Thirteen-year-old Laura was fiddling with the radio dial in the car.
Suddenly her face went ashen; perspiration formed on her brow.
"Oh, no," she cried. "Mall music." The syrupy strains of Montovani drifted from the speakers. She clapped her hands over her ears, dove into the back seat and rollup up in a ball.
'Tis the season to be anxious.
There undoubtedly are people who enjoy the colorful, busy pace and psychological challenge of a day at the shopping mall. There are others who simply can't hack it, particularly in the early days of December.
To these social outcasts the world might say, "Take a hike."
And that's not a bad idea.
A winter hike can ease the severest urban tensions.
Tom Floyd's a stalwart in the Potomac Appalachian Trial Club. He loves to hike in any season, but for years he was plagued with a complicated sinus condition that limited him to warm-weather hiking.
Ten years ago he discovered a medication that eliminated his cold-weather problems and he went on his first untroubled winter hike.
"I was thrilled," he said. "The winter wilderness is really so much more of a wilderness. It's something most of us never see. There's much more opportunity for solitude in the wintry snow than any other time of the year."
Floyd can count on one hand the number of weekends since then that he's missed out on winter hikes.
In fact, there is quite a cadre of Washington winter hikers (Each of the four hiking clubs in the capital schedules some kind of expedition every weekend.
Washington hikers consider winter their second-best season, after autumn. The clubs' buses and car pools generally fill up in October with foliage fans; but in winter there is usually ample space for newcomers who can't stand another weekend at the mall.
"It's great, as long as you know how to dress for it," said Ed Evangelidi of Center Hiking Club.
"You need good boots, a couple of layers of woollen socks, thermal underwear, three to four layers of clothing for the body proper and something to cover your hands and head."
Iv'e taken winter hikes with both the Wanderbirds Hiking Club and the Capital Hiking Club, and in no instance was the cold a problem. Even three inches of snow on the ridgetops of the Shenandoah National Park couldn't bog down the Wanderbirds.
Folks unfamiliar with the outdoors might expect cold to be the drawback in winter hiking, but it simply isn't. Walking is more strenuous exercise than it appears, particularly on hilly courses. If you keep pace with the veterans, you're more likely to be hot than cold.
Hot and weary.
The hardest-core of the Washington hiking clubs is Wanderbirds, a group fashioned in the early 1930s after a New York hiking club, which in turn took its name from a German club.
Wanderbirds like to gobble up the miles. There hikes usually include short courses of about eight miles for the less ambitious and hauls of 10 to 20 miles for the stalwarts. The club hikes every weekend, using a charter bus that leaves from downtown at 8 a.m. The cost is generally about $6 per person and the Wanderbirds usually head for the mountains and are back home by nightfall.
Capital Hiking Club is an offshoot of Wanderbirds, designed in the '30s for the less shardy hikers. But in truth the Capital operation is very similar to the Wanderbirds, and many club members belong to both organizations, picking whichever bus trip and hike they like better each weekend.
Center Hiking Club was formed in 1939 on the idea that close-in, easier hikes were lacking. Most of their expeditions start with car pools, and the cost is generally about a third of what Capital and Wanderbirds charge. Often they are back home by early afternoon.
Lately Center Hiking Club has been branching out into other outdoor pursuits, including canoeing, ice skating and cross-country ski trips.
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club is fond of overnight trail work hikes, during which groups hike to sections of the Appalachian Trail that need work, spend the days on maintenance and sleep out in shelters or cabins along the trail.
Workers pitch in to cover car-pool expenses and food for a feast at night. PATC also runs occasional day hikes, with no work duties involved.
Who goes hiking? Center Hiking Club claims members from ages 12 to 84, but generally hikers are healthy folks in the 30-and-up age group.
All four organizations welcome nonmembers to join their forays into the wilds.
"We even get good turnouts when there's deep snow," said Floyd. "I think people feel really cooped up in winter in the city. They have some idea that if somebody will just get them out in the woods, they can walk through the snow and have some fun."
Which is exactly what they do.