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(Tom Shroder)

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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, March 29, 2009

The idea was to avoid the stress, hassle and expense of flying, but as the snow started falling three hours into our drive, just as we were beginning to spiral up and down the tightly wound Allegheny mountain roads, I could suddenly see the advantage of sitting on the tarmac in indefinite hold at Dulles. Of being anywhere but here, in our overloaded minivan with two-wheel drive, slipping and sliding to the crumbly edge of curves that cling to cliffs hundreds of feet in the air.

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Snowshoe, W.Va., has the best East Coast slopes south of New England, but it's a four-hour drive from Washington on often-treacherous roads. A couple of years ago, with a car full of kids, we got stuck on a grade so steep I was convinced we'd simply slide backward right off the mountain. With night coming and the wind whipping up a frozen gale, I had 40 minutes to contemplate freezing to death while trying to walk up the mountain for help before a plow came by and we managed, barely, to follow in its tracks to safety.

This time, the snow was just beginning to accumulate. After some tense moments when the wheels spun in a sickening whine, we finally arrived at the central check-in, frazzled and not looking forward to lugging all our gear, groceries and suitcases through the arctic blast from car to condo. It's always at this point, exhausted from the trip and the anxiety -- Are we ever going to get up this hill? Will the condo be worth the crushing MasterCard bill? Will the snow be ski-able? Will we make it home with no broken bones? -- that I wonder why I signed up for this.

Only later, after all those questions are answered in the affirmative, after the morning sun explodes off the snow-covered mountains under a sapphire sky, after we fly down slopes in a spray of powder and pull up to a rustic cabin on the shore of a frozen lake for steaming hot chocolate beside a blazing stove, do I know the answer. The anxiety has blown off like fog, and in its absence everything takes on an extra dimension, a super-saturated reality. It's the kind of moment you miss even when you're in it.

That almost indescribable emotion is expressed with sublime precision in Lauren Wilcox's transfixing consideration of Woody Allen's Manhattan that begins on Page 10, one of three articles in this issue about experiencing primo travel destinations through the lenses (in Allen's case, literally) of great artists. To me, that theme is a fitting way to think about travel, an art in itself. And just like any other art, nothing good comes without pain.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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