“Think it’s supposed to rain tomorrow,” I say. “40 degrees and wet.”
I’m sitting at a table of Tucker County residents at the White Grass Cafe talking about the weather, a common subject especially here in the Valley and especially as of late — the lack of snow this winter has everyone a little more than restless. To be quite honest, I don’t really know if it’s supposed to rain tomorrow or not. Earlier in the day, as I was sitting at the Cafe sipping on a bowl of kale and barley soup, I overheard a guy tell his friend about pending rain, a forecast he received from someone else who was apparently well versed in the weather patterns of the Valley. Eavesdropping. Because that’s how I usually get my weather.
A guy they call Chaga shakes his head at me from across the table, smiling as if he knows something I don’t.
“It’s gonna snow a couple inches,” he says. “Amateur.”
Sure as shit, the next day, it snowed.
That wasn’t the first (and surely won’t be the last) time I’ve felt like an amateur in the week I’ve been in Tucker County. A few days ago, I hiked up to Bald Knob with a friend to watch the sunset. A snowstorm had been blowing off and on throughout the day, but I felt certain the clouds would part in a magical display of stormy brilliance. When I arrived at the bald’s windswept plain, sure enough, the clouds had turned an iridescent blue and streaks of sunlight broke through in ethereal shafts, lighting up the valley below. To the north, dark clouds swept their way across the mountains, leaving a blanket of white powder in their wake.
Later, I showed Chip the photograph I’d snapped atop the bald of the setting sun and the oncoming storm.
“It was so cool,” I told him, feeling proud that I could somewhat orient myself in the photograph. “We watched the storm blow over Davis…”
“That’s not Davis. Davis is over here,” he said, pointing to some indistinguishable point off the frame of my camera. “But that’s okay, you were close.” He patted me gently on the back and walked away.
Deflated, and feeling much like an amateur, I turned off the camera and packed it away. In total, I’ve only spent about three weeks in the Valley during the two years I’ve worked for the magazine. Many of the folks that call this place home have lived in these mountains for much longer that, at least a few decades if not their whole lives. It was absurd for me to think that I would ever be able to hold a conversation about the weather, skiing, anything Tucker County-related, with a resident and not make a fool of myself.
Still, I try anyway. I absorb every bit of natural history and piece of trivia (that I pick up through eavesdropping) like a dry sponge. I always accept offers of nature walks with Chipper, never shy away from big ski trips despite being unable to stop or turn, and find total content in sitting quietly during Wednesday night dinners at Hellbender Burritos listening to the locals banter on about everything from weather to wildlife refuge regulations. I try, despite knowing that I really know nothing, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the good people in Tucker County it’s this — it’s never too late.
Though I’m sure that lesson in particular has been handed to me a number of times in a variety of packages, it didn’t really hit home until the ribbon cutting ceremony held yesterday at Blackwater Falls State Park for their new sledding hill and magic carpet operation. In celebration of the grand opening, everyone in attendance grabbed an orange plastic sled and hit the slopes. A heavy, wet snow fell gently on the run. Eyelashes and jackets were speckled with big white flakes. Local kids in brightly colored parkas, State Park officials in green and brown uniforms, people of every age and walk of life stood atop the sled hill breathing in the cold mountain air, sleds in hand, beaming.
The snow creaked underneath as I situated myself in the sled. I wondered when I’d last done this. It had to have been over a decade ago, well back to my childhood days of building snow forts with my brother and rolling snowballs into snow barrels down our driveway.
We pushed off and immediately, my sled drifted from the hill into the trees lining the run. I didn’t care. Grown men flew past me, neck-to-neck with ecstatic children. My lips cracked from the cold and perma-grin. I laughed hysterically as I slid to the bottom.
“I can’t remember the last time I did that!” I said, high-fiving my friends at the bottom.
“It’s been forty years for me,” said Dave, a local mechanic and snow groomer for the state park and ski areas. His eyes smiled beneath the rim of his hat, his cheeks rosy from the wind. “But hey, it’s never too late.”
We sauntered into the cross-country ski center for some hot chocolate and cake. As I stood in the room among the various press reporters, state park officials, tourism directors, and ski area operators, I did what I do best — I eavesdropped. Among the small talk and media interviews and hearty bouts of laughter, I overheard Chip and his son Adam talking to some of the state park employees, many of whom Adam had grown up with. The subject was cross-country skiing, and though the state park workers had chosen fishing and four-wheeling and other such hobbies during their childhood, they now expressed interest in grabbing a pair of skis and heading to the hills.
“I really want to get the kids dialed in,” one of them said. “They’d love it.”
I paused mid-sip, suddenly realizing how special it was to have so many personalities in one room together — hunters, granola skiers, transplant city slickers, farmers, and media personnel. Perhaps in any other place and time in this world, we might retreat to our separate cliques and cordon off the mingling. But here, in this cozy one-room nordic center, we all were one, basking in the innocent fun we’d shared on the sledding hill just moments earlier.
That’s when I knew why I felt such a strong urge to fit in here in this little West Virginia community, so much so that I’d made a point of embarrassing myself to do so. The mountains are great, yes, and the skiing, the mountain biking, the adventuring — heck, there’s more of that than you could ever hope to experience in two lifetimes even. But the people here have an air about them that speaks to their attitude toward life.
Many of them may be the most talented rippers I’ll ever meet in this world, the fastest skiers, most technical riders and all-around mountain badasses, but their humble nature reflects the respect they have for the natural world and the lives they lead. They value new experiences and challenge. They honor the adventurous spirit within, no matter the level in which it comes. They welcome you with open arms, entertain your ignorance, satisfy your curiosity, and leave you inspired to embrace the notion that it’s never too late to embark on new chapters, learn different skills, and develop lifelong passions.