Cowbells and Condos– and how I miss living aboard

Phone ringing late at night jolts me out of a dream.

“Yeah?”

“Kip, are you awake?” Bob asks.

“Uhm, I guess so. What’s up?” I groggedly ask.

“Did I wake you?”

“Oh, that’s OK. Had to get up anyway. The phone was ringing.” I make a weak attempt at humor.

“Kip, you’ve got to sell that boat and buy a condo with me.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now,” Bob affirms. “The market is red-hot. We have to buy something right now. Sell the boat and you can live in the condo. We’ll make a bundle.”

Bob’s late night phone call intrigued me for several reasons. I was 26 years old and had been living aboard sailboats for several years. I loved the sailing life but, true to form, ‘A sailboat is a hole in the water, into which one throws money.’ Indeed, boats are a lot of fun but can turn out to be real money pits. Besides, my 38 foot motor sailer had the most annoying habit of dripping water on my pillow as I lay in my bunk. I was getting fed up with wet pillows.

It was the mid-70s and real estate in Orange County, California was hot, hot, hot. My friend Bob was a real estate agent, his father a real estate broker, and I knew Bob knew what he was talking about.

But was I really willing to give up all this to live on shore? Did I want to exchange my bohemian persona for life in a condo? I mean, what would Jimmy Buffett think? Well, I’m pretty sure what he would think. But I was at one of those critical junctions in life. I could go this way or I could go that way and— well you can probably guess which way I went.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Today, almost 40 years after Bob’s late night phone call, I sit in my ‘Archie Bunker’ chair and inhale deeply the aroma from the leather sheath of my old Swiss Army knife and can still faintly smell the bilge from my boat. It smells of fish and wet wood and salt water, and it brings back so many memories. The nights aboard were best because then I could hear the screech of the gulls, the occasional bark of sea lions, the slap of a jumping fish hitting the water, the deep resonant call of the fog horn, the rumbling diesel engine of the harbor patrol boat slowly cruising the bay and the way my boat slowly rocked in its wake.

Back then Bob and I decided to become partners, business men, entrepreneurs– and I was going to get off that leaky boat. I sold the boat fairly quickly to a lady from Long Beach who always wanted to live aboard. I wished her well and hoped she could keep her pillows dry. She sailed off into the sunset and I became a landlubber for the rest of my life.

Bob had his sights set on a condo under construction in a ‘condo village’ near us. But we had to fight to get it.

The cow bell rang and I awoke from my uneasy slumber and trudged toward this lady I had begun to detest. For three days now, I had been waiting in line to buy this stinking condo that hadn’t even been built yet. I literally had to camp out in front of the sales office on the building site along with dozens of other potential buyers, or ‘flippers.’ I believe I was the only person there who had any intention of actually living in the condo. The other buyers were simply interested in getting in and getting out; buying low and selling high–flippers, and one of the motivating forces behind this exuberant appreciation of real estate we enjoyed.

These condos were so hot, there were no shortage of buyers. And this rude, imperious sales agent played the upper hand to the max. Periodically she would ring that damn cow bell and we bovinist buyers had to respond to a roll call at her whim. Failure to respond during this random summons meant losing our place in line and missing out on the opportunity to purchase a condo for $50,000 and, six months later, selling it for $70,000– easy money.

Bob and I got that condo and I moved in. It had a tiny man-made lake in back of a tiny patio facing other tiny patios. There weren’t any seagulls around or barking sea lions or jumping fish or horns blowing to the fog, but we did make a pile of money.

A friend waits to come aboard.

A friend waits to come aboard.

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You God-damn Muther-Fuckin’ Tree Hugger!

An old book, but a good one.

An old book, but a good one.

So, y’all must be wonderin’ why I turned into one a dem God-damn, hippy-freak, tree-huggers.  Well ha-yell, if ya don’t know why, jes maybe dats why you’re readin’ dis here blog.  So I’ll tell ya.  Jes kick back, put shor shoes up, and let’s toast to the Boy Scouts of America wit sompin cold.  Cauz it probly’ all started way back when.    (‘Huzzahh!’  murmered the WordPress computer.  ‘Thanks for flying with . . . ‘    Ahhh, shuddup!

Larry and Gary Grant’s dad, our scout master, hefted my aluminum Sears and Roebuck backpack frame supporting a rather bloated pack  and muttered, “Damn, Kip.  What do you have in there, bar bells?”

Which was kind of funny, I guess, because I was just a skinny 14-year-old with little or no experience with bar bells.  But thanks to our scout master and all the other parents who donated their time and energy to support Troop 465 (including my dad– thanks dad), we young men had gone on numerous trips into the wilds above Los Angeles and were just itching to ‘strut our stuff’ and show off all our skills at this Boy Scout Jamboree of 1963.

“No sir, Mr. Grant.  Just some food,” I replied, as sweat rolled down my freckled face.  (We naturally included a ‘sir’ or ‘ma-am’ with people we respected back then.)

“Well, you must be pretty hungry, Kip.”  He smiled.

“It’s not just for me, Mr. Grant.  It’s for them too,”  I said, pointing over my shoulder to the four other scouts standing in line behind me.

Scouts in line.

Scouts in line.

“Well, why are you carrying all their food?”  he whispered, looking around, nervously.

“Uhmm, some of them got here a little late and we didn’t have time to divvy up,”  I replied, wiping sweat from my face.

Mr. Grant gave the other members of my scout pack a stern glare, then looked around  to see if any other authority figures had observed our exchange.  Lifting my pack again, he whispered, “Well, gee whiz, Kip.  Just try to stay on your feet during the parade, OK?”

“Yes, sir,”  I dutifully replied.

“And try to look like you’re having fun.”

Glancing around at the dozens of other scout troops in uniform wearing backpacks, some quite large, others rather skimpy, I grinned and said,  “Oh, I am having fun.  This is really cool.”

He smiled, patted me on the head, squashing down my scout hat I had arranged just so, and sauntered over to inspect his other scouts.

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

Troop 465 did pretty well during that Scout Jamboree, earning all kinds of awards.  But I think this public display of scouting skills merely served to hammer home the laws we youngsters had been taught:

— Obey the Boy Scout Code

–Pack it in-pack it out

–Leave camp cleaner that you find it

–Lights out at 10:00 pm   (this one needed a little work)

–Trees are living creatures and deserve our respect

At this point in my life 50 years later, I have a little trouble remembering the Boy Scout Code  (I should probably Google it), but I developed a life-long respect for trees, thanks to my scouting experiences.

And that, my friends, is why I turned into one a’ dem Goddamn, muther-fuckin tree huggers.      (Sorry for the language, Mr. Grant.)

Proud scout from the 60s

Proud scout from the 60s

SUNDAY MORNING TREK

Cloud forest above my home in Costa Rica.

Cloud forest above my home in Costa Rica.

Between Chompipe and Delicias mountains, at an altitude of around 8,000 feet in a cloud forest in the middle of Costa Rica, nestles a remote pond ripe for discovery.  This body of water reveals itself from a distance by tendrils of clouds rising between the two peaks; these clouds forming as the sun slowly warms the water. Luis, my Sunday morning hiking companion, readily agreed to the proposal of venturing due east and upward to this intriguing saddleback nestled between the peaks. It would be a tough hike, but it would be an adventure.

Forest area that had been clear-cut to harvest a few cypress trees

Forest area that had been clear cut to harvest a few cypress trees

The first leg of our journey brought us to an area of illegal clear-cut forest measuring around 100 square meters. All the trees, vines and shrubs had been bulldozed, scraped clean on a steep mountainside in order to harvest a few virgin cypress trees. A huge mound of excess planks and boards denoted the place where trees had been ripped and shredded into sellable lumber. Nearby, a rough lumber road facilitated removal of the illegal harvest. Erosion of the mountainside was already evident, despite the fact that we had just recently entered our rainy season. Our true journey began just above this obscene scar on the mountainside.

Luis had his intelligent cell phone, capable of taking photos, indicating compass heading, depicting our position on satellite photos as well as making the mundane phone call. I had my topo map, compass and machete. We two weekend warriors were set to venture into the unknown on a quest for that elusive feeling of being truly alive.

At first the difficulty lay in zigzagging our way upward and around numerous tree trunks that had been bulldozed and discarded on the hillside. A new growth of vines and shrubs further complicated our assent. Just beyond these clear-cut remains virgin cloud forest, thick and green, beckoned seductively. Entering this verdant forest, we quickly lost sunlight as a profusion of leaves from the tree canopy high above filtered and eventually blocked the sun’s rays.

vegetation in the cloud forest.

Vegitation in the cloud forest.

Easy hiking soon gave way to foliage so dense we had to resort to bush whacking with the machete. After a while, even this proved almost impossible. At this point we encountered a barricade of foliage punctured by numerous game trails. These trails had the distinctive three-toed hoof marks of dantas, a 300-400 pound cross between a wild boar and anteater. These marks, fresh from the previous night or early morning, were scented by urine. As we slowly whacked our way through these game trails covered by bamboo and ferns and inch thick spine covered vines, we sometimes resorted to crawling on hands and knees. Gratefully we followed these trails until they inevitably vanished into the undergrowth because without them the path was truly impenetrable. Nevertheless, at any moment, we half expected to look up and find ourselves face to face with a mammoth ant eating pig.

 

 

Danta--  sure glad we didn't see any!

Danta– sure glad we didn’t see any!

 

 

Prior to our assent into this forest of the clouds, we took a compass bearing in relation to the sun and deemed our heading to be just to the left of that rising orb, or about 75 degrees. Thus far our assent was fairly true to course despite numerous detours in our attempt to navigate to the summit. We were hoping to discover a pristine lagoon on the top. We were expecting to climb to the ridge of a series of mountain peaks affording incredible views, perhaps even providing a glimpse of the blue of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other. As things turned out, we found neither.

Max, my two-year old German Shepherd, always accompanying us on our hikes, provides security as well as companionship. This morning, we relied more often than usual on his ability to detect the surest course to follow. Completely blocked by stands of fallen trees knocked to their sides by strong winds, exasperating clumps of thick and prickly bamboo, compelling masses of heliconias and ferns mixed with clinging vines that somehow managed to grasp feet at the worst possible moment, Max unerringly led us to yet another game trail in this precarious ever upward trek that grew more dense, more slippery and more questionable with each step.

It was, at this bleakest of moments, that Luis, looking down, pointed by my foot and exclaimed, “Hey, isn’t that an orchid?”

There, twelve inches from my boot, grew a wild orchid. Having but a single perfect flower, golden with brown spots and defined by the distinctive shape of the ‘slipper orchid,’ this unexpected gift of nature buoyed our spirits and fueled our desire to trek onward.

'Slipper orchid'  resembles a dutch shoe

‘Slipper orchid’ resembles a dutch shoe

Periodically, Luis would crank up his cell phone, acquire a signal and proclaim, “Only 200 more meters to go.” “Only 150 meters left.” And so on. I thought 150 or 200 meters was quite attainable. After all, a football field is only around 100 meters. Surely I could climb up this slippery, muddy, almost vertical slope another football field or so, even if we did have to navigate through a wall of green. No sweat. Well, yeah some sweat.

Time passes. At this point, the going was so tough we had two ways to climb after first clearing a path with the machete– grab a tree and heave ourselves upward or drop to hands and knees and claw through leaves and mud and danta shit. Max was getting freaked out and, bit by bit, so was I. Every other moment I found myself exclaiming, “Fuck me! Fuck me! This is just too much!”

I overheard Luis exhorting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!,” which he later translated as ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun.’ (not really)

I had had it. We’d been climbing this exasperating mountain for over three hours without a rest, without a view, without any indication of ever reaching anything worthwhile, aggressively whacking the machete three times for each single step upward, forever upward in this muddy green almost-hell.

“That’s it,” I said. “That’s the longest 100 meters I ever climbed. I quit. What do you say we have a rest, eat a tangerine and turn back?”

Luis, covered head to toe in muck (as was I), dripping sweat (me too), grinned and replied, “That’s fine by me. I thought you’d never say so. Let me check our altitude one more time so I can mark our route.”

Altitude? I thought, altitude! He’s talking 100-200 more meters in altitude? I was under the impression he meant distance! No wonder we can’t even see the top of this damn mountain we’re trying to climb. It’s another 300-400 feet higher up, straight up. Fuck me!

And here’s where things get good, or at least better. While Luis attempted to check in with his very smart cell phone, I looked around and realized the tree canopy was so dense we hadn’t seen sunlight for several hours. This same vegetation was now apparently giving birth to clouds as the tropical sun began to bake water droplets from last night’s rain. This explained the evaporative clouds I had noticed earlier. There was no pond awaiting discovery; there were in fact millions of leaves beaded with water that changed into vapor as part of nature’s rain cycle. Lost in amazement, I watched clouds, thick and moist, swirl up and away into the incredibly blue sky.

Luis abruptly brought me back to earth by shouting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha! We’re standing next to a road! Chompipe is right over there,” he said as he pointed North.

The satellite view on his cell phone showed that although we were way back in virgin cloud forest, we were also within 200 meters, distance wise, from a road. Chompipe had a telecommunication tower on its summit, as well as a road leading to the tower. We knew a return trip straight down this muddy slope meant a butt mud ski trip. Since we were both dressed in hiking shorts, this method of conveyance was distasteful, to say the least. So, altering our heading from 75 degrees to pretty much due North, we decided to aim for Chompipe.

In retrospect, I believe Luis took pity on my pathetic whacks of machete and valiantly took over leadership of the hike. That was fine by me. I was whipped. Each step upward was so much effort that it felt my last. My diminished capacity so freaked out Max he huddled next to us at every opportunity, frequently forcing one of us off the side of our slippery slope in chilling descents punctuated by my rebel yell of “Fuck me! Fuck me!” This echoed by Louis’ equally sincere, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!”

Incredibly, the slope got steeper. Now we were clawing our way almost vertically. Max began to whine. I probably would have whined as well, if I’d had the breath to do so. The immediate goal was to make one more step, then one more. If we could make it up to the road to Chompipe, we’d be ok. Reaching that road meant safety, security and most of all it meant we hadn’t given up. We wouldn’t have to quit and turn back. It meant we could valiantly hike into the wilds and make a noble return. And that’s what we did.

The last 15 meters to the road were hell– muddy, incredibly steep, outright dangerous with Max shivering at my knees and I shivering at his. We didn’t see the road until we were 10 feet away. Then all we saw at first was a bit more sunlight breaking though the trees. It was just so beautiful. We made it!

Heaving a collective sigh of relief, we plopped down on Chompipe road and rested a while, sharing high fives, sweet tangerines and bars of trail mix that tasted oh so good. Later, we noble warriors of the weekend triumphantly marched down the steep, albeit paved, road toward home. Sweat drenched, muddy from head to toe, bloody and torn in spots, utterly exhausted, in turn we smiled and occasionally chuckled as we relived our morning’s adventure.

Max kicking back after the hike

Max kicking back after the hike