Hubbardton, Vermont: Zen Mind, First-Generation Mind

April 17, 2021. Hubbardton, Vermont.
Soundtrack:
Druids – Yeyin

“We need to hike,” she told me.

“Yes.”

It was never an argument. As I may have mentioned by now, Vermont is nothing but woods. She alleges that she is a green witch. Woods are green. For my part, I liked the experience of being out in nature before all the eggheads started publishing fringe studies suggesting that a walk in the woods and eating fruit is better for your mental health than blowing rails of Pixie Sticks and watching 10 hours of Netflix alone in your bed.

There was also Beefton to consider. He forgets he’s a lethargic couch ornament when you take him into the woods, and goes caroming through the underbrush, gasping like a sleep apneiac in a doomed effort to catch wildlife. The furry little golem is too slow to catch other dogs, let alone squirrels or rabbits, but we must imagine Sisyphus fulfilling his evolutionary pack-hunting imperative. “Sweet dreams of the chase, and a mouthful of blood,” as Thomas Harris put it.

The Witch and I had both grown increasingly feral over the quarantine, I from my anachronistic training regimen and unyielding dedication to my unga bunga bullshit, and she from her penchant for collecting and cataloguing rocks, a pursuit she regarded as equal parts secular and spiritual. The prowling and hauling had left her long limbs knotted with muscle, and I found her nonchalant ability to move faster than me along hiking trails both impressive and irritating.

So why, then, had we spent so much of our brief time in arboreal oblivion locked in the haunted farmhouse, gnawing steak and charcuterie?

“It’s still raining,” I said.

“Well, we can’t just not hike in Vermont,” she said. “But a lot of the trails are washed out because it’s ‘the muddy season’?”

“The muddy season.”

“Yeah.”

“When you say washed out,” I asked, “do you mean we’re wading upstream? I’ve got the big waterproof boots. I’m good to go. Never had to use them when it’s 40 degrees, but I gotta get out of this room. The chair is whispering again.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Never worry about it. Washed out?”

“A lot of it is hills and canyons,” she explained, gesticulating in a fashion both attention-deficit and highly Italian, “so the trails just… wash away. Wash off the mountain.”

“So it’s like a cliff. Hiking cliffs, like mountain goats.”

“Maybe? Good thing we got Cap stelliums to go around, huh?”

“Athena sends her soggiest battles to her antsiest soldiers. Beefy! We ride!”

Beefton launched from his concrete mattress and stretched into a flawless downward dog pose to evince his readiness.

“It is a good day to die,” Beefy said, though not in so many words.

The rain didn’t stop, but it shuffled its feet and hesitated long enough for us to find the Taconic Mountain Ramble, known and beloved far and wide for its Japanese Zen garden trail.

“Look at all that infrastructure,” I said. “There’s no way this leads to a state park. We’re going to get out of the car, and a cannibal hermit is going to put us on meathooks in his basement.”

“We’ll have to steer clear of basements, then.”

“He’s gonna take our skin, Witch,” I said. “You roll around in cocoa butter all the time, and I subsist on water and fish oil. Finest hides in Vermont right now. You saw the Vermontians at the restaurants. Woeful skin. Like the before pictures on a ProActiv commercial.”

“It’s because they’re always drinking maple syrup, I’ll bet.”

This was true, and disgusting. Maple syrup is to Vermont as ouzo is to Athens, in that no matter where you go, what you order, or what time of day it is, they will give you a little cup of it. I asked for hot sauce for my french fries, they asked “hot sauce or wing sauce?”, and I said hot sauce again. They brought me a little ramiken of wing sauce, and my highly refined palette immediately determined that some rabid anarchist jackal poured maple syrup in it.

“Gross,” she added.

We parked the car and I covered my bases.

“Beefy, there will likely be an abduction attempt. I need you to eat our kidnappers before they eat us. Your bloodline reaches back to the molossus, the great Roman dogs of war. You were bred for this.”

Beefton leaned across the center console and licked my face.

“No, dammit,” I said. “I need your war face. Who wants blood? Huh? Whom wanna drink blood?”

His ears lifted higher onto his head.

“I do,” he said.

“You wanna get a little blood? Huh? Who’s a blood drinking boy?”

“I am! I drink blood!”

I opened the back door and he uncoiled like a spring, bolting out into the forest teeth-first, jowls waving in the cold mist.

“Go get ’em!” I said. “Save yourself! Kill them all!”

We followed the trail down past an incongruous trailer. The Witch suggested the park rangers probably used it when the trails were open during the non-muddy season, but that first sign suggested that the great state of Vermont wasn’t funnelling too much of that good maple tax lucre into the parks system. Just beyond the trailer was The Spot.

Which, conveniently, faces away from the trailer, keeping you leaned back in the Adirondack, off balance and too distracted by nature’s splendor to notice the chloroform rag until it’s too late.

We wended our way into the Zen garden, which was gorgeous even in shitty weather, and must be incredible when it’s nice out.

There were two huge boulders with chairs at the top, but only one was accessible. The ladders were washed out from the other one. We could have feasibly freeclimbed it in the summer, but with the frozen moss and our wet, clunky hiking boots, we opted to take turns on the first.

Beefton flew into a screaming frenzy when we climbed the ladders, which were arranged in short, tiered platforms, not unlike the level design of the original Donkey Kong. He found his way up one, then panicked and jumped back down, slamming his chest against the earth and using the bounce to propel himself in a noisy, savage loop around the whole little lagoon. Fortunately, he is indestructible, and learned an important lesson about ladders.

We loitered on the rocks, amassing karma until we got hungry enough to go find something else undoubtedly made with maple syrup.

Love,

B.

Reykjavik: On We Sweep With Threshing Oar

Saturday, September 21, 2019. Reykjavik, Iceland.
Soundtrack: Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song

Fish and chips should fix this. We dropped into a fish and chippery and ordered the standard fare. They tried to upcharge us three American dollars for tartar sauce, so we ate them dry, with salt and vinegar.

“I am not a narcissist!” yelled a Swede at the other table to his bros. “I tell you why. You know why? 9/11. Worst day of my entire life. I still remember what I was wearing on 9/11! My blue shirt, and my white khakis pants.”

“Some would argue his believing that’s proof count as narcissism,” I whispered to Ladygirl. “But it’s not like I’m a professional.”

“We’re not saying you’re a narcissist,” said his French bro. “We’re just saying, we have things we don’t want to joke about, and you joke about them. So we joke about this.”

“2,977 people died!” the Swede yelled. “2,977! It was the worst day of my life! You tell me not to joke about it when the worst day of your life kills 2,977 people!”

He then started monologuing about the true heroism of the first responders, then stepped outside with one of the other bros for a smoke.

The remaining two were venomous.

“What a fucking asshole,” the French one said. “Absolute narcissist. Do you hear him? ‘The worst day of my life’? I can think of some people who had a worse day than you!”

“Yeah,” said the other one, whose accent I couldn’t place. “2,977 of them.”

“Idiot. He always does this. He just likes to yell.”

When the squad reconvened, they offered him 1000 krona to drink the entire bottle of vinegar.

“What is 1000 krona?” asked the Swede.

“I don’t know,” said the French guy. “I have bill that says 1000 on it. You want it or not?”

“How about half for 500?”

“Okay, yeah.”

The Swede took a sip of the vinegar and choked and sputtered all over his table, to riotous applause.

It was 5 o’clock somewhere. Brewdog had become a sort of base camp, but we were on the wrong side of town and wound up at the other resident craft brewery, Session.

View this post on Instagram

Westerbro IPA #beer #bastardtravel

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

Most of their beers were named after Game of Thrones. Flaunt it if you got it.

Braxton joined the party and we did a quick lap around the city in the rental car. The previous day, we had ranged out to one of the hot springs, a place of scenic vistas and oppressive Silent Hill fogs, called Reykjadalur.

View this post on Instagram

shimmyin up #hiking #bastardtravel

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

For you linguists out there, Reykja- means “smoky”. -Dalur is valley, -vik is bay.

“You know, it’s weird,” Braxton told us after this exposition as we made our way through the beers. “Almost all other languages name their places after defining characteristics. Only in English do you get things like “Scranton”. What the hell does that mean?”

“Town of Scran,” I said. “Scran is the feeling you get when you’re there.”

“What’s it mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s fitting on phonetics alone.”

View this post on Instagram

#hiking #reykjadalur #bastardtravel

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

When we arrived at the trail, an American with an outlandish handlebar mustache was stretching his calves on the back of his car.

“If you guys are going up to soak, you might as well stop now,” he said, not even pausing in his calesthenics. “It’s been raining too much. It’s too cold to go in.”

We exchanged a look.

“I mean, it’s still a beautiful hike, if you like wind and rain in your face,” he said.

“We’ve been getting plenty of wind and rain in the face these past couple,” I said. “I think I’m immune now.”

“Welcome to Iceland,” he said with a shrug.

We decided we’d come too far and hiked up the hill, where it immediately began to downpour in earnest.

View this post on Instagram

Burble burble #hiking #geyser #bastardtravel

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

“You know, in this past week,” Braxton said, “we’ve already hit the monthly average for rainfall in September? In five days.”

“It’s because of me,” Ladygirl said. “I’m cursed. It’s following me.”

“Global warming is a hoax,” I said with a wave of my hand. “These damn millennials should take a lil peep at a job application.”

Three miles uphill in the increasingly severe rain. The ground became quicksand, and at intervals both Ladygirl and I plummeted into the mud up to our thighs. The madness took hold and we splashed clean in the river that was, as promised, too cold to soak in.

But that had been yesterday. Today, we were wrapping up our viking adventure. We did a lap around Reykjavik, then returned the car and celebrated with more beer.

Braxton took us to a flea market where everything cost as much as it did in the shops, which means it wasn’t a flea market. It was just a market. It called itself a flea market, and outside we gathered more icelandic lamb hot dogs.

They also had this atrocity, masquerading under glass as cake.

We had nearly run the full gamut of Reykjavik. Iceland still had some volcanoes and glaciers to offer, as well as the dreaded Necropants, but none of those were accessible without buying another plane ticket, and I had places to be.

Still, there was one last stop to make.

The Lebowski Bar was conveniently located across the street from Kaffibrennslann, perhaps the finest cafe in Reykjavik. Since I’d spent nearly every morning of my stay  sucking down cappuccinos and tickatackin there, I couldn’t avoid the Lebowski bar. I could feel its pull like a neon, bowling-themed Charbydis.

I resisted until my final hours in Iceland. The burger (“the Lebowski burger”, innovatively) was decent. They seemed to really shine in the White Russian department.

“Listen!” screamed drunk white women at the waitress. “I got a question, and I need you to be honest with me.”

“Ya?”

“Is this an American bar?”

“Um-”

“Cuz we don’t wanna go to an AMERICAN bar. Like, do locals come here, or did you make this for us?”

“It is bar based on American movie,” the waitress said, “but it is not an American bar. I don’t like American bars. I like this bar. If it were an American bar, I would not like it.”

Her logic seemed somehow flawed, but the fleet of American ladies bought it.

We bade our farewells to Braxton, thanking him for all the rainy hikes and smashed fish, then headed to the bus depot to get out to the airport.

“The next bus doesn’t come until 8,” she said apologetically.

“Our flight’s at 9,” Ladygirl said. Her eyes did the thing where they get real big.

“Maybe another bus company? I will look for you.”

Across town, another bus company would take us at 7. The drive is an hour, which would give us enough time to through security and on the plane. The problem was, the other bus company was a half hour away, over a bridge and across a superhighway.

We rolled them bones. It immediately began to rain.

I won’t leave you in suspense.

Or will I?

To be continued…

Love,

B

Denver: The Red Rocks Washout

Monday, July 1st, 2019. Denver, Colorado.

We abandoned the pernicious hostel and wandered the early morning city with all our worldly possessions on our backs, like a pair of gorgeous Depression Era hobos.

I had all my worldly possessions in my pack, anyway. I spent my college years jumping from apartment to dorm like a hirsute Irish frogger and the experience had taught me the less you lug with you, the hastier your getaway. Marie Kondo has since repackaged it into an adorable little “joy-sparking” system of totemic ritual, and when that particular fever swept the nation, I had nothing to part with but some novelty t-shirts and a coyote skull.

It’s important to have a bug-out bag good to go, and much more efficient if it fits everything you own.

An adjoining window enthusiastically advertised “As featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives!”

I’m a patriot first and foremost, and I was not about to let my country down. Neither was I going to disappoint Guy Fieri. We settled into a huge booth to determine the logistics of our last day in this unspoiled netherworld.

Our waitress looked like Katie from Letterkenny, but smaller. She brought me a truly gargantuan breakfast burrito full of buffalo. My heart sang and my power tripled.

“We’ve got to do Red Rocks,” Ladygirl said.

“It’s only fair,” I said. “Every Uber driver so far has recommended it.”

“Everybody back home, too,” she said. “One of my co-workers is from Denver, it was the first thing he said.”

I ate my three pounds of cheesed bison, then felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I looked out the window and saw cop cars.

“Too much buffalo,” I told Ladygirl, apropos of nothing. “They think I’m poaching.”

“What?”

“We gotta go.”

We fled to the safe house and drank a brisk morning beer. It’s called carb-cycling.

Energized by a well-balanced breakfast, we caught a ride up to the much-vaunted Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Let me preface this by saying these pictures don’t do justice to the sheer size of the rocks. Where I’m from, there’s a bunch of rocks. I’ve seen a rock or two in my day, but never like this. They were so incomprehensibly massive that it made me uncomfortable. They were the bones of mountains and it was easy to visualize one shifting, just minorly, and annihilating everyone in the vicinity. A bloody smear and erasure from history.

We got into the amphitheater proper and it was gorgeous.

“The website said they’re playing Top Gun tonight,” I said. “It’s a shame we’re going back.”

“It really is.”

“Welp, let’s hit the trail. Soak up some of this natural splendor.”

View this post on Instagram

Trading Post Trail #tradingpost #denver

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

There are those who question the practicality of putting off your hike until the one day, during the entire trip, that you have to carry all your gear. Don’t listen to these cowards.

Along the trail, we discovered a monument to John Denver, in memorium of the moment he befriended a bald eagle and founded Denver.

We completed the loop and took shelter in the gift shop. I considered buying a $20 plastic piece of junk to commemorate the time I took a hike near some real big rocks, but ultimately decided against it.

“All right,” Ladygirl said, after she had finished studying the trading post’s John Denver record altar room. “We’ve got to catch the uber down in the D lot, which is like a ten minute walk. It’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

Thunder exploded outside. It had been cloudless a second ago. Ladygirl looked out and frowned.

“Maybe we should wait to order it?”

“Naw,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

The sky opened up and let loose a biblical monsoon.

Once, long ago, I was driving listlessly around the Frozen North when a hurricane hit. I pulled off into the grocery store where my brother worked and bought a bag of fried chicken. He took his break and we sat under the awning on the big stone benches, watching the rain flood the parking lot and tear down tree branches as we ate.

What happened at Red Rocks wasn’t a hurricane, but it was close.

My phone camera doesn’t do justice to the a wall of water. Ladygirl and I sheltered under the picnic pavilion and watched the sky fall.

We were shoulder to shoulder with a battalion of likewise trapper hikers, who took up the chorus of “It’s hail now! It’s rain now!” for the entire half hour storm.

When it broke, we called the uber and waited fifteen minutes in an empty parking lot while the car climbed the mountain.

A few hours until takeoff, so we wound up in a neighborhood called RiNo, which I just found out means River North. It was industrial chic, that slow-substantiating hip you see in bohemian parts of cities that used to produce something other than craft beer and vegan confectionary.

I don’t remember the brewery we went to, but I remember the bartender was friendly and they were playing the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 sound track exclusively. We asked where to go for food and she told us to go to the Blue Moon Brewing company.

“Absolutely not,” I told Ladygirl, shouting to be heard over Goldfinger’s Superman. “Bar food isn’t. We can find a real restaurant.”

“You don’t want to check out the Blue Moon place?” she asked.

“I don’t like Blue Moon.”

“I’ve seen you drink it!”

“Yeah, if I’m backed into a corner. If my options are Blue Moon, Rolling Rock, or seltzer water, I’ll take one for the team. But there’s no team here. Let’s find a real restaurant.”

In college, I single-handedly ran a hole in the wall called Mo’s Grill, right off Gay Street in West Chester. The owner was a lanky white cokehead from Reading named Kevin who battered his illegal immigrant girlfriend and tried to rip off all his employees. There was no Mo.

When the register got over $50, he would send me down to the block to New Haven pizza to buy a sixer of Blue Moon. He would drink it in the basement, dragging along whichever employee was there. I always turned him down. I didn’t care for Blue Moon then, and that experience certainly didn’t endear me to it. 

“You’re an information junkie,” he once told me. “I can tell. I can read people. You like to learn, but your problem is you don’t use it for anything.”

“That must be my problem,” I said. “Thanks.”

I could have deflected by saying something disarming like, “Where I come from, we just shorten that to ‘nerd'”, but I didn’t want to deflect or disarm. I needed the money to avoid getting kicked out of my first apartment (spoilers: it didn’t work), but I also hated him with a passion, and always hoped it would escalate to violence between us. Not only for the satisfaction of smashing his shining egg-shaped skull off the deli counter, but for the inevitable lawsuit opportunity that would be presented thereafter.

He was paying me under the table, of course, and promised a raise from $6 to $8. In retrospect, times really were tough. When he didn’t deliver on the timeline, I confronted him on it Friday as the rush began. He shouted in my face that I didn’t get the promotion because, “You’re not worth it!” I wished him luck finding someone who was and quit on the spot.

“You’re gonna do this to me?” he roared into the rapidly filling restauraunt foyer. “To ME!?”

“Sure seems that way,” I told him. I paused at the door. He had bragged about throwing a knife at one of his former employees so many times after he came stumbling drunkenly up from the basement, I thought it was only fair to give him the chance.

“Fine!” he said. “Go! Get the fuck out of here!”

I did. Brief epilogue, the girlfriend did eventually leave him and immigrate legally. She’s still living in the area and going to school for social work. The restaurant went under a month or two after I quit. Kevin disappeared back to Reading to live like a leech on his elderly mom. Last I heard, he stacked up a few more DUIs.

I didn’t tell Ladygirl any of that. We were having a nice time. Instead, we went to a barbecue place called Smok where I just kept eating piles of meat.

It was phenomenal. Ladygirl was queasy and tapped out quick, so I was forced to eat both her and my orders of meat. I washed it down with brisket, for the road.

The exit was guarded by a vengeful wooden elephant.

Our time in Denver had drawn to an end. I’m bored of places after four days, tops. The only exceptions to this rule so far had been Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul, and Denver. Next year, I think I’ll go back to school, lock down the PhD. I haven’t decided where yet, but I know it’ll be in Colorado.

The ride back to the airport was melancholy. There was no longing for home, no excitement for the trip to be over, to get back to the reliable clockwork hum of the every day routine. I kept thinking about all the crackheads, the endless heat wave, and how the Philly airport always smelled like piss.

Go birds.

Outside the Denver airport, there’s a massive statue of a blue horse. Legend has it during the construction, its head fell off and killed the artist. They finished the sculpture, and it stands sentinel over the city, watching who comes and who goes with glowing red eyes.

View this post on Instagram

Blucifer cometh #blucifer #horse #demon #denver

A post shared by Bastard Travel (@bastardtravel) on

Good night, sweet Blucifer. I’ll see you soon.

Love,

The Bastard

Storming the Castle

August 10, 2018. Groton, Massachusetts. 

The itch was too much to resist. The Delf was getting claustrophobic. The skyscrapers were closing in, as were the perpetually growing mounds of garbage that have not once been collected from anywhere in the city since Ben Franklin invented both Philadelphia and garbage. I needed a breather.

The Girl and I opted for New Hampshire this time around. Our last few jaunts had been to the desert, and while they were about 50% fun, after a while you know what sand looks like. Colorado is on the agenda, but we needed something we could squeeze into three days, and I just did Maine and Massachusetts.

New Hampshire is laughably tiny. Once we set up base camp in Manchester, the suspiciously rustic “most populous city” in NH, we accidentally ranged out across state lines twice.

It was six hours from Philly. Toll roads remain arbitrary, but become much more considerate as you head north. It costs around $12 to get from the bottom of PA to the top. It’s $5 to escape from New Jersey, even if you just wandered in by accident. Passing through the godless snarl of NYC traffic is $15. After that, you plow up into New England and you can stay on the turnpike for hours, tolls will be like $1. One was actually 50 cents.

Really, guys? Like we don’t have it bad enough?

At some point in Massachusetts, we happened on an ambiguous temple “COMING SOON!” It didn’t claim a religion, but the only thing blocking the access road was a length of chain, and golden spires were visible in the trees. We parked and investigated.

20180810_183335

It was just rising up in the woods in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know any of the characters embossed on the spires. I concluded it had something to do with that black sarcophagus full of mummy juice.

I’ve since done a little more research and discovered that this is going to be a shared Muslim and Hindu temple, which I found bizarre. I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the specifics of Hindu scripture, but I’m fairly certain Islamic theology operates on that Judeo-Christian fan favorite about “No gods before me”, let alone a whole pantheon of them. I also seem to remember some strongly worded bits about “no idols nor graven image”.

(Leviticus 26:1-2 if you’re not a tahrif type, Quran 9.5 if you are.)

The shared temple cover story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. That was a spontaneously generating Nyaralthotemple. New England is filthy with Old Ones.

We bailed before we were descended upon by any unknowable horrors from the black spaces between the stars, stopping for the worst coffee in America on our way to Bancroft’s Castle.

Bancroft’s Castle is a deliciously American story. It starts in 1906 with a renaissance man named General William Bancroft, a soldier, politician, and businessman who decides he’s done enough for one lifetime and he’s going to settle down in the idyllic hills of the charmingly named Groton, Massachusetts. He looks at his 401k and says, “You know what? I’m gonna build a retirement castle.”

He badly underestimates how much it costs to build a castle, which makes you wonder how effective a businessman he was. Our man is over budget by the time he’s built the tower and the bungalow.

He lives in his little Iggy Koopa boss tower for 12 years, then sells it to Doctor Harold Ayers. Doc Ayers converts it into a sanatorium, raking in $20 a week per tuberculosis patient (that’s about $900 a month nowadays, adjusting for inflation), which must have pissed Bancroft off immensely.

He maintained that racket until the late 1920s, and when the sanatorium closed it was converted into a social center and lodge for the Groton Hunt Club. This continued until July 4, 1932, when the castle was burnt down by a firecracker. Must have been one hell of a siege.

Perhaps due to how badly and consistently it failed at being a castle, Bancroft Castle was abandoned. Since Groton Hill was used for hangings in the 1600s, and since it’s a ruin in New England, and since it was once a TB sanatorium, it is alleged to be chock full of ghosts.

 

Despite its inefficacy, I could understand the appeal.

20180810_185654_Pano.jpg

The bungalow had nothing on the tower proper.

 

In addition to all its other failings, it seemed like it would be pretty easy to scale.

20180810_190850

as seen with Adventure Hat, the stupidest functional headwear New Mexico had to offer

On the way back to the car, the Girl elbowed me in the ribs. Like I wasn’t already bleeding everywhere from my botched superhero landing getting down off the tower.

“Do you see that?”

“Ghosts? Or bears?”

My hands were up. Punching wouldn’t phase either of those things, but damn it, I had to try.

She pointed up into a tree.

 

our ornithologist friend confirmed it as a red-tailed hawk

I’d never seen a red-tailed hawk that close before. It wasn’t even a little frightened of us or the spectral bears. We gawped up at it for five minutes or so, watching it bop around and ruffle its huge clunky body, scoping for vermin, then the mosquitos got too bad and we got back on the road.

Next stop on our New Hampshire trip: actually New Hampshire.

Love,

The Bastard

Budapest: The Descent

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I had to face facts. I wasn’t realistically going to go be healed in the mineral baths. Public bathing sounded time-consuming and expensive, and all the local residents I’d talked to about it confirmed that it’s very much a tourist thing. I already had my FlixBus booked. The clock was running. I had to figure out how to kill another 24 hours in Budapest.

The answer came from a pamphlet I was forced to look at while the girls running my hostel attempted five minutes of math in order to give me my change.

“Sick of partying and sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” I said out loud.

“Want something more EXCITING?”

“Yeah, dude.”

They looked up from their calculations, but only momentarily. I can’t imagine they’re paid enough to deal with whatever I was doing.

“Try some fuckin’ uhhhh adventure caving.”

“You know, I just might.”

“Are you okay?” one of the girls asked.

I pocketed the pamphlet and collected my change, then went back to my little canvas bed-cubicle and did some Serious Internet Research. Apparently, there were two kind of tours: Weenie Hut Jr. Old People Cavewalk, and Mountain Dew Code Red EXTREME CAVER Spelunk. The latter was obviously twice as expensive, but since money isn’t real in Budapest is barely broke $10.

Unfortunately, the cave was 3 miles from town. The website assured me that a bus runs up to it, and when I disembarked to find this bus, I discovered the bus stop was also 2.5 miles away.

Welp.

I tied on my highly fashionable scarf (which I haven’t lost yet) and trekked up the mountain. It was an hour and a half of walking, nothing too terrible even after I’d gotten enough altitude that the sidewalk was a sheet of ice.

When I arrived, the guy at the desk asked if I was here for the Old People walk.

“No, I’m trying to do the one that warns you about being physically fit.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

On the website there was no phone number or e-mail, but there was an Angelfire-style late 90’s guestbook that said “Contact us!” about six page-scrolls under the words “Make a reservation or pay at the desk!”

Exclamation points are, as we know, extreme.

“I was just gonna pay at the desk.”

“You need a reservation,” he said. “Another company does the caving tours. If you want to contact them now, they usually get back very quickly, and we have hot chocolate.”

I passed on the hot chocolate and told their guestbook, “Hey, I’d like to make a reservation for today. When will you be here?”

Fifteen minutes later, I got an e-mail saying, “The High Voltage Maximum Overdrive Cannonball Spelunking Melee is at 3:30, but you need to make a reservation.”

I paused to rub my temples, then sent them a reply saying, “Yes, I’d like to make a reservation. For today. How do I do that?”

Another fifteen minutes and, “Here is your confirmation code for your reservation today!”

Well, that gave me three hours to kill on top of a mountain. I walked a mile in the wrong direction, ate an entire pizza, then walked back and dicked around on my phone until everyone arrived.

My group was 10 other people, led by two slight, enthusiastic Hungarian men in their late thirties. They gave us jumpsuits and hats. It was the best I’ve ever looked.

24463087_1143100392492932_1941478595_o.jpg

felt like a ghostbuster

The reason I went caving is because I didn’t remember if I was claustrophobic. I know I get edgy if I’m packed into a room with a big crowd, barring the occasions that include mosh pits, but that probably has more to do with deep-seated misanthropy than phobic reaction to forfeiture of personal space. I can vividly remember a nightmare I had when I was young, where there was a subterranean river that ran under a mountain and I dove in and, breath held, fought my way up the current in the dark. The river was so narrow I could feel it brushing against my shoulders, and I reached out and grabbed the sides, used them to push myself along.

Now seemed like a good time to see if I still had that fear. Besides, if there’s a collapse and I die, it’ll happen really quick. I probably won’t even notice I’m dead. I’ve accomplished most of the things I’ve set out to do. Getting crushed into paste would mean I don’t have to draft a new bucket list.

The tour was pretty cool, in all honesty. You had to duck and crawl and shimmy around things a lot, a lot of climbing, hoisting, and maneuvering. It was fun, and made me feel like I’m in better shape than I could possibly be, considering how much of the past month I spent consuming poison and not exercising.

“Sporty” is the preferred European nomenclature. In America, we call it athletic, but in Europe they ask if you’re “sporty” before commenting about how you look like you go to the gym. You’re goddamn right. I’ll squat everyone you’ve ever loved.

As the lumberingest behemoth in the group, if there was a spot that was excessively tight, the tour guides would say, “Bastard, you’ll probably fit. And if not, we have knives.”

“I’ve been meaning to lose weight on this trip anyway,” I said.

There was only one truly close call.

24210047_1142718265864478_1740465472_o.jpg

You’ve got no scale from that picture, but rest assured, what you’re looking at couldn’t be more than a foot high. The only way for a dude with my skeleton to wedge himself in was what they called “Supermanning”. You put one arm straight up in front of you, turn your head toward the arm you have down, and writhe on belly, pushing along with the tips of your toes and whatever your hands can grab.

I made it through most of the 50-feet of clay snake tunnel without incident or bitching, but when I popped out of the other side like a gopher, I got stuck at the thickest point in my chest. Not a little stuck, either. I couldn’t go forward or backward, not that backward was really an option anyway.

You know that phrase, “stuck between a rock and a hard place”? That was my ribcage. I could feel limestone jutting between the slats in my ribs.

“Welp,” I said, “I guess I’ll stay here.”

“You stuck?”

“Real stuck. Come back in a couple days, I’ll slim down.”

“Move toward the right,” they suggested.

The right was slightly back up the tunnel, and it took a herculean effort to unjam my torso, but I managed to push myself back into an area that gave me an extra inch of clearance. That was all I needed. I wormed out and dusted off.

“Whew!” I said. “All right. Not claustrophobic anymore, as it turns out.”

That was the narrowest point on the tour, which is good, because I wouldn’t be typing this now if there were narrower. The guides showed us fossils, gypsum crystals, and formations with wacky names like “The Sandwich”, “The Theater,” and “The Birth Canal.” The Sandwich was where I got stuck. The birth canal was roomier than you’d expect.

I mimicked the guides as best I could as we flung ourselves around the cave like characters from Donkey Kong Country. It was basically the fun parts of hiking — the jumping, climbing, balancing — but underground.

When we surfaced I walked back to civilization and realized the to-and-from definitely burnt off the entire pizza. I needed to fuel up. I was getting pretty sick of meat by this point, so I went to the restaurant by my hostel and ordered the stuffed cabbage.

24323833_1143100442492927_1255778742_o.jpg

Now, the casual observer may look at this and say, “Bastard, where is the cabbage?”

An understandable question. It was wedged between the kielbasa and what I think was a deep fried pork vertebra, with an entire pork chop pulled over the top like a blanket.

I didn’t die in the cave. I guess that’s cause for celebration. I ate, drank, be’d merry, then called it an early night so I could catch this bus.

Dresden is the next stop. Don’t worry, I’m prepared.

24337562_1143095869160051_496498157_n.png

This cartoon bird says I can speak German.

Love,

The Bastard