Learning to Ski (When We Can Barely Walk)

Neither Terri or I are known for our grace—she actually fell up a flight of stairs in a New York subway, and I am still, five years later, recovering from a fractured ankle caused during what we refer to only as “the chocolate martini incident.†And don’t even ask me how I managed to dislocate my knee slipping on my own front porch.

So when we were asked if we wanted to travel to Tucker County, WV, to spend a day on the slopes, of course we said yes. Just because we’re not coordinated on dirt doesn’t mean that we can’t handle plummeting down a hill on two sticks and a bunch of snow, right? What could possibly go wrong?

We arrived in the Canaan Valley full of snow-bunny spirit, and after several rounds of cocktails, had deluded ourselves into thinking that when we hit the slopes the next morning, Picabo Street would be asking us for advice. Terri was confident, as she had skied one time before; I was a little more hesitant, seeing as how I’d made it to age 50 without ever donning a ski, despite living in western Pennsylvania.

The next morning, we drove to Timberline Four Seasons Resort, one of three skiing areas in the Canaan Valley. The weather was perfect, and our instructor, Don, seemed extremely pleased to see us. We knew it wouldn’t last.

Don: Hello, ladies. This is going to be fun!

Terri: Oh, it’s going to be hilarious. At least for you.

I was still quiet at this point, having been semi-traumatized at The Ski Barn by the fact that you have to list your weight on the form when you rent skis. You know what I don’t need to see first thing in the morning? THAT.

Anyway, Don taught us how to start (important) and stop (even more important), and soon we were ready to hop onto the ski lift and head up the bunny hill. Terri grabbed Don to ride up with her, which gave me the perfect vantage point behind them to watch as they gracefully exited the lift, and Terri continued to latch on to Don despite his best efforts to shake her, until both of them toppled over in the most amazing slow-motion skiing accident ever. I mean it. EVER.

I couldn’t stop laughing, which was unfortunate, as I still had to get off the lift and ski down the small ramp at the top of the hill. Where they were still entangled.

Fortunately for those flailing on the ground, I demonstrated my usual grace, and instead of dismounting appropriately, my skis hit the snow and I immediately flew backwards into the air, landing spread-eagled UNDER the lift, which continued to travel on its merry way as I watched my dignity disappear along with my seat. This could only have been more embarrassing if someone else were trying to get off the lift behind me…or if Terri had been able to get her camera out of her parka in time to record the events for posterity.

We finally made it to the edge of the slope, which BTW, is far less bunny-like and more rabid rabbit-like from this vantage point.

Vanessa: This is the smallest hill they have?

Terri: I know, right? Maybe we can get back on the lift and go down.

Vanessa: We couldn’t even get off the lift; now you want to try getting on it in the opposite direction?

At this point, (it might have been days—fear makes you lose track of time), Don gently encouraged us to get moving.

Terri: We should go.

Vanessa: Go ahead.

Terri: No, Don said you should go.

Vanessa: He meant you.

Terri: Why would he mean me?

Vanessa: Because he’s afraid that you’ll grab onto him again. Notice that he’s not coming anywhere near us.

Terri: If we die, he’s not going to miss us, is he?

Vanessa: Not a chance.

We continued to stare down the slope, trying to build up courage.

Terri: You know that there’s a bar at the bottom of the hill, right?

Hearing the magic words, I pushed myself off the cusp and started down. And I skied! Really, honestly, skied! And it was amazing! And I felt all athletic and everything, and the disastrous dismount was forgotten! Scarily, for a few panicked seconds, so were the instructions on how to stop, but it came back to me before I hit the ski shed at the bottom of the hill, thus preserving Don’s reputation and my ability to harm myself another day.

Terri arrived soon after, all in one piece, and Don, while still staying an arm’s length away, congratulated us on surviving our ski lesson. We even went up one more time just to prove that we could do it, and managed to make it down alive. While I don’t believe that we are ready for the Olympic team trials yet (okay, ever), we were both pretty proud of ourselves and I’m sure that the next trip we’ll be ready to take on the White Lightning run. Have the video cameras ready.

If You Go

One of the coolest things about visiting West Virginia’s high country is that the people who live and work there really seem to want you to have a good time. They love the outdoors, and they want you to enjoy yourself, too.

Timberline Four Seasons Resort

The resort boasts 41 diverse trails, including two terrain parks, and the highest average vertical south of Vermont (we weren’t quite ready for that). Last year, the resort had 200 inches of snow, so you should have no problem getting out on the slopes. Oh, and they have awesome instructors! (Do you forgive us yet, Don?) www.timberlineresort.com, 1-800-SNOWING

The Ski Barn

Need to rent skis? These folks know their stuff, and they are very kind (other than the weight question) to beginners. www.skibarn.net, 304-866-4444

Canaan Valley Resort:

Recently renovated with 160 new lodge rooms and suites, the resort includes the Hickory Lodge dining room and Season’s Café for when you build up an appetite. And for some serious fun, check out their super-fast snow tubing track—we howled the whole way down. www.canaanresort.com, 304-866-4801

Blackwater Falls State Park

One of the most gorgeous places on earth, even when the falls are iced over. The park also has the longest sled run on the East Coast, featuring a quarter-mile of fresh-groomed mountain snow. And you don’t have to walk back up the hill thanks to a Wonder Carpet conveyor system. The park also offers more than 10 miles of cross-country skiing trails. www.blackwaterfalls.com, 304-259-5216

White Grass Cross Country Tour Center

Check out 37 miles of trails, including a steep, 1,200 vertical rise. And their restaurant serves homemade soups and sandwiches to die for.  www.whitegrass.com>, 304-866-4114

Watch ‘Is! Off-roading on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails

There are many things that you bring back from a great trip:  stunning photos, memorable moments, friendships that will last a lifetime. But when Terri and I got to travel to southern West Virginia’s coal country to go four-wheeling on the Hatfield-McCoy trails, we brought back something that stuck with us even more.


Lots and lots of mud.

Now, I own a Jeep, so I’m no stranger to a little off-roading. But spending the day flying through the West Virginia mountains on all-terrain vehicles brings getting dirty to a whole new level. Admittedly, we could have missed a few of the puddles (our guide suggested that more than once), but what’s the fun in that?

When we first got to town, it was all quite civilized. We had a lovely lunch at Soho’s Italian Restaurant in the Capitol Market—a renovated 100-year-old rail yard that now houses stores and restaurants—and wandered the shops of downtown Charleston, West Virginia’s capital city. We visited the Spring Hill cemetery, which is unique in that it not only features unique graveyard art, including Celtic crosses, monolithic obelisks and my favorite, stones carved into tree stumps in the Stump family plot, but also an amazing view of downtown, including the gold-domed capitol building. Another highlight is the hollow zinc monument that marks the graves of the Thayer family; the story goes that it used to be used by bootleggers as a hiding place for their “product†during Prohibition.

We toured the very impressive West Virginia State Museum in the Capitol Complex, and also visited The Coal House in Williamson, WV, made of 65 tons of bituminous coal—since 1933, it has withstood four major floods and even a raging fire. While we were there, we got the chance to hold some bullets that had recently been discovered at a new Hatfield-McCoy dig site—nothing like having a bit of history in your hand!

But the real highlight of the trip was the chance to follow in the Hatfield and McCoy families’ footsteps—all of the parts except the shooting—as we careened though West Virginia hills and hollows.

Our host for the day, Jacqueline Proctor, introduced us to Mike from TrailsHeaven, who asked us if we’d be comfortable going out on UTVs (utility type vehicles). We could even drive them if we’d like. Sooner than Terri could say, “Watch ‘is!†we were helmeted up and heading out.

Terri (to Mike):  So how dangerous is this?

Mike: Just pay attention and you’ll be fine. And don’t get too close to the side of the cliff.

Vanessa (looking at the 30-foot drop):  We’re going to die.

Terri: Hush. We won’t go over the cliff.

Vanessa: Not willingly, at least.

Mike pales slightly, but keeps a strained smile on his face. And then Terri hits a huge puddle. Full speed. And we are covered—head to toe—in mud.

Vanessa (howling with laughter): Do it again! Do it again!

Mike: If you go slower, you won’t splash as much…..

Drenched. We are now drenched with mud. We stop to clean off our goggles, and Jacqueline pulls up in her ATV, also covered in mud and still looking like a fashion model. We snap a photo for posterity, just in case we somehow end up over the mountainside and our memory needs to be used as a cautionary tale for future riders. Now it’s my turn.

Terri: Do you need any advice? I’m good at this, you know.

Vanessa: You might just want to stay quiet—I swallowed mouthfuls of mud while I was in the back seat.

Terri: This was your plan all along to stop me from talking, wasn’t it?

And so we head down the hill. Fast. Slip-sliding every bit of the way and plowing into ever deeper puddles, spraying mud and guck and goodness knows what else. When we pull back into the parking lot and shut the machine off, it’s suddenly quiet, except for the sound of sucking mud detaching itself from the machine’s undercarriage and smacking to the pavement. The ATV, once a cheery yellow color, is now as brown as….well, mud.

We walk into the ladies’ room to clean off and dissolve into laughter when we look in the mirror.

Terri: I don’t think a handful of single-ply paper towels is going to do much.

Vanessa: I don’t think a pressure washer would do much.

Jacqueline, brilliant as ever, hands us large garbage bags that we proceed to wear—with pride—over our filth-covered clothes as we walk through the gift shop and back out to her car.

Jacqueline (with a straight face): Don’t get my car dirty, k?

We are so screwed.

If You Go

Seven trails make up the Hatfield-McCoy Trails system, totaling 630 miles through five southern West Virginia counties. The trails wind through the mountains and a number of ATV-friendly small towns, and vary from easy to extremely difficult routes, all of which are clearly marked. You must have a valid user permit before riding (WV resident $26.50, nonresident $50) which is good until Dec. 31 of the year it was purchased. While 99 percent of riders bring their own transportation, there are four companies that rent ATVs and UTVs, and you can also get guided tours. The trails are open to UTVs, ATVs and motorcycles.

Other attractions in the areas including motorcycling and kayaking. Motorcyclists should make sure to pick up a new map showcasing 1,000 miles of on-road motorcycle routes through southern West Virginia provided by www.trailsheaven.com. The site also provides information on kayak and off-road equipment rental, lodging, activities, restaurants and more.