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.

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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…

Valhalla in Salzburg

“Where the heck are we going?”
“You’ll see! It’s going to be great!”
“You’re not going to kill me and stuff my body in a trash bin, are you?”
“I can’t promise that. It’ll depend on your behavior.”
“Great.”

The lower city of Salzburg twisted away from us as we climbed, as my good friend bounded ahead in a dubious looking direction, trying to remember his way in the dark of the sleeping architecture.

That spring, I was visiting a good friend of mine (I’ll call him Mountain Man) who was living Germany. He was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching english at a gymnasium in what was until very recently, East Germany. The Wall had come down only a few years before he went over and it was a great time to be there. Every one felt positive, everything seemed to be getting better and most importantly of all, you could now travel all over what was once forbidden territory. We were having a blast.

This particular night though, we had traveled back to one of his old haunts. We spent a day traveling and another punch on our euro-rail passes and had arrived in Salzburg, Austria.

Mountain Man knew Salzburg. It was his old stomping grounds, having spent a year studying abroad in this charismatic city. I had only been there once before on one of my family’s epic en-mass vacations. Traveling with the family meant nice hotels, meals at meal times and package style tours with guides. Mountain Man most defiantly had other plans and to be fair, we were doing this on the cheap.

I will freely admit, that the traveling with my family (my WHOLE family, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had made me jaded. Growing up and traveling en masse, I never had to think about where we would stay, eat or go and look at the local pile of ancient rubble. It was all planned for me and though we didn’t travel opulently, we did travel comfortably.

This trip would be different. This was where I really learned how to travel.

We had arrived in Salzburg by train and immediately headed into the city to secure lodging. It was early evening and Mountain Man was afraid that the hostel that he had in mind would be near full capacity by now. He had gone on and on about how popular it was as were their breakfasts. Warning lights should have been going off in my head with the mention of the word “popular”, but foolishly, I had equated it with the notion of it being due to its fine rooms and beds. How wrong could I be? Ohhh. Very, very wrong.

I actually could hear it before we saw it. The music was thumping out into the darkening streets and the yellow light of the foyer poured out from the open doors almost as powerfully as the cigarette smoke. As we walked in, I was immediately taken by two things. First was that the place was packed by what looked like fourteen year olds, all holding ¾ empty beer steins and smoking what must have been four to five cigarettes a piece. The second was that Mountain Man was asking the clerk for a couple of beds for us.

“No! I don’t care if we have to sleep on benches in the park, but we aren’t staying here!”

Mountain Man looked at me thought the blue smoke and smiled sheepishly. “Well, that’s about our only other option. At this hour, we’re lucky that they have any room at all. By the time we get to the next hostel, the chance of finding space is just about nil.”

I looked around at the plastered and partying highschool age patrons and sighed. “Fine, but do they at least have a double room or something. Just so we don’t have to be in the bunk room?”

He winced again. “Nope. We’ll be in a room with 32 beds.”

Great.

After securing our packs, we fled the hostel looking for an activity that didn’t involve drunk teenagers and tobacco. Mountain Man, in an attempt to make up for my obvious disappointment in our lodging situation, promised an experience that would be second to none. He wouldn’t say what it was, but that it was just “going to be awesome.”

A bit suspiciously, I followed. What else could be done?

We climbed out of the lower city and up towards the less traveled areas. It was getting late now and the only light was from the street lamps. With hardly anyone else out walking and all the shops closed, it felt a lot like trespassing. The roads we took turned into wide alleys and the alleys into open stairs, punctuated by small parks and paths that appeared sporadically as we ascended. This was when I had posed my question to Mountain Man.

We had climbed for quite a while and I was sure we were lost. “This it it!” Mountain Man had stopped at a set of massive, studded, dark oak doors on an unmarked wall.

“Are you serious?”

He just smiled. I looked around to check for empty rubbish bins, just to be safe.

More later…

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