Monday, March 30, 2009

Seaweed Otters and Rocket Lawnchairs

Charlie Kissinger, guru of our local Ferguson Ridge ski area, has outdone himself this year. He and the legions of Fergi volunteers once again managed to run that ski hill so it feels like you’re playing in your own backyard with a bunch of friends over.

I knew Charlie was resourceful, but was impressed to find out that he somehow contacted my sister and convinced her to schedule our Rombach family get-together this weekend. Which is also Fergifest weekend. This man will clearly stop at nothing to keep me from entering the annual lawnchair race. Two years ago he managed to get me a teaching job out of town during Fergifest so he wouldn’t have to race me. And now this. Well played, sir.

So I’m going to miss it, but get yourself up there this Saturday, April 4, for ski golfing, downhill races, potluck goodness, the bonfire at the lodge, music, dancing . . . and that most glorious of sporting events: the racing of lawnchairs on skis. I don’t have time to train an alternate pilot for my new generation of lawnchair racer. It took me months to build up tolerance in the G-force simulator. Plus the two weeks I spent at the Bonneville Salt Flats to work out the kinks on the new rocket propulsion system for my chair.

I will admit that in the past, when I have made it to the race, there were certain difficulties that resulted in me dragging my chair to the finish long after the champion was crowned. But I have bad news for you, Kissinger, and Blane Hayes, and all the rest of you lawnchair racers that manage to win or even just finish the race … this rocket fuel of mine will keep until next year, so I’ll wish you good luck now for both 2009 and 2010.

I’ll still need my competitive spirit this weekend, as the Rombachs have extremely fierce cribbage tournaments when we convene and the loser has to cut off a finger. Well, not the whole finger, but a joint anyway. Still, it makes you want to concentrate.

I will be building sand castles on the Oregon Coast with my nephews and nieces. Kites will be flown, clams will be chowdered, shrimps cocktailed and crabs louied. I can’t wait to be there to see my mom introduce her grandchildren to the exciting world of marine creatures. When my sisters and I were youngsters on a trip to the beach, Mom pointed out bobbing heads in the water and said, “Look, kids, otters.” A crowd soon gathered along the boardwalk as we pointed out the playful critters frolicking in the surf and dozens of pictures were being taken until some guy walked by and said, “Those aren’t otters, that’s seaweed bobbing around in the water.” Sure enough. But it was playful seaweed.

The forecast is for rough weather on the coast this week, which I’m looking forward to. I used to live on a sailboat, and the anxiety of having your home on the ocean during rough conditions is not a fond memory. It’s tough to sleep with the rigging slapping the mast in howling winds while your kitchen and bookshelves are dumping themselves onto the floor each time the boat rolls. Now I dearly love watching monster swells pound a coastline as I sip coffee behind the windows of a warm beachfront diner, delighted I no longer own a boat. When the weather is nice and I’m near the ocean, however, I scan the classified ads looking to buy another boat. What I need is a timeshare arrangement with a foul weather sailor who assumes ownership as soon as the barometer drops. They can also have the boat every year during Fergifest weekend, whatever the weather is doing. Because I’ll be in my lawnchair racer, ready for the race to start.

Razor Burn and Brimstone

I’ve been accused recently of not being civic-minded for my refusal to join the beard growing contest. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Enterprise being Enterprise. Or 150 years of Oregon statehood. Or the Wallowa County Courthouse turning 100. Those are nice, round numbers and I think letting facial hair run free around the county is a fine way to commemorate the olden days.

Beard growing and I simply do not get along. In a frightening way. Years ago I was living with a family in Costa Rica while I went to school down there. And I thought, hey, why not give the razor a rest. No particular reason, just seemed a good time to sprout whiskers. A month later things were looking patchy. I seem to have a medical condition where the beard follicles down the middle of my chin have migrated over to either side. That leaves a bare stripe down the center, while the corners of my chin compensate and grow these bushy . . . tufts, I guess you would call them.

The mother of the family I was staying with understood english well enough, but didn’t like to speak it. And I could comprende what she was saying in spanish, but made a terrible mess when I tried to put a sentence together in spanish. So we had nice conversations each morning in our two languages. She would say, “Quieres huevos?” I would answer, “That would be great. Thank you.” Then she would say, “De nada.”

She had been following the progress of my facial hair with some interest, assuring me that I looked muy guapo. But there came a morning when she seemed concerned as we ate our huevos and bacon beneath the framed picture of Jesus above the kitchen table. She pointed at my struggling beard with the two pointy patches on either side and informed me that I had una barba de diablo. A beard of the devil. Then she crossed herself quickly and glanced up at the portrait of Jesus.

Well, friends, that was the end of my beard growing days. I put down my fork, wiped my chin with my napkin in case there were any stray fragments of egg or brimstone on there, then marched upstairs to rid myself of that pointy monstrosity. So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t join in the local beard growing contest. I can handle the itching and scratching of growing a beard. It’s the being driven out of a community under a hail of rocks that I’d rather avoid.

For the record, I consider myself a pretty nice guy and am quite sure the prince of darkness does not manifest himself in my patchy chin hair. It’s an unfortunate resemblance, is all. Which is a shame. Because shaving is one of my least favorite activities.

For one thing, is it asking too much for the razor industry to standardize their replacement cartridges? There are razors called Mach 3 Turbo, Quattro Power, Tracer, Fusion, Xtreme . . . it sounds like a catalog of military ordinance rather than grooming products. I can never remember if I need to buy the Schick or Gillette and if it’s Turbo or Quad Cam and if it was three blades or four . . . do I get the surface-to-air heat seeking five blade cartridge with the soothing aloe strip? Or is it the fully automatic titanium self-cooling strafing howitzer model that pivots to reach those difficult spots?

They all look the same, so you guess. Next morning you find that you guessed wrong and there you are trying to shave by holding onto the sides of the little cartridge with your fingertips because none of the two dozen razor handles you own will fit the new blades.

I gave up on fancy razors long ago. Pitched the lot and went back to the cheap yellow single-blade models. It’s easy to remember which kind you need to buy, but the downside is that you get what you pay for. After shaving with economy razors, I come out of the bathroom looking like I’ve just lost a fight with a lynx.

So best of luck to the beard growers. I look forward to seeing the champions for the categories of longest beard, wildest or bushiest and best groomed. They’ll be announced at the celebration on July 11. I might still participate if I can talk them into adding a category for most pieces of toilet paper stuck to self-inflicted wounds from a cheap yellow razor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Making a Withdrawal from my Daylight Savings Account

We just got more daylight by changing the clocks. Which is good. But not really. The daylight was there, but our clocks weren’t. Every year when we go through this nonsense, and then back again, it looks to me like millions of otherwise intelligent people are agreeing to pretend we didn’t all just move our millions of little hands on our clocks and then say, “There. It’s five-o’-clock . . . again.”

I’ve never liked this daylight savings business. That’s not to say I don’t love daylight. Long summer days on the river are the best part of the year in my book.

But, really? Moving time back and forth? I’ve seen time travel movies. I know what happens when you go back in time or jump to the future. Every time we do this daylight savings ritual, I’m terrified we’re going to upset the earth-time continuum and throw the course of history off track.

We’re told this time jockeying benefits agricultural folks. I asked my rancher buddy if it made any difference to him what the clock said in regard to when he left the house or came in at night. He scowled, exhaled loudly, spat and walked off without answering. I’m going to take that as a “no.” Then again, that’s his response to many of my questions, so it’s hard to say.

It pains me to hear the rumor that Ben Franklin is responsible for thinking up daylight savings. I’m otherwise a fan of Ben’s work. He invented the kite, the lightning bolt, and perhaps his greatest gift to humanity -- the skullet, which is that fashionable hairstyle of going bald up top but still rocking the mullet in back.

There’s a Benjamin Franklin quote framed above the bar at our local brew pub, Terminal Gravity, which says, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I wonder if Franklin didn’t come up with that saying right before the idea for daylight savings time. That would explain a lot.

I was talking to my little sister Jessica the other day about my dislike of daylight savings. She agreed and said, “there should also be thirteen months.” I didn’t follow her on this, but she explained: Fifty-two weeks in a year. Thirteen goes into fifty-two a nice, even, four times. If we had thirteen months there wouldn’t be any of this twenty-nine days in this month, thirty-one in another. No more counting on your knuckles to see which month has how many days. I guess leap year might give us some trouble, but we could move our clocks ahead one day and then change them back to avoid any difficulty.

I’ve named the new month “Jessember,” in honor of my little sis. I may need to put a sundial and a replica of Stonehenge in my yard and start doing my scheduling that way. Otherwise all the stress of adjusting times and calendars is going to send me into baldness and one of those Ben Franklin mullets.

Better yet, I’ll just go rafting. River Time is my kind of time. You get there when you get there and instead of minutes or hours, it’s stretches of river and number of days.

The world might have been a lot different if Ben Franklin had got in some leisurely rafting trips. Put some sunscreen on his skullet, kicked back on the banks of the Salmon River in a lawnchair and said to himself, “You know, I think this country should adopt a time change to river time. It won’t help the agricultural folks any, but they don’t pay attention to what the clock says anyway . . . let’s make another batch of riveritas.”

Nacho Cheese Doritos vs. Wild

I got my big break in show business this past fall after the TV show Man vs. Wild filmed an episode in Hells Canyon. My exciting role in the production was to drive one of their rental trucks back to Wallowa County after the film crew flew out from Baker City. True, shuttling a vehicle isn’t exactly a starring role, but I did get to clean the garbage out of the rig and that provided some revealing behind-the-scenes tidbits.

For instance, nacho cheese Doritos seem to be an essential food source for filming survival situations. Also convenience store beef jerky. There were many bags of both items left behind.

They also left a copy of their filming schedule on the dashboard, and it makes for interesting reading. If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s a summary from the Discovery Channel website: “In each episode of Man vs. Wild Bear strands himself in popular wilderness destinations where tourists often find themselves lost or in danger. As he finds his way back to civilization, he demonstrates local survival techniques….”

“Bear” Grylls is the nickname of the host. Short for Edward Michael Grylls. I don’t watch much TV, so the filming schedule made much more sense once I learned that Bear was a person. Before that I was puzzled how they knew that on Day 2, they were going to film “Bear on the benches” near Buckhorn Overlook between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

At 10:30, “Bear comes to the edge of steep drop – woooooah this is hairy.” Then “Bear descends into valley, rocks are all loose.” Followed by an “actuality of Bear leaping around” for sequence 2.3 and while I don’t actually know what an actuality is, I don’t believe I’d ever seen the word “woooooah” before either. But these are show business terms, so I won’t question them.

Later that day, at 1:30 in the afternoon, “Camera catches up with Bear – looks like a leg bone.” “Bear finds carcass – here it is – what’s left…” Then “Bear using stick to take out marrow.”

I was looking forward to seeing the show, as I’ve been working in Hells Canyon for the past couple summers doing rafting trips. I want to be prepared if there ever comes a time when I have to rely on survival tactics to get myself out of the deepest canyon in the lower 48.

I did find myself in dire straits on one trip last year, when we ran out of beer and I was forced to drink nothing but water and Gatorade for a full day and a half. I don’t like to talk about it.

I thought I was getting to know the canyon fairly well, having floated through there a dozen or so times and studying up on the geography. But in the Man vs. Wild show he encounters a frozen lake that he says is in Hells Canyon, and I have to confess that was news to me.

I do know of a small, stagnant pond in Hells Canyon, but no lake surrounded by conifers like Bear discovers. But that’s OK with me. He crawls out on the ice and falls through, so I’d just as soon stay clear of that dangerous mystery lake that doesn't appear on any maps.

I did glean some useful pointers from the show. For instance, I never would have had the good sense to polevault down a steep slope with loose rocks. It’s right here on the filming schedule, at 8:30 a.m. – “Dead Pine/Larch – This could be the answer, makes polevault.” I wasn’t trained by the British Special Air Service as Bear was, so in my ignorance I would have thought that swinging through the air and landing on loose scree would be a good way to break an ankle. But now I know better and if ever I need to make my way out of a steep remote area, polevaulting will be my preferred mode of travel. Good to know.

I’m preparing myself for another rafting season in Hells Canyon by laying in emergency rations of Doritos and store-bought jerky. I’m also on the lookout for a good dead pine or larch to make a survival polevault from and plan to use the word “woooooah” in conversation as much as possible.

Jon Rombach is a regular columnist for the Chieftain and a shuttle driver to the stars. He can be reached at