Once a year I can unfailingly count on three things happening:
1. A sports team I openly root for all season will have a complete meltdown in the playoffs, usually in the form of a huge upset on their home court.
2. I’ll find a way to injure myself in an unlikely way with a power tool.
and 3. My friends and I will meet up for a weekend camping trip in the summer.
In other words, our annual camping trip had become an institution… (I hope everyone picked up on the foreshadowing…)
It was supposed to be the weekend of our annual camping trip, a tradition that has somehow survived for the last seven years. In the days leading up to the trip, forces beyond our control were compromising the outing altogether, and it soon became clear that camping wouldn’t be an option this year… Now, next to a worldwide beer shortage, the only way this trip could possibly be derailed was if pretty much the entire state was engulfed in flames… Thankfully, it was the latter scenario that caused us to cancel the camping trip, meaning we still had the opportunity to incorporate heavy amounts of beer drinking into our revised weekend plans.
With wildfires raging across Central Washington, our options were severely limited. In theory, we could have gone camping and adhered to the burn-ban. However, I couldn’t envision camping without a fire. Everyone knows there are only three ingredients needed for a successful camping trip: Fire, Beer and Camo. (Which, coincidentally, also happens to be Montana’s state motto.)
Anyway, on a camping trip, you rely on the fire for everything: warmth, light, entertainment… It’s like an outdoor television set without the commercials. And frankly, without fire, I didn’t even want to speculate on how our wieners would get roasted. While I hated to miss out on an opportunity to wear camo, I realized we needed to find an alternative to camping.
So, we changed the weekend plans. It was time to relive The Alamo. Allow me to discuss some history. The original Alamo took place in the summer of 2000. It was a way for those that had just graduated from Central to “make their last stand” one final time at the Ellensburg bars in truly epic fashion. The premise is simple: A small gathering of friends lines up side by side to make a guns-a-blazing run at the local bars and taverns. And just like the Alamo, we were severely outnumbered. There were shots and silver bullets flying all around. Everyone knew they’d get wasted in this suicide mission, as you can only hope to go down in a blaze of glory. And when all is said and done, the next day, nobody should be able to “Remember the Alamo.”
I spread the word, and Bailes, Krusty, Maleah, Julie, Jason and Moira were all eager to kickoff the Alamo II as a substitute to camping. The gang met Jeannette and I at The Tav, a bar with perhaps the greatest menu of bar-food in the universe. In fact, it is easily one of the best restaurants in Ellensburg. (I’m not sure if that’s a compliment to the Tav, or an insult to Ellensburg… probably a little of both.) With great food and beer available for $5 a pitcher, a few hours at the Tav lays the proper foundation for drinking the rest of the night. As is the case with most bars in Ellensburg, you pee in trough formation. If you’ve lived in Seattle your whole life, and therefore have never seen a “trough” before, picture a urinal-built-for-six. Honestly, I’m at the point in my life where if you don’t pee in a trough, I have a hard time classifying the establishment as a bar.
Our next stop was The Palace. First, allow me to translate a commonly used expression in Ellensburg. Whenever someone uses the phrase “Let’s go to The Palace,” what they really mean is: “Let’s take things up a notch.” For the record, The Palace is simply not a bar you congregate at. It’s not even a bar you sit down at. The Palace is the metaphorical fork in the road that one takes to turn a casual night of drinking into a night worthy of being called the Alamo.
When you walk into The Palace, there’s no turning back. It’s time to get down to business. I marched up to the bar and ordered a round of shots for our party. Moira ordered a second round. The eight of us each killed a couple of mixed drinks and it was done. We were officially on the well-traveled path to Ellensburg bar drunkenness.
Ultimately, the evening always climaxes at The Horseshoe. Again, allow me to offer a little history lesson… Five years ago, the Horseshoe used to be the kind of bar you’d patronize only if you found other bars were not dimly lit and smoke-filled enough for your liking. In other words, the Horseshoe had the ambiance of a vehicle emissions testing facility with roughly the same air quality. Everything about the place was flat-out depressing. It’s like they tried to translate “The Grapes of Wrath” into the theme of their bar.
Somehow, it all changed when Krusty began bartending there. The place became known as The ‘Shoe, and soon had almost a velvet-ropes type of exclusivity. Of course, Krusty viewed it as his civic duty to make sure every patron left inebriated, even if it meant giving away free drinks to virtually everyone that walked through the door. Every night, The ‘Shoe was a rockin’, heavy-drinkin’ party. Imagine if Cheers had been run by Norm Peterson instead of Sam Malone… That was The ‘Shoe in its heyday.
Granted, Krusty is over two years removed from transforming the ‘Shoe into a legitimate drinking establishment that a normal person would frequent. However, his legacy remains. The current bartenders still bestow upon him the kind of reception typically reserved for astronauts and Superbowl MVP’s. Being a member of Krusty’s entourage during a trip to the ‘Shoe is tantamount to touring with a rock star, as everyone in his party is completely taken care of the entire evening.
The next morning we had planned to embark on a four-hour river float. Naturally, we met at The Pilot Station, simply the greatest thing to happen to Ellensburg in my lifetime. The Pilot Station has everything. Cheap gas, a Subway, a great location… it definitely deserves proper enshrinement in our Product Endorsements section. We stocked up on Beer, Sandwiches and Gas, the standard fuels needed for any outdoor adventure.
At this point, I’d like to provide a little background on the “organization” of our rafting trip. The morning had gotten off to a rough start. First, Krusty misunderstood the hours of the tube rental agreement, causing our party to needlessly be awake about three hours earlier than needed. Keep in mind, this was the morning after The Alamo. I practically had to use an oyster knife to pry my eyelids open when the alarm went off. Fortunately, the river trip could still commence, as I wasn’t experiencing vertigo, insanity, or any other symptoms commonly associated with sleep deprivation torture.
Second, when Krusty picked up the tubes, he deliberately turned down the free life jackets provided with every tube rental. Of course, most people wouldn’t dream of attempting a four hour drunken river float without life jackets. This decision didn’t really concern me personally, as I had completed Navy SEAL Training (aka: third grade swim lessons taught by Dorothy Purser). This essentially meant I could survive being held underwater for 45 minutes by a sadistic swimming instructor. Unfortunately, not everyone in our party had these water survival skills and I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d regret not having life jackets… (More foreshadowing…)
Finally, Bailes took the lead leaving the Pilot Station, as his truck was laden with most of the inner tubes, none of which were tied down properly. You really don’t have to be Nostradamus to foresee the inevitable. Krusty’s complete lack of a tie-down job resulted in our inner tubes, not once, but twice being spilled haphazardly across both lanes of Highway 10 at over 60 miles per hour. Miraculously, we somehow avoided a 42-car pileup. We all pulled over, surveyed the scene and greeted Krusty with some synchronized headshaking. We dispersed to pick up the inner tubes, all of which had not surprisingly landed in an overgrown bramble patch, the kind that was probably home to hundreds of rattlesnakes. It’s mind-boggling to think about, but literally thousands of unwitting parents put their child’s safety in Krusty’s hands every year at summer camp.
Arriving at the launch point, Bailes volunteered for the most thankless, but most important task of all by manning the canoe that stocked our food and beer. Perhaps his greatest contribution was allowing all the girls to tie their tubes onto his vessel to prevent them from getting any exercise whatsoever. For over four hours, Bailes kept to his grueling task of paddling around a train of dead weight behind him. It was quite a physical sacrifice on Bailes’ part, and Krusty and I wondered several times if his heart would explode from exhaustion.
While on the journey, the conversation drifts as much as the river itself. Jason wore a perma-grin the whole day, marveling each time Krusty would nonchalantly start a conversation about the frequency of his bowel movements. Of course to the rest of us, it was simply old hat.
As most of us were either married or engaged, much of the journey was spent discussing married life. Krusty offered his opinion on the key to a happy marriage, saying “You’ve got to find one thing you truly love about the other person every single day.” This seemed like good advice, and prompted the obvious follow up question, “What do you love about Maleah today?” Krusty thought about this for a while, and answered, “I love her predictability… I knew she’d whine and complain this whole trip. ”
After a few hours on the river, we stopped for lunch on a quiet beach. Seeking to pass the time, Bailes, Krusty and I climbed a giant rock formation. The cliff was probably 30 feet off the ground, overlooking a deep spot in the river below. I uneasily peered over the edge of the rock much like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Unless Tommie Lee Jones was about to point a gun at my head, I had a hard time visualizing myself willingly jumping off this edifice. Krusty jumped first, then Bailes. It was my turn, and the thought of climbing back down the rock momentarily crossed my mind. This internal conflict didn’t last long, as my laziness overwhelmed any fear of heights, and the easiest way down was to jump into the river below…
Now, the first 3 hours and 58 minutes of the river float had a pretty mild and leisurely pace, similar to the current found in the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland. This relaxed float was ideal for drinking beer and not paying attention to the natural dangers a river possesses.
However, the final two minutes of the float resembled something out of one of those river rafting movies where Kevin Bacon plays an evil river guide (there are several.) My wife hit the rapids hard and was completely bucked off her tube. Almost instantly, the undertow sucked her to the bottom of the river. Thankfully, I was in position to pull her out of the water and safely onto my tube. She was a little shaken, and her legs were cut up from crashing into the rocks, but was otherwise ok. I looked back and saw other members of our party struggling to stay afloat and avoid crashing into the rocks, and thought it fortunate that none of them looked uncool in a nerdy life jacket.
Fortunately, the only casualty in this ordeal was my wedding ring. At some point in the madness it slipped off my finger into the riverbed. There was one bright side in all of this… Since my ring had come off in the process of rescuing my wife, it was the one possible scenario that saved me from the wrath typically warranted for losing a wedding ring.
Coincidentally, last year Krusty also managed to lose his wedding ring while on a river float. At the time, it seemed unfathomable how anyone could be so careless with something so priceless. In my typical fashion, I added insult to injury. I made light of his situation, suggesting he make a bulk purchase of a 50-pack of wedding rings from Costco since it likely wouldn’t be the last time he’d lose his wedding ring. Anyway, upon hearing the news of my lost wedding ring, Krusty offered his condolences by simply extending his fist. We bumped fists in an oddly congratulatory move, and Krusty said “That makes two of us.” I’m pretty sure there are multiple lessons to be learned here…
The next stop was Roslyn, where our group met at Village Pizza after the river float. I’ll tell you right now, the lowlight of the evening was seeing Krusty order a vegetarian pizza. It was like watching Michael Jordan playing for the Washington Wizards. Krusty was simply the most prolific eater of meat Kittitas County has ever seen. This is a man who once described himself as a “meat-atarian.” This is a man who insisted on serving cocktail wieners wrapped in bacon at his wedding. Honestly, I think even their wedding cake had meat in it.
Of course, like all the great artists, his lifestyle took a heavy toll. He suffered for his art. It’s sad to see now, his stomach lining eroded, along with his legendary eating skills; he is merely a shell of the carnivore he used to be. Simply put, I’ll never get used to watching him order a spinach and tomato pizza, as the old Krusty would have simply referred to vegetarian pizza as “a dinner salad” to supercede a side of beef. I guess I should just be thankful to have witnessed him in his prime…
After dinner, we headed to The Brick, the oldest operating tavern in the state of Washington. Without my wedding ring, I worried that there would be dozens of women hitting on me all evening. Thankfully, it wasn’t a problem. The evening itself was pretty mellow, we played pool and shuffleboard, drank several more pitchers, toasted each other, and called it a weekend.
It wasn’t camping, but all in all it was a great weekend. While I hated to see a streak like that end, I’m glad we managed to consume lots of alcohol, catch up with old friends and even cheat death a few times. With the weekend over, we all went our separate ways, but vowed to start a new camping tradition next year…