Friday-Sunday: Before Blackwater
North’s last day of school before winter break was the Friday before Christmas. This was also the day Noah was returning from college and we had a party to attend, so it was a big day.
The party was for the family of a preschool classmate of North’s. They moved to Switzerland three years ago (around the time we were all wishing we could move to Switzerland) and they come back to the States for visits occasionally. When they’re in the D.C. area, someone from the Purple School will host a party so they can see as many people as possible in a limited period of time. It was good to see the family of honor and a few of North’s old classmates, all teenagers now, and their families. The hosts made an excellent squash and black bean chili and the expats brought Swiss chocolate and there was a gingerbread cookie decorating station and a charming five year old who wanted to decorate more cookies than she was allowed to eat so she started circulating through the room offering thickly frosted cookies. It was a fun party. Unfortunately, Beth didn’t get to stay long because she was coming from work and by that time North and I had been there an hour and a half and North was impatient to get to their next social engagement, a sleepover at Zoë’s, plus we had stuff to do at home before Noah’s bus arrived, so she couldn’t stay long.
Beth and I arrived at Union Station around 9:25 and had about a half hour wait for the bus. We got Noah some pizza and a chocolate milk at Sbarro, because we knew he probably hadn’t had time to procure himself much food for the ride. Sure enough, all he’d had since breakfast was a rest stop soft pretzel. The reason for his hasty departure was that he had an unfinished, overdue paper he’d been working on until he left (and on the bus and for two days after he got home). The paper was for his ideologies class and he said he’d been reading Mein Kampf on the bus and hoping no one thought he was a Nazi. He ate his pizza in the car and drank “this mysterious liquid,” a comment that made me hope he’s not drinking soda every day at school. When we got home, Beth and I went to bed while he did whatever it is college students do at night.
The next morning at 11:30, when Beth and I set out to get a Christmas tree, he was still in bed, though he answered the text Beth sent to say we were leaving. We drove to Butler’s Orchard, where we go berry picking in the summer. We’ve never gotten a tree there, maybe because it’s forty-five minutes away, but they had a much nicer selection than Christmas tree lots generally do four days before Christmas, so we may make it our go-to place. We browsed in the farm market, got some apple cider and garlic dip mix, and then picked out a tree. We found one we liked a lot—six feet tall and very full and bushy.
Our next stop was Wegman’s, where we intended to buy eggnog and mushroom ravioli for dinner and where we checked out with $55 worth of groceries. We don’t live near a Wegman’s so we succumbed to the temptation to splurge on several kinds of fake meat they don’t carry at the co-op, cranberry stilton, pomegranate kernels, and lunch at the deli. I got a slice of mushroom-truffle pizza and a pomegranate soda and it was very good.
North came home from Zoë’s in the late afternoon and we all had dinner around the same table, which was nice. Then we opened presents from my mom and Sara because there’s never room in the car for all the presents and it made a nice little solstice celebration. We capped it off with a viewing of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Sunday Noah emerged from his room shortly before eleven, and spent most of the day working on his paper. At dinner he said he was stuck, so I read his draft and gave him some ideas. We were all hoping he’d finish it that night, so he didn’t have to work at Blackwater. He’s already done that enough times. I told him he should have a college student’s break and not a high school student’s break. Meanwhile I did three loads of laundry (a lot of which was his) and swam and packed.
Monday and Tuesday: Blackwater, Before Christmas
Hike: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake
Monday morning brought us the happy news that Noah had turned in his paper the previous night while the rest of us slept. It was three days late and shorter than it was supposed to be, but as I often used to tell him in high school (and middle school and elementary school), “Done is beautiful.” We packed up the car and hit the road for West Virginia around 10:15. There wasn’t much traffic and even with a stop for lunch, we arrived at 2:30. We waited in the lodge for YaYa and when she arrived, we checked into our cabin.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and for dinner we had takeout from Panera—vegetable soup, bread, and mac-n-cheese that YaYa had picked up on the road. Then we watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. We’d saved all our Christmas specials except those we’d watched over Thanksgiving break until Noah was home again (at his request), so we had a lot. During the song, “First Toymaker to the King,” both kids sang along with brio. They knew every word.
On the morning of our first full day at Blackwater, North and I took the first of many walks while Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping. North took me to a path they’d found another year we’d stayed in a cabin nearby. It goes to a rocky outcropping with a view of the river canyon, dense with evergreens. It’s similar to the other overlooks, but smaller, more private, and without a protective railing. It was a little scary watching them stand closer than I would to the edge, but I stopped myself from saying anything because they weren’t really that close. Next we proceeded to an official overlook and North put a quarter into the swiveling binoculars to better view the lodge across the canyon and the narrow waterfall going down the canyon side. Then we took a path to Pendleton Lake, which was almost completely frozen, despite the current mild temperatures. North slid on the ice near the edge of the lake, and I watched from the earthen dam between the lake and the creek that empties out of it. There were some interesting ice formations on the creek side, near the culvert where the water comes out of the dam.
Back at the house, we decorated the tree with our ornaments and YaYa’s, too. It was like decorating a tree always is, with everyone exclaiming over ornaments that remind us of years, or decades past, and getting all nostalgic in a Christmassy way over them.
After lunch, the kids and I made gingerbread from the dough I’d made at home and transported with us. This is another nostalgic activity as the recipe is my mom’s and I’ve been making it first with my sister and mother and then with my kids since I was old enough to handle dough. We go different directions with the decorations from year to year, though. This year we used dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and hard candy. I discovered pepitas make good eyes and a cashew is just the right shape for a smile. North made a very satisfactory turtle shell out of green hard candies that melted into an approximation of a diamondback pattern. And as we always do, we made initial cookies for everyone. YaYa got two, an A for her real name and a Y.
Next North and I went swimming and hot-tubbing at the lodge. The hot tub was more of a tepid tub, but it was still relaxing. There was no one else there and the tub was big enough for me to float on my back.
Before our dinner of chili and corn bread (cooked by Beth), we watched A Miracle on 34th Street and afterward we watched The Year Without a Santa Claus. It was nice to watch something we don’t watch every year (the former) and something we do (the latter). In between viewings, the kids opened a pair of new Christmas pajamas each, green and white stripes with a red collar for Noah and red and white stripes with a green collar for North. (I feel lucky that at thirteen and eighteen they still go along with this.) Just before bed, Noah treated us to a very dramatic reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and YaYa said he really should take an acting class in college someday.
Wednesday: Christmas Day
Hike: Lindy Point
Christmas morning, as we woke singly and in pairs, we emptied our stockings of oranges, candied nuts, and other treats. Everyone was up by eight and we ate the lemon-cranberry muffins North had made for breakfast and then opened presents. A great many books, mugs, packages of tea, socks, and bars of soap were exchanged. Noah’s big present was an Apple watch. He was pleased with it and over the course of the next several days kept using it to check the temperature, note his movement goals, or dictate texts. He said it made him feel like Dick Tracy, though further questioning revealed he wasn’t actually sure who Dick Tracy was. North’s big presents were a papasan chair (which was actually at home because it was too big to bring with us, but we gave them a photo of it) and a weighted blanket, which they immediately and happily threw over themselves. “I will never need another blanket,” they said. YaYa especially liked the calendar Beth made of pictures of the kids, but what grandmother wouldn’t?
Around noon everyone but North left for a hike to Lindy Point. The day was lovely, sunny and cool but not cold—Noah and I didn’t even wear jackets. It was in the fifties most days we were there, actually, and there was not much snow, just the patchy remains of a past snowfall on the ground when we arrived, and that was all but gone when we left. Everyone was a little disappointed not to have a white Christmas, but the upside was pleasant temperatures for hiking and we did take walks every day. The year before had been snowy but bitter cold, which limited our outdoor time.
The trail to the overlook was narrow and lined with towering rhododendrons. It took us to a wooden platform on a rock outcropping that affords more views of the river canyon. Noah gave all his womenfolk a scare edging around the outside of railing to get photos from the angle he wanted. YaYa couldn’t watch. But he didn’t plummet down into the canyon, and we went home and had lunch and started one of the book he got for Christmas, American War. It’s set in the future during the second American Civil War and the plague years afterward. Then I read one of my Christmas books, Stephen King’s latest, The Institute.
Christmas dinner was YaYa’s signature spinach lasagna—she and Beth cooked every dinner we didn’t have takeout or eat out and that was a nice treat for me, as the primary cook in my family. We intended to watch Christmas is Here Again after dinner, but the internet was spotty in the cabin and it wouldn’t download, so we watched It’s a Wonderful Life instead because it was already downloaded and it was a more than adequate substitute. We haven’t been doing nightly poems since Noah left for college, but we are making an exception for Winter Poems, a book we’ve been reading read every winter for many years. We read the first five poems that night, including this one by Rachel Field I’ve always liked, which begins:
Something told the wild geese
It was time to go
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered,– “Snow.”
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,–
Summer sun was on their wings
Winter in their cry
And then Christmas was over.
Thursday to Saturday: Blackwater, After Christmas
Hikes: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake (new route), Blackwater Falls
The day after Christmas I did three loads of laundry in the cabin’s tiny washing machine. Noah and I read some more of American War and I read some more of The Institute. Everyone but Noah had lunch at the White Grass Café and the kids went sledding on artificial snow in 56-degree weather while the mothers and grandmother watched from the bottom of the hill. They each went down four times. One the second run, they shared a sled to see if they’d go faster that way, but they concluded, in Noah’s words, that it was easier to steer, “when there’s one consciousness,” so they went back to separate sleds after that.
After sledding, Noah and I went back to the cabin and everyone else went to browse in the shops of Davis, a nearby town. When they came home, we all did our own thing in the house for a while until Noah and YaYa went for a walk in the sunset before our dinner, which was a vegetable-white bean-quinoa soup. Christmas is Here Again had successfully downloaded so we watched our final Christmas movie.
Friday we went to the lodge for a late breakfast and from there Beth, North, and I proceeded to the pool, while Noah hung out in the lounge with his laptop editing the many pictures he’d taken so far on our trip and YaYa went back and forth from the pool deck to the lounge. I’d forgotten my goggles so I did backstroke for a half hour. I would have swum longer but it gets boring doing just one kind of stroke, so I went over to the hot tub, slipped on the steps, and fell into it. Luckily, I wasn’t really hurt, but it did give me a little scare.
Later Noah and YaYa retraced the steps of their walk from the day before because Noah wanted better light for pictures and for the rest of the afternoon some people read and some people watched Solo, and some did both and North did neither because they were having a long phone conversation with Jade in their room, as they did many days of the trip. (The two have become quite close recently.)
In the late afternoon I took a walk along the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins. The grass was wet and muddy and I fell, soaking the knees of my jeans twice in quick succession, but I discovered a new route to the lake, which was still mostly frozen and quite scenic in the dusk. I was near the Nature Center and behind it I discovered two little skulls, one white and one green, wrapped in shrouds and mounted on sticks. I wasn’t sure if they were leftover Halloween decorations someone failed to remove. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Christmas future.
When I got back to the cabin, Noah, Beth, and YaYa had finished watching Solo, and Noah was dragging the denuded Christmas tree back to the woods behind the house. We set out for a pizza place nearby, but there was a forty-minute wait so we went back to the park and had dinner in the lodge restaurant where we had breakfast.
There was a reading at the lodge by Ann Pancake, a West Virginian writer, starting shortly after we finished dinner, so we stayed for that, or the oldest three of us did, while the teens stayed in the lobby playing games on their phones. Pancake read three autobiographical essays, one about her childhood, one about visiting home as an adult, and one about her father’s dementia. I haven’t been to a reading in a long while, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.
Saturday morning we packed up the house, checked out, and went for our last hike of the trip, down to Blackwater Falls, the majestic waterfall that gives the park its name. You descend down a wooden staircase with several viewing platforms along the way. As we progressed, we tried to remember which was the platform where North lost a croc over the edge when they were very little and which was the one where Noah and YaYa sat on a bench and played his West Virginia-opoly game, a board game he made in fifth grade. (All the properties are places in West Virginia and he and YaYa were trying to play it in all of those locations, mostly during his summer visits to her. I don’t know if they ever completed this quest.)
About halfway down, North (who had twisted an ankle a couple days earlier), Noah (who’d slipped on the wet boards, gone down and hurt his leg), and YaYa (who’d been hesitant about the hike to start with) all decided to stay where they were and view the falls from there. Beth and I went all the way to the bottom, where the boards were coated with slush and ice. There were big icicles hanging from the lower rockface as well and the boulders in the river below the falls were all encased in ice. It all looked impressively wintry given that daytime temperatures had been in the fifties for at least several days.
Around eleven we said our goodbyes to YaYa in the parking lot and drove back to Maryland. Noah will be home for another three weeks, and Beth and North go back to work and school on Thursday. I have to work starting today, but I’m planning to meet an out-of-town friend for coffee this afternoon, attend the neighbors’ annual New Year’s Eve party tomorrow, and go for another hike, this one along the Underground Railroad trail with Beth and Noah, on New Year’s Day, so there’s still a little time for celebration left.