I just came back from a retreat with my writers group, Altered Fluid. We cooked up a storm, talked to chickens, drank a lot of beer and, when we found time for it, wrote. (It is possible that everyone else wrote more than I did). This was the fifth annual retreat, and I couldn’t help thinking back over all the others. Joining Altered Fluid was one of the big events in my life, though I don’t think I realized it at the time. The first Altered Fluid retreat happened when I had just joined and was determined that we should all do something fun together. I wanted to visit Woodstock, since I’d loved visiting the town in the summer, and so I found a place and booked it. The day arrived, with a forecast of a foot of snow. But it wasn’t snowing yet, and goddamn it, I was going to my goddamn retreat! So I went ahead to the rental car place, with vague notions of just “buying some tire chains” if the snow got really bad. As I have since learned is standard practice, the rental car place had shown a picture of a perfectly reasonable compact car, but when I checked in, they dragged the smallest, saddest, oldest car out of the lot. The rental guy looked at me, looked at the car, looked pointedly at the just-starting snow, and asked if I’d like to get an upgrade to a four-wheel drive. Well, how much was the four-wheel drive? Rental Guy gave me a beatific smile, sure in his victory, and said an extra seventy dollars a day.
I took the pinto.
(Okay, maybe it didn’t look quite that bad, but it was a near thing.)
You can imagine the delight of my writer friends when I chugged up to their apartments in that thing. Why didn’t I get the upgrade, they asked? I ranted at them about car rental fraud and oily sales guys until they sighed and squished their luggage in the back. And we were off! There were supposed to be seven of us meeting at the house in Woodstock, but the passengers of car #2 had decided to be smart and wait out the storm and come up the next day. At first, things looked fine. But then the storm hit. And I got a little lost on the kind of narrow, winding mountain highway that’s tricky to drive even on a clear day. Oh, and did I mention that I’ve never actually owned a car and the longest period of sustained driving time I’ve had in my life is the summer of my freshman year in college? But No Matter! I have Courage! Determination! A tiny car with bald tires and a broken heater driving in a whiteout so thick my only hope of making off the highway alive is to tail behind a truck and pray that it can see better than I can! Awesome!
We survive the highway. Of course we do—I’m a brilliant driver. Or, you know, lucky. By the time we make it to the actual town of Woodstock, there’s at least a foot of snow on the ground. We are sliding over the tarmac like we get points if we hit the net. It turns out the rental house is up a mountain. Of course it is. A goddamn mountain, in a goddamn foot of snow, in a goddamn pinto bulging with luggage.
We try, that’s all I can say. I get halfway up the mountain before the little-car-that-could-barely gives a plaintive cry and refuses to do any more. The slope is too steep, the snow hard-packed and icy. So three of us get out of the car while the fourth gets behind the wheel. We push, trying to get the car to a place with better traction, never once wondering what would happen if the car lost its precarious grip on the road and slides back down over us. Oh, my salad days of youth.
I fondly recall the sight of two of my friends bravely ascending the mountain on foot, hardly disturbing the hush of blanketing snow, with only a frail book light to guide them. Then the trees swallow even that sight and I wait for a minute or two before they come sliding back down the hill, informing me that we had better go back down. So it falls to me to back this sad little car back down the hill, since I can’t find a place to turn around. Too bad they didn’t cover backing cars down winding mountain roads covered in ice in the dark back in driving school.
Finally, one of us has a brilliant idea. We drive to the local bar, at the base of the mountain. I park and walk inside, hoping to ask someone for help. Unfortunately, this will have to be help of a non motor-vehicle variety, because everyone is fucking sloshed. A guy at the bar tells us, very earnestly, to call the Woodstock taxi. He starts rattling off a number, but halfway through the woman drinking next to him objects.
“That’s my number!” she says.
Drunk guy pauses. “Oh, yeah. I guess so.”
Okay, drunk people are a bad idea. On the other hand, this is the only bar in town. Clever little writers that we are, we park right outside the entrance and lie in wait, stranded travelers, out to snare unsuspecting sober pickup drivers on their way to getting sloshed. It works! We load our bags into the back of his pickup, squeeze ourselves into the front, and up we go, tearing up the icy roads that had stymied us for an hour in about three minutes. The guy tells us about an ex of his who lived up this road. We nod earnestly, yes, ex-girlfriends who live up mountain roads, we have much sympathy.
The house is gorgeous. A picture-book perfect stone castle with an aerie and a tower room. The beds are monstrous, the linens high thread count, the well water pure enough to wish on. We savor the victory of our first night by jumping on the mattresses and talking late into the night. A writer pajama party, with the snow still falling outside, and our little car parked at the bottom of the mountain.
How will we get down this thing without a car? Who cares, let’s drink, let’s talk, let’s write.