Writing by Dylan Jones – Photos by Gabe DeWitt
Surrounded by a mess of skis, poles, boots and bags, we piled into the Land Cruiser with high hopes. The moon was just starting to wane, but remained full enough to set the snowy forest ablaze with white brilliance. Like moths to the flame, we set out to chase the light of our lone satellite.
We rallied in the parking lot around 9:45, loading up with libations while stamping boots into bindings. A few eerie clouds lingered near the moon, radiating diffused shades of grey, purple and yellow as they drifted eastward. But tonight, the moon would win.
We could see deep into the hardwood forest. The gangly shadows of oaks, maples and cherry trees stretched across the snow as if the bony fingers of Old Man Winter himself were reaching toward our every move.
Cross country skiing is quite rhythmic. There’s something about the icy scrape of skis on trail, the way the syncopated stab of poles accompanies the foggy blast of heavy breath.
Stop for a moment and look around, however—silence. The woods during a winter’s night are as dormant as Death Valley at high noon. With no canopy to reverberate sound waves, noise slips away into the dark hollows as quickly as it pings the ear drum.
If a skier glides through a forest and there’s no one there to hear her, does she make a noise? The trail had been broken, and the snow compaction of the day’s warmer temps followed by a dip below the freezing mark cemented our predecessors’ marks like a luge. The snow was fast. At times, it felt as if we were pioneers travelling an arctic rail line—a team of sled dogs would not have been out of place.
As a cosmic mirror delivering the sun’s photons to our retinas, the moon effortlessly outshined most stars. Orion the Hunter triumphantly stood watch over Snake Hill, his star strung bow aimed directly at Morgantown—part of me wished Zues himself would have commanded his giant huntsman to pierce the Longview Powerplant, temporarily affording us a viewshed sans light pollution.
A pleasantly warm breeze ensconced our crew as we shared snacks and beverages under the brilliant canopy of the cosmos.
I couldn’t help but think back to the moth and the flame, how humanity flocks to live under the light bubbles of its great cities. Some of the greatest discoveries and advancements of humankind were derived from those who turned their gaze to the heavens. Without access to the night sky, how do we know our place in the universe? How many people live full lives without spending a night splayed out on a riverbank, staring up at the humbling, gaseous arm of the Milky Way?
Eventually, we had to return our gaze to terra firma. It was time to head back, but Mother Nature had one more tribulation in store for us. Right on time, intermittent clouds rolled in as we slid back into the forest. The temperature fluctuated just above and just below that magical 32 degree point, causing our skis to collect snow as hard as concrete while we tried to remain graceful.
Around 1:00 in the morning, the last of our party tromped across the finish line, glad to kick off the skis that hindered her return. Exhausted, sweaty and euphoric, we slumped our tired bodies over the mess of ski gear and, like the moth to the flame, returned to our bright city.