White Lies

“Welcome to Vermont” read the friendly green sign on the side of the road. Cady snapped a picture so Jacob could send it to his girlfriend, Julia, a Vermont native. After two hours of driving, we’d finally reached the halfway point on our journey to Rumney, New Hampshire, a tiny town home to New England’s premier sport climbing crag. Spirits were high among the three of us in the car. We were together for the first time in five months. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny. The famous New England fall foliage surrounded us on all sides. We were on schedule to reach the crag by 2pm and would have then next 3.5 days to climb.

The last time I’d been to Rumney, the previous May, was my second time sport climbing outside. I’d spent most of the trip panicking about taking lead falls and pumping out on 5.10s. After a summer of climbing, I was excited for a rematch with most of the routes I’d attempted the previous May and especially excited to try to send Flyin’ Hawaiian, an aesthetically stunning 5.11b. In May, I’d aided my way through the start of the climb because the bouldery beginning was too difficult and had flailed my way up the rest, hanging on the rope many times.

“I think I forgot the stove,” Jacob said in his calm, soft voice, tearing me from my Flyin’ Hawaiian daydreams.

“Are you sure it’s not in your bag?”

“It could be,” he said, politely humoring my delusion. We drove in silence for a moment.

“You packed the tent, though?”

“I thought Cady was bringing the tent.”

Neither one remembered packing a tent, each believing the other was taking care of it.

“Should we pull over?” Cady asked.

We debated the merits of resolving our Schrödinger’s tent and stove situation. On the one hand, the tent and stove were likely not in the trunk of the car. On the other hand, they could be, and we could continue to believe this until we pulled over and searched the trunk. Establishing that we were without stove and tent wouldn’t change our plans for the day; we’d still drive up to Rumney and climb. Establishing this sooner meant that we’d need to lose face sooner and ask the group of Yale climbers joining us in Rumney the following day to bring an extra tent and stove.

Neither the tent nor the stove magically appeared when we searched Jacob’s bags. Jacob apologized, saying he’d never leave packing until the hour before departure again. While Jacob was an easy target for blame, I couldn’t help but think back guiltily to that morning. I’d sat in the kitchen and chatted with Mico while Jacob packed in his room. I could have easily checked to make sure group gear made it into the trunk of the car. Throughout the planning phase of the trip, I’d taken on little responsibility, in part because I was traveling from Los Angeles, but in part out of laziness. I apologized to Jacob and Cady for being a woefully passive follower. Cady then apologized for not communicating effectively with Jacob about who was bringing the tent. At this point, we started laughing really hard. We’d thought of ourselves as experienced outdoors people, yet we’d managed to forget the two most critical pieces of camping gear. As a result, we would spend the night eating sandwich bread and sleeping outside with temperatures in the low 30s, and would have to ask people likely to make fun of us for help.

Jacob Bendicksen, the trip organizer for the Yalies coming up the next day, did not disappoint. His texts effectively conveyed his mocking disbelief through heavy use of all caps and punctuation marks.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Cady texted in reply.

He promised he wouldn’t, and that he’d have a tent and stove for us when he arrived in New Hampshire. He texted one last LOL for good measure. I had little hope that this would remain a secret. Were the situation reversed, I would have few qualms about making it known to everyone that an outdoor orientation leader, a climbing team captain, and a girl who’d spent the summer car camping, had forgotten their tent and stove. Here was a facade of competence begging to be torn down.

At least, I consoled myself, things could only get better from here.

Entering Enfield, Cady noticed the first scarecrow outside a car dealership. Someone had mounted it on a motorcycle. Though we saw no people as we drove, every business in the small New Hampshire town had between 1 and 3 scarecrows on their front lawn. Scarecrows dressed as cowboys, scarecrows pushing baby carriages, scarecrow mailmen, scarecrow clowns. A solitary scarecrow in a field is quaint and picturesque. An entire town that seems to be populated by scarecrows rather than people is frightening. As we passed the sign on the edge of town that read “Come Back Soon,” we breathed a collective sign of relief. A moment longer in that place and the next people driving through town might have seen a trio of rock climber scarecrows belaying each other up a tree.

After an enjoyable half-day of climbing, we made our way to Mountain Pines, the private campground by the river notorious for its complete lack of cell service. Someone had the brilliant idea of buying firewood so we could heat up food. Twice we tried dousing logs with white gas in order to start a fire, and twice we were left with slightly charred logs once the gas had burned off. It dawned on us that white gas might not be a substitute for kindling. Cady and I doused a pile of twigs and leaves in white gas and had just succeeded in lighting our first log when Jacob approached.

“I think I locked the keys in the trunk,” he said. There was a moment of silence as we processed this information.

“You’re joking,” I said, getting ready to laugh. Jacob has a mischievous sense of humor, and his delivery had been unnaturally calm given the information he’d just imparted. Plus, there was no way we could forget the stove and tent, and get locked out of the car on the same day. This sort of thing does not happen to intelligent, competent people with good moral character.

“I’m not joking,” he said sadly.

“Yes, you are,” I said, unwilling to be fooled.

“The keys are in the trunk.” It was unlikely he would go on this long with a prank I was refusing to fall for. I remembered with horror that I was the one who, worried about the car battery, had asked Jacob to close the trunk.

If there had been a time to panic and turn ugly, it would have been in that moment. It was roughly 7:45pm and completely dark. We were cold, hungry, separated from all the gear and food we’d remembered to bring, and in the middle of nowhere without cell reception. Cady and Jacob remained calm and good humored throughout the ordeal. I endeavored to follow their example. Jacob borrowed the landline from the owner of the campground, a middle-aged man with a large handlebar mustache, and was able to call for roadside assistance.

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Cady kept the fire going (this and the fact that we were all wearing our warmest layers were the only things we had going for us). I ran messages back and forth between Cady and Jacob, and tried my best to keep the mood light by making dumb jokes.

Sometime between 9 and 9:30pm, as we huddled around the fire for warmth, a massive truck pulled into the campground. From the truck emerged a man wearing a Rumney Fire Department t-shirt. There was something strange about the way he moved, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Though he was in a t-shirt, he seemed unfazed by the cold. He had the skinniest arms I’d ever seen on an adult human being. He introduced himself as Rick but did not offer to shake hands. He took stock of the situation and pulled a tool kit from his truck. It was then I noticed his hands. They were curved towards his forearms like hooks. He could move his fingers but seemed unable to straighten his wrists. He twisted his body into strange positions to compensate for these frozen hooks.

“Is your tent inside?” Rick asked as he worked. We nodded, unwilling to reveal the true depths of our idiocy.

“I’ll try to make it quick, then.” He inserted a piece of rubber that looked much like a doorstop into the top of the driver’s door and pounded it in with the back of his hand. This created a gap through which he passed a hooked piece of wire.

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Rick warned us not to go “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” while he was unlocking the car. Apparently, some people turn their misfortune into a spectator sport, and this distracts Rick from his work. We watched quietly, and after a few attempts, Rick succeeded in using the wire to pull the handle on the inside of the door, unlocking the car. While the car alarm went off, Jacob popped the trunk, retrieved the keys, and silenced the car.

We thanked Rick and offered him a date from the bag of snack foods we’d pulled from the trunk. He’d never had one before. Examining his date closely, he observed that it looked like a bug. Despite its cockroach-like exterior, Rick thoroughly enjoyed the date.

“I’ll have to pick these up next time I’m at the store,” he said through a mouthful.

Cady and I roasted ours in the fire until the exteriors caramelized. We termed this delicacy “hot dates.” While we ate, Rick told us about the difficulty of unlocking a Tesla. The doorstop/wire method doesn’t work because the car is completely electronic. You need to call the company and have them unlock it remotely. Rick was once called to unlock a Tesla even though his presence was entirely unnecessary. The only thing he could do was keep the car owner company while they phoned Tesla customer service.

“You must be glad to get the tent out of the car,” Rick said as he climbed into his truck. We smiled and nodded, but his parting words made me wonder if he suspected the truth. I could just picture Rick, the next time he went to unlock a car, telling the story of the three kids, who’d not only locked themselves out of their car but had also forgotten every piece of camping equipment it was possible to forget.

Our lie was unnecessary, of course. We’d done it to save face in the eyes of a passing stranger. Though we’d had essentially nothing to lose, we’d done it without hesitation. We didn’t want him to get the wrong impression and think we were incompetent. There’s a fine line between behaving as though you’re incompetent and actually being incompetent, and we were not ready to admit to having crossed that line.

Once Rick’s truck had driven safely out of sight, we pulled our sleeping bags from the car and set them side-by-side on the ground. I slept in all my layers and curled into the blob that was Cady in her sleeping bag for added warmth. In the morning, I woke to the sound of Jacob hissing at a skunk and waited for the sun to melt the frost from my sleeping bag.

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