Monday, May 5, 2008

Vacation Story

I am sitting in a mountain chalet sipping hot cocoa. There is a bowl of soup and a half sandwich on the way. Even though I am in my prime, my body aches from days of hiking. And today, we have walked up the glacier trail in order to see the glacier up close. It is wonderful. We sit on the deck looking at the beauty of Lake Louise, the Canadian rocky mountains, and nature. From here, you cannot see a car, hear a car, and all cell phones are useless. This is my heaven.
It is also my last day in heaven. Starting tomorrow, we six will head back to the hell of our jobs, society, cars, and cell phones. You would think that the six of us would have at the very least the wonderful memory of these last few days in the mountains to carry with us back to hell of society but that is not the case. The hell of society is nothing compared to the hell of traveling with these other five idiots.
Months of planning (two) and careful coordination of vacation schedules could not
prepare us for what we encountered. We thought of everything. We had plenty of food, money, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, etc. We had two cars (both manual transmission and four drivers who could drive manual transmission.) We bought two CB radios which we installed in the cars in order to communicate. Each car would have a driver, navigator, and sleeper (back seat person). We were six friends on a mission, to see the rockies and to say hello to our friend who was living in Montana. This would be the trip of a lifetime.
There were three girls – Meg, Peg and Blanche. There were three guys – Moe, Larry, and myself. We were going to visit our friend Curly. Curly lived just outside Glacier National Park. There were no couples, except Blanche and me. We had been dating for a year and a half. Peg wanted to be my girl friend and Meg did too but I did not know that at the time. I do not consider myself attractive but compared to Moe, Larry and Curly, I guess I was. Moe was an accountant and had the habit of believing that people wanted to know about the details of actuary tables, balance sheets and financial planning. Larry was the oldest of our group at 35 and the most desperate around women. Curly, well, Curly was a lovable puppy
dog of a guy who was going bald at 23 (and was extremely shy due to low self-esteem which was due to his balding head.) Some say that is why he ran away to Nowhere Montana. But I did not care. I wanted to see Banff National Park in Canada and this was my way to get there.
Day one was great. We talked on the Cbs, ( trucker told us correctly that we were about to see a speed trap (which we avoided)), drove farther then we thought we would, rented a dirt cheap and great motel room for the night. All our meals were great, the weather was great, and everyone thought everyone else was great. Harmony and good times.
Day two started out the same way. We drove until we found Wall Drug, South Dakota. Wall Drug is a unique town named after its largest business, the drugstore. In fact there is not much to Wall Drug beyond the tourist trap drugstore but it is located in the middle of nowhere and with 200 miles in each direction of flat barren land, it is an oasis for the traveler. In those 200 miles coming to Wall Drug, we encountered several hundred signs telling us not to miss the sights and sounds of Wall Drug. Who could resist this subliminal programming of our travel wearying minds ? It was at Wall Drug that our 'great' vacation turned into a 'good' vacation.
We parked our cars and exploded into the quarter mile long store like kids heading to recess. Moe started to look for cowboy hats, Meg and Peg looked at t-shirts, Larry went to look for food, Blanche and I just sauntered around, content in the moment, not caring for to be hooked by this tourist trap. At least, I thought so but Blanche had other ideas. You see, every group over time begins to define the role of its members. Since we did not have a true leader, someone the group would defer to make decisions, we needed or so Blanche thought she would be the whipcracker, the one who would keep us on schedule. She allowed 30 minutes for this rest stop and 30 minutes it would be. After 20 minutes had past, she started to wonder where everyone was and she decided to round everyone up. Meg and Peg had separated between purses and scarfs, but Peg was more than willing to stay with me while Blanche rounded everyone up. After Blanche left, Peg said she thought it would be a good idea if Blanche and I rode in separate cars for the next leg of the journey. In those days, I was a bit of a people pleaser so I agreed. Blanche came back with Meg and Larry, made them stay and went to look for Moe whom no one had seen. Meg was glad to with the group again but Larry was not. Perhaps, there was some friction between these two ?
I did not know this at the time but there was. Meg and Larry had shared a bed the previous night and although it was a strictly platonic sleeping arrangement ( we slept in the same room), Larry had thought there might be some chemistry forming between the two of them. Meg, on the other hand, thought that she had enough closeness with Larry and was willing to sleep in the car tonight to prove it. Peg wanted to buy me a t-shirt so I said okay because I liked getting t-shirts as gifts and I thought a particular one was pretty cool. I also was naïve about the reason Peg wanted to buy me a t-shirt. I was too wrapped up in the getting a 'free' t-shirt to pay much attention to it. Blanche returns without Moe and has a crabby look on her face.
I found him but he won't come, she says. She is looking at me because she knows that Moe will listen to me. So I agree to get Moe. I find Moe where Blanche said he was, looking at wooden carvings that strangely all look the same. He sees me coming and without hesitation tells me that he is going to spend as much time as he wants looking around and no one is going to make him do otherwise. I sigh. I have realized what my role is in this group and it is one doomed to failure. I am the peacemaker, I am the one that tries to make everybody happy.
I try to reason with Moe. If we spend too much time here, we won't be able to see the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Don't you think these things are more interesting ? Moe, to my surprise, agrees and quietly accompanies me back the group. Blanche is not happy. What's wrong ? I don't want to talk about it. Peg, also looks miffed. Larry looks irked and Meg looks happy. I am clueless. We all get back to the cars and drive onward. Blanche, Larry, and I are in one car. Peg, Meg, and Moe in the other.
The Badlands come and go without incident but no one seems happy, at least not as happy as the day before. For most of us, we are seeing things we have never seen before. Larry has been here twice before so he tells us without hesitation what he think is important. The Badlands are cool, Mt. Rushmore is not. We should skip that all together. The rest of the group disagrees. Somehow, despite Blanche's herding us along, we still are running behind schedule. It is five thirty in the afternoon and some trucker tells us that Mt. Rushmore closes at either six or seven. We are roaming around the Black Hills trying to figure out where this place is. Meg finds the right road (trumping Blanche's role of head navigator), and we are there. It is five minutes after six. The park is not closed and will not for another 25 minutes. We only need ten. Larry was right. MT. Rushmore is lame. You can't get anywhere near it and it looks so small. One look, a few pictures and you are done. But on the way here we have seen signs of a MT. Rushmore want-a-be which features chief Crazy Horse being carved into a mountain. We drive there and are dismayed at what we see – a mountain being carved into the image of chief Crazy Horse, only slowly. At the rate the carving was done, geological forces will have eroded the mountain to nothing before this carving will be finished. Still it was a sight that not even Larry had seen before.
We eat in Rapid City and head down the road again. Blanche has scheduled another 100 or so miles to go. Moe has other ideas. He exits the interstate at the next town we come up to and promptly drives to the local diner and gets out. He enters and orders a dinner of pancakes and eggs. He eats his dinner alone while Blanche begins to boil. The rest of us are ranging from curious to pissed. I want to keep the peace but I am outnumbered 4 to one. If Moe had not owned one of the cars we were using, he might still be there stuck in that town in Wyoming. But he did and we waited – mostly because he had the keys to the car.
We drive another 60 or so miles and stop because the next town after this one is another hundred plus miles down the road. We get a two rooms for the night. Blanche and I will be in one and the other four in the other room. It is when we are alone that Blanche lets loose with her bottled up feelings. She is pissed at Moe, she is miffed at Larry and she is green-eyed furious with Peg. It seems that when I was gone looking for Moe in Wall Drug, Peg approached her and suggested that the girls share me. I could sleep with a different girl every night and since Blanche had the first night, it would only be right that Peg could have the second night and Meg the third night. Doesn't this make sense? She says.
Whatever fantasies I might have conjured up with squashed by look in Blanche's eyes. Hell hath no fury like them and I did not want to be on the wrong side of them. I go sleep fast that night hoping for a better day.
The next day was worse and if not for the fact that we arrived at where Curly was living, I am sure that some people might not have survived. Larry tried to sleep with Meg again but she and Peg formed an alliance and slept together which forced Moe to sleep with Larry. Moe says Larry snores too loud but gets no sympathy due to the others being pissed at him. Peg is crabby and begins to complain that Blanche is hogging me. Meg is happy because she did not have to be with Mr. Roaming Hands (Larry). Larry is irked that he had to sleep with Moe when there are two young nubile women available. Hey, hasn't anyone heard of free love ? Blanche can't looked at Moe without malice and can't look at Peg without thoughts of bodily harm running through her head. And I am hoping that Curly can save the day.
We arrive at Curly's and he comes running out to see us. He is so happy to see us that he cannot imagine that we are anything but happy. His happiness is contagious and we stop with our petty squabbles. If Curly can be happy, then we should be happy. And we are, if for no other reason than this: we do not have to be cramped in a car with each other. However, we soon realize why Curly is so happy to see us. We meet his roommates.
His roommates seem to have nothing in common except the fact that they do not like Curly. They are all part of a Catholic charities thing out here – I am not sure what (I think it is for American Indians). Anyway, it is five united against Curly and I can't for the life of me imagine why. Curly has always been a wonderful friend to me.
The people running the program seem to love Curly but the volunteers do not. Not even close. Curly parades us around, flaunting us to his roommates. 'These are my friends.' A statement that says two things, 1) I do SO have friends and 2) now there are seven on my side and I have YOU outnumbered. We do not spend much time with these people. They don't seem to hate us. They seem to wonder why 'normal' people like us are friends with HIM. I will never know why these people had that attitude but I can't image living there in the middle of nowhere with no one liking you. It sounds like hell.
We spend the rest of the week in a cabin just outside of Glacier National park. One of the people running the program Curly is in owns it and lets us stay there for nothing. Can't beat that. Nothing but harmony reigns except that Larry nearly burns the place down (he wanted to surprise everyone by cooking breakfast but put too much wood in the stove. The only thing that saved us was the wood was not dry. Smoke fills the cabin and I do mean fills, completely fills. Like it or not we have to go outside, in the cool crispy morning mountain air. The smarter ones (me and Curly) take our sleeping bags with us. The not so smart (peg and meg) run out in their pajamas, their skimpy pajamas. Perhaps, this is for my benefit. I offer to warm them up but Blanche growls at me. Curly gives the two of them his bag. He goes back into the cabin and opens the windows. Larry, of course, is fully dressed and ready to take on the day. Yes, Larry is one of the most dreaded people alive on the planet. He is a MORNING person.
Moe is not. I am not. If not for Blanche waking me and pulling me out of bed, I would still be where Moe is, in bed, pretending there is no smoke. No one except Curly seems to care that Moe is in danger of dying. Blanche says, he wants to do his own thing so let him do his own thing. The mob nods in agreement – Curly doesn't understand. 'He might die.'
Peg thinks out loud 'would that be a bad thing?' No, there is not a lot of sympathy for Moe.
We spend the next few days wandering around the park and outlying areas. No matter where we are, an open field of buffalo, the interior of the lodge, in the nearby town, Meg worries about grizzly bears. Really worries. What if it sneaks up on us here? Will anyone survive ? It seems that one summer, Meg worked here in Glacier Park. As part of their orientation program, the park showed a movie to new employees about the dangers of wild animals. It made a huge impression on Meg. No matter where we were in the park, no matter how many people around us, Meg was convinced that a grizzly bear was out there stalking her. It was only a matter of time before it got her. At lunch in the restaurant, she would take a bite of her meal only after looking around in a 360 degree scan of the restaurant. She would not go to the washroom alone. She did not even want to sit on the stall alone. Despite this, we manage to have a good time these few days. It is heaven being in amongst nature.
We bid goodbye to Curly, who only has a few weeks left on his sentence, I mean agreement with Catholic charities. We cross the border into Canada. The crossing guard only seems to care if we have enough money to last our three days there. “Don't want you hippies sticking around. Get in. Get out. Spend some money.” are his words of wisdom. We don't have long hair but I guess he figured that normal people would not travel more than one family per car therefore we must be hippies.
The next few days are spent wandering around Banff National park, in the town of Banff and in the Lake Louise villa. In Banff, the town there is a public spa. There is an outdoor pool filled with hot springs water. Everyone decides that is what they want to do – literally soak up the scenery. Everyone except Larry and I. We decide we are going to use the sauna, sweat out the crap inside of us and get a massage. Somehow our sauna session becomes a manly macho duel. Larry has determined that his manhood is defined by how much longer he can stay in the sauna (than me.) We sit in the sauna for three minutes, then rinse ourselves off with a very quick shower, then back to the sauna. This time for real, last man out wins. Ten minutes pass. I don't mind losing to Larry but I am competitive and I am ten years younger than Larry. I also have run 10 mile runs, so I know how to deal with ignoring the body's signals to quit. Ten more minutes pass. I have to admit I am getting a little lightheaded. I look at Larry, he looks worse than I feel. I tell him that I think we've had enough. He laughs an 'okay little girlie boy' laugh and says that he is going to stay a while longer. Okay, I think, the gloves are off. You are going down.'
Another five minutes of agonizing hell pass. If there is anymore moisture in our bodies, it won't be there for long. I see Larry's head bob up and down and I know he is about to pass out. I figure we are screwed because there is no one else around and neither of us has the strength to lift the other. But I am NOT LEAVING FIRST. I would rather die than to lose to that old man. We might have died there except at that moment, another guy came into the sauna. A stinky fat old guy who seemed to have trouble breathing. And he wanted to talk. And sit next to us. Close to us. Amazing how we suddenly revived our vitality and scampered out of there. Technically, I left a micro-second before Larry so I guess he won.
We showered sanity back into our bodies and then laid down on the tables waiting for our massage. I had visions of some scantily clad Thai woman walking on my back but they were illusions that shattered when Gustav the 300 pound turk began pounding away my knots. The only consolation I had was watching an even bigger turk pounding on Larry.
We met the others outside and described our experience: 'It was great. The sauna cleaned us up and then we got a massage. Oh, that felt good. We should do that again tomorrow.' Except we never ever would, not even under the threat of death by grizzly bear.
The rest of the group told us how wonderful the pool was. I looked at Blanche – I knew she was lying. Years later, she confided that the pool was warm but if you got above the water you froze to death. And the pool smelled of sulfur.
Now it is the end of the last day in Banff. It has been wonderful, the most beautiful park I have ever been to. And I have to leave. With these knuckleheads. But I survived the sauna so I guess I can survive anything.
Not much happens in the next two days. We get one car towed in Calgary, we spend three hours circling Winnipeg looking for a room. (There were plenty of them but someone had an objection to almost every single one (– too loud, too costly, too dumpy, we could do better, etc). The next day, we are faced with a decision. We are in Minnesota. If we drive like hell, we can be back in Chicago sometime after 10 pm. If not we can, stay here and Larry can show around the Twin Cities. The vote is 5 to 1. We drive like hell.

1 comment:

dmSoulsearcher said...

This reminds me so much of our family vacation out West! We were at many of the same sites and it brings back many memories of the kids fighting in the van (when they weren't sleeping, that is!) They did not appreciate any of the beautiful landscape.
I am not writing about this for my vacation piece, though. I decided to go a "different route." (No pun intended.)