At the summit of Salamander Slope, Tom Blanzy kills the engine and hops off his six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle into ankle-deep snow. Gray clouds have dimmed the panoramic view from the top of Herz Mountain, elevation 4,268 feet, but the silence is nothing short of astounding.
Starting in December, skiers will come to this spot and pick a path, from a beginner trail like the meandering two-mile Salamander, to the double black-diamond slope, suitably named Off the Wall. Cross-county skiers might venture just beyond the tree line and into the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area.
"You can strap on some skis, follow the upward elevation and just hear your heart beat," says Blanzy, general manager of Timberline Four Seasons Resort.
Timberline and its nearby competitor, Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center, are the main attractions in Davis, a little-known skiing and outdoor sports paradise that the November issue of Men's Journal declares one of the "10 Coolest Mountain Towns" in North America.
"Like redneck in-laws, serious snow is a secret many Southerners would prefer to keep," the magazine says. "But with 150-plus annual inches, Davis is the Dixie darling for skiers who'd rather drive to the Appalachians than fly to the Rockies."
"I'm surprised the word hasn't gotten out sooner," says Laird Knight, owner of Granny Gear Productions, which stages mountain bike races. "I've lived here 23 years and I would have thought by now, the place really would have been discovered.
"It's everything that an urban refugee would look for," he says. "It's everything a city isn't."
Davis is an old lumber and coal mining town, tapped by industrialists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and named for former U.S. Sen. Henry Gassaway Davis, who paid between $5 and $15 an acre for land.
But it is location, more than history, that makes it special.
Davis sits at the edge of the highest mountain valley east of the Rockies, a 14-by-3-mile trough with an average snowfall of 160 inches. At 3,200 feet, Canaan Valley is drained by the Blackwater River, which occupies anglers and rafters alike. It is ringed by mountains perfect for hiking, biking and skiing, and it is filled with distinctively northern trees like red spruce and balsam fir.
And with fewer than 700 full-time residents, it's a place that Claire Martin says often goes overlooked by Northeasterners in ski season.
"It was on our radar, but we realized it wasn't necessarily on the radar of the rest of the country," says Martin, deputy editor of Men's Journal. "We've all been to Vermont and seen the Green Mountains, and seen the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but not very many outdoor enthusiasts - even in the know - have been to West Virginia."
"I tell ya, people in Virginia don't know about West Virginia," says Chip Chase, owner of a cross-country skiing company called White Grass Touring Center.
"We don't reach out to a national audience, but when people in the know do come, they really get off on it," he says. "I've been here 25 years, and I've never had a boring day."
The ski stats speak for themselves.
Timberline has a vertical drop of 1,000 feet, 37 slopes and trails and 94 percent snowmaking. Canaan has a vertical drop of 850 feet, 37 slopes and 85 percent snowmaking.
This year, Timberline has improved its snowmaking capabilities, while Canaan is reaching out to families with a program allowing children under 12 to stay, eat and ski for free.
Also new at Canaan is a high-tech form of sledding that spokesman Bryan Brown says only a half-dozen resorts in the country offer. Airboards are inflatable, lightweight, steerable sleds about 4 feet long, with a grooved surface that allows for quick turns and stops. Airboarders will have their own terrain at Canaan, just like snowboarders and tube-riders.
But Brown says Canaan has lost none of the solitude and scenery that guests treasure.
"It's not overcommercialized," he says. Then he laughs. "It's not commercial at all. It's the antithesis of commercialization."
When it comes to stores, well ... there aren't many.
"If they're after the Aspen experience, they're not going to get it here," says Roger Lilly, owner of Blackwater Bikes. "If the husband wants to be outdoors and the wife wants to shop, that's going to be a problem."
In Davis, shopping is limited to antiques, a gourmet food store, an herb shop and an art gallery.
"It's not an area if you're looking for frills," Lilly says. "There are some really good small restaurants, but no big fancy dining experiences. And we'd like to keep it that way."
Davis' few eateries include Muttley's steakhouse, the Flying Pigs Cafe, Blackwater Brewing and Sirianni's Cafe, a rustic pizza joint whose tantalizing aromas fill the still, cold air.
Michael Goss manages Sirianni's, where the walls are decked with ski posters, some autographed by extreme skier and occasional visitor Glenn Plake. Plake's decadent "Extreme Garlic Chips" are featured on the menu, essentially a crispy pizza crust smothered with handfuls of fresh chopped garlic and gooey cheese, then cut into small squares.
"Every big city has its little communities, but they don't have the quaint, small-town charm," Goss says.
That's why he believes most visitors return. Locals remember their faces and greet them at every sighting.
"We make them feel welcome," Goss says. "Here, they have a mountain they can call their own."
Clare Ferguson and Andy Norton, Londoners now living in Takoma Park, Md., found Davis after less than a month in the United States. Clare's mother, Wendy Ferguson, was visiting from France for 10 days, so the family packed up and rented a cabin in the woods.
"We wanted to take my mom somewhere nice. We wanted to find someplace with beautiful trees, and arts and crafts," Clare says. "It's beautiful. Lovely."
After lunch, the Fergusons head for the neighboring town of Thomas, where there are slightly more shops and the MountainMade Artisan Gallery - a showcase of West Virginia workmanship. Thomas also offers some hard-to-find nighttime entertainment, with live music at The Purple Fiddle Coffeehouse.
Susan Moore, owner of the Bright Morning Inn, worked in the advertising business for years and says she always felt she could be honest about places like Davis.
"It is wild and wonderful," she says. "This is the closest real wilderness for lots of people who live in the mid-Atlantic. ... You can really feel totally lost and totally away from everything, and that's harder and harder to find."
If you go:
GETTING THERE: Take Interstate 68 or U.S. 50 from the east, then pick up U.S. 219 south toward Davis, which sits on state Route 32, about 4 hours west of Washington, D.C., and three hours southeast of Pittsburgh. Contact the Tucker County Convention & Visitors Bureau, or (800) 782-2775 to help plan your trip.
Canaan Valley Resort: (800) 622-4121
Timberline Four Seasons Resort: (800) 766-9464
White Grass Touring Center: (304) 866-4114
Blackwater Outdoor Adventures: (304) 478-3775
AIRBOARDING: In addition to skiing, snowboarding and tubing, snow-lovers can try "airboarding" on steerable sleds at Canaan, one of a half-dozen resorts nationwide to offer the sport.
Meyer House Bed and Breakfast, Davis, W.Va.; (304) 259-5451. Rates: $85 and up.
Bright Morning Inn, Davis, W.Va.; (866) 537-5731. Rates: $65-$109; family suite, $105-$139.
Blackwater Falls State Park lodge, Davis, W.Va.; Rates: $80 and up.
Ladybug B&B: Thomas, W.Va.; (304) 463-3362. Room for two, $100.
Stone Garden Inn B&B: Route 32, Spruce Street, Thomas, W.Va.; (304) 463-4400. Rates: $119 and up.