In honor of Halloween, this column will be dedicated to my dad, and his most favorite hobby of all time – standing in graveyards looking at headstones.
Like many Americans, my dad is interested in genealogy. His storied family ancestry dates back to Oliver Cromwell, the Mayflower, and the Revolutionary War. Dad has dutifully led his family though many historic sites, tracing the gallant, brave acts by Browns long since lost. I’ve personally stood in graveyards across multiple state lines with my dad, looking for the graves of dearly departed family members. The older the grave, the more difficult this is, as years of graveyard wear and tear rub away the names.
Most recently, my dad discovered he was a descendent of John Pemberton, the leader of the famed “Overmountain Men.” This ragtag group from 1700’s era East Tennessee heard tell that the British had threatened to burn all of their farms to the ground. The Overmountain Men understandably objected to this, and charged out of the hills of Tennessee and down into North Carolina. The British soldiers, confronted by a hundred crazed and imposing backwoodsmen, freaked out and met with a shameful defeat at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
In order to pay homage to the group’s bravery, my dad wanted to trace the journey of the Overmountain Men by car. While it would take us a matter of hours, we would follow the route that the men marched along for two painful weeks, from John Pemberton’s farm through the Great Smokey Mountains, and down into North Carolina.
John Pemberton, a wealthy farmer, mustered his brawny troops under the Pemberton Oak near his house. This was the first stop on our local tour. Down narrow dirt roads near Bristol, Tennessee, my dad and I drove hither and yon, looking for an oak. The challenging part was that the oak tree had fallen over in 2002, so we were reduced to looking for a sign, which was much less impressive.
We missed the sign for the other trees, and in frustration moved on to our next site, John Pemberton’s grave.
The grave was in a small cemetery on private property near a tool store. Dad thought it best we scout out the place in advance of trespassing, and make sure we could distinguish which dirt road to which farm behind which tool store.
And my dad has always believed if something is worth doing, then it is worth doing well. In every store, in every gas station, in every restaurant, he asked the employees, “Have you heard of John Pemberton? Have you heard of the Overmountain Men?”
Most of these employees were somewhat sullen teenagers begrudgingly working summer jobs. To say they were wholly unconcerned with John Pemberton and the Overmountain Men would be an understatement.
“Who? No, never heard of him.”
“What? Who’s that?”
“Huh? Like Pemberton Road? That’s right there.”
“Nope. Well, that’s something right there.”
There was, however, one elderly man who owned a gift shop that sold only religious iconography and soapstone animals.
“Ah yeah. That’s behind that tool store. Park, walk up the hill, through the fence, past the farm house, and it’s on your right. Nobody ever goes there.”
We thanked him for the clear instructions, and my dad bristled at Bristol’s lack of reverence for our Revolutionary family members.
We found the tool store in a manner of minutes, and parked in the gravel lot. The building was inauspicious, and the store closed.
We walked around the store through a grassy field, and up a hill. We found a fence, clearly marked “Private Property, Do Not Enter,” and entered.
Up around a farm house, where we were greeted aggressively by a handful of chained dogs, through a second fence, and into a small graveyard.
It was quiet and shaded, with a myriad of faded headstones. Dad and I then began the slow work of looking at each headstone, and attempting to locate the name of the deceased. Most graves were too old, and any inscription had long since worn away. Some, however, were fresh and legible from as recently as the 1960s.
I was just pondering what Dad and I would have to do to qualify to be buried at such a historic site, when I heard the delighted cry of, “Found it!”
I picked my way through some overgrowth to a small stone marking John Pemberton’s remains, next to those of Mrs. Pemberton. We stared reverently for a few moments, and then bolted the fence, said goodbye to the dogs, walked back to the rental car, and began the lengthy drive to North Carolina.
Sarah Brown can be found squatting near graves. If you’re too chicken to join her, Tweet her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at email@example.com. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
The pain in my ankle was sharp. The only sounds I could make were a shriek, and a pitiful, “Oh no.”
This was it. My worst fear. I’d have to be taken off the trail by helicopter like the poor woman we were previously warned about. My name would go down in trail history as an inexperienced nuisance.
My friend, who had been consistently moving at a quick pace and was far ahead, heard me fall and doubled back with the lightning speed of a jaguar.
Reaching my side –
“Drop the pack,” she ordered.
I struggled out of the large backpack, clutching my ankle.
I rolled around on the ground, taking the kind of deep breaths women are always practicing when they give birth on television.
“I heard a crack,” I mumbled.
My friend didn’t say anything, and instead turned grey.
I rolled around some more, and then tentatively rolled my ankle. Then, with the horrific image of having to lie on the ground for hours waiting for a helicopter to find me and take me home, I rolled onto my knees, and stood up.
Confirming I could walk, I told myself that my ankle wasn’t broken.
My friend helped me on with my pack, and she bounded on, with me trudging behind her.
With her periodically running ahead and then doubling back, she glowingly confirmed we were not as far from Eagle River as she’d initially expected. My heart leapt for joy; Eagle River was the overnight camping site. We would cross the river first thing in the morning.
Eagle River, like many of Alaska’s natural elements, is mighty. The current is quick, the water high, and hikers get caught and drown.
Until my ankle injury, which was now my chief concern, fjording the river had been the part of the trip about which I had been quietly fretting.
Reaching the riverbank, I plopped down, took off my left boot, and examined my ankle. It was significantly swollen; all prior definition was gone, and the vascularity had disappeared from my foot. The ankle was unstable.
My friend was marching up and down the river, examining the conditions. There was a couple across the way on the other side, happily changing clothes in full view. They had clearly just crossed through the glacial melt, and were putting on dry clothes as advised to prevent hypothermia.
“Uh, Sarah?” she spoke softly, as if approaching someone on her deathbed. “I think we should cross.”
“Wait, what now?” I squawked, alarmed.
I was supposed to have eight hours to prepare myself for this feat.
“Well, yeah. There are people around. I’d rather do it then.”
My safety track record on this trip so far was not great; tripping and drowning were definitely possible. If I did that when people were watching, at least they could report where to look for my body.
“Well, let me change my shoes and see how my ankle feels.”
We’d each brought separate water shoes solely for the purpose of crossing Eagle River. I pulled the sandals gingerly over my ankle. It was so swollen the straps almost didn’t make it around the blobby grapefruit that, an hour ago, had been a working joint. I didn’t have any way of treating the injury other than making it worse by walking on it for another fourteen miles. Oddly enough, submerging it in icy water might be the best thing at the moment.
“Let’s do it.”
Prior to the trip, I watched a safety video on crossing Eagle River. According to the video, we were supposed to line up with everyone in our group, holding the hips of the hiker in front of us, and move sideways in a line facing the current. The theory was each person would help stabilize the hiker in front of him.
I hobbled over to the water’s edge, and my friend graciously agreed to be the leader, taking the brunt of the current.
My friend leaned into her poles, and I leaned into her. The water, which came up to mid-thigh, was icy and, as advertised, fast. The rocks under foot were smooth and slippery, and would have been difficult to negotiate with two good ankles.
My friend took a shuffling side step to the left, and I followed. We took another, and I felt myself lurch forward.
“Wait, stop you’re going too fast, you’re going too fast!” I shrieked hysterically, all in one breath.
“You okay you okay you okay?”
“I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I answered in our new call and response. We took another step to the left.
I was torn between skipping as quickly as we could to the shore, and with keeping my ankle from getting stuck between one of the rolling, slippery rocks.
We lurched to the left again, and I compulsively squeezed her hips in a death grip.
“You’re going too fast, you’re going too fast!”
Then, realizing we really were quite close to the shore by then —
“I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I shrieked before she could ascertain if I was ready to move forward.
In a weird sideways charge, we galloped the last 10 feet, and onto the rocky beach.
I collapsed, tears streaming down my face from pain, and total relief.
“I’m so glad that’s over,” I kept muttering.
“You know Sarah? Every time you told me I was going too fast? I was just, like, moving.”
I laid down on my back, lifting my ankle into the air, moaning, muttering, and periodically asking my friend if she needed help erecting the tent. She assured me she did not, and then came to sit next to me on the rocky beach.
“I’m so glad that’s over and we don’t have to do that tomorrow,” I muttered one last time with finality.
In advance of this trip, I had excitedly, and optimistically, purchased a “backpacking sleeping bag” on Amazon, rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit. All day trudging through the snow covered mountains, I’d worried about whether the bag would be warm enough.
While I did not freeze to death, I did roll around all night shivering, and wondering what shape my ankle would be in by morning.
At six, I crawled out of my friend’s tent shivering, and examined my ankle. It still resembled a grapefruit, but did not hurt as much as I had feared. Chalking it up to adrenaline, I hoped this protective panic would last until I could collapse at home later that night.
My friend scuttled out of the tent soon after me, and we made breakfast. Of my remaining freeze dried meals, I determined chili mac was the most breakfast-like, and I stirred the contents around in the boiling water, marveling at the sheer volumes of sodium inherent therein. We then packed up, and hit the trail.
Everything hurt. My ankle, my shoulders, my back, my feet, my new blisters. The residual pain of Day 1 exacerbated the pain of Day 2.
I spent the better part of the first two hours hobbling along, holding my breath. We were wading through creepy tall grass again, and a bear could stick his face out in front of me without warning. Eventually we made our way into woods which, while still eerie, offered more visibility.
Bursting over a bridge and crossing Eagle River from a different vantage point, two young men came bounding towards us, hailing us down.
My friend grabbed her bear spray.
I, on the other hand, was glad to see them. Maybe they’d give my old bones a lift home after they murdered me.
They announced they were taking surveys for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
I leaned heavily on my poles, relieved that we had stopped walking.
“How did you hear about this trail?”
I gestured mutely to my friend.
“How is the difficulty level?”
“Easy!” she rattled off.
I, on the edge of collapse –
“Really hard,” I muttered, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
“A lot of beginners like it for the variety. You’re exposed to so many different types of terrain. Snow patches, river crossings, eh?”
“I fell down the hill in the snow yesterday,” I answered flatly. “Do one of you have an ace bandage?”
One of the surveyors obligingly looked through his pack, and then confirmed not only did he not have an ace bandage, they had stopped carrying first aid kits.
“Last question,” the other resolutely continued. “What did you do with human waste?”
My friend and I glanced at each other for a moment.
“Uh, I haven’t had that problem.”
“Me neither,” she answered coyly.
“Are you familiar with the concept of, ‘Leave No Trace?’” he stubbornly continued with his intrusive line of questioning.
My friend, experienced backpacker that she was, assured him she knew how to bury her poop in the woods, sans tutorial, thank you.
While this little vignette broke up the monotony of the hike, we were just postponing the inevitable pain to come.
We shuffled forward.
“The fun part about the last day is you can plan where you are going to eat a celebratory dinner!” my friend sang out. “I always like to think about where I am going to go for dinner in Eagle River when we finish…”
She glanced at her watch as she trailed off. Then –
“Though we would really need to pick up the pace if we are going to have time to go to a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood.”
I grunted in response and continued to shuffle.
“Let’s play a trail game!” my friend called in desperation.
“Oh gosh, yes please.”
Anything to distract me from my total abject misery.
The game was simple. She decided on a category (“Items I will serve in the new restaurant I am opening”). We then traded naming items in that category, in alphabetical order, while reciting all previously named items. If one player failed to name a new item, or failed to remember an old item, that player lost.
The restaurant to be opened by my friend quickly turned into a boozy bakery, serving solely sugary cocktails and decadent desserts. Menu items included Dutch Apple Pie, Eclairs, Fudge, Mango Margaritas, Sorbet, and Wine.
Exhausting the alphabet, we switched to Items We Can’t Forget for Our Vacation (“Jungle Safari Hats,” “X-ray Goggles,” and “Yellow Rubber Ducky Raincoats”).
We were happily listing all of the qualities of Our Dream Guys (“Bulging Biceps,” “Cute Calves,” “Helps Me When Needed,” and, above all, “Quiet”) when I threw out my arm and grabbed her shoulder.
“Hang on, there’s something moving up there.”
Our current trail was meandering along the side of a steep cliff that descended into the river. Forrest covered our right side.
We squinted through the forest. The trail bent to the right, and I couldn’t tell if the movement was coming from a fellow hiker, or something more sinister.
Then its profile emerged from behind a tree one hundred feet in front of us.
The most horrible profile imaginable.
“Bear! Bear! Bear!” I whispered hysterically.
We each seized our bear spray, and retreated down the hill as far as we could before we hit the cliff.
The bear sensed he had company, and crashed up the hill ahead of us.
We watched the trees up the hill, frozen.
The bear sashayed up over our heads, and then emerged from the trees, looking at us curiously.
He started walking towards us.
Hoisting our weapons high, we sidestepped to the left, as the bear continued his approach. Then, distracted for a moment, he looked off to his left, and we scrambled on through the trees, breaking into a run at the first opportunity.
“Is he following us, is he following us, is he following us?”
“No,” she said, putting the safety clip back on the cannister, and holstering her spray. “I think we are safe.”
Knees and ankle wobbling, I put my weapon away, and the two of us abandoned the remaining qualities of our dream guys, and began shouting frantically.
We were now within the Eagle River Nature Center, and all of my attention was single mindedly focused on getting out of here. Ankle sore and rickety, I began using my walking poles as crutches.
More and more people were on the trail, and my friend cheerily reminded me that the more children we saw, the closer to the end we were; small people can’t hike too far.
By the time I saw toddlers, I escalated my walking pole crutch speed to as close to a run I could manage.
A group of young mothers and babies were up ahead, and spotted our backpacks.
“Where did you camp?” one mother asked curiously.
My friend stopped to chat.
I blew past them.
No time for moms.
I was rocketing forwards by now, drawing heart from the sight of power lines in the distance.
My friend, breathless, hurried to catch me.
“Lesson learned, Sarah does not brake for moms! Admittedly, they were very chatty.”
We burst out of the forest and into the parking lot. I began to cry quietly with relief, as my pace slowed to a shuffle, and I hobbled pitifully back to her car.
It was four in the afternoon, and too late for dinner in a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood to get my car. Instead, we went to Arby’s and wolfed down large sandwiches, curly fries, and chocolate milkshakes. We then trekked back to Girdwood, back to Anchorage and back to home. Upon arrival, I got into bed, and did not get out for two days.
Sarah Brown periodically whimpers. Whisper soothingly to her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
My friend took me on my first overnight backpacking trip last month. Via the Crow Pass trail, we were due to leave Girdwood early in the morning on Saturday and arrive at the Eagle River Nature Center parking lot late Sunday afternoon.
I looked forward to this trip for months. I created a curated playlist of songs about walking. I perused Fred Meyer’s selection of freeze-dried instant foods, all set to expire in 2067. I bought a bladder.
On the morning of the trip, she left her car in Eagle River, and I drove us to Girdwood. We snapped a fresh face “beginning of the trail selfie” (a tradition according to my friend) and began tottering along with our walking poles.
Upon reflection, this would become the “before” shot, to be compared later with the “after” shot, of what shape my body would be in after finishing the trip.
The trail began with a 3,500-foot elevation gain. My friend sprang along the trail like a jackrabbit, and I soon lost sight of her. The backpack, taller than my entire torso, made it difficult to balance, and I hobbled along waiting to twist my ankle. The shoulder and chest straps were so tight my breathing was restricted.
I’d brought a small portable speaker, currently and fittingly tuned to “Dead Man Walking.” The music broadcasted my presence to my intended audience (bears), and all other collateral damage (any living being).
I rounded a corner and found a small group of fellow hikers looking at me bemusedly.
“We heard you coming!” they called. “We wondered who was bringing the party!”
In the far distance, I saw my friend waiting patiently at the summit.
I trudged slowly towards her. After an eternity of crawling uphill –
“My backpack….” I sputtered between gasps. “It really…hurts…. Is it supposed…to hurt…like this?”
“Well, that’s backpacking!” she sang delightedly.
For the first time, I considered the possibility that my friend might be a lunatic. She voluntarily put herself through this pain, multiple times per summer… for fun?
She suggested we sit down and have lunch, and I ate three large pieces of cold pizza in quick succession. They were the last pieces of food I could eat that would have had to know the insides of a refrigerator.
My friend announced she hates cold pizza.
Confirmed, she was a lunatic.
I struggled back into my pack, requiring her help because I couldn’t get one arm through the strap; instead, I was hopping around like a chicken.
Seeing me struggle, she stared at me quizzically. Then, without warning, she grabbed the shoulder straps, pulled two cords, and they loosened.
Relief shot through my chest and shoulders. I took my first real breaths of the day.
And then we were off again. I felt lighter than air for about seven minutes before the pack began pulling into my shoulders again as the weight of gravity took hold. I would spend the next day and a half periodically loosening and tightening straps, depending which part of my back was seizing up in that particular moment.
Crow Pass covers dramatically different terrain throughout its full twenty-one miles. Starting with the stark elevation gain, hikers pass through snow, down shale coated mountains, through grass so tall and thick you can’t see bears coming, over boulders, through forests, and, of course, crossing Eagle River.
Trudging through snow, I started to worry that my newly acquired “backpacking sleeping bag,” rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit, was going to be warm enough.
Contemplating this chilly prospect, my foot slipped, and with an “Ummm…” by way of announcement to my friend, I tipped over and rolled down the hill.
What with the weight of the backpack, I began to roll faster and faster. Ever gaining speed, I hurtled towards the bottom of the mountain, and the large rock wall waiting for me there.
Growing up in Fairbanks, I knew the best way to slow down after bailing out on sledding hills was to increase your surface area as much as possible. I spread out my arms and legs and hoped I would slow down.
As I passively pondered what life would be like with a spinal injury, I felt my momentum stall, and I stopped sliding about 15 feet from the wall.
I sat up, took off the backpack, and looked at my friend, far up the top of the mountain. I’d lost a walking pole and my hat somewhere along my slide.
At a loss for anything else to say, I called up to her, “Um, can you get my hat? And I think I lost one of your poles.”
She shook her head.
“No, let’s keep going. You don’t need them.”
This was a moment of ratification on my status as a material girl. I hate losing things.
Loath to leave any belonging behind, I stood up, and started climbing back up the hill, justifying my actions to my friend.
“I need the pole for balance!”
By now, it was mid-afternoon, and my friend was definitely fidgeting because we still had not made it to Eagle River. She wanted to camp at the river that night, and cross first thing Sunday morning when the water was at its lowest.
Pole collected, hat on head, and backpack grudgingly placed on, I continued down the mountain, away from the snow.
I was thrilled the temperature was warming, and we were seemingly once more in summertime.
That’s when my friend cheerily reminded me to crank up the tunes again; we were back in bear country.
We entered some tall grass, positively obliterating any potential bears from view.
Knowing we were trying to make it to the river, I did my best to pick up the pace, though the ground was covered with giant boulders. If you took your eyes off of your feet for even a second to study the bear infested tall grass, for example, you’d trip and hit your head.
Feet burning with new blisters, and my pack once again feeling like the weight of the entire universe on my shoulders, I pouted silently, wondering how I was ever going to make it back to my car by this time tomorrow.
Amongst these gloomy thoughts, there was a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us, and we both stopped and seized our bear spray.
Two young men emerged, looking mildly amused as they took in the site of us brandishing our weapons.
As we lowered our arms, they happily announced that a woman on this side of Eagle River had just been removed from the trail by ambulance helicopter; she’d broken her ankle.
Realizing it would take more time to finish the journey with a broken ankle, I decided to just go ahead and continue at my poky pace. My friend must have decided the same thing, because both of us began walking at a noticeably more leisurely rate thereafter.
We sat down in the forest to have dinner around five. My friend had a nifty propane heater and a pot, in which we boiled water. We dumped the water into our freeze-dried food bags, and stirred the contents. My dinner was, ostensibly, spaghetti and meatballs; her’s beef stroganoff.
I eyed both gloopy messes suspiciously. When she told me about the food, I ventured that I would just bring some protein bars, or something. Having largely lived off of Lean Cuisine in college, I’d long since sworn off instant food of any kind. I’d eaten my entire lifetime’s worth over a four-year period, and my allotment was completely used up.
My friend, however, insisted I would want hot food and that I really should buy these unique items, guaranteed fresh for 46 years!
I stirred my spaghetti with a grimace and took a salty bite.
The spaghetti tasted exactly like Lean Cuisine.
It did, however, put some pep back into my very tired steps.
We cleaned up from our meal, leaving no trace as good backpackers should. Naturally, and just my luck, I was beginning to regret bringing the cold pizza, as the leavings in the bag were beginning to stink.
We hopped along, revived from the sodium ladened slop, avoiding tree roots precariously popping up throughout the forest. My friend confirmed we were almost to Eagle River, so we hurried along, trying to finish the day’s journey.
With a crack, my left ankle twisted out, and I went down with a yelp.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Sarah Brown suffers in silence. Feel free to pester her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at email@example.com; she rarely fights back. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, and as part of America’s newfound freedom from COVID-19, I went to Louisville, Kentucky, and met up with a longtime friend who lives on the East Coast. We spent a day at the racetrack at Churchill Downs on one of the last days of the season.
If there is a sport with more specific forms of jargon than horse racing, I do not know what that sport is. Horses are measured in hands, tracks are measured in furloughs, and jockeys are measured in times in or out of the money. Guests are in turn judged by whether they know what it means to dress in “track casual,” and by whether they can distinguish between a Woodford Spire and an Oaks Lily.
Upon arrival, spectators are welcomed to the stadium by a statue of Barbaro, a beloved Kentucky Derby winner. Unlike elite Triple Crown champions, however, Barbaro holds the distinction of being shot after he failed to win the Preakness Stakes. His demise solidified his legendary status to the point of inspiring an entire society, “The Friends of Barbaro.”
Next, guests are presented with programs containing the daily facts and figures about the lengths of the various races, the jockeys, the horses, and the horses’ colors. Charts are detailed and include how much money the horse has won cumulatively over its career, when it last raced, how it races in dry conditions versus wet conditions, and its projected odds of winning.
Given we were at the racetrack, we reasoned it was only logical that we start betting. Unfortunately, it is a moral failing of mine that I never carry cash. My friend, however, thoughtfully brought $23 to the track, and we amiably agreed to spend $10 of her money.
We walked up confidently to the ticket machine and inserted the bill. After that, there was nothing for us to do but stare at the complex mix of buttons and blinking lights displayed on the screen. There were options for a horse to “Win,” “Place,” or “Show.” We could bet the “Daily Double,” “Exacta,” “Trifecta,” or “Superfecta.” And that does not even include the “Pick 3,” or “Pick 4.”
We argued a bit, debating what each bet would mean.
“Daily Double means we can bet on two things at once,” I pronounced, based on no evidence.
“Pick 3 is that you can pick three horses in the same race,” she countered, sounding equally confident.
In between assertions, we stared open mouthed at the screen. We spent so much time gawking that our session expired, and we received a ticket printout, but no $10.
“Wait,” she asked. “But what did we bet on?”
Nothing. We bet on nothing.
We pulled the ticket out and gaped at that for a while. It most closely resembled the test print sheet when setting up a new printer.
We looked around, wondering what to do with a $10 slip of paper tied to no discernable value.
Behind us, there was a long line of desks where people could place bets, but there were signs reading, “$50 minimum.”
We walked up to the nearest desk, where an old, stooped man looked at us curiously.
“Hi,” my friend spoke loudly, and to the point. “We have this ticket here –”
“Oh, did you win?” he twanged.
“Well, no,” she laughed. “Our session expired.”
He took the ticket and examined it.
“It’s for $10,” she explained. “Can we exchange it for a bet on something else?”
“Sure, sure,” he agreed.
“But it says it’s $50 minimum. Can you help us?”
“Ma’am, I can do anything I want.”
“How would you bet?” she asked. Then, doubting her straightforwardness, “Or, are you not allowed to tell us?”
He looked at her wryly.
Yeah, yeah, we know, you can do anything you want.
We opened the program, and together, the three of us poured over the nine or so races to take place. As we only had $10, we decided to bet on the next race only. Among others, we could choose from contestants known as Good Penny, Cuzzywuzzy, and Parking Ticket.
“So, it’s $5 per bet, and you can bet on horses to win, come in second, or third, or you can bet on a horse to come in either first, or second, or third.”
I wasn’t sure what the difference was, and apparently, neither was my friend.
We looked back at the booklet.
“Who do you want to bet on?” I asked. It was her $10, so it seemed only fair she should choose the horse.
“Oh, I don’t care, whoever looks good to you.”
I peered over the complicated rankings in tiny print with my nose pressed close to the page. Good Penny won the most money, was not the crowd favorite, and had the luckiest name. All of these seemed like good omens.
“Can we put $5 on Good Penny to finish first?”
The ticket agent’s expression told me what I needed to know. I could do anything I wanted.
“You mean Number 11? You want to put $5 on Number 11?”
“Uh, yeah that’s right.”
He entered the information into his computer.
“Alright, how about second?”
She and I frowned.
Appearing to be talking to the deeply dense, he spoke slower.
“You can also bet on him to come in second. Do you want to do that?”
Yeah, that sounded good.
“Alright,” he nodded, “what’s the next bet?”
Cuzzywuzzy had the same ranking as Good Penny.
“$5 on Cuzzywuzzy to win?”
He looked at me pityingly.
“You mean $5 on Number 5?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s what I mean.”
He pulled our new tickets out of his machine.
They were indistinguishable from the first ticket test printer page.
“That will be $5.”
My friend, who had been somewhat disinterested in the horse picking process, snapped back to attention.
“We had $10 in credit.”
He was really looking at us like we were hopeless now.
“I know, that will be $5.”
She and I squinched our faces.
“I don’t understand,” she challenged. “If we paid you $10 for two $5 bets, then how do we owe you $5?”
“When you bet on the same horse twice, that’s $10,” he rattled back impatiently.
Feeling like those instructions had been less than clear at the beginning, we forked over another of her $5.
Racing math ultimately proved to be its own entire field. In addition to the vagaries of paying $15 for a $10 bet, we eventually discovered that one can win $7 for a $30 bet. By the end of the afternoon, I was holding my head and muttering that I was never going to retire at this rate; gambling, by gosh, is just not a good investment.
Still holding my head, I bought us each a round of mint juleps, and we went back to our seats to watch the respective fortunes of Bodacious Baby, Buy Me Candy, and Slim Slow Slider.
Passing through the rows of fastidiously arranged green folding chairs –
“What is that?” a scandalized voiced bellowed from our left.
Another man, similar in advanced age to the ticket teller, pointed accusatorially at our drinks.
While I am prone to ignore comments made about my food and beverage selections, my friend has never met a stranger.
“Mint juleps!” she replied enthusiastically.
He shook his head.
“You two aren’t from around here, are you?”
Well, this was obvious because my friend and I also didn’t know what it meant to be dressed in “track casual.”
“I could tell because you’re drinking those,” he continued, nodding to our drinks. The mint was so voluminous, it looked like we were carrying around tiny gardens in commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses.
“You don’t like them?” My friend sounded genuinely surprised.
“Yeah, no locals like them,” he scoffed.
“Well, what do the locals drink?” I asked.
He held up a can of Budweiser.
Honestly, though, the joke was on them. My friend won $74 on Good Penny, and I got three servings of my daily vegetable intake.
Sarah Brown is straight edge. Feel free to invite her to things that are risky, hedonistic, or otherwise a good time, but honestly, she’ll just kill your buzz. Instead, find her on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
You’d think living in a state with relatively little traffic, like Alaska, would have cured me of this illness. Alaska has nothing but wide-open spaces, but even this, unfortunately, has not calmed me. If anything, it may be making my road rage worse. My fellow Alaskans are, by and large, a laidback bunch. In conjunction with this laissez-faire attitude towards life, drivers do not give much thought to when they will arrive at their destination, and instead toddle along, nary a care in the world.
On the other hand, I care very much about my destination and would like to arrive there sometime this calendar year, people, please!
I wasn’t always this frustrated.
As a newly minted driver with a learner’s permit in Fairbanks, I was very intimidated by the rules of the road. All the other cars dwarfed my first car, a 1997 Nissan Maxima. It had once belonged to my grandmother, and much like my grandmother, the car offered shelter and comfort. Also much like my grandmother, the car was smaller than others of its kind in the wild.
My grandmother topped off at a whopping five feet tall and would often complain that the world was not made for people her size. An early adopter of microaggressions, she maintained her whole life that the world discriminated against short people. I would hear her small voice muttering to herself when reaching for things in the cabinets, when climbing into cars, and when sitting in chairs.
“Everyone is against us! The world hates short people!”
As I scooted around Fairbanks in my grandmother’s car as a teenager, I too adopted my grandmother’s ethos. Trucks would loom over me, vans would steam by me, and I would clutch the steering wheel in a death grip. My dad, in his designated role as driving instructor, would sit stone-faced in the passenger seat beside me. Even though I could not bring myself to drive faster than 45 miles per hour, his foot would stamp the floor where the brake pedal would be so hard the car would rock side to side.
As a baby driver, I would get lost in my miniature hometown, drive many miles under the speed limit, and freak out if I encountered a one-way street. I once took the wrong exit off the Johansen Expressway, could not figure out how to get back on the expressway, turned around, and drove the wrong way up the exit ramp. There was absolutely no traffic on the road (it was Fairbanks after all), but I was sure I would be arrested at any moment for the high crime of being a dingbat.
As we all know, however, with practice comes confidence. As I matured in my driving, I had the temerity to approach the speed limit, make left turns, and choose a lane other than the right.
Having mastered the art of the turn, my confidence blossomed into aggression. My fear of my fellow drivers had been replaced with a blind resentment. Who were these other vehicles taking over the road? This place was not big enough for me, my Nissan Maxima, and them too!
This only got worse after I started driving in major metropolitan areas outside of Fairbanks. Drivers on the East Coast are not afraid to drive 80 miles per hour, merge aggressively, or block traffic so they can cut into a long line. Boston was the first place I saw taxi drivers run red lights more often than stop. Man, did those guys have game.
I learned much from these driving giants, and my fellow Alaskans could stand some similar tutelage. For example, upon moving back to Anchorage, I was devastated by my fellow residents’ complete and utter inability to use the passing lane.
Rather than passing the car on the right, and then dutifully moving back into the right-hand lane, drivers simply treated the passing lane as another lane. Two lines of cars, equal in length, meander along together, and I am back at the end of the line calling everyone around me a deadhead.
But the crème-de-la-crème of triggering behavior: nothing sends me into a fury faster than a car which pulls into the left lane, speeds up to pass the car on the right, reaches the car, and then slows down to drive the exact same speed as the car next to it.
People! I beg of you! There is no point in getting into the left lane, speeding up to the car in front of you, and then driving the exact same speed. For crying out loud, just drive the same speed behind them in the right lane. Don’t be a monster!
I’ve spent many hours profiling my fellow drivers, trying to ascertain who amongst me is an obstacle, and who is a fellow traveler; an ally, if you will, merely trying to get to his appointed destination. For example, I always try to follow a truck; they go faster and drive with purpose. I avoid Subarus, as those drivers are nearly always overly cautious. Stay away from boats, buses, and gaggles of RVs.
The worst of the worst drivers, however, is a very specific breed of truck driver who views being passed as an afront to his manhood. This driver will go out of his way to drive slowly on one-lane streets, block the sections of road where there is a passing lane, and then saunter back to the one lane once the passing lane is dispensed with, satisfied he has ruined everyone’s day.
I will be driving south this weekend for Memorial Day. May those who cross my path be speedy.
Sarah Brown takes many deep breaths. Write to her on pain of death at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
Long standing readers of this column will recall there was a time when I was a frequent flyer and bona fide road warrior. Since February 2020, however, I largely stopped traveling due to the obvious complexities presented by a global pandemic. I spent a year without voluntarily giving up my civil liberties at Ted Stevens International Airport. I went 365 days sans random cavity searches by TSA. Twelve months lapsed since I last elbowed my fellow passengers while staking claim to overhead bin space.
When it became obvious to everyone that we’d all been grounded for the foreseeable future, I thought, well, there is much to be gained here. My skin will clear up because it will not be exposed to that weird airplane air that always makes me breakout. I will not have to eye my seat prior to lighting for large, half chewed bits of cookie left lovingly behind by the previous passenger. No concern about the stale nose tissue that may, or may not, be lodged way, way, far down at the bottom of the seatback pouch in front of me. I will not have to look at the bathroom floor with trepidation, wondering if the puddles on the ground were caused by people who cannot neatly dry their hands, or by some other, more sinister, fluid.
I was as shocked as anyone to discover after a while … that I missed it. Ironically, despite the ever-present and all-powerful weight of the Federal government, air travel struck me as, well, freedom. I looked back fondly on the stale smelling circulated air, the fiesta mix pretzels in tiny packets, and the unique taste of a Bloody Mary at thirty thousand feet cruising altitude.
I am pleased to report, however, that air travel is returning. Pandemic weary Americans are back to jamming themselves into these tiny cylindrical tubes and jettisoning themselves as far away from home as possible. Iceland is now open to vaccinated Americans, and the European Union is expected to follow suit shortly. Spring break travelers to Hawaii were treated to $1,000 per day car rentals, as demand surged despite companies having previously sold off inventory to stay afloat in 2020.
Personally, I have completed my first pleasure trip post COVID and will begin travelling again for work in May. Expectedly, things have changed since I last flew. TSA now checks your driver’s license, and not your ticket. Masked passengers remove face coverings long enough for the security agents to verify passenger faces match passenger IDs. After a year in quarantine, I can’t imagine all faces look the same, and the agents studied a few of my fellow travelers for a while, trying to determine whether they were imposters, or had just been living life rough for the last thirteen months. I am somewhat dourly resigned to looking like a demented bank robber forever, my baby blue disposable mask covering up the bottom half of my face, and my glasses the top half.
One of the more disappointing changes to airline travel is the meal service. Previously a joyful activity on flights, meal service could be counted on to dependably absorb twenty minutes of flight time, followed by another seven minutes in the bathroom line, three minutes maneuvering in the bathroom itself, and a minute forty-seven seconds spent eyeing all the bathroom puddles. Then there was always the possibility of a bathroom surprise, like the time someone dangled a used Lipton tea bag from the inside bathroom door handle. These little diversions would necessitate me staring for another fifty-two seconds, at least! Altogether, such points of recreation would eat up over half an hour, which would be correspondingly deducted from the amount of time spent in bored silence.
While I am nothing but sympathetic to an industry brought to the brink of extinction one year ago, it was a nevertheless disappointing meal service that brought me a cup of water, half a cracker, and a virtual pat on the head. Snack time lasted thirty-eight seconds, and I swiveled around wildly wanting to know how I was going to burn up all this new quiet time.
With a few accommodations, I was nevertheless thrilled to skip down the jetway for the first time in 2021. TSA, baggage crew, officious ticket checkers abundant… I love you!
Sarah Brown is a Captain of Industry. You may pitch her at email@example.com, and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
Air travel is a key component of my job description.
Literally. The description reads, “Expected to travel between 30% and 50% of time.”
Given how much experience I’ve had, you think I would be better at it.
It’s a production to get me on an airplane, all of the extensive accommodations of Alaska Airlines aside. My appearance becomes the physical manifestation of my discomfort. I don my airplane pajamas (aka clothes that are at least three sizes too big). On go my eyeglasses, away goes the flat iron, in goes my night guard. And make-up? Don’t make me laugh.
I then adopt my Very Special Air Travel Expression.
It’s the sort of expression a corpse would have, if the person who once formed that corpse had died in an eternal state of exasperation. The light leaves my eyes, my jaw goes slack. I only alter this deadpan look to glare at all of my neighbors over the top of my glasses.
Once at the airport, I typically throw my weight around. Not that I have the necessary money, power, or status to intimidate people. Rather, I literally swing my shoulder bags from side to side, yanking my suitcases through the air. Any aggressive movement will do. I want strangers to approach on penalty of death.
All of this contributes to a distinctly nasty persona. When people see me hurtling through airports, they figure they know why I’m alone.
If life were a movie plot, travellers would not be like me. Rather, attractive bubbly strangers would be seated next to each other on airplanes with alarming frequency. They would both be single and looking for love. They would bond instantaneously over shared heartbreaks/divorces/widowhoods/insert romantic tragedy here.
In all my years of air travel, I have never seen this happen. Instead, men and women get drunk at airport bars and throw themselves at unwilling strangers.
Take my recent late-night Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle. I was across the aisle from a young woman, who, like me, was wearing her airplane best. Dressed in a sweatshirt and pajama bottoms, her purple hair was in a topknot on her head. She was wearing scarlet-rimmed eyeglasses, and her acne was showing.
Nevertheless, she was being pursued by a young sloper she’d just met in the bar. With the aid of some liquid courage, he adopted all the confidence of Thor, Son of Odin, and was shouting about how he wanted to sit next to her on our mutual flight.
This plan did not excite her.
She walked on to the plane, sat down, threw up into her airsick bag, and flagged down a predictably gracious Alaska Airlines flight attendant.
“Um, there’s this guy. Like, he …”
She trailed off as she tried to bring the flight attendant into focus.
“I, like, met him in the bar. And now he’s, like, trying to sit next to me?”
The flight attendant looked at her pityingly.
“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Okay, ‘cause, like, I don’t want to sit next to him. He’s, like. Back. There.”
She jutted her thumb over her shoulder, gesturing to the offending sloper, now sitting in his assigned seat.
The flight attendant followed her thumb.
“You know what? He’s asleep. I think you’re okay.”
The three of us turned around and, sure enough, the man was down for the count, his face mashed up against the window.
It’s not just men pursuing uninterested women on airplanes. Women also proactively live out their Hollywood “meet cute” fantasies. On a flight from Anchorage to Chicago, I spied on a middle-age woman sitting next to a similarly unprepossessing middle-aged man. Before my eyes, the woman became hopelessly infatuated with him, for no reason I could portend. She tried every feminine wile at her disposal to attract his attention. She giggled at him, whispered to him, and petted his arm continuously for the first thirty-five minutes of the flight.
That’s when he couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up, told the flight attendant he was moving to another section, and forbade the woman from following him.
If I were the woman, I would have taken the hint. However, I will never be she; I’m too busy throwing my luggage around.
Rather than accept they would not share a future together beyond the constraints of this six-hour flight, the woman grabbed her bags, and made after him. The flight attendant body blocked her like every great bouncer would, and the woman was forcibly returned to her seat, waving madly at the man to come back.
That’s why I don’t bother primping before flights; I’ve seen too many failed attempts by travelers to meet The One.
But then came the day I found myself sitting next to an acceptably cute blonde bearded guy on a flight to Los Angeles.
Alarm signals went off in my brain: “Don’t be weird! Don’t be weird!”
Naturally, the minute I brought my own weirdness to my attention, I immediately began acting bizarre; I tucked my plastic water cup into the hook holding up my tray table.
The cute guy next to me looked over at my water cup, now dangling helplessly from the seat in front of me, and frowned.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”
I considered explaining that I wanted to place my cup out of my way, such that I could continue typing on my laptop. I couldn’t waste a moment’s time, after all, in plotting my takedown of the ultimate universe. And gosh, by the way, didn’t he want to accompany me on said takedown as my sidekick?
Instead, I coughed and grunted back, “Whatever works.”
My seatmate shrugged, and went back to texting other, better, girls on his phone.
Alaska Airlines should really cast me in a commercial. I am, clearly, the young upwardly mobile model of 21st century womanhood to whom they desperately wish to appeal.
Sarah Brown is a road warrior and connoisseur of the Alaska Airlines Economy class free snacks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.