The light from the street lamp, against the snow, was enough to outline the three figures waiting in the parking lot. Sandy made the introductions. It was Sandy who had called earlier, in the middle of a maddening afternoon, with a quietly sane invitation to go moonlight skiing on the C&O canal towpath.
By the time I wedged my skis out of the car, she was offering a tube of red wax, explaining, "The temperature is just about freezing and the tracks are probably still soft from the daytime skiers." She did not need to explain that using the wrong wax can be the most frustrating and discouraging experience a beginning cross-country skier can have. I had learned that the hard way.
If the wax is too hard for the temperature and moisture content of the snow, you get no grip to push forward, only a slip-slide going nowhere. Too soft and it's like tromping through a muddy field in oversize boots. No wonder the waxless skis are selling so well.
While I coated my skis with wax and rubbed it in, the others began to ski off down the hill toward the canal and towpath. I walked, carrying my skis.
There was a surprising amount of light on the path, though the moon was not yet over the horizon -- defined by the hill between the canal and MacArthur Boulevard on one side and the tree-covered bank falling away toward the river on the other. Perhaps it was light reflected from distant lamps or houses along the road, or from the still-unseen moon, but the tracks left by earlier skiers were clearly visible.
The wax was perfect, but for every three good step-and-glides I managed, I stumbled once. Starting out second behind Sandy as we headed south along the towpath, I soon heard "Track," called behind me once, then twice, as both of the other women skied smoothly past.
Within a few minutes, I was alone with the crunch and whisper of my skis. If there was a breeze, it was so light it did not rustle in the trees. Somewhere a dog barked, perhaps at us. The canal was frozen and dusted with random piles of snow, but the river was brushed bronze. When I stopped, there was no sound except my own breathing.
One of the gifts of winter is the quality of its silences, somehow deeper and more complete than those of any other season. Insects and birds do not riffle blades of grass or leaves, and the sounds that reach you have been damped and rounded and gentled by the snow. If you're given to a touch of the romantic, you can hear the earth turn.
The dog barked again, and Sandy called from somewhere up ahead to see if I was all right, so I pulled my mind back from the night and tried to direct it toward my skis.
"Relax your back," the instructor had said. "Put your poles down in front of you at an angle and push off. Put your body weight into the push. Keep your skis flat."
The more I thought, the worse it got. I would lose the track, turn my ankle, stumble and clutch at my poles. Every so often, I would look up and find Sandy skiing back to help me along. She must have skied that first mile five times.
"Don't look at the ski tips," I thought, "Look ahead." Ahead, the river turned away from the canal and the towpath converged into a dark tunnel. Maybe it had been the river producing the reflected light. I wished I had a flashlight.
Little by little, I achieved a king of rhythm; my acrobatics became less violent, the stops fewer and Sandy's roundtrips less frequent.
Somewhere near Carderock, all three waited for me to share a snack of cheese and wine. What I really wanted was water, but I had left the canteen in the car. Exertion creates quite a thirst.
It also generates heat and sweat, and I wished I had not left my windbreaker at home, or at least had not worn cotton against my skin. It trapped the sweat there, and air seeping through my sweaters chilled it, turning it into an efficient heat evaporator.
While moving and making heat, I was comfortable, but when I stopped a chill set in. Somewhere out of memory, a picture arose of an old movie marquee that read, "100% Cooler Inside." I decided not to make any more stops, as we turned back north.
The light on the towpath was getting steadily brighter as we retraced our route. By the time we were near the parking lot, the moon had crept up from behind the hill and was balancing on the tips of the trees.
Reflections off the snow and the canal nearby dazzled us as each crystal, like a piece of mica, seemed to concentrate and multiply the light. The surface of the river near the shore was inlaid with bright silver between the thin fingers of overhanging trees.
It was nearly nine o'clock; we should have started off later to get the full benefit of the moonlight.
We had meant to ski on north to the area called Widewater to see the moon slide across its surface, but the towpath was getting treacherously icy. Within a hundred yards, the Park Service had put a barrier across it, which we took as a warning that things would get worse ahead, not better.
By then, I was damp through both sweaters and had begun to shiver noticeably. Someone said wouldn't a bowl of Trav's hot chili taste great, and that did it. We headed for the parking lot, formed a caravan and made our way down MacArthur to a ramshackle Victorian house just beyond Glen Echo known as "Trav's."
One of the skiers had discovered it during the summer while cycling along the canal towpath. It seems to be a local tavern at night, and we were the only women in the place. No matter, the service was fast and friendly and topped by the hottest chili and coldest beer ever served east of the towpath on a moonlit might in January.
Which led someone to suggest that next time we fill up on chili first and ski later.