Since breaking her hip a year ago, Margaret Hartwell, 76, has gone through many forms of rehabilitation therapy. But until last month, blasting down an icy slope at 30 miles an hour in a giant inner tube had not been one of them.
In fact, Hartwell, who grew up on a ranch in Florida, had never in her life skied, sledded or even made a snow angel. But she noticed that Asbury Methodist Village, a 1,300-person retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md., where she takes classes, was offering a snow tubing trip to Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa.
Without mentioning it to her children, so as not to worry them, Hartwell signed up.
"I'm going to tell my kids, 'This is what I did,' " after the fact, she said. "You know the saying: 'It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.' "
The retirement community started offering snow tubing trips two years ago after its sister community in Pennsylvania began doing it. The first year, only a dozen or so signed up. Last year, there were more. And this year, 23 went, including a few guests like Hartwell who don't live at Asbury.
Ranging in age from 57 to 90, most had never snow tubed before. All but three were women, some of whom had unsuccessfully tried to persuade their husbands to accompany them.
"He's from Louisiana -- snow doesn't turn him on," Jan Lafleur, 82, said of her husband. "I'm all dressed, and he said, 'You're not really serious, are you?' " But for Lafleur, the idea stirred something from childhood. "I'm from Ohio, and I used to love to play in the snow."
And it didn't seem risky. "These two friends in their 90s who've done it before, they said it was fun; they said it was safe, and they said there are two big, strapping young men who help you in and out," Lafleur recalled.
Virginia Phillips, who at 90 was the oldest participant this year, said she was worried about getting out of the tube at the bottom but not worried enough to stay away.
"I love doing this kind of thing," she said. Like many, she had never tried the sport before because, "I never heard of it before."
Wearing blue hats for easy identification, members of the group grabbed inner tubes and approached the first challenge: the conveyor belt that would take them up the slope.
"Put an aggressive foot forward, and then ride it like a surfboard," the lift operator barked.
Not entirely helpful; many had never ridden a surfboard. Nor did they possess particularly aggressive feet. One or two fell the first time up but most got the hang of the belt. And those who didn't found creative alternatives, such as leaning on an Asbury staff member or even hiking up the hill.
At the top, the snow gleamed white and the bottom of the 900-foot-long run seemed far away. The Asbury group stood together in their blue hats as children and teenagers shot down the hill on their bellies.
"This is really hard-packed, so you really get to twirling," said Barbara Ellis, 73, a veteran snow tuber who attended Asbury outings last year and the year before. She originally signed up as a way to meet people shortly after moving in. Now she is hooked and did not let titanium in her back and knees dissuade her. (Her husband, a former Olympic skier, was not interested in tubing.)
"Sit in it like a chair," the assistant at the top of the run advised the first-timers. With the practiced air of someone who has sat in many chairs, Phillips eased herself into the tube, and the man tipped her over the edge.
The inner tube barreled down, spinning as it gathered speed. When it leveled off at the end, Phillips was helped out of her tube, unfazed.
"I did it!" she said with an air of pride. "I knew it would be fun, and it was."
Margaret Hoyle, who is in her 80s, had to persuade her friend Phyllis Bloomberg to come along.
"I wouldn't go -- I was scared," said Bloomberg, 82, who was wearing a fur muff over her blue hat.
But riding in tandem with Hoyle, whom she has known since both were pregnant together in Rockville, Md., more than 50 years ago, gave her courage, and soon the two were heading back up the hill for repeat runs. In fact, many of the participants preferred to go down strapped together in groups of three and four because it made them go faster.
"Oh, man, this is so much fun," said Ann Lindley, 74, another participant whose husband had not come along. "It's like a bird -- you're flying, you're free. It's just exhilarating."
Donnie Engstrom, the lift operator at the top, said this was the first time he had seen a group of snow tubers this age. "If they're able to do it, they should," he said. "It's good exercise, and it makes you feel like a kid again."
At the bottom, several participants sat around a large fire pit. Two runs had been enough for Teresa Ma. "Tonight, I will sleep very well," she said.
There had been one accident. Shirley Moore, 71, a veteran of the two earlier trips who is blind, hurt her ankle when it struck the barrier wall of snow that she could not see on her way down.
A former marathon runner, Moore was less worried about her injury than about it scaring off future participants. "You know, some of the other people were apprehensive, and I said, 'There's no way you can get hurt.' So I'm thinking of lying when I get off the bus, because I know they'll have such a good time," she said.
Riding the bus home, Hartwell, the Florida ranch girl, was triumphant. "I feel myself again. It's the first time I don't feel like a recovering invalid," she said. An active hiker before she broke her hip, she has had to use a cane since the injury. But she had a feeling about snow tubing, that it was the right time.
"I think mostly people know what their body can and can't do, and if I had been apprehensive, I wouldn't have done it," she said. "I want to get back to where I was -- I want my life back. And today was a good start."