Over the years I have heard people say that the hill on the north side of Rosenblatt Stadium was at one time the best sledding hill in Omaha. It wasn’t. But I wouldn’t have hesitated to give it the silver medal for second place. That was before someone had the bright idea to level out and pave the northernmost half of the hill.
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Without a doubt, the best sledding hill in Omaha is about three-quarters of mile south of Rosenblatt on 13th Street. Hook a sharp right at Spring Lake Drive and there she is. I try to avoid traveling back to Omaha (from Colorado) in the winter, but as far as I know, the hill in Spring Lake Park is still the bomb diggety.
Sledding as a kid
When I was a kid the snow riding vehicle of choice was a tube, not those decorative little over-sized vinyl floaties with handles you see on the hills today. We used real tubes from real trucks. It’s important that you know Omaha, especially South Omaha, is a pretty big hub for truckers. That meant we had an ample supply of truck tubes.
Just down the street from my house was a place that repaired tires. My buddies and I would keep an eye on the scrap pile after hours and pull out the truck tubes that we knew had potential. We would take the tubes home and patch them up and give them new life.
As hard as we tried, we could never get all the grime off the tubes with a garden hose. So until we rubbed them clean on the snow, those first few runs were slow going. We made quite a mess of our coats – and the snow – as we glided in prone position down the slopes. Once you wore all the nasty tire residue off the tubes, they would cruise down the hill with the speed and grace of a Lincoln Continental.
The trouble with the Spring Lake Park hill was that everyone knew it was so good. That meant that about three hours after sunrise on the day after a snowstorm, the snow was rubbed down to bare dirt and grass.
The hill at Rosenblatt
It was times like these that we relied on Plan B and headed over to Rosenblatt. It’s a short shot by car, but before any of us could drive this meant trudging across sometimes unshoveled sidewalks up hills with big honking tubes draped over our shoulders. But we were kids with the need for speed, so off to Rosenblatt we would go. The thing about the hill at Rosenblatt was that it faced due north. And it had pretty big berms built into the side of it for erosion control. That translated into big snow and big air.
The problem with the berms was that snow would drift into the leeward side. In order to keep from bogging down in the drifts we had to dig out the troughs of the berms by hand. It didn’t take long to figure out we could make some hellacious kickers on the top of these berms.
Starting at the top, we would run like bobsledders for the first twenty or thirty feet then dive onto our tubes then zip down the hill at blazing speed. It’s amazing nobody ever broke their back with the height we got as we launched off the kickers like bullfrogs and slammed back to down to the snow.
Oddly, around the time my buddies and I began to drive we sort of lost interest in wintertime tubing. I guess it’s because spinning cookies in vacant parking lots like Bo and Luke Duke was so much more fun.
When we were in our early twenties, my friend Tom bought a 1978 full-size Ford Bronco with a lift kit and oversized tires. One dark, blustery night he called me up a few hours after a snowstorm began pounding the Big O. He told me to put on some warm clothes and that he would be over shortly.
When I climbed up into the passenger seat a few minutes later, he tossed me a beer and proclaimed, “We’re going four-wheeling!”
We buzzed around the vacant streets of South O climbing the biggest, steepest hills we could find. The thrill wore off about three beers into our adventure. We found ourselves at the base of the hill on Rosenblatt’s north side.
“We’re going for it!,” Tom announced without hesitation.
Tom was always the daredevil in our little band of brothers. I knew instantly what he meant and I knew he was serious, so I buckled my seatbelt.
By this time, a good five to six inches of wet, heavy snow had blanketed the area and there was no sign of it letting up anytime soon. The drifts on the uphill side of those berms were now close to a foot deep.
The berm closest to the bottom must have been pretty small because we scaled right over it like a deer clearing a barbed-wire fence. Berm number two wouldn’t be so easy. By the time the front tires neared the crest, we were reclined back like astronauts preparing for lift off. Had the arched Rosenblatt sign been installed above the left field bleachers at the time, we would have been staring directly at it.
Seconds later we could only see snow as the front end plummeted into the drift on the back side of the berm. Tom gunned it and we rocked back in our seats as we began the next ascent – momentarily. As we inched up the hill, the back tires plunged into the drift. At this point, the steepness of the hill offered the front wheels no traction. I couldn’t overcome the feeling that things were starting to go wrong.
The Bronco lunged forward a few times only to back-slide into the trough of the berm. We repeated this sequence several times before Tom decided it was time to back down the hill. Good idea, I thought at the time.
The “Oh Shit!” moment
As the driving snow, awkward angles and a beer buzz worked collectively to impair our vision, something happened as Tom attempted to guide the craft out of the drift. The back wheels were now leading us downhill but they couldn’t quite pull us over the hump. As he juiced the accelerator a little more our angle began to shift. Our vision slanted from the left field fence toward center field as the front end of the Bronco wiggled in counter-clockwise fashion down the hill toward the east.
You may have heard of the “Aha!” moment popularized by an Omaha insurance company. This was our “oh shit!” moment. I can’t help but thinking this had to be quite a hysterical sight for motorists passing along on nearby Interstate 80.
There we were, parked in a snow drift a third of the way up the hill on the back side of Rosenblatt. Snow all around us, no phone, beer on our breath and clear evidence of how we got into this predicament in the tire tracks leading up the hill behind us.
It took a while, but we persevered. Armed with only our gloved hands, a snow scraper and an empty 12-pack container we began to dig our way out. About thirty minutes later we were back at the bottom, where a gently sloped parking lot now sits, reassessing the hair-brained scheme.