“I didn’t know this was a booze cruise.”
Adam, Robbie, Paul, and I paused, looking up from our 6-pack to Eric. His wise eyes weren’t judgmental, but quizzical, amused even. Eric is a trail guru. His weathered cheeks speak to the long hours he’s spent in the woods wrestling thickets of rhododendron. The Heights aren’t just Eric’s home — they’re his playground, his own forest oasis amid a valley of wild bogs and unruly spruce.
For weeks I’ve been begging people to join me on an epic ski, which, in my mind, starts in Davis, W.Va., comes through the Heights, and ends at White Grass in the heart of Canaan Valley, a journey that would cover at least 12 – 15 miles of rocky, rooty, mountainous terrain and a little bushwhacking. You can imagine the enthusiastic responses I received…not.
Nonetheless, during my last week in the Valley, I was graced with one final mid-week snowstorm that tipped the scale in my favor and convinced my friends to rally on their one day off. Eric got wind of our adventure and immediately wanted part in the thru-journey. He suggested we shave off the first leg of the trip, though, and begin at his house in Canaan Heights, confident we would still get enough skiing to wear ourselves out by day’s end. We agreed, feeling that if anyone knew best, it would be this guy.
So as he stood there, smirking at our giddy group while we ditched layers and extra water bottles and made room for beer, I couldn’t help but feel like maybe we were in for more than we bargained for. But between the five of us, what’s a 6-pack of beer, really?
As soon as Eric took off down the trail, I knew that inkling was right.
Though at least a couple decades my elder, I couldn’t keep up with Eric no matter how hard I tried. Amateur skier status aside, I wasn’t even half as fit as Eric, who glided effortlessly through his winding trails. The boys were all on his heels, soaking in every bit of passing history and local lore that Eric spouted over his shoulder, but I heard none of it. I brought up the rear, slowly step-stepping my way around trees and concentrating all of my energy on not falling.
And yet still, I fell. On flat ground, rolling terrain, downhill steeps. No matter. I could be standing still and still fall somehow. Every five minutes it seemed, I would round a bend in the trail to see the guys waiting on me. Usually it was at an impossibly confusing intersection of trails, so I was grateful but also feeling increasingly self-conscious. What grew to be even more frustrating than my inability to ski well, however, was the fact that I couldn’t document a single second of the day.
The Heights were ours. We didn’t see a single soul. Save for the sound of boot squeaking on binding and snow sliding under ski, the world was quiet. Skies blue, sun sparkling, the temperature steadily rose into the low 40s. Snow-capped rhododendron leaves bobbed like gumdrops in the slight breeze, the frozen trunks of spruce creaked as their laden limbs swayed. Our skis cut through fresh powder above the ankle, so soft and airy, “like local, organic, hand-churned, creamy butter,” Robbie kept saying.
It was picturesque.
But I couldn’t take a picture. For one, my behemoth of a camera was packed away, safely out of the fall zone. But even if I did take the extra time to unzip my pack and retrieve my camera, those were precious minutes I should be using to simply keep up. Early on, I tried taking a few pictures, but I quickly abandoned any hope of capturing the adventure with my camera and focused, instead, on imprinting the memories in my mind and being in the moment.
That’s an argument I have with myself quite frequently — to shoot or not to shoot? As a multimedia journalist, I have the ability to tell a story through a variety of platforms, be it photo, video, or the written word, but my heart always lies with the visual component of the story. I want my readers to be able to truly see and live that moment with me. But I had to let go of that and accept that the best way to share this experience would be through my words.
The decision, as it turns out, would be for the best. The epic ski was just that — freakin’ epic. It took us every bit of seven hours to complete the journey from Canaan Heights to White Grass. We stopped occasionally to fuel up on beer and bean burritos, but the breaks were maybe 10 minutes tops. In the heat of the day, the snow left exposed to the sun turned from creamy goodness to sticky madness. We trudged along, our legs growing weary from the additional weight of wet snow accumulating on the bottoms of our skis. No amount of stomping or kicking or F4 helped much either. We were forced to cut back into the woods, where the snow was still good, and bushwhack our way down tight stream beds that were partially frozen and overgrown with rhododendron.
We nearly ran out of water and food. We definitely went dry on the beer (luckily Robbie was prepared with a half full bottle of whiskey). And we all but skied ourselves into the ground that day. As we entered Canaan Valley State Park by way of the Allegheny Trail, we could see Bald Knob off to our left, our “final” destination (though we’d still have to ski down the mountain from there to get back to the White Grass lodge).
It would take us another three hours of skiing and one lift ride up the mountain at Canaan Valley Resort (last chair, mind you) before we would physically arrive up on “Baldy.” When we did, we collapsed on the ground and sat, quietly tracing our route. From the tower on Canaan Heights, along the ridge line overlooking the valley, through the state park, down past Rocky Point, across Route 32, through the old skiing area of Driftland, up the resort’s slopes, through a section of National Nordic trail, up the pipeline, and finally to the summit where we now sat, I think by day’s end we were in awe of not just the journey but ourselves.
And it was here, finally, when my limbs were limp with fatigue, the bottoms of my feet tender from skiing nearly 12 miles in wet socks, that I finally had the time to take a picture. The day was quietly setting over the valley. Baldy, normally unbearably frigid and windy, was pleasantly calm. As the guys soaked in the golden light and passed around one last beer someone had conjured, I snapped a few photos to document the final minutes of the epic. The images are nothing to write home about — they’ll certainly never appear in the pages of NatGeo or hang on the walls of a gallery — but they capture so much that I simply cannot put into words.
And even though they say a picture’s worth 1,000 words, I beg to differ. A picture’s worth a helluva lot more. It’s worth an early morning start, a yet-accomplished dream, a hundred-thousand kicks and glides up steep terrain and a hundred-thousand more wipeouts. It’s worth the times you dig deep and ask yourself, “What the hell did I get myself into?” It’s worth the unspoken moments and quiet minutes shared in the thick of it all among those you call friends, and the feelings of elation and relief and pride at the end. And of course, it’s worth that hard-earned beer (or three) and a Hellbender burrito the size of your calf (and some cheesecake to top it all off).
That, my friends, is more than 1,000 words could ever explain.