America’s Rarest Powder

Chasing a storm south of the Mason-Dixon

Clear winter sunrises light up most Waynesboro, Virginia, mornings in Easter pastels. A thin trimming of snow on the rooftops glows light blue and pink, giving a halo to the churches on every street corner. Cold air crystallizes and the days come on slow.

One Sunday this year, a storm roiled morning’s quiet custom. Nineteen inches of snow had fallen since November, and only an inch or two remained in town. Then, in the middle of February, a deep white flooded the streets overnight. Dense fat flakes fell to a bare ground.

The day chain control was needed on the road to Wintergreen Ski Resort, south of the Mason Dixon Line. PHOTO: Clare Menzel
The day chain control was needed on the road to Wintergreen Ski Resort, south of the Mason Dixon Line. PHOTO: Clare Menzel

Without much natural snow, the skiing at Wintergreen Resort, one of the Virginia’s three ski areas, located in the Blue Mountains about 40 minutes southwest from Waynesboro, relies heavily on snowmaking—over 400 guns and 40,000 linear feet of pipeline service 100 percent of the terrain.

I arrived at Wintergreen two days before the storm. The mountain’s manmade had a thin top layer that was stiff and squeaky. With every turn, it fanned out in slippery fish scale-like slabs under my skis. By late afternoon on my first day, the snow was scrubbed out to the edges of the trails, hollowing the center of each run like the gutters on a bowling alley. At night, groomers carefully redistributed the snow piles and snowguns replenished any lost goods.

The Virginians don’t take skiing or snow too seriously. “Rarely see snow in these woods,” shrugged an old Navy vet in a green windbreaker on the chairlift. He told my friends and me about how he’d traveled to resorts all over the world, but Virginia is where he’s from and Wintergreen is where he really skis.

Who needs a four-wheel drive vehicle, or chains for that matter, in Virginia, anyway? I drove on, and my passengers whooped as we passed the mark where the sedan’s tire tracks turned around. It was Virginia’s big powder day, and we were so close.

I’d found the best way to ski the trails—the steepest of which start out with a tantalizing pitch before petering out and moseying back to the chair—was to have a beer or two, stand up, and make lazy, loopy turns with my hands in my pockets. My girlfriends messaged guys on Tinder, hoping to find a cute new ski buddy. Most of their matches expressed surprise and confusion that we were sliding down snow anywhere nearby.

Indeed, the predicted foot of fresh would be a game-changer. Old Dominion powder is a rarity, something that few Americans—few Virginians, even—experience.

The morning of the storm, my friends and I jumped out of bed as fast as one could while hungover, gorged on Sheetz breakfast sandwiches, and began to drive, antsy behind the slow train of cautious Virginians heading into the mountains. I was at the wheel. Thirty minutes later, we passed a gas station with a sign out front that read, “Last stop ‘till the top.” The store’s American and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags whipped in the wind.

We hooked a left turn to continue on Route 664 into the foothills of the Blues toward Wintergreen. The pavement was barely visible. It looked like a plow had come through in the last hour, but the storm was quickly filling in its tracks.

Ahead on the access road, a skier walked along a sedan that was slowly inching its way down the road. I opened my window to get a better look. They weren’t going to make it to Wintergreen. They were turning around. We eyed the car. It was a little guy. We’d fare better in our Mom van, which had taken us over steeper hills and harbored us safely through Nor’easters.

A plow drove past us and I shouted up at the driver to ask what the road was like farther ahead.

“That thing there ain’t four-wheel drive,” he shouted back. He shook his head and sucked his teeth. “There’s no use trying.” He advised me to just turn around now.

I thanked him, but said we’d keep going. Who needs a four-wheel drive vehicle, or chains for that matter, in Virginia, anyway? I drove on, and my passengers whooped as we passed the mark where the sedan’s tire tracks turned around. It was Virginia’s big powder day, and we were so close.

The road, though, came to a gradual incline, and soon my foot was pushing the pedal to the floor without a response from the car. It wasn’t cold, and the pavement underneath was slick. A heavy SUV squealed by, then a Subaru with out-of-state plates.

My four friends got out to push. One of them lost his footing on the slippery road, but we gained a few inches. We cheered, kept pushing, and then realized there was no way we could do this for the eight uphill miles left between us and the ski resort. We stood around the car defeated, collecting snowflakes on the tops of our heads and looking around for solutions. There was only snow.

No, we couldn’t get the car up the access road. And yes, we were south of the Mason Dixon, the line in the sand that divides North from South. We got back in the mom van and turned back, homeward bound without making a single turn in America’s rarest powder.