Summer Scrapbook 2011

Click to magnify the majestic mightiness that is this self aggrandizing landscape photo.

The Summer of 2011 has been a most majestic and mighty season, rife with victory, spiced with bravado.  It is a rump roast sliced from the hind quarters of a noble beast (perhaps a liger), turning on a spit over the fires of glory.  As we savor it, our hearts swell with secondhand triumph made bittersweet by the piquance of sorrow, for despite its lush and verdant beauty, its free-floating firefly constellations at night, the dancing gold of its lakes, ponds, and oceans by day, each succulent bite consumed brings us ever closer to the simultaneous bitch slap/nut punch/horrifying full nelson of winter.

For me, the Summer of 2011 was a barely-averted altercation with a stranger at a camp store.  It was hiking the rocky bluffs at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin.  It was almost getting my ass kicked at the Am Vet’s Lodge in Higgin’s Lake Michigan. Yet it was so much more. This summer brought the Resurrection of Santa’s Village kiddie amusement park, a jaunt to the Circus World Museum, an encounter with John Muir‘s clock, as well as the Ghost of Peter Falk.

Without a doubt, my particular cut of this delicious creature was rich and rewarding.   I pay tribute to it today in the only way a middle-aged midwestern woman such as myself knows how: in scrapbook format.

Santa's Village

I was almost as terrified as I pretended to be.

Dream Bucket

Dream Buckets Prohibited

The AmVets Lodge in HigginsLake, Michigan is a compound of sorts comprised of a city-block- sized patch of 4 bedroom “cottages”, identical in their barracks aesthetic and brown siding.  Presiding over this micro-community is The Lodge, suitably big and white and elderly.  The nagging question “Is this ersatz urban design a tribute to the institutional racism of the military or a product of it?” dogged my stay at the AmVets.  To avoid opening this pandora’s box of paranoia, I spent a lot of time drinking beer on the shore at the communal firepit. 

 I was surrounded by Kevins—five of them in total: male Kevins, female Kevins, all of varying shades of middle age and states of undress.  Their faces danced in the firelight, illuminating and disappearing like jack-o-lanterns.  Every word they exchanged was stripped of language by the heavy humidity and smoke.  From what I could tell, what I was hearing was a bizarre throw-back translation of the primal roots of human utterance: grunts of derision and murmurs of supplication.

Just a few minutes before, they were ordinary people—working class people, sunburnt by a day spent swimming, tubing, and fishing, too hot to change out of their swimsuits, drinking too much by the fire.  A lot like me, but flabbier and crabbier.  They had names, too—Steve and Tuesdee, Tami and Larry, Mike and Deb, the silent Chuck—but something happened somewhere within the context of my fifth beer to transform them all into living variations of my terrifying redneck neighbor Kevin.

I sipped my beer and feigned mild impassivity.  But inside, I was freaking the hell out.

Kevin had emerged from the house behind ours last May with the apparent intent to become the bane of my existence.  He set up his hateful, misogynistic, homophobic hillbilly empire, complete with plastic furniture, blasting classic rock, and pig smoker, right in his back yard.   And there he would sit for hours on end in his dingy wifebeater, drinking beer, and glaring in the middle distance.  He loomed in the background of my every suburban backyard memory like an uninvited carnie vulture .  No interaction with Kevin was complete without abrupt references to child molesters and untimely death.  Kate says he has no filter between his mouth and his brain, but I contend that there is no brain, that his thoughts come from some subterranean vortex of darkness and fire (a hell if you will); his jaw is manipulated by some unseen claw.  He’s a demonic ventriloquist dummy, blank-eyed and barking “Death! Death! Death!”

And then, without so much of a “Hey!  HEY!” (his customary greeting, waving his arms at us as if we were fleeing taxicabs in a bad neighborhood, which in a sense we were), Kevin was everywhere I looked.  None of the people assembled around the AM Vets fire pit looked remotely like Kevin, who himself looked like a Grizzly Adams with a sour apple bowling split dental snarl.  But  somehow, they manifested the darkness and danger that is Kevin, or at least his hatefulness and ignorance, which I consider his lighter side.

Thankfully, I was not alone.  One of my partner Kate’s relatives sat next to me. Tall and gregarious and male, Clark possesses three attributes which pretty much write interpersonal meal tickets of all kinds, from marriage to public office.  As a short, standoffish female, I really value my associations with guys like Clark, especially when I’m surrounded by Kevins. Clark gamely attempted to build social bridges made of NASCAR references, blond jokes, and Toby Keith quotes.  This is what’s called “putting your best foot forward.”  But he was trying too hard, spreading it on too thick. The Tribe Called Kevin was not impressed.  They responded to Clark’s good ol’ beer-positive patriot persona with grunts of contempt and suspicion.  The Kevin consensus: Clark is no Kevin.

I think Clark realized this, too.  Resorting to a belt of Jaeger, he nudged the flask in my direction.  I forgot that I hate the taste of licorice in the desperation of the moment.

“I like your shirt,” I find myself blurting to Alpha Kevin, “It’s just like Belushi’s in ‘Animal House’.”

It was a gutsy move, trying to make nice with the mighty silverback.   I had noticed that no statement issued by any of the Lesser Kevins lacked an approval-seeking side glance to Alpha Kevin.  If the game were to be changed, it had to be achieved by affecting some sort of change of heart within Alpha Kevin, provided he had a heart to change.

This proved not to be the case.  At all.  Probably taken aback by the fact that I had spoke without having been spoken to, Alpha Kevin blinked, and looked down at his T shirt, as if I had pointed out it had a quiche stain on it.  The word “College” boasted across his chest with a resounding, very nearly hilarious emptiness.

“I don’t know what the fuck yer talkin about.  My wife got this at a yard sale for 3 bucks,” growled Alpha Kevin.  The She-Kevins tittered in appreciation of the put-down.

“Don’t pay any attention to her,”Clark chuckled, “She’s crazy.”

Summoned to the firepit like a genie of “crazy”, Joe suddenly appeared.  Joe is my future brother-in-law.  He can always be counted upon to introduce the element of surreality into almost any situation.  He once invented “The Standanball”, a cannonball dive executed from a standing position in waist deep water.  A few years ago, Joe serenaded my infant daughter with a soothing, yet bewildering Gregorian lullaby of totally bogus Latin.   He tucks in all of his shirts, belts many of his pants, and has a penchant for sunglass cross dressing.  And, like me, (apparently) he may very well be crazy.  For these reasons, and a few more too sentimental to mention within this context, Joe is one of my favorite people.

Oblivious to the roiling undercurrent of class resentment, simmering like an unseen cauldron over the fire, Joe plopped down next to Kevin the Quiet and somehow salvaged the various grunts that passed for conversation and fashioned a segue into a whimsical monologue about something called a “Dream Bucket.”  From what I could gather, the Dream Bucket was a depository into which the fondest wishes of those not in a position to fulfill them, would be left.  It was unclear to me what would happen to the Dream Bucket once it was filled with the Kevins’ unspeakable Jedgar Allen Poe dreams, but nevertheless, for a minute there, it struck me as a pretty fun concept.

But it was also a profoundly weird concept.  The frozen grin on Clark’s face seemed to indicate that it was also a dangerously weird concept.  As it turned out, the Kevins had no appreciation for fun OR concepts—weird or otherwise.  There was also a pronounced hatred of dreams, if my translation of the derisive snorts and provincial swears can be relied upon.

Ominously, silence overtook the members of The Tribe Called Kevin.  They began to leave the circle of firelight individually and in pairs without saying a word to anyone, heading into the darkness perhaps in search of blunt objects with which to kill us.

“Come on,”Clark said almost under his breath, depositing his flask into his cooler and carefully closing it, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

How the three of us managed to walk away from The Kevin Incident with our lives will remain a mystery lost in the smoke of the AM Vets fire pit.

Summer fun in the sun with Joe!

This contraption is a multi-purpose clock, invented by my personal hero naturalist John Muir. Madison, WI.


The Camp Store Check Out Dude pauses as he checks out my purchases to check out the tattoo on my chest.  His glance hovers over the neckline of my tank top.  “Temptation,” he reads aloud, haltingly.

“Younger days, different times,” I shrug and smile.  It’s my stock response: a short story that writes itself with a tidy “live to tell” ending.  Most people are satisfied with it, find something in it with which they can relate, and then let it go with an “ain’t that the truth” chuckle.  They nearly always do.

But Camp Store Check Out Dude does not chuckle.  He does not smile.  He holds my gaze, expectantly. He is clearly not one of those people.

“I’ve cleaned up my act considerably,” I offer, hoping to speed things along to the part where he takes my money, hands me my receipt, and tells me to stay out of trouble.

“You’ve got to stay strong every single day,” he admonishes me.  On his face is a look so earnest, I’d swear that he would have grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me off the ledge I occupied in his imagination if I hadn’t taken a defensive microstep backwards.

Realizing that I’d been cast as a fallen woman of some kind (a stripper or a drunk or a junkie or some horrifying amalgamation thereof), I nod my head. “You got that right,” I say.  In all actuality, I’m more of a stumbled woman: a doobies and Doritos dabbler with a penchant for dirty jokes, but it’s a nuance that lacked the time, place, or audience.

“That tattoo is there to remind you to fight that temptation,” Camp Store Check Out Dude says, exuding no small sense of pride for making what was quite possibly the most original observation ever made within the confines of a Wisconsin camp store.

Paying homage to the Tattooed Lady. Circus World Museum, Baraboo, WI

“Then I guess I must have known what I was doing when I got it,” I said.  And to tell the truth of it, I only thought I knew what I was doing.  At the time, I thought that getting a big, scary, Bic-and-a-dart-all-night-long jailhouse masterpiece on my chest would serve the same purpose as saying “leave me the hell alone” without the annoyance of having to continually repeat myself.

He smiles.  He is satisfied at last.

As I push my money across the counter, I have to admit to myself that perhaps “Temptation” was not the best choice of words.  Camp Store Dude was right about one thing: the tattoo was a reminder of something, and that is no matter what word one carves into one’s chest, be it a single three syllable word, a Bible verse, or a battle ship, it will always say “Cautionary Tale In Progress” or at the very least “Ask Me How Much It Hurt!”

He’s right.  I do need to fight the temptation.  But it’s not the temptation to backslide into my she-Dude past.   Instead, it’s the temptation be unkind to those who misjudge me based on my own very obvious evidence of poor judgment.  Camp Store Dude means well.  He’s probably the best sponsor an AA refugee could ask for.  I’d be willing to bet he’s a Big Brother in a spare time, or at least an epic tipper at the gentleman’s club.  But just the same, I still feel the words “It’s just a fucking tattoo, you idiot!” rising like bile in the back of my throat.

“Stay strong,” he says, handing me my receipt and ticket out of the conversation.

He smiles at me kindly.

I have no choice but to give him the thumbs up on the way out the door.

Blending in at the circus wagon exhibit, Circus World Museum, Baraboo, WI

The Hard Way

“Raging Waves,Chicago’s largest water park—Raging Waves packs a day FULL of exhilarating family fun in this 45-Acre waterpark!”

 “Family Fun Festival—Millennium Park is the place for kids to just be kids, all summer long!  Enjoy free family performances and hands-on activities daily from 10 AM- 3 PM in the Family Fun Tent”

 “Balanced Rock—A difficult, steep, climbing trail with stone steps on the south face of the East Bluff.  Spectacular views of Devil’s Lake with the Balanced Rock Formation off to the south of the trail.  (.3 mile, approximate hiking time 1 hour)”

The options spread before us, endless goat trails paved with promotional hyperbole and glossy pamphlets, all of which leading to the happiness horizon known as The Family Vacation.  We have one week together, to do what we want.  It is clear that what we want is fun, family fun, to be exact, but what to do?  What kind of fun is right for this family?  What kind of family is this, anyway?  The kind of family that shriekingly succumbs to the forces of gravity and lolls meaninglessly in an aquatic pleasure park or any other setting, for that matter?  The kind of family that would even be caught dead in something called a “Family Fun Tent?”  No, this is a family that sees through the pre-fab consumer establishment and adheres to the path of The Hard Way.

The Hard Way doesn’t  just appeal to our self-image as rugged rebels or provides a sense of accomplishment and personal fulfillment, it’s also a hell of a lot cheaper than the path of least resistance. We are a family that shops at the Goodwill.  A family that goes to the library for fun.  A family that grows and cans its own produce.  A family that not only owns power tools, but knows how to use them.  A family that pretends to karate-chop sequoias into toothpicks and slays dragons named Sarah Palin for playtime.  We are two Amazons and our cub.   We will go to the park with the scary name and climb the forbidding rocks and we will have fun—family fun.

Amazons and Cub, Devil’s Lake, Baraboo, WI.

*                                        *                                        *

The plan was to start off on the Balanced Rock trail, meet up with the East Bluff Trail, and then rendezvous with the Devils Doorway.  Kate and I sat, sipping coffee from our butch-looking cups, with the map spread before us, and with it, a quiet sense of satisfaction.  The red dotted lines of the trails looked like bloody sutures across the rugged green topography.  This hike was certain to suck horrifying existential balls of fire for any lesser family.  It was perfect.

The Cub (I will be referring to Mabel as The Cub throughout this piece in the interest of bad ass tone maintenance) regarded us over her bowl of unrecognizable slop.   That the slop was once Life cereal a half hour before is a testament to her own unwavering commitment to The Hard Way.  Would it have not been easier to accept the breakfast given, and in so doing, satisfy her hunger while enjoying the cereal in its peak condition?  Yes.  But would doing so appease the Powers That Be, thus rendering The Cub a mere cog in the machine? Never a slave to the agenda, The Cub manifests her mettle with sullenness and slop, making it clear that she is going to be A Problem.

This is nothing new for Kate and me.  One of our first Family Fun vacation memories consists of our taking turns carrying the then-eighteen month old Cub in third-worldly sling-like contraption while her cries of outrage and defiance rang mightily throughout Yosemite valley.  The subversion within our ranks only adds a tangy high note of irony to savory buffet we call The Hard Way.

*                                    *                                        *

The bluffs flanking Devil’s Lake aren’t bluffs as much as they are rock piles.  And they aren’t rock piles as much as they are fucking rock piles.  It’s difficult to describe these fucking rock piles without alluding to the Warner Bros. cartoons featuring the likes of Yosemite Sam or Sylvester, clad in convict drag, hammering senselessly at the sky-high fucking rock piles of impossible redemption.  Perhaps inspired by the travails of Sam and Sylvester, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dispatched a small army of young men to Devil’s Lake, on a mission to carve a stairway through the rocky bluff, and, offer up as sacrifice to the eponymous Devil of the Lake any and all vestiges of their youth and innocence in the process.

Mabel, Kate, Fucking Rock Pile.

It should probably be mentioned that we hiked this trail on a 90 degree day.  Sheathed in a cool silky sweat on my back and stomach, panting at the soggy oxygen languishing in the heavy humidity, my sandals (yes, I said sandals—not candy-ass hiking boots or even wussy tennis shoes—sandals) occasionally slipping against the more insidious purple quartzite surfaces, I feel the fulfillment of my badass destiny.  Until of course, I realize Kate is not only several yards ahead of me, doing everything I’m doing only more robustly, more efficiently, but also with The Cub swinging from her left hand like a priest’s censer, dispensing fragrant whines to the craggy congregation.  She is, in this and many other regards, truly my better half.

I’m not sure exactly at what point above sea level that The Cub began her assault against the agenda.  The progression from inarticulate whines to general complaints of physical discomfort was a de rigor element of Family Fun.  Kate had long ago learned to pack plenty of snacks and water to curb the onslaught.  Perhaps sensing a challenge proportionate to the dimensions of the monstrous fucking rock pile, The Cub stepped up her game.  “I gotta go potty!  I have to poop!”

Family Fun!

The bomb had been dropped.  We had left the nearest bathroom hundreds of sweaty, rocky steps below, and had no hope of one in the immediate vicinity.  As it happened, Kate had also packed toilet paper, but the barren setting afforded no purchase for The Cub’s dirty deposit.  Kate disguised her exasperation with potty promises for “big hiker girls who make it to the top”.  And try as I might to bring levity to the situation, it was hard to shake the feeling that the very bluffs themselves had conspired with the Cub in this particular poop d’etat attempt.

The Hard Way beckoned.  We marched on, spurred by a sense of urgency, hostages of our daughter’s ass that we were.  Balanced Rock and The Devil’s Doorway awaited us.

*                                        *                                      *

In everyday life, a person does not get many opportunities to demonstrate strength, endurance, and fearlessness.  Pushing the body and the mind to work together to achieve an heroic physical triumph of some kind seems to me like an essential function of the human animal.  Lacking any real physical challenges to daily existence like, say, having to walk a mile to a water source and back, while balancing pottery on one’s head or being forced to contend with the threat of natural predators, we languish.  We pollute our bodies with the food we eat, and our minds with passive, empty entertainment.  Modern existence mostly consists of navigating the flat line of endless tedium.  Jesus, it makes me want to run naked and screaming around and around the nearest cul-de-sac just thinking about it, so allow me to wrap up my sermon by saying that escaping the flat line is why hiking to a great height appeals to me.  It may also explain why triathlons and marathons are becoming the cultural craze of the day, too, but that’s a tirade for a different writer.

Seeing Balanced Rock, doing its impossible headstand, was a reward also lacking in everyday life.  Wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, it calls to mind a primitive sculptural tribute to a tornado.  That it stood for countless years, in perfect equilibrium and in utter defiance of  gravity’s pull, somehow struck me as a geological endorsement of The Hard Way.  “Right on, you bad-ass Amazons!” Balanced Rock seemed to say, “Keep on keepin’ on!”

Devil’s Doorway

When we reached the top, The Cub celebrated our accomplishment with a triumphant dump right on the summit.  (Take that, you fucking rock pile!)

At Devil’s Doorway we met up with a small gang of hipsters, one of whom scaled the scary climb up into to the eponymous doorway itself.  Young, tattooed, dreadlocked, and sinewy, she struck a Righteous Babe pose as the girl she was clearly showing off for, snapped her picture.  Witnessing such blossoming Amazonian badassery, I couldn’t help but smile like a grandma at a graduation ceremony.

We had come to a place of serenity and stillness.  Freed from the world below and somehow from myself at the same time, I couldn’t stop smiling.  The sparkling, azure lake below was small enough to be framed by my hands, like a visual aid to a fish story nobody back on the flat line would ever believe.

Presenting the MVP of the Summer of 2011

An eerie encounter with the Ghost of Peter Falk. Circus World, Baraboo, WI.

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13 Responses to “Summer Scrapbook 2011”

  1. Gus Says:

    Like. The like button was too easy, so I liked this The Hard Way”(tm).

  2. mandy w Says:

    A perfect read for an insomnia night!

  3. Sharonie Baloney Says:

    Great post! We went to Circus World a few years ago and LOVED it. More people need to visit the funky little gems of the midwest.

  4. Kelly Says:

    One of your all-time best blogs. Your descriptions of the Kevins…I could see those people. I could *smell* those people. I think you handled the tattoo situation with grace and aplomb.

    Kickass collagery skills, too!

  5. Laura Says:

    SO GOOD!!!!!

  6. the bored carnivore Says:

    If you find someone that doesn’t like Joe, you’ve found someone not worth knowing. “Weird”, “awkward”, “obnoxious” and “oblivious” all magically become “endearing” when executed by Joe. Which so annoying it is endearing…

  7. Jack Says:

    This is just brilliant, absolutely brilliant!

  8. Carole Says:

    You are an amazing writer – just amazing. So glad I found this site.

  9. Melba Says:

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one today.

    • Hellraisin Says:

      Thank you so much, Melba! I simply used the Kubrick template here at WordPress–nothing fancy! I’m taking a blogging hiatus right now to focus on my growing family (baby Lucy joined Mabel, Kate, and myself in October), but I shall return! Thanks for checking out the Gospel Hour!

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