All around us stood the tall, unbending hemlocks, their boughs laden with the fast-falling snow. Slowly our little car wound its way along the ice-glazed road from New Germany State Park in western Maryland. Exhilalrated by an afternoon's skiing and enchanted by the stark white arbor before us, we didn't notice the hill ahead -- until we were spinning our wheels midway up.
I checked the rear-view mirror. Three cars were waiting at the bottom, their occupants wondering, no doubt, how anyone in a car equipped with snow tires, front-wheel drive and a ski rack could be dumb enough to get stuck. Embarrassed but undaunted, we discussed the alternatives: back all the way down the hill and start over, or push.
Mustering more strength than their combined 340 pounds afforded them, Della, Linda and Betsy hopped out and stationed themselves along the sides of the car. Gradually the right-front tire, the only one on cinders, sputtered, took hold and pulled, as they strained and pushed. Atop the hill at last, I looked back to see Della, who had stood behind the gripping wheel, a spotted mess. Her efforts earned her the epithet Cinderr-Della for the weekend.
A cautious five miles later we pulled into the parking lot of the Casselman Inn in tiny Grantsville, Maryland.
A renegade from downhill skiing -- with its long lift lines, noisy crowds, expensive equipment and crazy hotdoggers -- I took up cross-country skiing two seasons ago. It was one of the few sports, I figured, that I could enjoy at my own pace and, as an added bonus, I could munch while I was doing it. Betsy and my sister Della, were graduates of a one-day trip last year to the Manassas Battlefield and were itching to go skiing for a whole weekend. Linda, a veteran of a short jaunt in the Berkshires, had borrowed skis from a friend who told her, "I love skiing so much that just knowing you will be using these makes me happy."
Other friends had declined our invitation. "Cross-country skiing -- isn't it too strenuous?" they had asked. "We can do it," Della and I replied, and everyone knows we are about as athletic as old knee socks. "Besides, you can go as fast or as slow as you want," I had told them neglecting to add, "or as fast as you must to keep warm."
On Friday night before the four of us left, Betsy and Linda bustled about like college freshmen. "What should I take? What should I bring?" they asked in a sereies of phone calls. "I've never been on a cross-country ski trip."
When we met the next morning at 6:30, we had among us eight sweaterss, 10 shirts, 12 pair of socks, six sets of long underwear, seven hats, six pairs of gloves, three down vests, one parka, two cakes, eight oranges, eight sandwiches, grapes, an apple, peanuts, granola, two water bottles, a first-aid kit (including an elastic bandage), a Swiss Army knife and a jug of coffee.
We fastened our skis to my ski rack, circa 1960, supplementing its worn rubber supports with rope. Two of the original eight supports had long ago broken off, one when Betsy, saying, "What's this?" had given it a tug through the sunroof. As we set off, leaving men and dogs behind for the weekend, the sun was just peeping about the Potomac, and Washington's memorial buildings stood crystallized on the dawning mauve horizon.
Three and a half hours of steady driving from D.C. is enough to get most people to Grantsville. Two pit stops and five hours later, however, our leisurely foursome arrived at the Casselman, where we had a room in the new motel.
In June 1980 the fire marshal dealt both the inn and skiers a serious blow:
He condemned the seven upstairs rooms of the old Casselman house. With its peeling wallpaper, slanted floors and sagging four-poster beds, the Casselman was grandmother's house to many a city slicker.
I discovered it two years ago while looking for accommodations for a New Year's weekend ski trip. It seemed that downhill skiers, attracted by nearby Wisp, had booked all the rooms in Garrett County. Finally I called the Casselman, and to my amazement, there was room at the inn -- for $7.50 a night.
Since then, innkeepers Ivan and Della Miller have opened 40 motel units behind the 19th-century house, and necessarily raised the rates. Mrs. Millerr says the improvements requested by the fire marshal are being made, and the family hopes to reopen the upstairs guest rooms soon.
The new motel lacks the charm of the house, but its hand-fashioned furniture and fluffy while curtains made it comfortable enough for four car-sick skiers. Donning as many as five layers of clothing, we set out for New Germany, or West Germany, as Linda kept calling it.
It was a "blue-day" for her and me. We rubbed our wooden skis, already pine-tarred for the season, with hard blue wax, as determined by the temperature and snow conditions. Waxing my hickory beauties is a ritual I have adjusted to, but I have not yet mastered pine tarring. Last year a friend and I attempted to apply the goo in his kitchen with a hair dryer. A week later, of course, I paid an outfitter $10 to tar them properly with a blowtorch.
Della and Betsy sorted out their waxless fiberglass skis, identical except in length. "Your bindings look like mousetrps," Della observed to me as we all snapped our toes into place.
Poles pushing and skis sliding, we were soon gliding like lopsided ice skaters through falling snow along a laurel-lined stream. When the path divided, we chose the uphill route and switched our gait to duck walking. All of us except Linda, who switched to hiking because her skis kept sliding backward. At this point the owner of those skis must have been a lot happier than she was.
Eventually we reached the top of the hill and entered a dark, narrow -- and mercifully flat -- path carved out under thick evergree branches. While Betsy and Linda paused there for lunch, Della and I followed the trail to its breathtaking end -- a vast, light clearing, where crumpled cornstalks angled out of the snow like thousands of elbows pokiing through clouds in a surrealistic painting.
The trip back to the car proved easier, especially to Linda, who preferred snowplowing downhill to walking up.
Despite getting the car stuck on the first hill outside the park, our enthusiasm was running high. There was even talk of going out for both a morning and an afternoon session on Sunday.
Once back at the motel, however, we collapsed, then struggled one block to dinner at the Casselman Restaurant, located in the house. Our tasty, home-cooked meal. complete with shoofly pie (but no alcohol -- the Millers are Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites), cost us less than $25. The restaruant is popular among skiers and local folks alike. "No wonder," said Linda. "It's cheaper to eat here than at home."
Too tired to explore the Blue Moon Saloon, a few blocks away in the National Hotel, we fell asleep watching Eugene Ionesco's "The Rhinoceros" on television. Any bumps on us, we were sure, were not the budding-tusk variety on our foreheads.
We awoke Sunday morning to bright sunshine, a keening wind and fresh, fine, billowy snow. Betsy, the first one up, threw on her longjohns, jeans and a parka for the journey to the dining room. It proved to be a long, cold walk for a phantom cup of coffee -- this year the Millers have abandoned the Sunday-morning routine of coffee and doughnuts at the house in favor of a coffee machine in the motel.
On her way out, Betsy overheard the desk clerk giving the local skiing conditions to a prospective guest on the phone: "Well, there's some snow," came the report, "and it's pretty cold."
As she hurried back to the room, she glanced at the bank's digital thermometer: four below. And there was about a foot of snow. It was what diehards on wooden skis call a "special-green day."
Wearing double layers of everything -- long underwear, sweaters and socks -- the four of us loaded up our sluggish, frosty car. On the way I tried to remember at just what temperature exposed flesh freezes in 30 seconds.
That day saw a 50 percent drop-out rate in the first half-hour of skiing. With early signs of frostbitten toes, Betsy turned back. Linda soon followed. They discovered the warming hut, where a wood-fire blazed (fueled by broken skis, perhaps?), and were about to start a backgammon game in the car when Della and I puffed into sight. We had skied continuously for three hours -- it was too cold to stop. The touted second session would have to be a version of bar skiing -- rehashing the weekend's events in the car on the way home.
"I do think my skiing is getting better," Della commented, shortly before falling asleep in the back seat. We all agreed that none of us would ever be mistaken for Olympic medalist Bill Koch, but lack of talent wouldn't keep us off our skinny skis.
The next day Della confirmed her improvement: "Did Betsy tell you about the great ski switch?" she asked me over the phone.
"So you two did get your skis mixed up?"
Well, not completely," Della explained. "We switched only one ski. All day Sunday one of the skis I was wearing was three inches longer than the other. I guess I'm better than I thought I was."