Monday, Feb. 17, 2003, 3:11 AM

Sledding at midnight

One more cup of tea before bed, kiddies. It's just past midnight and I have just returned from sled riding in the foot of snow that has poured forth from the sky since early this morning in an unbroken curtain of white. They say that being number one is a good thing. I am here to disagree. When you are the first person sled riding it sucks. It means that you have to sit on your butt and propel yourself forward with your hands, smashing the snow solid beneath your weight. The hillside unblemished like fresh parchment, rolling out beneath you in all directions. The snow spinning in cyclones beneath the streetlights. The gentle hiss of falling snow all around. The stoplights changing from green to yellow to red and back, lonely for the company of cars. And there you stand at the top of a hill with a red plastic sled in your hand.

Throw it down, plop your butt squarely in the middle, cross your legs and feel like dinner sitting on a platter. A hand plunges into the snow on either side, halfway to the elbow, and then a grunt and a push and you're on your way sliding and crunching. You lean backwards, teetering on the edge of flipping, in an attempt to keep the fresh powder from spilling into your lap instead of being bulldozed into a frozen pathway. A few feet, maybe a dozen if the hill is steep enough, before your arms tire from the exercise and you crunch to a stop. Now it is time to blaze a new trail in the opposite direction back up the hill. At the top your breath escapes your mouth in clouds and you survey your progress. The initial run has carved a short concave flume in the otherwise pristine surface of the blanket of snow. Almost as if some passing giant mistook the hill for vanilla ice cream and ran his scoop across the surface.

Now the fun begins. The path, smashed flat and glittering, waits to receive you. This time your arms need only to break the inertia of your resting body before gravity takes over, pulling you downhill until you once again lean back and blaze a trail in the fresh powder. The cycle starts again and the trail gets longer and faster, the walk up gets longer and slower, and you butt is cold from sitting with only a piece of plastic between it and the snow. Midnight sledding is the best, even if you are first. Even if you have to blaze the trail. Even if you have to trudge home to remove your wet clothes, make yourself tea, take a hot shower, and sleep alone.