There is a certain magic that comes with the first snow of a good year; a magic that does not fade with age, nor one that can be tainted by a looming pandemic.
Wednesday's snowfall in Lexington brought the magic back to a campus where students are feeling shuttered and isolated. With the sun down, University of Kentucky students took to the slopes outside of William T. Young Library for a traditional night of sledding, joy and temporary normalcy.
“This is what I imagined,” said William Seay of his experience. "That is how college should feel, just a good time, kind of wild."
Seay and his girlfriend, Alexandria Adkins - both freshmen - ventured out in the snow to sled and build a snowman.
Adkins said it was nice to be able to go out and see people being people.
"It’s seeing campus in a different light cause usually it’s not very busy," Adkins said.
Nearing 11:30 p.m., at least 150 students were gathered at the top of Willy T.'s hill sledding or cheering on friends. Many were maskless and few were maintaining social distancing, but that went mostly unnoticed and dampened no one's spirits.
“It’s not super great that not everyone’s social distancing, but it’s nice to see people having a good time and on the college campus itself,” Seay said.
Collisions and false starts were common as students slid down in chains. The three inches of snow that had settled in late afternoon were quickly worn away to grass and mud, but that didn't stop eager participants.
Many students said it was worth the late night and bearing the cold to be able to participate in the fun.
"I don’t know what a normal college experience is, so we’re making it what it is," said OR, a freshman who asked to be identified by initials only because of his campus leadership position.
OR was one of a few brave souls to go down the hill in both a wheelchair and a motorized scooter, both of which he said were fun.
“I don’t know who brought it out, but it was offered to me and I went down twice,” OR said of the wheelchair. He rented the scooter himself with encouragement from a “certain fraternity.”
Upperclassmen returned to the hill because they knew from past years it was the place to be; newer students saw posts on Snapchat that brought them to the bowl.
“I actually just came out with my roommate and we made friends,” OR said. He said the crowd was biggest around 8 p.m., though numbers waxed and waned throughout the evening.
The library lawn is a traditional gathering spot on snow days. Sledding, too, is tradition, as is the motley assortment of what could (in generous terms) be called sleds.
Students surfed on cardboard, campus yard signs, kitchen trays; in plastic storage boxes and in laundry baskets; riding a wheelchair, motorized scooters and a singular attempt inside of a metal trashcan plucked from outside the library.
“Just spontaneous, decided to do stupid stuff together like teenage boys should,” OR said of the sledding.
People and puppies alike frolicked in their first ever experience with snow as students took advantage of a rare opportunity to be a part of campus life.
"I’d never seen the snow," said Savannah Evans, a freshman from Santa Rosa.
Evans had all online classes in the fall and said she was happy to be out and feeling like a part of UK.
“This is like the first time to be able to connect with people on campus and meet people and have the college experience,” Evans said.
That sense of normalcy was desperately needed by students. Just three days into the spring semester, many expressed hopes that this could be a new leaf for the school year.
UK student Daniel Shirey said resuming the tradition of sledding at Willy T. "stabilizes us and brings us back to normal."
Shirey and a friend, Austin, were building a small ramp as the crowd dwindled.
Austin said sledding was refreshing instead of "being cooped up all the time, and being able to get outside and do something."
The pair made a night out of it, even investing in more permanent supplies.
"We’ve been here so long and went and bought sleds," Austin said. They nabbed the last two available in the nearby Kroger.
Shirey added that the impromptu gathering didn't feel out of place in a year upended by COVID-19.
“It feels not like COVID, like this is kind of how things are,” Seay echoed.
By 12:30 a.m., the crowd had thinned to just Daniel and Austin - no longer sledding, but instead cleaning up the debris left behind by a raucous crowd. When plastic box shards, dampened "social distancing" signs and a couple of liquor bottles were disposed of, the night was once again still and silent.
And then - around the corner, a group of stragglers arrived fresh out of bed with undaunted enthusiasm and plastic toboggans. Late to the party, perhaps, but ready to make one of their own.