The sky is a flawless, cloudless blue over Cataloochee Ski Area as Mark Brogan, 37, suits up for a morning on the slopes. A U.S. Army veteran who was previously stationed in Alaska, Brogan has a longstanding love for the outdoors and for the unique thrill that comes with a snowy slide down the side of a mountain. 

All set up with rented gear and an instructor, Brogan delays his journey to the lift long enough to hold his 19-month-old son Connor in front of the ski school lodge as his wife Sunny snaps a picture. 

It was cold, but I was prepared. Leggings and Underarmour, sweatpants and sweatshirt, parka and hiking pants, an array of hats, gloves and scarves — it was safe to say I’d dressed for the forecasted high of 27 degrees.

I’d spent much of the past week indoors, wrapped in blankets against the single-digit chill that assaulted my apartment and dreaming of warmer days. But as the weekend drew near, a realization dawned — all this cold had surely created some beauty out of Western North Carolina’s abundant waterways. I made a decision: I would brave the cold, and I would go find a frozen waterfall.

For all of its bluster and bikers and bling in the summertime, Maggie Valley can be one sleepy little town in the winter.

Traditionally, many businesses in the tiny settlement close during the off-season, a habit no doubt acquired during the heyday of Ghost Town in the Sky, the mountaintop amusement park that since 1965 closed every winter as well, until it closed for good a few years ago.

For many of us, Christmas preparations require the endurance of a marathoner and the speed of a lab rat on amphetamines. We hoist a tree in the den, decorate our homes, dash off greeting cards to people we last saw two years ago, race through the mall buying presents and stocking stuffers, plan and prepare a Christmas dinner that would buckle a lesser table, and get sloshed at parties while wearing the hat of an elf. The culture pumps holiday Red Bull into our veins: some radio stations are belting out Bing Crosby before Thanksgiving, by the second week of December films like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” jam the television, and every church in town offers a concert.

It was around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5, when the two hikers stepped out of their red Ford Edge and into the parking lot at Big East Fork Trailhead. After the stunning vistas the Blue Ridge Parkway had offered on their drive from Asheville, David Crockett, a 23-year-old UNC Charlotte student, and his friend Sultan Alraddadi wanted to see those mountains up close.

They’d found the hike on AllTrails, an app that outlined an 8.1-mile loop that climbed Chestnut Ridge, continuing west to butt up against the Art Loeb Trail before returning east via the Shining Creek Trail. 

My wife was stranded in Mississippi. She was supposed to get home late on Friday night, but then the big snowstorm came. We ended up with 4-6 inches, which in the North would be considered a flurry. In the South, it means we have to shut her down for a spell.

While I was in the Food Lion — which felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, except with people clutching gallons of milk instead of glasses of cheap champagne — my wife was getting the terrible news that her flight to Charlotte had been canceled and the kids were getting the awesome news that school was closing early.

The first frost serves as a given year’s most distinctive dividing line. It’s hard to pinpoint just when winter becomes spring, when spring become summer, or when summer becomes fall. But the winter season has arrived when the first frost occurs.

Like an old man’s face, mature hardwood tree trunks are covered with blemishes that signal age: cankers, seams, burls, butt scars, sterile conks, and protrusions in the form of bracket fungi. Winter is the time to take a closer look at this somber side of the natural world.

mtnvoicesThe evergreen plants and birds that overwinter here in the Southern Appalachians have made fundamental “choices” in how their lives will be governed. Being aware of what those “choices” are provides a better understanding and appreciation of what they’re up to.

mtnvoicesIt’s Oct. 6 as I write this. The first frost hasn’t as yet arrived. But it won’t be long coming. Most gardening resources for Western North Carolina cite on or about Oct. 10 as the average date for a killing frost.

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