We drove to Blackwater a day later than planned on a frigid morning. It was eighteen degrees when we left Takoma, and the temperature rose and fell between ten and fourteen for most of the trip. Beth thought the traffic would be bad because, like us, others would have delayed their travel and there would be two days’ worth of travelers on the road, but for whatever reason, we didn’t run into traffic at all. Maybe everyone who could drove early rather than late.
About an hour and a half into the trip we started seeing patches of snow on the ground and by the end when we climbed up into the hills, there was a several-inch layer, and high winds blowing it all around and the temperature fell to minus two. Negative numbers on a thermometer are a novel sight for us Marylanders, so that was exciting. There was also a bit of tricky driving for Beth.
We arrived at the lodge a little after three and I was glad to get out of the car because the leg cramps that were bothering me around Thanksgiving had returned on this trip and it helps to walk when I get them. We learned the power was out at the lodge and some of the cabins, but not the ones in our section of the park so we got the keys, drove there, and unpacked the car. I tried to shovel the porch steps before Beth’s mom arrived, but the snow was too hard packed to get off the risers.
Setting up the tree that had been tied up in our garage for weeks and then on top of the car for hours was a high priority. We wanted to give the limbs a few hours to fall so we could decorate it. Once I’d unpacked the food, North took over the kitchen, making chocolate-peppermint cookies, and Beth decorated the mantle with evergreen boughs she’d cut from the bottom of the tree, adding a string of lights and our figurines of characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and then the house was nearly Christmas-ready.
Beth’s mom, brother John, and sister-in-law Abby arrived an hour or so after we did, after a more challenging drive than ours, because they came from the opposite direction. We sat and talked until dinnertime. Beth heated up chili from cans (blending three different brands) and made almond flour cornbread and salad.
After dinner, Beth strung the lights around the tree, and the kids and I put up the ornaments. John and Abby had their own place in a nearby resort, and they left to go get settled in before we’d finished the tree. We watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns before bed. I skipped part of the latter one because I don’t consider it essential, and it was late, and I wanted to get a shower and go to bed.
In our rush that night, we inadvertently skipped our yearly reading of “A Visit with St. Nicholas,” which we all regretted when we remembered the next day. We also failed to put out cookies for Santa (which North often wants to do, even though it’s been a long time since any of us have believed in Santa) or to open one early present each. I have no strong attachment or objection to this last practice—it’s one we adopted only several years ago. Noah doesn’t like change, so he doesn’t like it and it often leads to sibling strife anyway, so that might have been just as well that we forgot.
I was the first one up on Christmas morning, which wasn’t really a surprise. I’m sleeping better than I was a month ago, but it’s rare for me to sleep past 6:30 and that’s about when I woke. (Note: every other morning in Blackwater I slept past seven.) I went out to the living room to enjoy the tree lights and look at all your Christmas Eve Facebook posts. One by one, people got up and opened their stocking gifts.
North was responsible for Christmas brunch, so they set to work making scrambled eggs, various vegetarian breakfast meats, sliced fruit, and chocolate-peppermint muffins. Noah and I read while North cooked. John and Abby came over around ten and we ate. Everything was delicious.
Next it was time for presents. This year more presents than usual couldn’t be wrapped either because they were subscriptions—I renewed Beth’s to the New Yorker and we upgraded North’s to the Donor Sibling Registry to lifetime membership—or they had already been received—when my Fitbit broke in November, Beth got me a new one as an early Christmas present. But there was still plenty under the tree. Books, soap, socks and other clothing, tea, chocolate and other treats were popular. Plus, Noah got an extension kit for Settlers of Catan and YaYa got new earbuds.
After presents, John, Abby, and YaYa went for a drive to look at the snow. By early afternoon the temperature had risen into the double digits, if just barely, and Beth and I were both eager to get outside, so we went for a walk. The kids gave this activity a hard pass. At first, we thought we’d just go as far as the canyon overlook, but when we got there, we decided to keep going to the frozen lake, ringed with towering evergreen trees. As we walked over the dam, Beth turned to me and grinned.
I said, “This makes you happy.”
“It does,” she replied. “Look at this! It’s snowy, it’s cold—all the good things.”
We were out almost an hour and when we returned, the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough I’d made at home and decorated them with colored sugar, raisins, dried cranberries, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and pecans. They came out just right and I reflected that it’s easier not to burn some when the kids are old enough to heed my directions to roll them all out to the same thickness. After gingerbread, North and I read a few cantos of the Inferno.
Just before dinner, North felt a headache coming on. They’d saved a dose of their rescue medicine for Christmas, just in case, so they were able to join us for Christmas dinner. YaYa made her famous spinach lasagna and afterward we sampled a chocolate Pandoro. None of us were familiar with this traditional Italian Christmas cake, and we found it a little dry, but it’s always good to try new things. John and Abby went back to their place and after a struggle to download it—the Wi-Fi was awful in the cabin—we watched Christmas is Here Again.
Speaking of the Wi-Fi, earlier in the day I’d had a difficult time getting my day’s photos onto Facebook, but I finally succeeded. I found myself surprised at how much this mattered to me. I had an even worse time the next day, but it seemed to matter more that I have a nice post for Christmas, partly because I enjoy the communal nature of holidays on Facebook, when many people are experiencing and sharing similar things, but also because I knew I’d like to see the photos pop up in my memories on future Christmas days. Ah, modern life…
Second Day of Christmas
John and Abby came over in the morning for breakfast and to say goodbye, as they were headed back to Wheeling. We were considering hiking down to the bottom of Blackwater’s eponymous falls, but John thought it was too cold—it was only ten degrees. He seemed torn and I think Beth could have used her older sister powers to sway him, but she didn’t.
I read with both kids in the morning and in the early afternoon, Beth and I set out to hike the Balanced Rock trail. It took about an hour and a half. We crossed a footbridge over a half-frozen creek lined with impressive icicles, traversed fields of little snow-covered evergreen trees and rhododendron bushes with their leaves curled against the cold, and finally climbed up to the two boulders that give the trail its name. About halfway there, Beth said, “Look at the wintry woods. Isn’t it the best?”
Answering automatically at first, I said, “Yes…well, no.” Beth made an indignant sound before I could explain. “The ocean is best,” I said, “but this is very, very nice.” And it was. In the whole walk, the only people we saw were two snowplow drivers when the trail crossed a park road. They were witness to the only time I slipped and fell.
We visited the lodge before going back home to see if its power was restored, because I was interested in swimming later if the pool was open and Beth thought people might want to go to the gift shop, but there was a sign on the door saying there was still no power.
Back at home, Beth heated up the Spanish drinking chocolate North got her for her birthday, and we enjoyed it with cookies. It was very rich and luxurious. I alternated between trying to get Facebook to agree to post my photos of the hike, with only partial success, and folding the last of three loads of laundry I’d done that day. (This is less than it sounds like—the washer and dryer were tiny.) Noah and I watched two episodes of What We Do in the Shadows and then I made dinner—cauliflower with cheese sauce and vegetarian Italian sausage.
North had a migraine and had hit the limit for their medication, so they went to bed in the late afternoon, and we didn’t see them until after nine. We’d planned to watch Glass Onion, but since North wanted to see it, we decided to wait. We tried to download The Fabelmans but it took so long we didn’t have time to watch it. This gave me a chance to read a few stray sections of the Post I’d brought and wanted to read before starting any of my Christmas books and to get this account of our adventures caught up. Just before bed, Beth wrangled the Wi-Fi into letting her post the rest of my hike photos.
Third Day of Christmas
Beth had to work in the morning, preparing for a press release for a video game workers’ unionization drive. I went back to bed after breakfast and started to read The Daughter of Dr. Moreau, which was one of three books I got for Christmas.
After a while I roused myself to do some dishes and from the kitchen window, I saw a young buck foraging for grass under the snow in the circular driveway in front of the cabin. It caused me to reflect that over the past couple days, I’d probably seen more deer than people. We were always seeing them in front of and behind the house. The snow behind the house was pocked with their hoofprints. One day when Noah was photographing a half-grown fawn, it came toward him up onto the back deck. This made me think people feed them, and eventually North and YaYa were feeding them Pandoro and apple.
When Beth finished her tasks, Noah wasn’t up yet, so the rest of us went to the upper overlook to see the falls around eleven-thirty. It’s a short, level trail, good for YaYa and North. It was lovely, as always. The falls were mostly frozen with two cataracts running down the icy surface. The nearby trees were all frosted with frozen spray and there were huge icicles, stained gold with tannin, on the rockface nearby.
We came home for lunch and Noah got up, so we did the other trail to the falls, the one that goes lower and closer. You descend a wooden staircase with viewing platforms at two different levels. The staircase was covered with packed snow, but that’s better than slush or ice, and we made it down to the bottom without much trouble. From that better vantage point, I could see big spheres of ice swirling around in the water at the base of the waterfall. The larger ones were big enough that if they were rocks, you’d call them boulders.
We visited the falls gift shop and dropped Noah back at the house before Beth and I set off on our longest hike of the day, along the ridge behind Pendleton Lake to the Pase Point overview. The trail has occasional views of the canyon and crosses little creeks, but mostly goes through woods and groves of rhododendron. It took about an hour to get from the cabin to Pase Point, where we emerged from the woods to stand on a ledge between boulders and take in a full view of the snow-covered canyon below.
We were wiped out from almost three hours of hiking, so Beth and I took a little nap before I got up to help Noah make soba noodle soup for dinner. Afterward we watched Glass Onion, which is fun film, especially if like me you went through an Agatha Christie phase in middle and high school.
Fourth Day of Christmas
Beth and I went on separate walks in the morning. Every day we were there it was a little warmer and that day it was just over freezing when I left the cabin, less bundled up than previously. I returned to the falls, finding them with slightly less ice and slightly more water tumbling over the ice, and quite a few more people on the staircase. I guess the warmer temperatures brought folks outside.
I climbed back up the staircase and continued up the park road to the bridge that crosses the Blackwater River, and stood on the span, looking down at the smooth ice with a current of open water wending through the middle. On the way back, I admired a decorated evergreen in a median I hadn’t spotted the first time I passed it.
When I got back to the cabin, I noticed Beth had managed to clear the porch stairs of snow as it had finally softened. She’d also taken some evergreen branches we had piled on a chair and woven them into the railing. It was a festive touch I hoped the park staff would leave up for the next people. I told her she’d spruced up the porch and she laughed at the unintended pun.
In a happy turn of events, the power came back on at the lodge and the pool was open. The sled run was open, too, but tickets were sold out, as were tickets for tubing. In the early afternoon, Beth took YaYa and me to the lodge, so I could swim and YaYa could use the exercise room. Beth floated and stretched in the pool while I swam sixty laps in the tiny pool. It’s in a pleasant, airy room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on evergreen trees. It’s nice to swim in a warm room and be able to see tiny icicles hanging from the gutters of the building and a dusting of snow on tree branches during the backstroke laps. After my swim, we soaked in the hot tub.
When we got back, North was excited to report they had hand-fed a deer an apple and even petted its head. I was surprised. The deer at Blackwater are very tame, but none of us had ever touched one
After a late lunch for me and an even later breakfast for him, Noah and I read and then watched a couple episodes of What We Do in the Shadows. Next in various combinations, we took ornaments and lights off the tree and dragged it into the woods behind the house, worked on the puzzle of movie posters (finishing it despite YaYa’s prediction that it wasn’t possible in the time left), and folded the last of the trip laundry.
We ate leftovers for dinner and afterward, Noah hooked his laptop up to the computer screen so he could show us a slideshow of the over six hundred pictures he took at Blackwater and people could select the ones they wanted. Then we spun off into different groups to read and watch television—North and I read a couple cantos of the Inferno. We got to the eighth circle of hell (of nine), but that’s not as far as it sounds because more than a third of the poem takes place in that circle. Beth and Noah watched Andor, and YaYa watched as much of Great Expectations as she could before the Wi-Fi gave out.
Fifth Day of Christmas
Beth and I both took early morning walks. For me, this meant leaving the house at 7:55—Beth was out earlier than me and came back later. I decided on the canyon overlook as my destination as I’d already been to the falls and the lake twice each and other than those, the overlook is best short walk from the cabin. When I got there the sun was just rising over the top of the ridge and touching the top of the canyon with light.
I was back at the house a half hour later, ate breakfast, and started packing up the cabin. We checked out at ten and after about a half hour of driving, we passed the crest lined with windmills and crossed the Eastern Continental Divide, where we left the snow and our holiday behind.