One day, roughly 2 weeks out from Christmas, my wife announced that a "free" chalet in Beech Mountain, NC would be available to us for the days around New Year's, as the owners -- I'd have to draw you a flowchart of our relationship to them -- would be spending that time in Hawai'i. Make a note of that.
Also, kindly note that the census numbers encompassed by the "us" abovementioned was in the "10-12" range. Further note that my beloved had announced
, rather than inquired.
Resigned to my fate, as befalls any wise husband whose prime marital directive is to preserve peace in the valley come what may, I nodded assent. (Resistance is futile, and comes with the added cost of having argued and still lost.)
Furthermore, my pal Karen lives in the general area and I owed her a massive (7 file boxes worth) load of cookbooks, etc. and I figured, quite reasonably, this would have the effect of a palliative salve on all the things which would be happening to me over the week and the circumstances under which I'd be operating and, he said diplomatically, the interpersonal dynamics which would ensue and unfold as the days spent in close proximity wore on.
In these sorts of narratives, there comes a point when the protagonist should have realized what Fate had in store. Sometimes, in fact, he does so realize and other times he does not. If the latter, not realizing adds a certain Shakespearean something, and in the former case, the air of inevitability tints the tale with its hue.
For this protagonist, that moment came on the heels of a rather excellent dinner I had prepared and enjoyed in the bosom of my family. My sister, her husband, my niece and my cousin D (the prime mover in this episode) had come to have a Vacation Trip Council and Family Discussion. This at a time I would considered it exceedingly more profitable to retreat to my own head after a long day of having people inflicted on me and digest the evening's repast. But it was not to be, and so, the long evening wore on.
It must be said, I have very, very little patience for these sorts of family meetings. Developing schedules and angendæ for a vacation
fiercely rubs me the wrong way. I'm afraid my irascibility may have made a showing during New Business portion of the proceedings when we (well, okay, they) were discussing what the menus should be for each evening and I was pressed as to why I couldn't say what'd be the bill of fare -- I'd be cooking, you see -- for each evening. Not knowing what's local, fresh, available, etc. in a remote and artic mountain lair 87 states away, I had no way of determining what I'd cook, never mind I usually have no idea what I'm cooking until the last moment even when I would be doing so in the comfort of my own very own kitchen. This seemed to vex them, and I may have responded to their vexation in the vein which my wife describes, pejoratively, as my "angry logic."
I apologized later that evening to my cousin D (but a subsequent meeting had to ensue to discuss the matter, during which I explained myself and apologized some more) for the fact I was less compliant than usual. It was the right thing to do, and also the wisest, as we'd be in tight quarters for, essentially, a week.
(Earlier I had told my wife that the lovely and gracious Karen had generously offered us lodgings at her rather nice place, something to which I was infinitely more amenable, but it was curtly explained to me that the point
was to have this time en famille
and on that note, this particular meeting was adjourned.)
But, having a keen insight into the various personalities who'd be populating said tight quarters over that week, it'd be doing the truth a grave disservice to say I wasn't filled with trepidation and foreboding. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was scrofulous with discussion on the matter of the trip. I smiled as best as I could and reflected on the fun my two boys would have skiing and sledding and the like. "Lie back, and think of England" sprung to mind and I'll leave it to your discretion to proceed further along that metaphor.
And so, very early -- no, earlier than that -- in the predawn hours of the 27th we piled into the familial minivan and headed north in a caravan with my sister/BiL/niece/cousin. As I was getting ready that morning, people kindly packed my stuff for me* and forgot ALL of the stuff I had carefully put on my "Do NOT Forget" list and placed on the island in the kitchen.
So off we went, me with the Very Bad GPS** which was brought along strictly because of its battery reserve as we'd be bringing umpteen electronics which would need all of the available 12V outlets the minivan offered.
And off we went.
About two hours into the trip we made our first stop.
Let me interject at this convenient juncture that I HATE
making stops on long trips. We stop for fuel and, while we're at it, purchase nourishment for consumption on the move, avail ourselves of the lavatories, and zoom off as shortly thereafter as is possible. But we had to make a stop for leg stretching because my BiL (about whom I will not hear a word against) was getting leg cramps. We took that time to stop for doughnuts, potty, and a small squirt of fuel. After
which the other party decided to head to a nearby Les Arcs Dourades
for edibles, which were not to the uniform liking of the passengers of Car B as some of them were given from our selection of doughnut-ative confections.
And off we went.
About two hours later we wound up stopping at a Cracker Barrel, a chain for which my sister has an inexplicable fondness. To me, it's not different than, say, Denny's but with some down-home themin'. Denny's-meets-Splash Mountain if you get my meaning. That took a generous hour off our travel time, but at least I got to check out the Daytona International Speedway during testing (THE race is coming up, and the Daytona 500 will follow thereafter). So that was OK-ish.
The rest of the trip north was fine. Our caravan broke up because we insisted on using the cruise control at 80mph and Car B would sometimes speed ahead, other lag far behind and eventually they had to stop for fuel, not having done so at either of our brace of breakfast stops.
All was fine until we got to Blowing Rock, NC when there was some significant discrepancy between the Very Bad GPS and the Mapquest directions and Google maps, alloyed by our (mine, especially) appalling sense of direction). As it works out, we made a wrong turn (up NC-194 to Valle Crucis, for those familiar with the territory) which involved about an hour of harrowing foggy, iced-over, steep mountain roads, which main feature seems to be:
1- A complete lack of illumination
2- Uphill U-turns
3- No guardrails over the sheer cliffs
It is at this brief intermission in the narrative I wish to single out the people in charge of these roads for the vilest possible abuse. Why they continue to draw a salary from the taxpayer teat is a mystery. Certainly *I* could keep those roads free of signage, illumination and guardrails for a fraction of the cost.
At any rate, we reached a dead end, the Very Bad GPS*** had lost reception, the cellphones which had the Google maps likewise, and the printout from Mapquest required that we, basically, return to Miami and start over. We found a relatively flat spot with well over 2" of excess space for us to turn around and, in a textbook example of a 15 point turn, found ourselves heading back whence we came.
One of the most interesting features of Beech Mountain is that no matter where you're going, it's uphill. Things are uphill both ways. You back out of the driveay and it's uphill. You drive back into the driveway and it's uphill again. It's amazing. The Slightly Less Talented Mr. Ripley should look into it for his museum.
A mere 90 minutes of marriage-stressing uphill driving on harrowing foggy, iced-over, steep mountain roads and we were at the Chalet. The rest of the inmates had already arrived and had been setting up.
As it turns out the Chalet had a number of interesting features reminiscent, to those of you familiar with BBC programming, of Colditz. There was -- and, unless something has improved over the last 28 hours, is:
1- No WiFi (or Internet of any description),
2- No cable (or TV reception of any description)
3- No radio reception
4- No cellphone reception. Which I knew would be the case, as it was decribed to us as "intermittent" which always
5- No phone service. (Local only for outbound calls, and "local" is defined in a very narrow sense.)
6- A suggestion, a hint of heat, in both radiators and water. (In fairness this improved as the days wore on.)
Number Two Son, for those of you who know him, would not enjoy the cabin portion of the trip, wedded as he is to electronics and the like. We had brought a portable DVD player and a substantial selection of DVDs and that more-or-less held him at bay. But it was not a flawless plan, not without some limitations.
At any rate, we were exhausted enough to go to sleep.
The next day was something of an "orientation" day and it involved driving around to the various spots and seeing where to go for what, hours, prices, etc. Given the way the tribe functions, I figured it was very safe to head down to the base of the mountain, to the nearest supermarket, to get groceries and check my email, texts, etc. and still be back in ple-e-e-e-e-enty of time to head out on our exploratory trip.
And off we went.
Among one of the things we found is that, in a certain spot right outside the entrance to the Brick Oven Pizzeria, there is (very) occasional cellphone reception. It's between 5'-10' from the door (keeping one exposed to the elements, a fact I'd like you to keep in mind) and it seems to vary with the cars parked out front and the direction of the wind, but it's there. It was there I contacted Karen and made plans to drop off at her house the monumental quantity of books, and to be in an area with cellphone.
Everyone else split off in one direction while I went to Chez Karen.
As destiny would dictate, we needed to get chains for the minivan and I had to turn around. Only there was a traffic jam. Only I would have the knack for landing right in the middle of rush hour in Banner Elk, NC. So, by the time I was able to head out Karenwards, it was 5something p.m. Those whom I had left (the Tire Chain Committee) somehow failed to tell the rest of the crew that my head-out had been significantly delayed and, therefore, so would my return be. Also, for completely unexplained reasons they decided that, having ascertained the costs and schedules for skiing, etc., the prudent thing to do was not to enjoy the charming shops and emporia catering to tourists and thus while away a delightful afternoon, but, instead, return to the Chalet with all due speed. Where, as you recall, there is no cellphone reception.
Karen and I had a lovely visit, I got to meet her beloved and the most recent person whom she had offsprung, and we talked shop for a good while as they plied me with excellent bourbon, during which time Karen's beloved offloaded the shipment of books. We agreed to somehow try to communicate on the morrow to talk further shop over lunch. I then went back up.
The reception which greeted me was one of relief and exasperation. People were SO worried about me. (The irony being this was the best driving day of the whole trip.) Dinner had been made in my absence and it had not met with the unanimous acceptance of the assembled. I then suggested, which was something of a revelation to the tribe, that they could call any number from the hamstrung phone and it'd show up on a cellphone's caller ID before disconnecting, and one could then call the cabin back.
That was, as they say, that.
The next morning the chained-up minivan, on its way to decant the skiers and those whose idea of a delightful time revolves around observing other humans ski for hours on end, dropped me off at Fred's Mercantile, to be fetched by Karen at some point later that morning. Which they did. We went to lunch, I imparted some wisdom upon them on a select number of subjects and we visited the store, where I met some of her staff, who were very cool. While Karen tended to some business, I rearranged her cookbook section, as the really good stuff should be at eye level. We visited Karen's property, saw her surprisingly hairy horses and her trout pond -- trout is a big deal in those parts and one restaurant even touts trout along with its martinis on its signage -- and we stopped by the very cool Doc's Rocks, met Doc and proceeded back. We made plans to make plans, and they dropped me off at the front of the pizza place, where a suspicion of cellphone reception is, you'll recall, available. It was there, rooted to the spot where reception was sometimes to be had, I chose to await being exfiltrated by the chained-up minivan should they call/text me with an important update. Of course, it was snowing sideways as I waited. And waited, only to find out the crew was shopping at Fred's across the way, allowing me "time to be on the Internet." I trudged thereto and sat in the warmth.
But there was an undercurrent of discontent. You see, there is an unfortunate "pack" mentality hardwired into some of the more benighted members of this expeditionary force and it is generally held that everyone doing Thing A (even if half the participants are abjectly miserable doing so) is, for inadequately explored reasons, immeasurably preferable to half doing Thing A, and the other half, Thing B.
No, me either.
That night I made gumbo for dinner. For reasons related to cookware, my heretical oven roux was not to be had, and I had to sit there and stir, which was fine as it kept me in kitchen solitude as people planned a big party for New Year's Eve. (More on that anon.) Speaking of cookware, even if much dated back to the Nixon administration, it was generally serviceable, except for the knives which were so useless that some maniac wielding them assaultingly against you would likely bruise you very badly. Several seemed to have, at some dim and distant point in their history, been serrated. The least dull of which was one that seemed a hybrid between a steak knife and a bread knife and had been sharpened, with varying degrees of success, repeatedly since 1975. So much metal had been taken off the edge that when I tried prepping onions on the cutting board, my knuckles repeatedly rapped on the wood, sounding as if someone lay without, seeking admittance to the Chalet.
Gumbo is a problem sometimes, when the diners to feast thereon are of varying constitutions, from the delicate to the robust. Since we had a couple of such fragiles among the present, we had to keep the seasoning light, and pass around additional seasonings as we all reclined at table (which is not optimal) but all were generally pleased and I basked for a while, having allayed the grumblings of the Herd Party. Which was difficult, as these also were the same people as the Plan Ahead Party, who were not only mightily aggrieved I was elsewhere, but that I had no idea what my itinerary would be.
To further calm those suspicious of my inexplicable desires to do what I preferred and do so spontaneously, I decided to subject myself to watching people ice-skate the next day. Now, there are those who enjoy ice skating. Such people will always be among us and I have made peace with their existence. Far more puzzling are those who enjoy watching other glide slowly, around a frozen oval, for two or three hours. But I gamely volunteered, even if I was in no mood owing to the fact I'd gotten minimal sleep trying to keep Numbah Two Son from bouncing off the walls with boredom the whole night through for the second night in a row. (This will feature prominently later.)
That Sunday morning, having pre-prepared dinner -- my globally famous fabada, the recipe for which is found among my published works -- to be put in the slow-cooker, I had wanted to attend Mass but my saying so was met with mutiny, as such a thing was widely held to be suicidal. By the time I dressed, warmed up the minivan it was too late, even for a banzai run to St. Bernadette's. I sullenly went down to the supermarket, got milk and stuff for lunch and headed back. Since the grocery list included the fruit of the vine, and North Carolina still having to go a long ways to a sensible view of these things, I had to wait until noon to effect my purchases. I then called up to the cabin to say I was bringing lunch edibles, but the response I got featured the most loathsome words I could envision while on a group trip: "These people want to..."
Nothing good can, has or ever will follow those words.
When I returned, the crew was piling into another car and headed to skate, and explicitly disavowed to assist in the grocery offloading. Fine. Whatever. The skating voyeurs (by avocation or conscription) followed. We parked, walked 28 miles across a vast expanse of icy tarmac in a howling gale in -217°F weather, that we may stare at my BiL, niece, Numbah One and Numbah Two Sons and my cousin N (my uniformly awesome cousin, kind and gorgeous and sane; daughter of my cousin S & her husband P whose outlook on these doings seemed to coincide with mine) shking-shking in a slow, lazy oval, as my sister and cousin D (my generally, but not quite
100%-of-the-time awesome cousin) sat in the coffee shop in what seemed a less than genial mood. Since I was not feeling the love, I "whatevered" and repaired to the corner of the coffee shop that offered WiFi (but not, oddly, cellphone reception) and checked emails.
It seems people who had left the Chalet at lunchtime to go skating were in an ill mood, having foregone lunch (yes, I know) such I had at the ready. But, being made of stern stuff, I could hold on, and made no noises along those lines.
And off we went.
We eventually (3pm!) found our way down to Frontier BBQ.
Which was great.
Now, for those among you not conversant with the regional variations of American BBQness, Western NC is known for a specific kind of meat and a specific kind of sauce. Although this restaurant seemed to cover a good chunk of the national spectrum, the thing to do is order what it's known for. My sister was seemingly adamant to order anything but. She asked about the brisket, the turkey, etc. to no avail, as those, not being a hit with the locals, are in short supply and run out early.
Earlier than 3:30pm, at any rate.
But, reality being as open to negotiation as mathematics and gravity, she ordered the house specialty and liked it. Everyone, famished to no end, feasted on porcine excellentness and back up the mountain we went.
All this time, I had had a nagging worry in the back of my mind. The slow cooker we were using was one we had found at the Chalet and it was a 1970something model, still factory sealed. So it didn't automatically click to "warm" after X hours. It just stayed where'er you left it. I had left it on "low" with a time budget of 6 hours. But this was coming up on 10 hours and I had visions of the Chalet engulfed in fire, the authorities blaming the fool who left the crockpot far longer than strictly required.
But all was fine.
Since we had returned from lunch at 5:30pm (just as the place was getting crowded for dinner service with locals who must have generous lashings of Amish blood) dinner was not really in the offing, which was also fine.
The plan for the next day was for most of us to clear out of the Chalet that my sister and cousin D would decorate it for the black tie (!) New Year's Eve festivities. Now, I am as ardent a fan of black tie as can be imagined, and regular readers will easily attest to this. But, to be brutally frank, there was simply no bloody way I'd be schlepping and donning formal raiments in the middle of frozen nowhere with 10 people in attendance, some of whom had seen me in diapers.
I'd fix dinner with all the fanfare required, but that'd be as far as I'd extend myself.
So we turned in for the night when a chattering Numbah Tow Son was sent downstairs by someone (not Numbah One Son) as he had awakened and simply wasn't going to sleep. This set off my beloved in spectacular fashion, as she ascribed his wakefulness to my sister and cousin D moving stuff around in decorative preparation for the 31st. They (mostly my beloved and D) had, as our Brit pals would say "quite a row" over the issue and something of a pall hung in the air from then on. In the interests of marital harmony I refrained from singing "I told you so!" in the ringing baritone such a development richly deserved.
But I'd told her so.
(In fact, I had told her earlier in the week that welllllllll before our scheduled departure date, she -- not I -- would be desperately eager to leave for the return trip home. This was not believed at the time.)
The 31st dawned and we had decided to head to Doc's Rocks for a session of gem mining. his entailed going down the mountain and, at some point that entails unchaining the car's tires. Which made getting out of the Chalet, the roads thereto being slick with ice and slush. But we were limping gamely out to the main road which was inexplicably dry as a Soviet bureaucrat when some oaf stopped short, and my BiL was forced to halt, which in turn forced us to halt. There was simply no regaining traction.
Until, I, the modern masculine embodiment of Cassandra, turned off the traction control and revved the whee out of the engine and we feinted and slewed haltingly forward and on to freedom and Doc's.
Doc's was great, and the kids made out like bandits with the emeralds and sapphires thus obtained. Glowing with victory we eventually went to the Boone Mall (after my saying seventy-three and a half times to head there in the first place) for lunch. Which was great. Another, this time official, visit with Karen ensued while my family wandered around the mall and Numbah One Son became rabidly infatuated with Karen's assistant manager.
My BiL had decided to return to Doc's and we headed back. Owing to the Very Bad GPS and all of the other navigational handicaps we have listed, we missed our turnoff and then proceeded to look for a spot to turn around and "make a U-turn as soon as it's convenient." Which just so happened to be in TENNESSEE
, 45 minutes later and well dark, and getting cold and in some gorge somewhere where there was no cellphone reception. This, incidentally, proved an ideal spot to get a flat tire.
So, here it is, at 7pm, somewhere between Tennessee and a hard place, and we had to decipher, with a failing flashlight how the Germans arrange the tire changing mechanism on the minivan, on an icy slope. If you can imagine Rube Goldberg as the designer of some East German camp interrogation equipment for dissidents, you can readily envision how the spare tire is retrieved. I'll spare you the fullness of details but suffice it to say that part of the process involves removing the center console
. Removing the center console is not something I would ordinarily do even if to retrieve my last nitroglycerin tabled during a cardiac episode.
It was at this point our collective Guardian Angels came off their mandated coffee break and got to work.
Some VERY kind souls happened to live just seconds away from this desolate spot and offered my wife and Numbah Two Son shelter from the wind and cold, and were able to assist us in changing
the flat (most importantly, in retrieving the spare, the storage of
which would have stymied Indiana Jones) and getting us off on our way to
the Chalet complete with commonsense directions that worked as
advertised. The bien-pensants
may sneer at "rednecks" and "hicks" and
even if these people wouldn't know basil from cilantro I will not hear a
word against them. As far as I am concerned, they are angels and that's that.
This of course was only part of the issues with which we had to contend, because by this time temperatures had fallen well below freezing, we would be driving up the mountain, we no longer had chains and we were now on a space-saver spare whose main characteristics are exclusively in the realm of "the purely decorative." Keep in mind that, having arrived at the base of the mountain, we now had to deal with about an hour of harrowing foggy, iced-over, steep mountain roads, generously accessorized with their complete lack of illumination, uphill U-turns, and no guardrails over the sheer cliffs.
We also had a very stressed flight crew, a marginal GPS and no sense of direction.
So, not really overwhelmed with choices, we pressed on regardless, stopping at Fred's to get a puncture repair kit.
And off we went.
It is truly remarkable how long an hour of harrowing foggy, iced-over, steep mountain roads, generously
accessorized with their complete lack of illumination, uphill U-turns,
and no guardrails over the sheer cliffs can seem when one doesn't have GPS or cellphone reception. Even more so when driving with no chains and a decorative spare the width of which is comparable to a pencil of impressive girth.
It is a good test of a marriage how well the spouses respond to sliding backwards down a glistening, white, iced, curvy road while standing on the brake pedal. An even better test is to do so three or four times within the hour, and best of all when you have no clue whatsoever where it is you are and, other than adrenaline fueled trial-and-error, have no earthly way to find out. We had missed Mass for what I considered somewhat questionable reasons, and thus wasn't quite ready to have St. Peter audit me just then. For somewhat mysterious reasons, the GPS's navigatrix decided to, just this once, give us accurate directions and, miraculously, we found the Chalet.
It is in this state we arrived at the Chalet, decorated (to be fair, very, very nicely as my sister and cousin D tend to fuss and fret over such things) with people Ready To Party Down.
If you've accurately read between the copious number of lines, you may arrive at the suspicion we were not Ready To Party Down. This I may safely confirm as more accurate than one might think possible. Two large glasses of a rather lovely Merlot barely made a dent; hardly neutralizing the quart-and-a-half of adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream. I showered and, in honor of the people in black tie, put on my PJs.
Dinner was served, and, other than the fireball generated by the Bananas Foster, it was a blur to me. Having dispatched the edibles, the People Ready To Party, rolled up their sleeves and began to party. I am not, as you might have gathered, someone who "parties." Even less so, someone who parties with 11 family members in a wooden cabin in the middle of a frozen nowhere after had to change a flat tire in a desolate gorge this side of Tennessee and then driven an hour across God's Illumination-Free Frigid Slip 'n' Slide of Peril.
But the partying would begin with or without my assent and within too short a span, people, plastic cups in hand and sloshing a rather lovely Merlot were playing music I can't stand and full-throatedly saying "Whooooo!" which, I gather, makes it official that one is partying. My sister was sitting passively on the couch, I gather still sore from the moment of friction with my beloved, pointedly not sloshing Merlot or anything else, and not howling "Whoo!" under any circumstances whatosever. Number Two Son, whooing and Merlot notwithstanding, turned in early, demonstrating wisdom beyond his years. Midnight came at some point -- we had to guesstimate, as no two watches coincided -- and with a flourish of whooing and, for the sake of variety, sloshing champagne
, we welcomed in 2013. Well, in my case it was more like telling 2012 to sod off, but you get the idea.
During the course of this, my BiL, also a notorious non-whooer, non-slosher took my tire repair kit and, with Numbah One Son, charitably fixed the flat and replaced the punctured tire.
(I owe him a generous bottle of something.)
Everyone exhausted and the supplies of whoo and Merlot having run out, the Chalet fell quiet.
At 6:30am, my alarmed wife awakened me to say we were behind schedule for leaving the Chalet -- those who know her will testify that being in a hurry is not among her set of skills -- and checking this episode off our bucket list. Hurriedly, excitedly, I packed the minivan as fast as my depleted frame would allow. A quick loading of my wife's travel cup with coffee and off we went.
But, of course, the story simply canNOT end there. We still had an hour hour of harrowing foggy, iced-over, steep mountain roads, albeit with daylight, uphill U-turns,
and no guardrails over the sheer cliffs. This allowed us to see exactly how far and agonizing the fall would be and the geological characteristics which would greet our skeletal systems upon the conclusion of our rapid descent. We also still had a wonky sense of direction, a recalcitrant GPS and no chains. It stands to reason that our car would get stuck in the ice for minutes on end, until we managed to rock the tires as we played with the traction control and got unstuck, eventually, each time we were mired in the slick ice patches.
This, of course, is only compounded by our getting lost until another kind soul was seen exiting her cabin and, asking if we need help, told us to follow her and we gamely followed her to freedom.
For once, the road went downhill off Beech Mountain and we were coasting in neutral at pretty impressive speed, our brakes squealing from the heat generated by riding them for miles nonstop. We got to the base of the mountain and fueled up.
Only, no so much. For North Carolina, you see, is that state which good traffic engineering forgot (there are myriad signs that point in TWO directions for the same destination, among other delights). It had one more cruel trick up its sleeve and, in conspiracy with the GPS and my wife's iPhone promptly sent us along a path that, although I cannot conclusively prove it, I am convinced took us home by way of Louisiana.
And that, friends, is what I did on vacation.
* Something I abhor with a purple passion, so ya know.
** SatNav for the rest of the Anglosphere.
*** Get a Garmin. No, they didn't pay me for this.