What Black Bears and Homeless People Have In Common

The same rule applies to black bears and homeless people. If you intend to avoid confrontation, do not–under any circumstance–make eye contact. Walk down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley with your gaze fixed astutely on the concrete pavement just in front of your feet. Blast Pandora’s ‘Summer Hits of the 90s’ through your over-sized headphones–that gargantuan, ridiculous Skullcandy headset you wear over your ears to announce to the world: I have tuned you out. I can’t hear you asking for my leftovers or inquiring if I can spare a buck. I’m staring at the ground. You don’t even exist.

When riding a bike, however, visual acuity is crucial. Eye contact with the dazed driver pulling out of a parking lot can save your life. New cyclists are told to constantly scan their surroundings. So on last week’s solo lollipop ride around scenic Lake Willoughby, I had my eyes wide open for danger. The pavement on Route 5A alone provides enough sensory stimulation to keep my brain firing in overdrive. Deep gully, grass-filled crack, pothole, low shoulder, gravel, manure: take your pick. And just when I’ve adjusted to the rhythmic bumping and uneven surfaces, I pedal to the telltale curve in the road when alarm conditionally sets in as if Pavlov himself is ringing a bell in my ear. Rapidly approaching on the right side of the road is every cyclist’s nightmare. The Dog House.

In my mind, the Dog House is owned by a nefarious, tattooed man who has an entire dresser drawer dedicated to chains and chain-like accessories. His toenails are painted black. From the varied and distinct barks that emerge from this property every time I approach, I have concluded that the Dog House owner is raising no fewer than ten angry, flesh-eating canines for sport. Luckily, they are all on leashes or behind fences, but each time I ride by, I still employ a Fabian Cancellara-esque time trialing effort to ensure my personal safety. I also hold onto my water bottle and prepare to spray at will if necessary.

[Fairly positive that 10 of these are not manufacturing the scowling growls that emerge from the deep recesses of the Dog House. It’s much more likely to be 10 of these…]

The Nintendo game Paperboy trained me to know that every dog, no matter how mellow and well-trained, is bound to chase after a moving bicycle, especially if you are trying to deliver newspapers while outrunning a tornado. It also taught me that people place garbage cans in very ill-opportune locations. What I have never been able to figure out, however, is why tires rolling down a driveway are such a common hazard to the everyday cyclist.

[Paperboy is about to get a serious chase-down by the Schnauzer. Better adjust his cadence accordingly.]

I have always successfully eluded the frothy-mouthed, rabid Dog House protectors, but they remind me to stay on my toes throughout the ride. After circumnavigating Lake Willoughby via the Crystal Lake addition last week, I was well on my way to the point of the journey where I tell myself I’m practically home. While this point is actually seven miles and nearly 1,000 feet of climbing away from home, it is still the instant that the  ‘You’re nearly there’ mantra begins to play on repeat as my inner monologue.

I was roughly a mile from the home free marker and the town of West Burke when I caught a glimpse of an unleashed black dog on the left hand shoulder of Route 5. My typical approach kicked into high gear, and I unconsciously picked up the pace. I reached down to find my fuller water bottle as back-up arsenal. As I got closer to the canine who had its back turned to me, I thought, “That’s one BIG dog.” And as I passed the big, black dog and it turned its head to meet my eyes, I lost my breath and a regular heartbeat for a moment. It wasn’t a dog at all. It was–instead–a big, black bear.

I geared down and started hammering, and when I thought I was well past the bear, I looked over my left shoulder. While it was not particularly close, the bear was running down the road directly behind me.

[Obviously, I didn’t stop to snap this photo, but this is what a bear running down a road looks like. Now imagine yourself three bike lengths in front of it.]

My friends have since informed me that black bears do not chase, but this bear was close enough behind me and running fast enough to launch me into panic mode. I glanced at my speedometer. I was traveling 24mph. I thought, “I’m on my bike–this is good–I’m on my bike–I can get away.” And just when I had convinced myself I was going to be fine, I recalled reading somewhere that bears can run up to 30mph.

After pedaling my bike as fast as I am convinced it can go, I looked back again to see that the bear was gone. Not a trace. But its image and the associated fear was still ever-present in mind. And as I cruised into the sleepy hamlet of West Burke, I reminded myself of the universally applicable rule: never make eye contact with the homeless.


Jay Peak Hike Fest

Race days begin at 5:15 when I crawl out of bed already late and then scramble in darkened chaos to get ready.  The vans technically pull out at 6am, but the head coach and my boss always leaves early; even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, he will still leave without you.  When it’s cold outside, -10 like it frequently is before winter sunrises in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the vans can take a while to clean off and turn over and then a good 20 minutes to defrost, and the walk from my dorm to the parking lot is a few minutes as well.  Time all adds up on these mornings.

Sometimes, when you’re really lucky, Mother Nature pukes ice all over your van and leaves slabs like this on the windshield.

My van is the crappiest vehicle in the bunch. It’s been in and out of the shop all winter, and it no longer has a radio.  I am convinced that I was specifically assigned this van because I am my boss’s least favorite employee. It reminds me of my first car that slowly fell apart over three years of ownership.  That’s basically my van.  In addition to the radio going, I discover this morning that the cigarette lighters don’t work either, so that rules out my iPod as an alternative source of music.  In a frantic rush, I grab some portable speakers from one of the kids and plug another mp3 player into them for the hour plus drive to Jay Peak.

Cleaning snow off the vans is a community event.

The snow is abating and the moon is beginning to set as I drive up Route 91 towards Canada.  It’s a brilliant orange, and it peaks out from behind several mountains along the drive.  Everyone in my van is dead asleep within 10 minutes of driving except for Chris who’s riding shotgun.  Chris is a quiet, focused, intensely serious 13-year-old boy.  I catch him staring out the window at the moon for several minutes before I exclaim, “Would you look at that thing?  Isn’t it beautiful?” After some deep reflection he replies, “Yep.” That’s the most Chris will say to me all year.

The weather on the highway is not indicative of the weather at the mountain. Jay Peak is covered in a cloud, and as we walk towards the lodge, the rumors are already spreading. There’s ice on the lifts. They’re not running. We’re going to have to wait it out until the lift operations staff can de-ice them. It’s a good thing I’m almost as good at cards as I am at coaching ski racing.

I’m totally cheating.

The ice won’t melt. We play cards for an hour while we await word from the mountain. Then we play cards for another hour. We’re butting up against the edge of opportunity. If the lifts don’t open soon, there will not be enough time in the day to actually hold the race. We convene as a group of coaches to discuss options. Everyone is ready to call it a day, to pack it in, and to get a warm cup of coffee for the drive home. And then my boss proposes a brilliant idea: who needs lifts? Why not just hike? I was mentally already back in my living room watching re-runs of The Real World when I set out on foot to ascend the course.

Real ski races don’t need chairlifts.

Despite the cold and frozen mist falling from the sky, the hike wasn’t half bad. I had gotten into the nasty habit of eating too many breakfast sandwiches before parking my lazy ass on the side of the mountain all winter long, and it’s refreshing to start off the day with a more physical pursuit. The athletes who had to hike and race, however, were not necessarily embracing the experience as an opportunity to warm-up. I repeat the mantra that got me through a month-long NOLS course in the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming: just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you’ll be at the top.

Seriously happy hikers.

Results from the race prove to be less extraordinary than the experience itself. After hiking up the hill and sweating up a storm, the coaches had to stand out in the cold while athlete after athlete tackled a frozen, crusty slalom course with little tact or grace. Then we got to repeat the whole process for second run. Yet, for a few hours, it seemed like the suggestion to hike was worthwhile. After all, we had saved the race even if it didn’t bring out the best skiing.

What the Great Jay Peak Hike Fest of 2008 did bring out, however, was the weakened immune systems of athletes and coaches. For the next two weeks, viruses circled the campus crippling staff and athletes alike in a festering swarm of infection and illness leading everyone to conclude: we probably shoulda’ just played cards.

The Roundabout Renegade Road Trip

I was the smart ass in your class who tested the teacher’s patience but always made everyone laugh. So by 11th grade when I started to feel entitled to ‘personal days’ just like the staff, the people responsible for my education didn’t seem to miss me. My truancy was a stealth operation covered up by forged letters from colleges I supposedly visited and a calculated scheme that cracked the attendance policy at my suburban New Jersey public high school. It worked like a charm back then, but I still awake to cold sweats in the middle of the night brought on by nightmares in which Randolph High School administrators force me to retake Calculus in order to retain every degree I have subsequently obtained. In short, I don’t recommend cutting class as much as I did.

The best day I ever cut class was in the fall of my senior year. Cold temperatures had blanketed the Northeast just before Thanksgiving, and Hunter Mountain in Upstate New York boasted one of its earliest openings in memory. Two ski friends from other public schools were itching to get on snow as well, so we devised a plan to skip school on a Friday and rally to and from Hunter in a single day. It was a 2.5-hour drive in each direction, but I possessed the two keys to instantaneous teenage celebrity: determination and a car. ‘Car’ was a loose term I used to describe the gasoline-dependent engine and metal frame I cruised around in. My brother would later confirm that the $3,000 Honda Accord my dad bought for me from the Middle Eastern man who ran a chop shop in Edgewater, NJ was in fact a ‘Franken-car,’ or two vehicles that had previously been in accidents and were welded together to create a single automobile. The radio and heat were both broken, so I drove around with a battery-powered boom box in the backseat while wearing ski clothes through its three winters of life.

But at the start of the ’98-’99 winter, I picked up my friends Erin and Ashley and headed for Hunter Mountain. Erin was a total hottie with a wild default. Some people have a wild side or a wild streak, but wild was Erin’s status quo.

Seen here on the left, Erin’s wild spirit lives on well into adulthood

In stark contrast, Ashley was the tame, reserved, shy, ‘good angel’ who sat on my opposing shoulder. She had recently taken a liking to a mutual friend of ours who was a freshman at Cornell, and on the whole drive up to Hunter we had to hear about Adam. Adam, Adam, Adam.

The more conservative Ashley, who would later go on to become a loving mother and wife, sans Adam.

We envisioned ourselves taking ripping, top-to-bottom ski runs while our friends sat in Biology class learning about the Krebs Cycle. When I pulled into the parking lot at Hunter Mountain, however, our delusions crashed into the reality of early season skiing. A narrow ribbon of snow weaved its way from the peak and came to a sudden end in a pile of mud fifty-some odd paces from the chairlift. Patrons were walking over hay with their skis underfoot just to load the lift; tickets were full price.

In our haste to ski, we often forget what a report of ‘Early Season Conditions’ really means.

Never one to waste an opportunity, I called for a round-two rally and suggested we continue northward nearly four more hours to the Vermont ski mecca of Killington. By a majority-rules vote, Ashley was forced against her will to join us for additional adventure. We arrived at Killington just after lunchtime, paid full price for tickets, and skied on psneaux (manmade snow) for three hours. By the time the lifts closed at four, I was exhausted and wondered how I could ever make the drive home to New Jersey. It was, after all, the Dark Ages between the decline and fall of Jolt Cola and the glorious invention of Red Bull.

Ashley had what at the time, and without a map for reference, seemed like a brilliant idea. She suggested we “stop off” at Cornell on our way home from Killington to visit Adam. We could sleep in his dorm and could tell our parents we were staying at each others’ houses. She had an additional stake in the proposal that seemed to swing her over to our delinquent side, but it sounded like a reasonable solution with my limited experience navigating Upstate New York. In present day, with my handy GPS, I could never be persuaded to drive well out of my way for someone else’s booty call. But this was 1998 and we were still convinced we’d have flying cars before everyone drove around with miniature satellite computers on their dashboards.

Cornell, you are in no way ‘on the way’ home from Killington to Northern NJ = major detour.

I began to panic when the road signs to our next major map marker in Adam’s directions indicated vaster and vaster expanses. At a critical juncture when we realized our money was running low, we made the group decision to eat only Taco Bell from there on out. Breakfast nachos, anyone? We had only our ski clothes and Erin refused to set foot on a college campus without some swankier duds, so during one of our pit stops she came back to the car with a whole new outfit. I exclaimed, “Erin, we’re eating Taco Bell to conserve funds and you’re running off to buy clothes? I don’t know how we’re going to afford the gas to get home.” She just shook her head at me and replied, “Calm down. I stole this outfit from K-Mart.” We were headed straight for the juvenile detention facility that was right down the street from my childhood home.

Although Adam was expecting us, he had no warm welcome for anyone other than Ashley, and even that greeting was tepid. He walked us around campus, took us to a frat party that was promptly broken up by security after someone pulled the fire alarm, and then escorted us back to his cramped and cluttered dorm room. Ashley got to share his extra-long twin mattress with him while Erin and I found some floor space. It was November in Ithaca, and these Cornell guys had their bedroom window propped wide open. I slept for five minutes between the shivering.

The next morning, we bummed some cash off Adam and walked to my car in the visitor parking lot where I discovered my entire CD collection had been stolen. So much for the return on investment of my Columbia House membership. As we drove off the Cornell campus and through Ithaca, Ashley was in a sour mood. She just kept saying how terrible the whole trip was. Adam had not given her the attention she sought, and he was hardly happy to see her. She kept saying the drive was one big waste of time.

Erin lost it. “A waste of time?!” she yelled. “At least you got to sleep in a bed last night. We had to rub butts on the floor just to stay warm!”

As my car puttered into the driveway back home, the gas gauge registering empty, I made a decision that proved invaluable to my crime-free future. I determined that I could cut any class in life I wanted to except–of course–for Geography.

European To-Do List

I wanted to travel around Europe with Christin because she was a hyper-planner, the type of person who made a to-do list before brushing her teeth. I figured if I traveled with Christin, the precise route would be laid out perfectly in advance, and I could just tag along mindlessly for the ride. She was spending her summer gallivanting around the Old World, and I had just finished coaching a ski camp on a French glacier and needed some downtime before flying back to the States. I also had this longstanding dream of seeing a stage of the Tour de France in person, and Christin was up for the adventure.

But in May of 2009, two months before we met up at the hostel in Geneva, we were having a tough time finding a hotel room in Verbier for the night before the Tour was scheduled to pass through town. Emails in broken English from Swiss addresses returned to our in-boxes with harsh news. We were crazy Americans for thinking we would be able to find a single hotel room or bed in a hostel for anytime in the whole week leading up to the race. The entire town had been booked up since the official Tour route was announced back in October. Stupid Americans.

When we had nearly given up on being berated by hotel owners via the internet, Christin received a miraculous email. One establishment, Hotel Les Touristes, had a room with two single beds available for July 18th. I tried to book it. Teresa, the manager, wrote back to tell me there was a misunderstanding and the room was not available. I was beginning to realize that travel agents were still useful even in the era of the internet. A few more emails exchanged with Teresa revealed that there was a room, and it would cost each of us roughly $50 USD. Breakfast was included. While this was the most expensive room we booked on our entire low budget excursion, it was not only the last available room in all of Verbier, it was also most likely the cheapest.

Though I had secured the reservation, I was still nervous about the room’s availability. I spent the first few days of the trip wondering what we would do if we got all the way to Verbier and had nowhere to stay. We figured we would just stay up all night, or try to befriend some nice European gentlemen with a room. My mother had shared with me, quite unprompted, the story of the summer she spent backpacking around Europe in her twenties when she found herself a ‘nice German boy.’ “They’re all over the place,” she told me. “Two cute American girls—you’ll find somewhere to sleep.” But we were really trying to avoid last minute decision-making.

Flat campsites in Verbier were hard to come by

It was a rainy morning in Lausanne, Switzerland when we departed for Verbier via a quick stop in Montreux to catch a bit of the world famous jazz festival. On the Montreux train station platform, we put our luggage in a locker and Christin wasted Swiss Franc after Swiss Franc trying to figure out how to lock it. It was a long travel day, and we were pissing away our coins in order to free ourselves of my wheeled duffel and her backpack. After the music and re-boarding a train or two, we eventually came upon the St. Bernard Express which took us to the valley below Verbier.

From the valley floor, we rode a four-person gondola to access the village of Verbier. We had an address of our hotel, but little sense of how far it was from the center of town. So we began to descend the main drag and wandered down the steep switchbacks, me pulling my duffel and Christin lugging her pack. Every step we took downhill was calculated as a step back uphill we would eventually have to take with our gear after the completion of Stage 15. Around the turn of an unsuspecting switchback, roughly 2km and several hundred meters in elevation from the gondola station, we came across our lodging.

Yes, that is the Tour route. Right there. Outside our door.

Over 100,000 spectators invaded the town the next morning, and as we emerged from our down duvets in our incredibly comfortable beds, we realized the splendid luck that had befallen us. Directly outside our bedroom window, the giant inflatable 1km to go banner spanned the road.

Prime viewing real estate was going faster than a gentrified SoHo loft, so we scoped out a high-walled switchback that gave us a look at both the turn below and the 1km mark. The lovely innkeeper who gave us free jam but who spoke no English indicated to us in hand signals and French (which Christin understood, sort of) that we could keep our luggage at the hotel all day and could use the facilities when needed. We abandoned our bags for the time being and set up camp at 10am alongside a Euro couple who had plenty of wine, bread, and cheese to share throughout the day.

Can we stay here forever?

Lance Armstrong had catapulted himself into my life as a sort of idol, and I had a naked Annie Leibovitz print of him riding a bike for a Vanity Fair photo shoot hanging on my bedroom wall. It was belittling for the male suitors in my life, but a girl has got to aim high. Christin and I enjoyed the fanfare of the pre-Tour circus very much, but we were both anxiously awaiting the arrival of Lance. The television helicopter hovered nearby, and we could see an Astana team kit weaving around the lower switchback toward us. “How will we know if it’s Lance?” Christin asked. I replied, “He’s the only guy on the team wearing a black and yellow Livestrong helmet. Everybody else has team issued Astana helmets.” That’s when Alberto Contador came dancing around the turn.

Without hesitation, Christin hit the start button on her stopwatch function so we’d know how much time Lance was down to Contador. As seconds ticked by and became minutes, we yielded our hope for the American Dream. Armstrong eventually rounded the bend with the support of his other teammate, Andreas Klöden.

The Day the Music Died

The results felt devastating, but not as devastating as the trudge we still had back to the gondola in a crowd of 100,000 people with all our luggage. We weighed the option of walking down the mountain to Le Châble train station instead and reasoned it was about 7km of gravity-assistance versus the 2km twisting, turning uphill climb. Sheer distance won the debate and we began the hike. I lost Christin amidst the chaos for several minutes because she stopped to take a picture of some Swiss dudes tooting their horns.

It was hot, we were sweating profusely and fellow members of the swarm kept walking into the duffel that lagged just behind my ankles. Christin was stealth and agile and able to make the necessary jukes to advance our position in the river of people. As we approached the queue for the gondola, I had flashbacks to my childhood when I demanded a ride on Space Mountain at Disney World despite the never-ending line that snaked in front of the rollercoaster. But we were in Europe, and I had just come off nearly three weeks of elbowing people and planting my poles in front of skiers in lift lines at Les Deux Alpes. Christin was equally skilled at the subtle art of European line negotiation. So we began to assert our presence and fill in gaps wherever they appeared.

A group of American guys near our age realized we had overtaken them when we came face-to-face on one of the double-backed rows, Christin and I clearly in the lead. “Hey!” one of them shouted, “You’re like totally cutting.” I shook my head at his ignorance, chuckled to Christin, and replied, “We’re kind of pros at this.” An hour later we boarded a gondola and returned to the valley below. The long train ride back to Geneva still loomed on the horizon and our day was barely halfway over.

[vast majority of photo credits go to Christin who, thankfully, takes as many pictures as she makes to-do lists]

Bullied by the Bridge Troll

There is an age in everyone’s youth when belief in the mythical stories of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are abandoned, and yet the possibilities of fairy tales themselves still feel very real. Young women continue to cling to the elusive dream of being rescued by a handsome prince and happily ever after dangles enticingly as the end goal of every ambition. But the most renowned fairy tales, those retold by the Brothers Grimm of Germany in the 1800s, are dark and violent and far more representative of everyday life than the lighthearted modern versions we were enchanted by as children.

I didn’t want to ride my bike on Sunday, but I woke up early to watch a live stage of the Tour de France, the world’s most popular cycling contest, and the road biking spark was lit. I needed to take it easy on my body though, so I asked my housemate if she wanted to join me for a slow 20-mile ‘recovery’ spin along one of our favorite routes, The River Loop. Just as she agreed, her friend Mike walked by on our street, and she hollered out an open window and managed to rope him in as well. We cruised North on Route 5 for a while before Mike inquired if we wanted to climb Academy, a local hill that led to a school. It was a slight diversion and would add some mileage, but it was a fun climb and it got us off a busy road, so we gladly accepted the challenge. We cruised up the road past a lost triathlete who was consulting a map, tried to offer directions to little avail, and then quickly dropped her.

Descending the potholed backside of the climb, I suggested we divert our course once again to a smoother, less-trafficked road that would add another couple of smooth miles. No big deal. We reconnected with Route 5 before crossing the river and entering New Hampshire. River Road, the key connector in our favorite social loop, is a quiet road that hugs the Connecticut River and has a series of single-lane bridges, one of which had been under construction for months.

The signage was no deterrent because my housemate, Lauren, had ridden the same route a few weeks earlier and said that so long as we arrived outside of work hours, we should be able to walk right across the bridge just as she had done. And if that was no longer the case, this major piece of roadway infrastructure spanned a dribbling creek no more than ten feet in width, and we all agreed we could just trudge through it with our bikes on our shoulders.

As we approached the bridge, I could see some movement near the construction zone and there were a number of cars parked on the side of the road. Despite the fact that it was a holiday weekend, I was concerned that they might actually be working. Lauren assuaged my fears and said, “I don’t think those cars are for the construction, but let’s go see and we’ll just ask if we can walk across.” I replied, “I feel like we’re about to negotiate with a bridge troll.”

There was a large man in jeans and a t-shirt walking near the construction zone and he had his pick-up truck parked in a dirt driveway just to the left of the closure. He appeared to be a worker, and as we approached, he informed us that the road was closed. We acknowledged the obvious as we had all read the copious signage along the route indicating such, and then Lauren added, “I was here a few weeks ago, and we just walked across. I mean, I don’t see anyone doing any work.” He calmly replied, “Well, there’s an eight foot gap missing from the bridge now.” Which there was.

Though by my rough eyeball estimate, the gap was a heck of a lot wider than eight feet.

No worries, Mike chimed in, “Let’s just see how high the water is,” and he began to walk towards the edge of the road where it met the edge of the bridge. The man with the pick-up angrily barked, “Do not take another step. That’s my property, and you’re not allowed on it.” Mike was convinced the guy had to be kidding, and he started to chuckle. “Seriously?” he asked. “I’m sick and tired of the arrogance,” the man shouted to which I added, “Well, the first ten feet of your property is municipally owned.” At this point, his voice became even more enraged and he growled, “Are you going to quote the law with me, lady? This is my property and you better stay the fuck off it!” Mike mentioned he didn’t have a ‘No Trespassing’ sign to mark his private property.

“I don’t need a fucking sign. I’m telling you it’s mine and you have to turn around.”

Quite curiously, there was a sign directly across the street in a lovely mowed field on the shore of the river.

Lauren found the man’s unwarranted rage rather humorous, so she thanked him for giving us something to laugh about and told the man to have a lovely weekend. When he said, “I hope you have a great fucking weekend too,” I could no longer resist. Despite the fact that we later concurred he probably had a shotgun in his truck and seemed perturbed enough to shoot any one of us had we set just a toe on his land, his gratuitous swearing and the fact that he referred to me as ‘lady’ was over the top.

I gazed over at the corpulent man in his dirty jeans and t-shirt with his wild gray hair and angry eyes, and I commented, “Look, bridge trolls really do exist!”

Had we been permitted to walk ten paces onto the edge of the bridge troll’s land, we would have been able to scamper across the narrow stream on this conveniently felled tree and our shoes wouldn’t have even gotten wet.

Instead, we turned back from whence we came and had some good laughs at the troll’s sad existence. It was a beautiful holiday weekend, and he had nothing better to do than guard the end of his driveway against trespassing road cyclists. Our light spin increased from 20 to 34 miles, and we were all thirsty by the time we returned home, but we realized how ugly the human spirit could be. Just when I had exhausted all explanation for the bridge troll’s insistence that nobody walk one foot onto his property, Lauren provided the only conceivable rationale.

This guy lives at the edge of a bridge that has been closed for months. Every time he wants to go into town, he has to drive all the way around, adding roughly 7 miles to his trip. So if he can’t get over the stream, nobody is going to get over the stream. Life gives him lemons, and he pays them forward in poor form.

For further reference on how to defeat a troll, feel free to review this scholarly paper I unearthed one day too late.

Mexican Swine Flu Quarantine

My father told me to never go to Mexico, that it was dirty and dangerous and not worth the money saved over other warm, sunny locations, but I didn’t listen. My friends Dylan and Sarah decided to get married in Playa del Carmen at the Azul Fives Resort, and I couldn’t book my flight to Cancún fast enough. It was the end of another long ski season in 2009 when my friend Margaret and I departed snowy Vermont for the white beaches of the Caribbean.

The wedding was spectacular despite the excruciating case of sunburn that replaced my previously fair-skinned body for the duration of the trip. Dylan and Sarah could not have been happier surrounded by their wedding party and friends.

The weather was ideal, and we spent our days sitting poolside imbibing frozen drinks with umbrellas and orange wedges in them. They had swim-up bars that we decided should become a staple in life. At night, we danced and raged like people in their late-20s can still do without great consequence.

We took walks to the nearby nude beach (much to our dismay) and attempted oceanfront yoga, a class in which I only lasted ten minutes before dropping out. I met Dylan and Sarah’s friends from all over the U.S., and we spent four days in an isolated paradise with no cell service and no connection to the outside world.

My first indication that something was wrong came just before our departure when I decided to activate international roaming on my cell phone to check my voicemail, and I had twenty or so messages. My parents had called several times, as had my friends and coworkers. Everyone was asking if I was all right. I had no reason not to be fine, but this was when I learned of the paranoia surrounding the Great Swine Flu Outbreak of ’09.

The sight in Cancún Airport was equally alarmist as people traveled with masks à la Michael Jackson. When we landed in Boston, my roommate and fellow dormitory supervisor at the boarding school where I worked and lived called to tell me I couldn’t return to the school. People were worried, there were children and the elderly dying, and I could be a carrier. Whole schools were closing. They couldn’t take the risk. I had to stay away, for at least a week, maybe longer, they weren’t quite sure. It was April in New England and all I had packed were beach clothes.

My brother had rented a lake house in New Hampshire thirty minutes from the airport, so I called to ask if I could stay with him. He was barbecuing and told me to come on by. But as I drove to his house, he phoned back to tell me his wife wasn’t comfortable with me staying at the house. People were dying. Nobody knew the extent of the dangers of this illness. And I had just flown in direct from the source.

I checked into a hotel and called my mother in New Jersey to see if I could stay at her place if I drove down. She said it was fine, but then my uncle heard I was headed there and he disapproved. My elderly grandparents enjoyed visiting my mother, and if I stayed at the house and was a carrier of the Swine Flu and my grandparents came over, I could kill them. People were dropping like flies. Didn’t I care enough about my relatives to just stay away?

Life was turning into one of those zombie movies in which the family members tell each other that their loved one is no longer the same person she used to be. Doors were locked everywhere I turned. The stress of feeling quarantined without boundaries, the constant fear that perhaps I was a carrier, that maybe I would get sick in a hotel room all by myself and nobody would know, began to take its toll. I had skirts, dresses and tank tops, and it was 50 degrees outside and raining. I cried.

Then my father, the same person who warned me to never go to Mexico and who couldn’t say, “I told you so!” enough, became the one guy who pulled through for me. He told me to come stay in his apartment. He didn’t care if I got sick or even if I got him sick or if I was a zombie who just wanted to eat his brain. But every time I sneezed that week, he quickly asked, “Are you feeling ok?”

I never contracted any flu-like illnesses that spring or the next fall or winter. About 36,000 people die every year of the seasonal flu, more than double the victims of H1N1 in 2009-2010. But for eight days in April after a long weekend in Mexico, I had nowhere go and a village of angry townsfolk chasing me down with pitchforks and wooden stakes, and I couldn’t run all that fast in my flip flops.

Does MacGyver Ever Get Locked Out?

When my schedule isn’t challenging enough to keep me on my toes, I oftentimes enjoy throwing a metaphorical wrench in the daily plan by locking myself out. This applies to homes, cars, offices, or basically anywhere or anything I absolutely need to get inside of quickly. A little over a week ago I was home alone and in a deeply paranoid moment convinced myself that a band of marauding vagabond rapist murderers might be trolling my neighborhood, so at night I dead bolted and locked all of the doors to the house before going to bed. The next morning I walked out the garage door, the handle of which will turn from the inside even when locked, and rode my bike into town. Wouldn’t you know that when I returned that afternoon and was in a hurry to shower and get to a party on time, I was locked out of every door to my home.

In moments like this, I ask myself, “What would MacGyver do?” The answer usually involves blowing something up, so instead of employing any of his standard tactics, I found a flat head screwdriver in the garage, jimmied open an exterior window screen, opened the window, and climbed into the dining room. Fortune cookies give better advice than MacGyver anyway.

One time, however, I could not accept sole responsible for locking myself out. In the early morning hours of Sunday, May 24, 2009, the kickoff day of the Burke Mountain Academy’s traditional Green Mountain Run (a 200-mile relay race up historic Route 100 in Vermont), I was driving a school van full of seniors to the event’s start line on the Massachusetts border along with my colleague, Viv. In honor of the event, the students were allowed to paint the vans for the weekend and we had a particularly awesome, attention-catching theme.

The Starry Night ‘Van Go’

Since we were a little ahead of schedule, we decided to make a quick pit stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts so everyone could get breakfast. Our school vans were almost all older model vehicles with few bells and whistles. They had roll-down windows; it was considered a luxury if the radio worked. So I had gotten into the habit of always leaving the keys in the cup holder anywhere I parked–in ski resort lots, back at school, on trips to the general store. It was the easiest way to keep track of them.

As I stood in line awaiting my large, double-shot latte, one of the students came running up to me in a frazzled panic and said, “You have the keys to the van, right?” to which I replied, “Why do I NEED the keys to the van?” We had lucked out and scored the new van in the fleet and were rocking power locks, and the last kid out of the vehicle had accidentally elbowed the ‘lock-all’ button before shutting the door. I joined in on the panic.

We still had some driving before we could get to the start line here.

The ‘Welcome to Massachusetts’ sign in Heath, MA. It’s seen better days.

It was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, not a prime work day for most locksmiths, and as it turned out, my AAA membership had expired the previous month. MacGyver would have been equally devastated to hear the voice on the other end of the line say, “You are no longer an active member, so we cannot assist you at this time.” I was on the phone attempting to renew my membership while my coworker Viv was on her phone trying to get her husband’s membership number to see if we could be rescued from the idiocy of locking ourselves out of a ridiculously painted van on the way to a silly relay race.

We were told it could take up to an hour for someone to come help us. Kids in our van were supposed to be running legs of the relay in an hour. It was turning into an absolute disaster.

And then Viv casually walked over to me, looked at me calmly, and asked, “Are you sure you don’t have the keys?” That’s when I reached into my pocket, felt a jingle, and pulled out the keys to the van. We had all sat around in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot for a half hour, made numerous frantic phone calls, and were never even locked out.

Twenty-four hours and 200 miles later, we posed for the iconic school photograph at the Canadian border and promptly forgot about how the whole event began.