To Die Laughing
Yep. That’s how I reckon I’ll go out of this absurd world: in a fit of uncontrollable guffaws that become my final gasps. I’ve had some epic fits of laughter. There was my car-honk-filled, accidental, mini-tricycle pedal across the Golden Gate Bridge (and back) (I was 35) and the middle school math class hiccup that coincided with a cough and ended with my desk upside-down on top of me. There was the quadruple-entendre that sent me to the emergency room at 2 am in Ho Chi Minh city. (I’ll retell that one at the end of this as a bonus*.) There was Paul’s suggestion that the best flavor for Communion wafers is “Sweet and Saviory” and an infamous passing of gas that was mistaken for a gunshot and resulted in a broken glass. You get the idea. Laughing at absurdity has become an important coping mechanism for my “civilized” times off the water and on land. This summer’s Appalachian road trip, for which we rented an RV to visit friends and family around my old stomping and hollering grounds in the Shenandoah Valley brought this death wish, absurd in-and-of-itself, to the fore of my mind.
I should interject here that we’ve had a long-standing, adult game surrounding RV names, coincidentally initiated by my soon-to-be-married friend mentioned below. You can try it on the road yourself. When you see an RV just mentally add the word “anal” to the front of it. So, the classic Airstream becomes Anal Airstream. Then photo the RV with name showing and send it to other players as a challenge. If anyone ever finds an RV name more absurdly funny than Coachmen’s Leprechaun for heaven’s sake share it with me! The laugh might kill me, but it’ll be worth it for the good of humanity. Ok, back to our absurdist road trip . . . Let’s start in Reno.
We arrived for our Reno-to-Virginia flight after escaping the choking wildfire smoke around Oregon’s Crater Lake. We could barely see Lake Tahoe after lift-off due to that big area of woods also burning. From my cramped window seat (that I wasn’t duct-taped to by the crew since I amicably conceded to donning a mask) I considered the sad absurdity that right when we need all our trees most to cache some of our excess CO2, the entire West seems to be on fire and emitting even more carbon. And there I was (guiltily) being propelled across the country by a fossil fuel. I distracted my conscience by pondering the message I just received from my dear friends who were set to get married on the edge of Yosemite as soon as we returned from the east coast. He asked if I could be on standby as their officiant since many wedding participants were dropping out due to the Delta variant and the wildfires. OK, I thought, I’ll have electricity and internet and plenty of free time in the RV, so I can surely compose a meaningful and personal ceremony for them. And I can trust that in my Appalachians there will be big green stands of Eastern Hemlock with singing wood thrushes to soothe my smoke-laden lungs and soul. (Oh yeah . . . foreshadowing for sure.) We landed in D.C. smack in the middle of Labor Day weekend and arrived to meet our RV, the Conquest by Gulf Stream, and its host in Arlington. That’s when things took a turn for the comically absurd.
Look, I know that just because the person welcoming you into your rental, sounds, and acts like Anthony Perkin’s title character in Psycho doesn’t mean he’s psychotic and that you’re going to find his long-dead mother in the RV. But when you notice that a lot of the RV is being held together by some unholy trinity of duct tape, zip ties, and caulk (of which our host sported fresh clumps floating on his arm and head hair) it does give you prejudiced pause. When he invites you inside the camper and you follow the scent of his sweat to the toilet where he points out the single dirty towel hanging for your use and over his shoulder you see a toilet lid crusted with yellow-brown stains, you do sort of feel a lump of hesitation in your throat . . . or you could just be gagging or going into anaphylactic shock. But you decide that you must take a leap of faith and besides, it was the middle of a holiday weekend. There were no other affordable options. We figured, heck, we’d been living out of our pick-up, pitching a tent every single day for the past six weeks and cooking on a tiny and precariously tippy, back-packing stove while dodging wildfires . . . this beater craft would still be a relative luxury for us. (When you see him, ask Paul about literally panning for golden-crispy tofu at Mt. Hood. Twice.) So, away from the curb we pulled with the A. Conquest! While adjusting the rearview mirror we saw the host semaphoring us to come back with some sort of gun in his hand. Naturally we turned around and sat drop jawed as he handed us a caulk gun loaded with a tube of caulk, and said sheepishly, “Here, ya might need this if it, ya know, rains.” We let Siri’s calm voice reassure us as we navigated to a Trader Joes on our way to our first night in the hemlock promising woods.
It was somewhere just outside the greater metro area that I realized my feet, nestled on the passenger seat floor where such feet belong in a normal reality, were . . . burning. It seemed that the engine was just one centimeter of synthetic felt away from my tootsies. Ah, well, I could stretch my legs up on the dash and turn up the A/C. I was comforted by the fact that our splurge of $200 worth of fresh and frozen food was stored, finally, in a real fridge/freezer that I’d been coveting all summer while making do with a cooler. We chugged up Massanutten mountain with the engine heating us but surely cooling that fridge. After finding a remote spot to call home for the night we opened the fridge to make a gourmet supper and found that the temperature inside the fridge was actually warmer than the RV. We checked and, sure enough, the fridge and everything else you’d plug in, like say a laptop to compose a wedding ceremony, was not getting any juice. Melted Indian dishes it was with a plan (sigh) to get a cooler and ice the next day. We were a bit dismayed when heating up our soggy samosas since there were no potholder type thingies which made using the only pan rather challenging given the state of its handle. It was dangling from the side like a boho earring. We found three small pots but no lids. The two available plates were just old, degraded plastic, frozen food containers and the solitary clay bowl was broken apart. I felt a rush of excitement when I unearthed what looked like a brand new, bubble wrapped wok (Could it be?!) with a lid. It was, however, a mirage. For some absurd reason, that only new item in the RV turned out to be a glass chandelier clearly designed for a non-moving house. We were too tired to care too much and eagerly set to making up our beds. At least our Hitchcockian host reassured us that there was a bag of linens for two in the stand-up closet. What do you think we found in that closet in the dark of night?
Oh, there was the bag of linens alright. When we unzipped that bag the stench came in on little cat feet and the unmistakable reek of cat pee clawed itself into every nook and cranny of the Conquest like a mean fog. As we pulled the linens out of that bag the presumable duvet cover was indeed quite moist, so we cast it aside in search of sheets since it was still summer. We did find one sheet. It was fitted, of course. Paul generously offered it up to me in the bunk above the cab. As I struggled in the dark to get it onto my mattress something was just . . . wrong. No matter which way I turned it, I’d get three corners on and then, before I could attach the fourth, the whole thing, mattress curling up like a rolled tongue, would spring off quite dramatically. Paul got a lantern working and it was apparent that our one sheet was the size and shape of a baby’s playpen. That left one stained (perhaps soiled but we chose not to inspect too closely) duvet that Paul spread over his bunk and one Minnesota-winter-weight sleeping bag that I spread over mine. That’s when I realized that I was no longer smelling cat pee. No, indeed. My bedding seemed to have been steeped in some fellow’s (our host’s?) body odor. Let’s just understate it and say we were not a pheromonal match. I drifted off to dreams I’m pleased not to recall and glad that the next day we could shower and likely mooch clean sheets from our friends in Luray.
Indeed, the next day we departed the Switzer home feeling jubilantly reconnected to dear childhood friends, smelling fresh, and each toting a spring-clean top sheet (double sized!) to call our own. Back up the mountain we went. We didn’t find the stand of hemlocks I was searching for, but we slept with the sweet sound of whippoorwills whip-or-willing. Unfortunately, we woke to a new smell; that of a gas leak. When Paul crawled under the Conquest, he not only found the leak in the line running from the gas tank to the generator that we dared not even use since it was coated with some unidentifiable black goop, but he also discovered that the entire exhaust system was being held up by new plastic zip ties that were quickly melting apart. Do you think our host left us a set of basic tools? Right. So, we gingerly drove (to avoid sparks while dripping gas) a slow back road to get to my sister’s where we had tools and cell service in case we needed to call for a tow. While Paul was McGyvering the leak, I made the shocking blackwater discovery. Yes, Captain Caulk left us with an almost completely full, fecal waste tank that, given everything so far, we were terrified of emptying ourselves lest we encounter a diminutive yet robust poopnado. Good thing we were used to doing our daily business in the bushes.
Night four was when stuff got really real. We decided to play it “safe” and hunker down in one location for the rest of the trip and let folks come to us. It’s a gorgeous location where my recently deceased sister’s cabin used to sit by a low, sandy bank along the Middle River. Still no dark groves of hemlock to be found but the rocky cliff and its reflection on the opposite bank were mesmerizing. I skinny-dip-snorkeled amid silver-scaled carp, howled at rising Jupiter and Saturn, and found all sorts of hidden images in the patterns of the cliff rock, including an absurdist mini-Mount Rushmore with a chicken head staring accusingly at the other quasi-presidents. I wondered if my sister had also visually extrapolated that in her many good years there before the river carried away the cabin sitting in the same spot as our RV. Hmmm. I realized that the cabin was just asking to be washed away in a storm given that towering cliff on the opposite bank.
You know that was the night they were calling for thunderstorms. I made a mental note to pay attention to the river if it started to rise. We woke around midnight to the sound of rain pummeling the roof of the Conquest. A few minutes later Paul was utilizing that trio of lidless pots to collect the three water leaks that had begun to drip onto his bed. As I enjoyed my high and dry bunk, I would peek out the window to gage the level of the river every time the lightening flashed. During one prolonged strike there was enough illumination for me to notice something odd directly above my body. One of the ugly white plastic tiles that our host had, lord knows why, affixed to the ceiling was sort of bulgy looking. I gently prodded it and immediately found myself under a waterfall. Funny how moisture reawakens old smells locked in bedding, I thought, as I muffled my giggles that were quickly turning to hysterics while Paul snored amid his rapidly filling pots. Here’s a video of me the next morning extracting the rest of the water . . . and, surprise, surprise . . . not Bates-mom corpse detritus but flecks of black mold from the ceiling.
(Can I just get back on the boat now?)
We dried out but the Avenger did not. A leak began from the grey water tank and soaked the entire carpeted floor of the RV. One could, with closed eyes and strong imaginative powers, pretend they were walking on a bed of wet moss while moving around in our little vessel of absurdity. I soaked up all the green, green, green of the not-on-fire trees and spent the rest of our time hiking but not finding a stand of hemlock trees robust enough to harbor the watery, flute like songs of wood thrushes. It turns out that, while the East’s trees are not burning like the West’s, there are other not funny and less visibly dramatic losses. Take my beloved Eastern Hemlocks. Did you know these trees once towered so tall that they were considered the giant sequoia of Eastern North America?! This quintessential Appalachian tree once stood up to 150 feet tall and lived, incredibly, for over half a millennium before our ancestors killed them for railroad ties. Today, an introduced sap-sucking bug, the East Asian woolly adelgid, is rapidly infesting and literally sucking the life from the dwindling hemlocks that remain. The bug thrives in a warming climate, made all the warmer locally by the loss of these critical shade-giving trees. Recent studies indicate that the sudden loss of the Eastern Hemlock could rapidly alter the carbon and water cycles of Southern Appalachian forest ecosystems. Scientists are scrambling to find a way to rid the forests of the aphid-like insect, including bio-controls like the introduction of a predatory beetle. But so far, no magic key has been found to open the lock of this problem.
I created this hanging sculpture in honor of the hemlock:
It consists of nine ceramic, padlocked locks, each containing one individually sculpted hemlock cone with seeds. Each has a tiny key which can be used to open the lock and remove the hemlock cone. The green windows in the locks represent to me powerful memories of being bathed in the filtered, chlorophyll-rich light of this evergreen: once when falling down hard into love while hiking along the Appalachian Trail and again while breastfeeding my newborn near our cabin in the woods. As we landed in Reno and saw dramatic images on the airport TVs of firefighters foil-wrapping the General Sherman and other ancient giants, I considered how absurd it was to be quietly losing the East coast equivalent of those giant sequoias and all the life they harbor (birds like wood thrushes, plus newts, salamanders, brook trout, an more) to a tiny bug.
I thought of my friend about to tie the knot just outside of Yosemite where those sequoias stood in the path of the raging fire and realized we better have a plan if not a script in case I needed to officiate the wedding the next day. Paul suggested an audience-participatory Ad-Lib ceremony. Fortunately for the wedding party all Paul and I needed to bring was our contagious dancing spirits and our Wedding Advent Wreath that we made entirely of objects found at one of our favorite camp sites along the Elk river. There are 12 special items and 12 accompanying scrolled marital challenges (yes, of course they look like mini toilet paper rolls), one for each month of their first year of marriage. The object you see at the top of the photo is indeed a partial set of false teeth found along the road and its associated newlywed challenge is to cook and eat their first home cooked meal in the most absurd way they can think of. I’m still waiting on the video they’ll take of this. I will share it. It’s an emotionally challenging world we now live in. I think it’s best to embrace absurdity and risk of dying of laughter.
*For those of you who made it this far, here’s my story from Ho Chi Minh:
After a month of physically and emotionally exhausting field work in the remote, mountainous regions of northern Vietnam I was just starting to recover from a weeks long strep infection that had raged throughout my ears, nasal passages, and (especially) throat. Paul and I decided to reward ourselves by escaping to camp for a few days in the Cham Islands.
On the same day the dive boat dropped us there Paul came down with what was clearly the torso-wrenching cramps and fever of Dengue. Three pensive days later our boat returned. Paul was sapped of strength, so I had to pack, load, and unload all our bags full of field and lab supplies, photography and dive equipment, plus personal stuff. The air felt like I was in steaming bowl of pho. By the time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh my own fever and pain had resumed. It was all I could do to shlep our heaviest bags and Paul onto a touristy rickshaw and then try and keep up with it while toting the remainder on my head, back and shoulders. Sweat made every strap slippery as I frantically searched for a doctor’s office on the way to our mysteriously distant hotel. Somehow, we made it and fell asleep assured that in the morning we’d be flying back to the States for medical aid that was less likely to get garbled in translation.
I woke around 2 am with my throat feeling quite constricted. I lay there letting my fevered mind wander. First, I randomly recalled my past biology student with Asperger’s Syndrome. She was being harassed by other class members, so I had her counselor come to class and explain this special type of autism. Every single time he said “Aspergers” (and he said it A LOT) he pronounced it very syllabically, so it sounded like “ass burgers”. Naturally the bullies in the back were unable to completely muffle their giggles and, really, can you blame them? After class the confused student approached me for an explanation as to why whenever her counselor said “Aspergers” the other kids laughed. I explained that to them it sounded like she had burgers on her butt; an explanation that was even more confusing to someone who tends to take everything straight-up. She asked me, “So they think having burgers on your butt is funny? That would be very uncomfortable!” to which I could only reply, “Yes. Yes, they do.”
That night in Ho Chi Minh wasn’t the first time I’d pondered the unfair absurdity of pinning such an awkward name to a condition that makes social interactions for folks with the condition already tough enough. As I lay there trying calmly to breathe my mind wandered incongruously and landed on past leaders. I considered Ho Chi Minh’s interest in democracy in the US and his time spent in Harlem. Then I found my thoughts taking a dark dive towards the evils of Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and the like. And then it hit me like a gift from the heavens! Are you ready for it? I realized that the perfect accompaniment to Ass Burgers is Dick Taters. I apologize for the crudeness, but my lord, what a revelation! That’s when, like the boys in the back of that biology classroom, my giggles got the better of me. I was soon off the bed and on the floor in hysterics and gasping for breaths as my laugher spasms were making my throat swell and blocking my air. I inch-wormed to Paul who in his weakened state had to get me down eight flights of stairs and outside to hail a cab to rush us to an emergency room. The cab driver must’ve thought I’d lost my entire mind as I was still unable to get ahold of myself and stop laughing. I just kept thinking about how much Paul was going to appreciate my revelation once I could speak it aloud if I survived. Fifteen minutes later, after a glorious steroid injection, I did just that. Then the entire emergency room night shift surely thought both of us had lost our minds since we were both laughing uncontrollably at the quadruple entendre AND at the fact that I had actually come close to dying of laughter.