Thursday, February 28, 2008

Animals in Road, Part 2

Just as we were pulling out of Wanblee to watch the boys' basketball team play at districts, a horse came sprinting by on the side of the highway. No saddle, no rider: just a horse at full gallop. That's the most unusual near collision with an animal I've had yet.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme...

It was about a year ago that we first heard of the Outhouse Race.

Nemo is not much more than a turn in the road, with a few old houses on either side. Over the summer the Nemo store burned down, leaving just a few public buildings: the Veterans Hall, the Fire House, the Post Office. Life in Nemo seems to center around its bars: in the summer, the beer garden at Big Mama's is open and all year you can grab a beer at the Nemo Guest Ranch. There is a dining hall in front, but in the back--where the tree grows up through the floor and out of the roof--is the bar, its timber walls etched with graffiti and a "Hippies Use Back Door" redirecting the riffraff. Troy, one of the owners, represents the spirit of the place: eccentric and mischievous, he once worked building magical devices for Seigfried & Roy. Now he owns a bar in a small town in the hills and spends his time planning elaborate projects. Such as the Outhouse Race--of which, in his deadpan way, Troy told us on one of our occasional visits to the Nemo Bar. He even showed us the trophy he awarded himself last year when his team won the inaugural race.

The concept of an Outhouse Race is straightforward: an o is built, and a team pushes, pulls, or in some way propels it around the race track. In the middle of this particular Outhouse Race there is a Chinese Firedrill, in which all team members had to run circles round their outhouse, grabbing color-coded rolls of toilet paper and then stacking them in a particular order. Failure to correctly complete the Chinese Firedrill results in additions of time. The race is held in a time trial format, one outhouse at a time, and the fastest time wins.

Immediately Kim seized on the idea that we would enter the race, and has stoked those fires for the past year. So finally, one week ago, we came out to Nemo for the weekend with plans of slapping together our outhouse. Last Saturday morning, Kim and I stopped by Lowe's and bought some plywood and 2x4s. Without any plans, we decided to just have a store employee cut into halves and thirds so that they could fit into her trunk. Something would work out. When Jen arrived at the lodge later that night bearing a registration form she had picked up at the bar, we realized our lumber was useless: rules that we had not yet consulted stipulated that outhouses must be at least 5 feet tall; our 2x4s stood at about 4 feet. As Sunday waned, Zach, upon whose engineering skills our team depended, was still skiing, and on Monday we headed home with nothing more than a rough sketch of an outhouse on skis.

Fortunately teachers in Mission don't sleep. And so Zach, in his spare hours, bought lumber, mocked up the frame of a raceable outhouse, and then, after stumbling across photos of Troy's winning outhouse, searched out ways to "pare down the weight." On Friday, the disassembled outhouse was lashed to the roof of Kate's car and thus made the long voyage to Nemo.

A note on our preparedness: on Friday afternoon, as I walked home from school, it was nearly 50 degrees. I called Zach and left a message inquiring as to our plan if there was no snow for our skis. His response: "I don't know... Find a little kid on a bike and steal his wheels. Or maybe get some off a lawnmower?" Unfortunately I did not receive this message until I was nearly in Nemo, with nary a child to be found. At this point the outhouse was still two hours behind me on the road, far from complete.

Construction commenced at 11PM: thirteen hours till race time.

(Here I am, an eminently helpful person, holding a ski while Zach does all the real work).

Zach quickly discovered that he had forgotten one of his bags which contained, among other necessary items, the screws with which he planned to assemble the house. In order to remain the hero of this saga, he quickly and resourcefully removed screws from the massive chest of tea which he had previously created for Darius.

Darius was not pleased with this development. He really likes tea, especially when it is carried in a massive, two-foot tall chest.

When I went to bed--around 1:30--, the outhouse could stand up on its skis. But it still had no roof, no front wall, and, most importantly, no means of pushing or pulling the damn thing. All of these were violations of Outhouse Race regulations.

Further regulations require the outhouse to be decorated reflecting its theme. While I slept, Darius set to work fulfilling this requirement.

I awoke at 6:30 to join the "lightning strike" run to Rapid City to purchase last minute supplies: more lumber, more screws, fabric for roofing, bicycle helmets for safety. Those who remained at the lodge were assigned the task of drying out the tie-dye T-shirts we had prepared the night before as uniforms.

On Friday night Troy took a few of us on a tour of the course. He asked if we had any sort of cleats ready to deal with the ice. We, of course, did not (except Darius). On the way back from Rapid I began to put screws in my shoes.

We were required to arrive at the starting line at 10 AM for a two-hour check-in, in which it would be determined if all outhouses met the requirements. As we pulled back to our lodge, Zach asked me what time it was. It was 9:15. We realized we lacked any means of transporting our outhouse to the starting line in town--whether it met regulations or not. Immediately a team member was dispatched to call our local contacts, the owners of the lodge we rent, who, like any self-respecting denizens of the Black Hills, own a pick-up truck.

In the meantime, we set upon completing the outhouse. Zach installed a crossbar with which we could push the thing, and then began making a yoke--the idea of which had only occurred to us the night prior. I took charge of installing the roof, and finally found myself working with screws, even if what I was screwing was cloth.

We had taken on the team name "Cool Runnings" for both its allusions to winter sports and--ahem--diarrhea. Perhaps for the best, we ended up emphasizing our Jamaican-ness rather than the potty humor. Even our bike helmets got in on the act.

At 9:40 we still had not heard back from any pick-up drivers. Though the outhouse was incomplete, we decided to load it on top of Noah's car and finish it at the start line.

Fortunately, the outhouse completed the trip unscathed but for a few tears in the roof.

With a little duct tape, the roof is attached and construction is complete.

Our time was now spent on finer details:

completing our makeshift ice cleats,

previewing the course,

and checking out the competition.

There were seven outhouses total. The Hamm's bottle above won the "most creative category." Zach admired the ingenuity of its curved plywood. Its owners dressed in funny bear suits, thought we were very cool, and bonded with Zach over midwestern beer.

"The Green Mean Machine" had a steering mechanism built in for the rider.

"General Pee" chose a Confederate theme and a real toilet seat.

Juliet graffitied their outhouse: "You're #2" (Ultimately, they were).

The Box Elder Job Corps arrived with a hippie-themed outhouse. We were afraid that with our tie-dye, we'd be confused with them. Job Corps is a government program designed to help high school aged students--many of whom have struggled in school--develop job skills and thereby earn a diploma or GED. Presumably they had spent months designing and working on their project--as opposed to our hours.

The night before I had gotten to take a spin in Troy's outhouse, last year's champion. It was a thrilling but intimidating experience: the thing looks like a real outhouse but is made entirely of cardboard and probably weighs less than 20 pounds, and it flies. The man used to make magic for a living, and he has done it again. I was somewhat reassured when I saw that it would be manned by a little old lady and a chubby, middle-aged guy.

What become most apparent during this time was that either everyone had found small children with bikes to rob, or they had planned ahead better than us: we were the only team on skis. The course was mostly covered in snow and ice, but there was a twenty-foot patch of gravel and mud; I scouted a route that took us slightly to the right of the main road, giving us extra distance but a more snow. An hour before race time, though, I had already stripped to a t-shirt. Temperatures were rising. Our hopes were pinned on an early seed, before the snow and been melted and trampled away.

At 11:30 Troy began to randomly seed the race: "Piedmont!" We waited. "Green Machine!" We waited. "Box Elder!" Finally our name was drawn: the sixth of seventh teams.

Our only consolation was that we could scope out the competition and find out what kind of time we needed.

Our beer-loving friends fared badly at the Chinese Firedrill: one guy knocked his head on the yoke, and then the whole thing tipped over. (The team that raced just before us fared even worse: their outhouse, made of cardboard and duct tape, limped home with a broken axle and a caved in roof.)

The General Pee team, youthful like ours, set a strong early standard of 1 minute, 52 seconds.

Just before our turn arrived, Zach applied one last coat of Silicone lubricant to the skis, and hoped for the best.

Then our five chosen racers huddled together and cheered: "Feel the rhythm, / Feel the rhyme, / Get on up, / It's outhouse time!" I had trouble remembering the words. (Video may be forthcoming.)

With the ring of the bell, we were off. For the first half of the race, I rode inside the outhouse.

Gary took splits and determined that we lost as much as 15 seconds to other teams in the first half. (This included the gravel stretch.)

We did, however, excel at the Chinese Firedrill. Though we had five team members, more than almost all of our competitors, and therefore had to stack more toilet paper, we had volunteered to serve as models during the course walk-through. Thus we had practiced once, and then strategically coordinated our locations and the color we would be carrying. We even wrote our assignments on our hands so we could not forget in a haze of adrenaline:

The Firedrill complete, I emerged from the outhouse and took up my position as a puller.

Our skis served us well on the short but difficult uphill portion. I muttered something to Darius about how difficult the yoke was to steer and he muttered back about how it was already broken. My body burned and the hill felt like forever. I felt sorry for him, tugging on that yoke for the full race instead of just half.

Note the looks of strain on our faces. Many teams slowed down prior to the finish line. We did not. (And thus our outhouse nearly collided with spectators.)

The team and coach/captain/engineer after the race. There was some confusion about times, as the official timekeeping device was most likely someone's wristwatch. I heard our time was 1:53, so we were one second behind General Pee; then we recalled another team had posted a time of 1:47. We were in third.

One outhouse stood between us and our rightful place on the podium: Troy's champion outhouse. Manned by a crew significantly less youthful than ours, they were winded by the time they hit the Chinese Firedrill, barely made it up the hill, and walked it in from there.

Though there was an award for creativity, there was none for spirit. Which was a shame, as our fanbase was large and quite spirited, prepared with customized t-shirts, songs, dances, and almost-victory speeches.

Perhaps because of this evident spirit, a camera woman asked to speak with a member of our team. She must have thought we would possess social graces and comfort in front of the camera. She was wrong. We all scurried away when she pointed the camera in our direction. Eventually we shoved Zach out front to explain his masterpiece, while the fans stood in the background cheering.

Because she had arrived after the race was over, we reenacted what our outhouse looked like in action.

Troy found us and made a comment about how despite our lack of faith, we had done pretty well (I had spent our visit the prior night repeatedly saying things like, "Oh man, we are so screwed," and "Oh man, we are going to lose," and "Oh man, our outhouse isn't even done yet"). One day soon we will have to return to pick up our third place trophy. Not bad for a team that had no plans one week earlier, that stayed up all night and cobbled together the final details on the starting line.

As for the victors: Congratulations to the Box Elder Job Corps. I didn't talk to any of their teammates, but I imagine their story is inspiring: troubled students, on their last legs, come together to make friends and an outhouse, and emerge not just as champions but as youth with a new outlook on life, a new hope. I supposed as a teacher I should be inspired.

But mostly I am thinking about how much more time they had to put into their outhouse. And how next year we will crush them mercilessly.

Animals in the Road

Heard on KILI Radio 90.1 ("the voice of the Lakota nation") in between JT and Timbaland: "Whosever cows those are out on No Flesh [Road], GET THEM OFF THE ROAD! If you're driving, be careful. THERE ARE COWS ON NO FLESH ROAD!"

Animals I almost hit this weekend:
  • 2 deer (Friday, ~5:00 PM, 10 miles south of Interior)
  • 3 deer (Saturday, ~1:00 PM, 6 miles northwest of Nemo--I was on foot)
  • 1 coyote (Sunday, ~8:00 PM, 10 miles south of Interior)