The best way to start your day!
The best way to start your day!
Sam’s earnest pronouncement threw both Wood and me.
Wood: “The Pink Lady? Is Rizzo going to pop out of the trees and show us the worst thing she could do?”
Sam (perplexed): “What’s a Rizzo?”
It took a beat for Sam’s question to sink in.
Me (my coffee forgotten in my hand, disbelief coloring my words): “John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, the best high school musical of all time?”
Sam (still confused): “No…Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens were in High School Musical.”
Me (somewhere the chat circuits must have gotten crossed): “What?”
Did the Squirrels spike the coffee before the adults made it downstairs? Or did Sam turn into a conversational wizard overnight?
Wood (cocking his head): “Sandy, Danny Zuko, Kenickie, Frenchy? Grease is the word. The movie Grease. You’ve never seen it? The Pink Ladies are a clique of girls who rule Rydell High, Rizzo is their tough but tender leader. Sound familiar?”
Sam (shaking his head): “Never heard of it, is it new?”
Me (trying hard not to hit my head against something really hard): “No, it came out around nineteen-seventy-seven or seventy-eight? Somewhere in there.”
Sam (face lighting up, doing fast math): “Oh, that’s why I haven’t heard of it!… It came out eighteen years before I was born. So I should see it?”
Wood and I shared a look. Unlike Sam, we couldn’t make that claim, we might have only been six months old at the time – but it still counted.
Me (muttering): “What do they teach in schools now?”
Wood (with a sigh): “Yes, you need to watch it.”
Me (shaking my head, trying to clear this conversation out): “So if the Pink Lady you’re talking about isn’t Rizzo, then who’s yours?”
Sam (who looked like he finally found a piece of solid ground – glanced around and lowered his voice): “The Pink Lady comes down Pumpkin Mountain on foggy days searching for hikers she can lure astray. Once you’re off the trail, she runs ahead and then calls out for you to follow her voice. When you are well and truly lost she vanishes into the mist, leaving you to the elements. My friend’s, cousin’s best friend swears he met her once!”
This story doesn’t sound fishy at all.
Wood (trying hard not to laugh): “How did your friend’s, cousin’s best friend get away?”
Sam (earnestness painting his features): “Sat down in the middle of the trail and refused to budge an inch.”
Wood (clearly enjoying the story): “Did she still try to lure him off the trail?”
Sam (his mouth turning up on one side while he spun his yarn): “Sure did! Promised to show him something special, something secret – all he had to do was follow her. He said ‘No thank you, ma’am.’ And waited three and a half hours for the fog to lift then ran down the mountain. Said the whole time he sat there it felt like she was watching him.”
Staring off into space I kept half an ear on the exchange; something felt familiar here, but I could almost grasp it.
Me (the niggling suspicion closer now): “All of her victims are male, right? They hope the ‘something special’ might require nudity?”
Sam (trying to keep his smile under control): “How did you guess? My friends and I think she must have coaxed those two guys from our high school over the cliff – they knew the area to well to walk over it accidentally. That’s why my friend’s cousin’s bestie didn’t follow her. He remembered the stories. Then about four years ago The Pink Lady upped her game – persuaded three brothers, hikers, to chase after her. The rangers found them a few days later at the base of the same cliff. That’s when people around here stopped hiking Pumpkin Mountain, and Hilltop instituted a new safety policy.”
Wood (looking incredulous): “Seriously? Safety first? That’s the moral of your story?”
Sam (ears turning pink and a corporate demeanor descending over his countenance): “Hilltop Hotel will not be renting any boats today. The weather will likely worsen which may lead to disorientation on unfamiliar terrain. So we advise, for the safety of our guests, that they follow the well-marked paths within the vicinity of Hilltop. We are sorry for any inconvenience this causes, blah, blah, blah. The official spiel is boring!”
Wood (smiling): “I agree. But why do they call her The Pink Lady?”
Sam (still smiling): “My friend’s cousin’s bestie says she wore a bright pink shirt when she tried to tempt him.”
Definitely, my Stalker, Tiffany Grindle but whatever else felt familiar about Sam’s story darted just out of my grasp. It reminded me of that annoying sensation when a word is on the tip of your tongue, (or hippocampus in this case) but refuses recollection.
(This is utterly not my photo from Grease – here’s where it came from.)
Swimming reluctantly up to consciousness, it took several moments for my brain to register the stomping outside my door as the reason why Mr. Sandman’s spell broke. Burrowing into the warm covers, I hoped a speck of his sand remained to help.…
….When the shouting started just outside my window I gave up all pretense of sleep, unrolling myself I headed to the shower, trying to drown out the voices of the unhappy campers.
When I emerged fresh as a daisy from my shower (though much less perky), I deduced the Party of Much Yelling would no be heading out anytime soon. The continued cacophony showed no sign of abating, Sue’s flashlight died; it wasn’t Rudy’s fault that the extension bar of his pack was missing; Paul couldn’t find his first aid kit; Why couldn’t they take a boat there and skip the hike.
I decided if this many individuals were up at the crack of dawn coffee must be present somewhere. Where else could they be getting enough energy to shout this much? Descending the stairs in search of this magical bean based elixir, barely controlled chaos met my eyes when my toes touched the lobby.
Some sort of school outing was the only explanation I could think of as to why there were so many teenagers milling about at such an hour. And from my count, the adults did not enjoy majority status in the Party of Much Yelling. On the upside, their frenetic faces lent credence to my coffee theory, the artificial stimulation it provided was their only hope of winning the day.
Following my barely firing logic circuits, I searched. The dining room? Nope. The lobby? No dice. But I did notice a trend, a steady stream of parental types sipping steaming cups while walking thru the front entrance. Deducing my precious first cup lay just outside the doors I brushed past the other adults into the crisp morning air. Where I beheld the most beautiful sight, an island of sixteen airpots, featuring eight different kinds of brewed coffee.
A sullen teen tried to cut in front of me, but the judicious use of the stink eye (I might smell like a rose, but my attitude currently featured their thorns) sent him scurrying to the end of the line.
Cup in hand, the aroma helped me focus on the world beyond the shouty people. And the first thing I spied? Wood sitting alone at the end of the porch wholly engrossed in his phone.
Weaving my way past yet more teens, I managed to catch a glimpse of the screen a moment before he noticed me.
Me (mock sternness): “Laney will kill you if she gets a hold of your phone.”
Wood (pleading): “It’s the Manchester Derby, and she isn’t awake yet.”
Me (laughing): “Lucky for you.”
Wood: “It’s the eightieth minute…”
Me: “Watch your football. I have coffee to drink.”
So we sat together enjoying our harmless vices. I thought herding kittens posed a monumental chore, watching ten adults trying to wrangle thirty adolescents? They wished for some as simple as kittens! Then it hit me. The kids weren’t kittens. They were squirrels! The adults were attempting to corral squirrels. The Squirrels sheer exuberance meant they could not stay silent or still long enough for the chaperones to get a handle on the situation. Without any stake in the dramedy and a cup of coffee in hand – the scene provided high entertainment.
Wood’s ‘whoop’ of victory pulled me back (his cheer didn’t even dent the din around us).
Me: “City win?”
Wood: “Of course.”
Me: “Laney will skin you if she figures out you’re watching matches up here. How are you, by the way?”
Wood (slipping the phone into his pocket): “The office bought satellite phones, so they could get a hold of us if something urgent crops up with a patient while on vacation. I reimburse them back for the data I use. Kids wake you up?”
Me (sipping my coffee): “Yeah. My window faces this way and stealthy they are not. But neither were we at their age.”
While we reminisced about days gone by the Party of Much Yelling’s shouting reached a crescendo. When the Adults of the Party of Much Yelling were satisfied they’d collected all their Squirrels, the entire party put forth one last effort to wake the whole hotel at this unholy hour, before filing onto the path and out of sight. A stunned silence descended in their wake. Even the birds took a moment to savor it before a tentative chirp tested the morning air. The only artificial noise left? The soft gurgling of the coffee pot under my fingertips, The Party of Much Yelling emptied them all, well not entirely – the decaf remained untouched.
Wood and I wandered back inside looking for a refill, spying a pot behind the front desk we went to beg for a refill. Fortunately for us, Sam was more than willing to oblige.
Sam: “So what’s on the agenda for you guys today?”
Me (adding milk to my coffee): “I thought I might rent a boat and hike Pumpkin Mountain again. Meditation is easier without dogs…”
Sam (tensing up while shaking his head): “We aren’t renting any boats today. We don’t want you to meet The Pink Lady.”
No need of rose colored glasses this evening! The sunset over the water was spectacular. Tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll tackle Pumpkin Mountain on my own.
Wood: “Seriously what were you thinking?”
Me (breathing better now): “Trying to meet you…see the top.”
Right then my stomach, feeling an ally near, decided to let loose a loud protest of its own. The traitor.
Wood: “Have you eaten?”
Me (trying not to look shifty): “Breakfast.”
Wood stalked over to my pack, flipped it open and retrieved my lunch which he then proceeded to thrust in my direction with a curt, “Eat.”
Feeling it better to follow orders than argue I started eating. While doing so, I tried to figure out how I could shake off Wood and the others and check out the last two sites on the mountain. Bookies would give better odds to Stockard Channing reprising her role of Rizzo than to me shaking Wood off and climbing the rest of Pumpkin Mountain alone.
Beatrice, trying to break the mood (or divert focus, I shot her a grateful smile) started debating the merits of different spots with Sarah for her geocache. For one bright moment, I thought Beatrice decided on one of the camping sites I hadn’t reached, but they deemed even the unofficial spots entirely too dull. So they (plus Laney who’d they sucked into the debate) huddled around Beatrice’s camera reviewing pictures of potential hiding places (Wood still stood over me glowering).
In the end, they ruled the perfect place was a pool of water just a hair off the trail, next to a brief but vigorous waterfall. With that decision made (and my lunch demolished) we set off down the mountain with Beatrice leading the way this time. Sarah and Laney following closely behind while still debating different cache spots Beatrice rejected. Wood followed a pace behind slowly warming up to their conversation. Once again I brought up the rear. Only this time I wasn’t alone, Bert and Ernie sensed my habitation of Wood’s doghouse, decided to keep me company. Both had more than a passing familiarity with the institution.
Feeling much better after being watered and fed (and no longer feeling a sharp stabby sensation in my side, lungs, and back) my mind turned back to the cairn conundrum.
Me (interjecting in a lull): “Beatrice did you take pictures of the last two campsites?”
Sarah (laughing answered first): “Nope we didn’t. They practically shouted ‘here’s the cache’ to anyone passing by. They’d get muggled in a pair of seconds.”
Beatrice (rolling her eyes, pitching in): “She just enjoys using the word muggled instead of tampered. But really, they weren’t proper sites anyways. Strictly bivvies.”
My utterly blank look expressed my ignorance to her.
Beatrice: “Bivvie short for bivouac. An improv campsite directly under the stars. The last two spots were barely creases in the rock. They’d keep you from sleeping on the trail, but not much else.”
Me (nodding): “How about the summit?”
Sarah (handing back Beatrice’s camera to me): “More than enough room for a tiny folk festival, if you don’t mind bruised shins.”
Me (scanning through the photos): “Doesn’t look practical for digging…out a fire pit, too many rocks.”
Sarah: “You’d need to be careful. I don’t think you can dig more than an inch or two down. There’s enough dirt for wildflowers to grow, but not enough for trees.”
Somehow this started a new debate (I missed the transition) between the three ladies on the weight to comfort ratio one needed to assess when packing for a hike. I fell back processing their intelligence when Wood paused unexpectedly in front of me. I nearly plowed right into his back.
Wood (a wicked look in his eye): “Morticia, what happened to your pack?”
Me (starting to shrug it off): “What? Did it tear?”
Wood (resuming his forward locomotion): “No, it weighed a ton this morning – now it doesn’t.”
Me (tap dancing): “I ditched the weight so I could catch up to you guys faster.”
Wood (eyes narrowing): “Really? Then we can pick up the ten pounds of salt when we pass by it again since the shovel’s still in your pack.”
Me (mentally wishing Wood was less observant): “I was pulling your leg this morning, I used water jugs for weight, I just poured it out. Voila! Instant featherweight.”
Wood (slowly nodding his head): “Sure, you poured the weight out. On what?”
Me (sweating): “What do you mean?”
Wood (grinning): “Never mind. Do you want to hear my idea about how to dissuade Little Ben from building the pet cemetery in the wrong spot? I Guarantee it will be Fun!”
Thrilled at the new conversational direction, I listened to The Plan. With elements of the absurd, possibility of arrest, precise timing and rubber ducks – The Brace Affair held up the high standard that the Promise of Fun required. It caused Laney to roll her eyes, Sarah pretended to plug her ears with her fingers and Beatrice to hint she looked great in black – Fun indeed.
The Plan (and its refinement) dominated the rest of the conversation down the mountain. Pausing only once when Beatrice hid her cache and noted the GPS coordinates in a small book, we still cut it a bit fine returning to the hotel.
Fortunately, ‘Not Sam’ hadn’t loosened the hounds on our trail just yet.
…real life cousin!
(My view while I ran up the trail.)
The steady thrumming in my toes settled back into the familiar pins and needles sensation the farther from the glen I walked. No longer distracted by my digits and not hearing anyone calling my name (calling is such a tame word – hollering, bellowing or cursing it might be more accurate if they couldn’t find me) allowed my mind to mull over today’s work.
Time coupled with several good soakings would leech the salt into the soil, rendering the contents of the cairn inert (or at least transforming a tiger into a tabby). One canteen of water, while a start, would not suffice to produce instant results, so the continued pricking along my toes didn’t worry me.
The overall level of energy (or vita as it was technically known) still emanating – did.
Reentering the picnic area, I sat in the spot Wood vacated earlier, trying to reason my way through this riddle. I’d started to pull out my brown bag lunch when a thought struck me with such force it launched me out of the clearing and onto the main trail, my lunch uneaten. The rise in elevation (and my fitness level) wouldn’t allow a flat out run, but I pushed myself hard, ignoring the protests my legs and lungs lodged against me.
What if I salted the wrong bones?
The Pumpkin Mountain Trail didn’t connect with any other trail systems in the park, which meant mountaineers rarely trafficked it, enthusiasts found the trail too easy and novices avoided it due to the inconvenient trailhead (if you didn’t talk to the locals). Taken together these conditions created an underutilized remote location, which fit the select set of criteria needed for the unsuspecting to vanish in. The odds of two illicit graves along one trail – astronomical – but not outside the realm of possibility.
Four more unofficial spots lay beyond the one I’d found the cairn by and I needed to appraise them. So onward and upward I pushed myself, pitting myself against my companions in a contest they didn’t know they raced, waiting for a whisper of vita to prick me. Ignoring my whistling lungs and the lead settling into my legs, my eyes only saw the dirt of the trail while I strained to feel the faintest ripple of energy. I needed to reach the top.
I’d past two camps without so much as a twinge with just two to go – when Bert and Ernie ran into me (literally, they just about knocked me on my ass).
Wood (breathless called): “Phoebe?”
Me (unable to do more than pant): ….
Wood bounded over, removed my pack and tossed it aside, then pushed me to sit down on the trail. Bert and Ernie thrilled to have someone at tongue level started converging when Wood ordered them to “Sit and stay.” Without changing his tone, he started ordering me around, “Slow down. Take a deep breath, now another. Keep taking them.” He kneeled down in the dirt next to me felt for my pulse while pantomiming in and out trying to help me regain control of my breath. It took five minutes for the rest of the crew to catch up with us. When they did, concern filled their faces.
Wood (looked me dead in the eye): “Phoebe what were you thinking, running up a mountain?”
Laney: “Wood, give her minute.”
He’d spied my dubious attack of the switchbacks, which caused him to mount his own swift descent to meet me – seems a beet red face while whistling like a tea kettle worries a physician. Who knew? Since he used my actual first name (which is the equivalent of a parent middle naming you), I knew I was in trouble. History told me he would require an explanation for what he deemed reckless behavior and he could sniff out BS better than the boys.
All I could think of? I’d fallen short.