Ranger Lade did not appear to appreciate the interruption (which was a bit rich since I’d bet my eye teeth he’d been eavesdropping). With an eye roll, “Urban legend.”
Beatrice looked up from her maps, cocking her head to one side, “Pink Lady? Worried about some wild woman living in the mountains attacking you Wood? Don’t worry Phoebe and I will keep you safe.”
I laughed, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Wood, shaking his head and smiling, agreed that we were fierce indeed when riled. He then went on and gave Beatrice the shorthand version of the Pink Lady Legend. With Ranger Lade contributing his own opinions by huffing at every feature of interest.
Deciding to poke the bear I asked the grumpiest Ranger a question, “What about the two local kids who went over the cliff? They grew up here and knew the area. You don’t think they followed her?”
Ranger Lade’s lip curled up, “No I don’t. They’d been drinking, and the weather was bad. That’s all that happened.” After answering he immediately started typing again on his computer again. But the niggling feeling I’d had when Sam told us his tall tale begun bothering me.
Ignoring his hint, I pressed a bit harder, “Do you know how her legend started?”
Trying to put me off, he answered dismissively, “She’s just a story locals tell to scare tourists.”
He seriously thought a pat explanation like that would stop me? Especially when I was so close to catching hold of the idiot idea earworm?
“But really, did a woman ever go missing up here?”
He endeavored to ignore me for a moment, rubbing his leg, but I moved to stand directly across the counter from him (channeling my inner Morticia Addams – no one ignored her). Realizing I wouldn’t let him off the hook he opted for condescension when finally answered. Glancing between Wood and Beatrice, trying to enlist their support, he finally responded, “No female has ever been reported missing from the Pumpkin Mountain area. The Pink Lady is just an urban legend that refuses to die. Locals use it to scare the tourists. Tourists use it to look less stupid when they get lost, ‘ It’s not our fault. We were following the woman wearing the white dress.’ They don’t even recount the story correctly. That should tell you all you need to know about its validity.” Viewing my stunned silence as confirmation of his verbal victory, he aimed a celebratory sneer at me – in his crowing he forgot about his potential recruits.
“Well, isn’t it nice that you’re here to set us straight Ranger Lade,” Beatrice replied while gathering her carefully sorted stacks into a single pile in front of her, “I’ll take these off your hands.” With the entire set of old maps in hand, she turned and marched out the door leaving the Ranger gaping in her wake.
He started to say something when Wood cut him off, “Try sitting with a heating pad on your thigh, should help the aching left over from that break.” With that sensible bit of advice Wood and I headed towards the door when Ranger Lade’s suspicious voice stopped us, “How did you know, I’d broken my leg?” A small smile played over Wood’s face, “I made an educated guess.” (I’d already walked thru the door but turned back to watch)
Ranger Lade nodded, uncertainty written on his face (since Wood’s helpful tone diametrically opposed Beatrice’s), “Thanks for the advice. I’ll try it.”
Wood nodded, “No problem. But tell me exactly how far did you follow The Pink Lady last year before you broke your leg?”
Ranger Lade turned beet red and got the word “How” out before he shut up and channeled his inner thundercloud.
“Never mind. You followed her just far enough.” With Wood’s parting shot hanging in the air he closed the door, and we started retracing our earlier rambling route back towards the hotel.
I was grateful they’d lept into the conversational fray since Ranger Lade’s answer had sucked the breath from my lungs. Not due to the rudeness of it, though that was breathtaking (I wasn’t exactly blameless I know), it was his actual words which caused my brain to combust.
A woman in a white dress….a Woman In White….oh god.
The manager, deciding we’d lingered at the front desk too long talking to Sam, swung by to make sure everything was copasetic (the way Sam clammed up, perhaps making sure he wasn’t telling inappropriate tales?). Not wanting to get him in hot water, Wood and I headed into the dining room to relieve the complimentary breakfast bar of some bacon.
“Did you really want to go back up Pumpkin Mountain?” Wood asked while we surveyed the offerings.
Really I was just covering my bases. Last night I’d perused the pictures the others had taken on the hike, which made me feel confident that I’d salted the correct spot. But the cairn’s unsettling strong vita still bugged me, so I thought I might take a second look until Sam nixed the plan with his disturbing tale.
“Thought about it, but it seems out of the question now. No big deal.”
Our conversation sputtered out when we observed what lay underneath the serving domes. Runny eggs, limp bacon, burnt hash browns and sweaty sausages put me off every warm food offering. I opted instead for lime yogurt, a tiny box of children’s cereal, a bowl of fruit and the largest cup of coffee I could finagle. Wood, who’d replaced his intestinal tract with that of a goat’s in med school, piled his plate high with every item I deemed too dubious to venture even a nibble of. Beatrice joined us in line while Wood was making pancakes at the griddle station. I thought she ignored our ‘Good Mornings’ until I watched her double down on coffee then grab two sticky strawberry danishes.
If Beatrice’s breakfast was any indication, I wasn’t the only one the Party Of Much Yelling rudely woke up this morning.
After making a respectable dent in our chosen breakfasts (with only Beatrice feeling the need to lick her plate, we didn’t judge) we grabbed yet more coffee and headed to the lobby. Wood wandered over to the large map next to the front counter, “Morticia, Bee want to walk breakfast off? We have a couple of hours before Laney wakes up.”
Beatrice stood next to Wood, tracing a line with her finger, “What about Sarah?”
Replying, “Probably about the same.” The hot toddies we drank last night were stiff, and she has zero tolerance.
Wood left a note for Laney in their room (Bert and Ernie refused to budge from the bed), and I left another at the front desk for Sarah while letting Sam know where we were hiking to this morning (safety first after all). He seemed relieved we’d decided to head in the exact opposite direction of The Pink Lady and her mountain. In fairness, our muscles (I say our, it might only have been mine) were sore from yesterday’s hike.
The walk to the ranger station was a relaxed two-mile ramble, due mainly to the efforts of an Eagle Scout who did an excellent job restoring the path. About an hour later our leisurely stroll deposited us in front of a sizable rustic building featuring friendly but official sign proclaiming it as the Ross Lake Ranger Station.
“Do you think they sell any maps inside?” Beatrice wondered out loud.
“Better question. Are they open?” Spying several banks of illuminated lights thru the windows, we decided to try the doors. When the opened easily under our hands, we headed inside.
The ranger seated at the counter did not seem overly pleased to see us (people don’t generally tend to frown with happiness). “Can I help you?”, he queried.
“Hi. I was looking to see if you had any other maps of the area I could purchase. I own all the current Forest Service…..” It seemed Beatrice found a kindred spirit. The Ranger perked right up when she started her inquiry.
Asking her to wait a moment, he limped away from the counter, past a desk piled high with papers, to a row of filing cabinets lining the back wall. Instead of opening a drawer he slipped something off the top and returned the counter, “We’ve had these hanging around forever, to new for collectors, not accurate enough for hikers and regulations say I can’t toss them. You can take any you like.” With the amount of dust Beatrice blew off the two-inch stack, I was willing to believe they’d been sitting there since the sixties.
Wood and I wandered around the large airy room, but other than maps, hiking licenses, and other official paperwork there wasn’t much for the nontechnical tourists. However, the happy noises issuing from Beatrice while she sorted thru the dusty stack provided more than enough entertainment.
Leaning against the counter, trying to figure out the method behind Beatrice’s choices (without crowding her) – I turned to idle speculation “I wonder if Sam believed his tall tale.”
Wood looked up from the drawer of maps he was thumbing thru, “Hard to say. But I think he just might.” Closing the drawer, he joined me at the counter and eyed the Ranger working between Beatrice and us. “Hey, Ranger Lade, what do you think of The Pink Lady? Fact or fiction?”
So this was the view of the lake at Noon-ish…
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.”