Fall 2017 | 25 Taming The Cheetah Afraid of dying, intimidated by a machine that promised dismemberment if operated incorrectly, and petrified of the guilt I would feel if something terrible happened while carrying one of my siblings as a passenger. At first, no one made too much of the fact that I would not partake in any festivities involving the snowmobile, but as winter ebbed and flowed it’s snowy course people began to take notice and the taunts began. “He doesn’t like the snowmobile, either that or he doesn’t like us,” my oldest sister Paula would jeer. “Are you going to ride this weekend Porter, or are you still afraid?” became the refrain at the morning bus stop. My mom even got into the act, telling me, “I think you should at least give it a try.” She went on to explain that it was not the snowmobile that cost a man his life six years ago, but a lack of common sense in that the lake had only been frozen over for a couple of days when the men decided to take a vehicle out on what was probably only a couple of inches of ice. She suggested I see if they had anything in the school library to research regarding ice formation and pointed out that if cars and trucks were driving around out on the lake, then I could be pretty sure that it was safe for a snowmobile. While I felt somewhat reassured by her explanation, I wasn’t convinced. After some reflection, I decided to take my mom’s advice and began looking into how to properly and safely operate a snowmobile, and tried to research snow conditions and ice formation. The school library did not have much to offer, and the librarian suggested I head over to the police station, which was within walking distance from school, and talk to someone there. I was able to find a snowmobile safety manual, talk to the officers on duty and I learned that a snowmobile should never be operated on less than six inches of ice, that ice depth should always be tested in several places prior to going out onto any frozen body of water, that slush and soft spots around the shoreline and around any pressure ridges or cracks are to be avoided. I learned the importance of wearing the proper protective equipment, and used the money I had saved from my paper route to purchase a purple metal flake helmet. I began reviewing the safety manual that came with the Cheetah, and made secret visits to the barn to familiarize myself with the sled’s controls, find the proper seating position and perfect mix of gas and oil that went into the fuel tank. It was a slow process, and I continued to endure being ridiculed by my siblings and by my peers. What I did not realize at the time was that I was learning to build confidence and take the needed steps to accomplish my goal on my own terms, a pattern that I have repeated on many occasions throughout my life. By the time February vacation arrived, I felt ready to put fear aside and take my first ride on the Cheetah. I waited until the first weekend of vacation was over and picked a day in the middle of the week to try my hand at snowmobiling. I lucked out and got a day with bright sunshine and comfortable temperatures. I turned down the opportunity to go on a family shopping trip so that I could have the sled to myself. I donned the gear that I had laid out the night before, my honeycomb long underwear, snow pants, boots, jacket, gloves and my candy purple helmet. Normally, my father started the sled up for my brothers and sisters, but I insisted on doing this myself. I did as the man who had delivered the Cheetah had said and flipped up the lever on the dash to give the sled some choke. On the third pull of the starter rope, the Cheetah rumbled to life. As she warmed up a bit, I returned the choke lever to the off position. I buckled my helmet chinstrap and heaved a sigh as I thought about how I should approach this first ride. I decided I would take the sled down to the lake where it was flat so that I could just get a feel for how to operate this beast. That meant that I had to descend the hill behind the house, but had familiarized myself in theory with operation of the sled’s brake and knew I would have to hold and release the brake lever as the momentum of the machine carried me down the hill. The snow was pretty deep that last week in February, and if I strayed from the trail that had been packed from continuous use, large plumes of snow would waft up over the hood and windshield and sugarcoat my helmet and face shield. I made my way around the house and jerked my way down the hill, squeezing the brake pucks against the rotor and stopping the sled when I felt like I was gaining too much speed. I stopped at the bottom of the hill, turned the handlebars to the right, and gave the sled enough throttle to move toward the lake through a break in the trees. Fortunately, there was a path already defined and packed so I didn’t have to guess as to the best route onto the ice. The snow on the lake was windblown, the peaks and valleys whipped like meringue on a pie. I eased the throttle lever toward the handlebar and off I went. Though the chrome- rimmed speedometer went clear to eighty miles per hour, I found that my comfort level was about one quarter of that and decided to stay under twenty mph. I practiced my turns, both right and left, learning that on a sled of this vintage that you either had to slow down or lean heavily into the turn in order to keep the sled on its line through the corner. Once I began to get comfortable, the realization set in that I actually was enjoying the wind buffeting my helmet and the sun making the snow sparkle like a diamond encrusted moonscape. I had conquered my fear and discovered a new way to enjoy winter. I began to make regular practice runs, never going too far, never exceeding my comfort zone and always focusing on safe riding technique. I am proud to say that I have been a fairly regular rider since that winter of 1978, and have never had an accident or a breakdown on the trail. I always smile when I think of that time in my life and all that I learned taming the Cheetah.