The time my (Austin) America let me down

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‘In the middle of my twenties in the middle of Missouri in the middle of the night

Oh, and if that weren’t enough “middles”, it was also in the middle of a rainstorm.

But before I start my exciting tale of alone-by-the-roadside automotive woe, let me tell you exactly what it was that sparked this sodden, scary memory.

See, The Child is in her fourth day of a three-week hike along the John Muir Trail in California. It’s 200+ miles through High Sierra wilderness — and she is doing it alone.

The Child, on top of Half Dome, at the end of her first day on the John Muir Trail. Fingers crossed that a bear did not take this photo

A view of The Child and her 47-pound pack, pre-hike

The Dude and The Child’s friends, not being mothers, are all “wow!” and “isn’t this exciting!” and “good for you!“, while I am all “but there are bears” and “must you do this alone?” Trying to reassure me, The Child said, “But I’ll be running into other people on the trail all the time“, and I said, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

The Dude and I out on a trail in the wilderness. But with other people. And rum

Like I say, I could relate to being in my twenties and taking a trip by myself. Though mine wasn’t on the John Muir Trail, but on I-70, which is the interstate highway that I would drive from Kansas City, Missouri, where I was living at the time, to Carlyle, the small town in Illinois where I grew up.

Me with my Dad at about the time of this story. We look pretty hot and sweaty, so this must have been a summer visit

I lived in Kansas City for close on to seven years, and made that drive so many times it became easy-peasy routine. Except for this one time.

On this particular trip, I was driving my Austin-America. No, no, not the Aston Martin, which is that James Bond car. And not even the Austin-Healey, which Wikipedia says Helen Mirren drives. No, the Austin-America was a British car that was supposed to be a competitor to the VW Beetle, but wasn’t nearly as sleek, as sexy, or as reliable. Tiny, boxy, and (in my case) brown, it was probably the clunkiest car ever to park in a driveway. (Ever wonder why it is that you park in a driveway, but drive on a parkway?)

How I happened to have this car is a pretty interesting story in itself. I bought it for $800 cash from a woman who was saving up so she could flee from her abusive husband. And how did I know this woman? I worked with the husband.

I showed up, as instructed, when the hub wasn’t home. She took me in the kitchen, where I handed over 800 one-hundred dollar bills. After counting them carefully, she folded those bills and hid them inside a Ritz Cracker box, which she then put back in its spot on the shelf.

You wouldn’t be lonely for long if you broke down in the middle of this highway. Though probably no one would stop to actually help you

Me, I walked out with the keys to the Austin-America. Which I drove without major incident (except this one time I’m going to tell you about) until it finally conked out a few years later. When it did, it had absolutely no trade-in value, though I briefly considered turning it into a planter or maybe a bus shelter. It did get great gas mileage — so great I probably only had to fill it once. Which was fortunate because, among other things, the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll down. Which meant I had to speak to the gas station attendant through the little flip-out wing window.

Anyway. Back to the “major incident”.

I was driving back to KC after visiting my parents. I’d lingered a bit too long in Carlyle, probably enjoying another slice of my mother’s excellent banana bread, and got a late start. So late that, when it started pouring — and in the Midwest, if it starts pouring, we mean pouring; like some Rain God is emptying a giant pitcher over your car and everything around it — it was, like, three in the morning.

I’m soldiering along though, not tired one bit, squinting through the sheets of water slashing my windshield, trying to keep my spirits up by listening to Top-40 Radio KXOK, when the car starts slowing…and slowing some more. Before it can coast to a stop, I wisely steer it to the shoulder. Where I sit. What on earth is wrong? I wondered. The lights are on, the gas tank is half full.

No one has invented portable phones, much less cellphones, so there is no way to call for help. So I turn off the engine and lock the doors — and sit there.

Me, a few years and a completely different hairstyle later, still living in Kansas City, but now with a Mercedes. And yes, there’s a story there too

This being the middle of the night, there are very few cars on the road, even though it’s an interstate. Where are all those Highway Patrol Guys when you need them? But there are truckers. And, sure enough, after about half an hour a big ole rig pulls up on the shoulder just ahead of me.

I roll down the window as he approaches the car, and explain the situation. “There’s a truck stop up ahead,” he says. “I’ll give you a lift so you can get help.”

I do see a glow of mercury-vapor lights on the horizon, and he didn’t look too terrifying, besides which I didn’t relish the prospect of sitting in a wet car all night, so — bless my heart — I got out and went with him. And sure enough, as he boosted me up to the truck’s cab, he says, “You know, I’ve got a bed in back. You’re welcome to stay here if you want.”

Gulp. I can’t remember now how I managed to gracefully get out of that one, but he did indeed take me to the truck stop where a helpful mechanic listened to my story and goes, “Oh, one of them little Brit cars, eh? They’ve got their engines mounted sideways. Which means the alternator can get wet when it rains as bad as this. You just wait till it stops. It’ll dry out, and you can drive it on home.”

Which I did. And, trust me, I never drove that car in the rain again. Not even in a sprinkle.

But back to The Child. So far, she’s shown pretty good judgment, so I just have to cross my fingers and trust that she’ll be safe out there on the Trail all alone. At least I can console myself with the thought that it’s highly unlikely she’ll run into any truckers, helpful or otherwise.

Amagansett, New York. July 2019

Up in the air, Junior Birdman

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‘Just not upside-down, if you please.’

I amaze (and amuse) myself sometimes with the mere fact that I go on these Crazy Birding Adventures. (See last week’s “Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid” for gory Guyanian details.)

Not only are there bugs and spiders and scorpions to deal with (along with the occasional dollop of gecko poop on one’s pillow) but these trips usually have several of my own personal psychological bugaboos layered on top, including (but not limited to) an almost-paralyzing fear of heights. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, there’s The Snake Thing.

Before we move on to heights, here’s that snake — a big ole rattler, no less — that The Dude and Ron were trying to photograph in my story from last week

You may recall from my story “The Year of the Snake” that I have a particularly acute aversion to creatures of the slithery persuasion. Unlike, say, Intrepid Fellow Birder Linda (who snapped this snake), you won’t hear me cooing “That’s the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen” about this specimen we found on a nighttime hike. Though I did have the gumption to take this movie. So there’s that. Continue reading

Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid

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‘But we did catch the Birding Bug’

If you’ve missed me (and/or my stories), may you find your reward in Heaven. Or maybe South America. Which is where The Dude and I spent the last couple of weeks — in Guyana, which is a country we had to look up on Google Earth.

We’d both remembered that movie Papillon, with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, where Steve’s character escapes from Devil’s Island in French Guiana. But we couldn’t decide whether Guiana was in South America and Guyana was in Africa. Or the other way around. (The Guiana/Guyana thing didn’t help.) And of course there’s Uganda (where we’ve been) and Ghana (where we’ve not), complicating matters even more. Turns out Guiana and Guyana are both in South America. But only one of them is famous for its Kool-Aid.

It drove our new Guyanian Pal Francis — here with me atop the Georgetown Lighthouse — crazy to realize that The One Fun Fact we knew about his homeland was The Kool-Aid Thing

Yup. Guyana is where the Rev. Jim Jones took his followers and, ultimately, treated them to a Kool-Aid Party. Grape, it was. (Take a sec to check out Jim Jones’ Wikipedia entry. It actually lists his “Occupation” as “Cult Leader”.) Continue reading

Chop Phooey

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‘All I got for Christmas was egg foo young’

We were in a cab the afternoon of Christmas Eve when we saw Santa driving home from a hard day of ho-ho-ho-ing. We’d just seen Free Solo, which is an absolutely amazing movie about this guy Alex Honnold who climbed 3200 feet up the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using just his hands and feet — no ropes! no nothing! — but even after that it was still pretty exciting to see the Jolly Old Elf himself in all his red-suited, white-bearded glory at the wheel of his Chrysler mini-van.

Another Santa we saw this season. This Santa was spotted in his driveway, having just ridden in on the back of a Corvette convertible

No doubt Santa was thinking about the nice home-cooked dinner he was going to have that night in his North-Pole-like outpost in Queens (he was in the traffic lane for the Bridge) before heading out in his sleigh.

We Whitmores were also looking forward to home and our traditional pot roast, a small version of which we three (yes, The Child was home this yearwere planning to polish off before opening presents and hanging out by the fire. (Being of the Swedish persuasion, I’ve Swedishly persuaded The Dude that Christmas Eve gift opening is more fun than the Christmas Morning version.) Continue reading

“Let me go! I want my Mommy!”

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‘The time The Dude (almost) got arrested for Childnapping’

I once took a crack at a funny story about dentistry. (You can chuckle at the result — or not — by clicking on “Is it safe?”) So I thought a humorous take on kidnapping might be worth a shot.

See, you wouldn’t know it from the idyllic father-daughter-on-the-beach photo at the top of this story, but one time The Child was screaming at the top of her lungs (in public!) for The Dude to unhand her.

Scream her lungs out? This little Sweetheart?

We were on a trip at the time, to one of The Dude’s ophthalmology meetings. The American Academy of Ophthalmology, to be specific. This outfit holds these in a different city every year. Nowadays The Dude and I make it a point to go to the “good” cities (Yay, New Orleans and Las Vegas!) and avoid the “bad” ones (Sorry, all-paved-over Atlanta and Disney-fied Orlando). That year the meeting was in San Francisco, and it was the first time we’d go as a family. (And the last, it turned out.) Continue reading

Gorilla My Dreams

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‘The Silverback makes my previous Ape Alpha Male look like Chimp Change’

You may recall my relatively-recent story about that Playboy Monkey the Alpha Male Chimp. (It’s called ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’.) Mr. Alpha was one fascinating fellow; he postured, he posed, and he made satisfyingly movie-sound-track-like crazy chimp sounds as he ran around slapping tree trunks to show off his chimp cojones.

One of our merry Birding and Chimp-Tracking band made a little movie on his iPhone and was just about to play it back when the leader of our Primate Patrol cautioned him against doing so. The crazy chimp squeals on the soundtrack would cause Said Alpha to attack us. Oh.

But intimidating as he was, Mr. Head Chimp was an organ-grinder’s sidekick compared to the Silverback. Who is Head Dude of the gorillas, and well, a whole different animal. (The ‘gorilla’ featured in the picture at the top of this post is about as real as a unicorn. Though we did get to see Real Gorillas. And we were much much closer to them than we were to that silly gorilla statue.)

No, we weren’t camping. Nor were we in ‘executive budget rooms’. But we did find us some gorillas

This get-to-know gorillas experience occurred when we were in the Buhoma area of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our tour company, the inestimable Field Guides, had warned us that the Mountain Gorillas were hard to find, even though they were “habituated”. Which meant that they were (sort of) used to people. We could spend an hour with a gorilla troupe, provided we could find one, and, um, provided with suitable protection.

No, she is not a guerrilla leader — she was our gorilla leader. And yes that is a machete she’s holding

Continue reading

Slip slidin’ away

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‘On — and off — the many wet roads of Uganda.’

I wish I had a nickel for every time my mother told me that I “wasn’t made of sugar, so I wouldn’t melt.” Maybe I’d have enough money by now for new rain gear.

Because ours sure got a workout on our African Adventure. In fact, we’re home now and I’m still reminded of how wet it was. My boots are gunky, my clothes are moldy-funky. My socks? Let’s not speak of my socks. You can probably smell them from wherever you are. And it wasn’t even the Rainy Season.

These boots, freshly-applied with waterproofing goop, are made for stompin’. Through mud and puddles and unspeakable gunk

But back to that “not made of sugar” deal. If that’s the case, then why did I attract so many ants? Tiny, nasty little bitey ants. The kind that swarm all over you if you’re not super-careful — and if you’re on a hiking trail where you can’t see the little buggers. (Not like in this video, where they’re on a road in plain, avoidable, sight.) Continue reading

Monkey see, monkey do

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‘Up close and personal with the Burt Reynolds of chimps’

Okay. I realize only too well that there are some of you out there who may not ‘get’ the reference in the subtitle of this piece. Well, Once upon a time, there was an actor named Burt Reynolds. He was considered quite hunky at the time. So hunky, in fact, that he agreed to pose nude (yes, nude!) for a women’s magazine centerfold. (Equal Rights, you know.)

Anyway. This piece is not about feminism; it’s a piece about chimps. Check out this link, and see if you don’t think there isn’t a rather strong, um, family resemblance between Burt and the cheesecake cousin I’ve pictured up there at the top of this story. And no, I don’t mean that as an insult. We are all primates, after all. Even Donald Trump.

Some folks thought there was a resemblance between Burt and my Starter Husband. This was, at the time, considered quite flattering. But, being sort of a naughty person, when Mr. Starter would bring up this supposed resemblance on social occasions I used to say that, yes, he did look just like Burt — from the feet down. Check out ‘My Polio Shot Marriage’ if you’d like to make up your own mind. Continue reading

Stalking the wild Shoebill

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‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet. Continue reading

Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol

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‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”. Continue reading