Zwack Attack

Last night, I was the parent on duty. Action Girl mostly works second shift and thus, the evenings are my territory with the Widgets. When it was just the single Widget, Short Stack, it was really not very hard to pull off. Things went pretty smoothly on the whole and hell nights not withstanding, we got along pretty well and he got to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then came Lulu Belle.

Just about the time the evening routine had become highly predictable and easy to execute, we threw in the random variable of a new baby. Things immediately got way more interesting than any sensible person would ever want. With new babies, the real problem is that routines just don’t exist long enough for you to figure them out and exploit them. Just about the time you realize that the baby always likes this or laughs at that, everything changes. Yesterday’s panacea is today’s anathema. It keeps you on your toes. It also makes me relish that evening beer all the more.

After Lulu Belle is tucked in and happily reaming about an edible world and Short Stack is lying in bed pretending to be asleep, but actually whispering stories to him self, I switch off the lights, go to the fridge and grab a beer. The day is over, both kids are fed and I’m pooped. I feel that I’ve earned my cold one.

Last night, disaster struck. As soon as the kids were down and I quietly padded into the kitchen, I had a sinking feeling. I know what I’d find. Opening the door only cemented my horror as an empty beer drawer stared back. This was not what I was hoping for. As the lone adult in the house and with both kiddos asleep (or close enough to asleep), there was no way I could to run down to the store. I was trapped in my beerless home. Just to add insult to injury, my half full bottle of Black Strap rum had been left at another house after an evening of Dark & Stormies, so my other late night favorite was inaccessible as well. I looked around to check out my options.

Scotch? Gone.
Calvados? Finished.
Whiskey? Also empty.

You have GOT to be kidding me!?

With the exception of a few liquors that didn’t appeal to me at the moment (Gin, Sake, Tequila) there was nothing in the “booze” range to be had in the house. Even the wine cellar was looking pretty bare. That’s was okay for the moment though. I didn’t want wine. I wanted BEER!

A conversation with my wife later that evening netted me some sympathy but didn’t whet my whistle. I assured her that would somehow cope without my nighttime libation but as I hung up the phone, I started casting about for something to take its place. I settled on my favorite daytime drink as an alternative and poured my self a generous glass of milk. Though cold, smooth and normally enjoyed fully, the milk lacked a certain… everything. The kicker was when Action Girl returned home after her shift was done and guiltily admitted that after the boats were tied up, she had gone out to the near by pub with a coworker to cap off the night. AAAGH!

So, with the break of a new day and a trip to town scheduled, I knew what my first stop would be. Normally, I would have saved the beer run as the last item on the “to do” list before returning to the ferry terminal… but not today. It was snowing like a bugger and knowing I had a ton of shoveling in my future, I wasn’t willing to risk it. I love my local beer and booze shop, and not just because they’ve given me free beer in the past, though to be honest, it doesn’t hurt their standing in my book. I like them because they are friendly, exceedingly well stocked and very, very knowledgeable. These are not your average front counter drones. They all know their stuff and if you ask them for their opinion on… oh, I don’t know, Finnish vodkas or Belgian dopplebocks, they will have one. A very well informed one. They are worth listening to. They are also curious and keep bringing in more and more unusual alcoholic items from obscure corners of the world. You just never know what you’ll find there.

As I walked through the door with a smile and a wave to the guy behind the counter, I got as far as, “Hey, how ya’ do…” before it changed me pointing with an outstretched hand and to a shouting.

“HOLY CRAP! YOU HAVE ZWACK!”

There, sitting on the counter, still next to the box they were being unloaded from, was the familiar green bottle with the warning-like gold Swiss style cross emblazoned on it. It’s a liqueur made in Budapest and the bottle itself is vaguely shaped like an old fashioned bomb such as one you’d fire from a bronze cannon at invading Napoleonic infantry. Perhaps they did.

“Yah, we just got these in. Are you familiar with it?”

zwack

I marveled at the bottle for a moment and thought back. I have only encountered Zwack on two occasions. The first time was at our friends Laura and Harrold’s house in western Germany. He’s a Colonel in the U.S. military and having a variety of men serving under him, he’s received various gifts to stock the bar over the years. While Action Girl and I were visiting them one time, we all decided to get some drinks going. I spotted the bottle of Zwack.

“So… What is it?” I asked.

Harrold looked at it appraisingly. “You know, I have no idea. I’ve had it for years and sort of never dared get into it.”

We got into it. The name begged for us to. I don’t remember the night too well.

The next time I spotted a bottle was years later in, of all places, a friend of a friend’s house outside of Boston. We were there for a surprise party and the bottle sat happily in the liquor cabinet all night and taunted me. We never did get into it and I wasn’t sure who our host was exactly and so, was unable to inquire in the most leading way possible. Oh, the missed Zwack!

So, a few moments after spotting this rare bird on the countertop of the booze store, I happily walked out with my very own bottle. As I sit here now, with the kiddos tucked in bed and ostensively sleeping, I’m just finishing off my first glass of Hungarian booze in many years. The taste? Well… I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that nostalgia has colored my memory of the taste. It’s a liqueur and so it’s rather syrupy and sweet. Not clean and bracing like good whiskey or vodka. Do I regret the purchase? No, not one bit. It’s a good drink after an evening moving snow around the driveway and warms you all the way down as you sip it. All in all, it’s a perfect winter libation.

Also, I’m betting that it will last us longer than a six pack of the local micro-brew’s beer. At least it had better. If we tried to polish it off in a few nights without our friends here to help us, we’d be speaking slurred Hungarian in no time.

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part V

The day was spent making the cabin and the surrounding area more and more inhabitable. Clearing brush, stacking lumber and clearing more brush. The first real construction job Mountain Man and I had was digging and then installing the outhouse. Since there was only one saw and hammer allotted to the project, I helped with the digging while my friend did the actual building. When the hole was deep enough for me to need help getting out of, I went back to clearing brush as Mountain Man hammered and sawed like a pro. Prior to completing the outhouse, when nature called you ran out of the cabin, grabbing a shovel on your way and headed for the bushes. The real trick was to be fast enough with your digging so that when it came time to do what dragged you out in the first place, the mosquitoes didn’t launch a full scale attack on your backside. It was just as pleasant an experience as you’re thinking it was. When the diminutive shed was up and operational, it was like civilization had found us. We were all elated. It’s amazing how when you have only the barest scraps of convenience, the smallest improvements seem like high technology. Now, we had our own privy!

Later on during one of our breaks, I couldn’t help but ask Mountain Man’s uncle about the rifle I had seen him with that first night.

“Oh yah! I figured that with us way out in the boonies, I should get a couple of guns. You know, for the bears and such.”

I could see the logic. “That makes sense. What did you get?”
I admit, I was fishing. I figured that what ever he had bought to keep uppity bears at bay must be pretty impressive and I was hoping to play with it a bit.

“Well, I got two guns, actually. The first one is a .22 rifle and the other is a 12 gauge shot gun. Here, I’ll go get them!” He seemed proud of his purchases and as I sat there waiting for him to pull them down from the loft, I worked on a good poker face. A .22?! What on earth good would that do? If you ever want to get a bear mad, I mean really, REALLY pissed at you, start shooting it with a .22 rifle. It’s roughly the equivalent of trying to stab a Hell’s Angel to death with a cocktail umbrella. It’s POSSIBLE to do it. You might hit an artery or they may eventually succumb to blood loss, but your personal survivability does not look good. The 12 gauge was more plausible as long as he didn’t just buy…”

“I just got a lot of buck shot for the shotgun, but I wasn’t sure what to get. Do you shoot? How do you think I did?”

I smiled what I hoped was an encouraging smile and told him that they were very nice. “You might,” I added, “want to pick up some slugs for the shotgun though. The buckshot isn’t really likely to stop a bear.” I hoped that he wasn’t offended but I need not have worried. Not only did he take the advice to heart but told Mountain Man and I that we should go shoot the guns for a while. This, for me, is not a hard decision to make. I gathered up everything and headed out back with my friend.

Back then, Mountain Man, was a bit of a bohemian in some ways. He’s an unbelievable outdoorsman and very smart, and tended to sit comfortably in the very left wing of politics and associated schools of thought. One of these views which is common from that vantage point is that guns are bad, bad, BAD. He had never fired a gun before and wasn’t sure that he wanted to start today. He had an Achilles’ heal on this subject, though. He liked cool stuff, and let’s be honest here. Guns are very, very cool. They are also seriously fun to shoot. With some light arm twisting and mostly the prospect of making loud noises in the woods with explosives, he relented and joined me for some entertainment. We took the .22 rifle with us along with a bit of hapless cardboard that would be the object of our attention. After the standard gun use and safety talk, we loaded the rifle and started plinking. After a half hour or so, he was having a blast punching holes in cardboard and any hesitation was long gone.

Anyone who is competent and wants to get people involved with shooting starts off the new shooter with at .22. It fires a very small round, isn’t very noisy, and has virtually no kick. Mountain Man was enjoying his uncle’s rifle as he got the hang of it and improved with each shot. During his focused attentions with this new, noisy past time, I slipped back to the cabin and gathered up the shotgun. Holding it by my side so as to keep it from being conspicuous, I walked back just as he finished off the contents of the magazine. He stood there, hot rifle in hand, looking appraisingly at the job he had done on the cardboard box.

“Nice job” I said.

“Thanks! This really pretty fun to do.” He replied. “You want a turn?”

“Okay!” I blurted out with a big smile on my face and with that, I swung the shotgun up to my shoulder and with a reverberating blast, blew the target right out of the tree.

I know! I know! Not the best way to introduce someone to shotguns. At least I didn’t pull the cruel trick of letting him fire it with out warning of the kick. His eyes were wide open and I sported a huge grin.

“These are the really fun ones!” I said to him through ringing ears. The rest of the day was quite literally, a blast and we burned through a small pile of ammunition. Even the mosquitoes didn’t bother us. Or were they hiding?

A few more days of work and swatting and it was time for me to head home at last. All this time I had spent in the wilds of Minnesota, working in the woods and sleeping under the stars, I had not seen any wildlife bigger than a squirrel. At night as I lay in my tent, I could hear coyote baying in the darkness or the occasional snuffle of a skunk or raccoon and even loons in distant unseen ponds but no bear visits or other large mammals. To be honest, I would have liked to at least gotten a glance of something big.

After a week, early in the morning, I packed up my little cloth dome and other widely dispersed possessions, fastened them again to my pack and with Mountain Man, headed back to the car to be driven to the airport in Minneapolis. As we bumped down the railroad cut one last time, my friend hit the breaks hard. Out of the seemingly impassible woods strode a fully grown bull moose, antlers covered with broken vegetation.

moose

He stopped briefly, taking stock of our little blue car and judging us to be not more a threat than the halo of mosquitoes he no doubt wore, he moved across the track and into the opposing woods, disappearing almost instantly. It was the perfect way to end my trip.

Returning to the civilized world was wonderful and though I missed the rugged beauty of the cabin, the lack of being nibbled to death by a thousand tiny mouths was more than a little relief. That and not having to worry about being devoured by a huge carnivore as you tried to make it to the outhouse at two in the morning. I will never forget my trip and I’m very grateful for the experience. I’m also happy to reflect on it rather than relive it. I doubt that I shall see the cabin again, but that’s all right too. After all, I still see Mountain Man from time to time and I have faith that at some point in the future I will again find my self standing there next to him saying something along the lines of, “Are you sure about this?”

He will, naturally, be completely sure and I, naturally, will go with him. After all, when it comes to finding a unique experience that will stand proud in my memory, he’s never let me down.

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part IV

As we bedded down for the night, I had expected there to be mosquitoes. After all, we were in a place called the “Boundary Waters” and being filled with little bogs and swampy areas, it was also filled with those biting little menaces. It was what I mistakenly thought an unusually hot night and my sleeping bag was hot and sticky almost immediately. As I lay my head down, I heard the unmistakable whine of those little bloodsuckers. It’s been a belief of mine that if you wanted to drive someone not merely to distraction, but to out right insanity, all you needed was a recording of a mosquito on an endless loop, making sure that it sounded closer, then farther, then very close and then… nothing. The victim would be blithering in just a few days. This is what we were dealing with, times a thousand. The cabin seemed to be filled with the little bastards.

After my twenty-third time flailing at my face like a mad man, I retreated into the steamy confines of my mummy bag, pulled the drawstring tight and crammed my pillow in the tiny hole. From a pervious experience, (also with Mountain Man) I knew I would not suffocate. I’d just feel like I was.

Side story:

Years previously, I was sharing a cabin with Mountain Man, The Doctor, and Ioseph. It was late in the year and it got really, really cold that night. We had no fireplace so the only warmth came from what you keep hold of with your sleeping bag. At some point in the night, I must have done this same trick with the drawstring and a pillow to cut off the cold draft.

In the morning, my friends awoke and found my bag closed with my pillow partially sticking out of the head-hole. They watched the bag carefully in an effort to detect any breathing, but the thick down of the lining prevented them from spotting any movement. They could hear no respiration either.

Their line of thinking went like this… “If he’s alive, then we’re just going to wake him up and he might be grumpy. If he’s dead, then there isn’t anything we can do except call the authorities, in which case, we will miss breakfast. Therefore, we should go and eat breakfast and then see if our childhood friend is alive or dead. If he’s dead, he won’t care that he missed breakfast anyway and we’ll be fed and ready to deal with the corpse!”

You gotta love guys.

Back to Minnesota:

As I started my heat induced vision quest, Mountain Man decided to give himself to the mosquitoes. Pushing off his bag, he fell into fitful sleep as he provided fifteen thousand mosquitoes with buffet style dining. Neither of us looked good in the morning.

As we hunched over eggs and biscuits prepared my Mountain Man’s kind and ever upbeat father, we commented on the others appearance. I looked like I had been hit with a fire hose while he looked like a bad case of hives. The mosquitoes, apparently not satisfied with last night’s feast, were ready to tuck in to some breakfast of their own and were already merciless.

“Are the mosquitoes always this bad?” I asked.

Mountain Dad looked our way and enthusiastically nodded. “Oh yah! They’re brutal, aren’t they? We still have some windows to put in and a lot of cracks to seal, so there are probably as many inside as out”

I swatted madly while desperately shoveling the hot eggs into my mouth. These things were unrelenting! As soon as we had finished up and cleared the table, Mountain Man and I started back to the car to get our full packs. In the daylight, things naturally looked very different. The path was, just as he said, easy to follow and not very far at all. When we were just about there, he stopped and looked down at the ground.

“The last time I was here, ” he said, “we found the biggest bear scat right here in the middle of the trail”

“Bear scat?” My eyebrows were racing for my hairline.

“Oh yah. There are bears here for sure. Just keep an eye out and they shouldn’t be a problem.”

Since I didn’t posses laser vision, I wasn’t exactly sure what watching for a bear was going to do to help my life expectancy but still, I was a bit more mindful of the undergrowth as we reached the car and grabbed our gear. The very first thing I did was to put on my wide brimmed hat and pull over my mosquito net. I could see the little bastards immediately trying to get through, but at least my face was safe for the moment.

Mountain Man and his dad are great guys and really dedicated hikers. They are highly skilled, superbly outfitted and made of tougher stuff than the vast majority of men. They are, in short, hiking high priests. They are also used to taking only what is totally necessary and not one item more. I, to be blunt, am a marshmallow of comfort by comparison. I like to have everything I could possibly need in any situation and since I am also a bit of a human mule when it comes to lugging stuff, I happily pack for every possible occasion. What doesn’t fit in the pack goes on it. Because of this, the profile I cut as I wander through the woods is of an old fashioned tinker off to sell his wares. Mountain Man and Mountain Dad have another take on my mobile hardware store. They call me “Clampett”, after the TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” I don’t mind in the least.

clampett

I dropped my rattling pack on the floor and immediately got a chuckle from Mountain Dad.

“You forget anything?”

“Nope. I brought it all. Why? You need something”

“No! No! Just curious. How much do you suppose that thing weights?”

The jokes about my pot and pan festooned pack flew almost as heavily as the mosquitoes that day as we worked on the cabin. The heat and humidity was oppressive and the work was energetic, making you desperately want to shed your shirt. The bugs made that thought laughable, though. Instead, I found the only way to stay bite free was to put on my polar fleece shell, zip it up all the way, tuck the mosquito net into the collar, tuck the cuffs into my gloves and my pant legs into my boots. It was the sauna all over again but at least my blood was staying where it would do the most good. By the evening, we returned to the cabin to eat and talk.

“I’m going to go set up my tent out front while there’s still some light” I announced.

“Good idea” Mountain Man replied. “I’ll set up out back”

“You mean your not going to sleep in the cabin?” Mountain Dad looked shocked. “We built all this and you’re going to use your tents?”

“No offence, but my tent has one thing that the cabin doesn’t. Screens. I really need some sleep and this way I know I won’t wake up looking like a raisin.” I hoped he wasn’t hurt, but there was no way I was going to make a repeat of last night if I could help it.

“Well, you boys do as you will, but I’ll sleep in here.” He paused and then added, “Mind you, I do wish I had packed a mosquito net to throw over the cot though.”

I reached back to my open pack, sitting on the floor and pulled something green out. “You mean like this one?” I tossed it to Mountain Dad and smiled. “I’ll be in the tent, so I won’t need it.”

“Hey! Thanks!”

He beamed and unrolled the green netting to inspect it. It was made like a mesh box, just big enough to fit over a camp cot. Four little loops were attached to each corner to suspend it over the sleeper.

“Now all I need to do is find some string and some thumbtacks so I can put it up.”

With a little flourish, I reached back into the pack and produced both, tossing them into his lap. I smiled.

“Pays to camp with a Clampett, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so! What else you got in there?”

We enjoyed a convivial dinner and Mountain Man and I eventually went out to set up our respective camps. I thought of the bears again and hypothesized that they would be more interested in the cabin where all the cooking was taking place than my little nylon dome. I hoped so, anyway.

Back in the cabin, as we enjoyed the last of the conversation over the lantern light, I remembered to ask the uncle about the bears.

“Oh yah. There are a good number out here. That’s why I had the gun last night. I heard the crashing in the bushes before I heard your voices and thought you were a bad bear.”

“Bad bear? What makes a bear bad?”

“Oh,” he continued, “This region is a release area. This is where the state puts trapped bears back into the wild. You know. The ones who get up to no good in suburban areas.”

So that was it. We were camping with exiled bears. This was not quite what I had signed up for. Still, as I later lay in my tent listening to the night noises, the weariness of the previous lost night of sleep and the hard work done that day washed over me like a wave. If anyone came nosing around my tent flap, I didn’t hear it.

Above my nylon castle, mosquitoes cursed in tiny, furious voices.

-Possibly more to come. And it might have to do with guns!

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part III

There was an awful quiet as I slowed and then stopped the car.

“Missed… what, exactly?”

“You know. The landing. I’m pretty sure we missed it back there. This doesn’t look right to me.”

I was having a hard time with this for several reasons. The first and most compelling was the fact that we had been driving in a strait line through a heavily wooded landscape, devoid of any landmarks. The view had been an unending parade of young trees and blackness. How this spot looked any different from any other spot we had seen since starting down the cut was beyond me. The other reason my right eye was starting to twitch lightly was that we were on an elevated road with zero maneuvering room and were towing a trailer. Turning around successfully was going to require concentration, skill, luck and a whole lot of colorful language.

Mountain Man looked around at the darkness again and decided that no, this was not the place. We needed to go back. This was going to either be my finest trailer driving hour or a total debacle. I did have some good experience of driving with a fifth wheel but I knew that driving in reverse for anything more than a few dozen feet was just begging for a spanking. The trailer was going to start to wander and then I’d try to counter it, making the car susceptible to falling off the road. We briefly discussed the possibility of detaching the trailer and then… what? If I did turn the car around, we’d just be facing our own trailer. Nope, there was only one real solution. I was going to have to spin the whole thing.

We drove a bit farther in search of a spot that afforded the lowest banking and the most space. A few minutes later, we came across the best we thought likely to be found. I put the car in reverse and started to crank the wheel, carefully backing up and feeling for the trailer slipping over the edge. There was no talking in the car at all. Mountain Man might be nutty some times, but he knows when you’re concentrating and kept a respectful silence other than air sucked between clenched teeth and occasional profanities from me. In the end, it took roughly seventeen hundred back and forth movements with minute wheel turns but… we did it. With less swearing than I expected and a lot of sweat, I managed to very slowly turn the whole thing around and keep the car on top of the road. The trailer had collected a good bit of brush, but was still intact and attached to the car and that was the important thing. We slowly, oh-so-slowly headed back down the cut in search of the mysterious landing that we’d some how missed on our journey down.

“There! That’s it!” My friend was pointing happily at a bit of blackness that I’d somehow overlooked. All it looked like to me was a spot where the trees weren’t so thick, but he was adamant. “I’m sure of it. Pull off here!”

Thankfully, I did notice that where he was pointing, the side of the railroad bed seemed to be flush with the land and I slowly brought the car to rest in a diminutive clearing. I’m glad that he spotted it because I didn’t until I’d actually parked on it. I grabbed my Colman keychain and we got out of the car and into the silence of the moonless night.

dark-woods

“There’s a path right over here somewhere. The cabin will be just down it. Let’s go!”

“Wait. It’s eleven o’clock, pitch black, we have no flashlights and we can’t even see the path. Why don’t we just put up our tents here and go find it in the morning?” It seemed like a logical decision to me, but I had never been here before either and therefore, no idea what was beyond the blackness of the trees right in front of me. My friend though, had and his explanation that the cabin was a grand total of seventy, maybe a hundred yards away seemed to take the wind out of my plan.

“It’s not hard to find at all. There’s only one path and it takes you right to the cabin. My dad and uncle are waiting there for us and might worry if we don’t show up. You could probably hit it with a stone form here! Hey! I bet they can even hear us!”

With that thought, Mountain Man cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and bellowed, “DAD! WE’RE HERE! CAN YOU HEAR ME” We waited for a reply but heard none. He was nonplussed. It wasn’t far and they were no doubt just sleeping. Yah, that’s it. Sleeping.

I protested a bit more and Mountain Man decided that come hell or high water, he was crashing in the cabin tonight. The prospect of being left behind at the car as the “party pooper” gnawed at me like an old woman’s Pomeranian and so, reluctantly, I grabbed my bedroll and held my little light above my head in an effort to see where the heck we were walking. Within fifty feet of the trailhead, we were lost.

For those of you who live in urban environments, you most likely haven’t experienced what “dark” really looks like all that often. With no moon and zero ambient light, you quite literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. There are no pools of light or sweeping beams from cars heading down the road. It’s just black. The only light comes from the stars and if you throw in a canopy of leaves, you don’t get that either. That’s how dark it was as we stumbled along off the unseen path and into the brush and small trees, my keychain provided just enough illumination for me to spot low branches inches before they gouged my eyes. Mountain Man was still confident though. I was starting to curse. Every few minutes, he’s stop, cup his hands in the guessed direction of the cabin and yell. As time passed and scratches accumulated, the inflection of Mountain Man’s calls started to change.

What had started out as a loud and self assured, “DAD!” started to morph into, “DAD? HEY, DAD?” and finally transformed into it’s final form: “DAAAAD?! DAAAAAAAAAAAD???!”

Sonofabitch! The branches were scratching us like they held a personal grudge, plus we had been discovered by the mosquitoes and they were eating us alive. To add the toping to the situational sundae, our tents had been left back at the car and there was no prospect of finding our way back at this point. Just about the time I was considering using my friend’s lifeless carcass as a shelter half, we heard a faint, “Hey? Is someone out there?”

Then, somewhere off between unseeable branches… a light! In the distance, the pinprick of light shone like a beacon. The two of us whooped and thrashed our way toward salvation. On the porch stood Mountain Man’s uncle, a lantern in one hand and a long gun in the other. We had made it! We were safe! After blundering around in the black woods, the cabin looked like the Four Seasons to us and we happily stepped inside and dropped our bedrolls. It was very late by now and we were scratched up, blinded by the light of one lantern and pooped. After a round of sleepy introductions, we grabbed our sleeping bags and got ready for a restful night’s sleep. A pity that it wasn’t on the menu. We really would have loved that. What we did get was a choice. We could either sweat out fifty percent of our bodily water content in an oven made of nylon and down or bleed to death from a thousand tiny bites, delivered on miniature, whining wings.

I picked the sweat lodge, Mountain Man picked death by bloodletting.

-Next installment soon.

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part II

With a sigh that all but shouted the word “WUSS!” Mountain Man bent to the offer and as the motel came into view, we pulled into the mostly empty parking lot. Our residence for the evening was exactly what you’d expect of a motel that was out in the middle of nowhere. It was thread bare, tired, and I’m guessing, last updated in the seventies judging by the paint choices of avocado green and harvest gold. What it did do is keep up out of the rain that night. To be honest, it was a fairly light rain and the news didn’t report of any tornados swooping out of the sky in search of young girls in blue dresses and accompanying dogs. As I lay in bed listening to the patter on the roof that night, I admit I felt fairly vindicated. We might not have been in mortal danger had we camped, but getting damp involved the crappy shower in the bathroom rather than a squishy sleeping bag.

The next day we were out and on the road as early as we could stand it. Mountain Man had instigated a cunningly evil rule for our road trip. Something to get us moving and moving with determination. Breakfast could not be had in the town where we slept. We needed to rack up some miles before dealing with our stomachs. Out here, that could mean quite a spell. We trundled along and eventually found sustenance, but not our friendly waitress’s friend. It’s an imperfect world. By lunch, we were making some really good progress and were closing in on the upper peninsula of Michigan. We decided that we would take our mid day break on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes and pulled of the main road to search for food. What we found, were bugs. Lots and lots of bugs.

Here’s something that you might not know. The Mayfly is a little over an inch and a quarter long. It lays its eggs on the surface of fresh water, which then sinks, and hatches into a nymph. This nymph can live for about a year or so, nibbling on all sorts of aquatic interests. Then, one day, it will go up to the surface, break through its outer skin and emerge into the air as a fully formed mayfly, looking for love and looking fast. It often has only a day or so to fulfill its function. Now imagine all of these nymphs doing this at the SAME TIME. What you get is roughly a billion-zillion mayflies cavorting around, mating and getting squished on your car.

shadfly01

As we pulled into town, the place was literally alive with mayflies. They covered every horizontal surface. They covered every vertical surface. They covered you if you stood still for more than a minute or two. Having them crawling and flying everywhere was revolting but it wasn’t half as disgusting as the sound each foot fall made as you walked from your bug-guts covered car to the MacDonald’s, flattening mayflies as you went. The thing that finally killed the last vestige of my apatite was when I grabbed the door to enter the restaurant and my fingers squished a couple of mayflies that had been hiding out of site on the back side of the handle making whoopie. As I did my little gross out dance, furiously trying to fling the mostly crushed yet still wiggling remains of the hidden lovers from my hand, Mountain Man and I came to the same conclusion. We nodded, bolted back to the car and got the hell out of this freak show. I honestly do not remember getting lunch that day. It was going to be a while before I could face anything I would want to ingest.

It was shortly after this that the trailer caught fire.

Well, “fire” might be pushing it since there were no actual flames, but it was burning up. Mountain Man was driving at the time and happened to glance in the rear view mirror. What he saw was blue/white smoke billowing out from the left wheel of the trailer, totally obscuring the road behind us. He immediately pulled off the road and we leaped out to find just what the hell on an empty, open trailer could possibly catch fire. There was no break system, no electrical except for the lights and nothing not built of steel. As we waded through the evil cloud of burning rubber, the culprit made its self known. Each of the two trailer wheels sported a little sheet metal fender and the one on the right had come half loose. One of the two bolts that held it there had wiggled loose and dropped the fender on top of the spinning wheel and done a top notch job of chewing it up. The friction from the fender had just about completely burned through the rubber. So, a tire change was made with our one spare and the fender was reattached with a twisted bit of coat hanger until a hardware store was located and better fix made.

I remember getting some sandwiches at a truck stop in Minnesota and checking our next move on the map. It was getting late. By the time we left the last inhabited landmark on our map, it was dark. The episode with the bug invasion and especially the tire cost us a lot of driving time and left us looking down the dark railroad cut with me behind the wheel. It was right about then I noticed that the dash lights had died. All of them. It was a moonless night and it was pitch black in the car.

“All we need to do,” declared Mountain Man, “is drive down the railroad bed about two point five miles and look for a grassy landing on our right.”

“The problem,” I pointed out, “is that I can’t see the odometer. The dash light is dead. I’ll have to use the dome light.” This is the point when we discovered that yes; the dome light too had bit the dust.

I looked at the black spot where I gauged Mountain Man’s head should be as he sat in the passenger seat. “Do you have a flashlight?”

“Um.. No. Do you?”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Neither of us brought a flashlight?”

This was going to be tricky. You couldn’t see anything in the car and the only light to be had anywhere was from our own headlights. Not so handy to see things INSIDE the car, as it turns out. Then I remembered my keychain. About a week before as I had prepared for this outing, I had gone to make a pilgrimage to Eastern Mountain Sports, our local camping supply retailer. As I had been cashing out, I spotted these silly little keychain fobs that looked just like miniature Colman lamps.

coleman

On an impulse, I bought one. Inside the diminutive lamp was a sixteenth of a watt bulb that was powered by a watch battery. I fished it out of my pocket, turned the knob and, Voila, we had light. Not much light to be sure, but when it’s pitch dark, it’s amazing how the tiniest bulb can make the biggest difference. I set the “lamp” in front of the odometer and crawled the car down the cut.

Let me take a moment to describe this so called road that we were on. It had been made, perhaps a hundred years ago by the railroad to cut across the swampland of this corner of Minnesota. Having seen its last train decades ago, the tracks and ties had now been stripped and the top of the bed smoothed a bit. It was still fairly bumpy but more importantly though had the added bonus that it was almost exactly as wide as the wheel base of the car. Plus, it dropped off heavily on each side. If you happened to take your eyes off it as you drove, you and your hapless vehicle would very quickly slide down a forty-five degree gravel bank for perhaps eight feet and wind up in the trees. You might be able to recover form this situation if you were lucky. Maybe.

My hands were glued at the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions and my eyeballs were focused directly forward as I navigated the car along at just better than running speed. I had been driving unblinking like this for perhaps ten minutes when Mountain Man spoke.

“Um… I think we missed it”

More later…

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part I

This was it. I was totally committed at this point and there was no turning back. Actually, “turning back” would have entailed about two and a half days of driving. Once again, I found my self in a spot that I never would have predicted in a million years and the key component in this current misadventure was my friend Mountain Man.

“Are you sure this is right?”

I had been saying this pretty steadily for the last hour or so and though Mountain Man had always asserted that, yes, this was the way. I was having trouble believing him. The roads continued to get smaller and smaller and I was now looking over the steering wheel at what appeared to be an abandoned rail road cut.

“Trust me. It’s right down this abandoned rail road cut. We’re almost there now”

Faaaaaaantastic.

The destination which we were supposedly closing in on was a small patch of land purchased by Mountain Man’s father and uncle. It was located way out in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota. Essentially, it was swamp land. Our job was to help put a cabin on it. Two days previously, we had packed our camping gear and various hand tools into my friend’s aging Toyota hatchback, tacked on an empty motorcycle trailer for a recovery mission in California and headed off to a distant swamp. Mountain Man had been to the site once before when he was a kid, so he was sure he could find it again. For some bizarre reason, I believed him.

Why do I always believe him?

The trip began with no untold dangers in the wind and though his car was… I’ll call it “venerable”, for the sake of tact; we figured that we could figure out anything that might come our way. After all, we had youth and stupidity on our side! Departing from our hometown in New Hampshire, we traveled north, heading for the Canadian border. A few months prior to this trip, I had driven with my then girlfriend, now wife, Action Girl, to the summer job she had taken in Wyoming. The trip had been a lot of fun with one notable exception. Pennsylvania.

I’ll take this opportunity to apologize to any Pennsylvanians out there for what I’m going to say next. Honestly, I’m sorry. But it’s true. If given a choice between dental surgery and driving across Pennsylvania, well… I’m heading for the drill. To add some additional weight to this statement, I’ll also disclose that I’m partially immune to Novocain. Really. I’d pick the dentist every time. It’s not just that Pennsylvania goes on FOREVER, leaving you with an uneasy notion that Ohio doesn’t actually exist and will never be reached.

pennsylvania

It’s not even the incessantly repetitive rolling terrain that you must traverse like a frozen, undulating ocean. It’s Scranton. Specifically, it’s Scranton and Wilkes Barre. On my previous journey out west we had passed though the Scranton-Wilkes Barre region only to find it both an incomprehensible tangle of roadwork and off ramps as well as clogged solid with traffic that was going no where fast. It was a nexus of confusion and vehicular induced high blood pressure. I was determined never to return. I still am. So, when it was time to plan our journey to “Middle of Nowhere” Minnesota, I energetically endorsed the idea of traveling north of the Great Lakes and through maple leaf country, thus avoiding the Pennsylvanian nightmare. Mountain Man agreed and we were off.

Getting to the Canadian Boarder was not a long haul. Though we were in southern New Hampshire, our state is a diminutive one and reaching it’s northern boundary only took a few hours. The little hatchback behaved well and the motorcycle trailer, needed to retrieve Mountain Man’s Honda on the second leg of the trip, obliged us by not catching on fire. Yet.

We decided to travel through Montreal and then onward to the west. We amused ourselves by attempting to recite street signs with the thickest and campiest French accents possible and shouted triumphantly when highway twenty appeared in the knot of intersecting roads on the outskirts of the city.

“Vingt! Vingt! Sacreeeebleuuuuu! Oui! Oui! Vingt! Bon!”

I’ll blame the obnoxious behavior on being young and foolish. Oh, and oxygen. It has that effect on me.

Once out of the Canadian metropolis, things get rural very quickly. It catches me off guard every time I go to Montreal how like an island it is, sitting on a green ocean that rolls away for miles out of sight in every direction. As we crossed the grassy sea, the small towns came and went at uneven intervals but they seemed to be spaced farther and farther apart as we zipped westward. We had been driving now for the lion’s share of the day and had made good progress. Although we didn’t have any hard and fast goals as far as how much ground we needed to cover per day, we felt like we were nearing our quota and deserved some dinner. That, and I had eaten all the granola bars I could look at in a twelve hour period. It was time to stop for some warm food and fizzy drinks. As the next truck stop came up on the horizon, we decided to pull in. We nestled the little blue car and empty trailer amongst the idling rigs, locked the doors and stepped inside. Instantly we were being greeted with an enthusiastic, “Hey there, boys! Sit anywhere. I’ll be right wit’ cha” A woman in a neat apron and big smile was gesturing to the few remaining open tables and we happily stepped inside, sat down and started to review our dining possibilities.

A few moments later the same smiley waitress was back and asking questions.

“So, What would ya like ta drink? Yer not from aroond here arya? Whatcher names boys? We have meatloaf tanight if yad likeit”

I was amazed at not just how warm and personable she was but also her level of curiosity at our mission. Within ten minutes she knew not only our names and where we were from, but also our itinerary and why we were going. With her seemingly endless enthusiasm, she directed us to a good place to stay about two hours down the road and where we were to eat breakfast the next morning.

“In the town just afta the motel deres dis great lil diner. My friend Cindy works dare and I’m pretty sure she’ll be on in the monrin. You be sure to say ‘Hello’ for me when ya git dare, ok?

The happy chatter from our newfound friend made dinner all the better and we promised that we’d stop at the diner she specified. After we paid the bill and headed back out on the road we discussed our sleeping options for the evening. It was two hours to the motel we had been instructed to stay at and this being high summer, there was plenty of daylight to go before we might miss it in the dark. Mountain Man was espousing the virtues of sleeping in our tents by the side of the road. The only real virtue seemed to be that it was free. I’m not a cream puff when it comes to camping but as the day started to fade, the weather started to look less and less rosy. A thick layer of clouds had descended and the underside of the grey mass was bubbling menacingly. Things were not happy in the upper atmosphere. With some trepidation, I started to observe the cloud layer rolling over in tight swirls. Some of them seemed to dip down and I wondered aloud about the possibilities of tornados.

“Do they even have tornados in Canada?”
“What, do you suppose they stop them at the border? Maybe Canadian tornados are more polite.”
“Yah they probably just ruffle your hair and then apologize. Let’s stay at the motel.”
“But it will cost money! Camping is free!”
“So is dying in an airborne tent.”

I could understand Mountain Man’s problem with staying at the motel. I was only going as far as Minnesota with him. He would be continuing on to California after I left. There were going to be a lot of other places where he would need to spend his finite pile of money. I pulled my trump card.

“I’ll pay”

-More later

Frog Racing

Needing to know how mechanical things work has always haunted me. I was never the kid who took the perfectly good pocket watch apart or removed the family car’s carburetor, but that was solely for fear of screwing things up and getting in trouble. If something had the audacity to actually break on me though, well then, that was a different story! I positively reveled in the excuse to bring what ever it was down to the basement and get the screwdrivers out and start the post mortem. Sometimes, I’d just get a view of perplexing circuit boards and I’d put things back as I found them. More often than not however, I’d get what ever it was, running again. Perhaps it didn’t work JUST the same way that it had before, but hey, it DID work now, right?

My proclivity for voiding warranties followed me as I grew and my patients got more and more complex. Building plastic models and fixing dysfunctional toys was fun and all, but I was looking for a challenge. If this challenge could ultimately provide me with something that I could then play with, well… so much the better! I knew what I needed. I wanted a radio controlled car.

I had owned a handful of cheap radio controlled gizmos, usually created in the image of pop culture icons of the time. There was the Cylon Raider spaceship, the miniature R2-D2 and a few others of less notable stature. These little toys could go forward and reverse and turned only as they backed up. Though appreciated, they were far from what I was looking for as I grew. When I was eight, navigating them across the kitchen floor was a hoot. As a thirteen year old, they just wouldn’t do. A real radio controlled car was a work of art. It was something to be proud of. It made your friends jealous. It also cost a bundle to get into. I would have to save long and hard for this one.

The first thing that set these toys apart, other than the sticker price, was that you had to build them. They didn’t arrive assembled and ready to go. Far from it. For your one hundred and fifty or so dollars, what you got was a box filled with hundreds and hundreds of parts, bits, pieces, nuts and bolts. It wasn’t, “some assembly required”, but rather, “all assembly required.” That was the point.

While I was aching for one of these cars, Mom and Dad were more than a little dubious. My track record for, “projects started vs. projects finished” wasn’t the most stellar. I have a tendency to get distra… HEY! Look! A penny!

The clincher for me was when my friends Charlie and Mike both got cars of their own. My burning desire for one of these had become incandescent. The hobby shop in town was owned by a good hearted fellow and I routinely came in to drool on the car kits and discuss the merits of each model with him and his infinite patience. It was he who introduced me to the concept of layaway. I bit at the chance and gave him my down payment. With saved birthday money and hoarded allowance cash, I picked up my very own car kit shortly after. It was called, “The Frog.”

frog-box

The picture on the box showed a tough looking dune buggy bounding into the air as it rocketed off a rise in the land with a slogan painted on the spoiler reading, “No Guts, No Glory!” The ride home from the hobby shop just about killed me with the anticipation of getting at it. When we arrived, I cleared a large spot on the floor in an out of the way room, dragged my record player and speakers down from my room and put on Van Halen’s “1984” It was time to build!

The directions, though lengthy, were no harder to follow than the average plastic airplane model and I dove in with gusto. I remember being surrounded by little piles of nuts and bolts, all arranged in order by size and type as I made a zillion trips to my Father’s bench for tools, the kitchen to forage for munchies and to my record player take off the current record and put on some ZZ Top or, more aptly, The Cars. I was in heaven.

It took me a day and a half to finish it but in the end, it was a thing of beauty. Ugly, ugly, beauty. Naturally, all the parts you needed were not included in the kit and had to be purchased separately, but I had seen to that. For my birthday, I had asked for and received a radio transmitter to control my new car and I had scraped up enough cash from piggy banks and squirreled away stashes to purchase my battery charger. The rechargeable battery itself, I had to beg Dad for. It was twenty bucks, More accurately, it was twenty bucks I didn’t’ have. I can still see his face, mulling over whether to get it for me or not. In hindsight, I doubt seriously that he would have said, “no”, but his pause and measured suck of air through closed teeth made me appreciate it all the more when he said, “Okay”. I was in business!

As it turned out, driving “The Frog” wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. It was WAY, WAY more fun! There is something compelling building something your self and the pride that I took in the finished car made me highly protective and eager to show it off to my friends and the guys at the hobby shop. The place where I had bought my car also put on radio controlled car races every other Sunday and I did what ever I could to make it to them. Again, my Dad was an integral part in all this since the little battery pack for my Frog only lasted about fifteen minutes before it needed recharging. Since the races were outside, the only way to recharge was with the battery under the hood of the family car. I may never have taken the carburetor apart, but I did get to know the car’s electrical system pretty well! My Father would sit with a book or the paper in the running car as I carefully adjusted the load from the charger, hooked one end to my twenty dollar battery and the other to his car. I tried very hard to make sure to thank him for this. I bet he could’ve thought of a hundred better ways to spend his Sunday mornings rather than in a parking lot, waiting to watch me race. He’s a great dad, that way.

I was down in my basement yesterday and noticed a familiar shape hanging from its bumper on a beam. Its looking a little worse for wear after Lord knows how many hours of being driven at break neck speed over all sorts of terrain and then gathering dust for nearly two decades. Taking it down and cleaning it off reveled that things seemed to be in working order despite the years of neglect. I fiddled with it a bit, greasing up a part here and there and applying WD-40 as needed. As I got reacquainted with this old but hard won distraction, I realized that the only part it really needed was a replacement battery. The original was now far too elderly to hold any appreciable charge.

I ordered its new battery today along with a set of new tires to take the place of the elderly, cracking ones currently clinging to the rims. It feels like I’m thirteen again and waiting to make my last layaway payment. I can’t wait for the new parts to arrive! My son will no doubt be confused and enthralled, all at once when get it out in the snow. I’m betting that it will take about a minute and a half before he’ll want to drive it himself. That ought to be a hoot. At least I don’t have to worry about his feet being able to reach the pedals.

Back in that room, so long ago, I never would have guessed that some day my own kids would get a chance to drive my little off road buggy. You might think I’m crazy, but I hope Short Stack doesn’t mind listening to The Cars while I get it ready to run.

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