March 2, 2006
Maybe I'm crazy, but each winter I plan a family vacation that is fraught with danger. To reach our destination, we must drive up a perilous mountain road studded with hairpin turns. Oddly, during our ascent, this NASCAR-approved artery is usually choked with fog or hail.
But this is only the hors d'oeuvre: The entrée is when everyone except for me straps themselves to bulky planks of wood before hurtling at 50 mph down icy slopes with names like "Surrender Isle." I drop everyone off at the ski resort and then hightail it back to the cabin, where Ken waits for me, wagging his tail.
Like me, Ken is risk-averse and agrees that skiing is sheer madness and folly. We cuddle on the couch, I pop in a DVD and wrap my cold hands around a cup of hot cocoa.
This is not laziness. It is a necessary mental health exercise to banish images of my next of kin putting themselves in harm's way on triple-black diamond slopes. Oh sure, I tried skiing -- once. It was a disaster.
My husband had summoned every ounce of perseverance and patience in his DNA to try to teach me this skill, but we were not on speaking terms by the end of the lesson. Falling down repeatedly like a rag doll and getting tangled in skis is not my idea of fun, and I concluded that only fools or suicidal thrill seekers could embrace skiing as a sport.
By my reckoning, a Boggle tournament with serious players ought to be enough excitement for anyone. It is a tacit understanding between my husband and me that he is never to attempt to teach me any other athletic skill ever again.
Our mountain jaunts usually last for three days, but for the life of me, I can't manage to prepare for them in under a week. I need at least a day to dig up mismatched gloves, hats and mufflers, which otherwise have no purpose in Southern California; two days to shop and cook; and at least three days to closely study the available accommodations advertised on the Internet.
Cabins in our price range are kindly referred to as "rustic." Last year, we agreed that Casa de Pine Cone, equipped with a miniature pool table and dusty dining room lamp etched with the Budweiser logo, was a touch too rustic for our taste.
This year, I carefully avoided any cabin with the word "Kozy" in the name, because anyone who thinks it's cute to further degrade our language won't get a dime out of me. Besides, "cozy" (no matter how you spell it) is code for "so tiny even short people will have to bend over when taking a shower." I also learned to be wary of cabins with French names, since a "chateau" where we once stayed should really have been called "La Hovel."
But this year, I succumbed to temptation and booked Bear's Détente, hoping that the kids might fight less around a dining table where the grizzlies and the black bears finally signed a truce. Bear's Détente didn't really do much to engender greater sibling love, but it was definitely a classier joint than Casa de Pine Cone. It had a thick stack of Family Circle magazines dating from 1999 and, in keeping with the European theme, a table lamp etched with the Heinekin logo.
Unfortunately, these trips are working vacations for me. As shlepper-in-chief, I am forced to tramp around in the snow half the day delivering snacks at 10:30 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and hand lotion and dry socks at 3 p.m.
For some reason, our designated meeting place is always on the top level of the slope's multitiered eating areas. Believe me, trudging up all those stairs at an altitude of 6,500 feet should be more exercise than anyone seemingly on vacation should have to endure.
At the end of the day, I collect the entire freezing crew and shuttle them back to our cabin, while the kids clamor for dinner immediately. Despite the multiple snack deliveries, everyone is starving.
All this personal valet service I provide cuts pretty deeply into my DVD watching and hot chocolate sipping time, but I am the mother, and this is my job. In fact, my life on vacation is pretty much just like my life at home, only with pine trees.
One night by popular demand, my husband kindled a fire. This seemed like the perfect cozy finish to a tiring day.
"I'll just make sure the flue is open," he said, fiddling around in the fire pit.
"Why is it so smoky in here?" coughed one of the kids, as a haze quickly billowed through the room and the smoke detector beeped in alarm. They say where there's smoke, there's fire but not at Bear's Détente.
By the time my husband found the flue opening, we had smoked out every last bear left in those mountains, while also failing to stoke any meaningful flames. On a happier note, I discovered that one can avoid deadly smoke inhalation by flinging open the front and back cabin doors and allowing the bracing, 20 degree air to clear the place out. I promise you that after an hour and a half, the smoke will be gone and so will the kids, who will be huddled in the car with the heater on.
Still, I consider the trip a success. Even though one son went missing one day, no one ended up in the resort's mini-hospital, either from skiing accidents or too much family togetherness. Two trips to the local supermarket assured that we had enough to eat, the dog only got sick once and I finally got to finish my movie after only six sittings.
We left in the evening, and I drove us down that harrowing road, trying to think of safer destinations for next year. But I think I am too late. All the kids consider themselves ski bums. But with this designation, they can rent their own locker for snacks and dry socks during the day. There's only so many times a woman can be asked to interrupt her movie marathon and hot chocolate sipping.
Isn't that what vacations are all about?
Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books. Read more of her columns on www.judygruen.com.