Adventure #15–Boulder Farmers’ Market

Originally written 8/2/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lincolnian/759160191/

http://www.bcfm.org/

I was supposed to go on a cave tour with my friend Abbey last Saturday (which would have been quite an adventure, since I’m claustrophobic), but we had to cancel: heavy rains in the spring and early summer had flooded the deeper parts of the cave, and the tours had been suspended until further notice.

Abbey suggested that we go to the Boulder Farmers’ Market instead. Since I’d never been to a farmers’ market, I said OK, although I wasn’t sure that I could write it up as an adventure. I mean, it was just going to be people selling vegetables, right? How adventuresome could that be?

So it was eye-opening to actually see the Boulder Farmers’ Market when we got there. The Boulder Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest farmers’ markets in Colorado, taking place every Saturday along the picturesque Boulder Creek from April through November, and adding Wednesday evenings from May through October for good measure. It’s one of the top markets, too, having been named as one of America’s 50 Best Farmers Markets this year by Cooking Light Magazine.

It was huge. I didn’t count the number of tents, but it was dozens and dozens, arranged in the shape of a giant letter F along 13th Street. And yes, the majority of the booths were selling vegetables, but it was much, much more than the expensive hipster fruit stand I had imagined.

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For starters, there was a lot more for sale than just produce. We saw, among many other things:

Grassfed meats for sale, including beef, pork, lamb, and goat meat. You could even pre-order whole pigs or sheep, which made me wonder how on earth you would get that to your house (and where would you store it?).

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Every kind of bread imaginable, including lots of gluten-free options.

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Hot sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, tapenade, kimchi, jelly, jam, marmalade, and any other kind of sauce or spread you can think of.

Lots of local honey (some of which came home with me).

Cut flowers.

Organic potted plants, including flowers and herbs.

Amazing local goat cheese (some of which also came home with me).

A tea-tasting area in a pagoda.

A booth offering frozen gluten-free vegan meals.

A booth sponsored by the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, which had a stuffed mountain lion on the table.

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A booth advertising a swimming school.

A booth selling granola, which made me giggle, because a “granola” is also a Denver word for a Boulder hippie.

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A booth where they would sharpen knives for you. I especially loved this booth, because it reminded me strongly of the tinkers of old England and Ireland, who used to travel around repairing pots and sharpening knives for people in rural areas.

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There was also a whole section of food trucks, where you could get almost any kind of food you wanted, from mac ‘n cheese with bacon to locally-grown vegetarian fare, from Korean bibimbap to Argentinian empanadas. Once you picked up your food, you sat down with it at a long series of picnic tables under a central tent where every seat was taken and you had to watch your elbows carefully to avoid jostling your neighbor.

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A series of bands on a stage at the far end of the food area entertained you while you ate. While we were enjoying lunch, it was a folky duo playing covers of Neil Young and cracking jokes between songs.

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Mmm…empanadas!

That wasn’t the only musical entertainment. There was a man in the middle of the market playing a lap steel guitar, which I’d actually never seen before. Like the sharpening booth, it reminded me very much of old times, since it almost seemed more like a descendant of the dulcimer or hurdy-gurdy than a relative of the modern guitar.

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People-watching was excellent at the market, too. Most people were dressed like I was: t-shirts, shorts, tennies or sandals, and hats to keep the hot summer sunshine from burning the backs of their necks. But there were a few people who were dressed up like they were going to a special event. One woman was wearing platform heels and a long-sleeved, gauzy romper that was so short I had to stop myself from going over and tugging it down for her.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was an older gent dressed like a mountain man, complete with a long trenchcoat and beaver hat. Apparently there’s often a guy there known as Earth Man as well who wears a cape decorated like a globe, but we didn’t see him. That’s probably just as well, since I guess he’s given to cornering the unwary and offering to exchange “Earth bucks” with you for actual money.

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But the real star of the market was the produce. If it grows in Colorado, it was there, in bags, baskets, and glorious piles of color: arugula, chard, carrots, turnips, potatoes, mushrooms, spinach, green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, basil, beets, plums, apricots, and more. And of course, the famous peaches from Palisade, just finally coming into season and smelling like the ambrosia of the gods.

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Some of the booths were from small farms specializing in just one or two kinds of produce. Other booths were huge and diverse, using three or four tents to house all the different goods they offered. Many booths, from the produce vendors to the cheese makers to the hot sauce sellers, offered samples, which was the best marketing technique ever. I think either Abbey or I bought something at every tent where they gave us a sample.

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At all the booths, once the beautiful piles were gone, signs would spring up in their place saying “Sold Out.” So if you wanted arugula, for instance, you had to scoop it up before the stock ran out.

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I had brought $80 in cash with me, since most of the booths dealt in cash exclusively and I didn’t know exactly how much I was going to buy. I spent every penny of my $80, and I probably could have spent another $80 if I’d been foolish enough to bring more. Luckily, I love vegetables, and I made some delicious recipes with the things I bought. I’ll include the recipes and pictures at the bottom.

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The Boulder Farmers’ Market was incredible—the closest thing to a medieval market or middle eastern bazaar that I’ve ever seen in modern America. The food that I got there was a little more expensive than what I get at my local grocery store, but it was amazingly fresh, and the flavors were bright and vibrant in a way that I could hardly believe. And, on top of getting delicious food, I was supporting local small businesses. I am definitely a farmers’ market convert, and I can’t wait to go again.

 

Recipes

Sarnapur

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1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup rice

2 cups water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth

1 bunch chard

2 cups Greek yogurt

1 cup fresh mint leaves

Salt to taste

Rinse the chard leaves and separate the leaves from the stem. Put the leaves aside. Chop the stems into bite-size pieces.

In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pieces of chard stem and sauté about 1 minute. Then add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated with olive oil.

Add the water or broth and salt to taste and turn the heat up to high. Bring the water to boiling, then cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 20 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, cut or tear the chard leaves into small pieces.

When the rice is done, uncover the pan and add the yogurt. Turn the heat back up to high and bring the yogurt to a boil, stirring continuously. Once the yogurt is boiling, add the chard leaves and stir continuously until the chard is wilted, 1-2 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the mint leaves. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: I usually add chicken to my sarnapur, and this time I added mushrooms from the farmers’ market as well. I cook the chicken separately and add it at the end; I washed and chopped the mushrooms and added them at the same time as the chard stems.

 

Beet, Goat Cheese, and Arugula Salad

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Get a mix of regular beets and golden beets for a beautiful, colorful dish!

6 medium beets

4 ounces goat cheese

½ cup walnuts

4 cups arugula (you can use more or less than this depending on how big a salad you want)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or basalmic vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Chop off the tops of the beets and put them in a saucepan with some salt and enough water to cover them. Bring the water to a boil and boil the beets for 20 minutes until tender.

Rinse the beets off in cold water and let them cool for a few minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, peel the skins off with a peeler or paring knife. Then cut the beets into bite-size pieces.

Whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the beets and let marinate for 15 minutes to 2 hours.

When the beets are ready, toss the arugula with the beets and then divide among 4 plates. Top with crumbled goat cheese and walnuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: you’re actually supposed to toast the walnuts in a 350-degree oven for 8-10 minutes, but that’s such a pain in the butt that I usually skip it. I like the walnuts just fine untoasted.

This time, I also added new blue potatoes from the farmers’ market. If you want to add potatoes, you need 1 medium or 2 small potatoes per serving. Put them in a saucepan along with a generous pinch of salt, cover them with water, and bring the water to a boil. Then reduce the heat to low and boil for 15 minutes, until tender. Drain the potatoes, and when they are cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size pieces and marinate along with the beets. I usually leave the skins on potatoes, but, in this case, the skins came off by themselves when I boiled them.

Finally, you can add cooked chicken to the salad if you want some protein. Enjoy!

Adventure #14–Insane Inflatable 5K

Originally written 731/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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Photo credit: Stephan Mosel, https://www.flickr.com/photos/moe/

http://insaneinflatable5k.com/

When I was in 8th grade, I joined the school track team for a season. I’m sure I had some reason for doing this, but now the reason is completely lost in the mists of time.

For the entire fall, I ran the 800 meters, the 4×200-meter relay, and the 100-meter hurdles (until I tripped over a hurdle one day and completely lost my nerve). I also threw the discus without much success, which wasn’t surprising given that my coach gave me one three-minute lesson in how to throw it and then said, “Go practice.” That was my whole training. Seriously.

 Discus

Photo credit: Magnus Akselvoll, https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnus_akselvoll/

This stone guy threw the discus better than me.

Even though I didn’t get much in the way of coaching, I did come away from my lone season of organized school sports having learned a very valuable lesson: I hate running.

I’m not sure why this is. In general, I like physical activity, and I’ve had a lot of fun at various times over the years with gymnastics, swimming, biking, cross-country skiing, hiking, fencing, Crossfit, and, of course, dancing. But running just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve heard people who like running say that they get a high from it, a feeling of intense well-being and joy, but the only joy I’ve ever gotten from running is when I stop.

Part of it is that I get bored after a while. I have a hard time getting my brain to turn off, and when I’m plodding along and my muscles start to get tired, my brain gets fixated on how much everything hurts. Dancing involves thinking about choreography and form, which seems to keep my brain happily occupied, but when I’m running there just isn’t much to distract it from the physical misery.

 run

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaghumphreys/6206874022/

Is it time to stop yet?

So I’m not one of those people who has “Run a marathon” written at the top of their bucket list. Yuck. I’m not even interested in running a 5K—not even one of those where they drench you in colored dye or make you run at night or have different rock bands along the way.

No, the only 5Ks that interest me are obstacle courses. Those are races where they have stuff to do every now and then, like crawling through mud pits or scaling walls. THOSE I love. I’ve done the Warrior Dash three times now, and next year I’d like to do the Spartan Sprint or the Tough Mudder. Even with Warrior Dash, though, I tend to walk instead of run between the obstacles. Gotta save my strength for the fun parts, right?

Earlier this year, I was looking at a list of obstacle courses in Colorado when these words caught my eye: INSANE INFLATABLE 5K. It was a 5K obstacle course where are all the obstacles were inflated, like giant bouncy castles.

 bouncy1

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elpadawan/7981839009/

This Russian bouncy castle looks both awesome and copyright-infringing.

I could hardly sign up fast enough.

That’s how I found myself in Loveland, Colorado one Saturday afternoon in May. This was before my birthday (I’m posting this adventure out of order), so Ray was with me. He hadn’t hurt his knee yet (http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/26/adventure-13-my-40th-birthday-part-1/).

The Insane Inflatable 5K was held at the Larimer County Fairgrounds, where I’d been before for dance competitions. It’s a huge complex that includes an arena for horse shows and events, another barnlike building for dog and animal shows, a big multipurpose building, a venue that can be used for concerts and sports, and many acres of parking lots and grassland.

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Photo credit: William Andrus, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wandrus/

This is one of the sporting events you can enjoy at the Budweiser Events Center at Larimer County Fairgrounds. Actually, going to a monster truck event is an adventure I haven’t done yet….

The day that we were there, it seemed like every single part of the fairgrounds was in use. One of the parking attendants told us that they had a horse show, a dog show, the 5K, and two graduation ceremonies all running at the same time, which meant that the parking lots were full to bursting with vehicles of all kinds. It also meant that the people we saw were wearing a wide variety of clothing, from running clothes to cowboy boots to suits and ties.

The obstacle course was being held in the grass on the east side of the complex. As we walked from the parking lot to the entrance, we could see the tops of some of the inflated obstacles peeking over the fence, colored neon green and blue.

Oh, yay!

We walked through the front gate and made our way over to the event. Just like at Warrior Dash, there was a group of tents in front of the starting line where you could check in, pick up your runner’s number, and have your bags stored. Also like Warrior Dash, there were booths where you could get food, beverages (including the adult variety), and merchandise.

shocktop

You could also enjoy a display of different Kia automobiles, and some advertisements, like this adorably mohawked Volkswagon Beetle, courtesy of Shock Top Ale. Now I want a car with a mohawk!

Unlike Warrior Dash, however, there was a distinctly amateurish feel to this whole area. Part of it was that the Insane Inflatable 5K was a much smaller event. Warrior Dash hosts thousands and thousands of participants, filling up the entire village at the Copper Mountain ski resort with people and booths. There, the check-in tent alone is the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

The booths at the Insane Inflatable obstacle course, on the other hand, were sitting in an area the size of two basketball courts, sort of huddled together in the middle of the field like a flock of white nylon sheep. There were only a couple food booths, one offering hot dogs and hamburgers and one offering funnel cake, and the lone merchandise booth had a small, dispirited display of cheap t-shirts laid out on a bare table. The teenage girl running the merchandise booth looked like a picture illustrating a Wikipedia article on boredom.

Over this scene boomed the amplified voice of the event’s MC, a man dressed in a strange-looking kilt that might have started out life as a woman’s plaid skirt. He had two sidekicks: a larger guy in jeans and a Green Lantern t-shirt, and a short, thin man wearing a Superman t-shirt, a cape, little running shorts over a pair of running tights, and big white sneakers. He had a really broad forehead and a hairline receding into exaggerated widow’s peaks, and something about him made him seem like a character from The Tick.

 tick

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/15263801975/

Look it up on Wikipedia, kids: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tick_%28comics%29. Spoon!

The MC and his sidekicks talked the whole time we walked around waiting for our race wave to line up–and we’d gotten there almost two hours early because traffic was lighter than expected. Sometimes they would announce that it was time for the next wave to line up, which was at least useful; sometimes they would gushingly thank the sponsors of the event, which was not. Sometimes they would interview “elite competitors,” who turned out to be people they’d pulled randomly out of the crowd (since there aren’t really elite competitors in inflatable 5K racing).

At first it wasn’t so bad, but, after a while, the thundering volume of the loudspeaker, the jokey used-car-salesman quality of the MC’s voice, and the complete inanity of what he was saying combined to make a background noise only slightly less awful than nails on chalkboard.

They talked for so long, without a pause, that I started to wonder if they were going for some kind of announcing world record (eight hours of talking without taking a single breath!). Ray started to wonder how long a prison sentence he’d get if he beat the MC to death with his own wireless microphone.

I definitely prefer Warrior Dash, where they’ve got live bands playing music instead of people talking.

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Speaking of music, would I be dating myself if I said I really wanted to check out this Evening of Totally Awesome 80’s concert featuring Howard Jones, Flock of Seagulls, Information Society, and Katrina and the Waves?

At last, though, it was time for us to line up. We were herded into this little fenced-in area like a sheep pen, where we got to make VERY close friends with all of our neighbors. I was grateful that I’d remembered to put on deodorant. The MCs counted down from ten, and then we were off.

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The starting line, with the sheep pen right in front of it

The first obstacle was immediately beyond the sheep pen. It was a big inflated triangle with sets of steep stairs up one side and slides down the other. You scrambled up the squishy stairs using both hands and feet, and then you slid down to the ground on the far side. There were about six sets of stairs and slides so that the whole herd of us could go up at once. As the mass of humanity surged up the bright blue and green nylon of the obstacle, I wondered what the strength rating of a set of bouncy stairs was, exactly, and what the newspaper headline might look like if it collapsed underneath our combined weight so that we all fell to our horrible, squishy deaths.

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The mass of humanity from a previous wave in the race.

When we reached the ground, most of the people in the wave took off running, leaving us behind. Neither Ray nor I had done any training for the race (see “hatred of running,” above), so we had decided to walk the course. The obstacles were the fun part for us anyway.

However, since we’d also signed up for the last wave of the day in order to make sure that we could make it in time after my morning dance class, our decision to walk meant that we were basically the very last people on the whole course.

It was a little disheartening.

“That’s OK,” Ray said when I mentioned this to him. “I know I won’t come in last.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“When we get to the finish line, I’ll just push you out of the way, and then you’ll be last.”

Gee, thanks.

After a short walk on the damp, scrubby grass, we came to:

Obstacle #2—Mattress Run

 Mattress-Run-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

Official description from the Insane Inflatable website:

“Trust us, you’re not going to want to take this obstacle lightly. Take one wrong step and you’ll be laying down laughing on this mattress! The Mattress Run challenges your balance and agility as you make your way across a huge mattress filled with ankle-loving holes.”

The Mattress Run was a big, inflated square about a foot tall with holes all over its surface like a giant piece of neon green Swiss cheese. The idea was to jump from hole to hole, one foot in each hole, like football players doing a tire drill.

Woo-hoo! Our first real obstacle! I threw myself into it with gusto, springing from one hole to the next with my arms pumping. Yeah! This is what I had signed up for. I glanced over at Ray to see if he was enjoying himself. He was striding from hole to hole nonchalantly, his height and leg length being exactly right to be able to walk comfortably through the obstacle without having to jump.

“Hey!” I shouted, offended. I couldn’t have gotten through the holes without jumping, not with my short little legs. “You’re cheating!”

He shrugged. “I’m not cheating. I’m saving my energy for later.”

Obstacle #3—Big Balls (yes, that really is its name)

 Big-Balls-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“These big balls are always bouncing, and we guarantee you’ll be smacked, whacked, and knocked down by them. It’s quite possibly the world’s largest ball-pit. Once you crawl under the entrance point, you’re immediately faced with giant flying balls coming directly at you, and that’s just the beginning. Duck, dive, and dodge your way to the other side.”

(“These big balls are always bouncing?” I feel like the creators of the Insane Inflatable need to apologize to ACDC).

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The description makes the obstacle sound pretty exciting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the hype. The outside of the obstacle was like a big batting cage made of inflated struts and black netting. Inside on the ground were maybe a dozen oversized beach balls. When we crawled under the strut that formed the entrance, two teenagers inside the cage started throwing and kicking the balls around. They didn’t really throw or kick them at us, though; they just kind of moved them half-heartedly from one side of the enclosure to the other. Maybe earlier in the day they’d been more excited about beaning people with the balls, but the novelty must have worn off. They looked like the only thing they were excited about was hustling us through the exit so they could go home.

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A view of the inside of the obstacle and one of the enthusiastic volunteers.

Obstacle #4—Bumpin’ Bumpin’

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“There are always going to be speed bumps in the road of life—why not have a little fun with them? Scale a 2.5 story wall and then fly down the slide and make your way over our well-placed fun bumps.”

(“Well-placed fun bumps?”)

This obstacle was awesome. We climbed up a twenty-foot ladder (made of inflated rungs!) on one side of the obstacle and then slid down the other, bouncing over the “fun bumps” at the end before landing on the crash pad. Whee!

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By the time we finished this obstacle, we were no longer the very last people. Several groups ahead of us who had started out running had slowed to a walk, and we had passed them. However, our feeling of accomplishment was short-lived. We’d rounded a corner coming up to Obstacle #4, and as we hopped off the crash pad we could see back towards the start of the race. We saw that the event crew had unplugged the second obstacle, the Mattress Run, from the fan that kept it inflated, and they were busy stomping it flat and folding it into a crate.

 deflating

Photo credit: Jim Reynolds, https://www.flickr.com/photos/revjim5000/1680768581/

It just looks so sad when bouncy castles get deflated…

Wow. We were so slow that the crew was dismantling the whole race behind us.

Good thing we hadn’t decided to do the Zombie Run.

Obstacle #5—Tangled Up

 Tangled-Up-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“Sometimes, getting a little tangled up is more fun than not! Here’s your chance to get lost in one of our most unique obstacles on course. Simply pick a lane, take the leap, and navigate your way through. Don’t let the size intimidate you—trust us, you’ll get out, eventually!”

This was my favorite obstacle of the whole event. You climbed up two inflated rungs to get onto a big crash pad, and then you either jumped over or ducked under squishy, horizontal bars that were placed across the path. What made it super fun was that everything was inflated, including the floor, so you weren’t going to get hurt if you fell; you could hurl yourself over the bars like a stuntman or a ninja.

I definitely would have gone back and done this one again if they’d let me.

Obstacle #6—Levels

 Levels-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“Life is full of ups and downs, and so is this obstacle. Pick your route, bounce up and down to each level, and try to make it through without missing a beat or getting leveled yourself!”

I really enjoyed this obstacle, too. The floor was made of inflated blocks of different heights and firmness, and you had to walk, run, or bounce from one end to the other. I bounced mostly, and it was fun careening from block to block. Having a good sense of balance from years of dance probably helped.

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Ray, who has not had years of dance, did not enjoy this obstacle as much. A couple times he misjudged how high or how firmly inflated a block was and got thrown sideways into the wall. Since I got to the end faster than he did, I got to stand on the ground at the exit and watch him do this. I have to say, there’s not much in life funnier than watching your large, manly husband trying to run through a bouncy castle and falling on his derriere. Hee hee!

Obstacle #7—Wrecking Balls

 Wrecking-Balls-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“Don’t let these big balls wreck your run. This behemoth at 110 feet long will push you to your limits, but don’t be afraid to push back. Break your way through to the other side, and try not to get demolished along the way.”

For this obstacle, you got to push your way through lines of inflated posts, kind of like punching bags, that were attached to the floor. Then you pushed your way through lines of big blue beach-ball type things hanging from overhead support poles. The floor sloped up and down like two hills over the course of the obstacle, so you had to deal with a change in footing, too.

If we’d been running the race for time, the posts and beach balls would probably have slowed us down, but since we just jogged through for fun, it was pretty easy. I kind of wished it was harder.

After the Wrecking Balls, we had a long section of walking without any obstacles. This part worried me a little, actually, because the sky had been overcast all day, and it began to look particularly dark and ominous as we trudged through the prairie grass between obstacles 7 and 8. I really didn’t want to try to navigate the nylon surfaces of the obstacles in the rain; they looked like they would get really slippery.

 prairie

Photo credit: Joshua Mayer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wackybadger/9190042234/

This part of the course was mostly hidden from the starting line by the horse arena and a little hill, so we couldn’t see anything but prairie and a little slice of the highway. What with the gray, threatening clouds overhead, it felt kind of lonely. That might have been why a number of people around us cut across the field to get to the next obstacle instead of following the orange cones of the course.

Hey! Isn’t that cheating? Plus, you paid for this nice 5K walk, so you might as well enjoy it, right?

Obstacle #8—SOS

 SOS-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“Good thing cell phones now have GPS, as you may need to send out an SOS once you hit this massive obstacle. At 2 ½ stories high, with 3 different slides, it’s very easy to get lost. Choose your escape route wisely.”

This was by far the strangest obstacle: it was shaped like a giant airplane that had crashed and split down the middle. Who the heck designs a bouncy castle to look like a crashed airplane? It looked especially odd sitting in the middle of the grassy field, like a bizarre experimental balloon-airplane hybrid that had suffered a fatal accident on its maiden flight.

When we got to the obstacle, we climbed up stairs through the tail section, and then we emerged onto an open platform at the top. From there, we could either slide through the nose section or down one of the two wings. The slide part was fun (I mean, as an adult, how often do you get to go down slides?), but it still felt a little weird to be sliding through a fake crashed airplane.

Obstacle #9—Pure Misery

 Pure-Misery-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“We took a page from our military’s training handbook and created this goliath that will leave you begging for mercy. The 100-foot long beast will test your strength, agility, flexibility, and endurance as you complete multiple obstacles within the confines of this challenge. As they say, misery loves company.”

This description of the obstacle sounds fantastic. I love pushing myself physically, and something that requires strength and agility really appeals to me. However, like some of the previous obstacles, this one didn’t feel like it required much in the way of athleticism at all.

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We climbed up a ladder-like set of steps on one side of an incline, and then climbed down another ladder on the other side. Then we pushed our way through a series of inflated pillars on a flat section before doing another climb-up-climb-down.

Again, if we’d been running for time, seeing how fast we could do it might have been a good challenge, but as it was, it was easy. Does it sound strange if I say I was disappointed not to have the Misery part?

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As we dismounted the obstacle, we were finally back where we could see the starting line. The obstacle at the starting line was still standing, but obstacle 2 was completely packed up, obstacle 3 was getting folded into a crate, and obstacle 4 was flat on the ground and having the air bubbles pushed out. Sheesh. Couldn’t you at least wait until we finished?

 santa

Photo credit: Randy Robertson, “Too Much Eggnog?”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/randysonofrobert/335412326/

It was almost as sad as this deflated Santa.

Obstacle #10—Jump Around

 Jump-Around-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“This is where the rubber meets insanity. Hands down one of the most insane obstacles you’ll ever experience, Jump Around is the largest inflatable of its kind—over 70 feet of crazy, bouncy, fun! Once you get on it, all you’ll want to do is jump up, jump around, and get down!”

Apologies to House of Pain.

This obstacle wasn’t hard, but it was really fun. It was a bunch of big bumps, like sand dunes or ski moguls, and you got to bounce your way through them. Yay!

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Obstacle #11—Finish Line

 Finish-Line-Insane-Inflatable-5K-Obstacle

Photo credit: http://insaneinflatable5k.com/obstacles/

“Like all of our obstacles so far? Then you’ll love our finish line! We’ve taken our bouncer’s favorite elements from all of the other obstacles on our course and combined them into one crazy, inflatable. Dodge the Wrecking Balls, make your way past the tipsy towers, climb the rope ladder and slide you way to victory.”

As the description says, the last obstacle was kind of like a rehash of several previous obstacles. We went through a line of oversized, hanging beach balls and then through a section of squishy pillars before climbing up a series of hand-and-footholds (the “rope ladder” of the description) to the top of an incline. Then we got to slide down the far side of the incline to the finish line.

 177

It was fun enough, but if we were going to re-do elements from previous obstacles, I wish we’d gotten to do the one where we bounced over the horizontal bars like ninjas. That was my favorite.

Just past the finish line, volunteers were waiting to give us t-shirts and participation medals. I was very glad they were there, because otherwise it would have been a really, really sad finish. The finishing area (the same place as the starting area) was deserted—and quiet, because the MCs had left (which I guess wasn’t all bad). When we went to the bag check area to reclaim our backpacks, we didn’t have to give the volunteers our claim tags, because our bags were the last two there. Even the food vendors were closed and packing up.

Geez! What if we’d really wanted a hot dog after our grueling race?

On our way home, the gray and threatening skies finally opened up and it poured, dumping so much rain on the highway that everybody had to crawl along at 10 miles an hour. I can’t tell you how glad I was that the rain at least held off until we were done. Nothing would have made that deserted finishing area even sadder than being soaked to the bone and having to run for the car.

About a week later, I got an email saying that photographs of us running the race were available on the event website—FOR FREE! So I went to the site and entered our bib numbers.

There weren’t any pictures of us. The photographer had gone home before we even started.

So, while I had fun at the Inflatable 5K (how could you not have fun as an adult getting to enjoy giant bouncy castles?), I don’t think I’ll do it again. If you’ve got kids who want to do the event, or if you like mild, easy fun where you don’t break a sweat, give it a try! This race would be a GREAT event to enjoy as a family. Just make sure you bring your camera and take your own photos as you go.

For myself, I think I’ll spend my money on doing another mud run next year instead. Maybe I should question my sanity, but there just wasn’t quite enough “Insane” in this 5K for me.

 bouncehenge

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/blahflowers/7711722046/

Now, a giant bouncy Stonehenge? THAT’S insane.

Adventure #12–Archery

Originally written 6/1/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

12Photo credit: Markus Grossalber, “12 O’Clock,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/tschiae/7710731020/

Full Rut Archery–http://www.fullrutarchery.com/

Broadhead Cafe–http://www.fullrutarchery.com/broad_head_cafe.php

For her birthday, my sister decided that she’d like to try an archery class. She invited me along, and of course I said yes, since I’d never shot a bow and arrow before.

She found a place online that offered a special birthday package: an hour of range use, equipment rental, and a dedicated instructor for $12 per person. Such a deal! Even better, the range had a café inside that served exotic meats like kangaroo and frog’s legs (as well as more mundane things like burgers), and we could preorder our meals and have them ready for us when we got there.

That sounded perfect. My sister got together a small party of friends and signed us up for a Sunday at 12:30.

On that Sunday, my sister and I decided to carpool to the archery range, which was (according to Google) about half an hour away, on the plains to the east of the Denver Metro area. Armed with the GPS on her phone, we set out from the eastern suburbs and were soon in rolling grasslands. The houses got farther apart, and many were surrounded by big, white-fenced acres of horse pasture. It had been an unusually wet and rainy May in Denver, but the sun was mostly out that day in a dramatic sky of gray and white clouds. A good day for an adventure.

 COplains1Photo credit: Ken Lund, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/4855414171/

As we drove, we talked about various things, and I looked at the GPS from time to time to give my sister directions. We went from a big, two-lanes-each-way, 45 mph Denver street to a one-lane-each way paved county road, to a smaller side county road where houses were few and far between, to a dirt road with no street signs.

It was here, in the middle of nowhere, that the GPS finally told us we had arrived.

We pulled over in a cloud of dust and looked around. There was nothing as far as the eye could see but grass, the occasional house surrounded by pasture, and a wide variety of rusty vehicle carcasses. The address we were looking for didn’t seem to exist.

 rustyPhoto credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fryske/3336648292/

My sister looked at the nearest house, which had a pickup truck hitched to a horse trailer sitting in its driveway. “Do you think that could be it?” she asked doubtfully.

“No,” I said, imagining going up to this person’s house and asking if they were an archery range. An introvert’s nightmare. “Let’s check the website.”

Luckily, the cell phone signal was low but present, so we looked up the address on the archery range’s website. Hmm. The address listed on their home page was certainly the one we had entered in the GPS, and here we were. Only, no archery range.

 COplains2Photo credit: Ken Lund, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/4856073324/

I scrolled a little farther down. At the bottom of the home page, the address was posted again—except, while the street number was the same, the road listed was completely different.

I gave my sister the bad news. She took the phone from me and entered the new address, and we were off, following the GPS back down the dirt road to a different dirt road. While she drove, I texted her friends to let them know that we were going to be late, and I hoped that this wasn’t going to ruin my sister’s birthday party.

 COplains3Photo credit: Derek Key, https://www.flickr.com/photos/derekskey/7637035758/

A few minutes later, I suddenly got a bad feeling. I’d like to say that I had a premonition, but really I think it was paranoia after getting lost the first time. I looked more closely at the GPS, and I saw that it had somehow changed the address my sister had entered into a totally different address.

Arg!

I tried correcting the address, but the GPS seemed possessed. Every time I re-entered the correct address, it would change it again. The new address, the one it REALLY wanted us to go to, had absolutely zero resemblance to the one I kept trying to enter.

 devilPhoto credit: Eduardo Gavina, “Demon in the Sky (Vicente)”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/eduardoeduardo/8596752181/

This is what I imagine the GPS-possessing demon looking like

In the end, I went to Google, entered the name of the archery range, and clicked on the map. THAT finally gave us the correct destination, which was good. Unfortunately, it also let us know that it was going to be another 20 minutes before we got there, because of course the possessed GPS had been leading us in exactly the wrong direction.

Well, nothing we could do about it now. We followed the new directions back onto a paved road we had been on half an hour before, and I texted everybody that we were going to be really late. That was OK, it turned out, because one of the others had gotten lost as well, and one had gotten stuck downtown in traffic after running the Colfax Half Marathon and wasn’t going to make it at all.

Eventually, after a series of paved county roads, we ended up on a different dirt road in a different middle of nowhere, and this turned out to be the right place. Hooray! There were signs pointing to the range as we got close, and eventually we saw a twenty-foot-tall model of a giant arrow planted in the middle of a field.

 arrowinfield

This had to be the place.

The range was inside of a big, newish-looking building like a barn surrounded by a gravel parking lot. Across the parking lot was an outdoor archery area in a field, with a woman in shorts and a t-shirt shooting at paper targets on chunky stands.

 archeryfullrut1

Inside, there were several different areas: the café off to the left, the front desk off to the right, and a store straight ahead, with the main part of the range beyond it. The walls were covered with wood paneling, with big log beams here and there, and the décor was largely made up of the mounted heads of various animals, like deer, elk, and boar. The carpet on the floor was camouflage. I wondered where you get camo carpet, and how much of a demand there is for it.

 archerywhining

I had been worried that we weren’t going to be able to shoot after all, since we were half an hour late, but the two employees at the front desk didn’t seem concerned about it. In fact, they didn’t even mention that we were late. One of the employees, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, led us off to the right, past the check-in desk, to an area she called “the Lone Range.” Ha ha ha! The name made me very happy, but the girl didn’t laugh at all when she said it. Maybe she was over the joke.

The Lone Range was a long, skinny room that was separated from the main part of the range by a wooden wall with plexiglass windows in it, possibly to prevent the amateurs from accidentally shooting the professionals next door. The room looked kind of like a bowling alley, with a wooden floor divided into lanes by stripes of different-colored wood. At the far end, against the back wall of the building, were four tall, square blocks of a material like super-dense Styrofoam, covered in white tarps and sporting little blue paper targets on them.

 archerylonerange

At the near end of the room was a rack that looked something like the parallel bars in men’s gymnastics, only it was covered in camouflage carpeting. Half a dozen bows rested on the rack, strings up, looking exactly like the bows in Robin Hood movies. Yay! I couldn’t wait to try them out.

 archeryrack

“Go ahead and pick out your bow,” said the girl, gesturing unexcitedly toward the rack.

“What’s the difference between them?” I asked.

She looked at me. “Some of them are longer and some of them are shorter.”

Oh. Silly question.

“Which one should I use?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Whichever one you want.”

Gee, thanks.

My sister’s two friends were already picking out their bows, so I went ahead and grabbed one at random, feeling like there was probably a more scientific way of doing this. Oh, well.

 archerybow

The girl then led us down the range until we were maybe fifteen feet away from the targets. There was a line there on the floor across the lanes, with a stand filled with arrows sitting on the line for each of us. The arrows, I was interested to see, had metal tips almost like bullets on the front ends, rather than the stereotypical arrowheads you think of from movies. At the back, where movie arrows have feathers, they had plastic instead (I found out later that the feathers or plastic pieces on the back are called fletching or vanes). One of the vanes on every arrow was a different color than the other two.

 archeryoddvane

“Here’s what you do,” the girl said, taking my bow and one of my arrows and demonstrating. “See this at the back of the arrow? That’s called the nock.”

The nock was a small plastic piece that was forked so that you could stick it on the bowstring to help hold the arrow in place.

“Put the nock right above this bead in the middle of the string. The odd-colored vane should be toward you—that’s how you know that the nock is turned right. Rest the shaft of the arrow on this guide here on the hand grip. Now pull back the string with your first three fingers. Some people like to put their index finger above the arrow and the other two below, but I like to put all three below. It helps keep the arrow from shaking and getting off the target.”

She showed us how she liked to place her fingers.

 archeryhandsPhoto credit: Valerie Everett, https://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/3436700660/

No, not like this.

“Then pull the string back. Don’t be scared to pull it way back—your hand should touch your jaw.” She demonstrated. “Then let go.”

The arrow whizzed through the air and hit the target with a satisfying “thwack” sound.

“And that’s all there is to it,” she said, handing my bow back to me. “It’s easy. Give it a try.”

The four of us, feeling a little self-conscious, tried it out. I took an arrow out of the stand, put the forked nock above the little gold bead on the string, rested the front of the arrow on the black plastic guide near the place where my hand went, and pulled back the string. When I let go of the string, the arrow thumped into the foam block with the same satisfying “thwack” sound, although I was nowhere close to the blue paper target.

Hey! I’d shot my first arrow!

archeryarrowIt was a little intimidating that my arrow said “Devil’s Wrath” on it, though.

All of us had five arrows, and we shot them one at a time while the girl watched us silently from a safe distance behind the line. She didn’t say anything, even when I completely missed the giant foam block and sent my arrow into the back wall. Oops.

When we’d all shot our arrows, she told us to go get them out of the foam to shoot again. “Have fun,” she said. “I’ll be at the front desk if you need anything.”

 archerybear

Oh. I was kind of disappointed in our “range instructor,” since I’d been envisioning something more like the range instructor I had when I went to the firing range in Phoenix (http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/05/adventure-8-shooting-range/), where he was at my side the entire time, both teaching and encouraging me. But, as my husband pointed out later, the shooting range had been pretty expensive. What did I want for $12?

The girl did come back a few minutes later, bringing with her a pile of arm guards and finger guards, since she’d forgotten to give us those when we checked in. The arm guards were padded cloth patches that attached to your forearm with straps so that the pad was on the inside of your arm from your wrist to your elbow. They helped to protect your arm from the string, because if you held your left arm too straight, the string snapped against it every time you shot. As a matter of fact, by the time the girl remembered and brought us the guards, my sister’s two friends already had some lovely welts. I somehow escaped snapping myself with the string, probably because I kept holding my left elbow out to the side at a super awkward angle, like I was trying to perform ballet while shooting my bow.

 archeryarmguard

I wasn’t really sure how I felt about my arm being labeled “Full Rut.” Hey, what are you trying to say?

The finger guards were hard leather sheaths that went over the right index, middle, and ring fingers to protect them from getting cut by the string. It was a good idea, but the guards she brought us were sort of one-size-fits-all, and I have tiny hands (they’re so small that the jeweler who made my wedding ring gave me a discount because he’d used so much less gold than he usually did). The sheaths were like humongous leather sausages on my little fingers. After sending three arrows careening out of control all over the range because I couldn’t make my right hand work properly, I took the finger guards off.

Even without the finger guards, I was definitely no Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. About half my arrows managed to hit the blue paper target, but none of them were even close to the white bullseye, and the other half ended up all over the foam block. Twice, I missed the foam block completely and had my arrows bounce off the back wall and come flying back to me, like some kind of arrow-boomerang crossover. Luckily for my self-esteem, those two both happened in the first ten minutes, and I got better—but still.

archeryboargoat

Yeah, these animals would have been totally safe from me. I think the boar might actually be laughing at my archery skills.

My sister, on the other hand, was channeling her inner Merida from Brave, even though she hadn’t ever shot a bow either. About 90% of her arrows hit the blue target even at the beginning, and she was hitting the white bullseye regularly while the other three of us were still trying to hit the paper at all. I was in awe.

 archerysister

Here is my sister being awesome.

One thing I hadn’t been prepared for was how physical archery was. Even standing so close to the target and shooting what I suspected was a kid-strength bow, I could really feel the muscles in my arms, shoulders, and back. Between rounds, I would stretch and massage my muscles, taking pictures to give me an excuse for dawdling on my way back to the line. I’m an Irish dancer—upper body strength is NOT my forte.

While I rested my aching arms, I looked through the plexiglass windows at the people shooting next door on the main range. Most of the lanes were in use, and there was an interesting mix of adults and kids, and of men and women. It was different than the shooting range in Phoenix, which had been more than three-quarters male and 100% adult. Here, families were enjoying a Sunday together, with parents teaching kids how to shoot and both boys and girls getting practice in with their bows.

 archerymuddygirl

And, as with rifle shooting, they even had products marketed to girls–pink, of course

A few people were using the same kind of plain bows we were using (recurve bows, they’re called), but others were using the kind of bows that Olympic archers use. Those are recurve bows, too, but they have fancy sights on them (like sniper rifles), as well as a thing like a cane sticking out of the front called a stabilizer.

 archerystabilizerPhoto credit: Andy Rogers, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cobaltfish/7745091164/

A bunch of people were using compound bows, which I’d heard about but never seen. Compound bows have pulleys (called cams) at the top and bottom that make it easier to pull the string back, allowing the archer to use a stronger bow than they otherwise could. Multiple cables run between the pulleys, almost parallel to the bowstring, making it look like the bow has three or four different strings. The front of the bow, instead of curving outward, curves inward. All these features make the compound bow look like something from a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie.

 archerycompound

Seriously, can’t you see Mad Max using something like this?

For safety, everyone on the main range was standing on the same line, about forty feet away from the targets on the back wall. However, some people were shooting at targets on wheels that they had placed much closer to the line—in fact, one or two were shooting at a target only five feet away. I wondered if that was practice for something specific, like hunting (more on that later).

Gradually, I got better at aiming and firing my bow. I stopped hitting the wall instead of the foam blocks, and usually four out of my five arrows would hit the target. My confidence improved, and I could watch as my arrow left the string and flew toward the block. It was interesting to see that arrows don’t really fly straight; they kind of wobble in the air like a fish tail swimming back and forth.

By the end, I even got a few arrows in the white inner ring. It was a lot of fun.

 archerytarget

Woo-hoo! I hit the bullseye!

After an hour, I had a round where two of my arrows hit the inner ring and the other three all hit the blue. That seemed like a sign to stop while I was ahead. My shoulders were protesting and my guard-less fingers felt a little raw. Besides, weren’t we supposed to stop after an hour? I looked around, but the girl didn’t appear to tell us our time was up or anything.

Suddenly, I was starving. Archery is hard work!

 archeryfan

We put our bows back on the rack and went out to the front desk. The girl asked if we’d had a good time, and were we sure we didn’t want to keep going? No one seemed too concerned about what time it was or how long we’d been there.

And that wasn’t just at the front desk, either. When we’d finished paying for our range time, we walked over to the café, where a serious-looking woman in her forties or fifties was doing something behind a counter. My sister introduced herself and said that she’d emailed in our food order.

 archerycafe

It was quite an order, too. As I mentioned earlier, the café offered several different exotic meats on their online menu, and my sister and I were excited about trying meats that we’d never had before. The café had a sampler platter where you could get fries plus three kinds of meat, but we figured out that it was actually less expensive for us just to order the five meats we were interested in as individual dinners and split them between us (I have no idea why the sampler platter was so much more expensive than the individual dinners). That was going to be way more food than the two of us could eat—especially since each dinner came with two sides—but we decided that we would just box up the extras and eat leftovers for lunch the rest of the week.

Well, it turned out that the online menu was out of date (which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering that even the address on the website was wrong). Some of the items we had ordered were no longer available, and the cook hadn’t known what we wanted to do about that. So she just hadn’t made anything.

 archeryfullrut2

This, I don’t mind confessing, was quite a blow to me. It was after 2:00 p.m. by then, and an hour of driving in the wilderness followed by an hour of archery had left me so hungry that I would have been happy to eat whatever they had ready, no questions asked (Hippo? Sure!). But there didn’t seem to be anything to do except to place our order again and wait to eat until it was ready.

Luckily, we hadn’t looked around the store part of the business yet, so while we waited for our food we walked around and glanced at all the things they had for sale.

archerybuckbuster

This is special feed that you sprinkle in an area where you’re going to be hunting. The deer eat it, and the minerals help them grow bigger antlers–so that you look cooler when you kill the deer the later. I had trouble wrapping my head around this.

It was eye-opening. The store was definitely geared toward bowhunters rather than tournament archers, and they weren’t shy about the fact that hunting involves killing.

archeryturkeynightmare

Turkey Nightmare!

Many product names and logos directly alluded to death, either humorously or with a kind of machismo, and overall there was a sense that hunting was not only a natural thing for humans to do, but a way of proving (and celebrating) your virility.

 archerygravedigger

OK–can you explain to me why the GraveDigger Broadhead Chisel Tip arrowheads need a picture of a sexy, mysterious woman with huge cleavage on them?

And not just manly virility, either! A bulletin board near the front door was covered with pictures of members hunting, including about a dozen of a 105-pound woman (who, they said, only drew a 44-pound bow, which I guess is not very powerful) posing with a bunch of different animals she had killed. These ranged from local fauna like deer and antelope to African animals that she must have hunted on some kind of special safari: a wildebeest, for example, and a musk ox. A sign above her collection of pictures mentioned her weight and her draw weight and said, “Think you can’t put an arrow through an animal? Think again!”

archerybone

Bone Collector!

The pictures made me feel a little sick. I don’t think I’m going to be adding hunting to my list of adventures. Fishing was hard enough for my soft-hearted self (http://nerdseye.com/2015/09/01/adventure-6-fishing/).

My favorite part of the store was at the back, near the restrooms. Actually, I liked the restrooms, too. They had cute signs on the door:

archeryrestroom

They had funny toilet seat covers:

archeryseat

And they were all prepared with reading material next to the toilet, just in case you were going to be in there a long time:

archerymags

But the restrooms weren’t my favorite part. My favorite thing was a display of pink camouflage pajamas, with a sign on top that said “Find Out What Happens When You Get Your Girl Some Camo,” next to a picture of a smiling woman in camo lingerie (wink wink, nudge nudge).

 archerycamo

That tickled me by itself, but the back of the display was even better: a selection of padded camo bras and thong underwear, all emblazoned with the range’s logo in pink lettering.

 archerybra

Now I know what my husband can get me for my birthday….

 archerythong

Having “Full Rut” printed on your undies is, um, awkward.

After about forty-five minutes, our lunch was finally ready (although it was rapidly becoming dinner instead). Half the table was covered with the dishes that my sister and I had ordered: frog’s legs, rabbit, alligator, and kangaroo. It looked like we were feeding a party of eight.

Figuring that the breaded and deep-fried frog’s legs wouldn’t taste so good reheated the next day, we ate those first. I’d never had frog’s legs before, so I was interested to find out what they tasted like. I was so hungry, however, that I wolfed down the first two without really tasting them at all.

 archeryfrog

After that, I was able to slow down a little and notice what I was eating. The frog’s legs had a similar texture to hot wings, but the flavor was much more like whitefish or tilapia. Like hot wings, I liked them best after I’d dipped them in ranch dressing.

When we’d finished the frog’s legs, we divided up the other meat and had a little sample of each, boxing up the rest to take home later.

Rabbit, which is a white meat, has the same kind of texture as chicken but a lighter flavor. It was good. I had my leftovers the next day with some Indian saag.

 archeryrabbit

The alligator ribs were very dry, with not much flavor beyond that of the heavy citrus glaze they’d basted on. I’d had alligator before, but then it was small chunks breaded and deep fried like popcorn shrimp. That had tasted amazing, but pretty much everything tastes good breaded, deep fried, and dunked in sauce.

 archerygator

Kangaroo, interestingly, is red meat, and the serving we had was very much like a steak. The piece we had was medium rare, and the middle part (where it was rarest) was the tastiest. It was delicious. The edges, where it was more well done, were a little tough. Apparently, kangaroo doesn’t have a lot of fat on it, which always means you have to be very careful not to overcook it or it will dry out. Just a little tip in case you ever need to cook a kangaroo.

 archerykangaroo

When lunch was over, we gathered up our takeout boxes and drove home, making it back without incident now that we knew where the place was. It was fun pretending to be Hawkeye from the Avengers for an afternoon, and I enjoyed trying the exotic meats (even though I think I’ll give frog’s legs and alligator ribs a pass next time). My sister really enjoyed it, and she’s thinking of trying it again soon.

If you live in Denver and are thinking about doing something really different for a party, give Full Rut a try. The price is very reasonable, the archery is fun, and the food is good. Just make sure to double check the address before you go.

Adventure #11–International Grocery Stores

Originally written on 3/3/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

11
Photo credit: Maret Hosemann, https://www.flickr.com/photos/maret1983/

 

Three of the international groceries I visited:

hmart.com

https://www.facebook.com/arashmarket

http://mandiinternationalmarket.com

 

My friend Abbey is a world traveler. Once or twice a year, she goes on an international trip with her mom or a friend to someplace like India, Portugal, or Austria. While she’s there, she takes a ton of photos (because she’s an excellent photographer, too), and then when she gets back she throws a party where she shows everybody her photos. I always love seeing the photos, because I am not likely ever to get to India, Portugal, or Austria, and this way I can live vicariously through her adventures.

At the parties, Abbey serves food from whatever country she visited, because she is also a wonderful cook (in fact, pretty much the only thing she doesn’t do is blog about her trips, not because she can’t write—she can do that, too—but because she doesn’t have the compulsion to write that I do. Down the road when we both retire, I’m thinking of proposing a second career where we do a travel blog together: she can do the photos and I can write the blog).

Over Christmas, Abbey and her mom visited a friend in Vienna. When she got back, she needed to start preparing to cook for her party, and that meant she needed to visit some international grocery stores. She invited me along.

050

I had never been to an international grocery store, so of course I said yes. My parents had always shopped at the grocery store on the Air Force Base (my dad being in the Air Force), and as an adult I’ve shopped at the big chain grocery stores like King Soopers and Safeway.

International grocery stores are very different from the big chain stores. We visited five all together: a European market, three Middle Eastern markets, and one Asian market. The Asian market was huge (more on that later), but the other four were very small, more the size of a phone store or an ice cream shop than a Safeway. The aisles were short and cramped, the fixtures more functional than attractive, the signs mostly hand-written.

045And you can get canned sprats!

On the shelves were canned and packaged goods that you couldn’t easily get at King Soopers, specialty items imported from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

085Honey with crushing nuts!

Some of the items seemed odd to an American used to shopping at a big corporate grocery store, and whenever I came across an item like that I took a picture.

047The squid on this package of dried calamari strips is so adorable! Its tentacles are coming out of its nose. I’m pretty sure that’s not scientifically accurate.

Abbey was very patient with this and did not pretend she didn’t know me. She probably wanted to.

049Yogurt soda!

All the markets had surprisingly lush produce sections (I had to stop myself from buying more produce than I could easily eat in a week), but the big highlights of the markets were the meat counters, where you could get ingredients you needed for your traditional cooking: whole fish, halal meats (meats prepared in accordance with Islamic guidelines), and even sheep tongue. I was going to take a picture of the packages of sheep tongue, but the woman at the counter was standing there looking at me, and I decided it would be rude.

046But I did get a picture of the fish counter at a different store.

You could get deli-style ingredients too, where the clerk scooped items out of a jar or dish for you: olives, dried fruit, feta cheese. Sometimes the items weren’t labeled, or were only labeled in Russian or Arabic, so I was glad that Abbey knew what they were. And there was wonderful bread, some in packages from specialty bakeries, and some made in-house and sold hot from the oven.

042Or, if you prefer drinking your grains, here is a drink made of rye bread.

The most interesting thing to me about the small markets was that none of the packaged products I looked at—bread, vegetables, meats, spices—had any artificial additives. Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly careful about what I eat, and I try to avoid artificial ingredients like hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I did not find a single item in any of the four small markets that had any of those ingredients. Pickles, for instance.

084Like mango pickles! Almost bought those, actually.

I usually have to buy pickles at Whole Foods or Sprouts because pickles from regular grocery stores have high-fructose corn syrup in them (which doesn’t make any sense to me). There was a bewildering array of pickles vegetables at the international markets (pickled mushrooms, pickled cauliflower, pickled eggs), and not a single variety I looked at had any artificial additives.

083Nope! No artificial ingredients in the pickled okra.

American companies would have you believe that preservatives and additives are necessary, but apparently international companies know better.

044I totally bought this mushroom-shaped jar of pickled mushrooms from Poland.

Another interesting fact: the prices at the markets were very reasonable. Abbey told me that she shops there instead of Whole Foods for specialty ingredients when she can because the prices are so much lower.

041Also, where else can you get vodka chocolates?

All the markets had a dedicated bagger at each check-out lane. At one of the markets, the bagger was wearing a suit and tie.

051I did not take a picture of the bagger in the suit and tie, but at the same market I took a picture of these Christmas chocolates. It was January, and plus we were in a Middle Eastern halal market, and it made me smile.

The Asian market was an entirely different kind of place.

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For one thing, it was enormous, twice the size of the King Soopers I usually shop at.

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There was a separate little bakery and pastry shop near the entrance, where we bought a bean curd doughnut to eat later.

052They also gave out these awesome little baskets on wheels. My King Soopers needs to have these.

The produce section contained vegetables I’ve never even heard of, like:

053

And

056

And

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Abbey had heard of durian; she called it “smelly melon.” Apparently, durian has such an intense odor that people aren’t allowed to carry them on buses in Asia, and in the grocery store they have to put them in these freezer displays to keep them from stinking up the whole produce section.

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And I didn’t know that there were different kinds of eggplant, like Philippine eggplant…

059

…and graffiti eggplant. I bought some of these–they were so pretty. And tasty!

A woman in the produce section was making fresh kimchi.

066Don’t open the kimchi container!

There was a meat counter, but also a separate fresh seafood market with tanks of live lobster and fish.

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I don’t know if you can read it, but the motto of the seafood market was “Experience the Freshness.”

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And, wow, was it fresh! Live fluke here…

068

…and live abalone here. I’d never seen live abalone before.

There was an entire aisle of different kinds of noodles, an entire aisle of different kinds of rice, and multiple aisles of spices, pastes, and sauces that I wouldn’t even have the first idea how to use.

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Like fried gluten!

079

And banana sauce! Is that sauce made from bananas? Sauce for bananas?

It was overwhelming.

065Five pounds of peeled garlic cloves–everything was just bigger at the Asian market.

And then, in case the food itself wasn’t enough, half of the store was a goods market, selling clothes, shoes, art, cookware—you name it. Abbey and I didn’t even go over to that side. It was just too much to take in.

102

The Asian market was much slicker than the four small markets: printed signs, wide aisles, very professional presentation. Interestingly, it was the only one of the five international groceries that carried products that contained artificial ingredients. Some of the snack products from Japan had hydrogenated oil, for instance.

073Crab chips! Made from real crab!

074And squid crackers! Made from real squid!

075And fried fish maw! Made from…real fish maw?

It made me sad that some of the products had hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup, because otherwise I might have bought some of the crazy candy they had on the snack aisle.

076Like Yan Yan Kids or Everyburger

082Or this candy…is that Pedobear???

My favorite part of the Asian market? The stockers (who were busy redoing some shelves while we were there) were all speaking to each other in Spanish. Definitely an international grocery!

081Complete with Danish butter cookies at the checkout.

At each grocery, we bought a few things, and then we went back to Abbey’s house and had a picnic of fresh, warm flatbread, feta cheese, olives, figs, apricots, and various kinds of pickles. It was wonderful. I will definitely be going back to the international groceries–and you should try them, too!

086

Adventure #9–Water Walkerz

Originally written 12/31/2014.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

9

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jblndl/283365812

 

http://www.waterwalkerz.com/

http://www.minersmazeadventureland.com/Activities/WaterWalkerz.aspx

http://www.heritagesquare.info/

 

This really should have been Adventure #6, since it happened before my fishing adventure, but since I never got my act together to write about it, it gets to be #9 instead.

At the end of August, my sister and I had a meeting on the west side of town, and it went so fast that we had several hours of free time before we had to be anywhere else.

“Let’s go to Heritage Square!” she said. “You can use it as an adventure!”

Well, I’m never going to say no to an adventure, so off we went.

heritagesquare

Photo credit: Bradley Gordon, http://www.flickr.com/photos/icanchangethisright/3181012088

Heritage Square is a…hmm. I’m not exactly sure what to call it. It’s kind of like an amusement park, since it has rides and games, but all the different rides and games are owned and operated independently by different companies, and you pay for each ride separately (there’s no fee to get in to Heritage Square itself). The rides and games tend to be more of the traveling festival type, mostly kid-sized and with an air of being able to pack up quickly to move on to the next town, even though they’re installed permanently at the site.

There are shops in buildings designed to look like 19th-century houses along a pretend Main Street, so it’s also kind of like an outdoor mall. You can get all kinds of souvenirs and tacky gifts, plus candy, fake tattoos, and those Old Western black and white photos of you looking awkward dressed as a can-can girl. The houses are cute, painted in pastel colors and roughly three-quarters size so that the whole Main Street has the feeling of a doll village, but most of the shops are empty. When you’re there on a weekday morning when school is back in session and almost no one is there, it feels like embarrassingly like a ghost town. All it needs are tumbleweeds blowing down the street.

ghosttown

Photo credit: Don Graham, “Shaniko Ghost Town”, http://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/10253176943 

This is a real ghost town, not Heritage Square on a weekday morning.

One of the main attractions of Heritage Square is its theater, which puts on tongue-in-cheek parody-style musicals all year long. I’ve been to two different productions and enjoyed both. One of the times I went was a dinner-theater-style event, with dinner first in the theater’s small restaurant and the play afterward; one of the times was just the play. The musicals are fun and the actors enthusiastic about their work.

The other main attraction is the Alpine Slide, where you ride a gondola up the side of the mountain to the top and then ride a tiny sled back down a winding concrete ramp set into the hillside at a frightening angle. Adults can ride alone, or share a sled with a child. There are two different slides: one is basically the “slow lane,” for people who are terrified and riding the primitive brake all the way down (that’s me), and the other is the “fast lane,” for maniacs who just ignore the brake altogether and fly down the course at speeds that would get them pulled over on the highway. With both, people sometimes flip their sleds, either by applying the brake too suddenly, going too fast around a corner, or careening into the slow person in front of them. If you flip, you get a nice piece of road rash as a souvenir.

alpineslide

Photo credit: Charles Willgren, http://www.flickr.com/photos/charkes/2598791121

These girls are in the fast lane. I would be on the other side, crawling along with my eyes shut.

So Heritage Square is an amusement park/traveling festival/outdoor mall/theater/doll village/ghost town. Its website calls it a “Family Entertainment Village,” and I guess that’s as good a description as any.

Both my sister and I had been to Heritage Square before, so we skipped the tacky souvenirs and the Alpine Slide and headed to a newer attraction, the Water Walkerz. My sister was especially excited to try these out. Water Walkerz are giant inflatable balls, like clear beach balls, that you get inside so you can run around in a swimming pool. The pictures on the website showed kids and teenagers rolling around on top of the water with happy smiles, for all the world like hamsters in plastic balls.

hamsterball

Photo credit: Martin Thomas, “Gizmo Unleashed,” http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_thomas/3758169343

The website had this to say about the attraction:

Have you ever wanted to feel like you could walk on water? Now you can! Jump inside the giant Water Walkerz bubbles and create an unreal experience of actually being able to walk on top of water! Experience the ripples beneath you in your quest to stand up, run around, and conquer this incredible interactive attraction. Nothing compares to the excitement of being able to glide across Waves!

It sounded super fun.

The Water Walkerz turned out to be in a new part of Heritage Square called Miner’s Maze, with several other different attractions and games. Everything had an old mining town theme, with weathered boards, rickety-looking facades, and signs designed to look hand-painted. The ticket booth, where we went first, was in a little wooden building like a shack, and a sign with a  cartoon miner on it held his hand up to show the minimum height for some of the attractions.

 shack

Photo credit: Bill Debevc, “Oro Wash Miners House,” http://www.flickr.com/photos/sshaphotos/3207444420

Like this, but with tickets and a bored teenage clerk.

We bought our tickets and then looked around for the Water Walkerz. On the website, the pictures made it look like the kids were rolling around in a swimming pool, but we didn’t see a big swimming pool anywhere. All we saw was a kiddie-pool-type thing. It was maybe twenty feet on a side and two feet high, its edges covered by blue plastic trash bag material. In front, there was a wooden platform with a couple steps leading up to it. The top of the platform and the pavement in front of it was covered with Astroturf.

Inside the kiddie pool were five or six inflatable balls in three different translucent colors, like giant balloons. They filled up pretty much the whole pool.

walkerz1

“I think that’s it,” my sister said.

She did not seem disappointed. I, on the other hand, felt cheated. How was I supposed to run free like a hamster in a twenty-by-twenty kiddie pool?

But, what the hey, we were there and we’d paid for our tickets. We went over to the Astroturf and joined the line of small children waiting to get in.

I noticed, looking around, that we were the only adults in line. There were other adults standing around the wooden perimeter fence taking pictures of their kids, but everybody else in line was under the age of ten. It made me feel a little awkward.

Oh, well. Nothing said that the Water Walkerz were only for kids, and the weight limit was 250 pounds, so I guessed it was OK.

As we waited, I watched the kids in front of us to see what to do. The ride operator, a twenty-something man with a scruffy beard who looked like his job had sucked out his will to live, dragged one of the colored globes out of the pool and onto the Astroturf-covered platform. “Please sit still while I roll you into position,” he said to the kid in the globe in a despondent monotone. He moved the ball forward until a long, black zippered line—the entrance, I guessed (for lack of a better word)—was close to the platform, and then he unzipped it. All the air gushed out and the ball deflated, and the kid inside squirmed out onto the Astroturf, smiling and laughing.

walkerz2

This is my sister, smiling and laughing as she squirms out a little later on.

The next kid in line had already taken her shoes off and put them on a shelf to the side of the waiting area. She went up the stairs to the platform, handed her ticket to the operator, and crawled inside the deflated ball. The operator (looking like he’d rather chuck himself into the pool screaming, “Goodbye, cruel world!”) zipped the entrance mostly shut and then put a big hose into the remaining opening, inflating the ball with an air compressor that stood nearby. When the globe was inflated, he zipped the entrance all the way shut and rolled the ball into the pool before grabbing the next globe that was due to come out.

walkerz3

Here is my sister enjoying getting her globe inflated. I love the expression on her face.

I’d thought that there would be a timer that let you know how long you got to stay in, but there wasn’t a timer per se. The operator just pulled out the globes in the same order he put them in, putting one in and then pulling out the next one over and over and over. No wonder he looked like he hated his life.

With five balls in the pool and a few minutes per ball to exchange riders, it basically meant that everybody got to stay in fifteen to twenty minutes, which seemed reasonable, given that the tickets had only been a couple bucks.

It also meant that the line moved pretty quickly. Soon it was my sister’s turn to get in, and then mine. I stepped up onto the platform and handed the operator my ticket, saying, “Hello!” and smiling at him. I felt like he could use a little friendliness in his day. I wasn’t sure how well it would go over, but he smiled back, which made me feel good.

I got down and my hands and knees and crawled into the deflated globe (mine was blue). It was not a very dignified entrance, and I was glad that my sister had not caught it on camera. The inside of the ball was slightly damp and had the same vinyl-plasticky smell as new shower curtains—mmm! It was interesting sitting inside while the globe inflated, like being inside a balloon while it was being blown up. The inflation only took a minute or so, and then the operator zipped the entrance shut.

walkerz4

Me in my vinyl cocoon, awaiting inflation.

I had figured that I wouldn’t be able to hear anything inside the ball once it was zipped closed, but that wasn’t the case. I could hear the operator talking to me and kids screaming on nearby rides and everything, but the sounds seemed to come from oddly far away. It was exactly like in a cartoon when characters are underwater.

The operator rolled me into the kiddie pool, saying, “Have fun!”, and I was off. Instantly, I discovered a few things:

  1. My fantasy of being a hamster in a hamster ball was not going to happen.

If you’ve ever seen a hamster in a ball, you know how they do it: they stand up, put their little front legs up on the side of the ball, and then run, propelling the ball forward at a great rate of speed. My cats always loved watching the little guys zip around the living room when I had hamsters as a kid.

With that in mind, I stood up and put my hands on the front wall—and then promptly fell over. I don’t know whether it’s the instability of the water underneath your feet or what, but it is next to impossible to stand up in a Water Walker. For the next several minutes, I used every balance trick I knew to try to get on my feet and stay there, only to find myself falling on my butt, my face, and my head over and over again.

walkerz5

Here is my sister going through the same process. The kid in the pink ball on the right is on her feet and looks like she’s running, but it’s an illusion. A second later she falls down, too.

At least it didn’t hurt to fall. It was actually kind of fun, like being in a bouncy castle.

Eventually, I did manage to get on my feet and stay there for about a minute, walking forward with my feet and hands, and that’s when I discovered the next thing.

  1. It didn’t matter that we were in a tiny pool, because you go nowhere fast in a Water Walker.

Even on my feet, doing exactly what I’d seen my hamsters do, the Water Walker hardly moved at all. Again, I’m sure it’s something that a physicist could explain, but I was flummoxed. Why wasn’t I flying all over the surface of the kiddie pool, bouncing ten-year-olds out of my way? I wasn’t flying. I was barely even crawling, and the far wall of the pool continued to look as distant as the Great Wall of China.

Discouraged, I threw myself back down on the floor of the globe, bouncing on my stomach. I don’t know why, but I wanted to get to that far wall as though it were the summit of Mt. Everest or something. I was NOT going to let this Water Walker and its bizarre physics defeat me.

So I rolled like a log to my right, rolling the ball with me. The ball finally started to move, although its progress could be measured in inches per hour. After what seemed like an eternity, I bumped into the blue plastic side of the pool.

walkerz6

Here I am, crawling toward the far wall. To dream the impossible dream…

Success! Sir Edmund Hilary would be proud. Too bad I was too dizzy to enjoy it. That’s when I realized the third thing.

  1. A lack of oxygen makes it hard to get excited about stuff.

While my sister and I had been waiting in line, I’d noticed that the kids were not enjoying the Water Walkerz the way I intended to; they were not running around like hamsters. Instead, the kids had mostly been bouncing inside the balls, falling down, and then just laying there. Were they lazy or what?

No, I discovered when it was my turn. They were running out of oxygen.

I didn’t start choking or anything like that. I could still breathe fine. But after about ten minutes, I just didn’t feel like bouncing or rolling or standing up anymore. Part of it was the difficulty of moving the globe—it didn’t feel worth the effort if you couldn’t go fast enough to play bumper cars with the other Wakerz—but part of it was definitely a low oxygen content inside the bubble.

walkerz7

My sister has reached the “I’m just going to sit here and enjoy my oxygen deprivation chamber” stage.

So I lay down. It was comfortable there, like a water bed, and the underwater-type-sound made me feel far away from the outside world and free from cares.

I was still lying there when the operator came over to drag me out.

walkerz8

My sister getting dragged out. Doesn’t she look like a princess riding in one of those palanquin things?

The exit process was interesting. The operator pulled me near the platform, and then I had to help him by crawling to a specific place so that the zipper was where he could reach it. He hauled me out onto the Astroturf and unzipped the entrance, and oxygen and sound rushed back into my world as the vinyl bubble collapsed (lightly) on top of me.

I crawled out, feeling like a victim in a horror movie who has somehow managed to kill the Vinyl Blob and is now escaping from its blasted corpse. Or maybe like a baby Vinyl Dragon bursting from its translucent blue egg. Either way, not a very dignified exit. I freed myself and stood up, thanking the operator, who grinned and asked if I’d had fun. At the very least, I felt like I’d brightened his day.

walkerz9

Sweet, sweet oxygen!

So that was my first Water Walkerz experience. I think it will probably be my last; one of those floating loungers goes about the same speed and doesn’t involve oxygen deprivation or a feeling of car sickness. “Nothing compares to the excitement of being able to glide across the waves?” Whoever wrote that on the Water Walkerz website should be stuffed into one of their own globes, dragged out to sea, and forced to try to make it back to shore.

However, on the Water Walkerz website there is a picture of people rolling around in them on the grass. Can you go fast in one of them if it’s on dry land, I wonder? If so, sign me up for my next adventure.

Adventure #5–Pole Dancing

Originally written 9/15/14.

All photos from Flicker used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Tease Studio: www.teasestudio.com

 

I teach Irish stepdancing. If you’re not familiar with Irish dance, it’s a traditional art form where the feet perform fast, intricate steps while the upper body stays completely still. Dancers hold their arms down by their sides, and there’s no movement of the hips, shoulders, or head. You can check it out on YouTube. When I was six, I took a year of jazz/tap/ballet, but the whole rest of my life I’ve done stepdancing. I love it.

Irish dancerPhoto credit: John Benson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/j_benson/

A couple years ago, my group performed as part of the halftime entertainment at a ballroom dance competition. There were a number of different kinds of dancers at this show, including swing dancers, a Broadway-type chorus line, and someone advertised in the program as Arielle the Pole Dancer.

Pole dancer? We were all fascinated to see what her act would be like, since for us “pole dancing” conjured up images of strippers in R-rated movies. All of the acts shared the same backstage, and while we were warming up, we looked out of the corners of our eyes at the other dancers, wondering which one was Arielle.

She wasn’t hard to spot once she showed up. For one thing, she was the only solo act, but I think we would have picked her out anyway. Her hair was short, bright blond, and slicked back from her face, and she was wearing a long silk dressing gown decorated in peacock colors, like something out of the roaring twenties. Unlike all the other dancers, she was barefoot. She warmed up with a kind of yoga routine by herself in the corner, every movement poised and deliberate. Her attention was completely focused on her preparations, as though she were the only person in the room. She had a confidence, a magnetism, that drew my eye even though she was only warming up.

When it was time for her act, we crowded into the wings to watch her. Right before she went on, she peeled off the silk dressing gown, revealing a pair of very short dark shorts and a gold handkerchief-like halter top that left her midriff bare. Her body was short, compact, and muscular, much more like an acrobat than a movie stripper. The routine, too, was like something you might see in Cirque du Soleil: she climbed up the pole (a feat in itself); did splits, backbends, and handstands in the air while holding on to it; and spun around the pole while gripping it with hands, ankles, and knees. Every move had a sensual grace to it, and in every way the routine was the opposite of Irish dance (being upper-body intensive, acrobatic, and slow in pace, not to mention unembarrassed about showing some skin), but there was nothing risqué about it. When my thirteen-year-old student said, “Well! I just saw my first pole dancer!”, I didn’t need to worry that I’d let her watch something inappropriate (although I did wonder if I’d need to explain to her mom). It was athletic and beautiful.

pole1

Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

 

So, when my friend Abbey suggested that we try a pole dancing class as one of my adventures, I jumped at the chance.

tease1

The studio Abbey found was called Tease Studio, and it was offering new students a special deal for three introductory classes. I looked through their online “class menu” to see what kinds of classes they taught. Besides different levels of pole dancing, from 101 to 401, they offered a number of different exercise classes. Most of them looked to be pretty standard aerobic-style classes, but there were a few more, um, titillating offerings:

Look Good Naked

use your own body resistance to melt away in this slow & sensual toning class. slow style sexy music & movements throughout class will have you feeling the burn. look and feel confident both naked and fully clothed.

Stiletto Dance

learn to strut with the power of seduction. this feminine class will empower you as a sexual animal, dancer and women. class will begin with warm up in your heels, targeting your ankles and flexibility.  choreography to follow warm up will focus on burning, sculpting and tempting as you sway to the music.   grab hold of your womanhood.

Good grief, there were a lot of grammatical and punctuation errors in these class descriptions. Maybe I should offer my services as an editor. And “grab hold of your womanhood”? In front of everybody?

Twerkshop

not your average cardio workout. get ready to sweat, sculpt and melt those curves away with today’s most popular movements. get the sexy booty you’ve always wanted and have fun while doing it. this class will start with a hip hop dance warm-up that will have you moving to today’s hottest beats. get ready to drop it like its hot!!! sneakers required.

And my personal favorite:

The Naughty Hour

a tease signature combo class that begins with an intensive sensual style body resistance warm up to tone and learn sexy transitions. the warm up is followed by lap dance and striptease technique and combos. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: the end of class will include performing a routine on a fellow student. be sure to bring heels and layers (i.e. hoodies, button downs, extra tank tops, bikini tops, etc). a new choreographed routine begins at the start of each month but anyone is welcome and encouraged to attend any week of the month!

Yeah. Nothing on Earth could have made me sign up for The Naughty Hour class.

When we arrived at Tease Studio for our Pole Dancing 101 class, we walked through the front door into a tiny, chicly decorated space that was part reception area, part store. Apparently, you could enhance your pole dancing experience by purchasing super-tall spike heels, since they had more than a dozen different styles for sale around the walls. In the background, we could hear the thumping beat of a nearby classroom’s bass, topped by the shouting of the teacher: “Come ON, ladies–move it! Higher! HIGHER!”

tease2

We checked in with a perky receptionist who crossed our names off a list written on notebook paper (surprisingly low-tech given that we’d signed up online). She told us that if we went through the doorway behind us, we would find the dance studio, locker room, bathroom, and “glow bar,” where we could treat ourselves to a spray tan for an extra fee. In the meantime, though, our class would be in the pole studio upstairs.

The upstairs room was directly over the reception area, but to get there you had to go back outside, walk to the next doorway down the sidewalk, and head through that doorway up a steep flight of stairs. It made me wonder what the businesses in the building had been originally; it looked like the building might be from the early twentieth century.

There was a landing at the top of the stairs, and a door on the left led into the pole studio. The room was medium-sized and rectangular, with a small strip of waiting area off to one side. Most of the space was taken up by the dance floor, which was made of polished wood and had two rows of shiny silver poles sticking out of it. The poles were anchored into the ceiling somehow, disappearing through square holes hacked in the plaster. I wondered where you bought poles, and who you got to install them so they didn’t fall on top of you when you tried to use them.

tease3

As we came in, the class before ours was finishing up. I had noticed on the schedule that it was a 201 class, the next level above ours, and I watched with interest. There seemed to be two students and a teacher. The teacher was a curvy woman in her mid to late twenties, I would guess, wearing Capri-length leggings and a tank top. She had a friendly face and long blond hair pulled into a ponytail. The student she was working with was older–in her forties, I guessed–with the square, weatherbeaten look of a serious outdoor athlete (like triathlons). She had dark hair chopped off short, the only person I saw at Tease besides my friend Abbey with short hair.

The teacher was showing the student how to do a particular spin on the pole. The student grabbed the pole between both hands, jumped up with her legs bent, squeezed her knees on either side of the pole, and twirled around. I thought she looked great, except for her expression: she was grimacing the whole time as though she was in horrible pain. The teacher corrected her form and had her do it several more times. Every time, she set her jaw and gritted her teeth like she was going into battle.

pole2

Photo credit: Andrew Campbell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewcampbell1/

This was the spin the student was doing, but not the expression on her face.

Between repetitions, both teacher and student would sometimes grab small face towels, squirt something on them, and clean the poles. I wondered what they were doing. The poles certainly looked shinier afterward, but no one was there to admire them except for Abbey and me.

Meanwhile, the other student seemed to be doing her own thing. She was in her early twenties, fit but curvy, with long blond hair hanging loose down her back. She was wearing a pair of black briefs and a sports bra that made me blink in surprise, mostly because Irish dancers go in more for the shorts-and-t-shirt look, so I’m not used to women exercising in their underwear.

It seemed to me that this woman was more advanced than the other student. Much more advanced. She would reach up, take a grip on the pole, and then casually lift herself up to hook one leg behind the knee so she could spin and then turn herself upside down. Then she would gracefully right herself and land on one foot. After a breather, she would go through the series of moves again.

pole3

Photo credit: Kyle Nishioka, https://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

Good grief. Was this woman only level 2? I hoped not, because that meant that level 1 was going to be a lot harder than I thought. But the teacher never actually talked to this other person, so maybe she was an advanced student practicing a routine on her own.

The class finished, and the teacher moved off toward the restroom. The first student, the older one, came over to the waiting area to get a drink and put on her shoes.

“Hello,” I said, as she stopped near me. “You looked great.”

She gave me a toothy grin. “I was terrified,” she confided. “Those spins are scary. I was just trying to hold on for dear life.”

Well, that explained the grimace. “It looks like fun,” I said.

“Oh, it is, but I don’t know how much more advanced I can get. I’m sixty-three, and I don’t really want to slip and fall on my head.”

tease4

Sixty-three? Under the dim, recessed lights of the studio, I had seriously thought she was ten to twenty years younger. She’s my new adventure idol. I want to still be trying out new stuff like pole dancing when I’m sixty-three.

There was a short break before our class started, and Abbey and I waited for our teacher to come back and introduce herself. I was feeling pretty jazzed by the glimpse we’d gotten of level 2. Small class, lots of individual attention, and presumably much easier moves. This was going to be fun.

The second student, the more advanced one, had finished her practice and disappeared toward the bathroom. She came back a few minutes later with a pair of shorts tied over her briefs, and she unrolled a mat and laid it out on the floor.

Hmm. The next class was an introductory class, and this woman clearly wasn’t a beginner. Maybe she was the teacher. I looked at her, trying to see if she was showing any signs of coming over and introducing herself, but she wasn’t. She pulled a beauty magazine out from somewhere, stretched out on her stomach, and began to read.

Another woman came in from the landing. This one had long black hair and was wearing booty shorts and a really tight t-shirt. She also spread out a mat, but rather than sitting down on it she started practicing spins on one of the poles. The spins looked very polished, at least to my untrained eye.

pole4Photo credit: Andrew Campbell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewcampbell1/

I was starting to get worried. Were we in the wrong place? Why were all these advanced people sitting here? And where was the teacher?

More and more women came in and spread out mats. There was a variety of heights and body types, but I was amazed to see that most of them:

  1. Had long hair, either worn loose or wrapped up in artistically disheveled buns
  2. Were obviously familiar with the pole or were incredibly flexible or both
  3. Were in their twenties, making me feel a little old
  4. Wore skimpy booty shorts and/or tank tops, making me, in my baggy shorts and t-shirt, feel more than a little overdressed and frumpy

So many people came in that Abbey finally asked if we should go ahead and spread out our mats, too. We headed to the far corner and set up camp, self-consciously doing some warmup stretches like the other ladies were doing. I’m not particularly flexible (especially for a dance teacher), so doing my stretches in that crowd of athletic women felt a bit like a tin soldier trying to do yoga with Gumby. No one said anything to us, and only a few people were even talking to each other. Not a particularly friendly atmosphere. There was no teacher in sight. All my jazz from watching the earlier class was gone.

gumby

Photo credit: Fernando de Sousa, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fernando/

Or maybe like Gollum stretching with Gumby?

When the room was full to bursting, the teacher arrived from downstairs, where she’d been leading a class on the first floor.

“Hi!” she said enthusiastically, grinning at us. “Big crowd tonight!”

She was a woman of semi-Amazonian proportions, tallish and big-busted, with powerful legs that were still somehow ultra-feminine. There was a little of a Picabo Street look to her, if you remember the US Olympic skier from the 90’s. She had long blond hair (of course) and was wearing brightly-colored capris and a tank top. She was confident and sexy and brimming over with energy. Her name was Becca.

“Let’s start with some warmups!” she exclaimed, putting on some bass-thumping dance music and cranking the volume until the windows buzzed. “Neck rolls!”

Becca started rolling her head side to side across her chest and then across her back, expecting us to follow. I did some kind of half-hearted imitation, having heard in a seminar once that neck rolls aren’t so good for you. When she started doing full neck rolls at double speed, I gave up and just watched everybody else flipping their hair around.

hair

Photo credit: Ashley Webb, https://www.flickr.com/photos/xlordashx/

Yeah, I didn’t look glamorous like this.

We did side bends, rib cage circles, and hip circles, me squinting through the dim lighting to see Becca and straining my ears to try to catch her enthusiastic instructions over the mind-numbing volume of the music. Just like with aerobics classes (which I’ve taken a number of in my time), there wasn’t any real explanation; you just watched and imitated and hoped you were doing it right.

“Down on your mats!” Becca shouted, and most of the women did some kind of fancy handstand into a crosslegged position to get to the floor. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. Seriously, this was the INTRO class? I got down on my mat gingerly by squatting and putting my hands down.

Next we did an exercise where we started from a kneeling position, our bottoms touching our heels. Then we sat up, lifting our hips until we were still on our knees, but now in a vertical line from shoulders to knees. We repeated this for more than a minute.

“Use your arms, ladies!” Becca yelled, and most of the women started making these sexy, graceful movements with their upper bodies as they continued the exercise. The woman in front of me, who looked about nineteen and had (guess what?) long blond hair, began to run her hands up her torso in a way that would get a guy slapped if he tried it on a first date.

Um. OK. I felt awkward, but I had, after all, signed up for this. I decided to try adding some arm movements. But did I mention that I’m an Irish dancer, and Irish dancers don’t use their arms? I ended up sticking my arms straight into the air over my head and lowering them down again every time like I was practicing surrendering.

surrender

Photo credit: Jan Fredrik Frantzen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janfredrikf/

“Hands and knees!” Becca instructed, and we got down on our hands and knees and started to do some Angry Cats. I’ve taken a few yoga classes, so I was familiar with Angry Cats: you tuck your head between your shoulders and arch your back, and then you lift up your head and sway your stomach toward the floor. What a relief. I could do this exercise, and I didn’t have to try to move my arms.

“Double speed!”

Um, what? I looked up. Everyone else had started doing the Angry Cat motion faster, turning it from a restful, introspective yoga exercise into this weird kind of kneeling bump and grind. Well, OK. I sped up, too, feeling silly.

“Even faster!” Becca cried.

The woman in front of me began to do this sort of shimmy with her back and hips, as though she were an electric appliance that had been turned from Medium to High. It looked bizarre, but it didn’t seem to be hard for her, so I gave it a try, too. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrors at the front of the room. I looked like I was having convulsions.

weirdyoga

Photo credit: Steven Depolo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/

This is what I felt like.

“Now we’re going to bend your elbows and take your chest to the floor!” Becca shouted over the music. She demonstrated. From the kneeling position, you bent your arms, touched your chest to the floor, and then pushed forward until you were stretched out your stomach. Then you lifted your hips to come back on to your knees, all in one fluid motion.

We tried it. The woman in front of me looked like an extra in a glam rock video from the 90’s. She slithered onto the floor with sexy slowness, one pointed toe lifting coyly behind her, and then her hips came back up with a little sway that would probably have gotten her video banned from VH1.

I, on the other hand, looked stiff, jerky, and awkward, as though a robot programmed to do push-ups had experienced a horrible mechanical failure.

robot

Photo credit: Doctor Popular, https://www.flickr.com/photos/docpopular/

“Now put your hands on the floor and jump into the splits!” Becca hollered.

She had to be kidding.

Warmup over, Becca turned the music down a little and told us to grab a drink of water, a towel, and a pole. There were so many of us that we were going to be 2 or 3 to a pole. Thank goodness I had Abbey to share with; I don’t think I would have enjoyed sharing a pole with one of the advanced students. I felt awkward enough as it was.

No one told us where the towels were or what they were for, but by following the herd I managed to find them. They were gray hand towels. Aha! I thought. These were the same towels I’d seen the previous class using to clean the poles. Other students were squirting something clear from a bottle onto their towels, so I did that, too. Monkey see, monkey do. I think it was rubbing alcohol.

While I was doing that, Becca and several of the other women put on spike heels. Becca wore leg warmers, too, taking me back to my 80’s childhood. Abbey and I were barefoot, which seemed to be fine–thank goodness, since dancing around in spike heels on a polished wood floor sounded to me like a recipe for a broken ankle. Becca seemed used to it, though. She told us that her three-inch stilettos were her “kitten heels,” the shortest pair of heels she owned.

Good grief.

pole5

Photo credit: Francisco Osorio, https://www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/

“Since we have some new ladies with us today,” Becca said, looking at us and the giggling pair of college students at the next pole over, “we’re going to start with the basics. Let’s do The Walk.”

Becca grabbed a pole and demonstrated The Walk. Holding the pole at a point above her head, she straightened her arm and walked slowly around, pointing her toes behind her whenever she lifted her foot off the floor. When she’d made one circle, she planted her outside foot, turned toward the pole, switched hands, and walked the other way. Simple.

But, instead of letting us try that right away, she showed us another move: The Vixen. Starting from The Walk, she planted her outside foot, turned toward the pole, and pivoted completely around on the one foot until she was facing the same way again. She made it look easy, flirty, and fun.

pole6

Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

“Now you try,” she said, and turned the music back up to eardrum-bursting levels so we could all enjoy it while experimenting with The Walk and The Vixen. “Advanced students, I need you to just work on those two moves just like our new ladies, OK?”

The Walk wasn’t too hard, but The Vixen was not as easy as Becca made it look. Pivoting around on one foot while switching grips on the pole was hard to do without losing your balance, and even harder to do with any kind of grace. Abbey and I took turns, but even so, both of us were getting dizzy long before we had mastered the one-footed spin. Becca was making a tour of the room and eventually got to us to offer some advice, but before that, Abbey and I had to try to help each other. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Since most of the students were more advanced, and since there were so many of us, people got bored before Becca finished looking at everybody. It wasn’t long before several people were hanging upside down from their poles and spinning around.

“You girls are being so naughty!” Becca said when she turned down the music to demonstrate our next move. That was the extent of the chiding. I thought about what I would say to my dancers if I caught beginners trying out advanced moves in class. My sister calls the glare I have for such occasions The Look of Death. Of course, I don’t let my advanced dancers take the beginner class, either. That’s just asking for trouble.

One hazard of taking dance/exercise classes when you’re a professional teacher yourself is that it’s hard not to think about how YOU would run the class. It sometimes makes us teachers pains-in-the-rear as students.

The next move Becca showed us was the Fireman Spin. Starting from The Walk, she planted her inside foot, swung her outside leg around the pole, grabbed the pole with her free hand as well, and jumped up, wrapping her second leg behind the pole and squeezing the pole with both thighs. The momentum from the jump spun her around the pole, and when her feet touched the ground, the rest of her momentum helped her unwind her legs and stand up. It looked super cool and sexy when she did it.

pole7

Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

She then demonstrated a harder version, the Reverse Fireman, but I pretty much tuned that out. I knew I was going to have my hands full with the ordinary version.

And I did. There was nothing cool or sexy about the move when I did it. Although I managed to actually spin around the pole with my feet off the ground, I could only do it by clinging to the pole for dear life, when I guess I was supposed to extend my arms and relax. That did not happen. Abbey never managed to do the complete spin at all, since every time she tried to get her second foot off the floor her hands would slip, dumping her back down. Both of us ended up with a kind of “pole burn” on our thighs from friction and bruises on our shins from whacking our legs against the pole.

Speaking of pole burn, I found out what the towels and rubbing alcohol were for. After a while, the pole would start to get a little sticky, and that made it really hard to spin. So you cleaned it with the towel and alcohol, and then your skin would slide over the surface of the pole instead of sticking to it and getting pole burn. Aha! I was glad that I’d seen the 201 class using the towels, since no one ever told us what to do with them.

The last move Becca showed us was the Backslide. You leaned your upper back against the pole, grabbed the pole above your head with your left hand, planted your right foot out in front of you, and then kicked your left foot off the floor. When Becca did that, she slid quickly and gracefully along the pole to the floor, one leg up in the air like a can-can dancer.

“Then you roll over onto your hands and knees,” she said, demonstrating, “and do a Sexy Up.”

A Sexy Up involved putting your right foot on the floor and doing a kind of lunge toward it, twisting your hips as you came up onto your left foot and then swaying into a standing position.

Becca looked sultry and confident as she showed us the move. “Now you try!” she said.

Abbey turned out to be really good at the Backslide, dropping fast and fearlessly to the floor and doing the Sexy Up with attitude. I was (for whatever reason) a lot more nervous about the Backslide than I’d been about the Fireman Spin; planting my right foot so far out in front of my body seemed wrong, probably because if you do that in Irish dance you fall on your butt.

pole8

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eatants/

I eventually convinced myself to stop being a weeny and kick my left leg up in the air, and I slid to the floor slowly but safely. That wasn’t so bad. Now for the Sexy Up.

Unlike the pole moves, the Sexy Up was easy, but it really needed a slinky confidence to pull it off. Having spent the last 30 years stepdancing (possibly the least sexy kind of dancing in the history of mankind), I just don’t have any slinkiness in me. A ballet teacher once told me during a workshop that I did barre exercises like a soulless robot, and that’s about what I felt like getting off the floor. Or maybe like a plumber climbing to his feet after spending twenty minutes looking at the leak under your sink. Oy. I practiced the Backslide and Sexy Up a bunch more times, but they never got any better.

plumber

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matchfitskills/

This is exactly what I looked like doing the Sexy Up.

The last five minutes of class were devoted to “free dance,” where Becca put on a special tune (still at a volume that registered on the Richter Scale) and we got to make up our own choreography on the pole. “Express yourself!” Becca exclaimed. “Let yourself go with the music!”

Abbey and I expressed ourselves by trying to string together the few moves we’d learned and studiously avoiding looking at the advanced students doing their routines on the other side of the room. I was proud of myself for remembering everything, but it wasn’t either graceful or in any way related to the music. My bruised shins kept knocking against the pole every time I tried The Fireman, and I was started to get a headache that pounded in time with the bass.

All in all, I was ready for class to be over when Becca finally turned off the music.

When we got back in the car afterward, I turned to Abbey. “What did you think?” I asked.

“It was…interesting,” she said. “I’m really glad we tried it for your blog, but…would you mind if we tried a different class next week?”

I did not mind.

I don’t think I have as a future as a pole dancer. Which is probably ok, because I’m not sure how I’d explain my second career to my Irish dance students.

I had a doctor’s appointment about a week later with my back doctor, who is very skilled but doesn’t exactly have an engaging bedside manner. I was wearing shorts and lying on my back on the examining table, and he was standing near my feet. Suddenly he stopped and looked at my shins, which were covered with green, yellow, and purple bruises from ankle to knee.

bruises

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/magic_bee/

Something like this

“You have extensive contusions here,” he said. “What happened?”

“I, uh, tried a pole dancing class,” I said, with a little laugh. “I kept smacking my shin on the pole.”

He looked at me. Then he looked at my legs. Then, without another word, he went on with his examination.

I could feel my face burning bright tomato red.

Yeah, I definitely don’t have a future career as a pole dancer. I think I’ll just stick to my soulless robot dancing instead. 🙂

polebots

Photo credit: Abul Hussain, https://www.flickr.com/photos/abulhussain/

Although I guess you never know…

misspoleireland

Photo credit: William Murphy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 3

gatorwhining

Originally written 7/29/14.

Part 1: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/24/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-1/

Part 2: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/25/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-2/

As I waded into the pool full of 6-8-foot alligators, Drew pointed out a gator hanging out near the wall. Unlike the other alligators, who were all black, this alligator had yellow stripes, and his back arched up out of the water like a mound.

“That’s Hunchback Oregon,” Drew said. He told us that baby alligators all have yellow stripes to help them stay camouflaged, since other animals eat them when they’re small. The stripes fade over time when the gator’s skin gets exposed to sunlight. That means that only an alligator raised indoors will still have stripes when it’s 6-8 feet long. Also, Hunchback Oregon’s rounded back showed that he was kept in a cage that was too small for him, so that as he grew, his body wasn’t able to straighten out fully.

He said that more than 100 of the alligators at the reptile park were rescues, and many of them had similar deformities. It made me glad that there was an organization like this one that took care of unwanted reptile ex-pets.

It was now time for me to catch my 6-foot gator. Drew pointed out one that was completely submerged near the far fence, and I reached down and grabbed the tip of her tail. She didn’t move, so (having learned from my previous experience) I braced my arms and started to walk backwards, using my legs to move the gator. The gator began to glide with me. Yay! However, after about two steps, she decided that she didn’t really want to make the trip. She thrashed her tail side to side, splashing up water in a spray all around me.

When I did some research for this blog post, I couldn’t find any reliable information on how much a 6-8-foot gator weighs; I got answers anywhere from 50 pounds to a 250. All I can say is that my alligator felt really heavy and really, really strong. I hung on to the tail for dear life, feeling like a cartoon character getting dramatically tossed around by this huge, powerful tail.

“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!” Drew was shouting.

All of a sudden, my gator cracked her tail like a whip, and I found myself being flung sideways into the water. The water was only two feet deep or so—that wasn’t a problem—but right in front of me was a very irritated predator who was extremely nimble underwater and who had extremely powerful jaws. Not to mention sharp, pointy teeth.

This isn’t good, I thought.

I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could. It felt like I was down in the mud for about a minute, just daring my gator to reach around and chomp me, but when I watched the video later it was really more like 2 seconds before I popped back up. You have never seen a dance teacher move faster.

Amazingly, I still had the gator’s tail in my hands—I hadn’t let go. I don’t know how I did that.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t braced anymore, and the gator gave one last mighty wriggle and snatched her tail out of my hands before jetting full-speed toward the far corner. She had gotten away.

I screamed in frustration, mad at myself for letting go. Drew, though, was thrilled.

“Good going! Holy crap!” he exclaimed. “You’re a maniac!” He turned towards the group gathered on the bank. “She held on through that!”

I can’t tell you how good that praise made me feel. It made me feel like I could do anything.

Which was good, because I still had to catch my gator. “Are you OK to go again?” Drew asked me in a low voice that the rest of the group couldn’t hear. Like a good leader, he was making sure that the fall into gator-infested water hadn’t completely shaken me up.

Actually, it had just made me mad. “I’m good,” I said. “I’m just angry that it got away.”

“Well, let’s find her again,” he said. He then started searching the pool for my gator, which I guess was distinctive because the base of her tail bulged out in a funny way. I would have been happy to grab a different gator if it was handy, but Drew seemed to want to set up Me vs Alligator 2: The Revenge (“this time, it’s personal!”).

After a minute, he found her again in a corner of the pool, where I would need to walk up on the bank to get her. “There she is!” he said, pointing. “All right. Why don’t you go around—you’ve got her in the corner. Go around Lori.”

I thought Lori must be his girlfriend, who was standing on the bank. “Go around Lori?” I repeated.”

“Yeah. Lori’ll spin.”

That didn’t make much sense, but I was so focused on getting the gator that I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t until much later (when I’d found out that Drew’s girlfriend was named Rosana) that I realized Lori was another of the alligators. I could see her next to the bank when I watched the video.

Good thing I didn’t try to grab her tail.

I walked back up the bank and around to the corner, where a bunch of tires were sticking up out of the mud. Drew pointed out my gator to me, and I bent down and grabbed her tail. She didn’t wiggle much this time, but she did hook her front legs over something to hang on, and for a second or two I couldn’t move her. I heaved, and she started to move reluctantly back with me. Then we got hung up on the tires, and I couldn’t go anywhere. Seriously, I think she might have weighed more than me.

Drew asked my classmates to come help me over the tires, and Svan and Chris ran over to pull on the tail with me (Ray was still on the other side of the fence).

“That’s a big gator!” Drew exclaimed.

We pulled her out onto the bank, and Svan and Chris held her tail while I jumped onto her back and put my feet up under her front legs (her “armpits,” as we kept calling them, except I’m not really sure that alligators have armpits). I am not sure I could have held onto her by myself; she was still trying to crawl forward, even with three of us holding her. Alligator wrangling would probably not be a stellar career choice for me. But, with their help, I was able to get my fingers in front of her neck and lift her head off the ground, immobilizing her.

As Drew took my picture, he said, “How do you feel right now?”

I beamed. “I feel amazing!” And I did. There is something very rewarding about struggling with something bigger and stronger than yourself and coming out on top (literally!).

 gatorcaution

Now it was Ray’s turn. I didn’t think that Drew and the class would be able to talk him into it this time, but, after a few minutes of cajoling that ranged from Ginger’s, “I felt the exact same way,” to Svan’s, “I feel ya, dude. This is nuts,” he (to my surprise) climbed over the fence and waded into the pool.

He told me later that Drew’s girlfriend Rosana had been working on him the whole time the rest of us had been wrestling. She’d stood by the fence and gave him the crap that the guys hadn’t given him, saying things like, “Does it bother you that your wife is so much braver than you?”, “I guess we know who wears the pants in your family,” and (the kicker), “I’m five months pregnant, and I did it.”

Speaking of which, I think that makes her the bravest (and craziest) person there.

Anyway, Rosana’s “encouragement” worked, and Ray waded in and grabbed his alligator. Of course, the one he grabbed ended up having big bite wounds all over it, so instead of being able to get in and out quickly, he had to sit there and hold it still for several minutes while the rest of us dabbed it with paper towels and ointment. I’m pretty sure it was his version of purgatory.

“Know what this proves?” he said when he was done. “That peer pressure works!”

We took a water break, and then we headed out for our final challenge: the “lake,” the biggest of the ponds, where the 8-12 foot alligators lived.

 gatorselvis

First, though, we went in to visit Elvis, one of the original alligators the farm bought in 1987. Now 25, he’s lived in the park his whole life, and he is huge. He’s got his own enclosure, which is good, because he’s aggressive. Most of us enjoyed watching him from a distance (except for Svan, who walked closer, because Svan was crazy. More on that later). Drew wanted us to see Elvis because he’s a perfect alligator specimen, unlike so many of the rescues, who have deformities after being kept in bad conditions for most of their lives.

The lake was next to Elvis’ enclosure. By that time, the ground was baking hot, and everybody but Drew was walking with these side-to-side hopping motions so that our feet were in contact with the ground for only about a second at a time. Drew seemed immune to the heat. I was coated in mud up to my waist because of my fall, which didn’t bother me until Svan leaned over at one point and said, “I just realized that the gators poop in this water.”

Hmm. Guess I should have brought some sanitizer.

On the bank of the lake, Drew reminded us about keeping our feet low in the water, and he reminded us of another rule of dealing with alligators: if you feel something brush by you, freeze and pretend to be a tree.

Then we set off through the waist-deep muddy water, heading for a little mound of dirt like an island that was decorated with a sign that said “Colorado Gator Complaints Department: Line Forms Here.” Right in the middle of the gator-infested lake.

 gatorlake

Walking through the lake, I was about as nervous as I’d been all day. This was their habitat, and the water was deep enough, and murky enough, that I couldn’t see whether any alligators were around me or not. But I scooted my feet through the dirt at the bottom and moved slowly, and I reached the island without disturbing anything more than a couple of old gator bones—which are disconcerting enough, let me tell you. I didn’t even see any gators anywhere near me. I wondered, after I reached dry land, if there weren’t really that many in the lake.

Drew and Alex went off to find our last gator. The gators in this pond were too big to drag out by their tails, so Drew was going to tow one in with a rope. Meanwhile, we stood around talking, feeling pretty darn good about ourselves. After a few minutes, I looked around, and I was startled to see more than a dozen pairs of eyes poking out of the water around the island, watching us with the disconcerting stillness that gators use to help them ambush prey.

Good Lord. ALL of those had been there while we’d been walking to the island? It was just as well that I hadn’t known that. Alligator eyes sticking up out of the water make them look really, really evil.

“It’s lucky that alligators don’t have a pack mentality, isn’t it?” Ginger said, echoing my thoughts.

Actually, alligators, like most wild animals, are shy of human beings. There has never been a fatal alligator attack in Louisiana, and even in Florida, where humans come into more contact with big gators than anywhere else, there have only been about a dozen fatal attacks in the last ten years. Crocodopolis.com says that you have a better chance of winning the Florida lottery than you do of being attacked by an alligator. They’re not evil; they’re just reptilian ambush predators, largely unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs and operating mainly from instinct. Like Greta Garbo, they just want to be left alone.

Unfortunately for one specimen, it wasn’t going to get its wish. Drew and Alex pulled a big gator ashore—it was more than 8 feet long—and we all took turns posing with it, even kissing its head and resting our chins against its nose a la Tahar the Alligator King. That’s safe(ish) once you’ve got the gator immobilized, since it can’t twist, and it also can’t either see or feel you doing it. Even Ray had his picture taken, and my very favorite picture of the day is him looking up at the camera from the back of the gator with this plaintive look that seems to say, “Can we go home now?” Of course, Ray ended up being the last person on the gator’s back, so he had to sit there and immobilize it while we checked it for injuries (which included, in this case, a loose tooth! Gators lose teeth frequently and then regrow them).

I felt pretty content with my adventure, and I had definitely gotten my money’s worth. Svan, however, wanted one last challenge, so he and Drew waded off under some willow trees so that Svan could catch his own big gator. The rest of us sat down and talked. I found out that Ginger worked with Drew at his kennel, that Alex was Drew’s roommate, and that Chris was originally from L.A.

It was maybe ten minutes later that we heard Svan’s characteristic shouting: “Come on, girl! Come on, Mildred! That’s right! Settle down now, girl, I’ve got you!”

“Does he do that on the ranch, too?” I asked Chris curiously. “Talk to the animals, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Chris. “All the time. When we’re catching calves, you’ll always hear him yelling, ‘Who’s your daddy?’”

Mildred must have gotten away, because Svan and Drew moved back closer to the island. Then Svan exclaimed, “I’ve got one!”

All of a sudden, his shout of triumph turned into a scream. “No! It’s got me! It’s got me!” His shoulders were under the water now, and there was a ton of splashing. “Jesus Christ! Oh, sweet Jesus! I’m a goner! I’m done for!”

Having heard Svan do this all day, we were all laughing. Drew, standing next to Svan, was not laughing, but he also didn’t seem panicked, so we figured everything was OK. Over by the fence, some park visitors were watching. There was a little boy, maybe eight years old, staring with round eyes and an open mouth, but his dad, a big guy in a Harley Davison t-shirt, was laughing his head off and filming the whole thing on his phone. Probably made his day.

Svan heaved, and the gator’s head popped up out of the water. “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!” Svan yelled. “I’ve got you now!” And then he leaned forward and kissed the gator on the nose. Better him than me.

When he and Drew got back to the island, I said, “You were really funny with all your shouting over there.”

Svan looked at me. “Funny? I was serious. I thought the gator had got me.”

“Oh, come on,” said Drew. “What was the worst that could have happened?”

Ray was not looking forward to walking back through the lake, but it turned out there was a way you could walk back to the gate on dry land. He was pretty peeved about that; he would definitely have taken the dry-land route on the way there if he had known about it.

Back in the gift shop, we were all given Certificates of Insanity with our picture on it:

“Awarded for willingly and knowingly abandoning all common sense and good judgment and endangering life and limbs while taking the world’s only Alligator Wrestling Class at Colorado Gators Reptile Park.”

As we walked back to the car, I asked Ray if he’d enjoyed himself.

“Yeah,” he said. “I did. And you know what? This Certificate of Insanity is going on my wall at work right next to my Facility Management Professional certificate. It’s one of the proudest achievements of my life!”

Find out more about Colorado Gators at http://www.coloradogators.com/

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 2

gatorpockets

Originally written 7/29/14.

Be sure to read Part 1: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/24/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-1/

While Ray and I were wandering around the reptile park, we passed an outdoor enclosure that had people in it, and we stopped to take a look. The enclosure was square, fenced in with a combination of wood, chain link, and what looked like aluminum siding. A pool of water took up most of the enclosure, with a dirt bank in one corner. There was a ring of old tires right at the edge of the water, making a lip around the pool.

The pool had maybe a dozen alligators in it, all between four and six feet long. Several men were standing on the dirt bank watching the alligators. One of them was an older man with gray hair and a mustache. He was wiry, looking very trim in his sunglasses, shorts, and black shirt, and there was something about him that made me wonder if he rode motorcycles. He seemed to be in charge of the group. There was a second man in a sleeveless t-shirt who reminded me of Ray except for the mustache; he seemed to be very knowledgeable, and I thought he might be an assistant. The other two guys were in their twenties, I would guess, and shirtless, showing off fit physiques and a number of tattoos (one of them had a whole scene on his side and back, showing a lighthouse, a shipwreck, and a ghostly woman’s face).

This had to be the 10:30 alligator wrestling class! We leaned on the fence, ready to enjoy a preview.

The older man and one of the young bucks walked out into the water, wading in it up to their knees as they approached the far fence. The student grabbed an alligator’s tail and dragged it backwards up onto the bank, where he then jumped on its back, following the teacher’s instructions. He put his hands around the back of the gator’s neck and leaned some of his weight onto his hands, pinning the animal in place while the others clapped and shouted encouragement.

My mouth dropped open. Oh, geez. There was suddenly a tightness in the pit of my stomach. THAT’S what I was going to be doing?

I suddenly had a lot more respect for Tahar the Alligator King. Out here, up close, the gator looked bigger than I had expected, and looked awfully real, not to mention pointy at one end. He did stay very still as the student dragged him up on the bank, but the stillness didn’t look like resignation; it looked more like he was trying to lull everybody into a false sense of security so he could whip around and snap somebody’s hand off.

I glanced over at Ray. Ray’s face had a greenish tinge, and he seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. Hurriedly, we pushed away from the fence and went to go look at something else—something preferably small and harmless.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

 gator1

When we were done looking around the park, we went back inside the gift shop and looked around at the t-shirts and knickknacks. One of the women behind the counter told us that our class would be meeting outside near the playground, so at 12 we walked out there and and watched some turtles and small gators swimming around in a big metal tank. There were two guys in their twenties out there, too, both wearing sunglasses and Crocodile Dundee-style leather hats. I wondered if they were part of our class.

The 10:30 class ran long, the assistant from that class told us in passing, so our instructor was late getting out to us—giving us plenty of time to get good and nervous. Why oh why had I thought this was a good idea? Even the two-foot alligators in the tank suddenly looked big and vicious, and the last thing I wanted to do was try to catch one.

At about 12:15, our instructor came out, damp and a little muddy from the end of the last class. It was the driver of the yellow car. No wonder he’d sounded authoritative! He was still barefoot, and now he was also sporting a shin guard on his left leg. I found the shin guard slightly ominous.

His name, he told us, was Drew, and during his day job he was a dog trainer in Gunnison, Colorado. On the weekends he came out and volunteered at the reptile park.

We introduced ourselves. The two other guys were indeed part of our class. Their names were Chris and Svan (pronounced like “swan” with a v instead of a w), and they were ranch hands on a ranch up in Fort Collins to the north of Denver. Both of them were pretty tall and looked strong. Chris had dark brown hair, tan skin, and a roundish face; Svan was blond and as pale-skinned as me, and when he took off his shirt later I worried that he was going to fry like an egg (I had coated myself in about a gallon of sunscreen on the car ride over to prevent that exact thing).

Drew got someone to take a picture of all of us together holding our hands up, “to show that we have all our fingers and toes,” he said. “For insurance. Just kidding—we don’t have any insurance.”

Ha ha. Colorado Gator’s macabre sense of humor didn’t seem quite so funny right at the moment.

Drew hopped into the metal tank we were standing near. It was maybe a dozen feet in diameter and three or four feet tall, made of steel that had once been painted blue. There was dirt and water inside to make a small pond, with rocks sticking out in one corner and planks of wood floating here and there for the resident turtles and gators to sun themselves on.

From this new platform, Drew thanked us for coming out and told us that we were helping Colorado Gators with a very important task: we were going to pull alligators out of the water so that Drew could look them over for injuries and treat them. Gators, he said, are not very nice to each other, and they can get bites and scratches that need attention. He would show us how to handle the alligators, and then with each one we would all help look it over for injuries.

There were two rules to handling gators, Drew told us. #1 was Don’t Hesitate. Alligators aren’t sensitive to human emotions like dogs, so they can’t “smell fear,” but they are fast and aggressive. Once you start to grab one, if you hesitate, they’ll either swim away or turn around and bite you. A pit bull, he said, exerts 230 pounds per square inch of bite pressure; an adult alligator exerts 2000. So you really don’t want to get bitten.

Rule #2 was Don’t Let Go. Alligators can move powerfully side to side, but they can’t twist their trunks or bend either backward or forward. Also, just like us, they can’t see directly behind them. This means that if you can pin a gator down with your hands behind its head, it can’t reach around to bite you. However, if it wiggles side to side and you let go of it, it can then spin around (which it does frighteningly fast) and take a chunk out of you. So don’t let go.

After giving us these very reassuring pieces of advice, Drew showed us how to pick up one of the 2-4 foot gators in the tank. He herded one of them against the metal wall of the tank and then put one hand behind its head and the other one on its tail. “Even this small, they’re strong,” he said, “so to keep hold of it, you have to pull it apart like an accordion.” I must have looked horrified, because he said, “It’s OK—you are not going to be able to hurt it. Gators are really tough.”

He then showed us how to safely put the gator back in the tank, by lowering it until it was flat in the water and then pushing it away from you as you took a step back. The step back was to get out of the way in case it felt like spinning around and chomping your shin. “No animal likes getting hauled to the vet,” he said, “but it’s necessary. When you have your gator, I’ll take a picture, and then you’ll keep holding while I look it over for injuries.”

Then he glanced between the four of us, apparently sizing us up. My heart was pounding in my chest, and Ray beside me was doing the same deep breathing exercises in through his nose and out through his mouth that I teach my dance students to do when they’re panicking before a competition. This was insane. Why were we doing this?

“Ladies first?” Drew asked.

No way was I going to look like a wuss in front of all the people now gathered around the tank. “Sure,” I said, and climbed into the tank.

Drew laughed and clapped his hands. “Oh, we are going to have a FUN class today!” he shouted.

I stood there in the lukewarm water, watching the various residents of the tank swim around me. Besides the six or so gators, there were a number of turtles, including two snapping turtles. I eyed the snapping turtles with distrust. One of them was pretty small, but the other one was about the size of my cat, and I remembered stories of how Bob the Alligator Snapping Turtle at the Denver Zoo was powerful enough to bite people’s fingers off. I really didn’t want my toes anywhere near this snapper.

Drew pointed to an alligator now swimming behind me. “How about that one?”

I turned around. The gator in question was surely about to graduate to the next tank. It looked huge. Also, its mouth was wide open, displaying tiny but sharp-looking white teeth, and it was hissing at me like a cartoon snake. I had no idea until that moment that gators could hiss.

“The one hissing at me?” I asked shakily. Eek!

But that one swam away before I could do anything, so we turned our attention to a much smaller one cruising around the wall of the tank.

“Go for it,” Drew said.

I looked at the gator. It was eyeing me distrustfully, as well it might. Sorry, little guy. “I’m supposed to grab it between the front legs and the head?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“OK.” Well, here went nothing.

Repeating Rule #1 over and over in my head—don’t hesitate, don’t hesitate—I bent down and grabbed the gator behind the head with my right hand, lifting it up and then grabbing the middle of its tail with my left hand. I lifted it out of the water. Suddenly, I was holding an alligator in my hands, an alligator that I had caught myself. Wow.

The gator’s skin was tough and bumpy, not unlike the surface of a tire but more leathery. It was warm from the sun, and I could feel it breathing underneath my hands. I felt a thrill go through me, a little connection between me and this living thing.

Drew took my picture with it, and then he looked it over for bites. While he was looking it over, it started wriggling, eager to get out of my hands.

“Pull him out like an accordion!” Drew said.

I didn’t want to tell him that I was trying. Maybe I needed to hit the arm weights at the gym when I got home. I pulled harder, and the gator stopped.

“He looks good. Let him go.”

I lowered the gator until he was right at the surface of the water and then, following Drew’s instructions, I pushed the gator away from me and stepped back. The gator swam away, only too eager to get as far away from me as possible. Everybody around the tank clapped. I felt awesome.

Svan and Chris followed, and then Ray. All of them got their gator, although there were some abortive attempts where the gator escaped just as the would-be wrestler bent to grab it, and everybody was taken by surprise (like I was) by how strong they were. When they wiggled side to side, trying to break your grip, they meant business.

Having passed our 2-4 foot tank test, we went on to our next challenge. Drew had told us all to take off our shoes before going into the first tank, so we padded barefoot down the concrete walkway through the building where Mr. Bo Mangles lived. We stopped in front of various exhibits while Drew told us about the animals in them (that’s how I learned some of the information I passed on in Part 1).

When we reached the tank with the alligator snapping turtle, Drew got in the tank and talked about the snappers, and about the caiman who lived there. I sincerely hoped we weren’t going to wrestle the caiman (we weren’t). Instead, Drew picked up the 60-pound alligator snapping turtle, a beast named Godzooky. Ray told me later that Godzooky was Godzilla’s cousin in this animated cartoon from the late 70’s. The turtle certainly looked like he might be related to Godzilla, big and primitive, and as soon as Drew picked him up he opened his bony mouth and kept it open, ready to chomp anybody who came too close.

“Does anybody want to hold Godzooky?” Drew asked.

I thought he was kidding. I shook my head emphatically.

But apparently he wasn’t kidding. “You moved first!” Drew said. “Get on in here.”

I climbed into the tank and stood beside Drew. “Put your hands inside the top shell diagonally across from each other, and then rest the back of his shell against your thighs.”

“OK,” I said, and did what he said. Drew let go. Geez, the turtle was heavy. No wonder they moved so slowly.

I had my picture taken, and then Drew told me to lower Godzooky into the water and let him go. Unfortunately, as soon as I unpropped the back of the turtle’s shell from my legs, I lost my balance (did I mention he was heavy?), and I broke Rule #2: I let go and dropped him. He splashed down into the tank with a horrible thump, and I gasped.

Oh, no! I felt awful. “Is he all right?” I asked, bending over to peer at the turtle. He seemed to be OK, swimming around, and nothing looked cracked or broken. Thank goodness. But boy, did I feel like I had taken myself to the bottom of the class. I’m sorry, you fail: you broke our turtle.

The guys all then took their turns holding Godzooky, except for Ray, who said, “No, thanks, I’m good.” Ray doesn’t like water very much, and he was definitely not enjoying the class as much as I was.

From the snapper tank, we walked outside to the 4-6 foot enclosure, the same one that Ray and I had watched earlier. Drew let us in through a gate in the fence and we all went in, walking barefoot across the hot, hard-packed dirt. I heard a hissing noise behind me and jumped; a gator had crawled up next to the fence and was letting us know that he didn’t appreciate us being that close to him.

 gatordelicious

“You know,” Ray remarked, “I think I’m good. I’ll just watch while the rest of you guys do this part.”

Drew explained to us that with the bigger gators, we weren’t going to be able to pick them up like we did with the little ones. Instead, we were going to wade into the pool and grab an alligator by the tail before pulling them backwards onto the bank. That was going to be possible, he said, because the alligators’ armor plating didn’t have a lot of nerve endings in it, so they weren’t sensitive to touch. He reminded us of Rules #1 and #2. Also, he said, while the alligators couldn’t twist to get out of our grasp, they could spin around to one side to try to get us, and if they did that we needed to “dance” (his word) away from them to the other side.

Sure. Great. No problem.

Then Drew told us that this size alligator was the most dangerous, because they were big enough to do a lot of damage, but small enough to be really fast.

I had to be out of my mind. I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my shorts.

By that time, the three women who had ridden in the yellow car had joined us. They had taken the earlier class but had to stick around because they were traveling back with Drew, so they decided they might as well hang around with us. One of them, a slender, short-haired woman in her twenties named Ginger, told all of us (as we stood there staring at the gators in the pond) that she was terrified of water and aquatic animals, so if she could do it, we all could, too.

That made me feel better. I actually would have volunteered to go first, but Svan had already peeled off his shirt and was wading into the pool. We watched him snatch at a tail and miss, the alligator wriggling away.

When he finally got his gator tail and pulled the animal back out onto the bank, he was talking to it. “That’s right, girlfriend. Settle! Settle down! You ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got you, and that’s how it’s going to be.” He sat down on the gator’s back, put his hands behind the gator’s neck, and pushed it firmly down into the dirt to pin it, all at Drew’s direction. Then he laced his fingers in front of the gator’s neck and pulled its head back, because in that position (which doesn’t hurt the gator), the gator can’t do anything to get away.

Drew took a picture and then told Svan to put the gator back down so we could all look it over. Armed with paper towels and a tube of waterproof antibiotic ointment, we found all the bites and scrapes along the alligator’s hide, wiped the mud clear, and applied ointment, like a crazy cross between a NASCAR pit crew and a team of EMTs. And boy, there were A LOT of bites. Drew hadn’t been kidding.
That done, Svan let the gator go, and it crawled back to the water and disappeared.

It was my turn.

I waded out into the pool, shuffling my feet along the sandy bottom like Drew had instructed (“keep your feet low” was another rule; stepping on an alligator wasn’t going to end well for anybody). Drew was next to me, as he had been with Svan, acting as both guide and buffer. We walked toward the far fence, where several alligators were sunning themselves.

“That one looks good,” he said, pointing to one of them. “Go ahead and grab it.”

“Uh…” I looked at the next gator over, who seemed uncomfortably close to me. “I don’t want to get too close to this guy, though, do I?”

“It’s just an alligator,” said Drew, and everybody laughed.

Oh, yeah. Just an alligator.

Well, I had signed up for this. Squaring my shoulders, I reached down and grabbed the alligator’s tail. It just lay there and let me touch it, which surprised me. The tail was thick, like a scaly club, and my fingers didn’t go all the way around it. I probably should have grabbed a little closer to the end. Anyway, I had a hold of it. I pulled.

Nothing happened, except the gator realized that I was yanking on it. Good grief, was the alligator heavy. And strong. I pulled again with my arms, but the gator decided it didn’t really want to go with me and started to crawl forward, lashing its tail back and forth at the same time. I wasn’t prepared at all for the strength of its tail.

“Go, go, go!” said Drew. “Pull! What—do you think he’s just going to let you do it?”

There was no way—NO WAY—I was going to let go of that tail, not after dropping the turtle earlier. I squeezed for all I was worth. “No!” I panted, fighting the thrashing tail. “I’m just not very strong.”

I was not making any headway. The gator felt like a wiggling 2-ton weight. But then, all of a sudden, my feet gained traction in the bottom of the pool and I was able to take a step backward. It was like magic. I found myself walking back towards the edge of the pool, dragging the alligator across the top of the water in front of me like a deranged pool toy. Behind me, I heard my classmates clapping and shouting encouragement, and I pulled the gator onto the bank.

“Pull it towards you and drop!” shouted Drew.

I was supposed to sit on the base of the gator’s tail, right where it joined the body, and then put my hands behind the gator’s neck to push it down. That did not go quite according to plan. I sat down, but the gator squirted out from under me, making a short-legged dash towards freedom. No, no, no! I was not going to let that happen. I hurled myself forward onto the gator’s back (which is NOT what I was supposed to do) and fumbled for its neck.

“No, no, no!” yelled Drew, as my face came down right on top of the gator’s nose. “Head up! Like a horse!”

I somehow managed to sit up, dropping my butt onto the gator’s tail, and when I looked down, my hands were in the right position behind its head. Whoa. I did it! The gator still thought it had a chance, though, and kept crawling forward until I was finally able to lace my fingers together in front of its neck and lift its head off the ground.

Yay!

I stayed there while the others put antibiotic ointment on the various bites, and then Drew talked me through my dismount: I had to leave my hands where they were, get my feet under me, stand up, and then push the gator forward while jumping back. Luckily, my gator wasn’t the vengeful kind—all it wanted to do was go back to sunning itself against the fence. I stood up and it crawled away.

Everybody cheered. I felt like a rock star.

Chris went next, and then it was Ray’s turn. But Ray’s enthusiasm for the project, already virtually nil, had been even further diminished by watching the rest of us thrash around in the water. “Nope,” he said. “I’m good.”

“Come on, Ray,” said Drew. “I’ve only had to give out the Sir Robin Award for Cowardice once in my five years as instructor, and I’m not giving it out today.” (Nice Monty Python reference!)

“I’m OK with the Sir Robin Award,” said Ray.

“No. Come on.”

Everybody pitched in, trying to talk Ray into it. I was amazed at how positive and encouraging the group was. It wasn’t so surprising from Ginger and Alex, the two women from the previous class, but it really did surprise me that Svan and Chris, the two ranch hands, were being supportive rather than giving Ray crap. That was actually my experience the whole day—the class felt like being on a team.

“Look,” said Drew finally. “There’s a gator in here named Stevie who I really need to look at, because he had to have a leg amputated by a vet recently. He’s blind, so he won’t give you much trouble. Come help me with him, will you?”

Reluctantly, Ray waded into the water with Drew toward where Stevie had been floating the whole time, apparently perfectly content. He took Stevie’s tail, which Stevie didn’t bat an eye at, and pulled Stevie out of the water. Even then, though, Ray was less than excited about sitting down on the alligator’s back. Drew had to count “1-2-3 go” twice before Ray finally knelt down on Stevie’s tail. Everybody cheered. Stevie seemed resigned, and he mostly just lay there while Drew looked him over.

It was after one o’clock by then, and the day was heating up. The dirt I walked on was uncomfortably warm under my feet. We went through the gate and on to the pond next door, where the alligators were 6-8 feet long. I looked at them over the mismatched material of the fence and wondered, Where is the gate?

It turned out there wasn’t one. Instead, we had to climb over the fence, which was four feet tall. The barrier was mostly made of plastic siding with wood here and there, and there was a cinder block which I could use as a stepstool to hoist myself up. But on the other side, the only footrest was a long strip of aluminum, apparently attached as a support. There were two-inch-long screws sticking out of the aluminum every couple feet, and the metal sizzled in the hot sun like the surface of a frying pan. As if wrestling alligators wasn’t enough of a challenge.

I made it over the fence without either impaling myself on a screw or burning my foot, so that was a success. Drew put his hands on the top and vaulted over it like a stuntman, which made me envious. I wish I could do that. Ray didn’t even come over, but stayed outside, leaning on the top of the fence. He told us that if stayed out there we couldn’t make him grab an alligator.

The enclosure was very similar to the one next door, except for the size of the inhabitants: dirt bank, pool taking up most of the space, tires around the edge of the pool. Our wrestling technique was going to be the same, too, except, since the gators were bigger, heavier, and stronger, we were going to need to put our feet up under the gators’ front legs to help push the tail down in back.

Okay. I’d gained some confidence from the last gator encounter, and even though I was a little nervous, I felt like I could do it. Just as I was thinking that, I stepped on something sharp and bent down to see what it was. It was a huge alligator vertebra half-buried in the dirt. Oh, geez.

Drew picked our order this time. Chris went first, then Svan. Then it was my turn.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 1

Originally written 7/28/14

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http://www.coloradogators.com/

About ten years ago, my husband Ray and I were driving from Denver to Colorado Springs when we saw a billboard advertising a place called Colorado Gators. It interested us so much that we looked it up when we got home.

Colorado Gators, it turned out, had started out as a tilapia farm in 1977. The Young family raised tilapia in the San Luis Valley in geothermal pools, since tilapia need warm water to survive. In 1987, they purchased 100 baby alligators as a way of getting rid of the remains of dead fish. Locals wanted to see the alligators, so in 1990 they opened up to the public. Word spread about their farm, and soon people from all over were dropping off unwanted reptile pets that had gotten too big or too aggressive: alligators, crocodiles, iguanas, and pythons. Now the facility is both a tilapia farm and an animal rescue, taking care of a variety of exotic ex-pets and trying to educate the public about these animals.

They also, their website told us, offered classes in reptile handling and alligator wrestling.

I’m not exactly sure why that last part stuck with me. Part of it was just the unexpectedness of the whole facility. Alligators are definitely not native to Colorado, which is not only too cold in winter but too dry all the time, and even at the Denver Zoo the crocodilians are housed inside in a climate-controlled habitat. I found the idea of a reptile park in Colorado intriguing; I love anything out of the ordinary.

Part of it was my memory of going to the Ringling Brothers Circus once as a kid when the headlining act was Tahar the Alligator King. Tahar was like a cross between a Moroccan Yul Brynner and Tarzan: bald, muscular, and wearing a leopard-print pair of briefs. He sat on the backs of alligators, pulled their heads back, put his chin on their snouts, and even put his head between their jaws. The climactic moment was the “Water Chamber of Doom,” where he jumped into a cylindrical tank of water with one of the gators and swam around with it.

I remember being disappointed. The trappings of the act—Tahar’s flowing gold cape, which he removed with a flourish; the water tank under the spotlights; the dramatic music; and Tahar’s personal showmanship and flair for the dramatic—all led me to expect great, exciting, death-defying things. I waited for the wrestling with wide eyes and bated breath. But when the wrestling came, it looked…easy. It reminded me of episodes of Star Trek where cast members had to lift Styrofoam rocks and things and pretend that they were heavy. Tahar was sure putting on a good show, but the alligators looked a lot smaller than on the posters, and there was something in their expressions and body language that made them seem resigned to being dragged around and bent in half.

So, when I saw that Colorado Gators offered an alligator wrestling class, part of me thought, “I bet I could do that.”

Fast forward to this year, when I told Ray that I wanted to try 40 new things. Both of us immediately thought of alligator wrestling. I had a weekend off coming up near our anniversary, and we had just enough extra money in the bank, so (after going back and forth with the practical part of my brain, the part that kept saying, “This is crazy!”) we booked the trip.

We left Denver on Friday afternoon, taking Highway 285 through the mountains on the way to southern Colorado. The traffic in town was heavy, but once we got outside the metro area things sped up, and we were rewarded with a beautiful drive: mountain slopes covered with pine trees, grassy meadows with flowers growing along fences, even the occasional deer. We stopped for dinner in the town of Fairplay (famous as the inspiration for South Park) and then drove through alternating rain and sunshine for another three hours or so, snaking in and out of the mountains with the highway. The farther we went, the more the other cars dropped away, until sometimes it seemed like we were the only car on the road. It was amazing how quickly we left the urban setting of Denver behind  and found ourselves in farmland, with fields of hay or cattle to either side of the road during the flat stretches. There were lots of horses, too, and the occasional goat, llama, or donkey.

We spent the night at the Windsor Hotel in Del Norte, Colorado (http://www.windsorhoteldelnorte.com/). Del Norte is a big town for the area (population 1700), being the county seat of Rio Grande county, and sported not only a hotel but a gas station, an organic grocery, a yoga/tai chi studio, and a number of restaurants and touristy shops. The Windsor Hotel was built in 1874 and was recently saved from demolition and then remodeled, so it’s both historic and beautifully up-to-date. We enjoyed the comfortable beds, the air conditioning, and the free wifi, not to mention the rate, which was significantly cheaper than the big chain hotels that we looked at in nearbyish Alamosa. A pianist was playing in the lobby when we came in at 8:30, sore and tired from the long car ride, and when he finished his tune he went to find the manager to check us in. Everyone was amazingly friendly, something that we actually found during our whole trip.

The next morning, after a lovely breakfast in a little café near the hotel, we hopped back in the car and drove the 30 minutes to Mosca, Colorado, home of the reptile park. We drove through a couple tiny towns on the way, but the area around Colorado Gators was all farmland, flat and nearly treeless, dotted with occasional houses and trailers. Off to the east, the yellow hills of Sand Dunes National Monument gleamed in the sunshine against the purple backdrop of the mountains. We’d thought about getting up early to go drive to see the sand dunes, which Ray had never visited, but we decided that we’d save that for another trip and spend the time at the reptile park instead.

 gatorsign

There was a green, handpainted wooden alligator pointing down the road to the reptile park when we finally reached it, which was good, because otherwise the road was just another featureless turnoff along the long, flat ribbon of Highway 17. We seemed to be the only car moving on the road as we drove down it to the parking lot, a dirt pad sitting between fences, a creek, and a collection of ramshackle buildings. It was 10:15 or so, and our class wasn’t until 12, so we made ourselves peanut butter sandwiches and ate them while watching a horse graze in the next field over.

As we ate, cars started arriving. I love people-watching, so I checked out each vehicle that pulled onto the dirt road, trying to guess the relationship of the people who got out. There was a thin guy in his late teens or early twenties, wearing a black “Keep Calm” shirt where the words had been crossed out and replaced with a red scrawl that warned us zombies were coming. He had long, brown hair that hid his face like a curtain. The two people with him were an older man and woman, both gray-haired and heavyset. His parents, I guessed after watching them, or possibly his grandparents.

An SUV pulled up next to us, the windows rolled down against the heat. We could hear kids whining in the back seat and the dad behind the wheel yelling, “I’ve had enough! Stop it!” Everyone seemed to feel better when they got out of the car: a mom and dad in their early thirties, a tween girl, and two younger boys. The mom carried the youngest boy in her arms on the way to the entrance.

There was an old train car or semi trailer on one side of the parking lot near the road, and a little yellow car pulled up alongside the train car, looking way too shiny to be driving on the dirt. It was a small-looking two-door, and I was surprised when four people got out of it, kind of like a junior clown car. The driver was a man who looked, superficially, a lot like Ray—average height, broad shoulders, stocky build, beard and mustache—and seemed to be in the same age range. The girl who got out of the passenger seat was petite and pretty, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and her long brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. Glancing at her between bites of sandwich, I thought she looked pretty young. When she gave the driver a hug, I wondered if they were dad and daughter, but then I got a better look at them and realized she was probably ten years older than I’d thought, and also pregnant.

Oops. I mentally apologized to them.

Two other women got out of the back seat, and the driver told them to take off their shoes and leave everything but their water bottles in the car. I pricked up my ears at this. He sounded authoritative. Were they taking the alligator wrestling class, too? Had he taken the class before? I watched them as they walked barefoot across the dirt to the entrance, my heart starting to beat a little faster with excitement. For some reason, that moment made the class real to me in a way that it hadn’t been before.

 gatormission

We finished our sandwiches and walked toward the entrance ourselves a few minutes later. There was a wire fence to our left, dividing a dusty playground from the walkway, and there were several handpainted wooden signs along the fence. One had the facility’s mission statement written on it; another had a warning to visitors that the place was dangerous and you should be careful.

 gatorwarning

These signs (and all the signage that we saw at Colorado Gators) were very different than the signs we were used to at the Denver Zoo. Not only were they hand-lettered, but the wood was weathered and looked as though it might have been used for something else previously. The messages on the signs were important and informative, but there was also a dry and almost macabre sense of humor behind them, like a sign inside that said “This Facility Has Been Accident Free For ___ Hours.” There was a hook to put a number on between “for” and “hours,” but the hook was empty.

 gatoraccident

Being a dry, sarcastic, and wacky person myself, I instantly warmed to the writer of the signs. I thought, I’m going to like this place.

The front entrance led into a square room that was part ticket office, part gift shop, with t-shirts, stuffed alligators, and a cold drink display lining the walls. We walked up to the counter and introduced ourselves, and the woman on duty gave us waivers to sign. Ray signed his right away without really reading it, but my dad taught me to always read before I sign, so I did. I have requested Colorado Gators to permit me to enter…areas of the property…that are normally closed to customers…yada yada…I undersand that alligators are dangerous…etc etc…I do hereby admit that if I am crazy enough to put my hands on an alligator, I deserve to get bit. Furthermore, I promise not to whine too much if I do get bumps and scrapes or even a flesh wound…

Wait—what??

Okay, I was definitely going to like this place.

There was more than an hour to go before our class, so the woman suggested that we do the tour of the park and then come back. We followed the signs out the door and into the next building, where some of the exotic ex-pets were housed.

Like the signage, the buildings and displays at Colorado Gators showed practicality, humor, and a thrift born of necessity. The buildings were ramshackle, looking like a combination of shacks, old barns, and greenhouses shaped like Quonset huts, with repairs and modifications made with whatever material was lying around handy. Floors were made of concrete; indoor animal displays in the first building were made largely of old aquariums and other repurposed objects, like a meat display case and the plastic housing of a TV.

 gatortv

There was nothing pretty or slick about the facility, but I could tell that the owners really cared about the animals. Every display had a note taped to it telling you the animal’s species, its name, and whether it would make a good pet or not. One of the big goals of Colorado Gators is to try to educate people about reptiles so that they don’t buy animals that they’ll abandon later, and so there were lots of signs telling visitors about the animals’ natural habitats, diet, adult size, and (for lack of a better word) handleability. A volunteer was stationed right inside the entrance to the first building on the tour, and he would tell you about corn snakes and leopard geckos (both good pets) and let you hold them if you wanted to. The volunteer, an older man with a twinkle in his eye, obviously loved the animals, and he made you love them, too.

I held both the snake and the gecko. If you’ve never held a snake, it’s got the most amazing skin: very smooth and almost soft, especially when it’s warm from the heat lamp. The skin looks like it might feel wet or oily, since it has a sheen to it, but it’s actually completely dry. Freddie the Corn Snake moved a little in my hands and along my arm, sniffing the air with his forked tongue (that’s what they’re doing when they stick their tongues out—smelling), and I liked the feeling of his scales against my skin.

The leopard gecko’s skin was tough like leather armor, except for its tail. Leopard geckos can wave their tails to distract predators and then detach them before growing a new one. Because of this, the skin of the tails is newer and much softer; it felt like velvet under my fingers. Re-Pete the Gecko (so called because he looks exactly like another gecko, Pete) seemed completely unfazed by me handling him, sitting quietly in my hands while the volunteer stood by. I don’t think I’d be interested in having a reptile pet (I’m happy with our cat), but for people interested in reptiles, corn snakes and geckos seem like they’d be a good place to start.

Our next stop was the photo station, where volunteers gave me a skinny two-foot-long alligator to hold and took our picture. My first gator! Gators (as many, many signs around the park kept telling us) do NOT make good pets, and actually they are illegal to own in Colorado—although, unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from getting them anyway. My little two-footer (who was an undersized three-year-old, the volunteer told me) was definitely not interested in interacting with me the way that Freddie and Re-Pete did; I had to hold him firmly behind the head to keep him from reaching around and biting my thumb with his teensy teeth.

There was an amazing (and sad, considering the circumstances) variety of animals in the first building: geckos, anoles (which are like geckos), iguanas, scorpions, monitor lizards, bearded dragons, Chinese water dragons, tortoises, pythons, rattlesnakes, and even two African Grey parrots. Some of the species I’d seen before in zoos, but some were new to me. The majority of the animals were rescues, the owners having dropped them off when the pets grew too big or too aggressive. All of them seemed happy in their new homes, with lots of good food to eat, clean enclosures, and heat lamps where needed. The tortoises even had the run of the building and a little area outside. As we walked around the exhibits, one of the tortoises kept running back and forth between outside and inside, (speedily for a tortoise) for all the world like he was jogging laps.

 gatortortoise

As I was watching the parrots, I saw something moving in the back of their generously-sized enclosure. It was a mouse. Parrots are messy eaters, and pieces of fruit and nuts were scattered all over the floor of their cage. This was manna from heaven for the mouse and its buddies, who would scamper out to a piece of food, grab it, and then scamper back to their hole in the wall. What made me laugh was that the parrot cage was probably the ONLY cage in the whole building that was safe for them to go into, seeing as how mice are a prime food source for all the snakes.

The snake next door, however, had graduated from mice up to rabbits. Her name was Bonnie, and she was a reticulated python, the longest snake in the world. She was 20 feet long, and her body was as big around as my thigh. One of the volunteers told us that Bonnie was the most dangerous animal in the entire park, which was terrifying to think about, since we were about to go see alligators. The sign on Bonnie’s enclosure said in big letters that reticulated pythons should never, ever be kept as pets, and in case that wasn’t emphatic enough, it added that Bonnie tried to kill the volunteers every time they went into her cage to feed her. Yikes.

When I walked up, Bonnie was just finishing swallowing a rabbit, and even though I like snakes, it was creepy watching the shape of the rabbit distort her body as it moved from her mouth to her stomach. I heard one of the volunteers say later that she ate six rabbits while we were there.

We reached the end of the building and went outside to the next one, where the tilapia of the still-operating fish farm are kept in big round tanks like vats. From there, we went on the outdoor exhibits, where we saw alligators (lots and lots of alligators in enclosures according to their size, which ranged from about 3 feet to more than 12), a couple crocodiles, emus, an ostrich, and a potbellied pig. There was a peacock walking around near a creek, and a brightly-colored parrot sitting in a willow tree next to the playground—a wonderfully odd sight. Just like with the indoor animals, the outdoor animals looked well-cared for and content, for all that their surroundings were unorthodox.

 gatorparrot

The last building held the park’s two most famous residents. One of them was Morris, an ex-movie star who had been in films like Happy Gilmore and Interview With the Vampire before he, like all the pets, had gotten too big and too aggressive. A female gator had shared his pond in retirement before they’d had a giant fight and had to be separated. Man, Hollywood divorce stories are the same for everybody, aren’t they?

The other was an albino alligator named Mr. Bo Mangles (his name was yet another reason to love the people at Colorado Gators). He was white with a delicate green pattern across his back scales, and he was so striking that I heard a little girl say, “Daddy, he’s beautiful!”, which was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use that word to describe a crocodilian. Someone told us later that Mr. Bo Mangles’ personality did not match his looks, unfortunately, and he was both aggressive and extremely flexible for an alligator (more on that later), so only the most experienced people could handle him.

 gatormangles

In this last building were also snapping turtles and caimans, both of which are legal to own in Colorado but make terrible pets. Caimans are much smaller than alligators and crocodiles, only reaching about 6 feet in adulthood, but to balance that out they’re nasty and super aggressive. One of the caimans was missing the last couple feet of her tail because she’d accidentally bitten it off while trying to attack one of the volunteers. Yeesh.

By the time we’d finished in the building, it was almost time for our gator wrestling class, and we were back at the front entrance. We went inside, where it was blessedly air conditioned, to wait for our teacher.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Adventure #1–Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret

 

Originally written 7/8/2014

One

 

 

For my first adventure, my friend Abbey took me out for my birthday. She’d been out of the country on my actual birthday, visiting Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania with her mom (which sounds super, super fun). When she got back, she asked what I wanted to do to celebrate belatedly, and I told her I wanted to do something that I could use for my blog. So we decided to go downtown to Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret. But first, dinner!

Pinche Tacos
http://tacostequilawhiskey.com/

We started the evening with dinner at Pinche Tacos, a little eatery on Colfax and York in Denver. It’s in a historic brick building on a corner, sandwiched between a sushi place and the building’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot (one of the most impressive moments of the night was watching Abbey navigate the parking lot in her SUV. It was like watching an Olympic kayaker shoot class 5 rapids).

Inside, the restaurant has a lot of exposed brick walls and wooden floorboards, with every nook and cranny of the small space crammed with tables, chairs, and patrons. At 6:15 on a Saturday night, every seat was taken and there was a twenty-minute wait, although we got lucky and slipped onto the last two empty stools at the “high top,” a tall wooden table where you sat side-by-side with other patrons. Music blared from overhead speakers, Foster the People and Bastille and Bad Sons, with the volume so loud that we had to lean forward over the high top and shout to talk.

The menu is a strip of laminated plastic featuring a la carte tacos, and you order by putting a check mark next to the ones you want with a Sharpie. There are plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike, with eclectic blends of flavors like shiitake mushrooms over creamed cilantro corn, and barbacoa with slices of raw radish. We each ordered three tacos, tiny, open-faced affairs maybe four inches across and piled high with ingredients. I ate mine with a fork, although other people at the high top were folding theirs over and eating them traditional-style with juice running down their faces. The tacos were delicious, and three was the perfect number, leaving me satisfied but not stuffed. At about $3.50 per taco, the price was right, too. The staff was friendly, our order came out in good time, and I enjoyed some great people-watching while we waited (a woman down the high top from me was sporting a necklace that seemed to be made out of a gold-plated hood ornament, for instance).

I wish the music hadn’t been so loud (is that a sign of middle age?), but otherwise it’s definitely a keeper.

Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret
http://lannies.com/

icecream

For my adventures, I’m planning on trying as many brand new things as possible, but I decided that it was OK to use something I’d done before if A) I hadn’t done it in the last five years and B) I hadn’t written about before. Lannie’s fits the criteria for me, and Abbey hadn’t been there previously, so it seemed like a good place to start.

The Clocktower is on downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian mall filled with shops, restaurants, street performers, and panhandlers. One of Denver’s first big department stores, Daniels and Fisher, was on the site from 1911 until it closed in 1950, and the clock tower was part of the D & F building. After the department store closed, the building fell into ruin and was demolished in the 60’s, but historic preservationists had the clock tower saved and designated as a historic landmark.

The tower is twenty stories tall and skinny. It is very elegant inside, with marble floors and polished brass fixtures, and you can rent the upper part of the tower for wedding receptions if you don’t mind your guests being spread out on different floors. One of the wedding reception venues is inside the clock itself.

When you enter the clock tower, you find yourself in a white, elegant lobby, with an expensive-looking elevator right across from the entrance. A uniformed attendant sits next to the elevator, presumably to prevent pandhandlers from wandering in. If you are in the tower for a wedding reception, you take the elevator up. If you are looking for Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, however, you turn left and walk down a set of carpeted stairs to the basement, where you enter a very different environment.

Lannie Garrett, the owner, is a well-known singer in Denver, probably most famous for her country spoof act, the Patsy DeCline Show. She doesn’t limit herself to one genre, however, and has performed jazz, big band, George Gershwin, movie songs, and disco. Her current show is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She performs once a week or so, and on other nights the Cabaret puts on different acts. We saw ads for an a capella concert, a one-man Nat King Cole show, and a Motown cover group–but the Cabaret’s big specialty is burlesque shows.

Burlesque, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is basically vaudeville-style striptease. It’s much more artistic, and much more fun, than the kind of strip show featured in Hollywood movies, where women spin around poles in high heels and get money stuffed down their undies and everything seems kind of sleazy. Burlesque embraces and celebrates the female form, and even at the end of the number you’re not seeing anything you wouldn’t see at the beach; all the important bits are still covered.

However, the root of burlesque is still women taking their clothes off. If that’s not your thing, you’ll probably be more comfortable if you stop reading now. My next adventure will be a baseball game, and you can come back for that. I promise that most of my adventures will be completely G-rated.

The Cabaret is dimly lit, with low ceilings and the feeling of a speakeasy. Like Pinche Tacos, they make the most of their small space, cramming tables and chairs onto every available inch of floor. There are some booths at the back, high-backed arrangements with padded seats that bring to mind the days of the Brat Pack. At the front of the room, there’s a wooden stage the size of a one-car garage, raised only slightly above the floor because otherwise the performers would bang their heads on the ceiling. Swathes of glitzy, mismatched fabric form the backdrop for the performers.

When we reached the entrance to the Cabaret, a woman in an old-fashioned cigar-girl pillbox hat greeted us and took our names. Behind her were shelves of plastic tiaras and brightly-colored feather boas for sale. She passed us on to the hostess, who was wearing a Goth-style black dress and had her jet-black hair in pigtails. The waiter who took us to our table was wearing a top hat and tuxedo, sort of; the sleeves and pant legs of the tuxedo had been cut off, leaving him in a sleeveless coat and shorts. Under the shorts he was wearing leggings with a black-and-white diamond pattern, a la Harlequin, and around one eye he had a bold pattern of thick black lines drawn on with makeup–or maybe it was a tattoo. Two other members of the waitstaff were wearing a belly dance outfit and a French maid dress, respectively. The cabaret seemed to embrace an anything-goes kind of dress code.

Lannie’s offers a generous menu of cocktails, wine, non-alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. They want you to enjoy yourself while you’re there. We ordered an ice cream sampler: a scoop of ice cream each in a wine glass, with about a dozen different kinds of toppings served on a glass painter’s palette. I love samplers more than just about anything. There’s nothing better than trying out a whole bunch of different kinds of food, especially when it’s presented in a fun way. We ate ice cream while we looked around at the crowd.

Interestingly, about 75% of the audience seemed to be female. There were at least four separate bachelorette parties, all decked out in tiaras and boas from the shop at the entrance, and while there were several other all-female tables like ours, we didn’t see any male-only groups. The MC later said that 75-90% of their audiences are female.

The MC herself was female, a singer named Sonia Soubrette who was wearing a little low-cut babydoll dress and the most fabulous glittery red lipstick. She was flirty and funny, introducing acts, making jokes, and even singing a couple of numbers. I loved her. She really held the show together and kept it moving.

The first act she introduced was the live band who would be playing for the evening, a duo called My Wooden Leg. Apparently, the name is a dirty joke, which seems appropriate for the entertainment at a burlesque show–but that was the only way in which the band was what you might expect. You’d think that something along the lines of a jazz band or swing group would be the right music for burlesque, but My Wooden Leg played a kind of indie rock/Romanian folk music, with one man on the accordion and the other on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The guitarist/vocalist at least looked right for the atmosphere. I would guess that he was in his thirties, slender and good-looking. He was dressed in a button-up shirt, vest, and tie, and his hair was shaved on the sides and long in the middle, like it might moonlight as a Mohawk on nights when it wasn’t slicked back. There was something artistic and broody about him, and between songs he sipped from a glass of red wine at his elbow. If Lord Byron had been born a hipster, he might have looked something like that.

The accordion player, on the other hand, was a square, balding man wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt. His stoic expression never changed, even when one of the performers wrapped a fishnet thigh-high stocking around his neck during her number. I wondered if the performer was trying on purpose to get a reaction out of him, but he just kept on plugging away on his accordion like nothing in the world could shake him.

From what the MC said, I gather that the guitarist/vocalist wrote all of their songs. The tunes were heavily influenced by traditional Eastern European music, and the lyrics were straight out of a Goth teenager’s fever dream. I know because the MC told us what each of the songs was about, including:

The days when the singer lived in an apartment over the Fort Worth, Texas stockyards
A man who played with a doll every day and kept her in a shoebox
A man getting shot by the police
Vlad the Impaler

If the subject matter sounds disturbing, don’t worry; half the time he was singing in Romanian, and I couldn’t understand him even when he was singing in English.

The tunes were melancholy and haunting and sounded slow even when they weren’t, and they seemed totally at odds with the lighthearted fun of most of the performances. They would have made me feel kind of down if I’d been a performer, but the dancers all seemed to be having a blast.

Actually, burlesque dancers just seem to enjoy themselves more than the average person. They all have funny, suggestive, and/or sexy stage names, like DeeDee Derrière, Alexis Scissorlegs, and Midnite Martini, and they go at their performances with a happy gusto that makes it all right for the audience to have fun, too. Burlesque dancers come in all shapes and sizes, from short and flat-chested to tall and curvy and everything in between, and every shape is beautiful. A lot of the numbers are humorous, and all of them have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge naughtiness to them that invite the viewer in on the fun.

To help with that, the MC and the performers encourage the audience to whoop, whistle, and clap during the numbers, and the Cabaret even provides toy noisemakers at each table that you can spin to show your appreciation. The room is noisy and the energy is high, and everybody is having a good time.

The show I saw was called the Hurly-Burly Circus, and the idea was that it was a mix of circus elements and burlesque. Two of the performers definitely fit the bill: Alexis Scissorlegs, a burlesque dancer who performed on stilts (!), and Midnite Martini, who performed on an aerial hoop and aerial fabric a la Cirque du Soleil. Both were amazing artists, and they ended up being my favorite dancers. It was mindboggling to me that Alexis Scissorlegs could not only dance on stilts and do splits and handstands and all sorts of crazy acrobatics, but that she could look sexy doing it, too. Midnite Martini did a number with the aerial fabric that she ended by winding herself up in the fabric and then dropping toward the floor; it was incredible. If I tried that, I would crash into the ground and break my leg.

Alexis Scissorlegs and Midnite Martini both performed twice, as did two other burlesque dancers. There was also a belly dancer who did a solo number and then joined the other two burlesque dancers for a hilarious cabaret version of The Triplets of Belleville (a French animated movie). That was one of my favourite numbers. The MC sang a Cole Porter song and another song, both of which were lovely, and right after the intermission she chugged a PBR, which I guess could be a kind of a sideshow act (in keeping with the circus theme). I was curious to see if she’d smash the can on her forehead after chugging it, but she didn’t.

The only part of the entertainment that I didn’t like was a stage magician who performed twice. I guess they were thinking that magicians were a part of the classic traveling circus so they should include one, and if he’d been a sexy guy dressed in Victorian evening clothes who sawed women in half, I could have gone for it. But the magician they picked was a stocky, forty-something street magician from Las Vegas wearing a loud purple suit and nerd glasses, and his act was made up of card tricks and disappearing hard-boiled eggs, which he dragged out into tedium by humiliating a couple audience members and cracking a lot of cheap jokes. I wanted to give him the hook.

At least he kept all his clothes on. THANK GOODNESS.

The last act of the night was both the weirdest and the most spectacular. Alexis Scissorlegs (she of the stilts) came out in a silver sequined halter top and matching bellbottoms, wearing a huge blond afro wig and 70’s-style sunglasses. The stagehand (a woman whom the MC kept referring to as either the “stage kitten” or “the stripper picker-upper”) had come out during the introduction and hung a strap from the rigging in the middle of the stage, and during the number the dancer held on to the strap and used it to spin around in midair, usually while in the splits or some other impossible pose. With her big globe of hair and all the stage lights glittering from her silver sequined outfit, she looked exactly like a human disco ball. It would have been perfect accompanied by “I Will Survive” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

Instead, My Wooden Leg performed a soulful, melancholy song which the MC introduced by saying, “If you sing along, this song has the power to revisit any evil done to you back on your enemies.” Um, what? No one could sing along, since the words weren’t written down anywhere (and they might have been in Romanian anyway), and you couldn’t even really clap along with the beat. It wasn’t that kind of song.

So there was a spinning human disco ball up on stage, dancing to this bizarre accordion folk rock tune that maybe was supposed to be some kind of magic spell.

It was surreal.

When we left the Cabaret, it was after 10 p.m., and we walked back along the 16th Street Mall to where my friend’s car was parked a couple blocks away. Downtown was busy, and it seemed like all kinds of celebrations were going on. A bridal party went by in two bicycle-driven pedicabs; another pair of newlyweds was having their picture taken in the middle of the sidewalk; and in the middle of the Mall, a man in a t-shirt and khakis was dancing ecstatically to music that only he could hear.

I felt like we had just attended a celebration, too, because burlesque, at its core, is a celebration of the human form, no matter what shape it happens to be in. A wonderful evening’s entertainment, and a wonderful (and fitting) way to kick off my 40 adventures.