When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I’ll know I’m growing old.
~Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson
I have to admit, that describes me. I love snow and winter – I know, I am outside the norm on this one, but I do. And my first snow of the season happened over Thanksgiving, in the mountains of Virgina, at my parent’s home near Damascus. Actually, it happened on the way up the day before Thanksgiving. It had been raining when I left Pittsboro, then turned sunny, and then I started to hit snow near Boone as I climbed in elevation. Somehow, driving in it is a bit less thrilling, mainly because of concern about the other drivers out there. But when you have the chance to walk in it, to watch it fall from the sky, to see it start to turn the world white – that is a thrill.
There was little snow when I first arrived in Damascus. But it snowed overnight, and was lightly snowing on Thanksgiving morning, so I headed down to the river after breakfast to just be in it. Unfortunately, the big flakes that had been falling as we sat at the table and ate, turned to tiny specks of ice, and then disappeared altogether, about the time I headed out. But a quiet walk in fresh snow, even a light snow, is rewarding.
The next night it snowed again, replenishing the light covering on the ground that had melted the afternoon before.
Every morning when I am there, I grab a cup of coffee and head up the long driveway to get the newspaper. A nice ritual that allows me time to appreciate the early morning light, the birds, and the sky. There is an old barn near the road that, although my folks think is perhaps due for repair or replacement, has always appealed to me. It seems to fit the landscape so well and speaks of hard work and the passage of time. I frequently stop and take a picture or two with my phone because it is such a quintessential rural scene. The first morning there was patchy snow on the ground, but the second morning added some high, thin clouds, and that made all the difference when viewed in black and white.
The snow melted quickly Friday with the bright sunshine but I could see nearby mountains still covered in white, especially the aptly named Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in Virgina. So, the next morning as I was heading hone, I took the longer route through the mountains, hoping to see a bit more of a winter wonderland. The winter mood was certainly in evidence as I drove because of the workers busily harvesting Christmas trees to be shipped to market. There must be thousands of acres of tree farms in these mountains, a phenomenon of the past few decades that has significantly altered the landscape and local economy. When I reached the gravel road up to Whitetop, I could see that it was much less white than the day before, with most of the snow and ice that had been coating the trees now gone. Plus, the steep winding road was very icy, so I opted for another location, nearby Grayson Highlands State Park.
The road up into the park had been scraped and temperatures had reached the mid-forties by late morning, so travel was easy . But there was still a good amount of snow on the ground – at last, real snow.
Arriving at the end of the open section of road at Massie Gap, I found a half dozen other cars and bout 6 inches of snow on the ground. This is my favorite Virgina state park and one of my favorite areas in the eastern U.S.
The trail up from Massie Gap reminds me more of Montana than an eastern mountain trail. There are large rock outcrops, open grasslands, and scattered patches of Red Spruce. The shrub layer is almost entirely huckleberry, and is a favorite hiking spot in August when the tasty fruit ripen.
Even though temperatures were rising and the sun was bright, it still felt like winter as I hiked up the trail. The wind was blowing and had that unmistakable bite to it as is so often the case in these highlands. As I walked my eyes turned to the ground and those intricate details that only wind and snow can create, ephemeral sculptures and miniature landscapes that often go unnoticed unless you happen to be walking in a stiff wind, head down to protect your face from the stinging cold. Below are a few photos of the patterns created by wind and snow.
The walk was a great way to gain perspective, to think, to appreciate sensations. The writer and naturalist Edwin Way Teale summed up my strange love of winter nicely…
Of the four seasons, spring entices, summer makes you welcome, autumn gives you a lingering farewell, but winter remains aloof. We think of it as harsh and uncompromising. We speak of the dead months, the night of the year, the return of the ice age, the winter of our discontent. Yet, paradoxically, in its own way, winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step.
Here’s to many more walks with quick steps and racing blood…