Road Trippin’ Down Under: Cowabunga Kalamunda

Morning came much too early for me on Tuesday. Having slept far less than the Jarhead had over the last several days I gratefully would have slept for several hours after he had gotten out of bed. And while I haven’t sat down to do the math, I suspect I could have slept until noon and not even come close to tying—much less breaking—his record for the total number of hours spent sleeping by an American in Australia. Still, I would have given it a shot if Mr. Sunshine hadn’t opened the blinds and turned on the news after hopping out of the shower and brewing up a mini pot of coffee.

That option discarded, I dragged myself out of bed and left him to plan our day once again. He hadn’t done a bad job the day before, after all, and I didn’t have the brainpower to contribute to a discussion even if we had tried to have one at that point. That plus the fact that I’m in charge of nearly every aspect of life back in North America made it easy for me to let him be the boss Down Under.

Once I had showered my energy level out of the negative numbers and caffeine-d my way into the positives, I offered to let him be in charge for the rest of our stay, and every time we visit Australia in the future. He liked that idea so much—as evidenced by the fact that he nodded absently without looking up from the map—that I then suggested that we divvy up the various potential travel destinations in advance so we will know who will be responsible for organizing the itineraries and activities for all our future vacations. He paid as much attention to that as my previous suggestion, which is why he also gets to plan any vacation we take to Europe, Asia, Africa or South America, and I’m responsible for planning all our trips to Antarctica.

I know. How magnanimous of me, right?

That decided, we packed up and headed over to Salted Board. We had been there so many times by that point that I wondered briefly if we should go somewhere else for once. We didn’t want Chrissy to think we were crazy stalkers, after all, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt us to try something new. But then again, why risk it? So, another delicious breakfast later, we were on our way to Kalamunda National Park.

I’ll say this for the Aussies: they take their parks, wildlife, and conservation in general very seriously. And yet, in typical Aussie fashion, they seem to take them seriously without seeming to take them seriously. It seems almost assumed—a given—if you will, that the environment is a priority, and that the people who live on Earth are its stewards. Unlike in the US where you have some very passionate people striving to understand, appreciate, and protect the environment from those who want to rape, pillage, plunder and profit from it (while the rest of us are left wondering what to do and whether it will even matter so we almost nothing) in Australia conservation appears to be a way of life. Full stop. No drama. No debate. Just effing do it.

And the evidence was everywhere—at least in Western Australia. From the signs guiding you (if not literally inviting you) to all the local natural attractions, to the ubiquitous and well-maintained trash bins that were almost too clean and attractive to be trash bins, to the utter lack of litter or neglect anywhere, the place was seriously pristine.

And yet, as tidy as everything looked, it never seemed deliberate, groomed, or staged. There were no mower lines on the grass, or anything to indicate that the trees and other greenery had been purposefully planted, preened, or perfected.

One might be tempted to conclude that this was evidence of a lack of visitors, but this was clearly not the case. In literally every park, preserve, beach and boardwalk we visited there were people walking, hiking, biking, picnicking, backpacking, and snacking. And yet, there was no trash. Anywhere. No wayward candy wrappers. No discarded bottles, cans, or plastic bags.

Nor was anything broken or missing. In the restrooms, all the stalls were clean, and everything in them—including the door locks and latches—were fully functional. The trash bins were never overflowing and there was always tissue in the dispensers. It was like a neat freak’s version of paradise. Or Oceania’s version of Canada.

Which was mostly awesome but also a bit disconcerting in a Wrinkle in Time meets Stepford Wives meets Supernatural kind of way. Because we never saw even one groundskeeper, nor any grounds-keeping equipment. And yet we KNEW they had to have groundskeepers, who in turn had to have equipment. Somebody is emptying the trash cans and filling the tissue dispensers, after all, and even the most conscientious traveler drops a tissue now and then. And I doubt very much that the visitors are cleaning up after themselves—even the Canadians.

Which made me wonder if perhaps the Department of Parks and Wildlife was deploying nature ninjas to swoop in and sweep up when no one is looking. Or maybe they show up after dark decked out in optoelectronic devices to mow the lawns and collect the trash by starlight. The more likely explanation, I suppose, is that the park employees get up a little bit earlier than the average bear, and take care of business while the rest of us are having coffee. But doesn’t that sound boring? (More likely, yes. But definitely less interesting.)

Anyway, although we’d been in the car for over thirty minutes, our excursion officially began when we arrived at the Perth Hills Visitor Centre and Zig Zag Cultural Centre in the town of Kalamunda. Located between the Kalamunda History Village and the Kalamunda library (in what their website proudly calls the ‘Kalamunda Cultural Precinct’) the center offers a wealth of information relating to the historical, cultural, and recreational options to be found in and around Kalamunda and Kalamunda National Park.

After studying the map and our hiking options, we got back in the car and headed for the hills. Okay, one hill. Gooseberry Hill Recreation Reserve to be perfectly honest. Here we would find a trail that would suit not only our age and fitness level, but also our footwear. Turns out some of the trails are a bit jagged and loose, and since we weren’t properly equipped for anything too treacherous we had to settle for one of the easier routes.

By the time we parked the car at the entrance to the reserve (which, oddly enough, was at the terminus of Hill Street right smack in the suburbs of Perth) I was pretty fired up. I had brought my walking poles and brand-new hiking boots, and my almost brand-new knees. I had plenty of water, eyewear, and sun protection, and although we weren’t exactly about to hike the Aussie equivalent of Appalachian Trail, I was fully psyched. I had survived the hike the day before without encountering one snake, spider, or crocodile, so I knew it could be done. I was feeling bold. Brave. Confident. I was going to hike that trail and I was going to crush it!

And then I got out of the car.

Instantly, I heard it: the sound of bees buzzing all around me. And I mean literally ALL around me. You couldn’t see even one single bee. But you could hear them—thousands of them.

To be honest, I’m not allergic to bees. And I’m not really afraid of bees as much as I am terrified of them. No lie. As a kid, the sound of a bee (or wasp or hornet or anything resembling a bee—including but not limited to dragonflies, horseflies, and houseflies) would leave me quivering in terror. Outwardly, I would either freeze and nearly wet my pants, or run around in nonconcentric circles with my arms, legs, and head flailing in all directions like I was having a seizure, while internally screaming and hyperventilating at the same time.

Like other disabilities, this crippling fear made outdoor activities a bit more challenging for me, but thanks to my dad and his abject lack of patience and sympathy, I managed to overcome it. Mostly. I no longer freeze or have a seizure when a bee buzzes by me in the garden or my phone vibrates on the table. Inside I still scream a little and sometimes need to be reminded to breathe, but I don’t have a full-blown panic attack. Usually.

But there at the entrance to the preserve, I admit I had a mild relapse. The buzzing was so loud, and it seemed to grow louder with every passing second. It was like some of the bees had noticed my arrival, and word was spreading among the other bees that I was there. And they were all plotting how they would attack, and in what order, at what speed, and in which formation.

Standing there, just steps away from the edge of a suburban cul-de-sac with my new Keens and fancy hiking poles, I felt like a dog faced with the choice of staying with the kid who found me when I was lost and the kid I knew and loved until fate separated us. Do I conquer my fears and crush that trail full of bees, or do I go back to the car a failure, foiled by her apiphobia?

It didn’t help that I had just read an article that said tourists are more likely to die from a bee sting in Australia than from a spider bite or snakebite. Because bees are more numerous and less afraid of people than snakes and spiders, tourists are more likely to encounter a bee than they are a snake or a spider, and because tourists typically haven’t been exposed to Australian bees, they are more sensitive to their venom than native Australians are. Fan-tabulous.

Knowing that the Jarhead would not take that hike without me, it came down to this: would I rather make his day and die by a thousand bee stings or would I rather ruin his day and live to tell the tale? The more I thought about it, the harder the decision got. Especially since the Jarhead was not standing next to me awaiting the outcome of my internal struggle. Instead, he was striding eagerly toward the entrance to the trail. With or without me. In other words, my choice wasn’t whether to hike and die or leave and live; it was to either hike and die with him, or sit in the car and die alone.

How’s that for a plot twist?

Well I wasn’t about to sit in the car waiting for the Jarhead to come back from a bushwalk, I’ll tell you that much. It could take hours for me to find someone to drive me back to the hotel if he didn’t come back, and years to find someone who likes my cooking enough to put up with my crap. Nuts to that.

So, bees or no bees, I was staying with the Jarhead.

Which is fortunate, because just a few yards down the trail—as the Jarhead was checking the treetops for koalas and I was distracting myself from the bees by scanning the ground for the shier, less dangerous snakes—I looked up momentarily and came nearly face to face with two kangaroos. They were both adults this time and instead of lounging around in the shade ignoring us, they were both standing upright looking directly at me. Not wanting to alarm them or the Jarhead, I stayed perfectly still and whispered out of the side of my mouth. “Psst! Kangaroos at your four o’clock.” Slowly, he lowered his head and turned to his right. “Oh, wow,” he whispered back. They’re pretty close.”

They were definitely close, but they were also behind a fairly tall and sturdy fence. Still, we didn’t want to spook them, so I left my phone in my back pocket and let the Jarhead take all the pictures and a few short videos. Which is why I don’t have any evidence of this encounter to offer you today. It’s all on one of his many SD cards, which got all mixed together during our recent move. But if and when we find them, I’ll be sure to share them.

Meanwhile, content yourself with the knowledge that we both survived the hike through the reserve and went on to enjoy a walk on the beach and a nice leisurely dinner back at the hotel.

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Another day down and only one more to go. I was already beginning to miss Australia.


The Winnebagoville Horror

This may sound odd—even for me—but I think my house is trying to tell me something. Like the lovely Dutch colonial in The Amityville Horror, only in a non-confrontational, less maniacal, Midwestern-nice kind of way.

It started over a year ago, when the light over the dishwasher would flicker for no reason. Assuming it was a loose wire, I didn’t consider this a grave situation. Rather than panic and jump to illogical, worst-case scenario-type conclusions, I simply posted a mental note to ask the Jarhead to take a look at it, which—given his work schedule—I knew he wouldn’t get to before one of us died and started haunting the other.

This, I can assure you, was as close as I came to invoking the supernatural at the time. Even after the light started shutting off entirely when all the others in that series stayed on, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. Lacking any evidence of paranormal activity, I merely banged on the counter to bring the bulb back to life, and went about my business.

That is, until the glass on the electric cooktop suddenly cracked. Out of the blue. And for no reason. The damned thing wasn’t even on at the time. Nor was it located on the same section of cabinets as the dishwasher, thereby eliminating the possibility that the crack was a latent result of my increasingly frequent and vigorous efforts to manage the lighting issue described above. It simply split from front to back on a diagonal—and quite loudly at that. I know this because I was standing in the kitchen with the Princess discussing what we would be doing later—which, incidentally, did not include purchasing a new cooktop nor arranging for its speedy installation—when we heard a popping sound not unlike the discharge of a BB-gun.

Even then, it never occurred to me that this might have anything to do with the supernatural. It wasn’t like the walls were oozing blood, after all. And although there are several cold spots in the house, the Jarhead had yet to find me covered in red welts or levitating above our bed.

Still, this stuff had me a little freaked out—especially when the range hood started buzzing whenever I turned it on. At that point I could have pictured a lot of things—like Jerry Seinfeld’s gratingly self-amused tenor in Bee Movie or Chris Farley’s famous bee-swarm fake out in Tommy Boy—but instead of something whimsical, funny, or ridiculous, my brain went right to terrifying and pictured Michael Caine in The Swarm, Macaulay Culkin in My Girl, and poor Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror.

Which is precisely where it stayed even after the range hood stopped buzzing. I say this not because the thing has been repaired. In fact, it has never BEEN repaired. Oh, sure, the Jarhead did give it a cursory once over, decided that the motor on the fan was probably failing, and suggested that I order the part so we’ll have it when we need it; but the next day the buzzing disappeared as if by magic and has not returned. Meanwhile, I decided not to purchase the part because I know the problem has nothing to do with the fan motor, and everything to do with a house on a mission to drive me insane.

Again, I’m not claiming that the dwelling is possessed. I don’t wake up every night at 3:15am and saunter on over to Lake Butte des Morts. Nor have I seen cloven hoof prints in the yard or glowing eyes in the windows when I look up into them from outside. And while there is a room in the basement that isn’t on the blueprints, its walls are primer gray instead of blood red, and our pets have absolutely no compunction against going in there. In fact, it’s all we can do to keep them out.

But I do know that SOMETHING is going on with this place. Because last year the hook that attaches the spring on the garage door opener to the track suddenly snapped and dropped the door onto the cement floor as the Princess waited for it to open. Thank goodness she inherited my irrational fear of being crushed by a falling door; I hate to think what might have happened if she had been driving or walking through the damned thing when it came crashing down.

It wasn’t long after we’d had the garage door and opener replaced that the floor in the laundry room started weeping. I know. I know. Lots of people have wet basements. We were among them until two years ago when we adjusted the slope of the ground around the foundation and covered the walls in sealant. That, and the fact that the ground is frozen solid told me that the water on the rug in front of the washing machine wasn’t coming from outside.

Still, I didn’t attribute this to paranormal activity. Instead, I checked the drain tube that comes off the furnace. Finding no issue there, I then checked the humidifier. And then the sump pump. And then the water heater. And then the well pump. And then each and every bloody water line and drain pipe in the place. Finally, I bit the bullet and called the Jarhead with an alternate theory and solution: Could he stop by the store on his way home and pick up a new set of hoses and washers for the laundry room? As I suspect that one of them is leaking. In the meantime, I would shut off the waterline to the laundry spigots, and set a fan down on the floor to dry the rug.

As I expected, the strategy worked. By that I don’t mean the new hoses or washers. No, the simple act of involving the Jarhead in the situation was enough to make it go away. I know this because when he got home, he turned on the water to the machine to test my theory and—VOILA!—not one drop of water appeared. Not in front of the washer. Not behind the washer. Not even under the washer. Nor was there any water in any of those places when I checked the next morning. Or the next. Or the next. It was like a commercial for Serve Pro—like it never even happened. Only I knew it had. I just couldn’t tell you why—for fear of being locked up.

And then last week, as I was broiling burgers, I heard a sound. It was almost a sizzle, but it wasn’t the meat. And yet, it was also like a buzz. But the oven had never buzzed before. So I assumed it was the fan motor—taking a page out of the range hood’s playbook and hoping to make me crazy. So after looking inside and finding nothing out of the ordinary, I shut the oven door and went back to making a salad.

So determined was I not to let this house get to me I didn’t say a word about the oven—not to the Jarhead. Not to the Princess. Not even to my friend the Brit, to whom I confess my craziest thoughts knowing she lacks both the power and the inclination to have me fitted for a straightjacket and confined to a padded room. Even after the oven buzzed all the way through the twenty minutes it took me to broil the bacon wrapped Jalapenos the following night I said NOTHING.

And then the next morning, as the Jarhead passed by the oven as I was cooking the sausage to go with our scrambled eggs, he heard it himself. What’s that? I heard him ask aloud. Satisfied that it wasn’t all in my head, I stopped beating the eggs and watched as he opened the oven, shouted an expletive, and immediately switched off the power to the oven.

“What’s wrong?” I asked with a tone that belied my fear that it might be time to call an exorcist.

“It’s arcing!” he announced.

Well, that sounded bad, but only because I didn’t know what arcing meant. “Come again?” I said more with my eyes than my mouth.

“It’s arcing!” he repeated. “You know, like the light you’re not supposed to look at when someone’s welding?”

“Dude—I’m a writer not a welder,” I said, “as evidenced by my lack of a steady income. So could you phrase it in terms that I can understand?”

“The element is eating itself.”

At that point he switched the broiler back on as if to show me, but it was not to be. Sadly, the Jarhead could not show me how the element was eating itself because the element would no longer turn on. No, he had caught it in the final throws of self-immolation when he looked in the oven before, and now all that was left was a lifeless swirl of whatever metal broiler elements are made of.

This made perfect sense to the Jarhead. He is a man of science after all, with degrees in electrical engineering. He can accept that the broiler element just happened to die right as he was looking at it. He can accept that there is a logical explanation for what had happened because for him there always is one. And when there isn’t a logical explanation, there IS no problem.

But for me, there is always a problem and it always defies explanation. So while he can look inside an oven once and see the broiler element arcing, I could have looked in that oven every day for the rest of my life and I never would have caught it arcing. Even if I had known what arcing was, that element never would have arced in front of me. Instead, it would have kept making noise and daring me to tell the Jarhead about it so he could look at it and find nothing wrong.

Which is why I’m convinced this house is trying to tell me something, even if I’m not sure what it is. If it wanted me to leave, I would expect it to be more obvious about it, and I would begin to fall victim of all kinds of strange accidents like the folks in all those Final Destination movies.

Now there’s a fun thought. Time to put away the knives and start wearing protective eyewear.

I’m kidding, of course. I don’t even own protective eyewear.