Hooding

The winter Olympics are commandeering a lot of news time lately.  It’s a great thing, competition and all.  Training hard, facing formidable odds, bringing home the gold for your country, abusing steroids—these are epic deeds and certainly newsworthy.  I don’t begrudge those spandex-wearing, ridiculously beautiful people their well-earned publicity.  I just feel a slight twinge of jealousy that the Moose Hole Olympics never got equal recognition back when I was a kid.

In retrospect, I suppose we wouldn’t have liked it if we had gotten it.  We wanted to maintain a low profile, we were simply innovating ways to entertain ourselves on those long winters in bush Alaska.  We may not have had teams of crack international reporters, poking several million dollars worth of electronic equipment in our faces at every move, but that didn’t stop us from pouring our very souls into astounding demonstrations of athletic prowess.

Just about anyone can strap a pair of glorified Popsicle sticks on his feet and jump off a mountain.  As long as a slippery inclined surface, gravity, and a human being converge at the same point in the space-time continuum, the person is going to wind up at the bottom of the slippery inclined surface.  It’s a law of nature.  However if you rename it “skiing” and invite other Popsicle stick owners from around the world to fall down a mountain with you, suddenly we find footage of the event being beamed around the world on prime-time television.  The participant who happens to arrive at the bottom soonest and with the most panache, gets a big gold nickel on a strap and never has to work again.  It’s a complete racket!

A much more challenging winter downhill sport is “hooding”.  If sports reporters were actually interested in recording a contest that showcases the heart-pounding adrenaline rush of fierce competition, they would have been all over Ptarmigan Knob when I was a kid.  There they would have seen it all—the indomitablility of the human spirit, dreams and aspirations transformed into triumph or tragedy by a few moments of ruthless fate and breathless skill.

Yet, in spite of those glorious exploits on Ptarmigan Knob, the term “hooding” is a micro colloquialism limited to but a handful of living humans.  Specifically, it is reserved to the vocabularies of the following:  Me; my brother, Justin; Larry Fred; the twins, Jack and Jill Smorkstini; Donna Sam; Anika Van der Veen; and “Walrus” Fahnestock.

Only we eight who smirked at death on Ptarmigan Knob 25 years ago can understand the camaraderie forged there.  For the rest of you, a little background would be helpful.  Ptarmigan Knob was the name of the tailbone of a granite spine that snaked for 15 miles from Moose Hole to the caribou birthing fields atop the windswept tundra of McCollum Plateau.  Alascom had built a microwave tower atop Ptarmigan Knob, affording Moose Holians the immense recreational advantage of an access road.

The road turned off of the highway on the floor of the Tanana River Valley at Moose Hole Lake.  From there it snaked its way through alder thickets, black spruce stands and poplar groves until it had gained a thousand feet of elevation in three miles of hairpin switchbacks.  There at the summit the road ended at a chain link fence that enclosed “The Tower”. 

You weren’t supposed to go inside the fence and mess around with The Tower.  There were imposing looking signs to that effect–at least they had been imposing prior to a decade of target practice.  Besides, The Tower was taller than it looked.  About half way up, you’d get a sudden rush of vertigo when you looked down, that nearly washed you off of the narrow steel ladder.  It was a really weird feeling…er…so I’ve been told.  But the access road provided plenty of leisure activity on its own.  ATVing, snow machining, hunting, sledding—there were lots of things to do on the Ptarmigan Knob tower access road.

However, the most memorable times of my brash youth involved activities that could only be reached by little-known trails branching off of the access road.  For instance, if you parked at The Tower fence and skirted it to the right, you would drop down off of the gravel pad into a nice little birch wood.  There was barely a trail there, but if you knew where you were going, you could walk southwest for about five minutes to a place where the trees suddenly stopped growing.

A few feet from the tree line, a massive fist of gnarled rock marked the border between a wooded ridge and the end of the Earth.  It wasn’t the end of the Earth actually, just the Southeast Face of Ptarmigan Knob.  Although it wasn’t technically a vertical drop, for the first hundred yards it might as well have been. 

We called that first hundred yards “The Bare Spot”.  Nothing grew on it except a couple of scraggly willows.  Snow didn’t even accumulate there.  It either slid to the bottom or blew away, but enough snow and ice would remain to disguise the razor-sharp warts of rock that punctuated The Bare Spot, like magnets on a wall of frozen grease.

At the bottom of The Bare Spot, where the slope abruptly flattened out to a more respectable angle, a dense wall of trees sprang up. They were big trees, stout and unyielding, with their feet planted solidly in a tangled concertina of alder and rose bushes.  It was here that the sport of hooding was practiced.

Donna Sam would be the one to give the annual signal that it was time for the opening of the Moose Hole Winter Hooding Olympics.  She lived in a cabin at the base of Ptarmigan Knob, so she was able to monitor the condition of the slope.  As soon as enough of a glaze had developed on The Bare Spot she passed the word. 

We didn’t waste much time on opening ceremonies, but it was traditional to light a bonfire on top of the gnarled rock fist before we got started.  When there was enough light to see between the bonfire and the blurred gray glow that serves as an Alaskan winter morning daybreak, the Smorkstini twins and Walrus would fade back into the brush to retrieve the hoods from where they were stashed under a pile of spruce boughs.

There were two hoods.  One came off of a ‘53 Chevy, while the genealogy of the other one was less certain.  Any logos, emblems or distinctive contours had long ago been bounced, scraped or dented away, so that it was impossible to make a positive identification.  Justin and Larry almost came to blows once arguing about it.  My brother swore that the second hood was from a ’62 Ford stepside pickup, while Larry claimed he knew the exact ’57 Cadillac Coup de Ville that it used to belong to.

Just as Justin was about to bash Larry in the head with a burning spruce stick from the bonfire, Anika stepped between them and suggested that if they were real hooders, they would settle this the honorable way.  With a malevolent grunt, Larry grabbed the hood in question and drug it to the nearest knuckle of the rock fist, while Justin poised himself on another with the Chevy hood.  They teetered there for a moment, hoods held back by Jack and Walrus while Jill counted down.

Upon Jill’s shout of “go”, Jack and Walrus released their grip.  The competitors leaned forward and shot out of sight.  The rest of us rushed to the edge and peered over to witness the results.  Larry was still airborne, his scream of terrified delight drifting back to us on the crisp breeze.  Justin, however had caught one of the hidden rock warts with the edge of his hood, and was now spinning madly down the slope like a drunken top. 

It turned out to be a draw, because although Larry reached at the bottom first, the hood arrived on top of him rather than the other way around.  Justin was only a split second behind, his Chevy hood impacting a granddaddy cottonwood tree with a “clang” that pitched him face first into an enormous thicket of rose bushes.  He was so dizzy from spinning that he wallowed around in them for several minutes before his equilibrium returned sufficiently for him to extricate himself.

That was one of the more unremarkable one-on-one hood races.  Sometimes kids got hurt.  Not all hooding events pitted single riders against each other, however.  More frequently, hooding challenges pitted team against team.  I wasn’t terribly fond of the team races because I inevitably got paired up with Walrus Fahnestock.  It would be me and Walrus on one hood, and everybody else on the other one. 

You see, when Walrus was on a hood, there was only room for one other person, and the girls and I were the only ones small enough to qualify.  The girls absolutely refused to ride with him because he didn’t have running water at his house, and by the smell of things, no soap either.  After I got used to his smell, I found out that teaming up with him was a really good experience half of the time, and a really bad experience the other half.  It all depended on whether I landed on him, or he landed on me at the termination of our descent.

We never did tell our parents about our hooding forays.  We sort of had an instinctive premonition that they wouldn’t understand.  Even when one of us got hurt, we never divulged the actual cause of our injuries.  The time Donna broke her leg hooding, we all said that Larry had run over her with a snow machine.  When Jack and Jill both fractured their skulls in a collision with a rock, we claimed that they had been helping Walrus haul water up a hill, and that Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go hooding again at my age, but last summer I hiked to The Bald Spot just for old time’s sake.  The Chevy hood is still there, rusted and battered, and home to a family of weasels.  I stood on the fist and gazed downward.  A lot of brush has grown up to shrink The Bald Spot, but not much else has changed in 25 years.   I can still see the rock where Anika lost her finger, and the big scar is still visible on the bark of the tree where “The Great Pileup” occurred that destroyed the controversial hood and the bridge of Larry’s nose.

Yep, for all the glamor and glitter, I haven’t seen anything at the Winter Olympics that can come close to the adventure and competition that the Magnificent Eight experienced on Ptarmigan Knob.  I’ve thought about suggesting that they add hooding to the roster of events at the official games, but I don’t think it would be the same.  By the time they got finished establishing safety protocols for the sport, there would be helmets and seat belts and spandex leotards.  I don’t even want to think about seeing Walrus in spandex leotards.

Blood Brothers

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Alaska State Birds seem to be extra friendly around my house this year.  Cute little fellows, aren’t they—and so musical too?  At least once a day I can’t resist being a captive audience to one of their concerts.  It fascinates me how tame they are.  You’d think that as wild creatures, they’d be shy of people, but they seem to crave human companionship. 

As soon as I step outside, a whole choir of them gathers to greet me with a falsetto serenade like a million little flying Vienna Choir Boys with wedgies.  Some of them hover around my head, while others perch on my upper body.  I haven’t quite figured out which sections of my anatomy are the soprano, tenor, alto and bass sections, but they evidently have it well choreographed.  It’s enough to give a guy goose pimples.

The mosquito band considers me to be one of their favorite gigs.  Most likely it’s because I always clap vigorously, frequently and loudly during their performance and provide the performers with unlimited drinks on me.  We have a cozy symbiotic relationship.

Not everyone recognizes the valuable niche mosquitoes fill in our delicate ecosystem.  To be frank, I’ve heard some pretty derogatory comments about them–right to their face, too.  These much maligned insects, however, are crucial to preserving the Alaska we all know and love.  They weed out the riff raff.  I’ve witnessed their amazing work with my own eyes. 

A few years back when I was a petroleum transfer engineer for my Dad at Moose Hole Lodge, a Lincoln Continental with Illinois plates purred up to the gas pumps.  The tinted driver’s side window slid down with an electronic whir, and a manicured hand emerged to snap its 24 karat gold ringed fingers.

“Fill it up with unleaded supreme, check the fluids, clean my windows and scrub my whitewalls, boy.  Hurry, I don’t have all day!”

My brow crinkled in confusion.  I scratched myself thoughtfully and spat at a bug crawling on his fender.  “We only got one kind of gas, we’re fresh out of motor oil, and what’s a whitewall?”

The driver vocalized something that sounded like a hog choking on a corncob, and little smoke rings shot out of his ears.  After a period of time, his noises grew intelligible: “That’s what’s wrong with this godforsaken place.  You people are just a bunch of hicks who haven’t figured out that it’s the twentieth century!  You ought to be thankful that there are entrepreneurs like me who are willing to invest some capital in this giant wasteland you call a state.”

I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it certainly did seem important to him.  “That’s great, mister, so you’re investing in our state, are you?  I sure do wanna thank you for that.  What line are you in?  Gold mines, tourism, fishing fleet, or logging?”

 He darted a glance at me like I had just dropped his best hunting rifle in the Tanana River.  “No,” he sneered, “Real estate.  Night clubs and shopping malls, specifically.  Not that you would know what those are.  I haven’t seen either one for the last 2000 ghastly miles!   Now do you think you could manage to get some of that gas in my tank? I have an appointment with a contractor in Fairbanks who recognizes the beauty of the word ‘smog’.”

I know the customer is supposed to be always right, but this guy was starting to rub me the wrong way.  I briefly considered pouring a cup of sugar in his gas tank or accidentally dropping a roofing nail under each of his tires, but I restrained myself.  I pumped his gas for him and even managed to smile politely as he handed me his credit card. 

Well, I guess Heaven was paying attention to my self control and decided to reward me for it.  The next words out of the annoying customer’s mouth were one of the most blessed gifts I have ever received.

“Do you have a public restroom around here?”

As a matter of fact we did.  We were pretty proud of it too.  Dad had installed it about five years previously, and the locals were still marveling about it each morning over their traditional cup of 35 cent coffee and one of Mom’s cinnamon rolls.  Prior to that, our customers had been obliged to answer nature’s call in the honey shack out back.

It was way out back, actually—about a hundred and fifty yards across the muskeg.  To get there, customers used to have to follow a narrow moose trail chiseled out of the sphagnum moss.  Along the way, black spruce branches reached out to snag their hair and wild rose bushes clutched at their sleeves.  The most memorable part of the experience, though, was the mosquitoes.

There must have been millions of the little darlings living and breeding in the tangled black spruce thickets on each side of the outhouse path.  At each step, a squadron of them would squirt out of the moss, rise up and call our customers blessed.  Our customers called them something in return, but it wasn’t blessed.  By the time they dove through the narrow door with the crescent moon-shaped cutout in it, the customers usually had looked and sounded like a churning, low lying fast-moving thundercloud.

But for five years now, the old outhouse had sagged lonely and abandoned in the mosquito thicket.  Nobody had ventured down the trail since we had put in the real restrooms.  By my calculations, the mosquito population should be pushing the multiple quadzillion mark.  They probably had the entire works of Mozart, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson mastered and were pining for an appreciative audience. 

Coincidentally, the annoying customer who wanted to turn Alaska into a concrete jungle obviously needed to learn to appreciate the more rustic charms of our state.  I pointed him down the outhouse trail.  As I watched him go, I pulled a bottle of Muskol out of my pocket and crossed myself with it.  Old habits die hard.

Shortly after the ancient alders at the mouth of the trail swallowed him up I began to hear his voice.  He was using some colorful terminology and seemed to be addressing the local fauna in that characteristically earnest way of his.  I expected him to re-emerge immediately with great alacrity, but he evidently wasn’t joking when he said he needed to go.

After a good fifteen minutes I saw a tiny creature covered with dense fur stumble into the open from the direction of the honey shack.  It was making faint squeaking noises and feebly waving some sort of upper appendage.  Then it fell forward and lay still.  I thought maybe it was a muskrat.  As I watched, it shrunk to about the size of a shrew and then stopped twitching. 

Curiously, I walked over and poked it with a stick.  As I did so, its fur began to buzz, separated from its body and rose drunkenly into the air.  Only then did I realize that the fur was, in fact, a dense layer of blood-gorged mosquitoes, and the little creature was what used to be the city slicker from Illinois.  He didn’t look so good.  He kind of reminded me of a prune. 

I scooped him up on a spatula and called the Medical Life Flight chopper people.  I hear they were able to revive him with a massive blood transfusion, but the experience had psychologically shattered him.  He never returned to Alaska.  He never even sent anybody for his Lincoln.  We parked it behind the Lodge for a while and eventually wound up trading it to a guy for a pair of four-wheelers, a river boat, and a dozen quarts of rose hip jam.

Yes, indeed; those misunderstood bugs are invaluable defenders of our way of life here in the last frontier.  They test the mettle of a man like nothing else can.  I’ve seen brawny, hard-fisted, steely-eyed construction workers reduced to a blubbering lunatic by a medium sized swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes.  You can hardly pry them out of the fetal position to get their straitjacket on them.

You can always tell how long somebody has lived here by the way they react when the choir arrives.  Cheechakos are the sprinting people in shorts and tank tops with heads jerking in wild-eyed panic and arms flailing like a windmill.  They have the skin complexion of a raspberry, and frequently knock themselves out cold, bashing at a second soprano that happens to land on their forehead.

Those who survive the first wave, stagger out to buy a 55 gallon drum of Off.  They keep a can in each hand and continuously hose themselves down with it while maintaining a running monologue of sailor talk.  They buy a mosquito magnet for their yard and operate it nonstop until a snowdrift buries it.  That is the “inexperienced” stage and can last for up to two years.

Somewhere around that time frame, a sourdough takes pity on them and whispers the term “DEET” in their ear.  At first the inexperienced Alaskan will cite reams of environmental toxicology studies, but their resolve eventually crumbles and they try a few drops of 100% DEET.  Suddenly, a whole new world opens up to them!  For the first time they have discovered a repellant that the mosquitoes don’t regard as a condiment.  For the next couple of dozen years they don’t go anywhere without a little bottle of Muskol or Ben’s tucked into their pocket or purse.  They have officially graduated to “sourdough” status.

Eventually, however, they wind up spilling a bottle of DEET in their purse or tackle box.  Upon discovering that the stuff has eaten their fishing line or turned their lipstick into lumpy pudding, they stop using repellants altogether.  This is the final stage and the one which distinguishes a sourdough from a true Alaskan “institution”. 

An institution chooses to ignore the bites and enjoy the music.  He finds that if he doesn’t wave his arms, he doesn’t attract as much insectoid attention.  When bitten, he lets them suck, because to kill them before they are done dining will leave their anticoagulant remaining in the bite and lead to intense itching episodes.  The only concession an institution makes to thwart the little singers is to tuck a leafy branch in his hatband.  Since the critters tend to hover around the highest point, they circle the branch instead of his face.

Institutions take great glee in watching a cheechako’s expressions of incredulity upon seeing them serenely sit amid a swirling maelstrom of flying pests.  Institutions enjoy slightly embellishing a few anecdotes to enhance the amazement.

“What, these puny little fellers?  Why, they ain’t so big.  You shoulda seen the ones we had back when I was a kid.  We had to carry a chainsaw in a belt scabbard as self-defense against mosquito maulings.  Matter of fact, if you chopped their legs and suckers up into firewood lengths, one mosquito can heat your cabin for a week.  And their wings?  Why a couple of tanned mosquito wings stitched together will make you the warmest sleeping bag you ever seen!”

I admire those institutions.  Someday I aspire to be one.  In the meantime I secretly pack a bottle of Muskol, and when no one’s looking I have been known to sprint around, bouncing off of trees, jerking my head in wild-eyed panic and flailing my arms like a windmill.  I guess I’ve never been able to expunge the memory of that real estate developer from Illinois.  I have a secret phobia of waking up in a hospital bed, reduced to a human prune.

Bachelor Pad

It is with a solemn heart that I must report some troubling news.  I have been abandoned!  My wife left me!  She took our son, walked out the door, got on an airplane and went home to Mommy.

She warned me that this was coming, but I didn’t think she’d have the gall to go through with it, because it’s been years since she was away from me longer than a day and a half.  It wasn’t until she actually started packing, that it became evident that she wasn’t joking.  As that realization sunk in, a surge of emotions overwhelmed me. 

Dropping my veneer of machismo I plunged into the most persuasive speech of my life.  I begged.  I cajoled. I flirted.  I blustered. I blubbered.  I vowed everything from a foot massage, to a candlelit champagne dinner for two at A Belle Époque near the Champs-Elysées.  I even took off my shirt and did my Arnold Schwarzenegger pose for her.  Alas, cruel womanhood!  She spurned me like a stale Dorito.  Callously she turned away, her chin set—her eyes cold—her arms crossed.

“Absolutely not!”  she snapped,  “You can’t get rid of me that easy.  I’m staying for exactly two weeks, and then I’m coming home.  Nothing you can say is going to persuade me to extend my visit, and that’s final. You won’t know what to do with yourself as it is, and I know the house will be a pigsty when I get back.”

I could see that she would be really disappointed if I spoiled her plans, so I graciously accepted her request.  “Fine!  If two stupid weeks is all the chill time you’re going to let me have, then I guess this conversation is over.”  I stomped to the door and let it slam eloquently behind me.  Instantly, I spun around to re-enter.  Boy was it cold outside!  I had forgotten that I was impersonating Arnold Swarzenegger.

The doorknob resisted my efforts to turn it.  It seemed locked.  Then my wife’s face appeared in the window, red and bobbing with laughter.  I hammered on the window, kicked the door and wept, bellowing for her to let me in, until a fine white fur of hoarfrost began to creep over my chiseled concave pecs and the sculpted mound of my abs.  Then the door gave way, and I fell inside.  Through the pulsating red fog that blurred my vision I sensed wife leaning over me.  Adopting a gravelly Austrian accent, she intoned, “I’ll be bahk!”

End of discussion.  I just wish she had been a little more reasonable.  I could have used the extra chill time.  It isn’t that I don’t love my wife.  It’s just that…well, you know how women can be sometimes.  “George, you stink.  Go take a shower.”  “George, can you explain to me why you would throw your dirty socks on the floor three feet from the clothes hamper?”  “George, If you’re going to dump the dregs of your cereal bowl in the kitchen sink, could you at least rinse it down the drain before it turns into stucco?”  “George, this.”  “George, that.”  “George, blah blah blah!”

I just get a little tired of it, that’s all.  When I was single, it didn’t bother me the tiniest bit to open my dresser draw and not find my underwear folded up into a row of compact little cubes the size of a pack of cards.  As a matter of fact, I don’t ever recall opening a dresser drawer at all when I was single.  They were already open.  What’s the point of shutting something that you’ll just have to open again when you need some clean underwear next month?  I didn’t feel the obsession to wipe my whisker trimmings off of the bathroom mirror, as long as I could see into it. I never felt obligated to rupture my larynx trying to hold in a belch that needed to come out.  Life was simple and carefree.  Now, I am clean and neat and smell pretty, but I’ve got ulcers and a tic in my eyelid, and white hairs in my beard. 

When I realized my wife was absconding to Kentucky with my son, leaving me alone, I began to fantasize about the ramifications.  It was going to be like my bachelor days!  It seemed that I could almost smell the nostalgic tang of an organic restroom where the pristine air hung thick with a primal musk, or see the patina of a tabletop burnished to a glossy sheen by the patient application of pepperoni oil from a hundred pizzas.  I anticipated the carefree giddiness of all night video games and corny vintage sci fi flicks.  I craved the pure sensual satisfaction of feeling potato chips being kneaded into the carpet beneath my bare toes.

I could feel the blanket of oppression lift as soon as my wife walked out the door!  I immediately put on a muscle shirt and grungy pair of sweat pants and retired to the couch, just for the principle of the thing.  I had barely gotten propped up in a nice comfy nest of pillows when Vazhneya, my big guard dog cavorted to the door, jabbed her nose against it significantly, then swung her head around to make unmistakable eye contact.

“Vazh wants to go outside.”  I sang out instinctively, before I realized that I had neither son nor wife to respond to the call.  Grumbling, I climbed out of my nest, slipped my feet into a pair of slippers and threw on a coat.  “Come on, you stupid mutt!” I snarled as I reached for the leash.  Vazh snarled back, so in a more subdued tone I inquired after her health and expressed my honor and delight at being selected to accompany her on an outing.

You see, Vazneya isn’t a mutt actually.  She is Russian royalty.  Her registered name is “Thunderhawk’s Lupine Empress”, and her common name means, roughly, “Boss”.  When we acquired her as an adorable little fuzz ball, it seemed exotic to be the owner of a descendent of the mighty bloodline who once guarded the Kremlin.  The Caucasian Owcharka is a rare breed highly prized for their fierce family loyalty and intuitive guard instincts. 

We had eagerly signed the contract to take possession of her, even though we couldn’t actually read it ourselves, since it was in Cyrillic. However, the owner of the kennel was a Bulgarian who insisted on reciting it to us in the original tongue.  According to his translation, if we ever allowed the animal to be unconfined or off leash, a biochip implanted between her shoulder blades would activate a homing beacon.  Within 25 seconds a black helicopter would appear above her location, and a crack Spetznaz team, armed with Krinkovs would fast rope down.  While half of them would secure the animal for transport, the other half would neutralize the delinquent owners.

Now, at 30 below, with nothing but a pair of sweatpants on my legs and a lunging behemoth attempting to dislocate shoulder of the arm in which I gripped the leash, the exotic glamour was but a faded memory.   As soon as I stepped out onto the porch, Vazhneya ecstatically did a triple pass around my legs and then radar locked onto an intruder at the end of the driveway.  Like a MiG 29 she roared on a vector toward it.  The three loops of leash cinched like a noose at my ankles and my feet lifted off, enabling my posterior to collect an assortment of splinters from the rough cut lumber of the porch floor.  Helplessly, I whipped in her jet stream until she throttled back and touched down at her destination.

The alarmed destination bobbed its head, spread its white wings and fluttered to safety in the lower branches of a black spruce.  As I spat the snow out of my mouth, I was disconcerted to find that as soon as my momentum slowed, I automatically popped upright as if I were spring loaded.  It turned out that my sweat pants were packed with snow to the point of bursting, making me resemble one of those inflatable punching bags with the sand in the base that pops back up every time you smack it.

Vazhneya was diligently attempting to join her object of her interest on the spruce bough, probably to demonstrate her culinary peccadilloes.  That complicated my efforts to extract the snow from my pants and disentangle my legs from the leash.

“Easy, Vazh!  It’s just a ptarmigan.  How many ptimes have I ptold you pto ptake it easy when you ptrack or ptree a ptarmigan?”

By the time I was able to make it back to the couch, Sheila, the puppy, had become jealous of the attention I was lavishing on Vazhneya.  As I sat down, I found her statement of protest seeping defiantly into my sweat pants from the sofa cushion.  That was only the beginning.  Now it appears that the puppy has embarked on a Star Trek mission.  She seeks out uncharted corners to boldly go where none have gone before!  I finally filled a bucket with concrete and held her hindquarters in it until it solidified.  That solved that problem.  However, for every problem I solve, three more pop up.  It’s amazing how cocky 14 animals can become when the Alpha female is away. 

The ferret burrows madly and deafeningly through her litter box every night from 10:00pm to 6:30am.  The cat patrols the windowsills and counters, sending nick knacks, swags and glasses cascading to the floor.  The outside dogs split their time between howling an interminable canine ballad in three-part harmony, and worrying at their kennel fencing until they create a hole through which they wriggle.  Then they bound off to chew gleefully on the goats.  Insulted, the goats respond by leaping over their fence and playing king of the mountain on my new truck.  Evidently, the rules of the game stipulate that players on the ground must butt the door and fenders until the king on the roof falls off.  Then they take his place and the cycle repeats.  This greatly saddens me.

The other day, the horses, inspired by the goats’ great escape, chewed their way through the paddock fence and ingested 500 dollars worth of my neighbor’s hay before I found them.  I spend so much time fixing my critters’ messes that I am getting 750% less leisure time now than when my wife and kid were home.  Thus my solemn heart as reported at the beginning of this article.  I am starting to long for my wife to return so that I can get some chill time. 

Of course, you can bet that the animals will flip into instant angel mode as soon as they see her.  They’ll purr and wag and nicker all cute and wide-eyed and junk, while she talks  in baby talk, kissing and petting and hugging on them.  I’ll never be able to convince her that the state of chaos that stretches from one end of the property to the other is purely the result of a diabolical conspiracy by our domesticated fauna.  I can see her now, hands on hips surveying the squalid debris-choked landscape.  “I knew it, George.  Didn’t I tell you that the house would be a pig-sty when I got back?”  If she only knew!

Where the Salmon Run Deep

Photo via Pixabay

Persistent rivulets of icy rainwater had breached the narrow gap between my shivering neck and my poncho collar.  Having slid inside, they were now gleefully chasing each other down the spinal causeway indented into the goose-bumped surface of my back.  Soon they would join the thousands of rivulets that had preceded them into the very soggy pit stop formed by the seat of my pants.  I reflected miserably on the inscrutable irony of how the sun can be blazing so cheerily in the sky above Copper Center, while a few miles past Kenny Lake, as the Edgarton Highway begins its descent toward Chitina, thick, sticky, gray clouds can pounce out of ambush to suffocate the sun.  Then, as if they were made of wet tissue paper, the bottom falls out of the clouds, dumping torrents of rain all over a hapless dip netter’s windshield and saturating the gear on his trailer.  I guess that’s just the price a guy has to be willing pay for attempting to capture the best salmon in the world…the legendary Copper River Reds. 

I love fresh salmon.  I love it baked, grilled, or smoked.  I love it in chowders, in sandwich spreads and in salads.  I love salmon cakes and salmon steaks.  I like it plain, with barbecue sauce, with Old Bay, with lemon and butter, with dill, or with tartar sauce.  I even love it on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  I’ve learned the hard way, though, that not everybody seems to share my gastronomical love affair with the delicacy.  One time, in my naïve exuberance, I carefully nursed a frozen salmon through airport security so that I could proudly prepare it for some relatives I was visiting in the Lower 48.  I was shocked and hurt when some of them refused to even try it, explaining condescendingly that they didn’t care for fish.  Fish!  FISH?  What sacrilege! Calling a Copper River Red Salmon a mere “fish” is like calling Italian white truffles “mushrooms”!  Other relatives at least gave it a try, tentatively plopping a tiny flake onto their plate, only to turn green and gag when they bit into it!  Incomprehensible!  Prior to that traumatic moment, it had never crossed my mind that any healthy, mentally stable human being could fail to be enraptured by the heavenly succulence of Alaskan Salmon. 

It was precisely that heavenly taste of which I kept reminding myself as I sat impaled on that spine of slimy rock, blinking the raindrops off of my eyelashes and blowing them out of my moustache.  For a while I had feared that my numb fingers might conspire to make me drop my dip net into the raging Copper River current.  But that fear had abated several hours previously when I noticed that, fortunately, my hands seemed to have become welded solid onto the dip net handle–net and hands merging into a single indistinguishable blob of ice.  I wasn’t sure how I would be able to tear my hands free in order to remove a salmon from the net if I should wind up catching one. However, if I could only stave off hypothermia and remain conscious long enough to recognize the telltale bump of a salmon hitting my net, I would deal with that pleasant crisis when the moment arrived. 

I had to catch at least one salmon.  I simply had to.  The alternative was unthinkable.  You see, my honor was at stake.  This whole trip had resulted from a bet I had made with my friend Zebedee Clanston, who was visiting from Minnesota.  Zeb is one of those disgusting anglers that that refuse to listen to my fishing stories, but instead, insist on bragging incessantly about their own fishing exploits to everyone within earshot.  Most guys like that you can dismiss with a few well-timed smirks, a raised eyebrow and a knowing, “Whatever you say, there, Sport.”  But Zeb couldn’t be so easily ignored.  At the first flicker of incredulity, he would whip out his iPhone, jab at it with a tanned finger, and, before you could flee, thrust the phototgraphic evidence of his fishing prowess in your face.  It was ghastly.  You would be compelled to view a gratuitous shot of his leering mug, somewhere in Chilean Patagonia, triumphantly brandishing aloft an obviously photoshopped stringer of fat brown trout, each one as long as my leg.  As you would grimace and attempt to back away from the sickening sight, Zeb would poke the screen again and up would flash another picture of him gloatingly straining to prop up a 150lb. Atlantic Sailfish at Onjango Resort in Luanda, Angola, Africa.  Like some sort of nightmare, in rapid succession the visual assaults would just keep coming: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the St. Lawrence River, Ontario; Pinas Bay, Panama; Munster Blackwater, Ireland.  There were muskies and bass, flounder and barramundi, tigerfish and zander, albacore and grouper, all in ridiculous numbers and of grotesque sizes.  I had finally grown nauseated by the pompous pretentiousness of it all and decided to shut Zeb up once and for all.

I coaxed my lip into a pitying, yet tolerant smile.  “Not bad for a beginner, Zeb.  Some of those fish were almost worth keeping.”  I attempted to make the compliment sound credible enough to seem genuine, yet a bit detached in a bored sort of way.  I even allowed him to observe an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a yawn.  I patted him on the head, reassuringly in my best fatherly fashion.  Boy, that worked even better than I had anticipated!  His face turned brilliant crimson and he slapped my hand away from his head as if it were a poisonous spider. 

“Not bad?” he hollered.   “Almost worth keeping?  I’d like to see you do any better!” 

That was the opening for which I had been maneuvering.  “Oh, don’t sell yourself, short, Sport,” I murmured magnanimously.  “You could have done worse.  A lot worse.  After all, not everyone can be blessed with access to the best fishing in the world.  Just because I might be able to bring home more fish than you, pound for pound, on any given day, is no reason to kick yourself.”

The corner of Zeb’s left eye began to twitch and engorged veins commenced pulsating purple in his neck.  “Stop talking down to me like I’m some kind of cheechako!  I won’t stand for it.  I have dropped a line in every fishing hole in this state, from the Togiak River to Lake Illiamna, I’ll have you know.”

I patted him on the head again.  “I know you have, Sport, I know you have.  Don’t feel bad.  You did the best that could be expected with a rod and reel.  You’re just not a resident, and so there are some privileges you just don’t have access to.  I understand that, and I certainly won’t hold it against you.”

“Is that a fact, Sir Blabsalot?” blustered Zeb.  “Well pick the day and the species, Buster, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish in my cooler than you, I’ll eat the brand new $500.00 G. Loomis GLX spinning rod I just ordered from Cabela’s.”

I literally purred with satisfaction.  He had taken my bait like a 24 inch grayling sucking in a Red Tail Mosquito dry fly.  I had played him like a pro and was now poised to scoop him up with my landing net.  “OK!   You’re on, Sport.  How about this Friday?  The species is Copper River Red Salmon, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish than you, I’ll eat the $4.95 can of fluorescent PowerBait I just picked up at Wal-Mart.”  Grinning victoriously, at my own cleverness, I leaned forward, waiting for him to start flopping around, gasping for air like a trophy King in the bottom of my boat.  I was going to enjoy watching him hem and haw and try to backpeddle out of the bet.

However, my triumphant smile wilted a bit as, instead of admitting defeat, Zeb grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically.  Was he actually accepting my deal?  After all, avid fisherman that he is, I thought he’d know that dipnetting in the Copper River is classified as a Personal Use Fishery and is restricted to Alaska residents only.  But the sly look that had crept into his eyes was beginning to unsettle me.  What could he possibly know that I didn’t?  He didn’t stand a chance, did he?  Why, I could harvest my household limit of 30 fish, while his daily non-resident sportfishing bag limit had to be, what?  Surely not more than six, maybe ten measly fish?  But he had foolishly thrown down the gauntlet, and now I would crush him.  I had to crush him.  I wasn’t going to let a Minnesotan out-fish me in my own stomping grounds.

But now as my aching arms swept the churning back eddy with a dip net whose aluminum handle had become permanently melded to my frozen hands, I was growing desperate.  The only bump I had felt in my net for 12 hours had come from a floating tree branch which had ripped a huge gash in my netting.  I had tried to repair it with the drawstring from my poncho hood and now the hood wouldn’t stay up.  I was getting real tired of all those icy rivulets using my back as their own personal racetrack.  I honestly didn’t know how much more of this I could take, and yet at this rate, Zeb would only need to catch one salmon to win the bet. 

Maybe a huge lunker was hovering just below my net, laughing at me.  Viciously, I stabbed the net deeper into the current.    As I did so, the rock on which my left foot rested broke off and toppled into the river with a splash.  If I hadn’t previously displayed the foresight of letting my wife nag me into roping myself to the bank, I might have followed the rock’s example.  As it was, I almost did anyway.  The only part of the bank I had been able to find which seemed secure enough to support me had been a flimsy willow shrub.  As I began to fall, I jerked heavily against the rope, snapping it taut against the willow shrub.  The plant shuddered and promptly ripped out of the cliff face to which it clung. 

With instincts honed by many years of backcountry experience, I screeched hysterically.  I’ve developed that technique for just such an emergency situation as this.  You see, hundreds of hours of research have taught me that screeching stimulates a savvy outdoorsman’s adrenal gland and tones his diaphragm muscles.  I find that it also alerts any passersby to avoid the dangerous area until I have been able to assess the situation and render the environment safe.  I plummeted about three feet toward the torrent of instant death, until one of the willow shrub’s roots held, abruptly arresting my freefall.  Since my hands were still frozen to the dip net handle, I deftly caught myself on the jagged corner of a rock by my cheekbone.  Sadly, one of my boots, not noticing that I had stopped, continued its plunge.  Undaunted, I quickly whipped up an improvised dye, consisting of a mixture of 75% blood from my gashed face, and 25% raindrops.  Using the tip of my nose, I carefully dripped them into the river at the precise spot where the river had swallowed my boot.   Perhaps later I could return to the location and recover it.  Right now, though, I had fish to catch. 

Using the handle of my dip net as a lever, I was just wallowing back into a position of relative safety when my wife’s voice floated down to me from above.  “Are you alright, Honey?”

“Of course!”  I snapped.  She’s always interrupting the serenity of my fishing trips with banal chit chat.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe because you just screamed like a woman?  Is that blood on your face?  Where’s your boot?  I think you better come up here and take a break and drink some coffee.”

“I’m fine!  I didn’t scream.  I was just yawning loudly.”

“Uh-huh.” 

“And about the boot?  I…uh…I took it off because my foot was getting hot and sweaty.

“Just one foot was getting hot and sweaty?”

“Yeah.   So?”

“In this weather?”

“That’s what I said, and I’m sticking to it.  What is this?  The Spanish Inquisition?”

“I’ll ignore that.  Where’s the boot?  I just bought those for you.”

“I…uh… and accidentally knocked it in the river, when I…I was fighting with that big King I caught.  That’s where this blood on my cheek came from.  Yeah, that’s it.  It’s salmon blood.”

“So where’s the salmon?”

“It got away.”

“Whatever.  But if you fall in that river and drown, I’m gonna kill you.”

From there, the day took a turn for the worse.  By midnight I had only caught one and a half Reds.  The half of one hadn’t been dead long.   It’s other half was probably still flopping in some Grizzly Bear’s stomach.  Glumly, I trundled my single solitary fish, my gear and my wife back to where my truck patiently waited at O’Brien Creek.  I wasn’t looking forward to facing Zeb at our pre-arranged rendezvous at the Hub in Glennallen.  My only hope was that some tourist in a Winnebago had backed over his fishing pole in the Klutina River campground or wherever it was he had decided to fish.

When I arrived, I steeled myself and peeked into the bed of Zeb’s rental truck.  I expelled a huge sigh of relief when not a single salmon met my inquisitive gaze.  About then, I felt Zeb’s big hand slapping me on the back.  “How’d you do?”  he boomed cheerily.  Uh-oh.  That wasn’t a good sign.  It was never a good sign when Zeb boomed cheerily after a day of fishing.

I summoned my most nonchalant tone.  “Oh, not bad.  Not bad.  You?” 

Zeb grinned like a Cheshire Cat and out came his iPhone.  “Let me show you.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  And in this case it’s worth a thousand fish.  Actually, thirty-five hundred and twenty seven Copper River Red Salmon to be precise!  I caught them in about 45 minutes.”

I was staring in stunned disbelief at the picture of a boat’s hold overflowing with massive fish.  Beside the huge catch was Zeb’s leering mug, and he was holding a newspaper with today’s date clearly readable.   I found myself compelled to sit down suddenly.  Zeb eased me onto his tailgate and began to fan my face.  “How…where…what…?”  I managed to squeak out.

“Sorry for the shock,” he snickered.  “I guess I must have forgotten to tell you that I own a 30 foot gillnetter.  I call her the ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and I keep her docked in Cordova.  For the last three years I’ve owned a limited entry commercial permit to harvest salmon near the barrier islands along the Copper River Delta.  Can I get you some Pepto-Bismol  or anything?  You look like you’re about to throw up.”

I shrugged off his proffered hand and staggered toward my truck.  “No thanks,” I called over my shoulder.  “Right now, I have some fluorescent PowerBait to swallow.”

Aliens

DATE / TIME MARK:  8-899^120*096 (estimated)

FROM:  sQreev-Y, Prime Sentient Component of Transgalactic Probe tYx^951*332.

TO:  sWomglu-K, Coordinating Overseer of pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau.

RE:  Long-range data compilation mission to rWezik Galaxy / Sector DdF^893.

PREFACATORY NOTE:  Please accept my regrets for the inefficiency of the primitive digital transcription and data storage method I am compelled to utilize in compilation of this report. In explanation, it must be noted that Exploration Probe tYx^951*332 experienced a de-orbiting incident resulting in an uncontrolled atmospheric entry. This caused the probe to impact a planetary surface as detailed later in this report.  At that time, all of my telepanscription technology was rendered non-functional by a major system disintegration. 

After fully regenerating from my organic malfuncions, I was eventually able to locate a quaint and time intensive device called a Dell Optiplex GX745 Core 2 Duo, which seemed to possess rudimentary information compiling capacity.  Although my non-organic database had been erased, my organic databanks retained sufficient memory of ancient pRuglugrion technological history for me to extrapolate and reconstruct the crude techniques necessary to preserve this report. 

I appeal to your Primeness’ logarithmic prowess to calculate the statistical probability of my capacity to compile this report by any more adequate means, within the limitations of the circumstances herein described.  I am confident that in the event that this record comes into the possession of fellow pRuglugrions, it will be capably decoded into a more readable format.   I trust its contents will reassure all sentient components of the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau that I, sQreev-Y remained true to my mission until the final logoff of my organic systems.

 After a routine transport, we disengaged the Probe’s baryon propulsion engines in order to drop out of hyperdrive.  We remained in transwarp until our quark confinement status had achieved chromodynamic equilibrium.  Then using our thrusters, we maneuvered to our target coordinates and assumed orbit around the planet that was to become our next subject of study.  We were precisely on schedule.

The planet proved to be a relatively small one, positioned third from a class ^5 star in Sector DdF^893, which was itself located in an obscure section of the galaxy designated “rWezik”.  As our preliminary long-range scans had suggested, the planet was indeed inhabited.  Short-range scans confirmed that it was cluttered with life forms of an unexpectedly wide range of complexity and variety.

Accurate and complete data, however, was impossible to collect, because our scans were severely compromised by a number of factors. 

First, the stratosphere of the planet churned with debris.  It resembled an asteroid belt, except that the majority of the debris appeared to be metallic and bore unmistakable evidence of having been assembled by intelligent design.  Of the thousands of items orbiting the planet, 85% were fragmentary or non-functional.  To our great frustration, these tended to drift across our scanning grid, just at the moment when a critical computation was being formulated, thus skewing our results, and requiring us to re-initialize the entire scanning process. 

However, some of the debris appeared to consist of functional devices.  Of these, the majority seemed designed to capture sonic, photonic, or electro-magnetic radiation and reflect it back to a non-standardized variety of towers and parabolic discs on the planet’s surface.  The devices emanated just enough energy to create feedback on our sensors.  We could determine no practical purpose for such an array of devices, and finally determined that they had been planted in position to serve as a planetary defense shield to prevent effective scanning by a non-indigenous culture such as ours.

It should be noted that the Probe’s Technical Intern, sTwox-P proposed a hypothesis that the orbiting devices were some form of primitive communication network.  I was able to convince him of the logical fallacy of his hypothesis by pointing out that as underdeveloped as this culture obviously was, yet the fact that they had mastered the rudimentary science of successfully placing reflective devices into orbit, presupposed that they had a working comprehension of basic electromagnetic theory.  Therefore, the reason they would expose themselves to the danger that microwave radiation poses to the cellular structure of carbon-based organic life forms must be a compelling one, and beyond the scope of mere convenience.   I am pleased to add that sTwox-P accepted my argument and retracted his flawed hypotheses.

Another factor that corrupted our data scan was the presence of massive chemical, particulate, biological and gas cocktails that hung suspended over much of the planet.  These appeared to consist primarily of methane, byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, and a small percentage of highly hazardous chemicals.  The pockets appeared most concentrated over areas of high population density.  Once again, their function appeared unclear, but it is possible that these were artificial atmospheres precisely mixed according to the inhabitants’ unique physiology in order to maximize the beneficial effects upon their respiratory systems.

A third factor was the constant occurrence of abrupt thermal activity that appeared at unpredictable intervals across the planet’s surface.  In certain subcompact regions it seemed that thousands of thermal explosions were occurring simultaneously.  These explosions varied widely in frequency, size and duration, however we also noticed that they seemed to be accompanied by a concentration of biological life-sign, many of which would vanish or fade after each thermal burst.  The only conclusion we could draw is that these represented weapon discharges.

We had nearly determined that the planet did not fit the parameters requisite for a scientifically viable survey when I spotted a large land mass in the northern quadrant of the western hemisphere not far from the northern polar icecap, which appeared remarkably free of interference.  There was no artificial atmosphere, we detected few weapon discharges and I could discern a visible break in the orbiting debris. 

Hoping to justify the resources already expended on this mission, I determined to descend to a low altitude above that point.  I calculated that I should be able to obtain a relatively clean, if limited scan, and then we would move to the next destination in our itinerary.

Just as I was maneuvering to initiate descent, Probe tYx^951*332 was struck on her starboard stern by a piece of debris that had been orbiting at a higher altitude than I had guessed possible.  As we were knocked into an uncontrolled atmospheric entry I was able to briefly observe the debris.  It appeared to be some type of small pod containing two hatches.  I believe it was nearly white in color, with the designation “Frigidaire” inscribed on its fuselage.

The collision had damaged our starboard thruster array.  Caught in the planet’s gravitational pull, it was impossible to engage our baryon engines.  I did not regain control of the Probe until we were just above a dense cluster of green, obelisk shaped vegetation growing beside a geometrically asymmetric conduit, through which flowed a solution of hydrogen dioxide and silicon dioxide.

Beside the conduit I observed a single life form.  It was a biped, ^03 nOrkins tall, with a small cranial capacity and a profusion of filaments protruding from the bottom of its elliptical head.  It was grasping a narrow flexible shaft in one of its upper appendages.  From the flexible shaft was suspended a small-diameter filament which the life form seemed to be dipping in the dioxide solution.

Upon observing the Probe’s arrival, the life form emitted a piercing sonic tone, released the dipping shaft and followed it into the solution.  The life form was borne some distance in the current, primarily submerged, but periodically displaying an appendage or head, until it emerged in a quadruped state 4^60 nOrkins from the location where it had entered the solution.

It then emitted a series of harsh staccato sonic tones accompanied by the expulsion of a jet of dioxide solution from an orifice concealed within its head filaments.  Slowly, it reverted to a biped state.  Upon completion of this change, it removed a tubular metallic device from a compartment positioned low on its torso and pointed it at our Probe.  The tubular device abruptly discharged a thermal burst precisely like the ones we had previously observed.  As a result, a tiny cylindrical fragment of lead and copper was projected at our Probe. 

In retrospect, I can only conclude that against the exponentially unlikely probability, that tiny metal fragment entered the Probe’s antiquark venting port, traveling up the asymptotic tube until it reached the baryon manifold.  Of course, the lead and copper reacted with the bWabnium isotope bank, effectively destabilizing the chromodynamic equilibrium of Probe tYx^951*332.

As the only sentient component of the Probe that proved to be salvageable, I have not been able to locate either resources or technology adequate to construct another Probe, and thus expect to prematurely experience organic logoff.  Now that I have located this Dell information storage device and entered this final log, I must regretfully request that I be relieved of duty.  I can no longer fulfill my obligations to the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau.  I expect to occupy my remaining time avoiding the biped life form who seems intent on capturing me.  My thoracic carapace is becoming quite discolored from the quantity of lead and copper fragments that the biped has discharged against it.

Proud to have served pRuglugria, I remain her loyal component,

sQreev-Y

To Ski or Not to Ski

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Back in the days when Black Rapids ski slope was open to civilians, my wife wheedled me into renting some downhill skis, and buying a pass and a lift ticket.  She bribed me by describing panoramic vistas, exhilarating outdoor air, fun, excitement, and exercise.  I didn’t realize that the “romantic bonding time for our relationship” she was extolling was going to involve me bonding with every tree, bush and rock on the slope. 

Oblivious that my sweet and devoted spouse had made a Faustian pact with the abominable snowman, I told myself that downhill skiing couldn’t be that bad.  You just stand on those little planks with the pointy curves on the end and ride them down the hill.  Right?  After all, didn’t they give you those sticks to jab in the snow and stop yourself with if things get hairy? 

As I rode the lift to the top, I mentally perfected my style.  I had seen some really cool moves in a James Bond ski chase scene that I wanted to try out.  I licked my lips in anticipation and then spent the rest of my lift ride trying to unstick my tongue from the steel tubing of the T-lift.  When the thing reached the top and I tried to get off, I found that I couldn’t. Not only did I have the tongue issue, but somehow, the strap of my snow pants had gotten snagged on the stupid lift as well.

With all our modern technology, you would have thought that they could make a ski lift stop at the top to let a skier dismount and retrieve his taste buds with dignity.  But, no, it just kept moving.  Frantically, I gave a mighty wrench and felt a pair of tearing sensations–one in my tongue and one in my pants.  I didn’t much care about the pants.  They were an old duct-taped pair of camo snow pants, blackened by the patina of a dozen hunts.  It was my tongue that disappointed me the most.  I was going to have difficulty managing those snappy James Bond one-liners now.

As I reeled backwards, my skis and poles simulated a Viet Cong man trap, forcing me onto the snow with my leg canted under me in a painful and unnatural position, and my ski poles impaling me in the calf and ribs.  To add insult to injury, I looked up to see some skier in a three hundred dollar pair of goggles and color coordinated pastel ski suit peering down at me with an expression of revulsion.

“Good grief, man!”  He sneered.  “There should be some sort of screening protocol for purchasers of lift tickets.  Are you OK?”

I lifted one eyebrow in an expression of disdain.  “Thaken, not thtirred,” I replied in my most debonair British accent.  It was difficult to maintain a British accent with two thirds of my tongue surface missing.  The skier shook his head and shot away in a hiss of skis and a flurry of snickers.  Carefully I began the process of untangling myself.  It proved to be a procedure that I became very adept at as the day wore on.

About then, my wife showed up.  She wondered why I why I wanted to lay around making snow angels when there was a mountain to be skied.   I just smiled enigmatically and using my poles, managed to gingerly ratchet myself into a standing position atop my skis. 

Then she began to give me pointers.  It was something about bending at the tongue, leaning into the knees of your snowplow shift to turn, and weighing your boots to stop.  The only thing I clearly remember was her admonition:  “Just remember, if you start to feel out of control, all you have to do is fall down!”  From my vantage point, teetering on the brink of the expert slope, I didn’t see how her advice was particularly useful, since it appeared like skiing was basically going to consist of a prolonged fall down a mountain anyway.

 All of my 007 fantasies forsook me and I became obsessed with but one thought—how do I get back to the chalet alive?  It seemed decades later that, crawling on hands and knees, I found the beginner’s trail.  It was slightly more sloped than the top of a pool table, and slightly wider than a football field.  It was the most frightening thing I have ever encountered. 

Some four-year-old kid shot nonchalantly by me, leaning into the tongue of his boots with his poles tucked, forgotten, under his armpits.  He didn’t have to rub it in.  I briefly wondered if ski poles would work as little kid shish-kabob skewers, but by then he was at the bottom of the slope, and riding the lift back up.  

I vaguely remembered my wife saying that if the slope was too steep, I could zigzag back and forth across it to control my speed and angle.  I fastened my bindings, took a deep breath, and pointed obliquely down hill.  At first I tried my skating freeform style, thinking that the wind milling action of my arms might provide some gyroscopic stability.  It seemed ineffective, so I sat on the back of my skis in the fetal position and covered my head.  I became one with nature—or at least that small part of nature that consisted of an alder thicket on the far side of the slope. 

It took some time for me to distinguish between ski poles, alder trunks, arms, skis, and legs.  When I had gotten them all sorted out, I aimed at an even shallower angle for a very soft looking snowdrift on the opposite side of the trail and pushed off.  I was able to practice steering this time.  Lean.  Pivot at the hips.  Dig in with the edge of the skis.  Let the snowdrift gobble you up.

It took me an hour and a half to make it down the beginner’s slope to the chalet.  I would simply shoot across the slope until I encountered an accommodating bush, snowdrift, or rock.  It would stop me.  I would then chase down my escaping skis, pick a new drop zone, and repeat the process.  I was still picking impacted snow pellets out of my ears and nostrils the next morning.

When I reached the chalet, I knelt and reverently kissed the level ground before it.  I kissed the chalet.  I kissed the little four-year-old kid.  I even tried to kiss the bull moose that stepped out of the brush.  When he chased me inside, I kissed a tall mug of hot chocolate until my wife arrived with frost in her hair, a glow in her cheeks, and a sparkle in her eye.  I didn’t talk to her, let alone kiss her for about a month.

The Ice Scootch and Other Winter Tricks

During Alaska’s brief summer it is sometimes hard to tell who is a sourdough and who isn’t.  While it’s balmy out, clever resourceful tourons and cheechakos are usually able to fake it enough to blend in with the experienced Alaskans.  As long as they don’t start talking, that is. 

Once they open their mouths, they give themselves away.  Inevitably, they’ll blurt out a telltale question like “Do you think we’ll make it back before dark?”  Or they might refer to a “woodchuck” they spotted near a highway turnout, or the “huge crow” they saw in a “pine tree”.  Often it will be place names that they fumble.  They’ll mention returning from Anchorage via the “Tock” Cut-off, or brag about the halibut boat they chartered out of “Val Dezz”.   

But assuming they have sense enough to limit their conversation to terse monosyllabic grunts, their behavior can uncannily mimic that of a true sourdough.  After all, sourdoughs, like cheechakos, do spend Federal Reserve Notes at the store.  Sourdoughs laugh and sneeze and scratch their chin just like a touron might.  Everybody, sourdough and non-sourdough alike, wears pants and drinks Coca Cola and carries a cell phone.  So, if during July, for instance, you spotted two strangers walking toward you, and somebody challenged you to identify which one was the sourdough and which one wasn’t, you might be hard pressed to do so.

The thin mask is jerked off, however, as soon as winter hits.  A person who has never experienced authentic sub-arctic weather simply cannot fathom it.  They have no reference point by which to process it.  They may have read all the Jack London Books or National Geographic articles they could get their hands on.  They may have watched all the television specials that were ever produced on the subject.  They may even have pored over reams of meteorological data and consulted every blog and Wikipedia entry that they could Google.  Still, it is impossible for such people to be prepared for Alaska’s winter, and as a result, they will miserably fail to believably feign nonchalance toward it once they find themselves immersed in its cold reality.

You see, there are certain skills–little tricks–that one picks up to compensate for the gaping ragged chunks of dignity that ice, snow, howling winds and fifty below temperatures rip out of one’s comfort zone.  In order to survive, a sourdough has learned to broker a humble truce with the elements.  Compromising where he must, and improvising where he can, he acknowledges that he must play by Jack Frost’s rules or be mercilessly destroyed.  A cheechako has not yet come to grips with this humbling reality. 

As a result, when it comes to winter, a newbie will tend to make one of two mistakes.  On the one extreme, some cheechakos assume that sourdoughs are wimps who like to lie a lot.  Convinced that Alaska can’t possibly get as cold as we claim, they figure we are either exaggerating or pulling their leg when describe such experiences as having our upper and lower eyelashes freeze together from the ice balls formed when we exhale.  They just know that  it is impossible to get frostbitten fingers from merely not wearing gloves during the five minutes it takes to fuel up their car at the self-serve gas station.  This naivete proves to be their undoing.  I can’t count the number of cheechakos I have found at the service station, dead as an icicle, still standing upright with their hand frozen around the gas pump nozzle and their eyes welded shut with ice balls.  The look of incredulity on their face is enough to make a grown man break down in “I told ya so’s”.

On the other hand, certain other cheechakos assume that Alaskans are simply tougher than outsiders, and that the shortcut to sourdoughood can be achieve by pretending that the cold doesn’t bother them.  Consequently, it is not uncommon during a cold snap to find the ground littered with the stiff carcasses of cheechakos who have succumbed to their own misplaced sense of bravado.  Ironically, if you brush the frost from their lifeless faces you will find that most of them will still have a plucky grin frozen onto it.

This brings me to the first secret little trick that a sourdough learns early.  It’s called long underwear.  Since long underwear is by nature–well–underwear, it can’t be seen.  Thus the secret factor.   It’s not that sourdoughs are trying to keep it a secret particularly, it’s just that modern people have been trained not to discuss that category of their wardrobe.  So cheechakos don’t have any way to know what they’re supposed to be wearing under there.   The poor shivering cheechakos suffer under the impression that we, like them, are wearing nothing but goose bumps and skimpy cotton skivvies under our blue jeans. 

That we sourdoughs should let such a thing happen is an outrage, really.  Think about it.  People comment about each others’ clothes all the time:  “Nice hat.”  “I love your tie!”  “That skirt looks nice on you.”  “Where did you get that jacket?  It’s really sharp.”  Yet, when is the last time you met somebody in a restaurant or at church and jovially called out the following exchange?

“Hey, Frank, good to see you!  What are you wearing these days, boxers or briefs?”

“Are you kiddin’, man!  It’s November!  I’ve been wearing my Under Armour long-handles for at least a month.”

“Under Armour, huh!  Well, that high-falutin’ Cabela’s stuff is OK, I suppose, if you can afford it, but why mortgage your house to take out a loan for underwear when you can just go to Value Village and pick up some good old brown polypropylene.  Military surplus.  The baggy kind with the little lint balls all over them that always smell like dirty laundry no matter how many times you wash them.”

I think the world would be a better place if more people could have frank discussions like that. That’s why for many years now I’ve been a tireless outspoken advocate of removing underwear from the list of taboo conversational subjects among polite company.  If more Alaskans would have the courage and compassion to begin to open dialogues about their underwear choices, I believe we could avoid hundreds of hypothermia and frostbite cases each year.  We might even save some lives.

Then again, maybe not.  I suspect that many cheechakos are aware of the existence of long underwear, but refuse to wear it, because they haven’t mastered the second trick in the sourdough’s winter survival bag—fashion immunity.  One cannot be addicted to high fashion and hope to survive in Alaska’s winter.  Especially if one is a female.  For some reason that I have never quite understood, female fashions tend to expose skin rather than to cover it.  This is quite self-defeating, seeing that the ability to survive sub-zero temperatures is inversely proportional to the percentage of the epidermis that is exposed to the ambient air.  I suppose that the female leg can be attractive under the appropriate circumstances, but I have never personally admired a female leg that was beet red, with white blotches and bright purple knees.

So, a sourdough learns to be immune to the snobbish and impractical demands of fashion.  After, all, isn’t fashion invented in places like Paris and San Francisco?  If I wanted to be fashionable, I’d move to one of those places.  On the other hand, if fashion designers worked out of Delta Junction or Fairbanks, you know that all the supermodels would  be strutting the catwalk in bunny boots and Carhartts and wolverine fur bomber hats. 

Speaking of bunny boots, sourdoughs understand that proper winter footwear provides more advantages than warmth alone.  The importance of choosing a boot with good traction is incalculable.  For every cheechako I have found frozen at the gas pump or toppled over beside the sidewalk wearing little but a  plucky grin and a stiff upper lip, I have encountered dozens who were performing acrobatic break dancing routines on an icy walkway.  Such routines are typically spectacular but brief.  Generally the only folks who appreciate such a performance are orthopedic surgeons.

Sadly, it is sometimes difficult for even a sourdough to identify whether the soles of a new pair of  shoes will have good traction or not.  I have bought shoes with treads that looked like a banana peel yet amazingly, they stuck to the ice like Velcro.  Then there have been those that looked like their bottoms had been carved out of an X-treme ATV tire.  However, they might as well have been skis, for all the traction they provided.  Alas, a cheechako has never learned about the fickle nature of footwear manufacturers.  Instead, he will naively trust whatever the company says about the aggressive traction characteristics of their latest product.  A sourdough, however, wisely distrusts all shoe and boot manufacturers.  What would somebody in Taiwan know about walking in my driveway, anyway?  No, a true sourdough keeps from fracturing his coccyx by relying on an old Forty-Niner technique called the Ice Scootch.

You see, back when Forty-Niners were digging up the Alaskan and northern Canadian landscape like gophers, there was no such thing as Vibram soles.  Their boot treads came in two varieties: smooth leather and smooth leather with hobnails.  The problem was that the business owners in places like Skagway and Dawson City took a dim view of customers scraping and scratching across their expensive hardwood floors with hobnails.  So hobnails were banned in any place where a prospector might be inclined to blow a poke of gold dust on a weekend. 

Needless to say, this created quite a dilemma.  At first, the Forty-Niners, like modern cheechakos, tried to step outside onto the icy street and set off with their characteristic long stride.  That didn’t work out very well for them.  A long stride requires the strider to stretch his leg out in front of him, plant his heel, roll forward onto the ball of his foot and then push off with his toes as the heel of the opposite foot is being planted for the next step.  That’s fine and dandy on gravel or meadow grass, but on ice, such an ambulatory technique results not in a mile-eating pace, but in an instant somersault.  Sometimes they would somersault backwards immediately at the heel plant.  But usually they would somersault forward during either the ball of the foot roll phase or the toe push-off phase.  This is the reason why all those old prospectors wore a hat with a brim that was smashed flat in the front.  It also explains the disproportionate number of missing front teeth in the prospector population of the era.

Happily, those who survived to become sourdoughs developed the Ice Scootch walking technique which has been preserved virtually unchanged to this very day.  Mastery of the Ice Scootch could literally render Alaskan orthopedic surgeons obsolete.  Here, then is the technique.  Instead of moving the feet back and forth, move them up and down, sort of like the way you use a toilet plunger to unclog the commode.  Carefully.   Very carefully.  Plant the entire right foot–heel, instep, ball and toe all at once.  Once it is planted do not move it or slide it in any way until you are ready to pick it straight up again for the next step.  Do not shift your body weight forward or backwards by more than .005 degrees.  Now, while your right foot is planted, very slightly ease your weight sideways until it is balanced directly over that foot.  Next, lift the left foot that you have just shifted your weight from.  Remember, straight up!  When it comes back down, it should be incrementally forward of its last position.  Now begin the process of shifting your weight back to your left foot.  Repeat the process, alternating feet.  If you now are walking like a cross between the Michelin Man and a tactical SWAT team member, Congratulations.  You have just graduated to sourdough status!

The Walking Dictionary

Wesley Montrose was a pudgy, bespectacled fellow.  I didn’t know him well.  None of us at my alma mater did.  It’s hard to get to know a fellow like Wesley.  Let me rephrase that.  It was hard to get to know Wesley specifically.  There were no other fellows like Wesley.  I don’t suppose there ever will be either.  The reason it was hard to get to know him was largely because nobody could understand him.  I don’t just mean that he had an eccentric non-social personality, although he certainly had one of those.  We couldn’t understand him simply because when he opened his mouth to talk, pure gibberish came out. 

This was most disconcerting, particularly when we knew he spoke fluent English.  English was his first language…and his greatest love, evidently.  His grammar was flawless, his diction was impeccable, and yet he spoke gibberish.  For instance, he liked to proudly describe himself as a hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian quidam.  That sounded like something we didn’t want living in the same dorm with us, so we threw him in the cold shower and held him there until he simplified the term.  It took him three tries until he got it into verbiage that we could actually understand.  The result was anticlimactic.  Instead of admitting to being some sort of weirdo, he was basically calling himself an unnoticed person with an exceptional vocabulary.  Well, he was certainly right about that.  The guy knew words that nobody else had ever dreamed of.  Even worse than that, he used them in every sentence. 

The frustrating thing about it was that his words were always legitimate, and could all be found in some official dictionary somewhere.  That made people like me who considered ourselves to be above average at language skills feel pretty ignorant.  Before I met Wes, I had viewed myself as a Scrabble champion.  But playing Scrabble with Wesley was like a three-year-old trying to beat Garry Kasparov at chess.  It was humiliating on a visceral level.  I only did it once.  Nobody else was foolish enough to try.  As a result, for Wesley, Scrabble became a solitaire game.  That didn’t seem to bother him very much, though.  He could play Scrabble with himself for hours.

On a positive note, Wesley was a great guy to know when you were working a crossword puzzle.

“Hey, Wes!  Give me a five-letter word for a ball of ceremonial rice.  First letter ‘p’ and middle letter ‘n’.  ”

“Pinda,” he’d shoot back without a microsecond’s hesitation.

Or, “Hey, Wes, a nine-letter word, for silly, beginning with ‘d’?”

“Desipient,” he’d yawn.

Wesley was a career scholar.  He’d been a sophomore for nearly a decade and a half.  I think he purposely flunked the final exam of each semester, so that he would not have to graduate and leave his beloved enclave.  I once asked him if he had any career plans outside of academia.  I don’t know why I wasted my time.  His reply was completely unintelligible:

“I eschew chreotechnics, and nummular pursuits are my pisaller.  My habromania, however, is vortiginously appurtenant on an apinoid phrontistery, with untrammeled sufferance to sedulously and omniligently chymify illimitible pendects.  That would veritably render me squabbish and blithe.”

How do you respond to something like that?  I tried to tell him that he needed to come out of his nerdy little world and try being normal like the rest of us.  That seemed to rile him a bit.  To my suggestion, he responded that no matter how renardy I might fancy myself, a neanthropic clamjamfry like me simply was incapable of being caritative toward a pedantic dockhma like him.  I was pretty sure he had a point there, but I had no idea what it was.  From there, the dialogue degenerated into an exchange of insults.  At least I think it did.  I know I was trying to put him down, and by the look on his face, he seemed to be responding in kind, but I never would have been able to prove it by what he said.

“Your momma dresses you, funny!” I taunted.

“My cisvestitism is incidental, you valgus gynotikolobomassophile.”

“Oh, yeah!  Is that what I am, huh!  Well…well…you have dandruff.”

“Epicaricacy isn’t your forte.  You jargogled your recumbentibus, you ichthyomancing sneckdraw, because, serene in my fecundity, I irrefangibly ostend my furfuraceous cranial vertex.  Interregnum, I descry your fashious hircismus and podobromhidrosis.”

There’s something creepy about being insulted so eloquently and yet so obscurely.  If he had cussed me out like a sailor, I would have felt better about it.  As it was, I could only respond to his psychological profanity with the vocabulary equivalent of “phooey on you, you meanie!”  Deep inside, I realized that I was way out of my league, but like an idiot, I wouldn’t admit defeat.

“Go ahead, descry all you want, but at least people can understand what I’m saying.”

 “Oh, I wamble!”  He whimpered.  At first I thought I had him, then I recognized the sarcasm dripping from his voice.  Evidently, he wasn’t really wambling at all, whatever wambling was.  “Oops, I xenobombulated.”  He continued with a smirk.  “Funkify, before you wane agroof, analagous to a nimptopsical muckibus, you dasypygal creodont!”

At that point, I mumbled something and left the room.  As I did so, I had a nagging intuition that I was funkifying, but I didn’t care.  It was time to cut my losses. 

Gradually, I began to develop an odd fondness for Wes.  In spite of his eccentricity, I grew to realize that he was a human being too.  Perhaps the thing that softened my attitude the most was when I began to notice him gazing at female classmates from time to time with the universal tell-tale wistful expression.  It had never occurred to me that Wes might want to date.  I had always assumed that he had no interest in girls, absorbed as he was by his passion for words. 

I broached the subject with him.  With the help of a pocket dictionary and some creative negotiation, I was able to verify my suspicions.  Wesley Montrose was lonely and he did indeed have romantic aspirations.  After a fair amount of persistence, the two of us were able to hammer out a communication system.  Eventually, I was able to elicit the name of the girl with whom he was most anxious to become better acquainted.  Her name was Ellen.  She was gorgeous and captain of the women’s volleyball team.  My instinctive reaction to this disclosure, rather set back our relationship for a few weeks, but I determined to make up with him, and I had the perfect plan for doing so.

It took all of my persuasive powers, but finally I managed to secure Ellen’s agreement to let Wes take her to Big Bob’s Putt Putt Course and Burger Barn, on the condition that I would come along as chaperone and interpreter.  When I told Wes the good news, he was so shocked that he began to speak normally.  The biggest word he used for half a day was “unbelievable”.

By date time, however, he had fully recovered.  In fact, his nervousness seemed to bring out his most preposterous vocabulary.  When Ellen finally emerged from her dormitory and slipped into the passenger’s seat of his waiting car, Wesley might as well have been speaking Tagalog.  It was a weird evening. 

“Ok, like, what’s he saying now?”

“Um…I’m not sure.  Hold on.  Let me check the dictionary.  Hmmm… ‘osculate’… ‘osculate’… here it is.  Well, Ellen…uh…it looks like Wesley is wondering about your opinion of kissing on the first date.”

“No way!”

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“Seriously, Wes?”

“Asseveratingly.”

“Get out!”

I tried to salvage the situation.  “Yeah, I know.  Crazy.  You’ll have to excuse him.   Wes is a little naive when it comes to the whole social protocol thing.”

“No.  I mean you, George.  Get out.”

“Huh!”

“Get out of the car.  Wesley and I obtest an interval to conduce suaviation.  Our apanthropy is reciprocal.”

Last week I spent some time with Ellen and Wes and a couple of their grandkids.  They’re about as proud as grandparents can be.  It turns out that the youngest one just said her first word.  Well, two actually:

“Matriarchal procreator!”

Rustic

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My family displays a wide range of cosmopolitan tastes when it comes to décor and architecture.  In architecture, my wife admires Queen Anne, French Provincial, Federal, Tudor, Victorian, Italianate, Renaissance, Cape Cod, Georgian, Colonial, Byzantine, Gothic Revival, Spanish Mission, Bungalow, Ranch, Tuscan and Rustic styles.  I, on the other hand, appreciate Log, Igloo, Spruce Bough Lean-to, Tarpaper Shack, Sod, Cardboard-Box-in-an-Alley, Orc Castle, Tipi, Dome Tent, Pickup Camper, Tree House and Rustic architecture.

When it comes to interior décor, my wife favors Bistro, Urban Eclectic, Vintage, Boudoir, English Cottage, French Chic, Retro, Southwest, Victorian Romance, Beach House, Shaker, and Rustic.  In contrast, I have developed into a rather discriminating connoisseur of Grunge, Valdez Trawler, Men’s Locker Room, Greasy Spoon, Hunting Lodge, Pastoral Bovine, Random Chaos, Gut Pile, Jiffy Lube and Rustic decors.

For a while this created a dichotomous tension in our connubial solidarity.  It became difficult for us to balance our divergent tastes.  For instance, I might come in from the barn yearning for a little Pastoral Bovine atmosphere. On an impulse to surprise my wife, I would begin to redecorate the living room.  

Using random bootstrokes I would blend an organic medium into the carpet, producing bold texture, scent, and color enhancements. Then I would tastefully drape my well-worn Aussie Drover duster across the back of the sofa.  Finally, I would brilliantly tie together the Pastoral Bovine elements by vigorously brushing off my hair and clothing, a patented technique which allows hay and grain dust to settle onto all exposed surfaces of the room in an understated, but pervasive accent.

Just as I would be adding the finishing touches, my wife would appear, adjusting the baby’s breath and silk ivy in a swag she was arranging.  It would be just my luck that she was on her Victorian Romance kick.  For someone claiming to dislike my Pastoral Bovine scheme she sure would have a cow!

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have a problem blending décor styles.  Personally, I think Bovine Romance would work:  Lace and bailing twine–a tea set combining the elements of a Hydrangea chintz teapot and cups made out of upturned cowbells with handles made out of castration rings–a porcelain mantle clock trimmed with 24 carat gold finials and a cameo of a Guernsey heifer.  It would work, if my wife would let it, but she’s a purist. 

We hadn’t been married very long before it became clear to me that the only culture my wife possessed was growing in a little sourdough starter crock on the back of the stove, and I told her so.  She retorted something about me being the most talented “inferior” decorator that she had ever seen.  Shortly thereafter the discussion began to lose its cordial tone.  When the dust had settled, we realized that our relationship was in jeopardy of deteriorating. 

We discussed it and agreed that our marriage was more important than any idiotic décor or architectural peccadilloes that the other might be cursed with, so we struck a deal.  We would stick to styles for which we shared a mutual appreciation.  It sounded like the perfect solution until we compared our lists to discover that the only taste we shared was Rustic.  So “rustic” has described every house we have lived in for the last 15 years.

At this point, it is necessary for me to define “rustic”.  This is important, because I have run into some embarrassing misunderstanding through the years.  It turns out that there are more definitions of rustic than there are spindles in a Queen Anne porch. Let me cite two cases in point.

On an airplane once, due to a computer glitch, I had the good fortune to be seated in first class.  It was a stimulating and novel experience for me.  I soon fell into conversation with a gaunt gentleman wearing an Armani suit, a Rolex watch and too much moustache wax. He introduced himself as Sir Milliquent Feldspar.  When I mentioned my fondness of all things rustic, Mr. Feldspar proceeded to display photographs of the “rustic” country house he had just purchased in the South of France.  Somehow, gilded wainscoting, ceiling murals, and marble fountains didn’t fit my definition of rustic.

Then there was the time I needed to replace a taillight lens that got broken when my son left a tree growing out in the middle of my driveway when he was done climbing it.  It was one of those things that probably cost 4.97 cents to make, but could only be special ordered at the dealer for $497.00.  I got out the phone book and started looking for junkyards.

The first call I made was answered by a voice that sounded like he’d been gargling with Drano.  Yes, he had the lens, and, yes, I could have it for five bucks or a case of beer.  Drano gave me directions to his place: 

“Da third gravel road to da right.  Take dat for about thirteen miles till ya pass da toxic waste dump.  You’ll see a lane on da left.  Watch out for da ruts.  Last week, I hadda guy in a Hummer high center and rip out his whole rear end.  Almost hurt his Hummer, too!  Anyway, my place is about three miles down da lane.  Can’t miss it.  It’s a real rustic place wid a fence.  Wait at da gate and honk so’s I’ll know to put da Dobermans away.”

He wasn’t kidding!  His place was, indeed, “real rustic”.   It was part Quonset hut, part school bus, and part converted chicken coop.  On top he had cobbled together some sort of a cupola from car doors and the bottom of an old wooden boat.  He had nailed tarpaper to any surface that was flat, and squirted spray foam on whatever wasn’t.  Drano’s concept of “rustic” wasn’t one that I shared.

So, when my wife and I talk about rustic, we mean unfinished or rough—basically anything that creates the effect of having minimal human involvement.  We like natural materials with plenty of character, especially wood and stone.  Basically “character” means that we want the wood to be loaded with knots and warts and burls.  We like our stone to have flaws and distinctive graining as well.  I never could understand why someone would want to have an exposed wood surface and then pick something with a straight, fine, knot-free grain.  What’s with wood that doesn’t look like wood?

I know it isn’t always easy to find building or décor materials with character, but whenever we have run into that problem, we find ways to improvise.  We used rough-cut lumber for our kitchen cabinets, but it just wasn’t rustic enough, so we tweaked it.  We laid it out in our gravel driveway, scattered a five-gallon bucket worth of assorted nuts and bolts across it, and drove on it for about a week. 

Then we collected it, brushed off the stones and bolts that weren’t embedded to deeply, and took a blowtorch to it.  You should see the character now!  The first time houseguests see our kitchen, they ask us if anyone got hurt in the explosion.

The best thing about rustic is that it covers up a multitude of sins.  If I don’t mow the lawn for three months, I can just call it rustic landscaping.  If the wall I build is eight inches out of plumb and forty-two degrees out of square, I just call it rustic.  If it takes four years to get siding on the back of my house, until the OSB sheeting is hanging in weathered gray scales, it looks rustic.  If my carpet is blotched with a grid of unsuccessful attempts to remove cat, dog, ferret, and baby nephew deposits, it’s rustic.

No-one ever knows if I am lazy, incompetent, unfortunate, or charmingly rustic.  No-one, that is, except my wife, and she better not tell anyone if she values our connubial bliss.

The Free and the Brave

I wouldn’t be quite the man I am today if I hadn’t grown up in a rural Alaskan village. Moose Hole added a perspective to my formative years that would have been impossible to replicate in any other setting.  Its remoteness and rusticity have colored my outlook on life until this day. 

The village didn’t have a single street light until my late teens.  The closest clinic was 76 miles away.  The nearest traffic light was 210 miles away.  The fire department, which was only functional if the neighbors weren’t out at fish camp, consisted of an improvised mix of garden hoses, fire extinguishers, and a lake water bucket brigade.  Except for the occasional passing State Trooper, there was no police presence in Moose Hole at all.  There was no Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau to complain to when the Cleaver sisters threatened to put you in a headlock if you didn’t listen to their Amway presentation.  Children on their walk to and from school frequently experienced dangerous run-ins with bears, mother moose, and rabid escapees from Jake Flemblaster’s squirrel menagerie.   The closest thing to an animal control officer to be found in Moose Hole was Klondike Clancy who was always eager to donate his expertise with the Ruger .44 magnum that swung from his ever present gun belt.  During the winter, everyone knew to keep one eye peeled for wannabe musher Sally Blunt.  Without warning, Sally had a tendency to burst out of the brush in the oddest places, lashing her mongrel dogsled team onward with a pink foam swimming noodle.  Cross-country skiers or firewood cutters would have just enough time to hurl themselves out of her path before the yelping pack would go careening by with inches to spare.  In short, Moose Hole provided all the adventure a kid could hope for.

I loved every minute of it until that fateful day when my parents finally gave my downy derriere the swift kick which toppled me out of the nest. When I landed with a resounding “kerplunk,” I found myself sitting disheveled and confused on a college campus near Indianapolis. To my dismay, I soon discovered that my new environment was much more lonely and savage than Moose Hole had ever been.  To assuage my homesickness, I began to entertain the other residents of the freshman dorm with stories of back home.  As a result, half of my friends began to regard me as some sort of a feral nut case, while the other half revered me as a living legend who had strode out of the sunset after surviving a harrowing ordeal in a primal no-man’s land.  All of them, however, shuddered at the thought of being forced to live in such a God-forsaken outpost as the Moose Hole I described. 

So taxed was their credulity, that I periodically found it necessary to defend myself against charges of making it all up.  In all honesty, their comic reactions to my narratives did present a fertile breeding ground for fictional tall tales.  Nevertheless, as you can imagine, I made a point of conscientiously resisting the temptation to prevaricate.   Exhibiting Herculean self-control, I restricted myself to only embellishing the isolated details which I determined to be particularly lackluster.  Since then, as my readers can attest, I have matured into a responsible and serious journalist who has abandoned even such marginally ethical forays into hyperbole.

However, in spite of my best efforts to describe the excitement that had enriched my childhood, it was incomprehensible to my gape-jawed freshman listeners how I had managed to survive those years without dying of sheer boredom.  They wondered if I had used a lot of drugs or drunk a lot of beer to compensate for the absence of skateboard parks, movie theaters and basketball courts.  No, I told them, I hadn’t ever gotten around to it.  There was too much fun stuff to do.

Not that drugs were unknown in our enclave.  In fact, Skeeter Moss was notorious for experimenting with mind altering substances.  We once found him passed out in his uncle’s cache with a soda straw protruding from his left nostril and a bottle of trapline lure spilled all over the front of him.  He was stoned for a week until the right side of his face swelled up like a beach ball and they rushed him to a doctor in Fairbanks. Evidently, while he had been happily snorting lure by means of a straw up each nostril, one straw had become plugged.  As a result, poor Skeeter had accidentally huffed the whole lure-laden straw up into his sinus area where it had become lodged.  There it began to serve dual functions as a time release muskrat urine dispenser and infection incubator.

But I digress.  After wondering how I could stand the boredom, my college friends would do a sudden mental flip-flop and express surprise that Moose Hole didn’t somehow disintegrate into anarchy.  I guess my description of Klondike Clancy, a civilian, sauntering about while wearing an actual handgun in plain sight evoked stereotypical images of spaghetti western brawls and Ozark mountain feuds.  Quite the contrary.  The insipid statistic was that our village never experienced a single violent crime.  Why, if any Moose Holian had ever contemplated committing such a thing, one quick glance at big, hairy Clancy pre-emptively rehabilitated them on the spot. 

After considerable reflection, I have decided that it all boils down to a difference of world views.  My college friends had come from a mentality that considered comfort, convenience and security to be necessities.  I had come from a mentality that placed self-reliance and elbow room higher on the priority list than having life handed to me on a silver platter.  As a kid in Moose Hole, my imagination was captured by heroes vastly different from the ones which must have inspired my college friends.  When I went outside to play with my friends, we reenacted the exploits of Daniel Boone and Robert Peary and our very own Gomer Clodhopper who lived in a sod-roofed cabin that canted precariously out of the sphagnum moss down by the river, and claimed to be the “fust white feller ter drop a tree in these hyar parts”.

Speaking of sphagnum moss, Rory Smithers, was the only one of my childhood friends who refused to play our “stupid games”.  There was nothing personal about it.  He was one of those reluctant Alaskans who thought that anything originating in Alaska was stupid.  His father, Roland, was a biologist with an energy consulting firm whose company had sent him to Moose Hole to “assess potential aerobic methane oxidation in a boreal Sphagnum-dominated peatland, and establish the viable biomass of methane oxidizing microorganisms in relationship to their probable controlling environmental factors, such as water table depth, soil temperature and pore-water methane concentrations”.  I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded important.  The point is that both Rory and his mother chafed at their exile and worried every waking moment that their friends “back in America” would think they had become Neanderthal Eskimos whose dinner preparations consisted of mashing whale blubber with a rock.

Therefore, Rory wanted nothing to do with pioneer role-playing games.  No indeed!  On the rare occasion that we could persuade him to come out and join us, he insisted that we play things like “The Six Million Dollar Man” or “Starsky and Hutch”.  You can guess who always got to be the Bionic Man.  Back then, Moose Hole could only get one TV station.  It had such poor reception that every show looked identical—faceless silhouettes jerking robot-like across the screen, barely discernible through a blizzard of static.  As a result we had but a vague awareness of these popular shows. 

Other times Rory would wheedle us into playing games in which he could impersonate his own real-life heroes.  He would make us take the part of ordinance violators while he became an intrepid building inspector or IRS agent or health board official.  We were supposed to dig a hole in a place that wasn’t zoned for digging, build a clubhouse that didn’t meet code, ride around on unlicensed bicycles, open an unapproved lemonade stand or some other equally horrendous crime.   Rory would let us get almost finished, then he would pompously arrive on the scene with a clipboard to save the day.  His day-saving consisted of fining us heavily.  If we didn’t give him whatever we happened to be carrying of value, up to and including the shirt on our back, he would promptly throw a bucket of water on us, then taser us with a hair dryer before dragging us away to the dog kennel which served as our prison.  It wasn’t hard for us to play our part convincingly since we had no clue about building codes or zoning regulations or suchlike.  We couldn’t have pretended to keep the law if our lives had depended on it.  As a matter of fact, we thought Rory was asking us to participate in some sort of futuristic science fiction scenario that he had dreamed up. 

Usually those games ended in an argument.  We would protest that his unfair law presupposed that we were so stupid and irresponsible that we had to be treated like a baby.  Inspector Rory would bristle and slowly enunciate that it was all for our own protection, and did we know who we were talking to in that tone of voice?  We would reply that, yes, we knew exactly who Mister Smarty Pants was, and if we were stupid enough to build a shoddy clubhouse and install a poorly constructed wood stove in it, he should grant us the dignity of being able to burn it down around ears without his regulatory interference.  We demanded the right to break our own neck if we were stupid enough to drive our three-wheeler too fast without wearing a helmet.   In fact we insisted that we be the ones responsible for our own actions, stupid or otherwise, and that our well-being really wasn’t any of his darn business unless we hired him to babysit us.  The inspector would then pound on his clipboard and holler that we were big fat jerks who had better be grateful that he was trying to introduce a little civilization to our backwater corner of Redneckia.  We stood our ground, invoking our constitutional rights and informing him that he was a retarded dork head whose jurisdiction we did not recognize.  He would counter by suggesting we would be well advised to shut our booger faces and pay our fair share of taxes for the privilege of being so efficiently managed and protected.  Being fed up with Rory’s version of civilized society, we would revolt, hold him down, and give him a noogie or a wedgie.  As we ran off to play Daniel Boone, Rory would run squalling to the Maternal General’s office to tattle on us. 

Come to think of it, Rory had the same mentality as my audience in those college dorm bull sessions.  If I had to do it over, I would have simply kept my mouth shut.  Some things just can’t be explained to another person who lacks the proper frame of reference with which to grasp the concept being discussed.  Either a person is raised as an independent, self-sufficient type who knows at least three ways to make a fire or they aren’t.  Either a person has been taught that real water doesn’t taste like chlorine or they haven’t.  You’re either comfortable eating things that you personally picked off of plants or you aren’t.  You either understand that a firearm is a useful tool that can be dangerous if used irresponsibly or you consider it the sum of all fears.  Either you know how to operate a Dutch oven, a handyman jack, a pair of knitting needles, post-hole digger, a splitting maul, a rolling pin, a snow shoe, a hay hook, a canning jar, an Ohio blue tip match, a butter churn, and a calf castrator or you don’t.  In an emergency, either you know how to quarter a caribou, perform the Heimlich Maneuver, fell a tree, rebuild an engine, field strip a Colt model 1911, operate a ham radio, and make birch syrup or you don’t. 

If you don’t, I’ll cross my fingers for you that you never lose your electricity or your government assistance check.   But if a disaster occurs, it will be somebody like me who will dig you out of the rubble and shoot the looter who is pummeling your wife with a half empty gasoline can.   Then I’ll share my canned moose meat with your starving family.  That’s just the way I was brought up.