percent grade would not provide sufficient opportunity for momentum-based mayhem. With a 1-2-3 chant — which never got past two, because David Springfield lost his tenuous grip on our stern — we took off and achieved instantaneous Mach 3 with our despondent breakman standing at the top of the hill forlornly holding his 2×4 stub, leaving us with no chance whatsoever of surviving this madness unscathed.

Our acceleration toward terminal velocity was astounding. By the time we got halfway down the hill, G-forces were pulling our cheeks back. The Dark Shadow was beginning to shake badly, as though its front wheels, salvaged from a utility trailer we found unattended at the edge of a nearby tobacco field, were simultaneously out of balance, out of alignment and ready to disembark. Behind me, a friend named Hank Senn, whose stubby arms were by then hugging my midsection very tightly, assessed the situation. “We’re … going … too… fast!” Hank exclaimed, his glaringly obvious words mostly lost to the Doppler Effect. And he was right, but there was little that could be done, given that our pitiful excuse for a breakman was still standing 100 or so yards in our wake.

I was trying really hard to maintain my composure and concentration, but it was clear that a monumental mishap was rapidly forthcoming. I decided the most-prudent course of action was to ditch the Dark Shadow. I yanked hard on one of my reins and all six of us spilled out onto the blacktop, like a handful of jacks being tossed across a tile floor. We all landed palms and elbows first. Then we rolled and tumbled amidst a combination of anguished screams and liberally hurled invectives. Limbs, torsos, joints, digits, jaws and craniums were being abraded beyond recognition by the rough surface of the asphalt. When the dust settled, but still before shell-shocked grown-ups began arriving on the scene with towels, scowls, bandages and ample quantities of incredulous castigation, we lay in a writhing, abraded and contused jumble along the lower course of Spring Hill Drive.

While eyeballing the road rash covering most of my body, I explained to my dazed and confused compadres that I had a choice between the certainty of a severe but survivable crash or the extreme likelihood of something far more catastrophic as we gained additional speed toward the bottom. It was an interesting study in behavioral inclination, one that I still all these years later recognize as being part and parcel of my psyche. Better to be assuredly maimed than possibly killed.

As our various injuries were being tended by adults wanting to know whose boneheaded idea this whole undertaking was, the more concussed of my shipmates agreed with my logic, while others felt the prudent course of action would have been to remain steady in hopes of a safe landing, while still others felt we probably ought not have pointed our deer-skull-and-battering-ram-adorned bow down Spring Hill in the first place.

“We could have just pushed the Dark Shadow around on the flat parts and had plenty of fun,” one kid, an unrepentant milquetoast, wailed as swaths of iodine-soaked bandages were being placed atop compromised flesh that would remain oozing and gruesome for weeks.

Several of my Dark Shadow crewmates were told in no uncertain terms by their pissed-off parents that they were no longer allowed to associate with me.

As for the Dark Shadow, it was totaled. Pieces of what had so recently been a fairly functional piece of misapplied engineering were strewn all over the wreck site — with the exception of one wheel that had continued unobstructed all the way to the bottom of Spring Hill, where its journey was not interrupted until it bounced across Cold Stream Drive and bowled over one of those lawn ornaments that looks like a beaming African-American midget dressed in bright-red jockey attire holding a lantern. The stray wheel beheaded the poor jockey and slammed violently into the screen door of a house owned by an old couple with a surly reputation, before bouncing off and coming to a final rest in a flower garden. Numerous petunias were killed as a result. The old couple, both members of which over the course of the next few minutes lived up to their reputation, were not pleased and demanded that someone reimburse them for the damages. They were staring straight at me as they uttered those words.

Even as the corporeal carnage was still being scraped from the street, an overzealous parent demanded that we all pitch in to remove the scattered corpse of the Dark Shadow from Spring Hill Drive, and, while we were doing so, one adult observed, almost casually, “Hey, those wheels look just like the ones on my utility trailer parked over yonder … ” His eyes squinted suspiciously.

And here I was, once again, perched atop Spring Hill, though, this time, on skis. Many of the same kids either involved in or witness to what became known far and wide as “the Dark Shadow incident” stood watching. Some of those kids were involuntarily rubbing the scarred remnants of lesions only recently healed. I asked Hank Senn to give me a shove. All it took was a nudge and I was speeding down the hill, riding boots so small my toes were scrunched up under my feet and skis that were scraping pavement as much as they were sliding upon snow, trying with all my might to avoid an encore presentation of the previous summer’s debacle. I was steeled with unshakeable resolve, relying upon muscle memory that was ingrained from my past life in the Adirondacks, back in a time when I was considered an up-and-coming talent on the slopes of Beartown Ski Area.

Just as I allowed myself to think that this descent of Spring Hill would end in a satisfyingly upright position, with zero in the way of medical trauma, the unthinkable happened. In the Confederacy, when it snows, even a little bit, the thought of driving is considered borderline insane. Generally, people who speak with a drawl wisely sit at home watching NASCAR and consuming bowls of grits until the white stuff melts. Which is good, because they wallow in absolute kinesthetic ignorance when it comes to the physics associated with movement atop terrestrial accumulations of frozen atmospheric water vapor. And this was, by regional standards, the storm of the decade. Nary an automobile was stirring. The unplowed roads were unsullied by internal combustion. But — par for my personal course — as I was fast approaching the very yard in which the diminutive beheaded lawn ornament yet stood — its charcoal-black noggin, visible above the snow line, re-attached via some manner of weather-resistant adherent — a domestic stationwagon the size of a battleship was swerving its way toward the intersection of Spring Hill and Cold Stream drives. Which was cause for concern, sure, but I felt I could maneuver enough to avoid impacting the one goddamned car in the entire goddamned state of goddamned Kentucky that was out and about on this snowy goddamned morning.

Then, of all the circumstances to interject their utter statistical improbability into my rapidly accelerating here and now, the stationwagon-in-question opted to turn onto Spring Hill Drive, setting up what clearly and quickly loomed as an unavoidable head-on collision with the substantial spawn of the pre-Arab-oil-embargo American automobile industry. It is accurate to observe that, of all the things the driver of this behemoth vehicle did not expect to encounter, it was a seventh-grader speeding down a hill in the opposite direction on skis. The facial expression of the driver — a dad-aged-looking guy wearing an Elmer Fudd headpiece — communicated unambiguous befuddlement. View-pods splayed. Jaw agape. Head tilted to one side. Mouth wrenched into a frozen expression of “what the hell?” Upon eyeballing the fast-approaching apparition, the driver did the exact worst thing he could have done: He tried to swerve out of the way, which only caused his mammoth stationwagon to start fishtailing up the slippery hill. As a result, my impact-avoidance calculations were further complicated by a moving target.


My previous calm comportment was definitely disrupted. I felt my control wavering. But I did not repeat my Dark Shadow behavior. Neither did I maintain a near-perfect track down Spring Hill Drive. I started fishtailing, too. So, at that point, we had 3,000 pounds of steel zigzagging its way uphill and maybe 120 pounds of kid zigzagging his way down. Just before I splatted onto the grate of the stationwagon like a large grasshopper, I pulled hard to the left and, without intention, found myself proceeding along the lip of the street performing a move that in ski ballet circles is known as a Reuel Christie, wherein one ski rises up from behind, shooting skyward as high as hip flexion will allow, while the other ski remains bound tenuously to terra firma. My poles were also raised high, like I was signaling a touchdown. It is important to note that I had never previously performed a Reuel Christie and had no idea what a Reuel Christie was, having never heard of one or seen one executed. It just happened spontaneously. As we passed in what seemed like slow motion, the snotty noses of numerous wide-eyed children were pressed to the side windows. In that fleeting moment — mere millimeters separating my very shriveled testicles from a protruding door handle — I hoped they all became inspired by the extemporaneous physiological manifestation of my desperation to follow whatever idiotic athletic aspirations they might have harbored. Bull riding, maybe. Or cliff diving.

That I did not cartwheel the rest of the way down Spring Hill is testament to the enduring power of adrenaline.



This is what a Reuel Christie is supposed to look like. This Wikipedia Commons photo was not taken in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Once I was out of danger, I regained my balance and came to something resembling a dignified hockey stop in the exact yard where, the previous summer, one of the Dark Shadow’s stolen wheels had beheaded an innocent lawn decoration. Verily, my front ski came within a whisker of impacting that same jockey, which seemed to wince at my approach and breathe a sigh of relief when I came to rest.

As I was hyperventilating, absolutely stunned that things had turned out so well, I heard the loudest horn this side of a Scottish lighthouse blaring behind me. I turned to see the very same stationwagon that had almost killed me 30 seconds prior careening backwards down Spring Hill, sliding directly to the spot where I stood, its engine revving well above redline and its rear wheels spinning ineffectually. It had failed to successfully negotiate its ascent of snow-covered Spring Hill Drive. The slickness of the road, combined with tires not exactly designed for Arctic conditions, combined with a driver who ought not be allowed to so much as touch his car keys between October and April, all had conspired to thwart the vehicle’s uphill progress. Frickin’ physics, biting me on the ass yet again. By the time it crossed Cold Spring Drive, the stationwagon was yawing its way across every available ordinal component of the “X” axis.

It is hard for the body to manufacture a second dose of adrenaline on such short notice. I tried to sprint to safety, but my feet were still locked in unwaxed skis that were doing nothing more than shuffling back and forth like I was in a gym on one of those stupid NordicTrack exercise machines. I was making no headway whatsoever. Then, frantically, I double-poled out of the way as the car slid to a stop an arm’s length from the front door of the house occupied by that same surly old couple. The back bumper missed me by the slimmest of margins. It did not, however, miss the midget lawn ornament, which yet again bore the indirect brunt of my misguided leisure pursuits. In addition to, sadly, having its body crushed, it once more found itself beheaded. I mean, what are the chances? If that unfortunate statuette bore so much as a scintilla of sentience, I’m sure it was thinking — its disembodied noodle lying face down in the snow — “People, please move me to a different spot!”

Much in the way of resultant yelling, name-calling and threats of legal action ensued between the driver, his wife and the surly old couple that owned the now-demolished midget jockey. It wasn’t long before all index fingers were pointed directly at me. And I’m off to the side thinking, “Son of a bitch, all I wanted to do was ski down Spring Hill Drive.” For the millionth time, my mom and stepdad got a phone call from someone blaming me for something. This marked one of the few times when I could honestly argue innocence. Not that it mattered. I was in the parental doghouse, where I more or less permanently resided during my entire two-and-a-half-year tenure in Frankfort, Kentucky.

I walked home and put my skis — one of the last palpable remnants of my previous life in the Adirondacks — away in a cobwebby corner of the basement. I don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they got left behind when we moved from Frankfort to the marsh country of eastern Virginia the next summer. Whatever the fate of those skis, it became apparent that, through no fault of my own, I was then a Southerner. Might as well get used to saying, “y’all.” At least until I was old enough to cut the chains.

My dog Casey and I walked over to Westgate subdivision after having visited the house — now a real estate office — in which our family lived when I was in the sixth and seventh grades. We ambled up Spring Hill Drive. It seemed topographically benign, like maybe it had been graded down in the intervening decades. Then again, I have lived for 40 years in the heart of the Mountain Time Zone and carry with me a very well defined perspective toward the concept of vertical terrain.

The house at the bottom of Spring Hill, where the surly couple dwelled, is still there, but the yard is free of any tasteless ornaments. During my week-long stay in Frankfort, I was tempted to purchase a lawn jockey — I’m certain they are still available in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country — and place it in the yard in the dead of night, hoping that, when the sun rose, it would leave behind a very distinct dark shadow.



Something like this.