Since the year is almost out
Lift your hands and give a shout
There’s a lot to shout about today
Since it’s Christmas, let’s be glad
Even if the year’s been bad
There are presents to be had
From “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad,” by Sufjan Stevens
Before Blackwater and Arrival: Tuesday and Wednesday
The day before we left for our rented cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park was busy. I had time-sensitive work for both Sara and Mike, after working on back burner projects for Sara for weeks and not having had any substantial work from Mike since spring. I was a little stressed about that—and I’d woken with a bad headache that day to boot—but it turned out neither project was that time-consuming and the headache dissipated, so by mid-afternoon I could turn my attention to wrapping presents, attending the parents’ portion of a telemedicine psychology appointment for North, and making a black bean enchilada casserole for dinner. In the evening, everyone packed for the trip.
Packing the car the next morning was a mighty endeavor. We needed room for presents, boxes of tree ornaments, and more food than we usually bring because we were hoping to minimize grocery shopping while in West Virginia. It only worked because North didn’t need the wheelchair or the walker, just crutches and the shower chair, and because we didn’t buy our tree in Maryland and transport it on the top of the car as we usually do. We were even able to bring most of the presents from Beth’s mom, which we’d originally intended to open at home. The past four Christmases we’ve spent at Blackwater with YaYa, but this year it would be just the four of us, thanks to covid. We were all very sad we couldn’t be together.
Much to our surprise, because we usually open presents from anyone we’re not going to see over the holiday before we leave town, North strenuously objected to opening YaYa’s presents early. In their mind, the tradition was we open YaYa’s presents on Christmas (as in recent years, we’ve always been with her). They felt so strongly about it, we accommodated them and found a tree farm in West Virginia that could set aside a tree for us (they weren’t open on Christmas Eve day).
We hit the road around 11:15 and arrived at the park at 3:45, with a stop to pick up a to-go lunch order from Sheetz, which we ate in the car in the parking lot. There was a sandwich (mine) missing from our order so I had to go back inside and just as they were starting to fix me a new one, the person who’d taken it by mistake came back in with it and since all he’d done with it was open the paper, I took it from him. I was thinking how given two store employees and two customers were involved in trying to untangle the mix-up, there was potential for someone to get rude or snippy but no one did. Not quite a Christmas miracle, but worth noting and appreciating.
Around an hour and a half into the drive, we started seeing patchy snow, and then it came and went as we rose and fell in altitude, until, about three hours in, snow covered all the ground we could see. At the park there was about a foot on the ground.
We settled into the cabin and immediately started to discuss whether or not we’d stayed in this one before. There are two styles of cabin and I don’t know about the rustic ones, but the modern ones are identical, so it’s really impossible to know. They are set off from the road along semicircular driveways in clumps of four or five, and as North pointed out, we’re always in one of the inner cabins, never an end one. In case we ever have this discussion again, I am stating for the record that in 2020, we stayed in cabin #29.
Beth and Noah watched an episode of The Mandolorian and then she made chili and cornbread for dinner, while Noah and I read a chapter of The Shining. I’m happy to be reading it with him because it’s one of my very favorite books and a good one to read while in the snowy woods, though I wasn’t anticipating a similar outcome.
That night we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, as we’d made enough progress through the required Christmas viewing list that we could afford an optional one. Whenever we do watch it I’m struck by how surprisingly faithful it is. I like hearing Dickens’ prose woven through it.
Thursday was warmer and it rained intermittently throughout the day. Almost all the snow melted off the back deck and the ground behind the cabin was a soupy, muddy mess, though in front it held up better. Beth and Noah were gone most of the morning, fetching the Christmas tree from the farm (and meeting the friendly farm cats) and grocery shopping. They went to three different stores in search of eggnog, because Noah loves it so, and eventually found some.
North and I took a short walk along the park road and then into the woods by the road to peek into the canyon. We couldn’t see the river, but we could hear it. I told North not to stand on the boulders that are right on the lip of the cliff as I didn’t want to watch them seize and then topple into the abyss and they indulged me.
Along the side of the road, there were places were water was running in smooth canals of ice, with straight edges that looked as if they’d been constructed, though I’m pretty sure it was a natural phenomenon. In other places, there were ragged potholes in the snow through which you could see the current that was mostly buried, rushing along and making the long grass wave under the water. When North wanted to return to the cabin, I accompanied them and then took a longer walk down to the Pendleton Point observation area. I could see the lodge across the canyon, one of the many waterfalls in the park, and the river.
After lunch, while we waited for the branches of the Christmas tree to fall, the kids and I made gingerbread cookies with the last third of the dough I’d made at home, and decorated them with hard candy, dried cranberries, and nuts. We made our initials into cookies and North made a Y for YaYa because we would have done that if she’d been here and we sent her a picture of it.
Beth wound the tree with lights and then we loaded it with ornaments. For a while it was in doubt whether they would all fit on the tree, but they did. North usually has the honor of putting the angel on top and this year was no different.
North made a vegetarian beef and mushroom stroganoff for dinner and afterward we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and Face Timed with YaYa and Beth’s aunt Carole. The sisters live two doors apart from each other, so they’ve made a covid bubble. We’re all glad about that because they each live alone and it would have been a lonely year for them if they couldn’t spend time together. During the call, the rain changed over to snow and YaYa showed us it was snowing in Wheeling, too.
After the call, North went to bed and we sent Noah to his room so Beth and I could fill stockings. I remembered we’d forgotten to read “A Visit with St. Nicholas,” which Noah always reads aloud for us on Christmas Eve and I was wondering if there was any chance the kids would agree to do it on Christmas day, and thinking probably not—when a sleepy North wandered out of their bedroom headed for the bathroom, and I rounded everyone up and Noah gave us a spirited reading of the poem.
Everyone was back in their bedrooms for the night by ten-thirty, though I had to get out of bed when I remembered the cookies, milk, and carrot for Santa and the reindeer needed to be nibbled and drunk. Yes, we still do this. No, I’m not sure why. I guess because North wants us to and the kids go along with a lot of what I want. For example, they went to bed in coordinated pajamas that night, Noah in green and white stripes and North in red and white stripes.
It was still snowing or snowing again when we woke. There was what looked like six inches of fresh snow on the deck. I think this was just about all Beth would have needed to have a merry Christmas, but there was more. Everyone was awake by eight, so we opened our stockings. Everyone had candy, both a handful of Hershey’s kisses and some individual kind of candy.
Beth and North made Christmas breakfast—a cranberry-lemon loaf, poached pears, and vegetarian sausage or bacon. I contributed by peeling a few pears. We ate and then opened presents. Books, socks, tea, and flannel pajama bottoms were popular gifts, with multiple people getting each. Among the other gifts, Beth got her subscription to The New Yorker renewed, I got some clothes (a belt, a white button down shirt, and black low tops), Noah got a new computer monitor (or, rather a note that said it was at home, because we didn’t want to transport it), and North got a bunch of things, including headscarves and a robe and a crocheting kit, but seemed most surprised by the pumpkin-praline-waffle scented candle we bought because YaYa always brings a candle with that scent at Christmas and North loves it. After we opened presents, we Face-Timed with YaYa again to thank her for her gifts.
Noah and Beth watched a Star Wars movie—don’t ask me which one, I think it was one of the recent ones—while I did the breakfast dishes and then Beth and North made homemade pizza for lunch. The fact that Christmas was on a Friday this year had presented us with a conundrum because we always have pizza for dinner on Fridays but it didn’t seem quite right for Christmas dinner, so this was how we solved the dilemma. After lunch, North embarked on the final Christmas baking project—chocolate-peppermint cookies. They’ve made these before, but in the past have been disappointed that the tops didn’t crack the way they’re supposed to, so they were pleased to have achieved the crackled look this year. While they were making the cookies, I read a story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, one of my Christmas books.
In the mid-afternoon, Beth and I took a walk down to the overlook and Pendleton Lake. As we started down the park road she asked if I was having a merry Christmas and I said yes. I returned the question and she just threw her arms apart to indicate the snowy scene before us. It was all the answer she needed to give.
It was a cold day, about ten degrees when we left the house, but tramping through the snow was hard enough work that I didn’t feel that cold (except for my forehead). We went to the dam at the end of the lake because the water running out of the culvert often makes interesting ice formations. There wasn’t much ice there that day but it was still a very pretty and peaceful walk. We were out for over an hour and only saw two other people—two women with two very excitable dogs. When we got home, I discovered my scarf had frozen to my hair and I had a little trouble getting it off.
Beth and I made spinach lasagna and garlic bread for Christmas dinner. It’s what YaYa usually makes and in fact, she was having the same thing for dinner in Wheeling. After dinner, we settled in with bowls of cookies and eggnog ice cream to watch our last Christmas movie of the year, Christmas is Here Again. It was a sweet end to a merry Christmas.
Second Day of Christmas: Saturday
On Saturday morning Beth and Noah started a puzzle, as is their wont on vacation. It was a whimsical street scene of little shops selling different kind of treats. Beth got it by offering a trade for a puzzle she and Noah had already done on the neighborhood listserv.
In the afternoon, Beth, Noah, and I took another snowy walk, this one two and a half hours long. The day was a little warmer—sixteen degrees when I thought to check. We started on the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins and followed it to the lake and then took a trail that had caught Beth’s eye the day before. The trailhead is near the dam and goes through the woods to Pase Point, a outcropping of rock from which you can look into the canyon.
The path was narrow and in places crossed through domes made where snow weighed down evergreen boughs. There were towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves snow-covered and curled against the cold. Some of them were twelve or fifteen feet high but where their branches were bent down with snow, we had to duck under them—once Noah crawled on his hands and knees. We saw some impressive icicles on the rock front and there were a few little wooden bridges that went over creeks and a couple little runs to ford by walking on rocks or just stomping through the inch-deep water. (This choice was dictated by how waterproof one’s boots were.)
It was overcast at first but as the sun started to come out we saw blue sky through the snowy branches and the snow on the path sparkled in front of us. We saw more people than the day before, more than a dozen hikers, skiers, and snow-shoers. A group of snow-shoers arrived shortly after we got to Pase Point, so we admired the beautiful view, but we didn’t linger.
I was tired when we got back so I took a little nap while Beth and Noah watched The Mandalorian. Noah made baked macaroni and cheese with broccoli for dinner.
More Days of Christmas: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday
We had two more days at the cabin. Sunday was warmer, above freezing all day. Beth and North took a little walk down the park road in the morning and Noah and I walked along the trail behind the cabin until it connected to the road and then took the road home in the early afternoon. Later in the afternoon, Beth, Noah, and I walked to the Pendleton Point overlook so Noah could fly his drone into the canyon. We’d been waiting for a mild day without much wind because those are the conditions the drone likes. But just after the drone took off, Noah got a message on the controller about something being wrong with the propellers so he brought it back. It had only just cleared the railing on the overlook when he turned it around. He made some adjustments and tried again, but got the same message, so we went back to the cabin, so he could trouble-shoot.
He ended up replacing one of the propellers (he has a spare parts kit) and then took it outside and flew it over the house. I watched it rise through the air from the kitchen window while chopping kale for Portuguese kale and potato soup. Noah thought it was good to go, but after walking back to the overlook he got the same message for a different propeller and by this point it was too late in the day to try again so we came home and I finished the soup and we ate it. After dinner we played Taboo, using first a website then an app because we’d forgotten to bring the game from home. The app works better if you’re curious. Then we split up to watch The Fosters (Beth and North) and What We Do in The Shadows (me and Noah).
Monday morning, Beth and Noah worked on the puzzle. It was almost finished but the part they had left was the trickiest one, the background of trees. While they worked on it, I ran the dishwasher and started the last three loads of laundry of the trip, and folded two of them, which is less work than it sounds like because the cabin’s washer is tiny.
When they’d finished the puzzle, Beth, Noah, and I went back to the overlook to try to fly the drone, which now had two new propellors, into the canyon for the third time. The wind was gusting as we walked down the road, so it seemed possible this would be another thwarted attempt, and it was. We arrived and waited for five or ten minutes for the wind to die down, but it didn’t so we went back to the house.
North was making their lunch, but once they were finished, we all got in the car to go to see the majestic Blackwater Falls. There are two trails you can take to do this. We were going on the short, accessible one so North could come along, and also because sometimes the wooden steps that get you closer to the falls are closed when they get coated with ice. But when we got to the accessible overlook, we could see people across the river on the lowest platform, so Beth, Noah, and I decided to brave that trail after lunch.
The steps were mostly covered with packed snow and ice, but they were open and we descended them carefully, not just resting a hand on the railing, but sometimes clutching with both hands and walking sideways. I didn’t mind looking like an old woman because I saw a few people fall, mostly teenagers or people in their twenties, who would laugh and spring back up. When we got to the viewing platform that’s about three-quarters of the way down, Beth and I decided to stay put and look at the falls from there, but Noah soldiered on, tempted, I think, by the opportunity to get some good pictures. I saw him fall once, but he got up and kept going. We saw him get to the lowest platform and start to photograph the falls and the ice on the rocks. I pointed out to Beth how the snow on the other side of the river was light brown with the tannin-infused water that had splashed on it and said it looked like toasted marshmallows. After Noah had left the lower platform but hadn’t appeared on ours, we looked around and found him on the trail above us, apparently waiting for us to turn around so he could take our picture. We walked back via a snow-covered but somewhat less slippery service road rather than taking the rest of the stairs up.
When we got back to the house, Noah and I read a few chapters of The Shining (we left off as Hallorann is racing back to the Overlook) and then Noah and Beth watched some more of The Mandalorian and then Beth and the kids took the decorations off the mantle and stripped the tree of its ornaments and dragged it to the deck while I read and finally finished this behemoth of a book, which I’ve been reading since September. I’d gotten seven books for Christmas so I wanted to finally finish it to clear the decks for them.
Dinner was leftovers and afterward we looked at Noah’s photos from the falls and watched the drone footage he’d shot from the porch. I didn’t realize he’d flown it as far away from the house as he had. You do get a glimpse of the canyon on the film. Next we turned to packing what we could because we were leaving the next day.
Tuesday we woke to flurries, but it didn’t amount to much and the roads were clear. We drove out of the snowy woods, through a mountainous landscape and eventually to exurbs and suburbs and home, where many of your Christmas cards and big box of presents from my sister, brother-in-law, and niece awaited us.