It was 20 degrees, snowing, and I was alone with my dog in a trackless middle of nowhere. I couldn’t have been happier.
When I left Wyoming behind to move to the Smokies, I’d accepted that giving up cross-country skiing would probably be part of the deal. And that was a significant consideration, because quite honestly it’s one of my favorite things. Yet here I was in the snow-covered Appalachians, a mere 13 miles from home, my cheeks pleasantly chilly as the rest of my body surged with the endorphin-boosting heat of exercise. The gentle squeaking of my skis was the only noise, it seemed, until I paused to draw in the more subtle sounds drifting through the woods. The snow-bearing breeze caused branches to swish and rustle, and when I strained hard enough I’d swear I could hear the snow falling, the soft chink the flakes made as they fell, one by one, onto the foot-high crystallized bed awaiting them.
It was hard to believe that this solitary place was actually the Blue Ridge Parkway, the National Park Service’s most visited unit. During the course of a year, the 469-mile road gets 15 million visitors to its winding curves and breathtaking views, but with the road closed for winter, today its sweeping vistas were mine and mine only. I drank in the view from that first overlook, of Maggie Valley and Cataloochee spread out so sleepily inside their mist of snow and cold.
A new sound broke the silence. I swiveled to see another pair of skiers making their way uphill, pulling off at that same overlook. As often happens in small mountain communities, a bit of small talk revealed that while we didn’t know each other, we had some acquaintances in common—some of whom, I was surprised to hear, were also cross-country skiers with whom I’d be destined to cross paths before the weekend was over.
My new friends offered to go on ahead, taking over from me the difficult task of trail-breaking. While I am a glutton for the exhilaration of skiing through unbroken powder, I was grateful for the offer. Anyway, it wasn’t too much longer after that that the breeze acquired a sharper bite and the temperature dipped below the comfort level for my thin-furred canine.
It was time to go home, but the mountains can be like a drug, sometimes. The next morning, I woke up with the craving.
It’s amazing how much a landscape can change in just a few hours. Where the previous day had been ruled by powdery snow and a cold, cloudy sky, this new dawn was all blue skies and sun, the snow a little wetter, a little softer. And instead of breaking trail, as I had yesterday, this time the tracks were laid out in front of me, slick and easy to follow.
Maybe too easy, because that combination of joyful sunshine and snow-covered scenery made it just about impossible to turn around. I passed the bridge where I’d called it quits before and decided to check out the Forest Service road intersecting it that I had learned about from my ski buddies from the day before. There were tracks on that road too, probably theirs judging by the fact that I’d seen their car parked at the trailhead again this morning.
So I kept going, and before I knew it I was cruising to the entrance of Mile High Campground, nearly four miles from where I’d begun. True to its name, the campground was high up with plenty of photogenic views of the peaks and valleys surrounding it, so I took the opportunity to break out the camera I’d been hauling all weekend long and document the beauty surrounding me. Then I unhooked the skis, lay down in the snow, and just savored the sensation of snow-borne chill seeping through my gear, offsetting the sweat of my struggle to the top.
That could easily have been the pinnacle of this weekend of snowy adventure. Here I was at 5,400 feet, alone with the mountains and my dog, set to have seven miles under my belt by the time the day was over. How could it be better?
But the mountain craving doesn’t disappear that easily. My skis were still in the car as my Monday wound down, and after work I found myself once more driving the now-familiar route to Soco Gap. The sun hung low in the sky, and by the time I made it to the first overlook south of Soco it was living out its last moments above the horizon. The sky over Maggie Valley was shot with pink, a saturated gleam resounding from the now icy snow that covered the roads and rooftops below.
I pulled out the camera one last time and made a picture that I’ll always be proud of—not so much because of any exceptional photographic quality but because the image is one that the mountains yield only to those who push the hardest.
The snow was hard and crusty as I sailed down the slope, the jagged ice sharp enough to draw blood when I took a tumble. This would be the last ski on this snow, I knew.
But that was OK. I’d had my pinnacle.