In this winter of my discontent, I have wished each week for snow to bury the temperate days and I have envied blizzard-bound folks in Colorado. Though seduced by the warm breath of our false spring, I have refrained from indulging in too glad an embrace, knowing that all manner of life will be fooled into an early stretch then frozen stiff. And all manner of snow-mad creatures will be cheated of their pleasure.
Say what you will about the delights of a shirtsleeve day in January, I'd rather be skiing.
Of course you try to be a good sport. Make compromises. Change plans. And so last week, on a day reserved more than a month ago for downhill racing, I rode instead a bicycle along the abandoned bed of a 19th century railroad. In sleet and hail. Wishing either for snow or more false spring.
If you want to hear a mournful sound, place a call to any of the nearly two dozen ski resorts within commuting distance of Washington and ask how business has been. The Christmas season, usually the busiest of the year, has been nonexistent. A good crowd during the week between Christmas and New Year can be the difference between profit or loss to an operation.
Millions of dollars worth of snow-making machines, their nozzles pointed at bare slopes, remained idle. You do not need real snow to open a ski resort, but you do need temperatures low enough to make the artificial stuff.
"I'm glad you reached me today," said an official at one ski resort in southern Pennsylvania last week. "Because tomorrow I plan to commit suicide."
Given the bleak skiing prospects, I was persuaded by a friend to spend the day in pursuit of more bucolic, if less exciting, pleasure. Our plan was to ride a section of the 45-mile-long Washington and Old Dominion trail. Built along the roadbed of the former W&OD railroad, the trail stretches from the Potomac River to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But this morning, with the sky spitting a cold spray, my friend remembered he had pressing duties to perform. Like washing his lettuce.
The W&OD trail, at 100 feet wide, is the skinniest park in Virginia. From 1859 until 1968, trains rode the rails through Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Arlington and Falls Church. Since 1977 the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has spent more than $5 million in local, state and federal funds to buy and improve the right of way of the abandoned roadbed.
Earlier this year the park's board chairman, Walter L. Mess, announced that the W&OD had become the most heavily used park in Northern Virginia. A paved bike trail now extends from the Potomac to Herndon. Most of the rest of the trail is either dirt or rough gravel, a condition that satisfies the horse riders but is tough on bicycling.
The park authority voted unanimously last spring to pave the entire length of the trail and to build a separate horse path alongside it west of Herndon.
Still, there is something appealing about the unimproved sections, particularly from the seat of a bike with wide, knobby tires. For history buffs, the best way to travel is with a guidebook printed by the park authority.
There are still railway stations along the trail, and buildings that served as general stores and hospitals during the Civil War.
But last week, it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the trail itself. The rain and sleet had covered the grass with a thin coating of ice. Every time I looked up, my eyes were blurred and my face stung.
After riding east for 45 minutes, it occurred to me the day was not going to get any nicer. I turned to the west, with only the consolation that the sleet might soon become snow.