Nephew Paul made the most of his holiday visit here during the “winter that wasn’t.” But his return home was meteorologically ironic.
Paul is my wife Kathy’s brother’s son, and he’s clearly enjoyed visiting us throughout his life. He’s in his mid-30s now and lives in Richmond, Virginia where he works as a medical assistant.
When they were boys, I taught Paul and his younger brother Gordon to split firewood by hand, to hit targets with a .22 rifle, catch sunfish, and paddle canoes. Summer visits always found us paddling down the “Middle” Youghiogheny, sometimes just Paul and me, and other times as a family fleet.
On one trip Paul caught a beautiful rainbow trout near “Lunch Beach.” Another time, a fog descended on the river, so dense you could hear the looming rumble of whitewater but could not see the route through the “Middle’s” moderate rapids until committed. Rain fell so hard that you could not have gotten wetter in a capsize. We still laugh about that trip. On another of Paul’s visits we saw a bobcat on Sugarloaf Knob as we drove up to watch the Perseid meteor shower on a summer night atop the knob.
I found it gratifying that Paul developed an interest in our Ohiopyle area. He takes maps home to plan future excursions, and as soon as he returns, he’s ready for a bike ride, river paddle, or a hike on a trail.
Trycia has accompanied Paul on the last couple visits. Trycia lives in Montreal, Canada, and they’ve been dating long-distance for about a year. They spent Christmas in Richmond, where Trycia missed her dependable Canadian holiday snow. So, Paul promised her a white New Year’s Eve. “We’ll go up and visit Uncle Ben; they’re sure to have snow for New Year.”
Paul’s promise, of course, was unfulfilled. The temperature teased 60 during their entire stay, and the only snow was a shrinking fake mound, visible in the distance beside the Nemacolin ski lodge.
We tried to adapt. We visited Fort Necessity and Jumonville Glen, to which Trycia lent a fascinating new perspective. She is of French descent and is attuned to her nation’s history. But she had not been aware that pivotal events in the history of France and French Canada happened right here.
It was a pleasure to hear her read and translate French documents in the Fort Necessity Visitor Center. Her appealing French accent lent an authentic tone to the fascinating story of catalytic events to the French and Indian War (Known from the French perspective as the Seven Years War). She was eager to return home and tell friends that she’d been to that place in the western Pennsylvania mountains where Ensign Jumonville met his grisly and fateful end.
We also stopped at the Ohiopyle Visitor Center, where Paul saw a photograph of a spectacular scenic vista. He asked if I knew how to reach that overlook, which I did.
“That’s a little less than three miles north from Ohiopyle on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail,” I told him. “It’s all uphill and steep, but you youngsters can get there in about an hour; well worth the effort.”
Kathy and I needed to get home to prepare for our New Year’s cookout and campfire, but Trycia and Paul decided to make the hike, dressed as for summer but with emergency gear prudently stashed in a pack. They returned just before dark, impressed by the view their climb had earned, looking straight up the Youghiogheny Gorge at Sugarloaf, framed like a gunsight between the heights.
We relaxed around the fire for hours, marveling at the mild night air, even though I’ve always liked “real” winter.
We had no plan for New Year’s Day, except the default punt to watch football. In early afternoon, Paul beamed with a suggestion. “Let’s all go down to Ohiopyle and jump in the river for New Year.”
The room, hyper-warmed by a temporarily redundant woodstove, went silent. Daughter Colleen, her partner Rich, and our granddaughter were all there, and we exchanged blank quizzical stares. Finally, someone quipped, “Why not?” We piled in cars and trucks with towels and warm fleece for afterward.
It is not possible to describe the shock of river water in winter, even when the air is oddly warm. Taking the plunge is contrary to every corporal warning. You must force yourself to think and breathe. Otherwise, your entire body’s compelling impulse is to get out and get dry, to return to rational. Paul, Trycia, and I went in twice.
Once out and dry, your skin burns in an exhilarating, uplifting way. We congratulated ourselves on brief “misery” shared. It was the shared experience that felt the best. We all thanked Paul for the idea.
Paul and Trycia left the next day, Sunday, for Richmond. On Monday, I had a medical appointment in Morgantown, where I saw a weather map on a waiting room television. A white pall blanketed central Virginia, demarked “heavy snow.” I texted Paul and asked him to confirm the weather in Richmond.
“We got seven inches with more predicted. Trycia loved it,” he replied. “She said it was just like home.”