Dead oak leaves over snow on Signal Knob, in Virginia's George Washington National Forest. (Photo by AE)

Dead oak leaves over snow on Signal Knob, in Virginia's George Washington National Forest. (Photo by AE)

A week after 26 inches of snow fell on my city, we all went camping.

Two of us are Eagle Scouts, and the third is simply Canadian, so we like being outside—even when it’s freezing. The sun was up and the snow was melting. We did not go far—90 minutes out of the city, where the suburbs peter out into farmland and the sloping forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We stopped for soup and bread and our last chance of LTE. The lobbyist remembered that he had to file his year-end contribution report, which he did from his phone, before we drove into the whiteness, following the north fork of the Shenandoah River, half frozen with milky, geometric ice.

The lawyer brought a collapsible snow shovel, and I was glad, because there was nowhere to park in the forest. The snow was still 3-feet deep in places, so we took turns digging out a parking spot on the side of the road. My back was already sore before we began hiking. Only one of us had snowshoes, so the both of us followed behind, astronaut-like, stepping into the patterned prints and heading up the hill, over an active creek and into the mountains.

My pack weighed over 40 pounds, but for a good reason—I was carrying my warmest tent, lots of extra clothes in case the weather turned, along with a cast iron skillet and a glass bottle of maple syrup for breakfast.

Pockets of deep, white snow gave way to the bare, layered rock, fenced in by naked trees poking up to the sky. We barely talked—I only heard my own breath and the press of my boots into the snow and stone. After two miles, we reached a high ridge point, with a panoramic view of the flat part of Virginia down below. This would be our campsite, we decided, ditching our packs beneath a contorted pine tree and then hiking onward, lighter and faster, up the ridge, over rabbit tracks and up onto the long plateau. The forest was thinner up here, and the sun was falling behind us, lower and lower, moving the black lines of tree shadows across the snow. We left the trail, swimming through waist-deep snow. We were boys at recess, boundless and free from any demand. Nobody in the world knew that we were on this mountain, and for that moment, that mountain was our world.

I love the understated Appalachians and how quiet they are. East-coast airplanes hop these folded ridges like a track star meets a hurdle, but they miss the secret places that lie inside the deep ripples of the land. They miss the Civil War relics and the bootlegger hideouts, and they miss the smell of pinecones and the decomposing oak in winter. Most of all, they miss the silence of Earth that only lives beyond the edge of the highways.

 Winter camping in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (Photo by  Thomas Cluderay )

Winter camping in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (Photo by Thomas Cluderay)

I am grateful for adventurous friends who say “yes” in winter, who are not afraid of the cold, who can build a roaring bonfire in twenty seconds, and then sit on a frozen log for hours, looking at stars while orange sparks fly up from the ground. I am glad for friends who don’t mind sharing a three-man tent that may in fact, only be a two-man tent, who don’t mind the pancakes I made using steak fat to grease the pan since I forgot to bring butter, and who don’t mind the long, silent hike back down the next day. We are content in our solitude—they move on ahead and I kneel alone in the snow, my eyes up close to a million tiny ice crystals laid out before me.

Behold the wild architecture of winter that covers everything in white. The Sabbath sun will disappear this drift by nightfall, and we will be gone, back in the city and home with our dogs and partners and mortgages and whatever is still in the fridge. My clothes will smell like campfire until they’re washed and the deep bloody scrape on my knee from some thorny bush will scab over and fade before Spring. We move on, yes, but this little memory of a weekend remains—nothing more than a 24-hour adventure in the snow, a sleepover camp in the woods with some pals I admire, but still a good reminder of how nice it is to exit the room from time to time—to stare at the sky and dry one’s socks out over a fire, to sip smoky coffee from a steel mug and feel separate from it all. This is the beauty of winter, when every breath is a gasp, and life becomes a blank canvas once more, telling us how we are free, the former things are passed away. Now we can make something new.

 Winter sunrise near Signal Knob, George Washington National Forest, Virginia. (Photo by AE)

Winter sunrise near Signal Knob, George Washington National Forest, Virginia. (Photo by AE)