I've got ideas. In fact, I've got lots of ideas and occasionally these ideas turn out to be pretty good. For example, shoving my friend Ray inside a snowboard bag to sneak him into the hostel was a pretty good idea. Or my epic scheme to make a "rocking" chair out of drumsticks collected from the hundreds of concerts I've attended is one of my favorites. I'd even venture to say that this book is one my better ones. But other times, I'm forced to admit my ideas are not so good. There was the time I decided to become a handyman and hired myself out to an unsuspecting older woman. Needless to say, I broke her dishwasher (had to buy her a new one) and accomplished no more then changing a few light bulbs around her house. There was also the time I convinced Jean Marc to sleep on the freezing marble floor of an empty cooperate building to save the money on a hotel. I redeemed myself that same night with the good idea to leave the building and go to the only open establishment, which turned out to be the local "love motel" to pass the few remaining hours before our train was set to leave (I was forgiven when he realized the room was heated, the fridge stocked with cold beer and the walls covered in fantastically tacky metallic rainbow wallpaper).
This update is about another idea that falls under the uncommon classification of both good and bad. It began with a trip to England to race in the infamously outrageous Cheese Rolling Festival. This annual festival takes place in the quaint village of Gloucestershire and has achieved international acclaim and participation. Having met some delightful people from this lovely town while in South America, I'd heard all the gore and lore that accompanied the event. The race is notorious with broken bones, blood and bruises and guarantees hours of unconventional entertainment. The winners walk away with a massive block of Gloucestershire cheese and a year worth of coveted bragging rights. The previous champions hail from Australia and New Zealand (big surprise) with a local taking home the cheese every now and again, proving the hometown advantage does not offset the madness and disregard for physical safety required by the victor. By in large, the races are both highly competitive and incredibly silly. The race begins at the top of a massive rise known as Cooper's Hill. The hill can be found posing portentously about fifteen minutes outside of town. The slope itself is daunting, but add a dab of predictable English rain, a hefty dose of ego and a measure of peer pressure and you got yourself a race! The entrants line up as the Master of Ceremonies (a coveted title that is bestowed to an new honoree each year) gives the nod and releases the cheese. Bouncing and tumbling like an Olympic gymnast, the cheese tears down the hill as if being chased for its life. I'd done my research and was set on the idea that I was not only going to compete, I was going to take home the cheese (not something I get to say everyday)!
I arrived in London and headed straight for the resplendent city of Oxford to stay with dear friends. I'd met the boys earlier in the year while traveling through Italy and was anxious to spend time with them in their own city. I've repeatedly found a polarity with travel friends…there tends to be the itinerant persona and, justifiably, that of the day to day. Now removed from the quixotic Italian coastline, I was looking forward to getting to know their flip side. I got off the train and saw Ben. With a huge measure of pride I forced my cumbersome bags through the turnstiles. On that day, I was actually one of those people with someone waiting to scoop them up upon arrival. When you so often feel like an echo, always bouncing off one boarder and onto another, it's incredible when someone stops to catch you. Jumping from one hostel bed to another creates no definitive perception of a home. Therefore the concept of home translates into moments with people that provide familiarity and a recognized face can rouse the feeling of a blissful homecoming. Within moments John and his two friends joined us. I was greeted with demonstrative hugs, relieved of my bags and lead to his house where I'd be staying. Once in the West Street abode, and ushered upstairs, I was told I'd have a room of my own for the next week. Luxury had a new spelling… PRIVACY.
The next morning came quickly and the alarm broke through the serenity of my deep sleep. I gathered all the waterproof material I could scrounge up and John graciously lent me his jacket. I was as prepared as my provisions would allow, so I ran to the train and begin the journey which would demand a series of three quick transfers. It felt a bit like railroad hopscotch. Once on the train, The Count of Monte Cristo was shamelessly pushed aside and I indulged in a British gossip magazine, which illuminated in detail, the power of the current reining WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends of professional football players). On the last leg, a chatty woman who was late for work and embittered that she must clock in on a bank holiday verbally ensnared me. It's through this women I began a conversation with two girls who were simultaneously trying to dodge her syncopated banter. The girls and I decide to share a cab to Cooper's Hill. Upon arrival at the festival site, we were directed to ascend through an incredible lush knoll filled with parked cars and mud coated tractors. We passed a field of grazing horses and yellow wild flowers. A sheet of mist created a filmy screen and we tramped upwards through the dense mud. The worn rubber on my deteriorating shoes was no match for the dense viscous dirt that had begun to creep into my socks. There was a moment of envy of those equipped people, sporting their stylish rain boots, who seemed unaffected and gleefully danced there way through the mud.
Once the terrain leveled, the crowd split in half. Below and to my left, stood several hundred people. With heads inclined upward, they gasped and flinched. My teeth dug deep into my lip envisioning the awaiting scene. Tracing their gaze unveiled nothing; the trees and cottages blocked the view. Craning my neck to a more obtuse degree, I saw it, the distant peak, with a massive cluster of people lined on top like candied sprinkles on a mountainous scoop of green ice cream. My first thought was one of disbelief. While the hill's base was not far, the height created a considerable distance from where I stood to where the runners were lined up. The next race had begun and I repositioned to get a better look. In chorus, the cheers got louder and spectators began to cover their gaping mouths and incredulous eyes. The race ended quickly and I said goodbye to the girls before heading up the path to push through the throng, surfacing at the wide base of Cooper's Hill. The mount is steep. More properly described as vertical. Lined up at the bottom was a group, clad in matching rugby jerseys, dirt caked and crouched in the aggressive position of a wrestler. It's apparent their job was literally to break the falls of those plummeting down the hill. I saw quickly that this was not a passive position. This requires them to not merely cradle the haphazard tumbling, but to move toward it, almost in a manner of a tackle. Often times the reckless and desperate force of the runners takes them out, injuring them along the way. They work as a team and shift from side to side cushioning the falls of the incoming waves of human bodies.
Without a doubt, this fell into the top ten of the craziest things I've ever seen. The more people sadistically plummeted toward the bottom, the more the crowds concurrently cheered and laughed. With paramedic teams and ambulances waiting in the wings, the injured were put in braces, strapped on stretchers and systematically carried off. This did not dissuade the upcoming runners, nor did it delay the next race by more than a couple of minutes.
There was equal amusement to be found watching the crowds. There were people in faded purple Barney costumes, banana suits, and even Santa himself with his bag of goodies made a cameo. The Wisconsin contingent was in attendance and showed pride with their Cheese Head hats. A Teletubbi emerged from the ranks and took out about four catchers in an impressive slide that would make any baseball player running for home base proud. There was also entertainment in surveying the people navigating up the and down sharp sides of the slope. More often than not, the domino effect took place and one person's misstep orchestrated a disaster for all who regrettably stood below. I watched a father fall, taking out his entire family, smashing his daughter's coveted candy bar in her face and launching his son into the arm of another bystander. He laughed hysterically the whole way down, with his kid's pained look of shock and disbelief and the panicked voice of his wife pursuing him down the steep bank. The best part was that no one cared if you knocked them down or got them dirty; everyone was in good spirits and ready to lend a hand to filthy onlookers in need of a lift.
I found out quickly I'd missed my chance to run in the women's downhill race, but there still remained a final opportunity to join the ranks and compete with the others. My race began at the bottom and carried the distinct objective of running up the hill before racing back down. About twenty-five women assembled at the foot of the incline. Crouched as if we were in blocks at a track meet, each of us looked up and down the line laughing overtly but in reality, we were summing up the skills of our competition. There was an amusing spectrum of participants. Some of the women had traveled thousands of miles for this race and there was no mistaking they meant business. Others giggled, waving at the boys on the sideline. I actually heard one hiccup drunkenly to her friend while boasting that she'd neither gone to bed nor stopped drinking since the night before. The girl next to me had lost a bet.
On "go!" we took off, only to keep our ambitious pace for a meager handful of strides. The gradient bent our knees and folded us in half. We were forced to grab handfuls of mud to keep from loosing the precious ground we'd managed to cover. I realized quickly that much of what I was taking hold of was not grass, but the prickly frames were stubborn stocks of Stinging Nettle. I'd pay the price later, though in retrospect, I think the mud prevented the spread of a dreaded rash. About half way up I begin to hit a wall. My legs and arms became instantly heavy and I realize how much more ground I had to cover. When exhaustion hits me, I find the best antidote is to divert my attention elsewhere. I allowed myself to be transported back to childhood during our countless family trips to the Glamis Desert Dunes. For years our parents found entertainment by sitting at the top of the massive silky sand ridges, unabashedly placing bets on the kids as we raced up the slippery slope. Like racehorses we'd huff and puff, shamelessly pushing each other down as we scrambled upwards. Back in the present, I overruled the option of throwing elbows thinking it may not go over as well now as it had as a child. It's funny how nostalgia can either cure or exacerbate pain.
Fortunately, I had an ace in the hole. I had unknowingly been in training for an event such as this. For the past nine months I'd made my way through five continents toting a ridiculously heavy backpack everywhere I went. Now, free of the 32kilos (yes, I regularly have to talk my way out of being charged overage fees by the airlines), I was flying up the hill, surprised by my endurance. When I finally I reached the top, there were cheers, pictures taken and fingers pointing me back down the hill. A tall blond with a determined expression had caught up and prepared to launch herself back down the slope.
Now at the summit, I took a moment to reevaluate this nonsense. Did I really want to do this? What seemed reasonably steep from the bottom looked perilous from this elevated vantage point. Still, I knew I couldn't afford the loss of more time spent negotiating with my more logical side (yes mom and dad, I do have one), so I prudently made a plan of attack. My saving grace was to channel the skills of my favorite ski greats. The form and bearing of Glen Plake, Jonny Mosely and Stefan Doyle came to mind. Instead of plummeting head over heals and landing at the bottom, looking like the Abominable Snowman in disguise as the Abominable Mudman, I would tackle the daunting slope as if I had fiberglass planks attached to my shoes and attack the muddy lumps as though they were mere moguls. I took a deep breath, let out a small shriek, picked a line and took off.
Despite my sensible plan, my competitive half overtook its rational counterpart, which had astutely advised me to take my time and move deftly and steadily through the flailing bodies. But people were falling and while they looked like they were caught in the spin cycle of an industrial washing machine, they were still descending at a faster rate then I was moving. Before I knew it, my legs were outrunning my body, and I propelled myself forward in an effort to realign my center of gravity. Not surprisingly, I'd overcompensated and the situation became more hazardous, because my legs could no longer keep up with my body and I began to slide face first down the hill.
Somehow I made it to the bottom, emerging only with a few scrapes, some brilliant bruises and a body caked in mud. Sadly, there was no block of cheese awarded to the winner of my race, but I did get a photo valiantly hoisting a ribbon adorned block, my coveted culinary trophy, into the sky and was paraded around the base of the mountain dodging the runners from the following event.
So, was racing a good or bad idea? I'm still unsure which way the scales are tipped, but I can promise that if I'm anywhere near Cooper's Hill next year, I will in fact be in line waiting to launch off the peak at the animated sound of the MC's voice.
Now, if I can just survive the Running of the Bulls…
(FYI: I ran, it was incredible and frightening and I'm fine…that update will follow shortly!)
Missing you all!