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An unexpected chill

Published Sep. 4, 2005

We were home for the holidays last week.

Actually, make that the place I called home for half my life, the Bethesda and Rockville suburbs of Washington, D.C. Every Thanksgiving we can pull it off, my wife and kids and I drive north to spend the week with my extended family _ with the everlasting hope of seeing and touching snow.

This recent visit came with a special sense of relief. After a month of terror from the random sniper shootings, Greater Washington had returned to its old self, no longer with anxiety accompanying the routines of daily life.

The truth is, we'd planned to make the drive up I-95 from Florida anyway, and simply stay indoors with relatives the whole time. No touch football. No trips to the mall. No sightseeing downtown.

And the biggie _ no playing outside, even if it snowed.

The dream of seeing even a few flurries has dominated my snow-deprived kids' thoughts every time we trek to Washington in the winter. Our timing has always been terrible. Either we arrive two weeks after a snowfall and it's already melted away, or we leave town and it snows two days later.

Now, with things back to normal in Washington, the questions began anew. (A) Was it going to snow over Thanksgiving? (B) If not, could we drive someplace to find snow?

Their hopes soared in the midst of our trip, over breakfast in South Carolina _ with a report to "expect snow" later in the day in the Northeast.

But late that afternoon, as we barreled through Northern Virginia toward Maryland, it was the same old story. Cold, gray skies. No snow in the forecast.

The small winter storm had stayed north of the area, dropping up to 6 inches in parts of neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and smaller amounts in other parts of Virginia and Maryland.

It was time for Plan B.

If the snow would not come to us, we would go to the snow. So, early on Thanksgiving morning, I woke up the middle four of my six kids and packed them into the van (the oldest, at 17, has seen snow and didn't want to wake up; the youngest, at 14 months, might like to eat snow if given a chance).

Just after 8 a.m., our group _ me, and daughters ages 15, 12, 6 and 4 _ hit the highway. I had no itinerary planned, other than just heading to rural points northwest, where we'd heard snow had fallen.

We cruised up I-270 to I-70 into Frederick, Md., an hour away, then veered west on State Road 340. The countryside was a stunning mix of rolling hills and turning leaves _ none of them supporting so much as a flake of snow.

Undeterred, I drove west, crossing into Virginia at the historic Civil War town of Harpers Ferry, passing over the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

No snow.

Soon we were in West Virginia, following State Road 16 into the lush green landscape of Charles Town, I pulled into a 7-Eleven and told the clerk of our plight _ four Florida kids in the van who'd never seen snow in their lives.

"Didn't it just snow here two days ago?" I asked.

"Sorry, you're a day late _ it all melted away yesterday," she said.

I returned to the van with the bad news. But the attention of the younger two had momentarily shifted _ they see a 7-Eleven, they want a Slurpee. This could work in my favor, I thought. I'd buy them all Slurpees, so at least they'd go home with something cold and icy to enjoy.

"Excuse me, where's your Slurpee machine?" I asked the clerk.

"I'm sorry, it's out of order," she replied.

We had no snow. We had no substitute Slurpee snow. But we pressed on, driving north into West Virginia's Martinsburg. No snow. Just past the city limits, we picked up I-81, which heads north to Harrisburg, Pa., at least another hour away.

We'd been driving two hours already, and it seemed like time to abandon the mission. A few miles from Pennsylvania, which looked as green as West Virginia, I told the kids we'd try again another time.

I thought about doubling back over the route we'd just taken, but that seemed like a boring option. As it happened, I-81 led to an exit for I-70 S, which I had been told would circle back through Maryland toward Washington.

I put in a movie for the kids, The Rookie, and as if on cue, just minutes into the movie, the character's mother delivered a line, "Maybe it doesn't snow much in Virginia." How did she know?

We'd given it our best shot, I thought. Then, outside on the shoulder, I noticed something _ a small patch of white stuff. Then another. Then lots of them, all over the grass beyond the asphalt.

The highway had been climbing a tall hill, and the elevation must have preserved whatever smattering of snow had fallen 36 hours earlier. The kids were yelling in unison, "Snow!" It was too dangerous to pull over, so I looked for any opening that would allow us to safely park and make even the smallest of snowballs from the meager amount on the ground.

Then, just like that, a rest stop sign appeared. I pulled in and parked. It felt like 20 degrees with the wind chill, and everywhere we looked, a thin remnant of snow covered bushes, trees and the underbrush.

We bounded out of the car and over to an open area beyond the parking lot. The kids were laughing, making things that weren't exactly snowballs, but you could throw them. "My first snowball!" the 15-year-old said triumphantly, flinging it at her 12-year-old sister.

A handful of passersby stared, perhaps not understanding the commotion. We took pictures and stayed for 15 minutes, until the little ones were shivering.

Back in the van, we couldn't get over our good fortune. I pulled back onto the interstate, and it took a minute or so for the chilling thought to hit me.

I remembered the news accounts from late October: a rest stop just west of Frederick on I-70, not far from the Pennsylvania border.

This was the same rest stop where alleged snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo had been spotted while sleeping in their Chevy Caprice just after midnight and were arrested by swarming police.

The kids, I realized, were playing just a few feet from where the killer car had been parked.

There on the perimeter of an uncertain world, they basked in the wonder of their first snow, enjoying a few minutes of pure, innocent fun amid the glow of a holiday morning.

Dave Scheiber is a Times staff writer.