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Fire and Water Mix at NYC Fire Museum

Even long-time Manhattan residents can be forgiven for not knowing about the New York Fire Museum, given its tucked-away location between Soho and Tribeca. When I visited a couple years ago on a late December afternoon characterized by what weathermen call “a wintry mix,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. Demonstrations featuring flames – or, better yet – flame-throwers? The definitive history of the bonfire? A rogue’s gallery of famous arsonists?

While the Museum does not, in fact, feature any of the above, it is nevertheless a safe and absorbing way to while away an afternoon on the kind of day when just the thought of fire brings a welcome tingle of warmth to one’s chilly limbs. Located on Spring Street just off Varick, the Fire Museum spans three full floors of a renovated 1906 Beaux-Arts firehouse. According to its website, the Museum’s mission is “… to collect, preserve and present the history and cultural heritage of the fire service of New York and to provide fire prevention and safety education to the public, especially children.” Ah, that clears things up nicely, thank you very much.

Where to begin? Well, if you have small children in tow, they’ll likely enjoy the parade of gaily-painted ladder wagons and horse- and hand-pump engines dating as far back as 1830. If you’re a Home Depot kind of guy or gal, you’ll relish a browse through the extensive array of firefighting tools used by the Bravest from the early 1800’s to the present, including lockbreakers, mauls, axes, buckets, bolt cutters, roof saws, reducing caps, controlling nozzles, hoses, lanterns, spanners and wrenches and, for those attracted to the extremes of fire rescue, a jaws of life and a wall-mounted life net (“When you see the life net come out, things are bad,” according to a quote from Firefighter Donald van Holt posted next to the display).

Have you ever wondered about the provenance of those poles used by shimmying firefighters across the country? If so, you’ll be pleased to learn that they were invented in 1878 by Captain David B. Kenyon who worked the Chicago fire department. Kenyon’s pole was made of wood, which, according to early accounts, made for an often splintery ride down.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and, as far as the Museum is concerned, there’s also water. “You really can’t fight fire without water – there’s no way to do it. You really need that element,” Damon Campagna, the Museum’s executive director, told me during a phone interview. So for you non-firebugs, there’s a also lot of water-related history here, including documents related to the establishment in 1799 of The Manhattan Company, formed after fourteen years of political dithering, and chaired by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the days when they were still on speaking terms. Political and financial tomfoolery was ripe then as now, and, according to Campagna, of the $2 million initially raised by the Manhattan Company, only $100,000 was actually used to kickstart the city water project, the other $1.9 million being siphoned off by Burr to fund the Manhattan Bank, a rival to Hamilton’s Bank of New York and precursor of today’s Chase Manhattan Bank.

There’s also history about the city’s water mains (which, in the 1820’s, were fashioned – badly – from hollowed tree trunks) and hydrants (the city’s first was installed at the corner of William and Liberty Streets in 1808 and, yep, there’s still one there today). If you or a close relative have ever been unfortunate enough to be called “plug ugly,” you might be interested to know that, in the 1850’s, a “Plug Ugly” referred to a ruffian hired to guard locally operated hydrants from would-be water thieves in the 1850’s. And did you know that the term “fire plug” came from the holes drilled in wood water mains to obtain “the wet to put out the red”? I didn’t think so, and neither did I until I visited the Museum.

Understandably, water companies, then as now, were eager to allay public concerns about the quality of their product. Included on the list of “Queries to the Superintendent of the Manhattan Water Works and His Answers Thereto,” a kind of FAQ for the water-imbibing populace of 1823, was this:

Q: Is not the Manhattan Water deemed a wholesome water?

A: The Manhattan Water is considered wholesome. I drink it and have experienced no unwholesome effects from it, nor have I ever heard of any. The water appears as pure and clean as any I ever saw.

The claimed purity of Manhattan’s water as supplied by the Manhattan Company was put to the test when, in 1842, the city’s water source was switched to the Croton Reservoir in Westchester. Noted diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in July of that year “There’s nothing new in town, except the Croton Water which is full of tadpoles and animalculae and which moreover flows through an aqueduct which I hear was used as a necessary by all the Hibermian (sic) vagabonds who worked upon it.” Yuck.

If, like me, you are immediately drawn to all things animal-related, you’ll get a kick out of the framed 1936 Diploma of Honor from Dog World International bestowed on “Chief” (breed: “just a dog”). Chief rescued a cat from a blazing tenement in Boston, grabbing it by the scruff of its neck and ferrying it down three flights of stairs. Chief’s heroic form, taxidermied and mounted, can be viewed behind glass on the Museum’s first floor.

Speaking of dogs, their jobs as firehouse mascots in the days when pumps were equine-driven consisted mainly of keeping other dogs from harassing the horses. And contrary to what you might believe, Dalmatians were the preferred breed of firehouse mascot not because of their fetching black-and-white spotted ensembles, but because they were long winded and capable of keeping up with the horses as they raced to fires across the city.

The first fire horse (no name or breed noted) was purchased in New York City in 1832, when the Volunteer Fire Department’s manpower had been greatly depleted by a citywide epidemic of Asiatic cholera. (There is a cholera warning poster displayed in the museum that is both funny and cringe-inducing, urging citizens to “Be Temperate in Eating and Drinking!”, “Attend immediately to all disorders of the Bowels” and “Abstain from Cold Water, when heated, and above all, from ARDENT SPIRITS.”). As is generally the case for early adopters throughout history, those first fire companies to start using horses were widely ridiculed for being “weak” and “unmanly,” though I suspect not a peep was heard when the transition was eventually made to steam and diesel powered vehicles. The last of the city’s fire horses were retired from duty in a ceremony appropriate to their service and widely covered by the media on December 20, 1922.

‘Tis the season, you’ll want to be sure to check out the Museum’s tidy gift shop featuring an array of fire-related and firefighting videos, books, puzzles, hats, water bottles and, of course, t-shirts, which according to Ashley Whelan, Operations and Store Manager, are the shop’s most popular item. And for those for whom price is no object? The $70 “job shirt,” the on-the-job sweatshirt worn by city firefighters (sorry, currently out-of-stock), is the shop’s most expensive item. For the more miserly, there are plush stuffed Dalmatian dogs ($14), tree ornaments ($8.50 to $11.50), FDNY socks ($4 to $7 per pair) and, for the truly Scrooge-like, magnets and badges ($2 each), and pencils and sharpeners (a steal at a buck each).

And no fire-related emporium would be complete without those beefcake calendars featuring a photo of a different, ripped firefighter each month. I asked Campagna if he had purchased the 2014 FDNY Heroes calendar yet. “Well, I used to get one for free, when I was in them,” Campagna, a non-firefighter, joked. “But not any more.”

This being Manhattan, I couldn’t resist asking Whelan if, say, Robert DeNiro or other local celebs ever stopped by. “Hah, that’s a good one,” she laughed. “We know they’re out there but they don’t seem all that interested in us here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blog: Mental Muddles

I fear I’m losing my mind. Literally.

In the past month, I’ve lost car keys and credit cards. I’ve missed appointments, been late for social occasions and bungled recipes. What’s worse, I appear incapable of comprehending much of what Frank says to me.

Here’s a typical exchange:

FRANK: When you stop by the grocery later, would you please pick up three eggplants?

ME: We have plenty of eggs in the ‘fridge.

FRANK: Who said anything about eggs? I said “eggplants.”

ME: Oh. Got it.

FRANK: Also, I’ve got a meeting on Nevada this evening.

ME: In Novato? Better leave early to avoid traffic.

FRANK: What? Why would I be going to Novato? NEVADA. You know, the street that intersects ours? Where the Indivisible group meetings are held?

ME: Oh. Got it. Say, how about going to see the sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” tonight?

FRANK: Sure – EXCEPT THAT I’VE GOT A MEETING ON NEVADA!

ME: Well, you don’t have to shout. I’m not deaf.

Yesterday, per Frank’s request, I stopped by Mollie Stone’s to purchase eggs and other edible sundries. I slung my purse and canvas grocery tote over my shoulder, locked the Subaru and headed into the store.

Finished with my shopping and back at the car, I fumbled for my keys, only to come up empty-handed. I turned my purse inside out and unpacked the egg-filled tote. Nothing. I trotted back inside the market and made a beeline for the produce aisle. Fifteen minutes ago, I’d snagged two leeks from a high shelf in a display case. In the process, I managed to topple a half dozen onto the floor, which in turn nearly toppled an elderly man edging past me toward the broccoli.

Surely, I thought, you dropped my keys during the leek incident. I groped through the leeks – and, for good measure, the bundled broccoli too. Still nothing. I retraced my steps four times around the store, peering behind loaves of whole wheat bread and manhandling packages of skinless chicken breasts. I crouched down onto my hands and knees to search under a pallet of artfully displayed boxes of crackers, only to discover that Mollie Stone’s was woefully behind in its dust-mopping.

My mind was racing, my anxiety meter spiking like a meat thermometer under a flaming broiler.

You see, it was only three weeks ago when I’d called Frank from a trail high in the Marin Headlands to inform him I couldn’t find my car keys. Given that we only own one car, this meant that Frank had to slog two miles from our house to the parking lot at the trailhead with a spare set. Which was highly inconvenient, given that he had a meeting that afternoon in either Novato or on Nevada, I forget which. Five minutes before he arrived, I found the keys under the car.

“Next time you hit the trail,” he’d warned me, “I’m going to staple the key to your forehead.”

I gave up my search and approached the friendly cashier who’d tallied my purchases less than a half hour earlier. “Has anyone turned in a set of car keys?” I asked.

She gave me a measured look. By now, I had raked my hands through my pony-tailed hair so many times it resembled a tangled thicket of brown yarn. I’d come to the store straight from working in the garden, and my worn out yoga pants and green t-shirt were liberally splattered with mud.

No doubt feeling pity for the disheveled wretch before her, the cashier left her post and accompanied me on another fruitless search of the store. Then she spied the manager; he was rearranging cartons of diced fruit in a refrigerator case. “Wait here a sec,” she told me. “I’m gonna ask him if anyone’s found your keys.”

I couldn’t hear their exchange, but imagine it went something like this:

CASHIER: See the crazy lady over there? The one who looks like she just crawled out of a mulch pile? Says she lost her keys.

MANAGER: I know the type. Probably lives on a rowboat in the harbor and hasn’t owned a car since Reagan. Just humor her – and try and hustle her out of the store pronto, OK?

CASHIER: No prob.

By this time, I was fingering my cell phone, thinking about the call I was about to make to Frank.

Recalling the staple threat, I considered my options. I could concoct a story of premeditated thievery, perhaps involving the elderly man and his broccoli. Or claim I’d been forced to throw the car key away because its battery had exploded.

But in the end, whimpering slightly, I called and fessed up to my sin. Once again, Frank hoofed it to yet another parking lot, spare keys in hand. On the way home, I made a mental note to hide the stapler the minute his back was turned.

We stopped by the market again this morning. I wanted to scope out the area where I’d plucked a plastic bag for my leeks. Maybe, leeks in one hand, keys in another, my brain had decided the bag was more important than the keys, and so had instructed me to ditch one for the other.

I was stomping back and forth in front of the tomatoes when a fifty-something woman with frowzy, dyed-blonde hair and patches of beige foundation on her cheeks intercepted me.

“Lose something?” she asked.

I told her my sorry tale. “Trust me,” she said confidently. “I can help.” Like a magician reaching into his hat for a rabbit, she plunged a hand into a side pocket of her bag and rummaged around. When the hand emerged, it was holding … a tarot card. She considered it for a second, then waved it in front of my face, which made it difficult to discern the image. But I thought I detected a gowned woman looking down at several golden tubs (or urns?) drifting around her feet.

“Aha!” she exclaimed. “Your keys – you left them right here!” She looked around wildly, perhaps believing the tarot card had summoned the keys from their hidey-hole.

“But I’ve already combed this entire area!” I wailed.

“No matter,” she responded briskly. “The cards don’t lie. And, by the way, never claim you ‘lost’ something. Say instead you ‘mislaid’ it. It’s got a much more positive aura.”

I spotted the manager, who was, once again, sorting pre-packaged fruit. “Yeah, I remember you,” he said to me. “Found your keys just a few minutes ago.” He nodded to a crate of watermelons mere feet from the leek display. “Buried in the melons.”

Now, I rarely buy watermelon, so how my keys had ended up in a barrel of them was beyond my ken. But then again, it’s entirely possible I’d mistaken the melons for, well, leeks. Or eggs.

My psychic puffed out her chest like a pigeon. “I knew it!” she said. “Or, rather, the cards knew it.”

Later, while Frank drove us down to Los Gatos, I pondered the image on my psychic’s tarot card. Curious, I emailed my editor (who, coincidentally, is a bona fide tarot reader) a quick recap of my key caper and a sketchy description of the card I’d glimpsed.

She replied almost immediately:

Likely, the card was the Four or Five of Cups.

The basic meaning of the Four of Cups is that you are literally not looking at something that is being offered to you just out of your field of vision.

The basic meaning of the Five of Cups is that you’ve LOST something (usually at an emotional level, but, well, keys!), which is illustrated by several toppled cups in front of the main figure, and you are mourning that loss, but that if you turn around, you’ll see two cups still standing behind you waiting for you to acknowledge them.

Either way, what a cool interpretation that the keys were right there! Plus, watermelons could definitely equal tarot Cups.

I’m not sure what she meant by this last line. To my way of thinking, watermelons and cups are about as similar as eggs and eggplants.

But more to the point, who would’ve thought a chance encounter at Mollie Stone’s would prove the eerily predictive power of the tarot? Could a tarot reading solve my cognitive dilemmas? Or would it only confirm my worst fears: that a neurological virus was gnawing its way through the synapses of my brain? My condition would worsen to the point where I can’t distinguish Frank from a stapler. I won’t be allowed to drive, and will spend my days sequestered in the house, fondling car keys and pouring over maps of Nevada.

Maybe, I comfort myself, you’re simply distracted: by the men digging fence holes in the backyard, by the thought of the two dozen eggs in the refrigerator, by the worry that at any moment San Francisco will be the unfortunate recipient of North Korea’s nuclear gift to Donald Trump.

But for now? The 101 freeway beckons. If I could only remember where I left my wallet…

 

Blog: Leader of the Pack

“I think they took the wrong turn at the fork,” I say to Bob, the leader for our group hike today in the wheat-colored hills above Muir Beach.

There are fourteen of us winding our way up the trail through contrails of fog. Bob, an energetic hiker, has powered ahead of the group, leaving some members straggling behind. We’ve just switched trails, from the Diaz Ridge to the Miwok, when we discover three members of the group have gone missing.

Bob swears. “Anyone know the way down so I can go back and find them?” I raise my hand. “OK, you’re in charge,” Bob says, and hightails it back the way we’d come.

OK, so it’s not easy organizing and running hiking groups. I should know: I’m now on my second women’s walking group, here in Sausalito.

My first group, in Connecticut, attracted a couple dozen followers, through only a loyal few consistently showed up. By and large, we all got on well. We’d chat about our spouses, jobs and the latest goings-on at Downton Abbey.

Then Sylvia joined.

Sylvia was in her mid-40s and had recently lost her job as a data entry clerk at Blue Cross. She lived with her mom, although “with” was stretching it. Apparently, they despised each other. They wouldn’t cook or eat together, so their days had to be carefully choreographed around meal times to avoid an inadvertent encounter at the refrigerator or in the pantry.

But because Sylvia was lonely and didn’t seem to have many friends, I’d occasionally invite her out for a walk, just the two of us. I felt sorry for her, because of the meals-without-mom situation and because she was striking out in her search for a job. Also, she’d fallen madly love with her new doctor, ten years her junior and (according to her) a dead ringer for George Clooney. Sylvia had noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and was eager to strategize on the best way to attract his attention without having to pay for a lot of unnecessary appointments.

“Should I have asked him straight out if he was married?” she queried me. “Should I buy a Hallmark card – maybe one with flowers on it – and mail it to him?”

I spent hours with her on miles-long walks in the verdant Connecticut countryside. I suppose I felt I could help her thrash her way through her romantic and professional tussles, or at least lend a sympathetic ear.

Then, one sweltering day in late July, Sylvia showed up for one of my group walks. There were five of us.

We were strolling past a magnificent Georgian mansion, a mash-up of white columns and fireplaces and porches, and I was having a pleasant conversation with my friend Pam, when I heard raised voices behind me.

“The room was full of them!” Sylvia shouted. “They could barely speak English!”

Another friend of mine, Jane, shouted back, “So what? Don’t they have the same right to see a doctor you do?”

“I don’t want a doctor who treats Mexicans!” Sylvia screeched. “I want a doctor who treats white people like me!”

“What’s going on here?” I asked Margaret, who’s standing next to Jane. The group had halted.

Sylvia responded “I went to my gynecologist this week. And his waiting room was full of Mexicans! I didn’t like that one bit, no sir. I gave the receptionist a piece of my mind and told her I was never coming back again.”

Margaret and Jane howled. “Why, you racist…” The next thing I know, Margaret, Jane and Sylvia are flailing at each other in the middle of the road, directly in front of the magnificent Georgian mansion.

I’d never broken up a catfight before, and I hope I never have to again. Suffice it to say, we all managed to escape without scratches, bruises or bites. The last mile passed in silence.

That night, I emailed Sylvia. I’m sorry, but your presence and comments made several members of our group uncomfortable, and I’ve decided to discontinue your membership. Good luck with your job search.

I am thinking about Sylvia when Bob rejoins us, the three missing hikers in tow. He should’ve stopped at the split in the trail and conducted a headcount to make sure no one had strayed. That’s the leader’s job: to keep the group together – peaceably and safely.

Ten minutes later, I’m walking side by side with Bob when we spy two women striding towards us. Two corgis romp ahead of them.

Bob stops, hands on hips. “No dogs on this trail,” he informs them.

“They’re her dogs,” the women simultaneously respond, and point at each other.

“Nice try,” Bob says. “There’s a sheriff right behind us and if he catches you, it’s a $300 fine.”

This was a lie: there was no sheriff in our group or behind us. And, more to the point, sheriffs generally don’t wander the trails of Marin looking for illicit dogs, though Park Rangers might.

“Are you with the park service?” asks one of the women. She is dressed in black Lululemon yoga pants, a black windbreaker and orange sneakers.

“Yes, I am,” Bob replies. I’m certain this, too, is a lie.

The women turn back, urging the corgis ahead of them.

“I think I handled that pretty well, wouldn’t you agree?” Bob asks me. I drop back and start chatting with Mo, a civil engineer from Iran. Earlier, Bob had chided Mo. “Why don’t you call yourself a Persian? Isn’t that the more historically significant term?” Mo had smiled tolerantly. “We were Persia two thousand years ago,” he says. “Today, we’re Iran.”

A mile later, two more women – with two dogs – amble down the trail toward us. Bob does his sheriff-with-a-$300-fine routine, but they push past him. “We’ll leave the dogs home next time,” one of them, an attractive blond, says to Bob. She flashes him a winning smile.

Bob turns around. “You … you … blonde woman!” he shouts at her retreating back.

I have no idea whether others in the group witnessed these two encounters; mostly, they’re grouped in two’s and three’s, deep in conversation and immersed in the hike.

We reach another fork near the end of the trail, and I’m looking forward to lunch at the Green Gulch Zen Center, when Frank trots over to me.

“Been talking with Bob,” he says.

“And?”

“The subject of Israel came up. He says he hopes they wipe Sharia law off the face of the earth, and everyone who believes in it, too.”

“No way!”

“Way. Total asshole.”

Members of the group thread their way around us. Bob has disappeared around a bend, apparently eager for lunch. I note that not everyone has reached the fork – and that it would be easy to miss the turn.

“Let’s stay here, make sure the last of the group heads in the right direction, then skip lunch,” I say to Frank. “I’m done with Bob.”

We stand by the trail sign for a couple more minutes, waiting for the laggards. As the last two pass, we ask them to tell Bob that the Sausalito couple is heading home.

I recall overhearing that Bob is heading south – “someplace very different from here,” as he put it – and that he’ll soon be closing down the group.

I think again about Sylvia, and conclude that she and Bob (also single) might have made the perfect couple. They could’ve hiked together – “someplace very different from here” – while ranting and raging against Mexicans and Muslims. Together, they could’ve formed a new hiking group, one that didn’t include minorities, or blonde women with dogs, or Iranians.

I think about the children such a union would produce, and shudder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog: Bigfoot Stands Tall at Local Museum

I was flipping through the Aptos Times at Norma Jeans, a local coffee haunt, when I ran across the mention of a Bigfoot museum in nearby Felton.

Bigfoot! Who hasn’t seen the famous video footage of an ape-like beast strolling through sun-dappled woods, glancing diffidently over his shoulder as if to say, “I don’t give a crap whether you believe in me or not – I’m late for picking up the kids from soccer.”

And so it comes to pass that on a sunny Saturday when most locals are hitting the surf, I hit the road and drive to Felton to visit the Bigfoot Discovery Museum.

Though, as I find when I arrive, “museum” is a bit of a misnomer, bringing to mind as it does such temples of art and culture as the Guggenheim, the Tate and the Louvre.

No, the Bigfoot museum nestled in the redwoods above Santa Cruz is a humble, pine-sided hut situated a stone’s throw away from another Felton landmark, the Cowboy Bar & Grill. It’s easy enough to spot: Standing in formation, from largest to smallest, are four carved wood sculptures of the hominid of my curiosity.

I pull into one of the museum’s four parking spaces and make my way to the front door, which opens into a narrow, L-shaped foyer. No Sasquatch is on hand to greet me – a slight disappointment – but soon enough I am engrossed in enough Bigfoot memorabilia to, well, fill a museum. The collection is clearly a labor of love, likely curated from late night searches on eBay and daytime forays to flea markets. Examples include Harry and the Hendersons videotapes and books, a cardboard box claiming to contain “eggactly” one Sasquatch egg (care instructions included), the Original Bigfoot Bottle Inversion Cap, a hand-carved oak tree knocker, “Bigfoot Stepped on Me in the California Redwoods” t-shirts, plus Bigfoot action figures, comic books, mugs, stickers, collectible cards designed by a local artist, and buttons.

I round the corner into the museum’s main room, which is about as large as Melania Trump’s shoe closet at Mar-a-Lago. In the rear, sitting behind a plywood counter, is the museum’s founder and curator, Michael Rugg. He’s a beefy gent with a fluffy white beard and is sporting a black baseball hat with a strolling Sasquatch embroidered on it. He’s in earnest conversation with a thirty-something guy dressed in khaki hiking pants and a polo shirt.

Naturally, I eavesdrop on their conversation.

Khaki guy: “… this one was calling, and the other replied like, ‘hey, I’m over here!’, which made me kinda nervous.”

Rugg (spreading a map on the counter): “Can you pinpoint where you heard this conversation?”

Khaki guy: “I can tell you exactly. And the other day? I was heading up the trail and rocks came flying at me through the trees! I’ve heard they throw rocks at people. I got spooked and ran away.”

(The two confer over the map for a couple minutes).

Khaki guy (pulls out a recording device): “I want you to listen to this.” (Hits play; the room is filled with the sound of feet crunching on dry leaves.)

Rugg: “Can you send that to me? I have a collection of Bigfoot recordings.”

Khaki guy: “I have another from last Sunday, of ticking sounds. And I’ve also heard tapping and snorting.”

Rugg: “Not uncommon. Definitely sounds like Bigfoot.”

I wander away to explore the rest of the museum, which includes a nocturnal diorama featuring Bigfoot and an audio-video outside “cafe” area where you can watch assorted documentaries.

If, as I did later that day, you were to look up “Bigfoot” on Wikipedia, you’d find a treasure trove of trivia, mostly of the myth-busting variety. Also catalogued are Bigfoot hoaxes from the 1800’s forward.

My favorite:

On July 9, 2008, Rick Dyer and Matthew Whitton posted a video to YouTube claiming that they had discovered the body of a dead Sasquatch in a forest in northern Georgia. Tom Biscard, a long-time Bigfoot enthusiast and CEO of Searching for Bigfoot Inc., was contacted to investigate. Dyer and Whitton received $50,000 from Searching for Bigfoot, Inc. as a good faith gesture. The story of the men (sic) claims was covered by many major news networks, including BBC, CNN, ABC News, and Fox News. Soon after a press conference, the alleged Bigfoot body arrived in a block of ice in a freezer with the Searching for Bigfoot team. When the contents were thawed, it was discovered that the hair was not real, the head was hollow, and the feet were rubber. Dyer and Whitton subsequently admitted it was a hoax after being confronted by Steve Kulls, executive director of SquatchDetective.com.

The hours pass, one internet search bleeds into another, and I land on a Canadian website listing 193 different names for Bigfoot.

My favorites: The Bad-Smelling Tree Men, Boggy Boon, Cave Yeller, Honey Island Monster, and The Hairy Man Who Appears as a Symptom of Disaster.

 On the other hand, if you idle around on the Bigfoot Discovery Museum’s website long enough, you might just become a believer in tick-tocking, rock-tossing, woods-wandering Yeti. Newsletters archived back to 2006 contain Rugg’s considerable research on all things Sasquatch, including local sightings (the last one, by “Ric,” took place in April, 2002 alongside Highway 1 by Wilder Ranch State Park). Conveniently, should you or your friends have a Bigfoot encounter, the website also includes a Sighting Submission Form.

I was just about to close down my computer for the evening when another item caught my eye: The Great Big Bigfoot Poll. Which I then clicked open and filled out. Basically, Rugg wants to know if you’re a believer or not. How I responded to the questions isn’t important.

What is important is this: What would you do if, finding yourself alone on a remote trail in the Pacific Northwest, you were hit by a rock thrown through the trees? And then heard snorts and ticking?

I know what I’d do: Report it to Michael Rugg.

Blog: Establishing Softness*

I’m lifting a forkful of linguine slathered with pesto toward my mouth when I overhear a male voice say this:

“I’ll just try and pick her head up right here. But she’ll go down to where she’s supposed to go…”

I pause, mouth open, linguine dangling from my fork, and tilt my head to hear more.

“I’ll accentuate my pressure … a little more pressure … there, she gives it to me and I give it right back to her.”

The neurons in the pleasure center of my cranium ignite like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Fork down, I swivel my head toward where the voice is coming from: a television mounted over the bar at the restaurant where Frank and I are having dinner.

Most of the time when we’re at a bar or restaurant with a TV, I activate the mute button in my brain, preferring (usually) to listen to my spouse instead of a jabbering electronic box. These words, however, are coming through loud and clear on my brain’s speakerphone.

The TV displays a mighty handsome cowboy. He’s straddling a sweat-sheened, head-tossing chestnut mare, and they’re doing a little dance in the middle of an indoor ring. Not only can I hear him, I can also read his words as they scroll across the bottom of the screen.

“No matter where my hands are, I want them to be able to find that spot,” I simultaneously read and hear. “I get to where she starts looking for it instead of begging her to give it …” My heartbeat quickens.

My eyes stray to the corner of the screen. The TV is tuned to a station called RFD-TV. A caption at the bottom tells me the handsome cowboy’s name is Chris Cox. The head-tossing mare, on the other hand, is unidentified.

Frank is nattering on about a recently published study on gut bacteria, but I’m transfixed by Chris Cox and his submissive mare.

“… if she’s getting strong on me, I teach her to keep her left hind foot beneath her,” Chris Cox is saying. Is it my imagination or is the mare blushing? The title of the episode, “Establishing Softness,” flashes onto the screen.

A second glass of wine appears before me. My linguine has congealed on my plate.

I elbow Frank. “Hey, listen to this.” I read aloud: “… and she’s getting a little faster, so instead of just pulling back I pick her up and turn her and take the power away,” Is it my imagination, or are my palms getting sweaty?

“I wish they’d take that television away,” Frank responds, grumpy his lecture has been sidelined by a hunky buckaroo and his saddled partner.

While Cox and his mare pirouette around the ring in a man-on-beast version of ballroom dancing, my mind starts to wander.

Was Chris Cox married, I wondered, and if so, what did Mrs. Cox think of her spouse’s training techniques? When instructed, did she, too, keep her left hind foot beneath her? Perhaps she resented the mare and the softness lavished upon her by her husband … or maybe it suited her just fine that he spent his days and nights in a fragrant, hay-strewn barn with his geldings and bays.

Later, at home, I secretly Google photos of Chris Cox.

My favorite shows him astride a black stallion (what happened to the chestnut mare?), wearing Wrangler jeans and a snap button shirt. A coiled rope rests in his right hand. He has longish sideburns and his jaw appears permanently clenched. In another photo, he’s sporting worn leather chaps; the top two buttons of his shirt are unsnapped and I can just make out a silver chain nestled in his manly chest fur. And in a third, he slouches, facing the camera, an easy grin on his face. His thumbs are hooked into jeans cinched by a belt with a gold buckle the size of a license plate.

And he is indeed married. A website, horsegroomingsupplies.com, features a photo of the bride and groom astride their horses, holding hands. She’s clad in a flowing white bridal gown; he’s wearing a white shirt and a tie with a horse printed on it. They make a lovely couple.

Growing up, I was never a horsey-girl. While I admired their beauty, I feared horses and their flared nostrils and stamping, iron-shod hooves. Now I wonder if it isn’t too late to saddle up. I click on Chris Cox’s website and learn that for $2,499 I can take a five-day “Building Rider Confidence” clinic at his Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas.

I fantasize about cantering across a western mesa, my hair blowing in the wind beneath a cowboy hat. My horse nickers with delight. The scarlet rays of the setting sun turn the tumbleweeds into fiery hairballs that skitter between cacti. I glance over to the rider next to me. Not Chris Cox, but Frank, yelling something about parasitic diseases of South America.

Like I said, it’s a fantasy.

*Yes, this is the real title of a real episode that originally aired on RFD-TV on January 31. And if you doubt the veracity of any of this, feel free to watch it yourself. Preferably with your significant other or a pint of ice cream.

 

Blog: Clipped in and Freaking Out

I am at the Banff Film Festival in Santa Cruz, watching the pre-show ad reel and wishing I’d bought a beer, when an image flashes onto the screen. It shows a lush, sun-dappled redwood forest. Strung between ancient, mighty trunks is a maze of bridges, ropes and cables. And testing the limits of those bridges, ropes and cables are happy-looking people strapped into harnesses and wearing helmets.

I’ve been feeling cranky lately. A few hours spent playing in a sun-dappled redwood forest with happy-looking people just might boost my spirits.

I jot down the name at the bottom of the movie screen: Mount Herman Adventures. Later that night, I book two Sierra Aerial Adventure tours for the coming weekend.

My consistently happy-looking friend and co-adventurer, Rebecca, is delighted at the prospect of scampering like squirrels among the redwoods. Plus, she claims to have prior experience on a ropes course, so essentially I’ll be accompanied by my own personal guide.

Sunday dawns sunny and cold. By 10 a.m., together with ten other would-be squirrels, we are cinched into harnesses, our clip-on carabineers and zip-line trolleys dangling from our waists. I’m feeling ready to solo Half Dome.

“Before we get started,” says Josh, one of our guides, “I need to ask if any of you have the following conditions.” The list included diabetes, heart conditions, allergies, pregnancy. No hands were raised, so we waddle en masse through a redwood gate to the first course.

The next thing I know, I’m standing on a small wood platform encircling the four-foot waist of a giant sequoia. It’s then I make the mistake of looking down. I am perched atop a yawning ravine. The ground is 80 feet below me.

Here’s the thing: I have vertigo. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect “vertigo” with “aerial adventure” but I didn’t, and I’m now hugging the tree’s waist with both arms.

The other members of the group edge around me and clip into the cable anchored to the tree. One by one, they set off across a bridge composed of individual two-by fours loosely connected by ropes. From my tree-hugging stance, I watch them. The boards seesaw beneath their feet. They’re not exactly scampering like squirrels; rather, they’re lurching like drunks toward the nearest bar.

Naturally, Rebecca crosses the bridge with ease. “You can do it,” she calls encouragingly across the gaping, deadly divide separating us.

I may be safely and securely tethered to a cable, but my brain isn’t buying it, and so it immediately begins to dispatch emergency signals. “GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!” is one such signal. “DO NOT LET GO OF THE TREE!” is another.

I must have suffered a mini-stroke, because seconds later I find myself navigating my way across the seesawing boards. My hands grip the canvas lanyard attached to my carabineers; as I totter forward, they slide in short, jerking motions along the cable suspended over my head.

It takes maybe forty seconds to wobble across to the next platform. Or maybe it was forty minutes. Due to the mini-stroke, my sense of time and space has become warped.

It is only because Rebecca is standing on the other side of each course that I am able to continue. I fix her in my sights. “This one isn’t bad at all,” she calls out on one. “Grab the ropes on either side of you,” she instructs me on another.

“Not gonna pass out. Not gonna throw up,” I chant. I practice yoga breathing. I pretend I’m back at the Banff Film Festival, watching a film about aerial canopy tours. Not once do I look down.

Finally, we are done. My hands are cramped from gripping the lanyard. My legs are shaking, and I’m woozy and exhausted. Surely, a bigger, deadlier stroke is imminent.

“That was amazing!” Rebecca says. “Can we do it again?”

I look at her blearily. “How about we head back to the house for a nap instead?”

Now, a week later, the adrenaline has finally subsided and my hands have uncramped. And I’m realizing just how exhilarating and gratifying the whole adventure was. For 90 minutes, I managed to work through my fear of heights. I completed every course. I did not have to be rescued by a guide, frozen, mid-way across a thin cable tightrope.

Maybe I really can solo Half Dome …

A couple days ago, I sent the link to Mount Herman Adventures to my sister in Portland. “Check this out! We should totally do this the next time you visit,” I texted her.

I’m ready. This time, I might even look down

Blog: My Left Knee

It’s time to find out what the hell is going on with my left knee. I can no longer straighten my leg. I limp. A recent x-ray confirmed the depressing news that I have severe osteoarthritis.

And so I find myself on a sunny Wednesday morning at Kaiser Permanente, my lower extremities clad in a pair of baggy blue paper shorts extending nearly to my shins.

An efficient and handsome doctor’s assistant, whose name badge identifies him as “Hector*,” takes my blood pressure. Then he takes it again.

“Let’s try the left arm,” he suggests. I don’t ask what the readings are, and he doesn’t tell me.

Shortly afterwards, the door bangs open and a skinny, great-grandfatherly guy – my orthopedic surgeon – shuffles in. Bald as an egg, he bears a striking resemblance to Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart), only a good ten years older.

“I’m Doctor Melrose*,” he says, and extends a gnarled hand so purpled by varicose veins that at first I think he’s had it tattooed. I shake it gingerly, not wanting to hurt him.

He perches on a low stool, clipboard balanced on his thighs. The questions commence.

– How long has my knee been bothering me? (Years.)

– Do I exercise regularly? (Yes.)

– What did I do for a living? (Nothing.)

– What did I do in my spare time? (A bad novel in progress, a little volunteer work.)

Our conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door. It cracks open enough to reveal a pleasant-faced woman with a helmet of smooth brown hair. She peers around the corner. “Oops, sorry,” she apologizes, and beats a hasty retreat.

Without looking up, the doctor gestures for her to come in. Intent on his notes and unaware that she’s left, he continues to beckon the now closed door.

Finally, he raises his head. “Now where the dang did she go?” He gets up and totters out the door. “Back in a jiffy,” he promises.

I sit on the examining room table, contemplating my visibly swollen left knee and wondering if I could make it through a short run that afternoon. Soon enough, the good doctor returns, the brown-helmeted woman in tow. Like a naughty child, she is relegated to the corner, where she stands silently for the duration of my appointment.

“OK, let’s check out that knee,” he announces. “Walk in circles.” I obey. “Now jump in place.” Done. “Stand on your tiptoes.” Sure, why not? “Squat, please,” Ummm, no thanks.

After poking, prodding and rotating both of my knees, Dr. Melrose moves to the computer to pull up my x-rays. “Dang thing,” he curses under his breath. He punches away gamely at the keyboard for a minute or two. “Aha!” he says proudly. “Got ‘em!”

I stare at the ghostly, gray-and-white images of my knee bones on the wall-mounted screen while he points out various imperfections. To my untrained eye, both knees look perfectly fine.

“Here’s thing,” he begins, settling back onto the short stool. “You got osteoarthritis in your left knee, and it ain’t ever gonna get better. All we can do is keep it from getting worse over the next thirty or forty years.”

“Yes, but I’m a runner …”

“What’s that? Could you speak up?” he shouts, cupping his left ear.

I clear my throat and start over, more loudly this time. “I really enjoy running, and hiking, too.”

“No, no, no.” He shakes his head. “No more high impact exercise. Biking, walking and swimming? Yes. Running? No.”

“My husband and I do a lot of hiking,” I venture.

“Hiking? Best to just hike uphill. With poles.”

He continues to natter on while I try to figure out how, exactly, I can manage one-way, uphill hikes. A helicopter? Chair lifts? Piggyback rides from Frank? I imagine my blood pressure by now has risen to pre-stroke levels.

There is a little more back and forth after that, but really, what more is there to say?

Once seat-belted inside my car, warm tears begin to leak from my eyes. To some, giving up running would be no big deal. And on the Richter scale of my incredibly privileged life, it barely qualifies as a tremor.

But to me, running outdoors isn’t a sport; it’s a joyous, transcendent state of being. When I run, I feel free and strong and fast. The fresh air on my face, the easy rhythm of my arms swinging by my sides, the accelerated throbbing of my heart, the steady, labored breathing … together, they produce an intense exhilaration, a Zen-like sense of invincibility: Nothing is beyond my grasp. I can run forever, write a bestseller, save the world.

My cheeks are still damp by the time I arrive home. Ten minutes later, my phone rings.

“Dr. Montrose here,” a familiar voice barks into my ear. “Just following up … your blood pressure’s a little high, so I’m going to let your doctor know. Say, what do you eat?”

“Ah, let’s see, toast or cereal with fruit…” I begin.

“OK, so you’re a healthy eater,” he interrupts. “Now, my doctor has put me on a plant-based diet. Best thing I ever did, real easy to stick to. You might want to consider a plant-based diet …” We chat for another minute or two.

Fifteen minutes after we hang up, an email from Kaiser Permanente pops up, informing me I have a new message from my doctor. I log on. The message is from Dr. Montrose:

I enjoyed meeting you today, and just wanted to remind you not to forget about the blood pressure. Probably just nerves –but –best to keep an eye on it. I recommend that you concentrate on the exercise bike and I think your knee will thank you for that. Let me know about the novel. I’m a wanna be writer too — nothing published but always torturing my kids with stories. Let me know how it goes with your knee.

 I stare at the message on my screen, and smile in spite of myself. It could be a hell of a lot worse, I remind myself. You could be facing total leg amputation … confined to a wheelchair … subjected to expensive surgery gone awry, living out your remaining days in a vegetative state.

That afternoon, Frank and I go for a ten-mile bike ride. During the last few miles, I notice how the setting sun creates a papaya-colored halo around an enormous, multi-lobed cumulous cloud floating just above the horizon. The air is spicy with the smell of rain-drenched earth and eucalyptus trees. An orange cat with a bushy tail crouches on the white railing of a front porch, soaking up the last of the sun’s rays. My cheeks are chilled, my thighs warm.

But my knee doesn’t hurt. Well, not much.

And who knows? Perhaps next year – or the year after – an amazing cure will be discovered. There may yet be miles to run in my future.

*No, silly – of course I didn’t use real names.