Moving in Snow Motion

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 22, 2003

"Now, where are we exactly?" Cathleen asks. We are standing at a juncture of cross-country ski trails in Laurel Highlands, part of the 58,000-acre Forbes State Forest about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Heaps of snow cover the rocks, stumps, rhododendron and mountain laurel. The winter sun slices through the trees and dances off the snow.

I know where we are -- I studied the map at our last stop -- but I stall. We've been skiing for more than two hours and Cathleen looks tired, so I fumble with the map and offer her water.

Cross-country skiing is a rhythmic, almost meditative sport, ideal for reflection, introspection and daydreaming. As such, it can be intensely personal and lends itself to long periods of silence, during which one can cover an awful lot of ground without realizing it.

Cathleen looks at me, awaiting a response. I finally admit it: "We are farther from the car than we've been all day. It's a long way back." She hopes I am kidding, but I show her reality on the map. She shoots me an expression that I fear conveys a deep fondness for prior boyfriends and says, with characteristic resolve, "Okay. Let's go."

We are at the intersection of the Silvermine trail and Rector-Eire Road, about five winding, wooded miles from our parking spot on Laurel Summit Road. In my defense, this is not technically as far as we could be from the car: Six more miles of trail, in an area known as Wolf Rocks, are accessible to our south.

The area we are skiing comprises about 30 miles of trails, with many of those miles near Laurel Mountain's 2,634-foot summit. The park receives about six feet of snow a year and is typically skiable from about Christmas through late March. This winter has been unusually snowy. A sign on the Nordic ski patrol hut on Jan. 19 pronounces: "Best snow conditions of the year!"

Cathleen would be fine had we not skied more than four hours (about eight miles) the previous day. Our legs are tired and, frankly, there's only so much meditating to do in one weekend. But we are not complaining. We have food and water and, in a couple of hours, we'll be at the bar of the Ligonier Country Inn, an 1800s-era hotel about five miles away in Laughlintown, Pa., where we are staying.

The 18-room inn is warm, dark and cozy, an ideal place to buck the cold with a Scotch. The bar is tucked behind a dining area where a gas fire roars.

Behind the lobby is a larger dining room, evidence that the restaurant is popular with hungry locals. The food is good and the portions are healthy. One standout is the chicken pot pie: The homemade pastry crust melted in my mouth.

Innkeepers P.J. and Maggie Nied, who met at the inn on New Year's Eve 1989, are gregarious, helpful and intimately familiar with the area (they are snowshoe enthusiasts and Maggie moonlights as a search-and-rescue specialist because of her mountain knowledge).

Maggie suggested our skiing routes (including the Silvermine excursion), told us where to rent gear, even lent us ski poles. Upon check in, she drolly informed us, "If you have any wild parties and fail to invite the innkeepers, you pay double."

The inn's Sunday breakfast -- a $5 all-you-can-eat affair -- is also noteworthy, with pancake, waffle and omelet stations. Maggie recounted the tale of a carload of Clevelanders who drove three hours simply to verify the $5 stuff-your-face opportunity. We get our $10 worth, knowing the calories will help in the cold.

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