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Wednesday, 23 December 2009 13:45

Skiing the Blue Ridge: A newcomer’s tale

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So the snow is coming down in sheets Friday, and Bethany says, “Do you think it’s going to be real snow?”

We just moved to Waynesville from northern Wisconsin in November, so at that point we’d largely disregarded the previous 24 hours of weather-related hysteria on the news. In our Northern minds snow falls in eight-inch bunches making the world soft and quiet and white and you get up in the morning and go for a ski. The flat kind of skiing. Cross-country skiing.

You don’t rush to the grocery store to purchase distilled water and white bread, and you don’t throw Sno Melt at the asphalt patch in front of your house in the hope of preserving a parking space.

You get your lamps ready in case it’s heavy and the trees come down on the power lines, you build a fire and then you watch it come down. When it’s all fallen, you dig your car out and go have fun.

So on Saturday morning, we got up and had coffee and then I drove to our storage container to get our skis and snowshoes. Our plan was to go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway because we’d heard it closes and people go skiing there.

My first inkling that this storm was out of the ordinary was the post-apocalyptic state of the roads on the way to our storage space. No one was driving except a handful of guys in their big-ass trucks. In Wisconsin, all of those trucks would have had plow blades on the front, but here it looked like they were just out driving because they could. The stores were all shut, and there was no place to park.

Anyway, I got into the storage space and out with our gear and came home to get ready. We had to dig out all of our winter gear, which had been neatly boxed up and relegated to darker regions, because in truth, we sort of didn’t believe we were going to see any snow down here.

It took us a while to get all suited up and by the time we were ready to go, our next door neighbor was getting ready to go sledding at a friend’s house. That was a funny interaction.

“What are those?” he said, pointing to the cross-country ski boots in our hands.

I explained the concept.

“So it’s like ice skating on the snow?”

It is actually. At its best, it is. He was going sledding in jeans, something I used to do as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., and which I don’t do anymore. In fact, having lived through the tenth coldest winter in Wisconsin’s history, I can readily say that the difference between people who live in the cold and people who don’t is mainly the knowledge that how you dress makes a huge difference.

I know there’s a lot of people down here from New England and the Upper Midwest and even right here in the Smokies who know how to cross country ski and all that, but I’m just saying it was a funny scene leaving our condo building clad in Gore Tex and carrying skis with people looking at us like we had just walked off the set of “Into Thin Air.”

We drove through Hazelwood and onto the Smoky Mountain Expressway at Exit 100. The expressway was plowed clear and there was light traffic, but the shoulders were completely mounded in snow and every mile or so there was a car in the ditch, looking impossibly far from the road and totally plowed in.

We thought the trip would be easy and there would be a lot of cars parked on the access road to the Parkway, but when we got there the access road was inaccessible, totally plowed in just like the hopeless cars in the ditches. One lone Hummer perched atop the snowbank.

A guy in an SUV in front of us pulled over to the shoulder, so we pulled behind him. He pulled a snowboard out of the back and howled loudly into the air. I started to get excited.

We were pretty much into our skis when the state Highway Patrol came by and told us through the loudspeaker that we couldn’t park on the shoulder and told us to move our vehicles. Great.

So we pulled off again and drove up to the U-turn just on the other side of where the Parkway crosses over U.S. 23/74. As we were waiting to turn around, a team of friends was trying to dig one of those hopelessly plowed-in vehicles out of the shoulder to our right. Across the road, a DOT truck was supervising the loading of a giant road grader equipped with a plow blade onto the back of a flatbed.

On a little side road just below the train tracks, a lone red Subaru was parked, and we watched a woman step into her skis and head north along the tracks. I made the U-turn so we were heading back north on 23/74, and I missed the turn off to the side road because I was worried about the trucks bearing down on me from behind.

We ended up doing two more U-turns and then we were there, safe, parked in back of the red Subaru a quarter mile from the Parkway.

From there, we stepped into our skis and followed the tracks along the railbed up to the ranger station driveway there and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam Gap.

It was snowing again as we set off up the hill. A fine wet snow close to sleet. Just as we got going, a young woman on skis came around a bend and glided towards us followed by an old hound dog up to his shoulder in the snow. When we were even with them, we exchanged greetings and moved on. The hound dog turned around and came with us. We passed another young woman who was walking down the hill with a dog and continued upward in the tracks of the woman in the red Subaru.

Once my lungs opened up and we were past the first overlook area, I stopped. It was slowgoing in the heavy deep stuff and it felt really good. I looked around and it was quiet, the giant icicles hanging from the gaping wet stone on the mountainside.

I thought of the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snowman:”

“One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow ...”

We overtook the woman in the Subaru at the second overlook. She had us snap a picture of her with her phone and then we were on up the hill making fresh tracks. The pitch got steeper and the snow deeper. The even grade of the Parkway is miraculous. It’s something you’re not used to in cross-country skiing. In Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the ground is undulating, never the same angle underfoot.

In the deep snow on the steady pitch of the Parkway you could reach a beautiful rhythm with the compression of your skis, so that it almost felt like walking across the moon bounce at the carnival.

That hound dog stayed with us the whole way until we started to worry for him. He was old but he looked happy. He hardly used his eyes at all, keeping his nose down close to the snow and moving from scent to scent always uphill.

The only time he left the road was to plunge down the side of steep bank towards a fast-moving stream. I could tell he wanted water, but he couldn’t figure out how to get a drink without falling in so he rejoined us.

We made it only just to the Standing Rock Overlook on the parkway. Both of us were tired and sweaty and exhilarated. We probably should have gone further. No telling when the chance will come again, but it was hard to know what the descent would be like.

It’s an amazing feeling to be in the middle of that road without another track around you, looking down at the snow-covered roofs nestled in the cove, the smoke trails rising from their brick chimneys.

The way down was magic, too. Our skis tracked beautifully and we glided effortlessly, zipping along to the sound of the fish scale bottoms of the skis on the surface of the snow. I kicked and glided, leaned diagonally over my skis, and thought of my neighbor’s comparison to ice skating on snow.

I’ve never gotten into skate skiing and that ski on the parkway on Saturday was as close as I have ever come to ice skating on the snow.

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