Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One small step

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the first American manned space flight. This morning I went for a run. I jogged across the field at Bluemont park in the flat early morning light. The brown winter grass was covered with frost. No one else was around; the only sound was my feet crunching the ground. It felt very much like taking a jog on another planet. If a local park can feel this otherworldly, what must the real experience of being in space be like?

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Virginian Canaan, 2012

Canaan Valley is a place of mixed signals. On the one hand, it gives off a feeling that its best times, the boom times of coal extraction and timber harvesting, are behind it. Driving along one sees tumbledown shacks and dilapidated mobile homes, and many of the storefronts in the towns of Thomas and Davis stand empty. The area’s amazing natural beauty has, however, given it a second wind as a mountain resort town, though when bad luck hits – like this year’s snowless winter – that wind dies down to an asthmatic breeze. Still, the towns offer an enticing mix of mountain bike shops, art galleries, small inns, antiques, and funky restaurants. The proprietors tend to be outdoorsy types themselves, more friendly to visitors than mountain-folk stereotypes would lead you to expect. It was this post-coal mountain paradise that served, as usual, as the destination for my kayaking friends’ annual ski trip.

Except this year the ski trip wasn’t a ski trip. It’s been an almost snowless winter up in Canaan, and so the days leading up to the trip were filled with a flurry of emails about alternate activities – all involving the outdoors, food, alcohol, and relaxation. No one was concerned that the lack of snow would hinder our good time.

Thursday night: I arrive after the long drive out from Tysons Corner, including a few death-defying moments on the twisties of the West Virginia roads. We’ve rented a bunch of rooms at the Bright Morning Inn, plus Doc’s Guest House behind it. I drop off my bags in my room and head across to Doc’s. Nelson & Caroline, Dave & Cyndi, Rob and Peter 1 are already there. They give me grief because I’m still dressed for work (hey, I took off the tie). I retreat to my room to change, pick up a veggie burrito from Hellbender Burritos across the street, then return to hang out.

Friday: The day’s plan is to hike the Canyon Rim trail. But first there’s a kind of leisurely breakfast at the inn. I remember the waitress from last year. She’s a college student who works there on the weekends. She’s majoring in nutrition – a funny major for someone who spends her weekends serving huge plates of bacon and eggs, French toast, and breakfast burritos.

By morning our group had grown by two people: we added Mike & Allison. I had met Allison at kayaking rolling sessions but hadn’t met Mike before. The group did the Canyon Rim Trail as a loop hike, covering maybe eight miles on a mix of trails and forest roads. The weather was amazing for February – crisp, but warm enough that we all had our jackets off. The trail was squishy and muddy in spots with melted precipitation, but not too bad. As we hiked the edges of the trail I passed along Teddy’s admonition about Leave No Trace Hiking – that you really should stick to the trail, no matter how gloppy, to avoid mucking up and widening the edges (thereby leaving a trace, or not leaving no trace - whatever). In response I got a lot of shrugs.

Lunch along the Canyon Rim Trail
The trail had some nice features: a tall observation tower to climb, a couple of nice canyon views. We paused for a lunch break at one of the canyon views. At my instigation we paused to try and find a geocache, but despite climbing up higher on the rocks than I really felt comfortable with, we were not successful in finding it. At the end of our hike we stopped off to gawk up close at the gigantic wind turbines of a local wind farm.

Friday night brought the arrival of the rest of the group: Jen and Suzanne, Leslie and Mark (kayak racer friends of Cyndi’s), Peter 2 and Gina. Friday also brought our great group feast. First, at Cyndi’s direction, lots of people had brought cheese for a cheese tasting. We had so, so much cheese: gouda, goat, buffalo mozzarella, manchego, cheddar, and more. The quantity of cheese became something of a running joke for the rest of the weekend. After a more than ample wine and cheese course we moved onto the main dinner – Gina’s much anticipated quinoa loaf, with chicken for the carnivores. And more wine. And salad. And cheese. Desserts included a hazelnut torte I had brought from the Heidelberg bakery, cookies, and pie. Sated, we all just hung out. Conversation turned, as always, to trips taken, trips planned, and outdoor gear. I’m generally a little bit on the sidelines of these conversations; I simply don’t take as many trips as many of these childless or empty nester folks. However, the array of scotches on hand, both single malt and blends, gave me an opportunity to describe Teddy & my Scotland trip from this past summer.

I was the only one without a roommate (this was by choice) and as the evening wound down I was happy to retire to the warmth and privacy of my little inn room.
Jen, Suzanne, Peter and me at Lindy Point

Saturday: Saturday we split up into sub-groups; you just can't get 15 people to agree on any one activity, and no one really expected that we would. Frankly, the amorphous splitting and re-joining of subsets of people over the weekend is part of the fun. Some folks wanted to downhill ski (possible, barely, at Timberline, where they make snow). Some wanted to go to Timberline to use its gym and pool. Others, including me, wanted to do more hiking. Those of us staying on the inn side started the day with another generous breakfast served to us by our nutritionist waitress. Peter 1, as always, had a fully worked out nutritional plan – he was ordering a breakfast with a mix of proteins and carbs to give him sustained energy, but planned to go for the French Toast the following day when he wouldn’t need as deep an energy store. As we all set out there was a vague plan for everyone to meet up at the Timberline ice skating rink at 2 PM, subject to whatever else was going on. My sub-group did not make it to the rink.

Along the Dobbin House Trail

As is their wont, Peter 2 and Gina and Allison and Mike went their separate ways. The weather forecast threatened cold rain and snow, so Suzanne, Jen, the well-nourished Peter 1 and I headed for Blackwater Falls State Park – a place where we could get in a good hike, but which wasn;t very remote and so was an easy place from which to retreat if the weather turned bad. We set out to hike the Dobbin House Trail and wound up taking some side trails which took us out of the park into the national forest land. A very pretty area, with wild rhododendrons and mountain laurels, and the characteristic high meadows. A lot of this land was clear cut a century ago; the amazing beauty we see today is actually relatively new forest. We hiked down to some small falls along the Blackwater River. After we finished our Dobbin House loop we also did the short Gentle Trail, and walked to Lindy Point to see the awesome view of Blackwater Canyon there. The Lindy Point trail is 0.4 miles each way. The bushes on either side of the trail are thick enough that it would be pretty much impossible to wander off the trail. Still, it was incredibly heavily blazed – Peter counted fifty two blazes along the trail. That’s a blaze every forty two feet, perhaps little bit of overkill. Finally, we drove back to the lodge with the intention of walking down to Blackwater Falls overlook but it had started snowing and the park rangers had closed the long wooden stairway which leads down to the falls. Peter went down anyway while the more law-abiding members of the group checked out the falls from up top and read about how a 19th century travel writer, under the pseudonym Porte Crayon, had been the first to write about this area as a “Virginian Canaan”.

By the time we left the falls it was snowing fairly heavily and so we decided it was time to head back to town. We figured we’d stop in Thomas to get a warm drink. Along Thomas’ single thriving block we detoured into a couple of stores before finally making into the Purple Fiddle for our beverages. First, an accordion in the window of an antique store caught my eye. I went in and played it. There was lots of other cool stuff in the store too – Jen wound up buying a decorative glass window. Then we went into the Mountain Crafts gallery. Finally, made it to the Purple Fiddle, a local live music venue and hangout joint. At 3:30 in the afternoon it had a mellow vibe, though things almost immediately picked up with the arrival of a wedding party – a couple was getting married at the Fiddle! Bride and Groom, guests, cake, minister, musicians (the opening act for the evening’s performance). We decided to finish our drinks and high-tail it out before the ceremony got under way, since we figured it would be rude to walk out during the wedding and we didn’t want to get trapped there. We got back to Doc’s to find Gina and Peter 2 had already gotten home and laid out the day’s cheese supply. More cheese consumption and hanging out ensued while the various sub-groups gradually trickled back home.

Dinner Saturday night led to another splintering into sub-groups. Some folks ate in, buying groceries at the nearby “Stop and Shave” (really the “Shop and Save”) market. Jen, Peter 1, Suzanne, Allison, Mike and I went to the Italian place up the street. Having had my fill of cheese, I skipped the pizza and went instead for the pasta putanesca. According to the menu, the recipe was graciously provided by Manganaro’s in New York City, a place I know well, as it was one near my father’s office and was among his favorite lunch spots.

After dinner we regrouped again. Some people went to the Purple Fiddle to catch the show. Others caught some different music: I had brought my accordion, and the Bright Morning Inn had a piano (in tune!) in the common room. Jen had brought her guitar and some music books. The two of us proceeded to make earnest attempts to play a number of songs, sounding good on some while completely butchering the rest. Fortunately someone had thought to bring over one of the bottles of scotch from Doc’s, which improved the audience’s enjoyment of our quasi-music-making.

Sunday: We awoke to a change in seasons: overnight the snowfall hadn’t been heavy, but a couple of inches and a drop of temperature had taken us from fall into winter. After an early breakfast at the inn (Peter 1 indeed ordered the banana French toast; still full from the previous day, I downshifted to yogurt parfait and wheat toast) the day’s hiking sub-group (Nelson & Caroline, Peter 1, Jen, Suzanne, Leslie and me) headed for a trail just outside of town (past the Stop and Shave) which had been recommended by our innkeeper Susan and which had been hiked by Gina and Peter 2 the previous day. We had originally planned to do a short out-and-back hike but we enjoyed being in the woods in the snow so much we carried on and made a loop out of it for a total of about five miles. By the time we made it back it was the tail end of lunchtime and we were hungry!

Trees and snow
In addition, some of us were missing Whitegrass – the local cross-country ski area and home of an endearingly shabby ski lodge, an endearingly shabby staff, and some of the world’s greatest soup, so after loading up our stuff we said some goodbyes (some people were staying into Monday, others of us were getting on the road) and headed over there to eat lunch and browse the ski shop. Whitegrass looked strange in its almost snowless state; like a recently shorn sheep. The parking lot was nearly empty and more of their business was coming from the restaurant than from skiers. They weren’t serving their mind-boggling curried lentil soup, but the Mediterranean chickpea was a happy substitute.

Finally, a cup of coffee in hand, I hit the road, taking the southern route through Seneca rocks and heading home. Yes, there had been very little snow, but that didn’t detract one bit from a marvelous weekend.

More pictures here