Luminaria has been a popular cross-country skiing community event since it began more than a decade ago.
Twelve months ago, when Bend was still in the thick of the snowiest winter since the invention of the Subaru, dozens of bundled up skiers and snowshoers milled around the parking lot at the Virginia Meissner Sno-Park, ready for one of the coolest events of the season. They futzed with headlamps and bindings and primed their cores with cups of free hot chocolate. Lights dangling from the shelter’s eaves lent the snow a festive flare. Coolest of all, hundreds of tea candles tucked into paper bags lined a trail leading off into the forest. Gemültich didn’t begin to cut it.
Every year for the past fifteen years the Meissner Nordic club—the group that brings you free cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on forty kilometers of groomed trails—has organized the annual Luminaria event. Though the night has fallen under various names and has been held for varying reasons, the purpose has largely remained the same: a community event to get people out into the wilderness at night.
This year was no different, except it was. Whether it was the epic snowfall or the word was simply just “out,” the event drew the most people ever. By the time my daughter, Evie, and I showed up with a couple of friends around 7 p.m., volunteers had already handed out more than 700 glow-sticks to help people see each other in the dark. All told about one thousand people would slip under the faint stain of a moon for the mile or so it takes to reach the Meissner Hut, where bonfires burned in fire pans and volunteer Josh Cook and friends had built a massive snow dragon sculpture complete with an internal luge. We poked our heads inside just in time to see a marriage proposal. (She said yes.)
The event is also a fundraiser for the club, which managed to pull in about $3,000 in donations. That’s but a flake in the blizzard of expenses it costs the crew to groom so many miles of trails each season. (Think in the $30,000 range.) While the fundraising helps, that was never really the point of the event. In fact the first edition, held just weeks after we invaded Iraq in 2003, was called the Luminaria Ski for Peace. “In a small way it was a resistance event,” said Sue Vordenberg, now 74, who started the tradition along with a couple of friends. “It was all pretty spontaneous.”
Every year has been different, of course. It’s been icy or windy or warm and wet. In 2013 the event was dedicated to Vordenberg’s late-husband, Lloyd, who’d spent a couple of seasons grooming the trails with an ATV retrofitted with tank-like treads instead of wheels. A high school jazz club sang around the bonfires. Now the club lords over a $40,000 Pisten Bully groomer, and the event has grown so large that last year’s organizers teamed up with the Bend Endurance Academy to offer shuttles between Wanoga and Meissner sno-parks to help ease the parking crunch.
This year, organizers would love to have a shuttle run directly from town. It’d be nice if the jazz singers came back or if the weather would hold for real. Even if they don’t and even if it doesn’t, you should still grab some sticks and give it a go. Standing in the forest at night with so many candles warming the way, you can’t help but feel that, even in the midst of such an unforgiving season, there’s still no place you’d rather be.