Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Why Does Julie Want Me Dead?

Do you see the forced smile on me?
Do you?

And why, you might ask, am I smiling this way?

I am smiling that forced smile because I just discovered that Julie, one of my best friends on the planet, evidently wants me dead. And not just any sort of dead, but a death that is slow and painful and lingers over the entire 6 miles of the world's most sweaty, smelly, rocky hike.

Julie and I have hiked many a mountain over the years. And, in fact, she just recently completed hiking all the 4,000 footers in NH. I think there are about 26 million of them, so it's quite an accomplishment.

So, naturally, when I wanted some advice on a pretty hike to take with my daughter, Tori–one with a great ridgeline–I turned to Julie for advice.

And she tried to kill me.

She suggested that perhaps Tori and I should hike a little trail called Webster Cliff Trail. "It's short," she said, masterfully concealing her evil laughter. "I've never done it, but it looks really great. And it's Monday so you should have the whole trail to yourselves. I'd go with you, but I'm not insane...uh... I mean, I have to be in a meeting. All day. Darn it. Well, have fun!"

And, Tori and I, being trusting souls, took her advice.

And we suffered.

Tori and I left the house bright and early to begin the long drive up to the Great White North. As we drew closer to the trailhead, we saw towering cliffs above us along the road.

"Wow," Tori mused. "Imagine if the trail went on those cliffs? That would be insane."

It's almost like Tori can see the future.

Our hike began along a short, meandering, wooded trail. We passed several groups of through-hikers, who were packing up campsite along the trail in preparation to heading back out on the trail. Webster Cliff Trail is, in addition to being lethal and painful, part of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000+ mile long walk in the woods that people take in order to really get in touch with their personal, intimate bodily odors.

Passing through-hikers on the trail is like getting hit in the nose with a cinder clock. Each hiker is possessed of a unique, pungent smell that clings to you and coats the inside of your mouth as you pass them.

I suspect that they gather together at night at secret campsites along the trail and compare odors.

Tori and I waved away the dizzying fumes and continued along the trail, still oblivious to what was in store for us.

The trail began to slope upward sharply and we began to sweat. A lot.

I generally use my cap as a sort of altimeter. The line of sweat rises as we gain altitude on the hike.

When the sweat line is half-way up my hat, I'm half-way up the mountain.
That is called science, my friends.

We stopped for a drink and Tori discovered that one of her water bottles was empty.

"Huh," she mused. "I thought my bag seemed damp."
"The bag that was sitting on my stuff in the back seat of the car?" I asked.
"So, all my stuff back in the car is probably soaked?"

But at least we were short a full bottle of water.

We slogged upward along the trail. The guide book suggested that there were a few places where the going was tough and you would have to scramble over rocks on your hands and feet.

Places like this.

"What is this?" Tori asked. "Is this the trail? Because it is not a trail. It is a wall."

"The book said there would be a few places like this," I reminded her.

We scrambled over the wall.

"See?" I said, picking the gravel out of my knees. "That wasn't too bad. And now it will be easy."

It will be easy.

"It will?" Tori asked, indicating the next wall along our path.

We scrambled over and found ourselves on a terrifying precipice overlooking all of creation.

A panorama of terror. 
Tori contemplates leaping off in order to avoid any more walls of death.

And she discovers that there is no cell service so she cannot call for a helicopter rescue.

A beautiful view of how far you will fall if you slip at all in any way.

This seems like as good a time as any to confess that I am terrified of heights.

Absolutely terrified.

But I had a lot of opportunities to get in touch with my fear and really get to know it intimately.

Thanks, Julie.

 We discovered more thrilling walls to scale.

Are you kidding?

This is a joke, right?
Come on! Seriously?

Tori scrambled up past me and poked her head back over a precipice. "Hey!" she called. "I found some water!"

"All you have to do is scale this huge cliff and we can go for a swim!"

I slogged up to her and found a pool of human tears left by many hikers who had come before us.

You can tell they are through hiker tears. They smell.

Following tradition, I added my tears to the pool.

We slogged ever upward into the thinning atmosphere, made rich by the tangy essence of through-hikers who kept sharing their stink with us as we met them along the trail.

And, did I mention the walls that the trail is made of?

Tori stooped to say hello to a tiny toad along the path.

"Hi, little guy!" she chirruped at it.
"You probably shouldn't touch that thing," I told her. "It could have through-hiker stink on it."

Tori scoffed and continued up the giant stone wall disguised as a mountain.

She soon disappeared from view and I found her enjoying another scenic overlook.

"I told you not to touch that toad." I said. "Now I'm going to eat your lunch."

We enjoyed the view as we ate our delicious PB&J sandwiches.

"Do you think this is the summit?" Tori asked, indicating the huge cairn on the trail.
I shrugged. "Must be," I said. "That wasn't too bad, was it?"

Then a couple through-hikers wandered onto the overlook with us. We discreetly covered our noses, adjusted ourselves to be upwind,  and struck up a conversation.

"Wow," the guy said. "This has been a tough one. We've been on the trail for about 4 months. And we got rained on last night. Everything is soaked."
His wife nodded, tears welling in her eyes.
She was not having a good time.
The man indicated the trail toward the road. "How far is it to the road?"
I shrugged. "About an hour and a half."
"Is it bad?"  he asked.
I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "It's bad."
"This is going to suck," his wife mumbled.
And off they trudged, disappearing into the swirling clouds. "Enjoy your climb to the summit," he called back over his shoulder.
"Summit?" I asked. "This isn't the summit?"
His laughter was carried away on the wind.

Apparently, THAT is the summit. A million miles away.
I don't have many photos of the trail beyond this point. I was too busy clutching onto rocks for dear life to stop and take photos. I did manage to get one photo of the view in the other direction before we set off for the summit.

An inspirational photo to help me remember when I used to be happy. In my car. Back on Earth.

We did get a few more scenic vistas to help me more fully embrace my mind-bending fear of heights along the way up.

Thanks, Julie.

We eventually found the summit and joy reigned supreme.

Why, Julie? Whyyyyyyy?

Our descent was, like the ascent, steep.
Very, very steep.

Thanks for giving me the chance to watch my daughter plummet to her death, Julie.

On the plus side, most of the effects of the toxic toad seemed to have worn off and Tori was fine except for the occasional, unavoidable dizziness from through-hiker miasmas we passed through.

About an hour into our descent, we passed the husband and wife through-hikers we had met earlier. They were sitting in the middle of the trail, smelling terrible and eating some sort of dried jerky. Possibly toad.

"Are you headed south?" he asked. "Toward the road?"
I nodded. "Yup."
He shook his head and sighed. "I TOLD you we were going the wrong way," he groaned to his wife.
She sighed and more tears welled up in her eyes. I suspect that she alone filled up the pool of tears we had passed earlier. 
He turned back to me. "We stopped in a stealth campsite to have some lunch and when we got back on the trail, we started in the wrong direction."
Rolling my eyes and asking how they didn't notice that they had been climbing up instead of climbing down for at least an hour seemed indelicate.
"It happens" I sighed. "Well, have a good rest of the day."

I suspect that they did not have a good rest of the day.

We spent much of the rest of our day scooting down a mountain on our butts.

Tori demonstrates proper technique here:

And then, just 85 hours after we left, we were back at the parking lot. It was easy to spot because of this guy's awesome parking job.

That was fun, wasn't it, Tori?

Next time, we will make Julie come with us.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Gift Swap of Doom, 2018 edition: KerriVision™

As the ball dropped in New York on New Year's Eve and we all celebrated and made resolutions and promised to go to the gym as soon as we finished off the Christmas cookies in the freezer, a nearly forgotten presence–deep and ageless–began to awaken from its year-long slumber.

It slowly opened a yellow, misshapen eye. Glitter flaked from its back and spiraled to the ground as it stretched and consciousness flooded back into it. It licked its dry, scaly lips and a thin, crooked smile spread across its flaking, poorly pained face.

We all felt it.

We knew, deep within our bruised and battered souls.

It was time.

The Gift Swap of Doom was upon us.

Arrangements were made. Plans were written and sealed in blood, and soon, everybody arrived with appetizers!

Well, not everybody.

Due to a family emergency, my darling wife, Kerri flew to Florida just hours before The Swap, leaving me and our children to fend for ourselves in this, our time of greatest pain and suffering.

Because I am a technological wizard (ask anyone who has tried to call me on the disposable $10 cell phone that I generally leave dead in my car), I have been able to create this blog using KerriVision™, a proprietary technology that allows Kerri to share her real-time reactions to The Swap.

Let's test it.

How do you feel about KerriVision™, Kerri?

All right! She likes it!

So, without Kerri's steady hand at the wheel of this social gathering, moments before kick-off, I had to put out a desperate last minute plea for paper plates and plastic utensils from our friends because I had neglected to buy any.

I know. I know. I'm sorry I forgot the paper plates, Kerri. You're so good at planning these things.
I'm awful. 

But fear not. Our friends came through, as they always do. They arrived with plenty of bowls and spoons and prevented us all from eating everything with our hands.

Which, this year, was even more important than usual.

Tim and Katie brought a pot of spicy meatballs.
Exhibit A: Spicy Meat-a-Balls!

Kerri is sad that she missed the spicy meatballs. 
The meatballs were a bit spicier than planned, however. Katie ate a few, turned a brilliant shade of red and spent the rest of the evening warning people that the meatballs were REALLY hot.

I scoffed. "Pffffft," I said, swaggering to the crock pot, "Stand back. I ain't afraid of no meatball."

I tried, for several minutes, to spear a meatball on a plastic fork.

Maybe next year, we should go with metal silverware. Or asbestos.

If people hadn't brought those plastic forks to use on Katie's Meatballs of Eternal Alimentary Suffering™, several of us would now be walking around with smoldering, charred stumps where our hands had been.

Ben and Ann arrived in full Swap regalia. They are in favor of adding a costume element to future swaps so that we look as bad as we feel at these events.

I'm totally on board.

Stylish and, though they don't know it yet, dressed in a bit of foreshadowing for what awaits them. 

A close-up of Ben's dramatic look for 2018. Bold colors and patterns n the sweater work in bold juxtaposition to the blue jacket. 

And Ann's sporty, yet functional Sweater-Smock.
Let's see what Kerri thinks of their outfits. Kerri?

She loves them!

As usual, the evening started off with casual eating and drinking and delightful talk with great friends.

Brennan tries Katie's meatballs as Kristen, unaware of the fate that is about to befall her son's tongue, chats with Ava.

Julie warms herself by the woodstove and tries not to think about what's in the boxes just a few feet from her. 

In the kitchen, Ben chats with new players, Mim & Jo. 

I need to explain here that we all LOVE having new players at the Swap. Simply because they typically just don't get it. They show up with a tacky little soap dispenser that they bought at the dollar store and stagger home a few hours later with bruised soul; a 5 foot tall triptych of nude, crying clowns riding deformed unicorns across a motion-activated, musical, mirrored waterfall; and a lifelong distrust of all of humanity.

Mim & Jo were new players. We were giddy with the prospect. Right Kerri?

Mwaaaa hahahahahahahaa...

Alex chatted with Rayla and Caleb.

And joy reigned supreme as people tried to talk...

... with swollen tongues and charred lips from Katie's meatballs.

Kayley did not have meatballs and she was happy about that.

Brennan and Evan entertained themselves with a classic game of Smell My Feet.

Ryan and Tori sat directly in front of the bathroom to enjoy the sweat-beaded foreheads of people who had eaten meatballs and were running to the bathroom to splash water on their faces.

In addition to Ben & Ann's suggestion that we dress for the occasion, Julie suggested that we bring drinks that we want to, perhaps, divest ourselves of and swap them.

To that end, she brought a bottle of mead to share with anyone foolish enough to try it.

Dave, I'm afraid, was foolish enough to try it.

In a brave attempt to get more people to try it, he put on a brave face and finished it, explaining that while it smelled like burning plastic and moldy basement, it really didn't taste quite that bad.

Kristen, who is married to Dave and will, presumably, have to smell the mead on his beard for the next month and a half, is underwhelmed.

Kerri feels Kristen's pain.

Nichole did not try the mead.

To add a thin but hostile patina of of tension and anxiety to the evening, we always put all the gifts in one spot so people can inspect the year's offerings and clutch at their hearts when they see the size of them.

Kerri, even in her absence, made an impression.

Our son Alex had recently shipped a mountain bike home from Montana. We had the box. Kerri suggested that we use the box.

Kerri was very proud of herself.
Everyone said some variant of the same very naughty word when they saw the giant box.

People were filled with fear, meatballs, and mead. A terrible combination, really.

When we could not cram another delicious, throat-searing meatball into our stomachs, we knew the time was upon us.

The Swapping of The Gifts.

We performed the secret ritual chanting and dancing and howling that are proscribed in the Rites of the Swap and got down to it.

Names were added to the sacred selection sack and the drawings began. 
Ben drew first.

Jo & Mim were next. This photo tells you everything you need to know about the range of emotions at The Swap.

Katie, much to her chagrin, selected our gift in the very big box.
Tim may have said another very, very naughty word.
Several times.

Nichole & Ryan, each wishing to avoid responsibility for a poor choice, decided who would pull a name using the ancient rite of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Please note Nichole's pro-level use of teeth as a cup holder.

Nichole drew. And didn't spill a drop.

Julie pulled Mim & Jo's name and was briefly the envy of us all. She picked the newbies. She would have an easy year.
Or so we thought...

When all the names were picked, The Swap began. As our newest players, Mim and Jo opened theirs first. They had selected Ben & Ann's gift.

Smaller than a a refrigerator. That's a good sign.

Ben was giddy with anticipation.
 Please enjoy the expressions on their faces as Mim & Jo experience their first Swap gift.


Slight confusion, bordering on mild distaste.

Full confusion.

Shrieking, hysterical, existential panic as full awareness dawns.

It lights up. It moves. It plays music. It exudes sadness and misery and loneliness.

But if you turn it sideways, its a cheery waterfall!!

Do you like it, Kerri?

She loves it.

Since Mim & Jo went first, their gift gets opened next.
Julie, smug in her enviable position as the possessor of the newbie's gift, was happy and confident opening it.

It was packaged in a cheery popcorn tin. What could possibly be bad about popcorn, right Julie?

Definitely NOT popcorn.

Julie and Glitter Buddha*.

*Yes, yes, yes, we know it's not The Buddha. Settle down.
The Buddha wouldn't be caught dead in that outfit.

Mim & Jo, on their first try, had proved themselves to be formidable players.

And why is that?

It seems that Mim had been reading my old blog posts about The Swap.

She studied.

THAT, my friends, is dedication and we all applaud her for it.

We also fear what she and Jo will bring next year, right Kerri?

Kerri wants to move so Mim & Jo can never find our home again.

I had selected Julie & Scott's name, so I was up next.

The package was small, but Julie and Scott are seasoned players. Size is only one dimension of the possible horror contained within.

Another dimension of horror is the sad clown dimension.

What do you think, Kerri?

She loves it!

She's so happy that you are our friend, Julie!

Tori was thrilled with it, too!



Obviously, Julie's personal pathological fear of clowns has been cured by years of heavy exposure to all forms of horrible clown art at The Swap.

It's a miracle!

Tim & Katie had our name so it was time for them to open the giant box. They tried to get away, but I had had the foresight to smear meatball juice on all the doorknobs and window locks to thwart any attempt at escape.

Tim wipes a tear from his eye in sad anticipation of his personal game of What's In The Box?!?
Also because some of the meatball juice got in there during his escape attempt.
Nice try, Tim.
Why... why... it could be anything in there!

And it is a hand-painted mirror. Perfect for any room in any house. As long as it isn't mine.

With a quiet dignity that impressed us all, Tim sat in the corner and sobbed for much of the rest of the evening. Katie sat by herself and toyed listlessly with a bowl of meatballs until her fork was a melted, useless wad of plastic. She muttered something about getting new friends.

Next up - Dave and Kristen!

The kids, unable to resist a wrapped package, no matter what it might contain, were eager to help.
Please also note Caleb in the background, performing the world's greatest photo-bomb.

Once it was exposed to air, Tim & Katie's offering was still confounding and difficult to understand.

Like all great art, it works on many levels and evoked different reactions from each viewer.
Some of the reactions to this piece were: disgust, revulsion, confusion, and a desperate need to wash one's hands ofter touching it.

It gives off a definite aura of nicotine, stale coffee, and yellow sweat stains.

Caleb is underwhelmed.  Rayla is relieved that it is not going in her house. Evan wants to hang it in his room.

Once they had washed their hands and, presumably, their eyes, Dave and Kristen presented their offering to Nichole and Ryan.

While they are both seasoned players, Nichole was somewhat nervous. Ryan maintained an iron facade. Probably because all the nerves in his face were still disabled from eating Katie's meatballs. 
It's a boot! Nichole was overcome with joy and wonder. Ryan is still suffering from meatball induced facial paralysis.

Looking at the hole in the top of the boot, these two twin souls have the same brilliant idea at the same moment...

We could drink out of this!

Ryan tries to cram a beer in it...

Curse you huge can of beer!

Again, working as a single mind, Nichole swoops in with a perfectly sized gin and tonic...


Cheers! As an added bonus, the healing properties of The Boot of Life, have cure Ryan's face.
Now he can go eat more meatballs!

One gift remained.

Ben stood, adjusted his sweater, steeled his nerves, and tried to dive through the window to escape.

Nice try, buddy.

We caught him and forced him to open the gift from Ryan & Nichole.

We put Kayley in the back to guard against any further attempts at escape.

Ann has a quiet moment of thoughtful introspection before it is revealed.

Holy cow! It matches his sweater!!

Ann is thrilled. She immediately makes plans to hang Ben on the wall next to the yarn Kandinsky. 

Ben, camouflaged perfectly by their new art. 

Julie regards it with a certain level of distaste.

The note on the back of the piece explains it all. Yarndinsky.

The gifts were opened, the meatballs were eaten, the drinks were drinken.

Tim stopped sobbing long enough to helpfully hang up our piece for us.

Thanks, buddy!

Did you have to use Gorilla Glue to put it on the wall?

Do you like it, Kerri?

She still loves it!
We arranged the gifts in an awkward, shambling display so we could admire them all together in their full glory.

Mim& Jo's new light-up lake provided a soothing background of chirping birds and running water. So soothing!

Soon, it was time to pack up and say our goodbyes.

Goodbye, Glitter Buddha.

Goodbye, healing Boot of Life.

Goodbye, Yarndinsky.

Goodbye, soothing light-up monstrosity with the annoying bird-like sounds.

Goodbye, Lloyd the Clown. Oh. No. Wait. He's staying with us.

Goodbye cheetah that looks like it smells like Steve Bannon's gray, unwashed pillowcase.
Goodbye, Magic Mirror which will definitely never, ever show the creepy reflections of people who aren't actually in the room with you. 

Goodbye, friends!
Goodbye, Kerri!

Hey! Wait! Guys! Come back! My kitchen! What have you done to my kitchen?!?