Tag Archives: travel

On the Road With Serial Killers

While traveling, I’ve encountered some serial killers. Well, two. Sort of. Near misses, anyway.

The first time was kind of meta. My car broke down and a nice woman stopped to give me a ride. “I’m going to take a chance that you’re not a serial killer,” I said as I got in. “Well, I’m going to take a chance that you’re not one either,” she replied. We both figured the odds were against that and she drove me to where I could call AAA.

The second time was much creepier. I was driving down the highway, alone, on a Sunday night. It wasn’t dark and stormy, which would have been too atmospheric, but it certainly was dark. All of a sudden, my car started sputtering. From all that I’ve read about serial killers in true crime books, I knew that if my car broke down along the roadside at night, I was a sitting duck.

I nursed my car along. I passed exits with plenty of gas stations, but they were all chain operations where I was more likely to find a burrito and a doughnut than a mechanic. They may have also sold fan belts, spark plugs, and washer fluid, too. But I really didn’t know what was wrong with my car other than making funny sounds – the kind you sound dumb trying to demonstrate – and slowing down.

I took an exit.  Lo and behold! A proper gas station appeared, one that was open and wasn’t the burrito-and-doughnut sort. Sometimes I have that kind of luck, like the time a phantom gas station appeared in Arizona when, through a miscalculation, my tank was below E.

A short time later, as I was making pseudo-engine noises to the attendant, a man walked in. He was short and round and wearing rainbow-striped suspenders. Also, he had a beard. Potential serial killer. They look just like regular people, you know. That’s how they lure you in.

After he gassed up, he listened to my attempts at explaining my predicament to the clerk (who was no help at all). “Sounds like you’ve got a broken fill-in-the-blank,” the stranger said. “There’s an auto store just about a mile from here. You could get one there.”

“My car won’t run,” I said sadly.

“I could give you a lift.” There it was, the classic serial killer move – find a woman stranded on the highway and offer her a lift. Of course, the clerk could have described the man with the suspenders, his car, and maybe even his license plate. But then again, maybe not.

“I don’t have any money,” I said. Actually, I had some, though not quite five dollars. And no credit card.

“I think I have an extra fill-in-the-blank at home in my garage,” the gentleman offered. “We could get that.”

“I think I’d be more comfortable waiting here,” I said. That was code for, “If you think I’m getting in your car with you and going to your house, you’re crazier than I think you are.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said and drove off, leaving me alone with the clerk. Who, after all, might have been a serial killer. Could you dump a body into one of those enormous tanks that hold all the gas for the station? I wondered.

Before I could really work up a scenario (or figure out what to do about it), the man with the suspenders returned, which I really hadn’t expected. He installed the fill-in-the-blank and I was on my way. He never even gave me his name, which made me wonder if he had even really existed. I made it home safely, vowing never to travel again alone, or at night, or with less than five dollars in my pocket. Though of course I have, many times since. Shows you how cocky you get when you survive an encounter with a serial killer.

 

Spelunking Through My Life

I hear that nowadays Girl Scouts go in for computer programming and rooftop gardening. I’m not knocking that, but back in the day it was hiking, camping – and caving.

(Exploring caves is also known as “spelunking,” which is a wonderful word. It sounds like a quarter dropped into a toilet.)

You might think that spelunking is a young person’s game, but that’s simply not true. I didn’t stop caving when I got too old for Girl Scouts. There are plenty of caves that adults – even seniors – can enjoy.

Here’s a look at a few of my caving exploits through the ages.

Young and stupid. One of the caving trips my troop took was to Carter Caves, in Olive Hill, KY. The site featured a number of caves, including “wild” caves (those not improved for tours). X-Cave and Saltpetre Cave were fun, especially after we took the tours a few times and could chime in at appropriate points in the guide’s spiel.

But Bat Cave was my favorite. Just like it sounds, Bat Cave was a nesting site for the little mammals, though the tours were carefully scheduled to give the bats priority use of the location during their favorite times. It was one of those wild caves, so the tour included rough terrain, tight squeezes (invariably named “Fat Man’s Misery” in this and every other cave), and crawling on our bellies through guano.

Which is why I say we were young and stupid. Guano is bat shit, and inhaling the dust from it can lead to respiratory problems including histoplasmosis. And there was a lot of bat shit. (Today’s rooftop gardeners may be interested to know that guano is an excellent organic fertilizer. Just don’t inhale it.)

Grown-up and adventurous. During our many back-and-forth trips to Philadelphia, my husband and I kept seeing a sign for Laurel Caverns, which is south of Pittsburgh, and just off the Turnpike. After years of saying, “We’ve got to stop there sometime,” we finally did.

Laurel Caverns featured a developed sandstone cave and miles of wild limestone caves. At the time it was possible to go into the undeveloped caves without a guide, if you had the proper gear. (I understand this is no longer so.) So Dan and I donned hard hats with lamps, clasping our rudimentary maps, and squeezed through the small hole that led to subterranean wonders.

Limestone caves feature stalactites (hanging down), stalagmites (reaching up), and flowstone formations. This one also featured boulders. Huge boulders. Boulders the size of houses, in some cases. As we clambered over those, my foot slipped between two rocks and I heard a crack. “Uh-oh,” I said (or words to that effect) as I waited for the pain to hit. It never did. Rather than breaking my leg, I had merely dislodged a couple of stones that clanked together while rolling downslope.

And that was a Very Good Thing, since such injuries required hauling a person out in a basket through that little squeeze hole I mentioned. Also, you could stay down there a long time, since it wasn’t till the end of the day that the owners matched up the list of spelunkers with the cars in the parking lot and went looking for anyone missing.

Older and slower. One of my favorite caves ever was Kartchner Caverns, in Benson, AZ, not far from Tucson. Discovered in 1974, the cave was developed with an eye to preserving it, while still allowing access to young, old, and handicapped alike. After entering through an adit (being a cruciverbalist as well as a spelunker, I was thrilled), you follow level paths, ramps, and switchbacks into the depths, culminating in a gigantic feature that looked like (and was named after) a pipe organ.

There the guides, after giving proper warning, turned off all the lights so the cavers could experience total darkness. (Actually, most caves do this, but they warn you first. Although if darkness and claustrophobia bother you, spelunking is probably not for you.)

All in all, it was the best preserved and most accessible cave I’ve ever seen. While wild caves are amazing and awesome and self-guided tours are adventurous and exciting, there’s something to be said for caves that invite anyone to enjoy.

And when we came to the surface and reentered the visitor center, there waiting to take their turns in the netherworld were one group of bikers and one of – you guessed it – Girl Scouts.

When the Husband’s Away…

“Bye, honey!” My husband is leaving on a vacation. “When will you be back? I need to schedule the dancing boys!”

OK. Not really. I mean, I don’t really invite male strippers in when my husband is away. But I really do say that.

You see, we’re totally on board with the idea of separate vacations, and we feel comfortable making jokes about nonexistent indiscretions. Once Dan sent me flowers and signed the card “Raoul,” my imaginary lover/pool boy. (Didn’t that stir them up at the office!)

We take plenty of vacations together, when we can, but that doesn’t always work out. One of us can get time off, but the other can’t. He has to go do home repairs for his mother and I need to cat-sit for a honeymooning couple.

“You mean he’s going to let you go?” a coworker asked on learning that I was going to Florida for a week without my husband. I ignored the “let you go” part, which would have taken a long explanation that would probably have confused her anyway. I tackled the other assumption instead.Farewell at the station

“If I were going to cheat on him, I wouldn’t have to go to Florida to do it. I could do it much more conveniently right here in town.” At least I think that was the assumption she was making. Perhaps she simply thought that a woman alone in Florida should fear for her safety and that my husband would worry if he weren’t there to protect me. (Oh, well, there went my reputation again!)

While I do think that separate vacations are Good Things, it’s not for the usual reasons. Most separate vacationers rhapsodize about the freedom of being alone and the sweetness of coming back together afterwards.

No one ever mentions that a couple may have very different vacation styles. I’m not talking here about when one person wants to lounge on the beach sipping tropical drinks with little umbrellas to keep the drinks dry, while the other hankers for rugged adventure with primitive sanitary facilities and the thrill of potentially being eaten by bears.

What I’m talking about is the way two people can go with each other to the same place and still be on separate planets. Take me and my husband, for example. Before we leave, I like to do research (yes, I am just a wee bit compulsive). I like to know what the attractions in the area are, when they’re open, how much they cost, and the best way to get there. Dan likes to wing it.

Once we’re there, though (wherever “there” is), he likes to schedule each day. And sometimes over-schedule, a practice that a friend refers to as The Bataan Fun March. I like to plan what we do based on the weather, how tired we are, and which are our individual must-see trade-offs.

Then there are souvenirs. Dan likes to buy something at each place we visit, even if it’s something he’ll likely never use, like a cowboy hat. I prefer to purchase that one perfect item that reminds me of our whole trip. Although I will admit a weakness for shot glasses with the names of cities and scenic places on them. But I use those.

Packing is another issue. He underpacks, and I overpack. (Though not to the extent of stereotype woman-with four-suitcases-and-two-trunks.) I just like to have clothes for any type of weather and shoes for any type of terrain we may encounter. Dan packs as little as possible to leave room for the aforementioned souvenirs.

In short, we can easily make each other crazy. Stroll through the airport or run to the gate and then sit for hours? Visit museums or go on walking tours? Take a day off to relax in the hotel pool or squeeze in more sightseeing? A together-vacation is fraught with potential pitfalls.

So what do I recommend? A judicious blend of together and separate. After all, vacations are about variety, aren’t they? A different environment, different experiences, different destinations? We spend most of our lives together. A week apart can be a refreshing change!

 

 

An Arizona Ghost Town

My husband and I were vacationing in Arizona when we encountered a ghost town.

It wasn’t the ordinary sort of ghost town, neither the kind with re-created western storefronts and actors playing at gunfights and saloons that serve sarsaparilla nor the kind that are abandoned towns of the 1930s or 50s that sport  completely empty streets, dilapidated houses, decrepit main streets, and sand-filled parks and parking lots.desert road

This was something else again.

We were in Arizona for the silliest of reasons. We had decided to visit the small town of Benson, based entirely on the name of the theme song of the little-known sci-fi movie Dark Star. It’s a charming little country-and-western number on the topic of special relativity. Here’s the best recording of it I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2F0dHVZAm8

It turned out to be a swell vacation. Very relaxing. The nearest city of any size was Tucson, Benson was surrounded by scenic mountains, there were an excellent restaurant and a great diner (also a noted barbecue joint, but it was closed because the chef had cut himself), and not a great deal else.

But Benson was a good jumping-off point for assorted day trips. One of the best was to Kartchner Cavern (http://azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/), which was the most accessible and best-preserved cave I’ve ever seen, but also a delight because the tour guide actually used the word “adit,” which is usually encountered only in crossword puzzles.

On this particular day we were visiting the copper-mining town of Bisbee. Noted for its historical significance and its artist-colony vibe, Bisbee was a delightful town to explore. There was a bicycle race going through town that day, which provided some very intriguing sights of the buff-guys-in-skintight-shorts variety. I also indulged my fondness for semiprecious stones. They are available all over the southeastern Arizona area, but Bisbee’s shops provided some of the most attractive examples. I bought an iolite bracelet at one. (A little bluer than amethyst, iolite is lovely set in silver http://www.minerals.net/gemstone/iolite_gemstone.aspx.)

At some point during our ramble around Bisbee, I had picked up a real estate paper, and read in it about a restaurant/bar/orchard for sale, complete with liquor, as the owners had abandoned it. It sounded unusual and interesting, and on the way out of town we passed what had to be the same property.

It inspired us. We started daydreaming about how we could buy the property with our friends Sandy and Hugh. Sandy and I could run the bar while Dan and Hugh tended the pecan orchard and baked pies. Or Dan and I could run the restaurant while Hugh and Sandy set up stables for boarding horses. Or we could all drink up the liquor and abandon the place as the previous owners had.

Our next destination that day was Chiricahua National Monument, a place of spectacular formations that looked like God had played Jenga with rocks. We were chatting and driving merrily along when I noticed the gas gauge. It was at zero. Not near zero. Not approaching zero. The needle was actually on the red line.

We looked at our map. Nothing. No thing. Not a thing between us and Chiricahua. Not even a symbol that indicated food, gas, and lodging.

Actually, there was something between us and Chiricahua. Miles and miles of nothing.

It’s pretty well known that when the needle hits the red line, there is still actually some small amount of gas left in the car. The thing is, you never know how much or how far it will take you. In our case, it looked like the rental car might take us just a little closer to Absolutely Nothing.

As couples will, Dan and I began to bicker. Who should have reminded whom to get gas on the way out of Bisbee? Would driving faster or slower conserve more fuel? Could we arrange to run out of gas on a downhill slope so the car would be easier to push? What were the odds of getting a cell phone signal? Why were we so stupid, and unlucky, and screwed?

Then, ahead in the not-too-distant distance, a smudge appeared on the horizon. As we crept nearer, the smudge resolved into a few lonely buildings. We both started humming the Twilight Zone theme.

It was a town. Not much of a town and not on the map, which still indicated that we were nowhere. But it was there, and it was a town with two buildings.

And one of them was a gas station. (The other was a post office, which I can’t imagine was very busy.) So we got gas and a couple of cold drinks and didn’t have to die of heatstroke walking forward to Chiricahua or back to Bisbee. We thanked the attendant (who was not Rod Serling) kindly and went on our way, letting the smudge of a town disappear in our rearview mirror.

I suppose I should have asked the clerk’s name, or the town’s name, but it never occurred to me to do so. We were simply awed and grateful and more than a little amazed.

And we decided that the moral of the story was this: It’s better to be smart, but if you can’t do that, it’s even better to be lucky.