On the warmest day of the week, they came by car and foot, and Metro, seeking winter amidst the concrete and sunshine. Wrapped in mink and Missoni, plastic and polyester, their numbers were legion as they descended up on the heart of the city and waited in line sometimes for hours.
They came to ski.
That's right -- ski. Across the sunny flatlands of that part of the national back yard better known as the Ellipse.
You didn't see any snow yesterday?
Not to worry.
The event was billed as the area's First Annual Winter Festival, and the sponsors, Herman's Sporting Goods and the National Park Service, skirted this minor quirk of nature very simply: they made their own snow.
And, according to park service figures, nearly 9,000 people took advantage of the chance to don boots and skis -- without charge of course -- and sample cross-country skiing.
Ironically perhaps, cross-country aficionados boast that their version of the sport is preferable to the downhill variety because there are no long waits at ski lifts and few crowds. Some of those who had been in line for two hours yesterday clung tenaciously to this line of reasoning.
"I never dreamed there'd be this many people," sighed Jesse Ryan, a lawyer from Annandale. Her small daughter, Angel, in a sudden burst of restlessness, took a bite out of Ryan's knee while strains of Jackson Browne's "Hold Out/Hold On" (courtesy of WPGE-FM's mobile studio) drifted through the spring-like air.
The sponsors weren't expecting quite so many people, either.
"We were absolutely astounded," Ed Pierce, a regional manager for Herman's, said. "They started lining up at about 8 this morning, and by 10, they were all the way around the place. I would guess there were a couple thousand people out here before we even got under way."
Pierce said Herman's has sponsored a similar event in New York's Central Park for years. Its increasing popularity prompted the company to expand the festival to other cities, he said, "and Washington just seemed like a logical place. There are a lot of frustrated skiers here -- because of the weather, I mean."
"We were going to go away this weekend," Amy Lee Roth, a newly arrived Texas Republican, said. Her husband, Jackson, has what she would only describe as a "government job," and "these crazy people want him to work at it all the time," she complained.
To soothe her disappointment, they compromised by spending a few hours on the Ellipse. Clutching Rossignol cross-country skis in one hand and a Louis Vuitton change purse in the other, Roth, who was wearing two very thick sweaters by Italian designer Missoni, sleek tan leather knickers, and a liberal dose of Ralph Lauren perfume, seemed surprised when asked why she hadn't just worn jeans.
"I'm from Fort Worth. We do things right down there," she drawled.
Behind Roth, 6-year-old Patrick Daniels of Northwest Washington, in hot pursuit of a 150-pound St. Bernard dog, tripped and fell, managing simultaneously to get his tongue stuck to the artificial snow, which was more like ice than real snow. His 10-year-old brother, Alan, came to his aid, then shoved a fistful of fake flakes down his little brother's pants.
"We came because my mother said we had to get out of the house or she'd kill us," he said matter of factly.
Those who didn't care to wait for ski equipment passed the time by watching the crowd or taking part in a snow sculpture contest sponsored by WPGC. Three anonymous teen-aged girls from Sidwell Friends School were constructing an anatomically correct snowman, not because we want to win, but because it's a great way to meet people," one giggled.
The afternoon cost the park service nothing, and representatives from Herman's declined to say how much they spent.
"I don't think it [the cost] is relevant," a Herman's spokesman said. "Just look at this as a goodwill gesture in the nation's capital, a great way to introduce people to a sport that's healthy and inexpensive. Based on this response, I would definitely say we'll be back again next year."